Sammerthwaite & the Art of State
Sammerthwaite, the ancient poet, whose sole verse collection, Batting Average, might just be found by the determined bibliophile in the more murky corners of Charing Cross Road or Cecil Court, was alive. That fact alone would have surprised most literary scholars – at any rate the rare ones who could recollect his name. They would have expressed further mild surprise to discover this relic of minor literary interest was submerged in Purley, that mock-Tudor arterial two-road town, twenty minutes due south of Victoria on a fast train, where he lived in reduced circumstances, still wrote, and cogitated on selling his letter from TS Eliot.
One thing that would not have surprised those literary students who remembered him, was that Sammerthwaite was poor.
But, though the days when he rampaged through London literary parties were decades behind him, he was alive, and, as old people are obliged to, was drinking bad coffee in a church hall. He sat next to an old man, who was nearly asleep. As ever, he composed idly:
In old age, why do we lurch
To the United Reformed Church?
En masse we make a target for God’s broom
To sweep us from this anteroom
The black rag sniper picks us off
As we prepare our chicken broth
Or starts the canker in our belly
As we browse the daytime telly
A female “organiser” approached Sammerthwaite and handed him a flyer.
‘You may find this interesting,’ she observed. ‘It’s an arts debate.’
‘That means there’ll be wine,’ said Sammerthwaite, who, the organiser noted, smelled mildly of drink.
‘It’s to do with the Prime Minister’s visit, I think,’ she said.
‘That abominable Scotchman,’ said Sammerthwaite in a serious voice. He had no love for Scotland.
He could get by reasonably well for an old man with no savings, but when he was spendthrift with his pension money he often dropped in on various church coffee mornings for the free food. He was thin and had little appetite, which was helpful in the long run.
The flyer interested him for reasons other than just free wine. He had long noted newspaper stories and gossip about the Arts Council and its lavishness with money. For some time Sammerthwaite had resolved to pry money from that organisation, by hook or by crook. He noted the name on the back of the flyer: Jo Grippe, Arts Coordinator.
He left the church hall, invested in a brandy miniature and headed for the council’s offices, in nearby Croydon.
Since falling out of the literary scene in 60s London (his last grand party had ended violently when he attempted to teach an important publisher’s wife how to play ‘Nelson’s Eye’) Sammerthwaite had had many dealings with the council. He knew its landscape, physically, bureaucratically and politically. So it was with ease that he avoided the front desk and was soon knocking on Jo Grippe’s door in the Culture and Leisure department. Ms Grippe proved to be a large, ruddy-faced woman aged about 27.
‘Who are you? How did you get in here?’ she demanded.
‘We spoke a few weeks ago.’
‘Did we? I don’t remember.’
‘Yes, we did, at the library cinema. You gave a talk before that film about the lesbian chickpea and millet collectives in sub-Saharan Africa. I found it most moving.’
She softened. ‘My talk or the film?’
Sammerthwaite had in fact spent the night in question drinking pints of Ganges bitter and playing pontoon in his local, the Fighting Temeraire. Luckily he’d spotted a poster for the event near Jo Grippe’s door.
‘I’m sorry but I don’t remember speaking to you, but it was a great night. What was it you wanted to talk about?’
Sammerthwaite explained about the flyer.
‘You’re a poet? Cool. Basically, the Prime Minister wants to build bridges in this area with his visit. We want to basically show off the diverse range of artistic activity here: like hip-hop, filmmaking, rap, parkour, street dancing, graffiti art etc. Did you have any ideas for a contribution?’
‘I thought I might recite some Tennyson.’
Jo Grippe’s phone rang. ‘Fucking ’ell,’ she said looking at the number, ‘it’s the mural woman again. She never leaves me alone.’
She picked up the receiver. ‘Jo Grippe.’
There was a long pause.
‘Look, Annunziata, basically we agreed on the content and design weeks ago: giraffes, elephants, children holding hands, map of Africa, fish and the fight climate change and racism logo. Also ‘vibrant’ and ‘diverse’ spelled out (I know you can’t do letters but I’m getting someone for that). You can’t just put Gandhi in it because you saw something on TV about him last night…actually, yeah you can. It’s quite a sweet idea. Steve Biko as well? Who’s Steve Biko? All right, OK, do that.’
She put the phone down. ‘Well, Mr Sam – Mr, I don’t think I’ve got anything for you really.’
