Book Reviews and Endorsements
Buy Mark Ward’s Thunder Alley and you won’t be disappointed. These drawn from life poems are sharply written, deftly observed and shot with humour. What more could you possibly want?
John Hartley Williams
This is the world as we know it, or think we know it: the focus is intense and compelling, but always eloquent and lyrical. The narratives are full of unsettling detail, edgy and profound, but compassion underpins everything. This is a moving collection, full of wisdom and insights, beautifully crafted, it holds a mirror up to the world and says: look, this is who we are.
“Vivid, sharp, memorable observations of the places that have touched Ward’s eye and heart; the tone is characteristic of the man; poems worth reading!”
The Visitor’s Book
Review of Thunder Alley,
Mark Ward works in Grasmere, tending to the grounds of Dove Cottage. He was born in Blackburn but is widely travelled and has done interesting jobs in far-flung places. This collection is principally located in his home town and takes its title from one of its streets. There is nothing of the professional northerner about Ward, nor does he play to any northern stereotype. The angle of his poems is always straight. He doesn’t do anything tricksy or clever-clever. He doesn’t play the poetic chameleon. I’m reminded of Einstein comparing Beethoven with Bach and saying the latter was almost pure music while the former was dramatic, almost personal. You could say Ward writes a Bach-like poem: it seeks for purity of expression. Its leathery language wants to force out the personal, the dramatic so that a near purity of expression allows them their place outside the poem. There’s a poem called The Mansion of Aching Hearts which exemplifies this:
At the former Union Workhouse on the hill,
they’d sit in soporific bliss and stare
The lines are attractively rhythmical and the sibilants of the second carefully chosen but unobtrusive. Ward has that capacity to weave in clever poetic uses without drawing attention to them. You can read the poem without noticing them, just as its meaning is subtle as a gentle smile. It’s typical of Ward’s capacity to suck significance into a poem and to hold it within the solid bricks and mortar of a robustly built piece. The workhouse is a metaphor for a set of social relations long since surpassed but whose legacy we still endure. But this is a former workhouse its poor inmates replaced by the mad and mentally defective till its closure. The tact of the poem is to withhold the flood of questions and doubts it engenders. The ghosts of the Victorian poor and the shades of the distressed minds no-one knew how to deal with or wanted to acknowledge haunt this beautiful poem. Not all the poems are as memorable as this. There are some almost throwaway pieces; Regret vi for example. The collection might have been better without them but they don’t mar in any real way. My guess is they were included for change of tone and to introduce humour. He can be effectively funny, as the Regret poems (there are ten of them) show. Spanish Lament for example nicely spikes how things that seem to change often remain the same, a good lesson in our spectacular (in the Debordian sense) society; but a piece like Cycles shows his real talent. I would say a social historian of the future wanting to understand what happened to the British sensibility in the years after 1979 might well be advised to start with this poem. In fourteen lines he sums up all that is meant by dumbing down, the broken society, feral youth, cultural coarsening and many more fairly impotent clichés of our time. We are, of course, in denial about what Ward is exploring here. We are supposed to believe it is a marginal phenomenon; but the poem gets it right: we all know this viciousness is now central to how we relate to one another, however various its forms. Shadows too is an excellent poem about danger, abuse and the perilousness of innocence. It exemplifies Ward’s quiet, reserved, concentrated style. When he lapses from this he becomes less individual but it is a high achievement that, though his work is not radically different in means from that of many contemporary poets, he has succeeded in finding a territory, which though not extensive is recognisably his own.
Alan Dent. MQB
Review. Summer 2013
Coleridge Street is in Blackburn, a once-thriving Lancashire mill town now pretty much a no man’s land between Preston, which has risen on its university (money and cosmopolitanism), and the backwaters of east Lancashire where you can buy a house for ten grand and are unknown to the smart kids making their way in New New Labour. Mark Ward chooses the name of the street for the title of this pamphlet from Aussteiger Publications because he comes from Blackburn and now works in the Lake District. The long title poem is a delightful experiential time-travelogue through the streets, pubs, clubs and front rooms of the town in the adolescent years. It pricks the illusory bubble of small-town dullness and inactivity: there’s as much going on here as in Chelsea or Islington, it just goes on without so much money. Ward’s writing is clear, tight and creates the right pace of movement. His references are charming, hilarious, wry and sometimes tragic. He mentions Dave Cunliffe, that small press veteran of the town, hounded by the authorities, who rightly deserves celebration for his tenacity and lack of conventional ambition. In hundreds of small towns across Britain, young people have found a way to make their lives exciting in spite of the efforts of the official culture to dull them down. Good for them, and good for Mark Ward. In the title poem, as in others in this little book, he cultivates a garden of sturdy poetic plants; they are beautiful, benodorous, they make you smile and cheer you up. This is a collection to carry in your pocket and to take out on the bus (in Blackburns up and down the land) on the train, in waiting rooms or during those long minutes in the modern-day first circle, the meeting. It is small and short but its contents are big and enduring.
Alan Dent: MQB
A Guide to Historic Haworth & the Brontës, by Mark Ward with Ann Dinsdale and Robert Swindells
In response to the need for a popular guide to Haworth, local poet and tour guide Mark Ward, Brontë Parsonage Museum librarian, Ann Dinsdale, and award-winning children’s writer Robert Swindells, have combined to produce this handy guide to Haworth and its most famous inhabitants. The book is structured around four walks: one long (7 miles: Top Withens, circular) and three short (1 ¼ miles: Penistone Hill; ¾ mile: Parsonage, Church and Village Top; and 500 metres!) Within each walk we are introduced to a rich mixture of Haworth history. The Brontës have a prominent place of course and have an additional chapter by librarian Dinsdale on The Brontës of Haworth, but Haworth’s history neither stopped nor started with the Brontës. Thus in the Penistone stone quarries, we learn about the ancient sea beds of the Carboniferous period which gave rise to a prosperous local quarry industry; on our moorland walk we learn about the changing patterns of farming and how the appearance of the moors has changed over time; we learn about the mills, the Luddites, and something about the lives of those who are buried in the churchyard. In Bob Swindells’s tongue-in-cheek 500 metre walk, we learn of the feature film cowboy Tom Mix and aviator Amy Johnson.
The writing is clear – the background to Grimshaw and the Evangelical Revival is masterfully encapsulated in three sentences – but the strength of the book is that it gives the background to what we can still see – once we have been told where to look! The times I’ve walked, unknowingly, over Tom Mix’s flagstone, passed the air shafts of underground passages near Dimples Lane, and under the Celtic head in North Street! Not only is this an excellent and robust little guide for the visitor to Haworth today, but it also reminds us of the Haworth that has passed, the Haworth that the Brontës knew, from Brandy Row and the horse fairs on Penistone Slack, to the then-busier moors, and the treacherous bogs, the Isolation Hospital at Upper Heights Farm, and the packhorse trails.
The work concludes with a list of Places to Stay. This is an excellent little gem for the visitor. RD, Brontë Society Transactions, The Journal of Brontë Studies