It can be gratifying to discover that some little thing one wrote long ago continues to be read. An unexpected message popped up recently on the Other Activities page of this website: a query from a Year 10 student who says she has enjoyed studying in her English class a poem called ‘Alfred and the Phone-Boxes’ and wanted confirmation that I’m the author. Indeed I am.
I guess she probably encountered it in an anthology of verse called Pattern and Voice, ed. John and Dorothy Colmer. Compiled for upper secondary students and first published by Macmillan back in 1981, that anthology includes several poems from an early (long-out-of-print) book of mine called Undercover Agent, which concluded with a group of light-hearted pieces about someone named Alfred.This imaginary figure comprises a bundle of contradictory moods and delusory dreams. At times, with a nod to a certain Anglo-Saxon king, he is ‘Alfred the Glum, blackener of cakes’; at times he becomes fretful and dejected, needing therapeutic support from a companion named Grace; at times he harbours wistful aspirations to an heroic role, with anticlimactic outcomes.
Several strands of memory came together in the process of writing ‘Alfred and the Phone-Boxes.’ Its origin, which became the end of the poem, was that I did once see one of those old red telephone boxes rise up suddenly into the air – and it took me a few moments to grasp the fact that it was actually being lifted by a crane, I suppose to retire it from its function in an outdated system of public-access communication.Attached to that bizarre image of a levitating phone-box was the character of Alfred himself. As a boy I’d feasted on superhero comics in which Clark Kent could turn into The Man of Steel (having found an unoccupied phone-box where he could don his resplendent costume) and Bruce Wayne could turn into Batman (after selecting a freshly laundered outfit of hood, cape and accessories from his wardrobe in the Batcave). I’d wondered what yearnings might pass through the mind of Batman’s uncharismatic butler Alfred.
And somehow entering the phantasmagoric scene were mixed memories of my own grandfather, a strangely erratic and obstructive man who was good with his hands (he built big stone walls and created a luxuriant vegetable garden) but became a bit demented and did a few seriously crazy things.
Although I take more pride in a number of my other verse compositions, the fact that poems about Alfred have been reprinted in three or four anthologies suggests they have some appeal. Anyway, here’s the one I’ve been discussing: