THIS SMALL PATCH REVIEWS
Published by Red Squirrel Press
This Small Patch, poems by Tom Kelly. A 6” x 9” paperback book with a full colour cover and 76 pages. Published 2020 by Red Squirrel Press, www.redsquirrelpress.com
ISBN 978-1-910437-91-9 £10.00.
Kelly is a Jarrow man, a Tyneside man, from the boots up. He uses a variety of forms in his poems and song lyrics, which form part of this collection, but love and the knowledge of his native region, its people, their patterns of speech, their origins and their experiences, colour every line. He draws on the history of the area from the Anglo-Saxon origin of the name “Jarrow”, to the proud roll-calls of shipyards and trades in their glory days, to the passion and tragedy of the Jarrow Crusade. Kelly uses archive material to convey the march of Jarrow unemployed shipyard workers, on foot, to London to petition Parliament for work; notably a speech by one of the march leaders is presented like a found poem. Kelly leaves its refrain “Something must be done, and we shall not stop until something is done,” to stand unanswered, as it was in historical fact. He comments obliquely, following this with short, vivid portraits of his Uncle Johnny, one of the marchers, and another of the leaders – both masterful in their compression of essentials into brief, pungent lines, loaded with pain and tenderness. The poems in dialect convey a powerful sense of voices, individuals, speaking from the heart direct to the reader. Kelly draws on his Irish family heritage and childhood memories to build a people’s history, an insider’s view, complex, sometimes shocking, proud, grieving, arriving at some sort of resolution as he walks with the bairns into an unknown future.
Review by: Eve Kimber
Review in Pulsar Magazine June 2021
This Small Patch by Tom Kelly (Red Squirrel Press)
Born in Jarrow, working at sixteen in the Merchant Dry Dock and still living not far away, Tom Kelly has been producing plays, music and film lyrics, short stories and poems for over thirty years in his native North-East. His lifetime’s knowledge of his locality continues, as the title here signals, to be his major source of subject-matter.
This collection ‒ his eighth from Red Squirrel in the last twelve years, not forgetting earlier ones from KT, Here Now, Smokestack, and (long ago) Tears in the Fence ‒ also contains song lyrics, speeches from the 1930s Jarrow Crusade, and explanatory prose commentaries. The lyrics lose something on their own, as lyrics generally do, but it’s worth checking the Men of the Tyne songs on the CD, and the documentary on YouTube, where they come into glorious full effect. Of the poems, there’s none here as brilliant as the earlier, savage ‘The Wrong Jarrow’ and no line as arresting as ‘‘No’ is the password, stamped on their hopes’ with its terrific repurposing of ‘password’. Nonetheless the majority preserve a solid style and feel across time: the present historic, the asyndeton, the low-key language and deferred epiphany. Sometimes Kelly’s poems appear to stop before they’ve got going. Sometimes they feel like notes. Moments of pure lyricism are sparse, like moments of joy:
The film’s something celestial
fallen into our laps,
More often, ‘fine phrasing’ gets cut with grim bathos:
Tears hold their own in the corners of her eyes
wishing they could be used in the pawn shop.
Admittedly, it’s not the most rewarding style if you’re in search of linguistic fireworks and metatextual car-chases. Other writers identifying with the skilled working class ‒ Tony Harrison or Andy Croft, say ‒ forge arabesques of wordplay alongside precise rhyming in difficult formalisms to enact toil and struggle and craftsmanship. But perhaps Kelly’s offers an equally authentic way to approach the mental universes of these industrial lives of outward good-fellowship but constricted emotional display, whose laconic narrators resist at all costs the flashy, long-worded or bombastic, and retreat into collocation or summary at the moment of truth:
There’s just a great gap of love
and my gaping wound.
Certainly, the poems sent me away to investigate Tyneside history: from Bede, whose monastery was in Jarrow, through England’s last gibbeting, the abrupt end of shipbuilding in 1933 and the unspeakable deprivation that led to the march to London; the post-war recovery, and then the early-Eighties destruction. All of these are touched upon and intermixed with family histories and 1950s childhood memories in a nice counterpointing of the social and personal. The concluding section returns to the present, memorialising the decline of Working Men’s Clubs – a topic entirely new to poetry? – alongside family elegies and scary portrayals of the erosion of personal memory. The overall effect, though, remains uplifting: this is poetry as archaeology and conservation, an exegi monumentum not to the poet himself but to the community he’s part of, and all the better for that.
Guy Russell 2nd July 2020
Tears in the Fence
Review from the Penniless Press
THIS SMALL PATCH: POEMS
By Tom Kelly
Red Squirrel Press. 76 pages. £10.00. ISBN 978-1-910437-91-9
Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh
Tom Kelly writes poems that are straightforward and about the people and the places he’s known all his life. The North-East is his “small patch” and its history and traditions loom large in just about everything he writes. If the term “regional writer” means anything it certainly applies to a writer like Kelly. You can see and smell and hear both the past and the present as you read the short, jabbing lines with their penny-plain words:
You talked as if giving a speech,
clear as a bell, loud,
I was young. Intimidated,
didn’t feel your warmth,
lost in a lifetime of meetings in church-halls and
Parliament. It was not love
until you spoke of Jarrow in the 30’s,
deprivation you wished you could have eaten.
That name Jarrow cuts through the book. It was where Kelly was born and grew up, with tales of its ship-building traditions all around him, along with memories of the Jarrow Crusade when two hundred unemployed men marched to London to present a petition that was then ignored. The 1930s were years of want and of visits to the pawnshops, of the Means Test and families split apart because if someone in the house earned anything the relief paid to the out-of-work head of the family would be cut. Austerity wasn’t a word coined recently. And one old man remembers: “For the people of Jarrow, the Means Test was a soul destroyer. Men were not allowed to stand at street-corners. If you did the police would keep you moving on. The town was like a police state”.
The Second World War provided a respite. The shipyards were busy again, and it continued that way for a time. But it wasn’t long before the work began to dry up, and the shipyards closed. Jarrow and other towns were badly affected. Communities dependant on work that was both cursed and shared, began to fall apart:
Geordie’s on a train, Newcastle King’s Cross
bag of dirty clothes, head battered with loss.
Wife’s on the ran-tan and hitting the drink
it could be another man he starts to think.
Kelly also writes poems about his childhood, his Irish roots, local characters, his parents, and there’s a particularly poignant and powerful poem about a brother who died relatively young.
I don’t suppose this is the sort of poetry that will win the kind pf prizes that people present to each other at prestigious meetings in the metropolis. It’s too down-to-earth, and doesn’t pretend to offer any supposed great ideas for the reader to ponder over. It records the poet’s world, his reflections and experiences, in a direct fashion. An environment of cold bedrooms, outside lavatories, and bitter memories probably wouldn’t appeal to those who think that poems should be like puzzles, or should look deep into the mind of the poet. But if we open our eyes to see what is in front of them, there is a world, and a history, out there that requires our attention. Tom Kelly is aware of it.