Born and raised in Ammanford, once the heartland of coal mining in West Wales, Paul McGrane is the co-founder of the Forest Poets poetry collective in Walthamstow, London. From 2006 to 2020 he was the Poetry Society’s Membership Manager. His first collection, Elastic Man, published by Indigo Dreams in 2018, won the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize. British People in Hot Weather (Indigo Dreams Publishing) is his second collection.
I have to admit that the title of this collection puzzles me. Arresting it may be, but there are no mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun which is to say that no poem matches the title, the phrase does not appear in any of the poems and the time of year is invariably winter. All this proves that you cannot judge a book by its cover. McGrane, I conclude, is a man who likes to surprise his readers, and there is plenty to surprise us here.
The main theme of this collection is centred round personal relationships. These relationships are seen through the lens of childhood and adolescence, a school nativity scene, a distant father-son relationship, a well-meaning next door neighbour, weekends with grandparents and characters from a Verdi opera.
McGrane writes more about his father than his mother. Both his father and his grandfather were miners. His father was a coal hewer to begin with, moving on to become a colliery repairer below ground. In the early 80’s he was medically retired before the mines were closed down. McGrane is proud of his working lineage even though his relationship with his father was a difficult one. In ‘Social Distancing’ he writes: ‘he’d see but look straight through me. / To him I was something that / my mother should take care of / like cooking and cleaning and the washing up.’ In ‘Your father’s gone to stay with cousin Cyril for a while’ we catch a glimpse of the domestic situation at home:
Bad husband, he was very rarely in,
spending all his time in the pub or the garden
sweet-talking seedlings into flower
but when they’d share a room
ice hung from the ceiling
and every cough or sigh could spark an argument
I’d be out of there as soon as I was old enough to leave.
In ‘Thrift’ McGrane sketches a picture of his mother through the extended metaphor of the sea pink. Like the Royal Mint, who used thrift as an emblem on the threepenny-bit between 1937 and 1953, McGrane plays on the double meaning of the word.
‘Going viral’ is another loaded title in which McGrane explores our recent experience of trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the pandemic. Despite all the rules around handwashing, the germs in this poem keep spreading.
Two poems that really caught my attention in terms of wit and originality were ‘Unit 8 / Series 53 has died (and, oh, the difference to me)’ and ‘Search: Mark E Smith’. The former explores the question of whether robots have feelings and the latter the frustrations we have all faced at one stage or another when trying to identify a particular person who happens to have a very common name. (My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Jones so I can sympathise with the dilemma that this imposes when searching through family history).
Other subjects covered in this collection include ‘Dying Words of Patrick Moore’ which hints at the possibility of life on Mars and ‘Press Gang’ which compares and contrasts the fate of two people in different time frames: Brigstock Weaver, forced to loot ships by pirates in the 18th century and the teenager Jaden Moodie who got caught up in low-level crime and was murdered at the tender age of 14 by a rival gang member in East London in 2019.
British People in Hot Weather by Paul McGrane is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.
You can find more work by poet and reviewer Neil Leadbeater here on Ink Pantry.