I first met Tony some ten years ago when we had neighbouring allotments. In the sunshine, wearing a hat, he could have passed as a French Impressionist painter. As well as his lined and crumpled features, he has a distinctive Lancashire accent. In his talk I glimpsed moments of ecstasy.
We talked over a lunchtime beer in mild autumn air outside the The Bowling Green in Otley where we both live.
He was born an only child in 1950 in the three-pub village of Ribchester in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire. His parents ran a small farm, but an idyllic rural childhood was destroyed by the death of his father when Tony was seven. ‘That knackered everything.’ His family were Roman Catholic. At the village RC junior school – fewer than 30 boys and girls – he learned his Catechism and believed all the Church’s teaching. He served on the altar at Mass and prayed often and devoutly.
Adolescence and puberty caused problems. ‘What a surprise!’ Life at home began to feel claustrophobic. ‘I was aware of my mother’s loneliness. She had expectations for me that I felt I would never fulfil.’
He abandoned his religion. Today he’d say ‘Of course God doesn’t exist: I talk to Him all the time’.
There were always jobs to do at home on the farm which his mother steered towards poultry production: feeding, egg-collecting, mucking out, killing, plucking, cleaning, and dressing birds for the table. Leisure time was spent in the activities that had occupied generations of farm lads before him: exploring the countryside, bird- nesting, taking the dogs out rabbiting and ratting.
He passed the 11+ and went to a grammar school in Blackburn where ‘For the first two or three years I didn’t fit in: it was awful’. He was a shy boy and knew nothing of the ‘engines and cars and all sorts of stuff that the 600 other boys knew about’. Luckily he was supported by an inspirational English teacher, Colin Wood, to whom his new collection, Narrow Ruled Feint With Margin, is dedicated. ‘He saw I was in difficulty: he found time to be patient and kind.’
Tony gained ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels and it was during his time as a 6th former that he started writing poetry. He admired the poetry of Andrew Young ‘for its sweet simplicity’ and was startled by e e cummings and William Carlos Williams. The Liverpool Poets – Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, and Brian Patten – came as a revelation.
He left school and found himself at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds – a teacher training college – studying English Language and Literature. He’d felt ‘hopelessly strangled in the village’ and had found somewhere close enough to visit his mother back in Lancashire yet far enough away to give him anonymity and freedom. ‘At college I learned to drink and was drunk for eighteen months.’
He walked away from the course and had to repay the grant which he did via casual labouring work. Later he went back to complete the course and qualify as a teacher. But he still hadn’t a clue as to what to do next. Almost by default he found himself doing teaching practice at a Bradford grammar school. Part of him wanted to be a Colin Wood – ‘useful at identifying and perhaps helping the kids who were a bit bewildered’. But he didn’t like staff-rooms and resented the time at home marking and preparing. When he finally qualified, he turned his back on teaching in search of work ‘where, at the end of the day, you don’t bring anything home’.
Something odd appears here. Between the ages of 22 and 50 he didn’t write any poetry. ‘But it wasn’t for want of trying. Nothing would cohere. Nothing rang true.’ He still can’t understand it.
And so began Tony’s career of all sorts of work of mind-numbing simplicity and repetition: ‘I was strong … burn up my energy … building sites … no stress on my brain … drink and drink and drink and drink … what I did all my life … jobs of that sort … Kirkstall Forge, assembling cardboard boxes in Wakefield, 12 hour shifts at a carpet manufacturer. Van driving was best … all round Yorkshire. And gardening work’.
He doesn’t enjoy English winters finding them too gloomy. ‘It’s when the fear and the doubt creep in.’ His solution is to visit India ‘for the colour and thrill and sheer unpredictability of it all’. He thinks one danger of living in the West is that we might grow to believe ourselves too individually precious and significant, whilst a visit to India is a great reminder that we’re only one small part of a tide in a vast sea of humanity.
Any regrets? ‘Dunno. It would have helped having a bit more sense. I drink less now than I ever did. More sorted out now than I ever was.’
Ambitions? ‘Carry on writing. For better or worse it’s what I’m meant to do. But I always knew that.’
Choose a poem for us from Narrow Ruled Feint With Margin. ‘The one I like to read in public is Tiggy Winkle.’ I suggested that it isn’t a poem that reveals his strengths and he replied that it pleases him because it attempts to explain how he would dearly wish to be a nature poet and that alone. ‘But things get in the way. Things rear their heads to scupper one’s plans.’
I expect you’ll have noticed
there haven’t been many good poems about hedgehogs recently
so here’s one.
Oops, I say though, hold on,
because no sooner has it got started
than it takes an unexpected turn
with the arrival of this bloke from Kwikfit
and his wife, who, when he’s out at work,
is having it off with a baker from across the road.
And the baker’s HIV positive
But nobody’s told him yet.
It’s his skin she loves,
It’s just so smooth and silky.
Well it would be, she tells her pal,
Working with all that flour …
Not like my Brian she says,
When he comes home and I undress him
Even his nob tastes of Duckams.
Brian fitted a tyre this morning
And balanced the wheel
That is racing towards the hedgehog tonight.
And the driver isn’t concentrating –
his mind’s on something else …
he’s in a hurry to meet a new lover, a baker.
It’s too late to brake when he sees the hedgehog
And something’s coming the other way,
it’s enormous, it’s an Eddie Stobart truck.
He’d like to swerve,
but there’s no room to manoeuvre … o
… and our little urchin’s out of luck.
So, there you are, see, like I said, easy,
poem about a hedgehog, a piece of cake.
He reads it in public ‘because it’s easy for the listeners to understand’. I suggested to him Why not choose a more challenging poem and read it twice? I chose …
The air hung wet: it clung around us
hot on our faces as the breath of an animal
gone with fever.
Best we could
we toiled in the fields till the storm broke
then we ran for cover.
Louisa got a nosebleed.
We stood in the barn, nothing to say.
We watched the crops go to ruin.
Such times, I wonder where he could be,
our lost boy, Sugden, who broke, I guess,
and ran right out one night barefoot, naked
into the black crackling hell of a storm same as this.
Makes you wonder what we are pitted against.
He’d be twenty.
Rips the heart out of a family.
We try not to remember.
Try to avoid his name.
Narrow Ruled Feint With Margin … poems by Boltini
Available at £8 from Otley Word Feast, 9b Westgate, Otley, West Yorkshire LS21 3AT
It’s more than a stocking-filler.