Friday, 22 January 2010

Thomas Pitfield: Cheshire Verses – both grave and gay

Thomas Baron Pitfield (1903-1999) is usually regarded as a composer. However the truth is more complex. Pitfield was a polymath and excelled in a number of areas. He was a teacher, a visual artist and a craftsman: it is not every composer who has designed the covers of their musical scores. But it is as a writer and a poet that I am concerned with in this review. There are a number of books to Pitfield's credit, including three remarkable volumes of autobiography – No Song, No Supper, A Song after Supper and A Cotton Town Boyhood. The ‘works list’ in the Manchester Sounds (Volume 4 2003-4) journal lists some twenty publications that Pitfield has written, contributed to or provided the illustrations for. Among the privately printed books is the present volume of poetry Cheshire Verses- Sad and Gay.
This is not cutting edge poetry, nor is it an attempt at shriving the soul or some kind of confessional exercise. Neither does it have the gritty edge of a Ted Hughes. It is what the title suggests – a book(let) of verses. Pitfield sums up the intention of the book on the title page – he writes:-
Herewith some verses, varying
Between the solemn and the frivolous;
Some may be marginally worthy,
And others manifestly drivolous.


The complete production is the work of Pitfield, including the cover design, the illustration and the text fonts. The book itself is undated, but I guess that it was written before the Local Government Act 1972, which removed Manchester and Liverpool from Lancashire and the Wirral from Cheshire.
The booklet has twenty-two pages with each page having one of two short verses. Each poem has the title of a town, village or building in Cheshire – such as ‘Crewe’, ‘Bowdon’ and ‘Beeston Castle’.
The mood ranges from a profound poem such as ‘Chester’ with its ‘The precincts of Tomorrow/Trespass on numberless Yesterdays’- through to the limerick ‘A tentative lady of Altringham/Said, ‘I never make plans without altering ‘em’. In between there is doggerel such as that referring to ‘The Wirral’: -

The Wirral juts into the sea
Between the Mersey and the Dee;
Its population insular-
Though it’s not an island but a peninsula.


Perhaps the finest poem in the collection is ‘Dunham Park (Winter Evening)’. It is a meditation on a walk through one of Cheshire’s great treasures. Every line of this poem is evocative; virtually every word contributes to the poet’s mood. Consider ‘Beech boughs are etched on the grey waste of sky’ or perhaps the ‘the half-bared white rind of the citreous moon.’ But the greatest allusion is to the winter’s night desolation of the park, which in fact is close to the conurbation of Greater Manchester and the M56 – ‘…the close-cropped grass/ close-cropped by deer, the sole inhabitants/of parkland nave, a voiceless congregation.’

Thomas Pitfield has set at least one of his own poems to music. In 1981 Forsyth’s, the Manchester music-publishing house, issued a song setting of ‘Dunham Park (Winter Evening)’. I would be interested to know if there are others. The Mancunian composer Stuart Scott has set two of the Cheshire Verses – ‘Gawsworth’ and ‘Alderley’. They have been released on a song collection CD, A Wagon of Life. One further spin off is A Dunham Pastorale for recorder and piano by David Beck. I have recently written about this work.

This is an attractive book of verse that will appeal to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Cheshire. For those readers of poetry who love topographical writing rather than soul-searching personal catharsis, this is an ideal booklet. It will be on my poetry shelves within reach at all times.

With thanks to John Turner and John McCabe, trustees of the Thomas Pitfield Trust for permission to quote the above verses and pencil sketch.

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