Martin Newell 2001

Shipshape

In this old shed and that old shed
The sound of saw and adze was wed
To mallet, hammer, chisel, file
And sanding, sanding all the while.
Old boys who knew these waters here
Worked hard, spoke little, drank their beer
Knew every inlet, creek and quay
From Burnham up to Brightlingsea
Told Jamie, shipwright yet-to-be.
“I shan’t say noth’n. You watch me”
No more than that and graft concerned.
Since this is how the craft was learned
In bits and bats and splintered wood
Until at last the boy made good.

In salt-marsh, towpath, shingle, mud
The Essex coast gets in the blood
In sea-kale, samphire, gorse and sedge
Which grows along the water’s edge
Till further in, the wetland yields
To hazy summer mangold fields
The copses, hedgerows, tractor-tracks
With pallets of potato sacks
And houses hidden in the lanes
With Flemish roofs and weathervanes
The churches closed, or overgrown,
The flowers left in grass unmown
Except around a tended tomb
From long-lived bride to long-dead groom.

And here a heron, there a lark
A curlew calling in the dark
To break the silence in the night
When moonlight drapes the boatyard white
And as the tides drain back to sea
From many-channeled estuary
Exposing ribs, remains of ships
The mud devours, it smacks its lips
Till deeper down and all around
The estuary’s digestive sound
On windless nights pervades the air
When nothing stirs the maidenhair
And marker buoys stare up and blink
To see the stars return their wink.

In this old shed and that old shed
The artist’s early years were spread
In level, line and cut and curve
This certitude would later serve
In art where his material
Was rather more ethereal
And as he turned to print and paint
His line much finer -though not faint
The years with adze in hand returned
To steady what he later learned
In London, where a young man goes
To find that nothing that he knows
Will count for much. The London air
Breeds nothing but indifference there.

In this old garret, that old loft
A poet wrote, he swore and coughed,
Stubbed out a roll-up, lit one up
Poured brandy into coffee cup
Took spanners to each verse, each word
Absorbed this way, he hardly heard
The hours seep out from day to night
Till forced to stop by fading light
And lack of energy to think
Or dearth of company and drink
Repaired to pub at close of day
To hear such stories by the way
From this old bloke or that old bloke
Which might inform a poem or joke.

Took garden work when it came in
To pay the rent when times were thin
Cut hedges, lawns, pruned apple-trees
The season turned, the westerlies
Pushed winter in, till with the rain
The poet picked up pens again
To annotate which ebb, what flow
Brought this mood in, made that one go
Which sundown set the sea alight
When starlings mustered, swans took flight
Or how the harrowed land changed hue
And when the winter wheat came through
Until its luminescent haze
Had turned the dirty earth to baize

In this small street, or that cramped lane
The poet and artist met again
Reserved, respectful all the same
Now each knew other’s work by name
No strangers to much leaner days
Though both came home by different ways
To learn to love such small events
As small town living represents
If this job paid and that job paid
All well and good, the money made
Might buy the one some time to think
Or purchase other printer’s ink
The right to live by brush or pen
So coveted by other men

Despite untruths romance has fed,
It’s this old shed or that old shed
Where painters paint or poets write
By harsher lamps than candle-light
Being driven more by hard intent
To feed the kids or pay the rent
Much fancier motives furnish art
But none so grimly from-the-heart
Each sale completed, laurel won
As good as that last job he’d done
Less taunted by obscurity
Than chased by insecurity
Which drove him daily from his bed
To this old shed or that old shed.

For this is where the tableau’s made
By capturing the cavalcade
Of all that trundles past the door
-Plus everything that’s gone before
And here, the artist works alone
Sequestered in a timeless zone
Where life and dreams become the same
Till set into the page or frame
There’s no word to describe this stuff
Though alchemy comes close enough
And when you ask him what it is
Or how it is, or where it is:
The tap which lets the deluge flow
He’ll tell you that he doesn’t know.

Yet here’s the wood and there’s the grain
And here the tools appear again
The cross-cut saw, the pear-shaped folk
Who’d wield the thing to prune the oak
The figures rounded at the hips
Of men or women curved like ships
Since ships are what the artist knew
And hardly anything he drew
Or printed ever seemed to be
Uninfluenced by ships and sea
The boatmen with their hull-like thighs
Their rowlock arms and piscine eyes
From waters ruched like eiderdowns.
Around the sterns of sleeping towns

The towns grown out from spits or quays
In insular communities
The older buildings’ line defined
In mariner’s or shipwright’s mind
Whose cabins jut like Hapsburg lips
Above the chins of landlocked ships
The sail-lofts spread around the town
Where captain-smugglers anchored down
Built porthole windows, galleon bays
In memory of their sea-going days
For cottages in huddled lanes
Within the sight of masts and cranes
Where seagulls squabbled overhead
Or perched on this or that old shed

In one such shed, in Wivenhoe
In nineteen eighty-six or so,
No fixed abode and money thin
The writer moved possessions in
Was lent the place for half a year
Composed on his piano here
A music album, song by song
Recording as he went along
Though as he wrote, he lived in doubt
He’d ever see his work come out
Then signed his copyrights away
To businessmen who’d never pay
Continuing without success
From stolid English stubborness.

A decade on, by some strange quirk
The artist, needing space to work
Secured the place as studio
The shed the poet used to know
The two by now were colleagues, mates
Had pooled experience and estates
Discovered verse and illustration
Popular in combination.
And in comparing notes they’d found
A modicum of common ground
Less isolated now, the men
Conferred together now and then
Best not repeated, what’s been said
In this old shed or that old shed.

And God forbid a third man calls,
The language used could strip the walls
Of paint, with all the insults hurled
In laughter at the outside world.
It echoes round the work-strewn room
With who’s done what, with what, to whom
Till tea break over -back on heads
The bodgers all go back to sheds
To printing press and paint goes one
With deadline goes the second one
To write a poem, while the third
Returns to carve a driftwood bird
The only place the work can start:
That open prison known as Art.

But what a view the prisoner sees
Beyond those roofs, a line of trees.
Beyond those trees the estuary,
Which blurs in turn to blue-grey sea
Then high above, the shapes of birds
Like accents on forbidden words
As flagships of the storm draw near
The dark metallic clouds appear
And here, the artist hurries on
To sketch events before they’re gone
Saying, ” This is what I think I see-
-But will the outside world agree?”
Though, if he’s done it with success
Of course, the world will answer, “Yes.”.

It’s tenuous this business, James
These prints and paintings in their frames
The unguents and the bits of wood
The toil required to make them good.
By standing in this studio
I’d known so many years ago
Where I worked blind and never knew
How, when, or if I’d crack on through.
Just work — and faith in work perhaps?
But even with such stubborn chaps
I wonder how we both begin
And how the work keeps coming in
Though when the two of us are dead
How haunted might be this old shed?

And now I come to tax my head
In this old shed or that old shed
The world outside seems picturesque
When shackled to a writing desk
The writer writes, the painter paints
The public will not make us saints
For what we do but might forgive
Our worst excesses, while we live
Buy one or other of us drink
Then quietly ask us what we think
Or how we might describe our art.
Shipshape. That would be a start.

The tide bleeds out and in the mud
The ships squat down, deprived of blood
Their buxom hulls exposed to air
The shipwright’s exhibition there
Is free of charge and on display
The whole year round and twice a day
The curves, the clinker boards and keel
-The parts the water helped conceal-
Are testimony to an art
Much older craftsmen helped impart
In whispers down the estuary
I shan’t say noth’n. You watch me.
Until it reached the river beds
From these old sheds and those old sheds

Shipshape
Martin Newell 2001