James Astley Birtwistle Remembered

James Astley Birtwistle (1889-1974)
I’m beginning to think that rather than create a printed newsletter, at least as far as the family history bits are concerned, I just need to upgrade this blog. In the meantime, I’ve included some poems by my mother about her father James Astley Birtwistle. I also found the following snippet from some auto-biographical work she did as part of her MA or DPhil at Sussex, which helps paint a portrait of him:

I love my father very much and am glad he did not go away to the war. He is practical, principled and hardworking; devoted to shooting, his garden and the countryside, he is a complex and difficult man. When he gets engaged to my mother, he takes her to Manchester to buy an engagement present. He has a First Class Season Ticket and travels with his friends, playing cards; he buys her a Second Class Return and she travels alone. At Finnegan’s he buys her a fitted Dressing Case in blue Moroccan leather. It costs two hundred and fifty pounds and has ivory brushes, mirror, button hook and glove stretchers; there are cut-glass bottles with silver tops, a little silver bedside-clock, a manicure set and a pair of opera glasses…. He and my mother no longer get on. She smiles at us but her eyes are sad.

There’s other bits I keep hearing, but haven’t managed to write down like how he was given a first-class round the world ticket when he came of age and all the artifacts he bought back from that trip. Hopefully, I’ll be able to collate all these at some point, but here are the poems I mentioned above:

My father thought nowt of them, he said,
Southerners, by which he meant anyone
born south of a line he’d drawn
somewhere between Liverpool and Hull
by way of Walton-le-dale
so I knew there would be trouble
when I bough my husband home.
He was a real no-hoper, born south
of the Thames, well-spoken,
double damned.

‘Eh lass’, said Father, slipping comfortably
into his favourite roll as stage Lancastrian
‘Thee’s done some daft things in thy life
but this beats all – what a taypot’

Yet when the lights went off
and all the power, it was the southerner
who fixed them. I heard my father grumble
through the froth that topped his beer
‘Sithee, ‘oo could tell, yon chinless bugger’s
not so gormless as ‘ee looks’. I hugged him
laughed then cried. It was the nicest thing
I’d ever heard him say, high praise,
and it was years before I realised
that he’d been right first time

On Duxon Hill
Look, Tiggs, a plover’s nest
the thumb-stick points,

dripping with mud,
marsh-marigolds and weed.

Another step would crush
these khaki eggs, four of them

lying freckled and exposed
in this fragile saucer

of dry grass. My hand held tight
in his, I’m safe, wrapped up

in the warm smell of tweed
and Goldflake, under the peewits’

ever-circling wings. Neat-footed,
good at finding things,

he is at ease here on the hill,
well-camouflaged, a speckled shape

in brown plus-fours,
his anger drained away,

a grizzled ram, moving surely,
an old tup with his lamb.

Once it grabbed him when halfway
up the stairs. It was the roar,
that billowing roar, that huddled us
behind the bannisters, furiously
sucking bull’s-eyes, eight silent watchers,
at a cage marked dangerous.
Lumbago, someone whispered.

Our mother fetched buckets, sponges
and a clutch of red hot-water bottles,
having a great belief in warmth
although by now they slept apart,
stiff-limbed in separate rooms.

It was an hour before the spasm passed
and she could free him. I have forgotten
the rest of the day, remembering
only that roar, the dripping sweat
and the look in his eyes, knowing
that he was stuck there, as usual,
just half-way to something he wanted.

In the potting-shed
He stoops over the slatted shelves,
absorbed, content, lips pursed
to produce his speciality,
a sort of hissing whistle
through his teeth
which maddens her,
a long, long trail a-winding
or bits and pieces
from the Merry Widow –
Vilia and that waltz

an awkward sort of man who,
thinking himself alone here
amongst the clay pots
and sacks of compost,
becomes tender, hesitant,
stubby fingers hovering
over the wooden seed-trays

but already we have sensed
from the look of things,
from her drooping lips,
the wistful piano
late at night and the way
she undresses, stiffly,
beneath a dressing gown,
that delicacy does not
come into it much
between them,

that it could only have been
some unimaginable,
never to be mentioned,
cack-handed fumblings
in the musty dark
that seeded eight of us

The Funeral at Langho
Hung-over, trying to remember
the once-familiar hymns,
we followed the undertaker’s men
as they shouldered your coffin
out into November, out into the wind
which flailed down from the fells,
hurling rooks across the sky
limp mourning rags,
their high, cracked threnody
drowning out the priest

For months after, I dream of this,
the opening of the vault,
being unable to stop it,
watching you go alone
in the brass-trimmed box
down into that blackspace,
dream, too, that we’re at home
again, you at the kitchen table
in your thick white dressing-gown,
your face turned away.
Polar Bear Daddy back, still angry
with me, and I plead It’s not my fault,
it’s not my fault.

Daddy’s girl
If I wore that frock
the one I’d made myself
of pale blue cotton
with pink and white daisies
he’d smile and say

that’s how I like
my little girl to look

and he’d hand me a glass
of gloopy milk
to line my stomach
and stop me getting drunk

but when I wore that frock
nobody kissed me
or asked me to dance

so I died it black
and lowered the neckline
by several inches
and painted my lips
and sprayed myself
with Soir de Paris
and smoked cigarettes
in a long, long holder
and threw away the milk

and Daddy didn’t like it
but I did

and I drank Gin Slings
and got a little tight
and I giggled a lot
and Timmo kissed me
and we danced all night.

Angela Kirby, Belmont Poetry Prize, 2002, pub.


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