And The House Watches On, Neil Elder

Illustrated by Charlotte HarkerThe pamphlet is unusual in shape. It is landscape in format -- a wide front jacket. The colour is white but there's a detailed line drawing of a stately building occupying about two thirds of the space, with all text right justified way over to the right hand side. Text is black and lower case. The title is all on one line in small bold print. The names of the poet and the illustrator are below that, each a line of their own.

Cicero Press, 2020    £7.99

Location, Location, Location

I’m 99% certain that Neil Elder is not a violent or miserable man, but for a pamphlet that’s ostensibly written about a house, there’s an awful lot of violence and misery within this collection’s beautifully illustrated pages. In many ways the illustrations provided by Charlotte Harker act as a counterpoint to the savage content that lies at the heart of the poems.

After we’ve been introduced to ‘the house’ (namely West House, in Pinner Memorial Park, a house that ‘has forgotten more / than we have seen’, and in the grounds of which ‘a fox may bark its painful yearning’), we get to the start of the real violence. For example, ‘A Silent House’ has the house bearing witness to its master heading off for a duel, before informing us that

My master won’t be returning.
He’ll swing this day
and when his body has done twitching
this house will be what’s left.

This is immediately followed by a poem about the grief of Horatia Nelson — the daughter of Lord Nelson — after the trampling to death of her daughter, Eleanor Ward, on Pinner High Street. The violence and misery continue with tenants across the years profiteering from war, and dealing with depression, before the house ends up a dilapidated ‘blot next to the lake’ (in ‘Cynthia’s Vision’).

However, what’s most interesting is how much of this takes place ‘off-camera’. ‘On Ice’ tells us that ‘in winters yet to come / […] feelings that were silted / will begin to surface’. And the depression of the house’s owner, Mrs Hogg, is revealed in ‘Away Day at Home’ through the staff having fun while she’s away. Unlike the others —

Mrs Hogg has never seen

Miss James topple out of a boat
that cook has dared to row
into the middle of the lake.
And Mrs Hogg has never laughed
until tears came.

Elder packs a lot into the ten poems in this collection. He reminds us that a house is just that — a house. It’s the stories of the lives touched by the building that really matter.

Mat Riches