High on Rust: Ray Webber, Tangent
Ray Webber is an anarchic ex-postman from Bristol, an artist, writer, thinker and drinker, who has published his debut collection of poetry at the age of 93.
His poems are generally short and weave from hallucinated absurdism to gutter realism with echoes of Bukowski and Ferlinghetti and occasionally the whimsy of a Patten, although the poet who changed his life is TS Eliot. He challenges form, uses cut-up, writes in dabs and licks of paint If his poems have a theme it’s not about the unfairness of life but the absurdity of living. It’s not just that the emperor has no clothes, it’s that the whole universe is starkers.
Words like beat, anarchic, irreverent and iconoclastic come to mind without doing much justice to the poems themselves. Webber is a painterly poet. Sometimes you have to stand well back to see the picture. He can do the straight autobiographical work, backfilling the stories of a poverty-stricken childhood in Bristol, but there’s always a twist in the throat or tail which saves it from mawkishness or self-pity. He has an impressive working class pedigree complete with a Communist Party organiser father, and a superstitious Catholic mother. Of his father’s reaction to his younger sister’s early death he says:
My father took to reading strange books
Late at night-awesome volumes.
He became a grim fanatical preacher
Of an optimistic futurist doctrine
And none of us
Lived happily thereafter.
Webber is clearly not interested in conformity or dogma, whether from right-wing or left. In ‘Essay on Symmetry’ he thoroughly challenges the pillars and pediments of the establishment and the price that is paid for challenging orthodoxy:
I see you’ve got your jackboots on
So you stamp down hard on my right foot
And stamp with equal force on my left foot
Now stand back - admire your work.
You’ve done a tidy and symmetrical job.
It’s a world that’s advancing backwards while still making a virtue of consistency. Ray Webber’s portrayal of his part of that world is readily recognisable to cider house drinkers, to late night thinkers, to abstract painters, to consumerist sceptics, to religious nihilists. Crazy and chaotic, pointless and without meaning? Maybe, or just a parallel universe to that sold by the advertisers, by the media, by politicians, the elect. He is a man burdened with words, a man who wishes he could stop, who would be happy just to stay silent if he could, hauling the English language around like a blinding headache, self-deprecatingly The Modernist Poet.
I subscribe to the asymmetric principle. The sight or sound of regular metre or rhyme is enough to curdle my face ... I’m the poet who abhors the poetic. I’m the poet who epitomises the self- lacerating paradox of being an anti-poetic poet.
But it wasn’t always like that.
While the trains were running on time
to the gas chambers
I was swooning over Shelley and Keats
And longing to go insane
With a beautiful smile
And share a cup if suicide with Juliette.
(‘Goodbye to Sigmund Freud’)
Maybe the war hardened his view, and eradicated any vestige of romanticism. This is conjecture. One of the few realistic observational narrative pieces ‘Odds-on forever’ describes a heroic action following the strafing of civilians in Salerno in 1943: “we all dive for cover, except two guys, the quietest in the outfit who dash to help the injured … I can still bring their faces clearly before me. I can think of no reason why they should remember mine.” He has lived long enough to see the transformation of revolt into style more than once, and see progress confused with consumption: “the western world’s belly / which was quite unremarkable in those days / is swollen now to a gross and critical mass. (‘The bare bones autobiography’)
He’s not interested in taking potshots at specific people institutions, organisations, events. He just rails against everything in general. His longevity and ripened intellect flies in the face of political correctness. “Just come down and read your poems at Age UK, Ray.” I don’t think so.
If you come round again
We may talk about gurus
And the new politics of correctness
Flourishing in so-called democracies.
Never married, he talks of an early childish love lost to a question of jackets and trousers because “I was losing shape, togged out, as I was in sorely bedevilled delusions”. He feels suicidal for a week “then the high voltage of pride kicked in and I ignored her-and her mother-forever after” (‘Something about her’) And later when the breach was healed and relationships formed there is the self-deprecating rationale for inevitable relationship failure and the throwaway line: “when asked why I never married I jokingly reply … .you know how it is, there’s always some small matter that completely slips one’s mind”. (‘Joker').
Paeans to cider house drinking and rolling a fat one describe a Rabelaisian lust for honest self-destruction. At 93 Webber must have slowed a little after a lifetime denying the health fascists. As he says, we all test positive for mortality. But he sees life as too important to be taken seriously and self-deprecation as a necessary tool for letting the air out of the windbags we become. And there is the paradox of not just survival but continued appetite and zest, for someone who has lived life as they chose to live it, not as they were told to live it, and proving them wrong.
Suddenly rust became the currently beautiful thing.
Oh the vehemence and bizarre eloquence
Of rust’s opposition to a long and healthy future.
(‘High on Rust’)
He is a one-off. The publication of High on Rust will challenge his own conclusion that:
you stick around long enough -
will accrue and
whether you’re fatter or thinner
you’ll know what it’s like to be
before you have
The poems in the collection have been selected by poet and musician Steve Bush, and date from the mid-1970s to the present day.