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Make This My Default Location (I)

By Ange Mlinko

“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
and growls
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.

Comments (6)

  • On November 12, 2007 at 12:30 pm Don Share wrote:

    Thank you for this, Ange! One of the best readings I ever hosted or even went to was by Tom Pickard – as it happens, he read quite a bit from both The Ballad of Jamie Allan and The Dark Months of May – we recorded it, along with a separate studio version, and I play it back constantly. You can really hear the ballad form spring to life in his beautiful voice.
    Readers of Harriet might like to know that there’s a DVD out of a live performance of The Ballad of Jamie Allan: a Folk Opera with Tom’s libretto and music by John Harle, directed by Simon Clugston, John Harle and the cast, choreographed by Micha Bergese, and featuring a video and photographic montage by Tom Pickard.

  • On November 12, 2007 at 12:36 pm Steve wrote:

    That sounds worth more than a look! I know Pickard as Bunting’s inspiration more than I know him as a poet in his own right, though I have spent some time with Pickard’s earlier selected (also from Flood). It sounds like he’s writing his best poetry right now.
    I wonder whether and to what extent “Hawthorn” incorporates lines from traditional songs, or whether it’s simply a really well-done pastiche? There’s only one line (“I thought that it was snowing”) that would sound out of place in, say, Child.

  • On November 12, 2007 at 2:52 pm Ange wrote:

    A DVD, perfect! I’ve got to get my hands on it.
    Steve, I’m not sure what constitutes pastiche in this context! There was no sense of Pickard being a tourist of this material, especially as — I forgot to mention this in the body of my post — he’s lived his whole life in Jamie Allan country. Those rhythms and that imagery seem ingrained.

  • On November 12, 2007 at 8:17 pm Steve wrote:

    Pastiche doesn’t mean fake, it just means imitation– I didn’t mean to imply a value judgment, just a question about use of sources, and yes, Pickard has lived his whole life there. It’s not the same thing for Pickard to write his own ballad as to transcribe one and put it into his poem– but the ballad isn’t worse if he wrote it.

  • On November 15, 2007 at 2:09 pm Don Share wrote:

    It’d be interesting to compare Tom Pickard’s balladry with that of Helen Adam, just collected and republished in A Helen Adam Reader. For those who’ve not heard of her, Charles Bernstein characterizes Adam as “the most exuberantly anachronistic of second wave modernist poets.”

  • On November 15, 2007 at 9:52 pm Ange wrote:

    Don, I didn’t know there’s a new Helen Adam book out. But she did occur to me as I was thinking about balladry, which is such a simple solution to the problem of “information” and free verse.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, November 12th, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.