Monday, 21 March 2011

The Cardinal Strikes Again

CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

I can’t remember when I first received a pamphlet of poems from Pete ‘Cardinal’ Cox. It must have been some time after I met him (for the first and so far only occasion) when Gail-Nina Anderson and I were between trains at Peterborough. Gail-Nina, a mutual friend, introduced me to the poet and he took us on a fascinating guided tour of the Cathedral, which is the last resting place of such interesting characters as Catherine of Aragon and E.G. Swain (author of the Stoneground ghost stories).
            Since then I’ve received a steady stream of poetical effusions from down Peterborough way. Some are a bit spooky, some are more of the sci-fi persuasion (with a generous helping of steampunk) and some are a bit hard to classify.
            The latest, Cabinet of Curiosities, is a tad kinky for a staid old buffer like myself, but all the more refreshing for that. Nothing like a touch of burlesque to clear the tubes out following a long and stressful winter. The collection is dedicated to memories of Nancy Cunard (check her out, Googlers), Ethel Grainger (‘corsetrix extraordinaire’) and Eve Goddard (‘purveyor of boots in Fitzwilliam St’). Oh, and also to ‘Twentieth Century Atriarchs of The Vestry’, which seems to be a high fashion reference and as such several light years above my cheaply-tonsured head.
            But I get the poems. They’re about sex, like a lot of poems, and about history and politics. The footnotes are (as always) fascinating. Thus we find that the John Symington factory in Peterborough made German style corsetry and once produced a bespoke foundation garment for Margaret Lockwood. But – lest you think this is all about Carry On-style titillation – the poem thus annotated, ‘Hardware’, is clear-sighted about the thuggery within marriage that was once socially acceptable.
            That thuggery outside marriage is still prevalent is the theme of ‘Women Who Stand on Deadend Street’, with its young prostitutes who ‘have not yet forgotten how to smile’ and men who ‘mistake trade for intimacy’. Lest you think the blokes are having all the fun, there’s also the traumatised war veteran of ‘Some Men Walk With Tigers’.

The rage comes on, as does a storm
Breaks sudden on a summer night
Thunder, lightning and its raindrops
And he’ll be searching for a fight

Moving into the theatre itself, hilarity is not especially close with ‘As Long as we make them Laugh’ and ‘Black Milk’, both examining the far from simple or cosy relationship between performer and audience. ‘Cinderella’, with its disabled striptease artist, approaches the same theme in a different and arguably more disturbing way – what is acceptable, what is political, what is live entertainment supposed to be?
            Humour is here, but always of a very Gothic black. So in ‘An Agony Aunt Replies’ women are advised to dispense with unwanted husbands by feeding them enough sugar and cholesterol to shorten their lives rather drastically (‘The way to a man’s heart attack is through his belly’). ‘Tales the Scarecrows Told Me’ recalls the little-known (to me, anyway) later life of S&M brothel Madame Lindi St Claire, who apparently bought an old manorial title. But the poem owes more to the League of Gentlemen than the tabloids’ rather jolly Miss Whiplash – ‘check the farmer’s prize sausage meat’, indeed.
            It’s not just sex, sex, a bit of cannibalism and more sex – though it is mostly sex. There are some timely sideswipes against the people who really f*cked us over at an exorbitant cost, the bankers. And it is indeed odd that the most blatant thieves and most shameless fornicators are the respectable citizens who end up warming their fat posteriors on the red leather benches of the Lords. Decadence, indeed.
            Overall this is a rather bleak collection, but there’s something to be said for facing the times head on and refusing to indulge in that old ‘keep smiling through’ bullshit that serves the rich and powerful so much better than anyone else. And, as the final poem reminds us, those of us who are not rich and powerful can always turn to the one reliable friend who’s never going to play you false:

‘The Devil doesn’t take a tithe of your wages
The Devil hasn’t oppressed you all down the ages
The Devil doesn’t care if you fight in his name
And Devil will not help you win any game’

But I’ve heard he is in the details.

If you'd like a copy of the pamphlet, send an SAE of reasonable size (C5) to:

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough
PE2 5RB

or email the poet himself:

cardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk

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