It was Larkin who famously said in his poem Annus Mirabilis: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) -/ Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.” Teenagers for the first time were heard and given a glimpse of freedom, which as teenagers are wont to do, grabbed it by whatever they felt in reach, another person’s body, music, protest, and drugs of course. When I think about the first portrayals of the working class in the early 1960s in books and films, they are often rites of passage, where there is a clash of ages, with authority, and opportunity presents itself to our young confused adult protagonists.
Billy Liar does his eponymous best to escape the drudgery of northern working class life by playing on the fields of his mind as well as women he is in sentient contact with. Bumping up against his parents, grandparent, and boss, the wonderfully named Mr Shadrack. And at the end of the film, we so want him to leave with Julie Christie and go to London, but at the same time know that would undermine the film’s premise. Similar stories are told in such films as Taste of Honey, where Rita Tushingham fights with her drink-happy mother, gets pregnant by a black man, and is looked after by a gay man, which given the fact this was first written in 1959 by an eighteen year old Shelagh Delaney, four years before sexual intercourse was said to have begun, is remarkable. There is a wonderful line in the film from Murray Melvin, her ‘gay saviour’, when saying: ‘You need somebody to love you while you’re looking for somebody to love’.
I am reminded of this by Ian C Smith’s poem, Tropical Garden, where our narrator is just starting out on his picaresque life: ‘Fourteen, bored by uniform toil, lacklustre living,/ fled from family ruins to an unheated room,/ my aged landlady’s grousing voice trembly,/ baked beans on toast my plat du jour’. And he must work, now that he has his newfound independence: ‘Cleaning machines over a drive shaft/ perched bum on tin next to a spinning pulley belt./ An operator, wage inflated by piece-work,/ cajoled me into leaving his machines running.’ A good story is where things go wrong and we want to know how our subject takes on the challenge of life’s travails. ‘As I plucked oil-soaked thread from a gear/ its cycle changed, a cog crushed my thumb tip./ A shriek, tin almost toppling against that wicked belt.’ Thankfully health and safety isn’t what it used to be; but teenagers are more than ever challenged by the insecurity of this future, scrolling their way into adulthood – from dependence, to independence, to inter-dependence – hoping the travel scars won’t show.
Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in: Antipodes, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He lives in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, Australia.
Fourteen, bored by uniform toil, lacklustre living,
fled from family ruins to an unheated room,
my aged landlady’s grousing voice trembly,
baked beans on toast my plat du jour, no veggies,
more masturbation than mastication, lusting for life,
I rode the tram to work or saved a fare, walked,
straining city streets freighted with atmosphere.
Cleaning machines over a drive shaft
perched bum on tin next to a spinning pulley belt.
An operator, wage inflated by piece-work,
cajoled me into leaving his machines running.
As I plucked oil-soaked thread from a gear
its cycle changed, a cog crushed my thumb tip.
A shriek, tin almost toppling against that wicked belt.
A doctor swabbed oil from the mutilated nail.
Morphine uncompassed me, a boy in bloodied overalls,
trauma dressed, but still soporific,
refusing to budge, waving away the nurse
waiting to go home while I wafted in Shangri-La,
cascade glittering, butterflies flitting, tranquillity,
an opiate state like a corny movie, but believed.
Thumb tip smaller now, hard days done,
narcotics rife among the sad, the downtrodden,
hearkening so far to a boy dumped by fickle new love.
Thumb throbbing on the tram, irritation flared
due to my lost fling, that too brief ecstasy,
then my sick leave, pacing past the corner pub,
barrels unloaded, beery whiff, day stretching awake.