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Highway 72 - Jolie Holland

Highway 72 is California State Route 72. The road came into existence in 1964 when part of the original US Route 101 was renamed, but large parts of it have since been "deleted" or "decommissioned", presumably meaning bulldozed out of existence or no longer maintained and reduced to states of extreme disrepair, potholed underpasses that provide shelter for the homeless, a highways for the destitute. A bit like the roads of Sussex today, surrounding Brighton, where Jolie Holland is playing this coming Sunday at Komedia Studios, via Belfast tomorrow, Edinburgh on Thursday, and Manchester on Friday. With a taxing schedule like that Highway 72 to turn out to be her tour song:

"Great horned owls a-slippin’ by the overpass

come and feel like every year might be my last

look to my companions they’ve got nothin’ to say,

kickin’ my footsteps down the lost highway,

one foot in front of the other on the lost highway

one foot in front of the other on the lost highway -

I can’t make out the way, oh oh,

I can’t make out the way oh oh........"

On the occasion that I promoted Adrian Mitchell (see last post) in a series of free readings entitled "Lunchtime Poets at the Almeida" in 1992 as part of the "Write On" - Islington Literary Festival, he told me the following story, which he had mentioned in his performance, but later enlarged upon in the Almeida bar, insisting that it touched the heart of all poetry.

Some years before, after his salad days as a people's poet in the aftermath of his performance at the Albert Hall in 1965 (see previous post), Mitchell was going through a "bad time". I can't recall the details, but perhaps the initial demand for readings had dropped off, maybe he wasn't getting many writing commissions, he was struggling to make ends meet, possibly he was drinking too much, I've no idea, but the upshot was that his home life was suffering, there were arguments between him and his wife, as well as with his daughter, and he was devastated when she moved out, into an uncertain young scene of punk music and London squats. He said he worked hard to pull himself together and an offer to read poems to celebrate the launch of a new book of his poems at a bookshop in Hampstead seemed to offer him a make or break opportunity. It was at the moment in the eighties when bookshops were having a revolution, redesigning their layouts, and clearing away central bookcases in favour of wide, long hip-high wooden tables on which books were displayed face up. This in turn was creating more visual open space which provided improved mini-auditoria for readings. This scenario was particularly suited to poetry recitations, and Mitchell saw this as an opportunity to get into a new, city-wide bookshop poetry reading circuit.

When he arrived, there were a lot of almost-formerly dressed people talking in posh accents and sipping glasses of white wine. Unusually for him, he felt nervous, and this feeling increased when, after a short announcement by the bookshop owner, he started reading his first poem. The initial silence was gradually supplanted by a the hum of idle chatter, and when he ended the first poem there was a smattering of applause which only momentarily interrupted the conversational static that now seemed to fill the room, like a waterfall that was just around the bend. He was half way through his second poem when he snapped.

He shouted at everyone to shut up, swept all the books off the central long table onto the floor, and announced loudly that if they weren't going to have the manners to listen to him, then now that he'd got their attention he was going to read them the best poem he'd ever written, which may not seem to amount to much to them, but was about what was important to him, was about life itself.

The whole place, sixty plus people he said, watched in stunned silence as Mitchell climbed up onto the table and began to read them "Beattie is Three". The poem is about a moment when he, as every father has done, descends the stairs at home, hand in hand, with his child. The unstated but brilliantly evoked feeling of the poem is the strength of the parent at the top of the stairs movingly transferring to his daughter as they descend, ending with him, and us, weak with the beauty of the moment and the awareness that she is the brave future. The poem, I have always said when I have told this story over the years, ends with the words "and wished the stairs were never-ending", although this too (see last post) is a misremembering.

As he read the first two lines, Mitchell began walking slowly down the length of the table as though the table itself was the staircase, holding his poetry book as a prop in his left hand - he knew the poem off by heart - with his right hand out slightly away from his body, index finger pointing down, as though clutched in his daughter's hand; but two lines in he lost it, thoughts crowding in on him that he had caused a scene, offended the bookshop manager, made sure no-one would book him for an event like this ever again and, worst of all, he'd made a complete fool of himself. He dried up, lost the words, stood stranded, silent and helpless high on the table in front of all those people when..........a hand folded around his finger. He took a deep breath and finished the poem. The bookshop erupted into tumultuous applause and when it finally died down, he said : "and may I introduce my daughter Beattie who I haven't seen for two years" and the place went mad again.

Beattie is Three

At the top of the stairs

I ask for her hand.  O.K.

She gives it to me.

How her fist fits my palm,

A bunch of consolation.

We take our time

Down the steep carpetway

As I wish silently

That the stairs were endless.

-Adrian Mitchell

(from "The Apeman Cometh" published by Jonathan Cape.)


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