There is an England: Harry Gallagher, Stairwell

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Harry Gallagher is a poet who grew up in Middlesbrough and now lives on the North Tyneside coast. He is a very popular poetry figure in the north-east, and also a singer-songwriter and playwright.  He has published a number of poetry collections, and is also involved in various local community projects, including the monthly online magazine Up!, which he edits with his wife Bridget.

Up!’s ruling philosophy is community and positivity. That is also the feeling you take away from Gallagher’s latest collection There is an England (Stairwell Books), despite his warning, expressed in the introduction, that the country has “misplaced its sense of identity”.  His final sentence in the introduction says that the poems in the collection represent “a plea for its people to  … recognise that the things which made the nation great – a sense of fair play, decency and tolerance – are worth far more than seem currently fashionable”.

He is certain, for instance, about the identity of the “chipped and scavenged” North (‘Longview’):


     We Danelaw children,

     sons and daughers of the trod,

     are forged from such stuff

     as cannot be dreamt of.

     Today or tomorrow

     hope will prevail.


An example of his communal vision can be seen in the poem titled ‘Unskilled’:


     She is not unskilled,

     she is full of humanity,

     she deals with it daily –

     the blood and shit of life

     in all its dark glory.


Positivity and community also mean solidarity. Gallagher tells in ‘Mr Robeseon Sings for His Supper’ how Britain’s miners welcomed the great singer Paul Robeson to their clubs and halls after he had suffered from McCarthy’s witchhunts in America.

Yet in a sorrowful villanelle titled ‘From Peterloo to Tolpuddle’ with the refrain “we read the press, know what to believe”, Gallagher also sees England’s working class led astray by the media: “So when our chance came, we ticked ‘Leave’ … we love our country so chose to disgrace her.”

This is what I think Gallagher means when he pleads for a return to “fair play, decency and tolerance”. Predictably, he has no time for the ‘Bullybird’ that may have gone now, but has left a great deal of mess in its wake.

By contrast, ‘Echoes’ sees Gallagher at his most lyrical, extolling the delights of a seaside town out of season, and conjuring up its past, too, “lobster-potting fishwives / and their latenight talk / over candlelit nets / needles and knuckles, / ganseys and fishhooks”. ‘Love in Winter’ celebrates the companionship of older couples:


     It’s in the peeling of potatoes,

     the scrubbing of the pans,

     kindness in the silence,

     the odd squeeze of a hand  


There’s an affectionate portrait of a teacher who’d been a soldier and seen the ruins of Berlin at the end of the war: “Now remember, boys and girls, / when times are tough, money tight, / blaming scapegoats is never right. Great in lessons, Mr Byrne.”

And here’s a twinkle in the poet’s eye with his ‘Instructions for Would-Be Poets’:


     You don’t have to use quatrains,

     poetry is not all 4/4 time,

     but do it anyway. Throw in

     an annoying, obvious rhyme.


Gallagher’s world and humour also encompasses eccentric curiosities such as a nana who passed on her voice to her budgie, when she herself passed on, telling how the bird “rehoused / spoke up and returned / the old lady’s voice / across the living room / at the ears of her daughter, / like a wrong ‘un from / a wily spin bowler” (‘Flown’).

The title poem is unashamedly nostalgic, celebrating the best of England, his England, of


     handholding old couples,

     ramblers, amblers, schoolteachers,  

     cooking fat splashed forearms

     wrapping lunch in fish and chip

     paper gone stale, unread


Best leave some of those papers unread, perhaps? Better to read instead Harry Gallagher’s gentle but persuasive and entertaining poetic manifesto, laced with humanity and humour, written by a poet concerned about the state of his beloved country.  


Harry Gallagher, There is an England, Stairwell Books, £9






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