The Songster and the Poet

You play your guitar on the MTV
That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it
Money for nothing and your chicks for free

That’s an example of the ‘poetry’ of the second half of the last century – or as close as the masses will get to the real thing, many would argue. Millions know these lines from ‘Money for Nothing’, know their composer (Mark Knopfler), his band (Dire Straits), and the gazillion selling album the song is taken from (‘Brothers in Arms’). But I remember another tune.

I remember hearing it on the radio. It stopped me in my tracks long ago in 1978. I actually went back to the little transistor on my bed-head and turned up the volume. It was so different – the singer’s voice so tunefully laconic, the jangly guitar sound so refreshing in comparison with the strident norm back then. I was instantly hooked on ‘Sultans of Swing’. Mark Knopfler had entered my world and I have been with him ever since. It was the Netherlands that caught on first, then, slowly gathering power like a tsunami, ‘SofS’ broke out all across Europe before arriving back in its native land, the UK, like a tidal wave. The song wasn’t universally adored but it got Dire Straits noticed. And when ‘Brothers in Arms’ (1985) arrived, they became, for a while, the biggest band in the world.

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It didn’t take long after that for its singer/songwriter/lead guitarist MK to start stretching his wings. He embarked on solo projects, wrote film scores and became all countrified with the Notting Hillbillies. Solo, or touring with the likes of Dylan, Clapton and Sting – or with his band until 1995 – he continued/s to sell out arenas. And I still buy all his albums as a matter of course and he’s never let me down. His latest, ‘Tracker’, is no exception. It, too, is all class and quality. But one song from it has come to stand out for me after I read its provenance – ‘Basil’

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Long before he became a rock god and international jet-setter, Mark Knopfler was working in a newspaper office as a copy boy – a sort of gofer. This was for his home city’s daily, ‘The Newcastle Evening News’. Labouring alongside him was a tired, distracted, grumpy old man. He was a sub-editor crabbily bossing young, callow Mark K around. He was Basil Bunting. And he had led a life, had Basil.

To be quiet honest, until I’d come across the ‘Tracker’ track I’d never heard of Bunting, regarded as one of Britain’s greatest poets of recent times. Parallel to him ordering the would-be musician around he was engrossed in writing his greatest gift to his nation – ‘Briggflatts’. It’s autobiographical, epic in scope. And there was plenty in his life to draw from.

Old BB was born in the first year of a new century, near Newcastle, into a Quaker household. His religious views caused him to be a conscientious objector during the Great War. This in turn led him to be sent to Wormwood Scrubs at his majesty’s pleasure. He was traumatised by his prison experiences and turned to poetry as a means of blurring out the realities of incarcerated life and its aftermath. On release, he became a fan of Ezra Pound, London bohemian life and social activism. His ‘Sultans of Swing’ moment was the ‘sonata’ ‘Villon’, published in 1925. With its success, like Dire Straits, he was on his way. The thirties saw him travelling around Europe, playing chess with Franco, meeting Pound and marrying American Marion Calver. He had little success, though, in adhering to his vows or the two daughters, Bourtari and Roudaba, his spouse duly produced. His wife commented that, ‘The idea of working for a living was so hateful to him that he screamed with rage if it was ever mentioned.’ Marion soon realised that his only interest in her was the regular stipend she received from her father. She left him in 1936, pregnant with a son he never got around to meeting. Whilst still with her she alleges he fell in love with a twelve year old lass in Tenerife and that was the last straw.

In the following war it seems Bunting put aside his scruples and joined the British Intelligence Service. He was posted to Persia. In that kingdom BB seemed to have found his place in the world, possibly assisted by the locals’ more liberal attitude to relationships between older men and very young girls. After peace came he stayed on, working at the embassy, while all the time publishing his verse back home.

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In 1948 he married Sima. He was pushing fifty, she was fourteen. The marriage lasted, providing two more offspring. It did, however, cost him his job and eventually, in ’52, he was also expelled from Tehran.

Back in England, to make a crust, he took to journalism. Despite becoming increasingly popular with and inspiration to a new wave of poets in the sixties, there wasn’t much money to be had in the poetry game. He had a family to support. He reluctantly turned to a day job in print media. In 1965 ‘Briggflatts’ emerged and some critics started comparing him to the great Eliot. His marriage ended in ’79, and he breathed his last in the year of ‘Brothers in Arms’ – but not before he gave all versifiers the following advice:-
‘Compose aloud. Poetry is a sound.’
Perhaps Knopfler’s song will bring Basil Bunting to the attention of many more lovers of good wordsmithery as it did me. I hope so. Track down ‘Tracker’ on YouTube and have a listen to ‘Basil’ and see if your interest is piqued too about a poet to whom the lyricist had a connection once upon a time. Bunting reading his work is also available there. Below is a sample of it. Maybe his words will move you as did ‘Sultans of Swing’ me, once upon a time.
Coda
A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.

Night, float us.
Offshore wind, shout,
ask the sea
what’s lost, what’s left,
what horn sunk,
what crown adrift.

Where we are who knows
of kings who sup
while day fails? Who,
swinging his axe
to fell kings, guesses
where we go?
Fishermen
Mesh cast for mackerel
by guess and the sheen’s tremor —
imperceptible if you haven’t the knack —
a difficult job;
hazardous and seasonal:many shoals all of a sudden,
it would tax the Apostles to take the lot;
then drowse for months,
 nets on the shingle,
a pint in the tap.
Likewise the pilchards come unexpectedly,
startle the man on the cliff.
 “Remember us to the teashop girls.
Say we have seen no better legs than theirs,
we have the sea to stare at —
its treason, copiousness, and tedium.”

Basil Bunting reading from Briggflatts = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ7greLmS3I

 

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