(available from Valley Press: http://www.valleypressuk.com)
It is a strangely ‘un-reviewerly’ thing to say in a review, but fundamentally, I just enjoyed this collection; plainly and simply on its own terms Alice and the North is a pleasure to read.
It is a 60-page collection entirely made up of prose poems that only once extend beyond a single page and it works splendidly. The central concept – and given my love of music and hatred, indeed pathological fear, of ‘the concept album’, I tread warily here – is that of “Alice” from Wonderland and the Looking Glass, taking us on a peripatetic and highly eclectic tour of many points North, not just within the UK, but also Norway.
This Alice is a slippery character, a shapeshifter of sorts, a not entirely reliable narrator, who moves through ages and histories effortlessly: there are joys to be had here and Caldwell plays with them with a lightness of touch and a precision, that is admirable. In the opening Alice and the Borders:
The North is a weaving bed, shifting sand…Alice is trying to draw the border…She’s looking for edges…sketches the smell of heather burning…and the black-faced ewes snaking through the gaps in Hadrian’s wall.
Alice repeatedly draws our attention to the natural world around her – early poems include Ferns and Voles, Rust and Nettles, Crab Apples, in this last one Alice squashes several bugs “her boredom treacle thick” – and to the all the ‘hard’ industries that made the North what it was for some 200 years. And of course there is ‘weather’.
In Congleton, “Alice grows in a bowl of wild-faced children” and notes the PE teacher who, “…downs whisky, then lets his practised root hang loose and wet in his pants. Skin tight. Living purple. His girls run up and down the hockey pitch, bruising each other’s ankles mauve.” She walks us through a childhood, pointing out things that may be of interest along the way: “Aunt Bertha is a walnut, dressed in jet and lace.” (St Anne’s on Sea, Western Border); she names things – class mates, Northern place names, birds or “nouns (that) fly over the mudflats” (Spurn Point, Eastern Border).
As she moves on from childhood, she becomes “...a puma padding up Corporation St, her pelt gleaming, soaked by days of rain”, dragging “her choke-chain through the car parks and cobbled back-to-backs“, admiring the chrome curves and stitched seat of a man’s Harley-Davidson (Harleys and Gasometers). Sliping apparently unnoticed into his house (Trespass), where she “…cleared the stairs with a jump, smelt the warmth of his motorway skin” and he woke to find “...his collarbone scratched. As she licked the salt from his clavicle, he lay quite still. Listened to her tuned-up engine purr.” Although a few poems later she is letting that lover go, “…that fucking American with his Harley and his Leica.“
She heads to The Far North; up the crinkled coast of Norway, visits Grieg’s house, encounters silence and a young Swedish man “with a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment stuffed in the pocket“, who “offered the possibility of sex.”
Back home she sees the floods at Hebden Bridge – winter in Heptonstall – and can’t resist the lure of Ted – she mourns the children murdered and left on Saddleworth – Plath and Armitage sneak a look-in – and there is Brexit and talk of Northern Powerhouses.
“Alice’s North is all pound-shops and chip-barms, three curries and rice please and fish supper Fridays; its Yemen-in-Eccles and Halal-in-Bolton, Hockney-in-Saltaire and Hepworth-in-Wakefield…” and it is wonderful.