Last orders already?
When on Wednesday the 3rd of December I discovered that two days hence Anthony Thwaite would be reading from his latest and (he claims) final collection, Going Out, in an independent bookshop in Norwich I immediately booked the afternoon off work and bought a train ticket. Back in the city where 12 years previously the tousled genius and literary executor of Philip Larkin had tried to teach me and a dozen other first year University of East Anglia undergraduates “how to write a Petrarchan sonnet”, I arrived at the Book Hive in the Lanes area of Norwich just as the owner was opening the red wine: an auspicious start to a delightful encounter.
Going Out: the title is both fitting and misleading. That halcyon evening Thwaite assured his cosy audience of two dozen friends and admirers that this was his last effort. A few guffawed; they’d heard it before. I thought of Sir Alex Ferguson’s repeated threats to retire, and that when he finally kept his promise (in 2013, probably around the same time Thwaite was coming to a similar conclusion) it was after having won yet another Premier League title. If Thwaite stays true to his word, this is a league championship of a book with which to go out.
But, despite the touching and amusing verses about the quiet simplicity of growing old (‘no taste / For bad behaviour, mad hilarity – / Or staying up late’ he writes in the title poem), Thwaite’s flame is by no means close to extinction. His voice gave way once or twice as he read from the book, but there were a few sore throats in the room; and though the hair is pure white and the cane indispensable (‘I am becoming a connoisseur of walking sticks’, he writes in ‘In the Vicinity of the Crank House’), the mind remains sharp and vigorous.
Like his Selected Poems, Going Out is a journey of tremendous stylistic and geographic breadth. Early on, Thwaite takes us to Ripon in April 1918 to visit a recuperating soldier named Wilfred Owen:
Trying to catch the tone
Of what he had known
And what he would go back to soon,
Above all Above all
A few pages later we’re ‘At Orford Ness’, travelling ‘Across these acres of degraded shingle / In process of continual ruination’, from whence it’s a short trip to the country that has meant so much to Thwaite and been the source of much of his poetry, ‘Libya’. That evening in our quiet corner of Norfolk, he spoke movingly about the desperate plight of Libya since the fall of Gaddafi, and of his own experience of having to flee the country in 1967 during the Six-Day War. ‘Thick sand, the ghibli blowing hard’: people grow old, but some things never change. And then we’re in Thwaite’s living room, ‘Waiting In’ for a delivery that doesn’t come; restless, the poet is ‘Unable to get on with anything’.
After finishing the book I wondered why Thwaite had chosen to read ‘Waiting In’. There were many more profound and beautiful poems. I think it was partly poetic flair: to show a gift for writing about the quotidian as well as he writes about civil war and death. More importantly, becoming a prisoner of time (albeit just for a day) is most vexing for one who has begun to wonder how much of the stuff he has left.
As one ages, one’s fondness for reminiscing grows, and there are plenty of memories in the book: of being surrounded by gawking locals in China in 1980, of his mother, of the English poet George Barker. Sometimes in old age, though, the memory fails, often at the most inopportune moment. ‘But all of it has gone’ he writes in ‘The Line’, ‘Into a nowhere I cannot reach’. Fortunately, his memories of his poet friend Peter Porter are exceptionally vivid.
Born in Brisbane in 1929, Peter Porter wrote more than a dozen books of poetry and won numerous awards. Thwaite writes to him ‘above this happy valley / Some thirty miles or so due north of Lucca’ in the first of four poems for his departed friend.
Yet with a firm contemptuous snort
You’d told me when I asked what sort
Of sending-off you maybe thought
Would be the best –
‘No humanist funeral.’ In short
To lay at rest.
In ‘A Word of Advice’ Thwaite warns his friend Peter Scupham to ‘Keep out of churchyards, and avoid the grave’. Nevertheless, Thwaite, as Porter did, retains a hint of Anglican faith. Or perhaps Anglican ambiguity: ‘God as Moloch, or the great inventor’ he writes in ‘Creation Myth’:
Presides over Creation, the Fall, the Coming Again,
As you press the button, the button that says ‘Enter’.
Nothing that happens ever happens in vain.
Perhaps tired of fending off questions about his faith, Thwaite asks himself in ‘Credo’, ‘Yes, I believe, but what do I believe?’ Away from ‘Waugh’s ‘chapter of blood-curdling military history’ / And bleating synods bickering over women’, Thwaite finds comfort and strength in ‘The gentle riddles of the parables’ and believes in a voice ‘Clear in his mysteries’. At a time when many around the world are scrambling to explain the ins and outs of their religion, ‘Credo’ is as beautiful as it is urgent.
Another comforting presence in Thwaite’s life is his wife, Ann, who came up with the title of the book and to whom the book is dedicated. She was by her husband’s side that evening to offer water when necessary and to read from her own book, a collection of short stories titled Running in the Corridors. Together they formed a splendid double act. With its tales of childhood and losing one’s innocence, Running in the Corridors was a perfect complement to Mr Thwaite’s resigned ruminations on ‘Four times a night, now, / Getting up to have a pee’.
‘Time to go’ is the last poem of the collection and the one with which Thwaite concluded the reading. Dressing his husky voice with an ironic querulousness, he read:
Ridding myself of papers, pots, coins, books,
No longer vain about what had been looks,
The broth boiled over by too many cooks.
Time was I kept some goods held back in store,
Not any more, not any more.
One feels Thwaite has plenty of poems left ‘in store’, but this is a fitting and marvellous collection with which to bow out.