Keith Armstrong

My Friend Jack Common (1903-1968)

Ever since the sixth form,
when I found you,
a kindred Novocastrian
in a library book,
I seem to have followed in your steps,
stumbled after you
in rain soaked lanes,
knocked on doors
in search of your stories.
For over forty years,
I have tracked
the movement of your pen
in streets you walked
and on cross country trains
from your own Newcastle
to Warrington
Malvern,
Newport Pagnell,
Letchworth,
Yetminster,
Wallington
and back again.
I have given talks about you,
supped in your pubs,
strode along your paragraphs
and river paths
to try to find
that urge in you
to write
out of your veins
what you thought of things,
what made you tick
and your loved ones
laugh and cry.
I tried to reach you in a thesis,
to see you as a lad in Heaton,
but I could never catch your breath
because I didn’t get to meet you
face to face,
could only guess
that you were like me:
a kind of kindly
socialist writer
in a world
too cruel for words.

Keith Armstrong © 2015

Wallington Morning

‘But the thing I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.' (George Orwell).

I stood at your door,
knocked in the English sunshine,
bowed to greet you
but could not hear
the chatter
from your typewriter
or the rain pecking
at the tin roof,
only the plummet of the leaves
brushing against my face
and the birds
falling over the fields.

Thought of you and Jack Common,
shaking hands
in open debate,
patched sleeves
damp on the bar counter,
ploughing through
tracts of history,
eyes on the horizon
looking for War
and bombs
over Datchworth's spire.

This magic morning,
clear sky in our hearts.
No September showers,
only goats bleating,
a horse trotting
down the lane
and, in the day dream,
St Mary's bells
glistening
with Eileen asleep
in the clouds.

What should I say?
We are weak.
I know you were awkward
but, like Jack, full of love.
Out of bullets,
flowers may grow;
out of trenches,
seeds.
The roses
and acorns of thoughts
you planted
those years ago
in Kits Lane,
nourish us now
in these brief minutes,
gifts
from your writing hand
farming for words,
the eggs of essays,
the jam on your fingers.

You were scraping a book together,
smoking the breath
out of your collapsing lungs,
taking the world
on your creaking bent shoulders,
riding across fields
for friends,
bones aching,
fighting to exist
in the cold breeze.

Still the Simpson's Ale
was good in the Plough,
the old laughter still
flying down this Wallington lane,
with the crackling children
sparkling
on an idyllic day.

Enjoy this beauty,
it will turn to pain.
Sing your folk songs,
dig your garden,
dance in your brain.
Graft and graft
until all the breath is gone.
Leave a brave mark
in the dust
round Animal Farm.

What a good thing
to be alive
where songbirds soar
and daffodils nod.
Over the slaughter
of motorways,
we are following
your large footprints
into this bright countryside
where good people
adopt another's children
and still
fall in love
with England.

Written after visiting Orwell’s cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, where he lived with Eileen O’Shaughnessy and which was looked after for him by fellow writer Jack Common in 1938.

Keith Armstrong © 2015