By Tosti. Lousiest of love songs, and on Radio Three
At that! But my finger pauses an inch
Away from the button because I’ve remembered something.
I’ve remembered my daily journey to that school
In the late nineteen-fifties, with that colleague
In the same eight-seat compartment, smog-stained windows,
Soiled upholstery, seaside pictures, Elmers End,
Eden Park, West Wickham, Hayes. All the time,
My companion, the cynical music master,
Would drone and hum and smile and apologise
– Lesson preparation. The suburban landscape
Would modulate through Macmillan’s constituency
From inner to outer, and ‘You could call that countryside,
For a yard or two,’ he’s say. And throughout one week,
When we had the Parents’ Evening on the Friday,
Having sung at Glyndebourne, and being capable
Of presenting himself as a decent tenore robusto,
He practised Tosti’s ballad for the Parents,
Its fusian intro, its maudlin vocal acrobatics . . .
The windows rattled on their leather straps.
Scrubland with never-inhabited workshop ruins.
Golf-course with flags in holes on pallid greens.
– He practised for the Parents as it all went by,
‘And who cares! Honestly, Brownjohn, who fucking cares!’
He would say, with the formality of the age.
At Elmers End, if I’m right, on the Friday morning,
With ‘another day opening its squalid legs
For us to squander ourselves in’, he got out,
And ‘not to ruin your entire bloody journey’, he
Climbed into the next compartment, which was empty.
– But now I’m back in the present, my pausing finger
Still allowing the song to go on to its awful end
On the radio fifty years later; and I believe
I can still hear him singing over the slow wheels
That carried us on to a place he said ‘didn’t deserve us’,
His howling impassioned tenor heard through a wall
On which they’d put, as in most of those compartments,
A mirror, a small clear mirror, for combing
Your hair in or pulling your face into shapes
Better suited to facing interviews and girlfriends
Or just teaching spelling . . . Which I see myself in today,
As I was at twenty-six and am no longer;
And I find I’m crying at these two swooping voices,
Jim Farr’s and Tito Schipa’s, reminding me
That like Tosti’s fishes I go on ‘grasping for the love’.
from Collected Poems 1952-2006 (Enitharmon, 2006), © Alan Brownjohn 2006, used by permission of the author.