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The Midlands by Tony Williams review – ‘a terrain of the imagination’

A thoughtful study of a pastoral landscape where enclosure is everywhere apparent

Ask readers of poetry to name two major living practitioners associated with the Midlands and they would probably mention the markedly contrasting figures of Roy Fisher and Geoffrey Hill. Fisher grew up in Birmingham and Hill (like Housman) in Bromsgrove. In both poets’ work can be traced the interpenetration of urban and rural environments and habits of thought that characterises places haphazardly industrialised in the 19th century. Fisher has given a brilliantly condensed account of this experience in his memoir “Antebiography” in his indispensable prose selection An Easily Bewildered Child (Shearsman, 2014). Tony Williams, in whom the influence of both poets can be traced (Fisher’s the more strongly), is an inheritor of this complex history. Like Fisher he sees a highly specified provincial context through a Modernist lens; like Hill he also moves among older elements of poetic tradition, with Wordsworth and Marvell particularly important to him.

Williams is from Derbyshire, and his Midlands is really the region’s northern borderlands – the Peak District and Sheffield. Just as it is said that no two residents could agree where the Black Country begins and ends, so Williams’s place wavers and shifts. It is also a terrain of the imagination: somehow it draws strength from the very uncertainty of its existence. The region fades off into the east across the line of the “half-arsed A1” near Newark. The traveller pauses at the aptly named “OK Diner”, where the waitress’s difficulty in pronouncing “guacamole” is both comic and shaming to the narrator. Class, innocence and a remote ordinariness provide a raw example of what Jo Shapcott called “the complicated shame of Englishness”. We are, Williams suggests, “unable to curb / the sarcasm that lames our dreams”. He is also drawn irresistibly to the glum half-life of “Half-Day Closing” in one of those arrested settlements where half of us grew up and it remains implacably 1957.

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