Brian Lewis: Haunts

Sideways1Sited in the forecourt of Sheffield’s Upper Chapel are three statues, cast in 1985 from plaster pieces made by the English sculptor George Fullard in the late 1950s. The figures (‘Mother and Child’, 1956; ‘Running Woman’, 1957; ‘Angry Woman’, 1958) are, respectively, seated, moving and standing; fixed on the court paving, each slant to the other, they keep their distance. The forecourt is an apt setting for the statues; a stone’s throw from the Town Hall, Upper Chapel seems much further removed in place and time, sheltering otherness and quiet in the yard’s fastness. And, at the yard’s edge, three attitudes, bodied in bronze: in the city – the heart of the city – but not of it.

Sideways2George Fullard was born in the Sheffield district of Darnall in 1923; at the time of his death, fifty years later, he was Head of Chelsea School of Art. The course of his life was determined in no small part by his observation of the Sheffield Blitz and its aftermath in December 1940, which inspired the drawings and sketches that supported his successful application to the Royal College of Art, and, more significantly, his participation in the Battle of Cassino four years later. Fullard’s tank was blown up; he survived, but was left with severe wounds and permanent scars. Many of his postwar sculptures and drawings focus on walking, falling and running figures, themes that, as Fullard acknowledged, allude to his wartime experiences in Sheffield and Italy.

Sideways3The ghosts of the Upper Chapel statues, and the visions that inspired them, haunt Three Night Walks, Andrew Hirst’s contribution to the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Hirst’s short sequence is not the only group of poems in The Footing to be shadowed by conflict and trauma (we might consider the legacies of war and exile in James Caruth’s Tithes; the destructive campaigns of Chris Jones’ Reformation-era narrative Death and the Gallant; the industrial scarring of Fay Musselwhite’s Rivelin Valley in Breach; and, most pertinently, Rob Hindle’s rewalking and reimagining of the Sheffield Blitz in ‘Dore Moor to the Marples Hotel’). However, its first poem measures a world in which the act of walking is conflicted and wounded, turning inward and against itself, the disoriented protagonist ‘scuttling’ through an urban centre made unnavigable not by bombs but by redevelopment. One of the poems in Hirst’s earlier pamphlet Frome XXIV opens with the declaration ‘The city I love so much is disappearing’; in Three Night Walks, the city has all but disappeared,¬†persisting only in spectres and memories. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to stop, as the insistent repetition of ‘unsettled’ in each of the poem’s three stanzas makes plain (‘alone, unsettled, residual’). There is only a haunting of and by ‘the city’, and a cycle of dispossession and repossession. Night itself becomes a place, a temporary theatre, in which these meditations on damage and disappearance might find solidity and purchase.

Hirst’s spoken introduction to the poem at the Sheffield launch of The Footing (available to hear on the recording below) is suggestive of the Fullard sculptures’ strong physical (and metaphysical) presence in the early stages of the three poems’ development. In the final versions, the figures are rendered obliquely – fragmentarily, even, a glimpse of ‘blood caked feet’ and little else – and seem no more settled than the poem’s speaker. Shortly after the first drafts of these poems were completed (and a few months after the photographs accompanying this piece were taken), the statues vanished from the Upper Chapel forecourt. Cast from and against the city, it seemed that they had finally been cast out. They reappeared several months later, restored and re-sited on the other side of the yard, saying nothing of where they’d been, as defiant as before.

Listen to Andrew Hirst introduce and read the first of his Three Night Walks (recorded at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, 25 November 2014)

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