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“Jamie Allan was a Northumbrian piper, a border gypsy, born 1734 in Rothbury and who died in the Durham Lock Up in 1810 where he was serving a life sentence for stealing a horse from Gateshead seven years earlier. During his lifetime he became a legendary rogue, but one of immense talent as a musician, often patronised by the aristocracy who, however, became wary of him when his wayward behaviour began to match their own. As he grew older his attraction to them diminished and his struggle to survive intensified along with the other gypsies who were regarded as rogues and scum and treated as such. He retained a few loyal supporters, mostly on the North side of the Tyne, who tried to get him released, but they failed and he died confined miserable in Durham.” (Tom Pickard, Programme Note)
Flood Editions has just published Ballad of Jamie Allan by Tom Pickard, the most thrilling poetry book I’ve read in quite a while. It is based on the libretto Pickard wrote for composer John Harle; their folk-opera (“though that label may be too ‘classical’ for the folk world and too ‘folky’ for the classical world”) premiered at The Sage Gateshead (what a name!) on the River Tyne, very probably on the spot where Jamie Allan stole his last horse, and very serendipitously on Jamie Allan’s own birthday.
As Pickard explains in his Afterword, there is little hard information on Jamie Allan save what he could find in the criminal records of the National Archives, or the military’s book of deserters. Though his legend lived on in books and pamphlets published after his death, his tunes and his progeny have disappeared or perhaps absorbed back into anonymity. Even his grave has been lost to history. He has truly been a poet of the Borders. (“The North-East appeared remote and alien to people from the rest of England. For one thing, in the eighteenth century the region had only recently emerged from the Border lawlessness which had characterised it for centuries.”—Rogues, Thieves and the Rule of Law by Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, quoted in Pickard’s Afterword.)
In its very scarcity, “information” is pivotal in balladry. Ballads were devised as a way to keep stories alive orally, and yet a simple game of Telephone is enough to suggest how corruptible oral information is. In Ballad of Jamie Allan, “Information” is the word used (is it Pickard’s choice, or taken from 18th-century lawspeak?) in the titles of poems that report Allan’s misdeeds: it is the word of depositions. Information is both sketchy and essential, gossip and fact. Pickard’s Informations dramatize the story, but what gives it power and dignity are his lyrics, which are the very opposite of Information. Lyric is verity:
13th November 1810
Beneath a bridge that spans the river
a low wind invades his cell
and withers the thin afternoon light.
Jamie Allan is seventy-seven years old and dying.
The wind smells of the Wear, sprays rain on the wall
with an insistent swither.
He pulls a ragged blanket close,
leaving an ear exposed to the crack.
Chaff flatters the rats.
A series of “Durham Lockups,” all dated November 13, 1810, runs through the book as if establishing a continuous present tense, a vigil on his dying day. They might be conceived as the songs he would have sung to himself in his cell. As the bulk of the story is narrated with multiple voices, including Jamie’s lovers and accusers, newspaper accounts and the aforementioned depositions, the reader must pay close attention to dates. The story skips around; Allan lived long, and he enjoyed high-flying times with dukes and countesses before years of roguery caught up with him (in addition to stealing horses when things got tight, he would join the army for the recruitment money then desert asap). Pickard condenses the life into just a hundred desperate pages, giving a strong taste of the marginality of life on the Borders: when some of Allan’s associates break into a house in the middle of the night, stealing clothing and linens from its cowering inhabitants, one gets a sense of what their loss might cost. Which is to say, if someone broke into my home tonight, they wouldn’t go after my wardrobe. Pickard itemizes all.
However, against dates and information, those verities of lyric and landscape assert themselves again and again in intermittent bursts of wildness:
The river is dark with peat from the fell,
curlews are calling with nothing to tell.
Leave my house and leave my home,
Jamie pack your bags and roam—
and like the fox you shall grieve.
(“The River is Dark”)
But the chilling “Hawthorn” is my favorite:
there is a hawthorn on a hill
there is a hawthorn growing
it set its roots against the wind
the worrying wind that’s blowing
its berries are red its blossoms so white
I thought that it was snowing
there is a hawthorn by a wall
that looks down to the valley
its berries are red its thorns are sharp
it’s where we said we’d marry
its berries are red its blossom is white
and the hail makes sharp weather
without her now I’ll make my bed
in the bleeding heather
How beautiful to be thus haunted on this November 12, which in eternal time is Jamie Allan’s last full day alive. I’ll have more to say about Pickard’s work in my next post (his previous book, The Dark Months of May, is luminous). Aside from the sheer pleasure of Ballad of Jamie Allan (pleasures narrative, lyrical, metrical and even meteorological), I’m intrigued by Pickard’s solutions to the stormy marriage of lyric and information. And I’m dizzied by the implications of these Border-wanderings, which critique the notion of accumulation—of wealth most obviously, but also the type of accumulation poets think beyond critique: the accumulation of acclaim, approbation, intellectual property, words themselves. After all, we have no works directly attributed to Jamie Allan. But through Tom Pickard—that is, through another poet’s sympathy—his legendary pipes pique our imagination still.