Poetry and memory: Low-flying aircraft and high-flying sparrows

Sometimes my memory is triggered by the most random things. My son is sitting opposite me playing FIFA on the X-Box and the commentator mentioned low-flying aircraft and it all came flooding back. I was about 8 years old, sitting in a dim classroom with four old-fashioned desks pushed together. My friend Antonietta was sitting near me, reading aloud from the Wide Range Reader. I was insanely jealous because she read better than me and I was the bookworm, not her. How anybody can be competitive about reading out loud in class, I don’t know, but there you have it.

I have the distinct impression she was reading the story of the man who came home and thought his barn was on fire, but – spoiler – it was only the nasturtiums that had grown up over the house so that the orange and red flowers looked like flames. At least I could be proud because I was one of the few who knew what nasturtiums were, because my father grew them in the big planter on our patio. They’re still one of my favourite flowers. Or perhaps it was the story about the Mexican farmer who felt the ground getting warmer under his feet until one day a volcano grew out of the ground and erupted where none had been before. Come to think of it, that’s probably when that particular nightmare started.

This might have been the year we had a student teacher who decided we should write poetry. I can still remember part of what I wrote:

Fish, fish, fish
All kinds of fishy fish
Fish, fish, fish

Fat ones, thin ones
Big ones, small ones
All kinds of fishy fish
Fish, fish, fish

The power of praise
Another proud moment: the teacher chose that poem to put up on the wall. Competitive, moi? Imagine how surprised I was, several years later when I was at secondary school when one of the Brownies at the pack where I helped out told me the teacher had used my poem as an example of how to write a poem. She recognised my name and could proudly say to the teacher “I know who wrote that!”

Teachers, never underestimate the power of praise, of putting up a pupil’s work on the wall, of telling a child they read well or that you enjoyed reading their story. It still makes me smile, 40 or so years later.

Those Wide Range Readers were wonderful. At the time I thought we were just practising reading, but in hindsight I realise we were sneakily being taught all sorts of geography, history and mythology. Back then there was no Core Curriculum so no formal lessons for different subjects. I’m so old, science hadn’t been invented back then. Not that you would have known from anything we were taught in primary school, at any rate.

Whether it was from a Wide Range Reader or not, one of the things that stuck in my mind was a line of poetry. I knew it was something about a high-rise building, something that was almost completely hypothetical to me as there was only one big block of flats in Margate, the hideous Arlington House.

If people who lived in high-rise buildings had to live in places like that, all grey and bleak-looking, I felt sorry for them. Not something I would have expected anyone to write poetry about and certainly not poetry that would make me remember it 40 years later. I’ve been wondering who wrote that evocative phrase, “low-flying aircraft and high-flying sparrows” ever since, but had no way of finding out because even googling the phrase, I drew a blank when I last searched.

FIFA + Google + memory + Ozzy Tumblr blog = finally finding Michael Rosen’s poem

I’m so glad this poem is by Michael Rosen. He has got to be my absolute favourite children’s poet. I thought I first got to know him in The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry, an anthology of truly amazing modern poems including a selection by Brian Patten and Benjamin Zephaniah. If you think you hate poetry, read that! In any case, it seems Michael Rosen was a published poet many years earlier than I realised. His We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a picture book classic, too.

So here it is, the poem that has been inhabiting a corner of my brain for around 40 years, annoying me because I didn’t know what it was. I wonder what minor puzzle will replace it.

By Michael Rosen

Think of this tower-block
as if it was a street standing up
and instead of toing and froing
in buses and cars
you up and down it
in a high speed lift.

There will be no pavement artists of course
because there aren’t any pavements
There isn’t room for a market
but then there isn’t room for cars.
No cars: no accidents
but don’t lean
out of the windows
don’t play in the lifts
or they won’t work.
They don’t work
and they won’t work
if you play Split Kipper,
Fox and Chickens, Dittyback,
Keek-bogle, Jackerback,
Huckey-buck, Hotchie-pig,
Foggy-plonks, Ching Chang Cholly
or Bunky-Bean Bam-Bye.

Go down. The stairs are outside –
you can’t miss them – try not to miss them, please.
No pets.
Think how unhappy they’d be
locked in a tower block.
There will be
no buskers, no hawkers,
no flowers, no chinwaggers
no sandwich boards,
no passers-by,
except for low-flying aircraft
or high-flying sparrows.

Here is a note from Head Office:
you will love your neighbour
left right above below
so no music, creaky boots,
caterwauling, somersaulting –
never never never jump up or down
or you may
never never never get down or up again.
No questions.
It’s best to tip-toe
creep, crawl, and whisper.
If there are any
problems phone me
and I’ll be out.
Good day.

With thanks to the Sillywhatwell Tumblr.

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