‘I don’t mind what I do,’ said the poet; ‘I could do some of my own if you want. I’m writing a huge poem about 20th century history.’
‘I really don’t think there’ll be time. Give me your number and if anything comes up I’ll ring you.’
Jo Grippe had risen and was gently propelling Sammerthwaite out of her office.
‘I’m living in poverty,’ said Sammerthwaite as piteously as he dared.
That word seemed to have great impact on Jo Grippe. As they stood in the doorway she fixed him with her eyes. ‘Basically, I will help, if I can.’
'Poverty,' tittered Sammerthwaite as he rode the lift down to the ground floor. 'Moral poverty more like,' he growled in a fruity colonel's voice.
As Sammerthwaite walked home he found himself near the pedestrian underpass, a series of gloomy concrete trenches illuminated by sallow electric light 24 hours a day. This, he remembered, was the location of the mural. He walked down the ramp. Many schoolchildren ran about screaming while a young woman wearing a mauve pashmina drew Gandhi on the wall. Sammerthwaite stopped by her ladder.
‘That’s a good likeness.’
‘Thank you,’ said Annunziata. ‘What a man.’
‘Indeed. You know what Nehru said about Gandhi?’
‘He said, “it cost a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty.”’
Annunziata laughed shortly and uneasily. Sammerthwaite doffed his cap and walked on.
‘Who’s Nehru, anyway?’ said Annunziata to herself.
Sammerthwaite poured himself a reviver.
Nothing from the art of state
Another glancing smart from fate!
The phone rang. It was Jo Grippe.
‘Hi, hi; like, basically, I have got something for you, Mr Sammerthwaite.’
‘Ah, excellent. What is it?’
Jo Grippe told him.
‘Will I be paid?’
‘A hundred quid, basically.’
One hundred pounds!
On the day of the Prime Minister’s visit it was observed that an old man, dressed as a Highland Scot from the time of Culloden, was in and out of the pubs in the town centre, drinking a lot of gin. It was also observed that the man in question was not Scottish.
After the Prime Minister’s party had been shown round the Town Hall, the Library and a bit of the local shopping centre (where an egg missed him by inches) and had sampled some rap, some parkour, some street dancing and some graffiti, Jo Grippe stood up in the Mayor’s Parlour and announced that, in honour of the Prime Minister’s home country, there would now be a short history of Scotsmen in Croydon accompanied by traditional music.
In came Sammerthwaite, his tam o’ shanter set at a rakish angle and with a very perceptible stagger. He was followed by another man dressed in Scottish national costume and carrying bagpipes. Jo Grippe was alarmed to see Sammerthwaite had no notes. There followed a long moment of silence as Sammerthwaite’s rheumy eyes ranged across the audience. He belched quietly. Someone tittered.
Then the bagpipes began.
Instead of advancing to the microphone to recite the history of Scotsmen in Croydon, the poet began to dance an unsteady highland fling.
After a while, the bagpiper was prevailed upon by Jo Grippe to stop playing. Sammerthwaite stopped dancing, drew a toy sword and spoke in to the microphone: ‘“Wee, sleekit, cowrin, timrous beastie!”’
The Prime Minister smiled uneasily and, with prompting from an aide, got to his feet. Political minders moved towards Sammerthwaite, who yelled, in bloodcurdling stage Scottish ‘“O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!”’
The microphone was suddenly switched off. The Prime Minister moved away.
‘Tha need na start awae sae hasty!’ shouted the poet in a drunken boom. ‘Hey, you,’ he continued, ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!’ Sammerthwaite darted forward as he said this and poked the Prime Minister’s belly with the sword. He was quickly surrounded and dragged away. ‘“Wi bickerin’ brattle!”’
And the Press, as they say, had a field day.
Jo Grippe giggled in her office. ‘Basically, it’s bang out of order, BUT, you put us on the map! I’ve seen myself on the news on all channels. Everyone seems to think that publicity of this sort is good. So no harm done, basically. By the way, here’s a council leaflet on alcohol abuse: you can’t be too careful at your age.’
‘So I’ll still get paid?’ asked Sammerthwaite nervously.
‘You would have done anyway. Rules are rules.’
Sammerthwaite stopped at the pedestrian underpass on his way to the pub. Gandhi was gone. Annunziata was painting over him.
‘What’s happened to old Gandhi?’ asked the poet.
‘Not relevant enough, apparently. They want Barack Obama instead.’