This letter was written in 1982 to Peter Forbes about the inclusion of the poem "Pressed Man" in an anthology.
Dear Peter Forbes....
I'm not sure quite what you want by way of biography, so herewith a small essay(!) which seemed to get written malgre moi (or possibly because I'm so pleased you asked about the origin of Pressed Man).
Would you please pick from it anything that you require; I daresay it will be little more than the acknowledgments bit.
Biographical information:I was born in Finchley, went to school there; father an art teacher, mother had also been a teacher and my conviction at sixteen was that I didn't want to teach. So wouldn't go to university and became a civil service clerk.
Then became a WAAF meteorologist and after that back to clerking.
Biographical notes never mention the most subtle influences - the loves of one's life; in those I was fortunate and still have warm friendship with some of those now-aged boy friends.
Finally on a train in Switzerland I met David Gillilan whom I married and with whom I had twenty six good, arduous years. He died in 1974 and left me a better person than I might have otherwise been and with a son and two daughters I'm proud of for many reasons.
I've had throughout my life one of the best possible gifts - I have never not been loved; it was the loss of some of that love in 1974 that suddenly found voice in 1977 and I wrote a series of 8 poems about my husband's death which were published in the Honest Ulsterman.
It's 1982 and I still find that theme recurring, but many others too. 'Pressed Man' was one of those poems that make one almost believe in reincarnation, or at least in race consciousness.
I felt myself to be that boy and that man, even down to the feel of the shirt on his back as he ploughed. I've been told since that the press gang wouldn't have taken so young a lad, wouldn't have taken someone at work or so far inland.
All this may be true as a rule, but I had the experience, and wrote the poem as closely as I could to the feel of it, and it didn't feel like fiction.
The closest experience I've had to this otherwise was in writing the poem " Journey" (it got 2nd prize in 1981 Poetry Society competition) in which I had at first observed the child in the tram from a viewpoint at ceiling level and then went down and became the child, who was indeed myself.
The journey happened when I was two years old, and when this moment of recall came I was overwhelmingly moved to perceive the man's solicitude for the small child; but didn't put this into the poem because the explanation, unknown to the child that night, was that my mother was giving birth, with great difficulty, to my brother - and none of the desperate anxiety was allowed to reach or distress me, so it was outside the immediacy of the poem. ....
I make my living, as for many years, in a very different field, a curtain and upholstery business. I live and work in this very large house and from time to time have weekend poetry seminars here, with different visiting tutors. Not for profit, I must add, on my part.
.....Please have the patience to pick out the bits that are what you want.
Poems: 'Pressed man' is included in the Collection of poems "That Winter" ' Journey' is included in the Collection of poems 'The All Steel Traveller'
None of them's modest nor maidens,
And if they were, what good to us?
Draggle-dressed, gap toothed, wild,
But they're what we need.
They weather such storms, these old tarts,
Without ever leaving harbour; like gales
We bear them down flat on the planks.
The officers go ashore
(As we pressed men cannot) and I wager
Are soon out of their sleek breeks
Working for once as willingly as we
And at the same task, but snug
And private in a wide bed.
Time was I slept in a bed; not with a wench though.
I was twelve years old, but tall, could labour
Like a man, plough like a man, the brown rump
Of the mare steady before me, her tail like tresses,
The share biting the earth. A good way to live,
I remember the white seabirds
Crowding in from the storm to follow me.
They would fly twenty leagues to cheat
The plovers of a few poor worms.
When the pressgang came I was working the long field,
Saw the man waiting toward the furrow's end.
Would have left all, plough, horse, and run from him
But there were others beside and behind me.
In my mind old Poll still stands in the cold field,
As doubtless she did that day until nightfall.
I think my father would have wept for the loss of me,
Loosing the harness, leading the mare home.
Harbour is what seabirds mean now
And a whore - but no foot
On land. They've made me a sailor,
I'll never have wife nor roof
And, dead, shall go over the side.
The sea's belly is full of us pressed men.