Familiar Landscapes

Borrowed Landscapes, Peter Scupham (91pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

There's something quite old-fashioned about Peter Scupham's poetry. He pays scrupulous attention to form, is fond of elaborate repetition and rhyme-schemes, quotes freely from Shakespeare and the Classics, and many of the poems in this current collection explore his undergraduate days at Cambridge, including references to figures such as Leavis, Empson and C.S.Lewis. His subject-matter is also often quite traditional: pastorals, landscape poems, explorations of time and war, coupled with a naturally elegiac dying fall. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, but it means that his craftsmanlike, careful poems, which throughout the 1970s and 1980s, appeared every few years in slim collections from Oxford University Press, could just as easily have appeared in the 1950s. He shares favourite subjects with unfashionable poets like Geoffrey Grigson and Antony Thwaite, plus occasionally the gothic tones of Walter de la Mare.

When the old 'Oxford Poets' imprint disappeared, established names such as Scupham, Hugo Williams, Anne Stevenson and Peter Porter had to find other publishing homes: Anvil Press subsequently brought out 'Night Watch' in 1999, and this new volume is his first new collection for Carcanet, as well as his first collection for over ten years. It is a strong volume, though liberally doused in nostalgia and, in some places, quite backward-looking, as befits a writer now in his late seventies. There is here, however, none of the fairly experimental free verse found in many Carcanet volumes.

Of the two major sequences in the collection, the first, 'A Civil War', concerns the German family of Scupham's wife, who were academics in Cambridge in the 1880s, and their experiences of WWI and beyond. Unsurprisingly, questions of German culture and identity are raised and often, as in 'Anthropologies: London and Africa, 1920 - 1953', the effect is of paging swiftly through a vast photograph album. The sepia faces pass in a flash, famous names are encountered (W.W.Skeat, Huxley) and later, postwar life is briskly summarised in eight stanzas. For this to work, the quick glimpses and vivid details must be chosen with great care: another poem here, 'Seventy Years a Showman' is much more successful using this method. 'A Civil War' ends with the famous meeting between Henry Allingham and Roger Meier, the oldest veterans of the Great War, in Germany in 2006. As a symbol, emblematic of the two warring cultures, it is appropriate, but feels a little too pat to round off the sequence.

The second long sequence here, 'Playtime in a Cold City, concerns the poet's time in Cambridge in the 1950s, his studies interrupted by being called up as a reservist while the Suez Crisis boils over in the wings. Here there is plenty of atmosphere - Scupham's contemporaries are 'children of fireweed, sirens, barrack squares' ('Playtime in a Cold City'), they go punting when not listening to lectures by Leavis and co, and then suddenly this gothic leafiness is interrupted by being called up. Entertainment whilst waiting is 'Goon Show hilarity' or puzzling at 'C.P.Snow's two cultures' ('A Somewhere Hut') - all nice little touches, but ultimately the final poem finds Scupham wondering 'whatever happened' and concluding:

                        ...Elvis shakes away 'Heartbreak Hotel'
 Squirrels and bears eat each other's hearts out;
                         Soviet tanks grind into Budapest.
                        ('Epilogue: Whatever Happened?')

This feels authentic, but perhaps also illuminates the sense of confusion and pointlessness which the military hanging around suggests: Elvis was about to do away with the 'hot jazz' beloved of the Cambridge undergraduate set, John Osborne's Jimmy Porter was about to explode onstage (the 'squirrels' and 'bears' refer to the concluding speeches of 'Look Back in Anger') and the Cold War was about to escalate the scale of conflict.

The simplicities encountered by those like Scupham, called up for service, but eventually sent back to Civvy Street, were about to be replaced by a set of much more complex problems, unravelling on into the 1960s. This sequence, therefore, feels a bit like a time capsule, as do the descriptions of fairly privileged Cambridge undergraduate paraphernalia. 'Just young men kicking up each other's heelsÉas punts from Scudamore's idle through the backs', as the concluding poem puts it, but in an age when the ruling-class, Etonian few seem to be in the ascendant once again, one wonders if this is enough and, more seriously, whether it should be celebrated so preciously. Having said all this, one poem in the sequence, 'The English Faculty, or Sweetness and Light', makes some witty parallels between electric lighting and the making of the canonical Leavisite Great Tradition.

If these long sequences are both, somehow, problematic, then it is a relief to turn to Scupham's keen eye for landscape. 'Figures in a Landscape, 1944' is a smaller series of  seven poems, returning to the time-frame explored in his 1988 collection, 'The Air Show', here producing a moving sequence triggered by a single detail, where 'the labouring gear-change of a truck' can suddenly become the deadly 'silver bombers wrapped in quiet thunder'. 'Three Evening Pastorals' recall earlier pastoral pieces and create gothic scenes of quiet intensity: 'zig-zags of migraine / ribbon the wind's tail' ('Scarecrows') whilst 'heavy metal / ploughs field-names under' ('Set-aside'). Elsewhere, there are three witty poems on cats (two too many, surely?) which add a sense of Scupham's range, plus a delightful, mischievous poem for a child, 'A Merry-go-round for Megan'. These all add light and shade to an enjoyable volume, but I still feel vaguely uneasy at being made to observe a gilded, epicene set loitering along the Backs at Cambridge: should we still be harking back to students in the cold 1950s ? A chiller, shriller wind whistles around today's undergraduates as they pore over bank statements and read unsympathetic headlines in the daily newspapers and, much as I enjoy Scupham's verse, I wondered at its relevance.

   © M.C. Caseley 2011