Poppies poem and Dunbar High Street in the 1950s

I’m working my way through this year’s Forward Book of Poetry and of course, as this is a selection of some of the best poems published in the UK and Ireland in 2014/15, there are many superb poems. I limit myself to reading 3 poems each day. Today, a poem leapt out and demanded that I read it three times and review it on this blog. The poem is Poppies in Translation by Sujata Bhatt and as the poppies are out in may garden, it’s topical. The poem starts “You tell us how in Romanian,/ the wild poppies growing everywhere/ are a living flame of love” (poet’s italics). The poet sees poppies as “a wildfire/by the roads” and in the countryside around here, you often see lines of poppies edging the road. “Wildfire” is apt description. The poem continues with the poet able to “simply feel/ the way their wild redness/ burns and reels” and she relates this to the fire of first love. Describing the poppies’ texture, the poet writes “I have seen crepe de chine, chiffon,/ how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” – an imaginative view of poppies apparently made of silk. Another striking image comes next “They could be Hindu brides,/ ripening in their red saris”. The poet goes on to argue that while in Romanian, poppies are seen as “a living flame of love”, in English the word “love” would not be used. Instead “In English, we say the poppies speak to us” and it is “their call that moves us”. This is an interesting interpretation, so the next time you see a vibrantly red poppy, is it calling to you or is it reminding you of first love – or something else? I’m an inveterate photographer of poppies especially the inside of the flower, what Bhatt calls “whorls of black filaments” and here are two examples. Inside the first one looks like a sea anemone and inside the 2nd one looks like a small tarantula.

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Poppy flower head

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Poppy flower head

I’m on a Facebook site called Lost Dunbar which deals with the history of my home town. I was always a reluctant Facebook member and I only use the site for my research i.e. I have turned down many requests to be friends, not because I don’t like the requestors but because I don’t have time to look at any more than the Lost Dunbar site. Recently, people have been posting pictures of Dunbar High Street in the 1950s and my local history research deals with the early 1950s period. The first photo below – click on photo to enlarge it – is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows shops that are no longer there such as Nelson’s the grocer’s (as it was always called). Secondly the cars on the street would now be vintage cars. The most interesting aspect of this photo is the appearance of the message bikes, the one on the bottom left is emerging probably from Lipton’s shop on the corner and has boxes on it. In Scotland, shopping is often referred to as going for the messages with messages meaning the good bought while shopping. Thus delivery bikes were called message bikes and those on the bikes were called message boys. I was a message boy for the Buttercup Dairy shop in the High Street when I was 12/13 years old.

Dunbar High Street 1950s

Dunbar High Street 1950s

In the second photo, what is most striking is the absence of cars on the High Street. Today, it is very difficult to park at any time on this same street. In the early 1950s, very few people owned a car in Britain – only 7% overall and in working class areas, this would have been much less. It may be hard for people today to understand but many people in the early 1950s had no expectation of travelling in a car, never mind owning one. Cars were very expensive and owned only by business or professional people or farmers in the Dunbar area. In my new book, there is a chapter on how people travelled in 1950 to see the whales stranded near Dunbar and one of the most interesting interviews I did was with a man who was 6 years old at the time and was taken to see the whales in the farmer’s car. He told me that going in the car – the farmer’s car! – was even more exciting than seeing the 147 whales on the beach, as they saw very few cars near the farm where his father worked.

High Street Dunbar 1950s

High Street Dunbar 1950s

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