Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Poems from Oby, by George MacBeth

A few weeks ago I shared here my discovery that the tiny settlement of Oby in the Norfolk Broads had a dual literary heritage – the setting for Sylvia Townsend Warner’s superb novel The Corner That Held Them, and the home for a brief time of the literary couple George MacBeth and Lisa St Aubin de Terán. So, for poetry week I offer some views on George MacBeth’s collection of Poems from Oby.

George MacBeth, born in Scotland and educated in England, was a prominent poetic voice from the 50s until his death at the age of 60 in 1992. He had a parallel reputation in broadcasting as a producer of literary output on BBC radio. He was a member of the The Group, an informal collective of poets who shared an outlook on poetry and performance. MacBeth’s work was marked by a feeling for the pastoral, as well as a taste for the macabre and for nudging at taboos.

By 1979 he had left the BBC and was newly married to Lisa St Aubin de Terán, whose sensational literary debut was yet to come in the early 80s. They moved to the Old Rectory of Oby, and settled down with their baby son to restore the derelict house.

The collection is a strange mixture, of a life tamed, with a rather wild imagination not entirely curbed. It is structured around poems to Lisa at the beginning and end, that exude contentment and comfort, and another to her in the middle which is darker and more disturbing, and points (I think) to the mental anguish of her traumatic first marriage. There are poems in between these markers that are inspired by nature in life: Snowdrops, The Owl, in a kind of isolation, Five Horse Chestnuts; and death: Lament for a Fledgling [pheasant], The Hornet, and The Little Ghosts (a pair of hedgehogs). Katrine’s Kittens is the obligatory poem showing MacBeth’s celebrated love for cats.

Some of the poems revel in and despair of the ownership of a house, albeit derelict, and its history, and the land on which it stands: Ripping Up Lino, and Somewhere:

But outside, the long gallery
Of chestnuts rustles leaves

And the garden gives away
What the mansion chose to lose,
A sense of grand repose.
The stately lines of pride
From a rectitude of prayer

Are simplified to the shape
Of a summer’s afternoon
Where growth is an elegance
And people come to read
In the shadow of old trees.

Walking and loving these,
In the gentle wind and the heat,
May be all that remains to aid
Or obliterate the decay.
It seems so, this summer’s day.

However, along with the comfort and the sense of a homecoming and the distinctly Homes and Gardens feel of respectable home-ownership and ‘doing-up’, the disturbing still breaks through. At a country sale in a nearby town, the poet buys a box containing (among other things) 14 cut-throat razors, and writes 14 sonnets, one to each of them, more or less ominous. Women Who Visit muses on dysfunctional sexuality.

These poems are less infused with the East Anglian landscape, its contention of land and water and its enormous skies, than I expected. The exception, perhaps the most celebrated poem from this collection, is probably the uncompromising Yuletide in Norfolk, in which MacBeth famously explores the Viking heritage of this part of the east coast, that still shows in its place names, Oby included. He contrasts it with the tenacity of the Christian grip on the land, with its churches, monastic remains and Old Rectories.

The long-ships drove up the Bure, and the horned men were there to rape and to burn,
Seeding their names, Rollesby and Billockby, Fleggburgh, Clippesby and Thurne,
Ashby and Oby. Our church roofs came from the rot of each oak-warped stern.

(The whole poem can be found here.)

Do I love and recommend this book of poems? Not really. It is so very much of a time and a place, and my enjoyment of it was not greatly enhanced by the knowledge that MacBeth and St Aubin de Terán did not stay there above a handful of years, did not stay married, and that MacBeth’s life was cut short by motor neurone disease only ten years later. The extraordinary and slightly terrifying 80s author photo on the book cover, all voluminous hair, enormous moustache and aviator glasses, absolutely nails this collection to an era. (By the way, I can’t find this photograph online – I think it must have been ruthlessly suppressed, and no wonder.) The collection is out of print, and MacBeth as a poet is in that out of sight – out of mind place from which it remains to be seen if his reputation will emerge – and if it does, which poems from this collection will be treasured. However, I was passionately intrigued by Oby, loved finding out more about it in MacBeth’s company, and am happy to honour his contribution to its unlikely literary fame.

George MacBeth: Poems from Oby. London: Secker and Warburg, 1982. 67pp.
ISBN 043627017X

2 comments on “Poems from Oby, by George MacBeth

  1. MacBeth was very much in vogue when I was studying English for O level in the 1970s. He was one of the poets we covered and I enjoyed his work very much. Such a shame he’s fallen out of the spotlight.

  2. Conor
    May 15, 2017

    George Macbeth came to Boston around 1977 to do a poetry reading. Over a drink afterwards I remember him as gracious and kind. Thank you for reminding me of the pleasure he gave in a worthy career.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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