Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Rhythms that lodge in the heart and in the memory

April showers

April showers - Credit: Archant

Oh to be in England Now that April’s there - Robert Browning

When I was 12 I had to memorise Browning’s poem Home Thoughts, From Abroad. My English teacher, Mr Tapper, a kindly, melancholic sort of man with a voice somewhere between Noel Coward and Stewie Griffin, then asked me to read it out to the class. On the appointed day, I read the poem accurately, if tremulously, and was told that I’d done well. For me to remember this occasion all these decades later indicates that the experience was somehow formative. Perhaps it was because by that time I’d been living in Singapore for almost 18 months and was homesick: And whoever wakes in England/Sees, some morning, unaware/That the lowest bough and the brushwood sheaf/Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf...”

The first thing I learned about Poetry By Heart was that an Essex heat of the national competition had undergone a last-minute change of venue and would now be held at Colchester Arts Centre.

Poetry By Heart is about poetry recitation – that is, reciting classic famous poems from memory, as used to happen in schools generations ago. Schools all over Essex – and the country – are involved in the new scheme. The frequently vilified Education Secretary, Michael Gove, recently proposed that primary school children should learn poetry by heart as part of the curriculum. Whilst the battalions of the be-sandalled may view this proposal as “forcing” children to learn poetry, two weeks ago at the Oxford Literary Festival the poet Seamus Heaney spoke up in favour of it.

I too am in favour and would actually go one step further by re-naming the scheme Poetry by Force. Probably not since my grandad’s time has such a thing happened. In his time, of course, they didn’t give you prizes for remembering poetry – they merely thrashed you if you failed to.

To the progressive mind, this may seem hard. There’s “hard”, however, and there’s “very hard”. As my learned colleague John Cooper Clarke recently joked, “I wouldn’t say my old school was hard but we had our own coroner.”

Anyway, back to the recent Essex heat of the Poetry by Heart competition and that last-minute switch of date and venue. So it came to pass that I was requested to hastily convene a trio of judges and present myself at Colchester Arts Centre.

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There were only five contestants – three boys and two girls. Sixth-formers, they’d come from all over the county and, over two rounds, were each expected to read two poems, one pre-1914 and one post-1914.

It was strangely moving for me to watch these nervous young souls reciting poems, some of which my grandfathers would have been familiar with.

In the end, once all had been considered under judging guidelines issued to us beforehand, when the points were totalled up a young lad from Harlow won the competition. All contestants were good, though, and it was vexing for me to have to present prizes to only two of them. It must have taken substantial courage on a chilly week-night for them all to have come to a scantly-attended arts venue in a strange town, only to be scrutinised by a team of old gits whom they’d probably never meet again. I recalled, briefly, my own nerves and shaky voice when I’d read Browning’s poem to Mr Tapper decades earlier.

And after April, when May follows/And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows –

All three judges – Hilary Lazell, a children’s author and illustrator; MW Bewick, writer and freelance editor; along with your correspondent here – felt an unexpected weight of responsibility resting upon our shoulders.

I found it necessary, in fact, to tell the contestants, “You may remember this night for the rest of your lives, because you got up onto a cold stage and recited a poem from memory, to a group of complete strangers.”

I asked if any of them had yet begun writing their own poetry. A couple of hands went up.

It begins here, I thought. Because poetry – being the brandy in literature’s own drinks cabinet – has to start somewhere. George Orwell thought it was somehow typical of the English, a mainly pragmatic and unpretentious people, that the one art in which we really shone was poetry, a sort of family in-joke which often didn’t translate well into other languages.

If the snobbery, obscurantism and academic hi-jacking which has hindered poetry’s popularity over recent decades is ever to be obliterated, then it may begin with the re-popularising of classic poems by their public recitation. It is a pity that none of the representatives of the Poetry by Heart organisation managed to make it to the Essex heat, however. Perhaps it seemed too far from the metropolis on such a cold spring night.

The Colchester Arts Centre staff, however, did a very good job of hosting the event, and between us all, contestants and judges, we managed to triumph over any initial awkwardness. I hope the Poetry By Heart competition returns next year – and the year after that. Because for poetry and for education generally, this is a good-news story.

Now, we only need spring to arrive:

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough/In England – now!

If only.

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