The poems of the Yorkshire poet and schoolteacher Stanley Cook (1922-1991) are infused with a strong sense both of place and of a vanished way of life whose fading years he caught and celebrated. Of course, it has always been part of a poet’s role to be a bridge between present and past, but perhaps never more so than in the case of Cook’s generation and my own that followed it, which saw a time of unprecedented social and technological change. We may tend to forget, in this age obsessed with the immediate, just how far back into the past knowledge from personal acquaintance can reach, and how much of that past it can preserve if only we think to ask the right questions at the right time. When I was small a great-great aunt of some kind came to visit us: she was a centenarian, born around 1850. We walked down the garden path together. Sadly at that age I had no appreciation of the fact that I was in the presence of someone who had been a child at the time of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and who might in her turn have walked with people who stood with other mourners in the streets of London to watch Nelson’s coffin pass on its way to St Paul’s. I just thought she looked like a small brown wizened monkey, and I do not recall that we had anything to say to one another. At least it was different with my mother, born in 1908, whose anecdotes gave me a window on to a world of lamplighters, muffin-men and hopscotch played in leafy suburban roads where the only traffic was horse-drawn. Stanley Cook’s poems give me the same sense of vicarious, elegiac knowledge. This poem is from his collection ‘Signs of Life’ (Peterloo Poets, 1972).
My Father’s People
In Gainsborough, South Kelsey, Morton and Scotter
The apple trees print a forgotten alphabet
On parchment of ground beside the inherited
Rosy brick of cottages and farms;
Streets made to measure horse and cart still serve
The shabby numbered gates of once busy works,
The unemployed that no longer dress up to sign on:
And I could panic that all my uncles and cousins
Who once worked here are dead, only alive
In flashes of anecdote from ageing widows.
For a family supposed to be fond of its stomach
That killed and hung its pigs and made one mouthful
Of cheesecakes and tarts they had indifferent health
Those connoisseurs of chitterlings and chines
Living on one lung or dying of ulcers.
Failing a poem, what else would they do but eat
The beautiful land I too find fascinating?
Poor writers, who gathered only at funerals
Or added to a Christmas card
’Mother died this June’.