The Old Tunes



The Old Tunes by Alan Franks

Winner of the Petra Kenney Award, 2003. Judge, Andrew Motion

I left the east coast waves stacked up behind
The running line of dunes.
My great, or triple-great grandfathers’ tunes
Came reaching and breaching into my mind.
The sea lay long and deep over the dead
Settlements and the spent high-water marks.
To the inland side of this shallow bank
Of sand and marram-grass the pathway led
Beside enormous fields, beneath the lark-
Hung sky - or were they just some humdrum shanks  -
Towards the town. The air was high with heat,
The slack-pools on the warren
Floor and scrabbling plants gave out a foreign
Smell. The farms rehearsing for defeat
Were littered with the decomposing Fords
Of every generation, all the way
To 60s models with Farina fins,
Sans everything, and so completely gnawed
By rust and salty wind, their bodies lay
In flaky-thin and brown, untouchable skin,
And near them, in a scatter by the byre,
The differential gears
And teeth and body parts of earlier years,
Beyond all scavenging. Snagged on telephone wire
While rising on a sudden upward gust,
A piece of black and shining polythene
Was flapping like an outraged crow. Towards
The centre of the town the summer dust
Dispersed, a fairground shimmered on the Queens
Parade. The station’s destination board
Displayed a row of names that gradually lost
The endings of the right
Side of the map. The carriage, to my slight
Surprise, had filled with old boys from the coast
And round about, the greats and triple-greats,
With fiddle cases and melodeons,
And black-gapped mouths with pipe tobacco breath,
Hot suits of tweed in less than Sunday states.
The stud-holed belt that let the window down
Was like the ones that held them at the girth.
Back and back they went, beyond the time
I’d any thoughts about -
Not exactly carbons fainting out
But more a run of ever-loosening rhymes
So that the furthest one had hardly any
Echoes of the nearest; faces freed
By distance. Someone bowed a simple line
And in a blink his sound was one of many
As the rest surrounded him, the reeds,
The button-keyed accordion, the fine-
Tuned dulcimer, the pipe-and-tabor, all
Taking up the strain
And passing round the notes again, again
Until they wore it, sea-like, to a ball.
They played a Schottisch and a Waltz Vienna.
One of them, a father of mine for sure,
Could perfect-pitch his fretless mandolin.
Beyond this sound I heard a drop and then a
Drone of perished bellows, and once more
Could sense the early players’ presence in
The backroom of a period. The sound
Went dim, and as the land
Passed flatly by - the cuts, the levels and
The drains - and as the elongated mounds
Came up to meet the track or else flew out
Across the ground, they could have been the beds
Of severed lines, or earth-made river walls
Without much purpose in this almost drought,
Or causeways going where a trade road led,
Or Roman agger-banks, or else the small
Remaining strides of marching boundary dyke
For kingdoms lost below
The counties. Here the train began to slow
And climb into another country. Clouds like
Coals were gathering on a rim of hills.
The plain behind us silvered into dream.
A city simmered close. A fairground scene
Of railtracks in the sky was soon distilled
To chemical plant which piped and wound and steamed
As if that other state had never been. 
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