England, his England: Harry Gallagher’s poetic plea for ‘decency’
He was constantly apologising – or maybe, mock-apologising – whenever a ‘political’ poem came up. But now and again they did. Popular north-east poet Harry Gallagher is passionate about … decency. It doesn’t sound a very passionate word. But in Harry’s hands and words, it is.
And here’s why. Harry’s faith in England – his England - was severely shaken by the Brexit vote. At the launch of his latest collection there is an england at The Bound bookshop in Whitley Bay, he explained how in the immediate weeks following the referendum in 2016, there was a spate of racist attacks, as if some people believed that the result of the vote gave them carte blanche to do what they liked to foreigners. A little taste of fascism on our streets. In ‘You Do Not Speak For Me’ he lists all the good things about his England:
Its voice is not scarbrous,
it is soft.
Its fingers reach down
to pick up the fallen,
brushing them down,
to hold them aloft.
Harry Gallagher has an infectious smile, and a face and expression that won him the part of the lion in his first audition after taking a performing arts degree in his early 30s. At the launch he read from some of his other collections, too, such as Northern Lights, said to be at one time the most borrowed book from Newcastle library, and Moulded From Ferrous, a selection of his earlier works that includes ‘Before the Fall’, about the essential loneliness of a gay colleague in a tough industrial environment who was included without comment by his workmates, but who nevertheless later succumbed to drink: “How a warm-eyed man / a confirmed bachelor, drowned on polite euphemisms.”
There were poems about childhood gullibility and steam trains; the inability of men to fully express their appreciation of poetry; and a Good Samaritan who rescued him from penury when his pocket was picked on a train, a fine example of his England (although, to be strictly accurate, it actually took place in Scotland).
Harry is also a singer and songwriter, and he had enlisted the help of fellow musician Gerry Beldon (who runs a weekly folk/acoustic session night on Wednesdays at The Brewery in Whitley Bay) on guitar and harmonica – or “gob iron”, as Harry referred to it – to interrupt the poems occasionally with music. They opened with Meet Me on the Corner, an enduring and endearing Lindisfarne anthem beloved way beyond Tyneside, and perhaps the most affecting anthem ever about drug-dealing. Another song was Ralph McTell’s moving England, about the pleasures of living in this country.
It’s a rare moment at a poetry reading - in my experience, anyway - that poets are asked for an encore. But Harry was, and he delivered two final poems, ‘We Are Each Other’, and a humourous attack on wasps, which proves that even community activists have the odd mean streak.
But his parting words were “this is about decency … that’s what the book’s about, really”. And the story that stayed with me was the one about getting the part of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. As Harry said, we do need leaders, but the right sort of leaders. He could well play the part of England’s lion. He’d do it a darn sight better than today’s imposters.
PHOTOGRAPH: GEZ KELLY