England's finest unknown poet is perhaps Peter Reading, a complex and hilarious writer who masters poetic form as well as mastering the most mundane to nasty realities of modern, atrophying existence as his subject matter.
One of my most prized poetry books is a limited edition copy of Reading's Shitheads, published by Michael Caine through the flippantly named Squirrelprick Press in 1989, the final year of Thatcher's deadly decade. Mine is a signed - by both writer and publisher - and numbered copy of a planned 200. It is 125 of the 177 actually produced, 23 having been lost to damage at the cutting process. One of the special consequences of my having this copy is that I engaged in a short exchange of letters with a friendly and helpful Michael Caine about his production of this book and others - Shitheads being 'entirely hand-printed, bound etc on mouldmade + handmade papers'. Of his hand-crafted books more generally he says 'they're more human(e) and most importantly, the papers are acid-free (glues also) so the books will last forever'. And he is right, Shitheads being palpably real, the tactile and visual aspects of the paper - rough edges and all - making it a physical pleasure to handle, and the cover has 'a wood engraving by a friend of mine (Colin Kennedy)' which is a raised image of three baseball caps with the word 'Shithead' on each and an accompanying turd.
This short collection contains translations of Catullus, and Reading poems about 'unsatisfactory people', those framed by a decade of greed and the pursuit of the self in England - and within a global context of a world environmentally, politically and morally diminishing: persistent themes in Reading's work, and painfully apt for the financial decadence and culpable indifference of the corporate world today.
Reading's poems do often satirise to soften the attack - though not always - but in this collection he leans to the jovial if dismissive dismay,
Aspirant big-time publican (nagged by
termagant tart spouse)
flies for the golf to Costa del Parvenu
where are encountered:
Chicken 'n' Turkey Chunks chief
(puffing Habanas like mad);
name-dropping, aitch-dropping rep
('Sundries and Fancy Goods, me');
Nearly New Motor Cars baron whose slattern
wife is a quondam
Tiller Girl tap-dancer trull;
yuppie computer exec...
This must be seen in the context of other poems/characterisations/contexts, both in this collection and across all of his work, for Reading is consistent in his contempt for shitheads in all their slack and slight proclivities. He is particularly offended by the consequences of their behaviour and actions,
Thanks, Mr Smith, for deciding Execly, when you abandoned
people and purchased a car - just over 13 grand
(humans depreciate more).
Company limos, especially this one ( a silver Montego),
ego-boost Reps and Execs, heighten the tone of the place.
That day you also saw fit to lay-off three hapless employees:
millworker, driver, a clerk - also-rans not worth three fucks.
It loses the eloquence of its consistent invective when removed from the whole, but you get the gist. Placed against the translationese of Catullus poems, in their precise and varied metrical lines [a stylistic preoccupation and perfection in Reading's work], these gain more relevance. I am not by any means informed on the work of Catullus, but there is apparently a close correlation between his exposure of society's ills with Reading's poetic pot-shots.
In my early years of teaching I used Reading's poem At Marsden Bay from his 1983 collection Diplopic as a stimulus for getting students to think about the issues raised and how these are conveyed poetically. It is a poem about four sixteen year old louts who terrorize and kill kittiwakes nesting innocently where the boys have decided to prioritise their play. Probably based on real experience, it is also a metaphor for how a world 'two hundred and eighty million years old' can be instantly desecrated by the crass and cruel indifference of the modern world, here manifested by the presence of the four boys,
Three of the four are cross-eyed, all are acned.
Communication consists of bellowing
simian ululations between
each other at only a few inches range:
'Gibbo, gerrofforal getcher yaffuga',
also a low 'lookadembastabirdsmon'.
The poem always worked immediately in rousing reaction to the stereotyping of the boys' physical appearance and use of language! I mention it because the last poem from Shitheads I'd like to copy here shows Reading continuing with his concern for the destruction of our physical environment,
Twenty-three Black Country ramblers, thank you
(plenty of decibels, Brummagem blah-blah,
Army Stores walking boots, anoraks, knapsacks,
one of you wearing a Have a nice day badge
one of you wearing a cap blazoned Shithead,
one of you chucking a drained 7-Up can into the heather)
for cheering this lonely Shropshire upland
with orange and crimson fluorescent clobber,
shrieks, squeals, ululations and feculent litter
(tampons and turds smirch bracken and whins), and for
driving away the only Hen Harrier in ten years here.