A Suggestion as to How Many Times to Knock Before you May Possibly Get an Answer,
(oil on wooden panel / reclaimed wood / metal / found objects: ceramic monk & couple, wooden dog, metal St. and donkey, glass, concrete fruit, 26″x17″x4″)I went to that london once
When I was fourteen I jumped a train with a friend;
he was going to see a member of the house of lords
who both his nan and mum had cleaned and whored for.
I was just going along for the ride. I thought
I could capture the black and white world
of the soho backstreets with a plastic camera.
When we met up again on that last train
I didn’t tell him about being an extra
in a japanese film, or about being hooked
outside a fleapit by a girl with bruised legs.
And he didn’t tell me much about the Lord,
just that he was 73 and dead soon anyway.
We looked out of different windows then,
as the lights of all those small towns passed by._____________John C. Nash
Review by John Johnson
This narrative poem tells the story of two boys who jump a train, one “going to see a member of the house of lords,” the other, the narrator, “just going along for the ride.” The two meet up again on the last train, and we learn that the narrator probably didn’t “capture the black and white world of the soho backstreets” with his plastic camera, though he became “an extra in a japanese film,” and got “hooked outside a fleapit by a girl with bruised legs.” What we learn about his friend, whose “nan and mum had cleaned and whored for” the lord, is potentially much darker. All the friend says about the lord is “he was 73 and dead soon anyway.” Did he kill the lord? Did he decide not to kill him, since he’d be “dead soon anyway”?
The mood of the poem is matter-of-fact: a man recounts a trip taken some time in the past. His language—syntax, diction—is casual, straightforward. The use of the lower case for “london,” “house of lords,” “japanese,” and “soho,” creates a kind of deflation. Cities, institutions, peoples are brought down to the same level, an effect that carries over to whoring and cleaning. Here, the structure of the sentence as well—”had cleaned and whored for”—which suggests that the narrator sees these two ‘services’ as being not much different from one another, helps create the emotional and moral flatness in the poem.
Even now, no doubt many years later, the narrator appears not to know for certain if his friend killed the lord, though if he did, the narrator isn’t blaming him. About whoring himself, we know that the narrator was “hooked”—an exchange that usually requires mutual assent—and that the experience was not particularly positive, especially for the girl who receives bruises for her labor. And we know that the narrator chose not to tell his friend about his whoring that day—probably wise, considering his friend may have killed someone who had been “whored for,” and at any rate might not be open-minded on the subject, given his mother’s and grandmother’s participation. Whatever the narrator or his friend are feeling, they aren’t sharing it, not with each other, and not with us—that is, not directly.
The poem progresses through four three-line stanzas, and finishes with a two-line stanza, suggesting, perhaps, that something has changed at the end. The boys have returned to the train where they began—the poem has circled back to its opening image. The reader, too, returns to first impressions. Why did the friend go to see the lord? Class differences are clear. The friend’s mother and grandmother not only whored for the lord, they cleaned for him. The boys do not pay for their train ride, probably because they can’t afford it. The narrator’s camera is not made of metal but of less expensive plastic. And the narrator has in effect denied the lord’s elevated status—and so brought our attention to it—by refusing to capitalize his title or his institution. It’s tempting to think that the friend has revenge in mind, both personal and socio-political. Whatever the plan, if there was a plan, it’s clear that the narrator was not involved in it: “I was just going along for the ride,” he says, an expression in American English, and I suspect in British English, too, that sounds a bit like shirking. Why wasn’t the narrator involved? Is he involved now, by the end of the poem?
The lines “I thought/ I could capture the black and white world/ of the soho backstreets with a plastic camera,” with that telling line-break after “I thought” (he thought wrong), tells us that the narrator enters this adventure with the ambition of an artist. He doesn’t intend to record, like a photo-journalist, but to capture, to possess and so to reveal something essential. But how can art (the poem may be asking) render in black and white the endless color—if only endless shades of gray—of soho or any other urban underbelly? In fact, the young artist’s project is doomed from the start. He doesn’t want to capture this world in black and white, he wants to capture “the black and white world of soho backstreets.” In other words, before he ever gets there he’s already seeing the world in terms of black and white.
Does something happen to the narrator at the end of the poem? Does he become “involved?” I think so. At the end of poem the narrator differentiates his perspective from his friend’s. “We looked out of different windows then.” The poem may be saying that, given the failure of art, this is the best we can hope for: to live life, accept one’s role as an “extra” in every passing stranger’s film, to realize we’re “hooked” by a world that bruises, and that we must develop perspective on it. One goes to that london only once because experience happens only once. Every experience of london is of a different london.
Then again, one might see the word “then” at the end of the penultimate line as suggesting that the narrator and his friend “looked out of different windows then” in the past, while now, in the present, their perspectives are not so different. Older and wiser, the narrator may be able to share his friend’s perspective. Were they to return to london—and, in a sense, the poem embodies a return, the kind of return effective art permits—he, the narrator, would not be “just going along for the ride.” This time he’d tell his friend about the japanese movie and the girl, and his friend would reveal something about himself, why he can’t say what he feels, how his family copes with the ruling elite and the impoverishment it imposes. All of which this poem reveals to us.