Hip Hind Hook, Nigel Pantling
Smith Doorstop, 2018 £5.00
Humans are often funny to watch. We can learn a lot from quietly observing. And Nigel Pantling does his people-watching under very particular circumstances.
He, we’re told, ‘served as an officer in the Royal Artillery in the British Army of the Rhine during the Cold War’; this collection ‘catches the strange unsettling tension of the Cold War…’
It does so with a lot of humour. Along with postcards home – ‘At sparrow-fart today, Jez, we set out’ (‘Postcard from the Border 1’) – and pen portraits of individuals, one clear characteristic is for poems to end on a punchline.
Absurdity is never far away. In ‘Over Her Head’, wives on a hospital ward are prioritised according to their husbands’ rank – so ‘Wife of Gunner Fincham in the bed closest / to the clatter of the corridor, sleeps off her D and C’.
Many carefully-observed details echo out into the silence of the bigger situation: ‘Early Morning Call’ where ‘the red telephone’ ringing proves not a prelude to action, but to ‘our usual / Eggs Benedict, toast and coffee’ breakfast.
Or ‘Night Deployment’ – where a character identified only as ‘He’ marks out a wood with ‘white tape’ – identifying ‘platforms for the guns to lodge on’, and so on:
Midnight: his white web complete, key points lit by pin bulbs like glow worms,
sentries out to meet and guide the guns,
and there’s time for a brew and an egg banjo, to catnap under the scrim,
to read poetry by shaded torchlight or write letters home.
I like the first poem, ‘Marching In with the Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant’, where we arrive in married quarters, and are reminded ‘to count the cutlery’:
Look closely at the glasses, Sir, and refuse the chipped ones,
or you’ll have to pay for them when you March Out.
And (here comes that punchline):
I’m sorry about the carpet, Sir, I know it only covers three quarters of the floor.
You have to be a major before it reaches the walls.