It’s a gloomy season for me, since a relative died and I’ve been occupied with organising the funeral, plus all the other things that come with it: bills, refunds, what to do with the furniture. Handing back the council house was particularly bad, for I must have been one of the last generations of children to grow up feeling not only secure in terms of tenancy, but with space, gardens, and free access to all sorts of education. There were definitely areas of deprivation in the mix, but I never felt that I was underprivileged or locked out of what the ‘richer’ kids took for granted. This is what security means – the rock-solid foundation where you know you are not less than the other people, no matter how hard they try to shake your tree. Handing a council house back means that some other family can benefit the same way I did, although it means I lose the final link with the area I come from. I wish people not only grass, like the speaker in the Douglas Dunn poem, but council houses and bus stops, and public services; proper ones, run by local authorities which aren’t contracted out.
The night before the handover, I walked past all the buildings I’d known, past the Green (the estate is on the edge of Leeds, with a village-like centre) and sat on a bench looking out over this Green to the shiny big city beyond. It looked like a dream-city, with its lit up skyscrapers in the distance – but when I left the area in 1981, the local economy had been wrecked by Government policies and it was impossible for any young person to get a job or aspire any further than the end of the street. My parents had lived through a boom time, walking out of one job on a Friday and straight into another one, better paid, on Monday morning. It never occurred to them that life could be any different; but times changed, the future looked bleak, and I was forced to leave. Now, we’re culturally averse towards providing enough of the low-cost housing which gives other people the foundation they deserve. I estimate that the period of ‘working-class’ security in housing and education only lasted around 50 years in Leeds, from the time when estates replaced the inner-city slums to the de-centralising of services and facilities in the 1980’s. Imagine, only 50 years’ grace when any Kid Average could get a life, after more than a century and a half of campaigning for rights.
It’s business as normal on the artistic front, however. The marvellous iambapoet website went live, attended by much ballyhoo on Twitter: you can soon join the fun yourself, because open submissions will start in early 2021. I’m on there reading three poems, but you’ll have to scroll to the end of the list to find me, because I come in at number 20. The project can be followed @iambapoet, for the latest news and updates. Meanwhile I’ve spent much of Lockdown translating medieval poetry – as a former medievalist, I’ve always been interested in the connection between music and literature which the poets experienced back then, and I knew a bit about the troubadours of southern France. More time at home meant I was able search out my dictionary of medieval Occitan and put in several hours’ effort each day, taking a couple of samples from a range of poets and by no means using all the same examples as previous translators. The repertoire is enormous, and there is a great deal of repetition: the poets were using a specific vocabulary, with the same terms and phrases reappearing. But it is impressive to see how often the best lyrics bear comparison with what happened later in the English Renaissance – because back then, as always, literature travelled further than the place where it was made. I’ll mention the end result again on here, if the project is a success….otherwise, my translations will join the great pile of paper in the cupboard behind me.