Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Breviloquent power: ‘House on the A34’ by Philip Hancock

Richie McCaffery

House on the A34, Philip Hancock’s second collection with CB editions, is a book of breviloquent but powerful poems, carefully constructed with a craftsman-like attention to detail about the neglected and the interstitial. Take, for instance, the proud but also poignant character study of ‘Old Bruce’:

Holding up traffic
by walking in the road,
still testing the tarmac
with his heel.


No one knows where he lives,
just the job he used to do.

These are poems that are vitally working-class and speak to the experience of the modern wage-slave, torn between long days of graft and a few precious hours of leisure time, as in the transformation scene of ‘Knocking Off’:

And though my head throbbed with paint fumes
that would take hours to lift,
my mind useless, I knew how it felt
to be given the eye, to be called Sir.

Time and again, Hancock’s poems succeed in finding a glint of the miraculous in the mundane, the profound in what a more facile poet might just see as the pedestrian. In ‘Dummy Drawer’ we are shown the gentle domestic absurdity that connects us all in the purely decorative drawer that ‘you still keep on trying’ and this itself has a much wider, almost Sisyphean resonance. It would be wrong and reductive to say these poems are about blue-collar solidarity of ‘the man’ against the managers, but they are certainly full of empathy for those who often go unheard or ignored by the powers that be:

They’ve seen lizard on the town hall and want lizard but
lizard’s not down on this scheme. They’ve looked after
one another and this house since the war and leave us a
drink and biscuits on the coalbunker. Once the Contracts
Manager’s been and gone, we might make an exception.

(from ‘Contract Colours’)

Perhaps a little bit of context is needed here: these poems are drawn directly from Hancock’s personal experience as a painter and decorator, often working contracts for the local council. It’s little surprise that colour, and the often pretentiously incongruous and contrived brand-names for copyright colours, feature prominently throughout. In ‘Exhibition’, a tin of paint-mixing sticks is referred to as ‘an accidental Giacometti’. The colour scheme that decorates this collection at times seems in defiance of what a privileged bystander might consider drab and grey lives. Opening a tin of paint, we see that the residue on the underside of the lid (something most ignore) ‘could make the difference’ and this seems to me a metaphor for the importance, validity and undeniable value of the experience of the overlooked and the downtrodden. There is a deflationary aspect to the poems, of the speaker taking down their (in this instance prejudiced) superiors a notch or two:

he’d band on about the cost of decent brushes,
that he was doing us a favour, accused us
of using them on foreigners or at home,
studied our faces as though we were strangers.

(from ‘Brush Exchange’)

And in ‘Calculation’ self-interested parsimony gets the treatment it deserves:

Bill always gave Chad a lift.
Wouldn’t take a penny.

Your new double glazing looks well, Chad,
Stanway mentioned one lunchtime.
And next day – Chad couldn’t work
it out – Bill just drove straight past.

Although Hancock’s speaker tacitly attacks instances of class betrayal and subverts the authority of his bosses in these poems, he is also very generous in praising his fellow confreres for the assertion of their pride and identity. In ‘Signature’ the speaker is struck by a worker who signs for his wages in fountain pen and the resonant ambiguity of ‘The Caretaker’s Mug’ which is ‘Never scoured, stronger than yours’. Is this referring to the mug itself, the brew it contains or perhaps the owner of the mug, who is made of stronger stuff?

The title poem, too, is haunting in its possible polysemic readings. On the surface it is simply an insignificant observation, a driver notices someone trying to cross over a dual carriageway (the A34) on foot but so much is said by the poem for the poet not saying it:

waiting for a gap
in the traffic – car after van
after truck – and already

you’ve passed on, pressing on,
and he’s left behind you
paused, still poised to cross.

There are many potential existential layers of meaning here – the mass building of new houses without any thought or provision for infrastructure (especially in poorer areas); our pressured and time-governed lives that seem to just fly by; our lack of care for those not travelling in our direction. Yet, Hancock’s speaker notices this man enough to make a deeply and powerfully multivalent poem out of moment. The great triumph of this collection is Hancock’s ability to see and relate to people many poets, politicians, managers would prefer to airbrush out of the picture. But the worth, identity, humanity and self-esteem of this cast of characterful and distinctive players comes through like the grinning of the undersurface of new paint no matter how many layers of gloss.