If you came

Last night I was listening to Andrew Motion on the radio, talking about the National Poetry Archive. How amazing, that recording by Tennyson! I knew Browning had been captured, but not Tennyson.

Last night I was listening to Andrew Motion on the radio, talking about the National Poetry Archive. How amazing, that recording by Tennyson! I knew Browning had been captured, but not Tennyson.


But what about Ruth Pitter? According to the Don King biography, there are recordings of her reading her own work in the US Library of Congress. I do hope so. Because the biography also makes reference to recordings made by Ruth’s nephew, Mark Pitter and given to the British Library in the seventies. I almost cried out with horror when I read that these recordings had “as of now … not been located”.  Where are they?

Thankfully, she did a number of radio broadcasts, and these are archived by the BBC, so her voice is still around somewhere, and happily the National Poetry Archive has a bit of her. Thank you Andrew Motion! She wasn’t there last time I looked, but that may have been a good while ago now. And here she is, talking to John Wain, no less, and the conversation ends with her reading the superb lyric, ‘If you came’. I have known this poem all my life, it seems. It was through my mother that I first met Pitter and it was through Pitter that I first learned one of the electrical truths about poetry.

I was at school, probably about sixteen or seventeen. Our school, Wilmslow County Grammar School for Girls, was separated by a matter of three miles or so from Wilmslow County Grammar School for Boys. They separated the two sexes the year I started there. A year or so after I left, they put them back together again.

For us, there were no male distractions during class, although our male teachers acquired a stature (either of potency or ridiculousness) they might not otherwise have had. Mr Trueblood, for example, the biology teacher who was persuaded that the word menstruation derived from the Latin ‘mensa’, a month. Those of us also studying A-level Latin knew this was not true. And there was The Penguin, the lackadaisical Mr Haslam, who indeed resembled that creature in his slouching progress down school corridors in an academic gown that had seen better days. Much better. Walk on the left girls, not on the right!

But back to Pitter. Why, I cannot recall, but a group of us were invited to join a group of boys at The Other School, and it was some kind of literary event. We had to take with us a poem or two to read aloud. I dimly recall sitting in a kind of circle, and a male teacher introduced us to each other. Such a sense of disappointment: the boys were so much less than expectation had suggested (I had no brothers, only a sister. Even our dog was female).

Then we had to read a poem out loud, and I read Pitter’s ‘If You Came’.

I was aware when reading it of a kind of electric silence, and the space that opened out in the room after the end of the poem — the huge after-poem space. Then the teacher (this cannot be literally true so the memory must be connected with the way he spoke) sprang across the room to me and said, ‘Did you write that?‘ I felt the attraction.  I possessed magical power.

‘No. It is by Ruth Pitter,’ I said. Immediately I was much less interesting than before, restored to ordinary mortality. But I remembered the moment and what words can do. I remembered that.

I didn’t know back then that Ruth Pitter was alive. I thought all poets were dead. The ones we studied at school were both male and dead. Ah well. She is dead now, but at least a bit of her voice is there, not to mention her poems.

As I write, an unusual thing has just happened. A squirrel (we have one in the garden sometimes, but not often – they don’t live in the trees around us) arrived on the bedroom window sill, which is nearer the roof than the ground.

Matt alerted me and I shot into the bedroom from my study. The squirrel was poised on the edge of the sill, his eyes starting slightly with (I imagine) some degree of alarm, and he was making a funny chirring noise – loud. If I hadn’t seen him, I would have thought it was a bird’s sound, and it was evidently in response to the starlings (they are called stukkies here) who were sitting on top of the street lamp shouting at him. Other birds were also signalling alarm. Some fierce communication going on, a verbal battle.

After a little while, the squirrel shot off up the side of the house, his clawed feet easily leading him across the harling. I have seen one go up the side of the house once before — a couple of years ago. I wonder what he was after? I think the starlings are nesting in the roof, but I also thought all their young were hatched. Do squirrels attack young birds? Or is the the birds who endanger the squirrel?

Oh botheration: it is the squirrel who is the Beast apparently. And the nests are not at all well-hidden. I know where all of them are…

As Ruth Pitter said:

The place is hidden apart
Like the nest of a bird:|
And I will not show you my heart
By a look, by a word.

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