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This report is taken from PN Review 135, Volume 27 Number 1, September - October 2000.

The P-Word Lawrence Sail

I once found myself stranded, along with my fellow passengers, in a snowbound train north of Birmingham, during an over-ambitious journey aiming at Edinburgh. An eerie atmosphere settled upon us, in which the unwrapping of a sandwich would have been a major acoustic event. Despite the occasional hushed remark, the general silence became intent: not a drum, not a cellular phone. It represented the stoicism of people resigned to nothing going on happening. What finally broke it was not an official announcement, but one by a passenger who must have been asked a question. 'I am,' he declared with some pride, 'one of Britain's forty remaining glass eye makers.' You could feel the air clench: and even more when he went on to say that, before technology enabled an improvement in materials, the old glass eyes would sometimes explode if subjected to sudden changes of temperature, and you would have to go down to the chemist's and choose a new one from a tray. Looking out at the snow, it was hard not to conjure a vision, so to speak, of popping eyeballs. Everyone in the carriage seemed to be concentrating on the middle distance.

The same embarrassment might have been produced by substituting 'poet' for 'glass eye maker' (and what should be substituted for forty?). To claim the title of 'poet' is not only, often, to kill a conversation stone dead, but is actually considered improper by many poets, as I was reminded when reading Louise ...


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