The Black Cab, John Challis

Poetry Salzburg, 2017  £6 (+£1.50p&p)

The Knowledge

I’ve been watching Life on Mars – that excellent TV series where our hero (John Simm) is concussed and wakes up in 1973. Although set in London (as opposed to Manchester), this sequence of poems left me with a somewhat similar feeling. In both, the past is traced as strongly as the present over familiar streets; the work steeped in everyday English memorabilia; and there seems a fundamental good will behind it all.

John Challis’s father drove the black cab of the pamphlet title, and in the poem ‘The Knowledge’ that famous, pre-GPS art of the London cabbie is memorialised: not the

knowledge scrawled by Mrs Smith
on the board in shaky chalk, but the knowledge
I heard my father practise, out loud after tea.  

The knowledge, in other words, ‘of London’s maps in more than three dimensions’ – and there are more than three dimensions to these poems, where ‘The past is lowered like a theatre set’ (‘Advertising’). I was struck, for instance, by the poem in three parts – ‘Plague Ground’ – where, hauntingly, three separate figures in separate centuries excavate the same Farringdon spot.

The collection has the three dimensions of a nice, neat, narrow focus – London, black cabs, the poet’s own immediate heritage; then he, himself, growing up instead to work ‘in the light of a desk lamp’ (‘Blood’) – but it also probes deeper into the foundations of what shapes us, including before our lifetimes. In so doing, it maps out a whole recent-history of England, as poem after poem chronicles and celebrates, for instance, ‘the country’s near forgotten maze of beta roads’:

Wind down the window: onions fry in lard, 
an inch-thick beef patty whispers on a grill.
('B Road Lay-by')  

Above all, I think I found this an affectionate collection – one born out of a passionate preoccupation with all that surrounds and passes him. A need, indeed, to lift the bonnet, as he did as a boy, in ‘A Toy Cab’, and ‘poke the plastic engine’; find ‘how even though in replica / the hire light blinked’.

Charlotte Gann