Fiends Fell by Tom Pickard

As I mentioned in my previous post on Morden Tower and its poets, when I was searching the local library catalogue for Tom Pickard’s works, “Fiends Fell” was the only book available. I knew nothing about it, but I took a punt and reserved it so I could perhaps get a feel for Pickard’s work. It was possibly not what I was expecting, but that didn’t stop it being a very marvellous read.

Pickard has been publishing since the 1960s, but I sense he’s always moved outside the mainstream. That may be because of his personality, inclination or the fact that he doesn’t fit into any convenient niche. “Fiends Fell” is a recent work from 2017, published by Flood Editions, Chicago; and it’s a bracing mixture of genres. Although published so recently, the introductory lines place the events it charts in the early 2000s, as Pickard refers to himself as being 56 and with an ended marriage. So the poet escapes, taking refuge in a high stretch of the North Pennine hills; and the book charts a year of the time he spent living there.

night blows up fast from the valley
dykes dissolve in thick fog
I follow my feet home

Lodging above a cafe, and sometimes helping out there, Pickard considers his past, his future, nature and the elements, and of course poetry. Prose sections are interspersed with short bursts of poetry, and the writer struggles to work in an attic which physically rocks and rattles when assailed by the elements. Often earthy, he wrestles with his lusts and also more prosaic matters of money. As I mentioned in my previous post, Basil Bunting suffered impoverishment in later life, and as Pickard deals with his bankruptcy as pragmatically as he can, it really does seem that it’s impossible to make a living as a poet nowadays (if it ever was…)

When I put my head out of the attic window all I saw was stars and the wind wrapped itself around my neck like a cold silk scarf.

The blurb likens the book to the Japanese Haibun, a mixture of prose and haiku, and it’s a format which is so effective here. The record of extreme weather, loneliness, the artistic urge and the need to make poetry is balanced with actual verse, slowing the reading down and allowing time for contemplation. It’s a wonderfully rich narrative and underpinning it all is the challenge and drama of living in extreme conditions, on what feels like the edge of a precipice when nature may sweep you away at any time. The wind is a constant presence, almost a tangible being from a fairytale; Pickard’s trips outside during the winter months remind you how precarious our existence can be and how extreme weather conditions can destroy us without pause.

In bed and a pack of winds are arriving at the windows. They pass by. They gather. They whine painfully, begging in.

If there is a pin-thin gap they will take it. If there is a wormhole they will snake it. If there are eaves they will heave.

Pickard uses the book also to explore autobiography, albeit in a fragmentary fashion. From what I’ve read, his early life was lively to say the least. He left school at the age of 14 and if the memoir elements here are to be believed came from a complex family background. Pickard’s grandson visits and bonds with the poet, offering a glimpse of a family life. But the poet is left alone again to wrestle with himself and the elements, as well as the state of the world. As befits a working class Geordie, he has a suitably scathing view of Britain and its class system…

We’ll never be a grown-up nation until we’re a republic – meanwhile we kowtow, fawn and flounce in search of favour.

Hovering over the book is the shade of Pickard’s dear friend, Basil Bunting; obviously a pivotal figure in the former’s life, at one point he reflects “I found a teacher of another kind, in Bunting”. He also calls him his mentor, and it’s worth remembering that Pickard was only 17 when he married Connie and they founded Morden Tower so it’s obvious to infer that he regarded Bunting as a father figure. Poetry is better off because of their association, which not only spawned “Briggflatts”, but also apparently informed Pickard’s work.

The Pennines, via Wikimedia Commons – einklich.net [CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0%5D

But I digress. Pickard survives the winter, and indeed the year documented in what he calls the “Fiends Fell Journal”. The book ends with a lyrical poetry sequence, “Lark and Merlin”, which convinces me I want to read more of Pickard’s verse. Because it has to be said that his writing is powerful and beautiful, and evokes vividly the intensity of living in such an extreme landscape. What happened to Pickard after the end of the Journal section of the book I don’t know; but there is a rumour online that the poet is working on “Fiends Fell 2” and if that’s so, I for one can’t wait! 😀

*****

As I mentioned in my previous post, I did borrow “Fiends Fell” from the local library. The best plans, etc, etc…. I loved it so much I ended up sending off for a copy of my own, so at one point there were two Pickards in the house:

The library one has now gone back, and I feel no guilt. This is a book I know I’ll return to, so I definitely needed my own copy! 😀