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