Alison Brackenbury‘s poem ‘Pensioned’ takes us back more than a hundred years to tell the story of an unlikely friendship between her grandfather, Frank, a gamekeeper on a large estate in England, and a local traveller Hezekiah Brown. Alison gives us some background to the story below but I liked this poem because of the sweep of history it covers and how little details tell a great deal; ‘a gamekeeper/who would have shot him for a hare‘ and ‘safe beneath/his Council roof‘.
It then moves on half a century to a village scene where Hezekiah rides ‘his skewbald mare/hauling small scrap on a loose rein‘; here you get a sense of how after the Second World War, things were more free with little traffic and ‘wind-blown fuschias, raspberries‘ and there was a real optimism about the future even though this was a time of austerity. And then, fifty years more, we are shown that whilst things are so very different, with rising sea temperatures and crowded streets, we still send ‘others’ sons to distant wars‘ and we are again in a time of austerity so that ‘now we poor’. But I also think the title, makes us think about what politicians have pensioned off to give us a false sense of prosperity: council houses, national utilities, North Sea oil, our taxes to save the Bankers, etc..
Here Alison gives some background to the poem.
“My grandfather, Frank, worked in his youth on the Edwardian estates of the aristocracy. He began by helping his father, Head Keeper to the Earl of Dudley. They patrolled the woods looking for poachers: local miners, from the Earl’s own mines. Frank then became the gamekeeper on a small Lincolnshire estate. Then came the First World War. Frank served throughout and survived, alongside Hezekiah Brown, whom he spoke of both as ‘gypsy’ and ‘friend’. Would gypsy and gamekeeper have been such good friends in peacetime? Hezekiah lost an eye. Frank lost his profession. His employer was killed in the war. and his widow no longer needed a gamekeeper. Demobbed, Frank moved from feudal to industrial England, working for decades as an electrician in a tractor factory. In retirement, he lived in a warm and affordable Council bungalow, with enough ground for roses and fruit. Does the Council still own that bungalow? I doubt it. And would Hezekiah still find a place to camp, or an official site to live on? The factory is now a shopping mall. The Lincolnshire roads are too lethally busy for a horse and cart. And we are busy losing another war to check climate change, and preserve a planet that Frank and Hezekiah could recognise.”
Alison Brackenbury has worked as a librarian in a technical college (1976-83), then as a part-time accounts and clerical assistant (1985-1989). From 1990 until her retirement in 2012, she worked in the family metal finishing business. She is married, with one daughter, and lives in Gloucestershire. Alison has been widely published as a poet. Her Carcanet collections include Dreams of Power (1981), Breaking Ground (1984), Christmas Roses (1988), Selected Poems (1991), 1829 (1995), After Beethoven (2000) and Bricks and Ballads (2004). Her latest collection from Carcanet is Then (2013). Her poems have been included on BBC Radio 3 and 4, and 1829 was produced by Julian May for Radio 3. Her work has won her a Cholmondeley Award.
Yes, I saw Hezekiah Brown,
a tall man, stately, with one eye.
The shrapnel took it in the war,
the Great War. But he fought on, by
my grandfather, a gamekeeper
who would have shot him for a hare.
Fifty years on, he drove along
our village edge, his skewbald mare
hauling small scrap on a loose rein.
They stopped ten yards from the front door,
by wind-blown fuchsias, raspberries.
How had he learnt that Frank lived there?
And when we drove first to the sea,
my father gestured to a place
a green shelf by a small quarry,
quiet no man’s land, sufficient space,
caravan, horse. Here Hezekiah
drove back to wife, high fires, then snored
like my grandfather, safe beneath
his Council roof. Fifty years more
we may own mortgages, a car,
send others’ sons to distant war,
swim heated seas, keep no room for
one horse, cropped grass, now we are poor.
Published in Agenda, broadcast on Genevieve Tudor’s Sunday Folk programme, Radio Shropshire, 2014