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.