August 15, 2014 5:56 pm

A poem to learn for life

One of the Poems on the Underground posters caught my eye. It was called ‘In a Young Time’ by Gerard Benson

I always remember everything and am proud of the fact. Or am I? Is it a bit unwise, in this fast-moving age, to have such a strong memory? Does it guarantee a ton of attrition?

I have not even forgotten the phone numbers of the people I went to primary school with. The immaculate girl with glossy hair and pink Peter Pan collars who lived in the police flats; the musical girl with dark ringlets and stripy jumpers who hero-worshipped Bruno Martelli from the Kids from Fame – why, I could ring them now if I chose.

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Susie Boyt

Is all this remembering a form of clinging on for dear life? When does a good memory become a pathological inability to forget?

I never fear my memory going in age, I think it would do me good, but I would mind terribly if I could no longer sing in tune. In fact, this is the one aspect of ageing that gives me the horrors and they don’t make any creams or potions to guard against it as far as I know.

I was on the Tube with my daughter, whom I had just collected from a holiday on the Isle of Wight. (A bit mad when she has friends in the street where we live, but never mind.) I was extremely pleased to see her. She was lightly sun-kissed and in the carriage she had the confident lolling stance of one who was getting quite used to boats.

On the train one of the Poems on the Underground posters caught my eye and we read it together. It was called “In a Young Time”. It spoke of carefree childhood holidays, the great outdoors, golden sunlight – things that did not have much in common with my early life, which was very urban – but the picture painted was charming and delicate and expansive: “In a young time it was skipping and sunlight/ and the world was acres and there was plunder.”

I explained to my daughter why plunder was such a good word to have chosen. The first line almost threatened to be too sweet and “plunder” came from nowhere and thickened the plot, turning everything upside-down. (I was a bit tired.) Stolen treasures may have only been a handful of berries but that did not lessen their appeal or their weight. “Plunder” is not a word I ever use but I will remember to use it now.

A little, sorrowful bit of me felt the lack of skipping and sunlight suddenly stretching back down the years. I remembered a strange time in my childhood when we lived in a street that was in the middle of a thriving red-light district, and most days cars used to draw up as I walked home in my school uniform.

But that was more than 30 years ago, I remonstrated firmly with myself: think of the lavish package of compensation you have organised since!

He had the whole of English poetry by heart, as others know their alphabets

At the end of the poem, of course, was the name of the poet Gerard Benson. Mr Benson! He had taught me at primary school and had been so inspiring. He came in occasionally as a sort of special guest star. His entire person was made up of poems and songs, which extended magically from him like those strings of handkerchiefs that conjurors sport.

He had the whole of English poetry by heart as other people know their alphabets. He made it seem mad not to. Sometimes he read us Shakespeare’s sonnets as if he was telling us jokes or juggling, taking us right inside them, playfully.

One day he taught us a wonderful song about Petticoat Lane, which I still sing. In the song, the narrator takes you on a wonderful tour of the market in the small hours, weaving in and out of all the traders, and as you sang you had the sense of a market unfolding with the dawn and the whole song and even life setting out its stalls before your sleepy eyes . . . it was the perfect vehicle for a child’s wonder.

I tried to explain him to my daughter. Not only did he write of sunlight and skipping and berry-stained fingers, he brought equivalent joys into actual childhoods himself through his love of music and poetry. You can really change people’s lives like that.

I remember once saying to him that I was feeling down and he told me he would play some beautiful music and, perhaps, I could do a drawing of what the music made me think of as I listened, and that the experience might be uplifting and soothing for me.

In the lightest way he issued me with a little prescription. It was so ennobling. And it worked. It was with sadness that I read the dates under his name: 1931-2014. I want to say thank you.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

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