Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, Fred and Blossom (Shoestring Press, 2013), 72pp., £9. ISBN 978-1-907356-75-9
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP3, October 2014]
Rarely has the précis of a collection of poetry done more to pique my sense of bafflement; billed as both ‘The Romance of Aviation’ and ‘The Slap of History’ told mainly through the story of early British aviators Fred and Blossom Miles, this collection initially appealed to me as a potentially intriguing mixture of biography, history and hagiography. The blurb states that the author ‘became attracted to aeroplanes when growing up near Heathrow airport’. I’m glad that this early experience inspired Bartholomew-Biggs to write aeronautical poetry, rather than doomed him to a life of tinnitus; this is a very fine collection indeed.
I haven’t often come across a book of poetry which ostensibly telescopes in so narrowly on a subject, or in this case, two individuals. Although Fred and Blossom is far from being so earth-bound as to deal only in biography, I think as an introduction to a life (or lives), it’s rather an elegant alternative to the earnest prose volume. Briefly, Fred and Blossom Miles were towering figures in the world of flight in the 1930s, meeting in the air, falling in love and, (following a divorce from Blossom’s then-husband), marrying, then setting up a small aeronautical design factory together, which developed into a successful, but short-lived business. The author reveals how Blossom, child of a thoroughly thespian family, helped to draw the brilliance from mechanic Fred, her first flying instructor, ‘opening his mind/ to hazy outlines’. The contextual milieu of class and period is deftly shaded in; one poem entitled ‘The Naming of Chaps’ details the ‘care required’ if that chap is a ‘Someone/ of wealth or with status or famous for games’, with ‘yard-/ length of pedigree – Inigo, Sefton or Percy’. Before meeting Fred, Blossom marries into the aristocracy and discovers ‘London is chillingly distant from Willingdon – / not in miles or minutes but units of ennui instead’. Fred, meanwhile, hangs ‘around the club house door […] to catch her when she left the chatter’. Bartholomew-Biggs makes us aware that there are shades of Lady Chatterley at play here:
a girl could go and lose her head
about some scruffy bounder –
not much more than a mechanic –
because he gives her flying lessons…
but Fred and Blossom’s romance is tenderly drawn rather than sensationalised (indeed, the above stanza is a spill of ‘flying clubhouse chatter’). I think there is a slight bias in the collection towards Fred, the ‘fuselage’ to Blossom’s ‘wings’, he self-doubting, ‘broad and blunt’, she optimistic and ostentatious, friends with anyone ‘who’s anyone in London Theatre’. The quieter, more pensive poems belong to Fred, whose initial mantra is ‘She should have been with someone else’, who ‘sails third-class to treat himself’. This is no damaging bias, however, and in fact Bartholomew-Biggs’s poetic generosity expands to a host of characters surrounding the titular couple, including, perhaps surprisingly, Blossom’s first husband Inigo, to whom some of the most moving phrases in the collection belong. ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ imagines Inigo’s terse response to Blossom’s desertion, but the reader can hear the choke behind each curt sentence: ‘I think you knew/ how true my love was./ My eyes said so/ and you are not blind’, ending desperately, ‘I am not without a fire inside me’. Even more affecting is the short verse, ‘Brothers (1)’:
When his brother was cut down
Inigo, the younger son, was pitchforked
upward, like a straw bale on a stack.
If he’d stayed lower down the rick, might Blossom
have slotted in more snugly at his side?
The imagery and the poem as a whole is movingly succinct and striking, and reveals Bartholomew-Biggs’s entirely human and sensitive approach to these small histories. This is expanded further in the slimmer second section of the collection, ‘The Slap of History’, intended to highlight the events ‘taking place “offstage” from [Fred and Blossom’s] private drama’. This includes snapshots from the private lives of Douglas Bader, Virginia Woolf and the Royal Family, always, of course, looping back to the theme of flight. Flying over London, Woolf thinks:
The City looked as empty/
as Marie Celeste;
but with binoculars I made out people’s
social grades by the hats they wore.
The collection manages both to sidle into these narrow alleyways of interest, while maintaining the forward thrust of Fred and Blossom’s story, from the height of their success in business and design to the decline and fall of their small empire in the Age of Technology. As such tangents happily illustrate, the reader never gets the sense that the sole impetus is to get that story neatly, chronologically told. Momentum, however, remains steady (it’s far too easy to slip into these mechanical metaphors with this collection), perhaps partly because the poet continually and assuredly varies his poetic form. If I continue (sorry) to imagine this book as an aeroplane, it definitely makes some bravura Red Arrow-ish feints and displays, which of course make the whole show more engaging. Rhythms buck and turn from one page to another, though always well controlled, and some poems are so slyly structured that I found myself double checking that I hadn’t missed a sestina. There are lively dialogue poems and others which take inspiration from newspaper articles, biographies and essays. This is all representative not just of skill, but of serious research and intellectual intimacy with the history of the period, further demonstrated in the very readable ‘Notes’ section at the back.
Despite the variety of forms, the writing itself is never flashy or bombastic; I like the way that some poems end unassumingly, but not abruptly, the small, understated cliff-hangers left dangling to be obliquely picked up either few or many pages later. This is how stories are best told. There’s just a slight risk of being too understated at times – some poems only resonated fully with me after a few re-readings, although Bartholomew-Biggs’s astonishing dexterity with words and language hums throughout. There’s playfulness but with added bite, for example in ‘Forthright Opinions’, taken, we’re told, ‘from a 1939 article by C.C Grey’. The original text warning against the ‘menace’ that is ‘the woman who thinks she ought to be flying a high speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital’. Bartholomew-Biggs jumbles and retools the paragraph into a piece of satirical absurdity: ‘we quite agree there are jobs men like to insist on a woman doing: to cook properly or to scrub her husband’s bomber’. Clever, too, is the way this poem picks up one of those subtle hanging threads mentioned above – in an earlier poem, ‘Blossom at the Drawing Board (2)’, Blossom, designing aircraft, grows ‘uneasy at her easel, fearing/ gender too might be a handicap.’
This is an absorbing collection which wears its impressive scholarship lightly, resulting in poems that are clearly and painstakingly crafted, and which should rightly be savoured by flying buffs and novices alike.