never shall go back
thing on local radio—Ali, me
and Richard, singing Glorylanders’ songs
(Larry Norman too risqué) with zealous voices
and my impossible-to-tune 12-string.
Seven or eight tracks straight off, no retakes—
Teach me thy way, I looked for love,
I never shall go back. From time to time
I got reports that someone heard it
in the God slot—even after a decade
when to be kind the tape should long have been
recycled for a local farming feature—
they played a song on air, and back-announced
That was the Reps from Ilkley, from 1970—
I wonder what those boys are doing now?
would have been the end of it, except
that by a freak of providence the master tape
turned up in the possession of a friend; and so
a cassette plays in my family estate
on my drive to work, and earnest teenage ghosts
fill up the car across a quarter of a century:
my seventeen-year old fingers once again
run down the fret-board to infinity.
learned guitar at ten. My brother Chris
taught me the first three chords
and so we played—the Minibeats—
in matching polo necks at Harvest Suppers.
Things we said today, You can’t do that
and our own song, Don’t go away—the lyrics
written by Dave Postlethwaite in an exercise book
and set by Chris to a tune I thought was fab
(later I found he nicked it from the Stones).
Then came the youth club in the wooden hut
behind the Baptist Church; Crusaders;
Billy Graham; Sunday evening Rendezvous
spent strumming choruses from Youth Praise—
G, E minor, C —Can it be true?
Camps, midnight hikes, romance at
hands holding hands in knowing innocence.
The Sixties raged outside. We bought
read the rude bits of Lady Chatterley
and sat in the Continental coffee bar
waiting for life to start.
Even so The Reps
were retro, more Bachelors than Beatles,
making our brash assault on draughty halls
as far south as Dewsbury and Castleford
with dodgy three-part harmony. Driving to gigs
in someone's mother's car we belted out
Sankey choruses with the windows down—
When the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there!—
part meaning it, part mockery, part desire.
We played till college, and our careless choices
turned into separate lives.
The soundtrack then
was Seventies rhapsody. Bowie, Free,
I've got a silver machine—sweating it out
in flares and strobes at Union discos.
Ch-ch-ch-changes in the coffee bar,
Benson & Hedges 30p for twenty,
tap on the window at the porters’ lodge
if you run out after midnight.
Neil Young, the Eagles, Crosby Stills & Nash
blaring out of Bose speakers rigged up
in the Entertainments office—After the thrill
as we ate our take-aways and thought the world
was waiting just for us to put it right.
the rockers overplayed their hand.
Punk tore it down, dance ground it to a pulp,
the bass’n’drums, tuned to mind-numbing pitch,
drowned out the fact that words had lost
rhythm and pose stamped out on vapid hooks.
The lyric always held the secret: tunes
were scaffolding for words to clamber up on.
From David’s psalms to Robbie Williams’ Angels
the work of these recording engineers—
whose technology was only words and pitch
imprinted on the human memory—
so well encoded phrase and melody
to smuggle in the old nostalgic lie,
the thought that somewhere it may still go on,
those nights spent talking on the brink of truth,
those summers in North Wales where we
the endless holiday of youth, and we might go
and find them as they were, our icons—
frozen in time, minding the store of dreams.
The years have laid all this to rest
and now the background music at my desk
and every Sunday worship song I pick
is carefully selected to evoke
a world we recognise, or we can cope with,
learning that life went off on its own way,
that dreams ended in ordinary jobs
and marriages and broken promises,
more careful to avoid those memories
where every blemish, each note held too long,
each mistimed chord or shaky harmony
cannot be overdubbed but still repeats
precisely as that first imperfect take
I punch out of the tape-drive with a stab.
I wonder what those boys are doing now?
Well hey, I’m up here, passing Shepherd’s Bush,
with vapour trails above in a bright blue sky.
I sent a copy of the tape to Alistair
who filed it I expect among his shelves
of sermons and syndicated radio talks.
I sent Richard one, but got no reply. After Paddington
I switch to the CD, leap two decades
into warm harmonies and self-assured percussion,
other voices blending in with mine
and other songs, more crafted, less direct,
all flaws mixed out. I watch from the moving car
a plane fly overhead above an earth
which spins around a sun which moves
towards another star—each of our actions
will be accounted for, nothing that is hidden
is not in some dimension brought to light.
On the last crest of the flyover
a hoarding says with comforting assurance
The future is not something we travel to,
it’s something we build; and I coast down
to Marylebone Road, the sunlight bright
on flashing windscreens as the voices peak
against a soaring saxophone—Where it will lead
God only knows—knowing what I have made,
my marriage, my three children,
this edifice of words, will all survive
the best and worst of me: these are
my sacrifice, my prayer, my daily worship.
I looked for love. I never shall go back.