Those of you of a certain age may remember the BBC schools radio programme Singing Together (nostalgists among you might enjoy this.) I’m utterly tone-deaf, and the weekly half-hour in class was my introduction to humiliation and social exclusion, and it later seemed like a potent way to talk about the feeling, as a child, of being neither flesh nor fowl, one thing or t’other…
Crows in the playground, gulls on the grass.
A crate of dwarf milk bottles nurses
the unravelled knitwork of turning cream.
Mrs Duff has silenced the class
for Singing Together. She is a conjuror
and her box of tricks has one mesh face so black
it must have been woven from spiders’ legs.
She summons an angry hiss and crackle –
this is the sound made by unwrapping
a song from the cellophane that keeps it fresh
when there’s no-one to listen or sing along.
The gipsy rover came over the hill,
Down through the valley so shadey,
He whistled and he sang till the green woods rang
And he won the heart of a lady…
What happens in the summer, in our absence?
The plants whither on the sill, the wallcharts
retrace their ancestry to papyrus,
and the Plasticine moulds itself into a hand
that chalks incomprehensible threats
and raw obscenities on the blackboard
till the day we come back, the dumb insolent,
to new workbooks and Singing Together
and Mrs Duff pacing the rows of desks, all ears.
‘Someone is droning.’ I burst the blisters
on the sunburnt window frame and drone.
She is listening so hard she must suspect
some Catholic contemporary of mine
in their school a mile away, not one of us –
Ah dee doo ah dee doo dah day,
Ah dee doo ah dee day dee –
not Kevin Boyd or Barry Devlin or Alan Majury
or Deborah Campbell or Tabnya Ennis who I love
and who laughs when I’m fingered out
with ‘Martin, don’t drone. Just mime.
Just open your mouth and pretend.’
Which, like a hypnotist’s victim, I do,
my lips sketching the word, the Protestant sound
my friends make rising to fill the tiny silence
as if there was enougb song to go around.