Book Review: 'Several Forms of Speech'
by Arnold Rattenbury.
Middlesborough: Smokestack Books, 2008,
ISBN 978-0-9548691-82, 56pp.
Were it not for the fact that English folk play scripts are invariably in rhyme, I could say that it is unusual for the Master Mummers website to review a book of verse. Poetry often comes in slim volumes, and this is no exception. Written by Arnold Rattenbury and published posthumously (he died in 2007), the Cropwell ploughboys costume on the front cover made it worth a closer look.
Rattenbury was evidently an interesting character. He was born in China in 1921 to missionary parents. After World War II, he was a committed Communist and radical cultural editor, with interests in theatre and of course poetry. He published seven volumes of poetry before this collection.
He started a new career later in life as an exhibition designer, and it was in this capacity that he made contact with the world of folk drama. While he was preparing his exhibition on "Clowning" at Nottingham Castle Museum in 1977, he tracked down a lost collection of traditional costumes belonging to the Folklore Society and originally gathered by T.F.Ordish in the 1890s. They had been evacuated to the Cambridge and County Folk Museum for safety during the blitz. The shirt from Cropwell, Notts., was one of these costumes.
The exhibition itself was fascinating and visually impressive. As well as the costumes, I remember the proscenium arch from a Victorian toy theatre scaled up to full theatre size, also the pleasant surprise of craning my neck into what seemed to be an ordinary display case to find the Salisbury Giant towering above me. It was appropriate, therefore, that a variant of this exhibition was later staged in Salisbury in 1979 under the title "The Dragon, the Monster, the Fool & Other Creatures".
So how does all this relate to his poetry? Poetry being a literary medium, it does not have to. However, Rattenbury's poems do include biographical motifs and personal reflections as well as themes from his political and professional interests. Thus we get the measure of the man.
This collection of Rattenbury's poems reveals the depth of his artistic expertise, and his observational perceptiveness. For instance, "Three Prentice Pieces", inspired by an encounter at a car boot sale, celebrates the scaled-down test pieces that craftsmen made to complete their apprenticeships, demonstrating master skills that employers no longer need. In a similar vein, six sonnets under the title "The Communist" give us an incisive interpretation of a painting by Evan Walters of a radical orator at a public meeting. In fact it is multiple interpretations, because Rattenbury shows how the same scene can be viewed differently depending on your point of view - some, for instance, seeing the speaker with outstretched arms as a sacrificial cruciform figure, while to others "he's more the athlete breasting a tape, or lover arms outstretched in welcome".
Many of the poems reflect on particular places or works of art, as in the previous example. These sent me hunting for more information in order to gain additional insight. Mummers turn up in his poem "Clown", in which he conflates impressions of folk drama and pantomime, and the transition between the two. Perhaps this poem will likewise stimulate others to come and explore folk drama.
The last poem, "Ysbyty Goffa", paints a vivid picture of time Rattenbury spent in the Community Hospital in Blaenau Ffestiniog towards the end of his life, and expresses horror at plans to close it down. The picture is all the more powerful, however, because Rattenbury's skilful choice of words encourages you to complete his scenes yourself in your mind's eye.
All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. It certainly made a pleasant diversion from the rhyming couplets of English folk play scripts.
Obituaries: Arnold Rattenbury: Realistic poet whose gifts found expression in words, exhibition designs and friendship
30th July 2007, p.31
[Online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2007/jul/30/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries, Accessed 24th Feb.2009]
Clowning: June 11 to September 4 1977: An Exhibition designed and catalogued for Nottingham Festival 1977 by Arnold Rattenbury
Nottingham: City of Nottingham Leisure Services, 1977
The dragon, the monster, the fool and other creatures: an exhibition designed and catalogued by Arnold Rattenbury for Salisbury Festivities 1979
Salisbury: Salisbury Festivities,