Pa pushed another heft of carcass into my unripe arms. I staggered down to the cellar, burdened the bloody mass to the butchering table and turned about for the next.
I tramped back and forth through that sawdust twenty times and more a day, carrying quartered animal parts. I helped him split the cuts, salt the joints and take the meat back upstairs to hook on the brass rail at the front of the shop.
The regulars came in cheerfully to purchase their victuals, gesticulating at the counter and passing the time of day. After they headed home I'd clean the knives and scrub the block; then there was all the clearing up.
It was a living for my father - the Wesleyan preacher - and though there may be profit in all labour, it wasn’t for me. Having a bent for poetry and composition, I knew I could write in rhyme and I’d plotted the story of my days.
As I’ve said, I had a rare talent and I’d a pennyworth or more to say about things, especially the way of things round here. Though still a butcher’s lad, by sixteen I was making some riches from poetry, selling cheap-jacks at the markets, but I was always on the lookout for new opportunities, you know, to extend my craft.
It began to shape up after I took to posting handbill verses out to persons who might value a fancy remark or two in a Christmas Book - nobles, justices, yeoman and the clergy. And it has to be said, the Christmas Books were a success; the eminent men of Westmorland lent good patronage to my sketches about their kindness and generosity. As to the rest of the town - well, for their own interest and amusement they anxiously awaited my chronicles about gentlefolk of their very acquaintance. So that’s how I began to accumulate my publishing dealings. I worked hard at my ink-blotted desk and the trade grew.
Volumes, series, pamphlets, issues, I reproduced them all from my Poet’s Hall. As to my achievements as a public writer in prose and verse, I have amply provided for the valuable education of others: penning, illustrating and printing the legends and antiquities of these parts. I have scripted memorials for the living and the dead, and afforded readers with the most valuable, acclaimed and enjoyable work.
Hard work and hunger made my name, but beyond my wildest was the applause I received from The Earl of Carlisle and the most gracious Sir Hugh Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale – two lords, no less, giving statement of my literary genius! Above this, Hugh affirmed I am the author of a quantity of meritorious work which is worthy of commendation (like the other Lake Poets). He insisted that I - being of half-taught intellect - deserve a place beside Burns and was emphatic I should receive, as a mark of Royal favour, a pension from Her Majesty’s Treasury.
Upon such recommendation to the Crown, my name, Poet Close, was placed on the Civil List (as a recognised Lake Poet) and alongside Wordsworth himself I was endorsed to become the recipient of a Civil List Pension - fifty pounds per annum. Such highest prize bestowed upon me, a Kirkby butcher’s boy!!
* * *
Oh jealous souls! The resentment of certain detractors festered already, and that is the crux of it. I was ordered at Liverpool to pay the sum of three hundred sterling to compensate a woman from my neighbourhood who claimed I had defamed her. How can someone without reputation in the first place be so insulted? How can writings from my pen adversely affect the credit of any being? Yet I was browbeaten by the judiciaries to print a paper confessing I had authored slander - or my injuries would have been the more. Still, I have amply demonstrated in recent fly-sheets that the trial was an occasion when I was mulcted for writing the truth.
I tell you straight, it got no better. Those envious snakes and wriggling fools calling themselves literary critics saw the libel performance as reason to plant their claws in my coat. They called me an imposter - merely a scribbler, no ornament to the literary world. Worse still, their spite, formed out of jealousy, robbed an honest, hard-working, sober man with four boys and a daughter to sustain, of that most valuable pecunary reward.
I was fobbed off with £100 from the Royal Bounty and received no enduring income. I vow that I will fight absolutely and without reserve to restore my rightful place. I will defend my offspring’s legacy and campaign against this injustice ‘til my strength fails me.
* * *
Today, I toil on the station platform in Kirkby Stephen where I have set up stall. I stand in my Fedora, firm at my post, and when the engine stops for refreshments my good wife Eliza serves our visitors with a brew of the finest, best and strongest tea in town. Strewing the express train with poetry, I visit the windows of each carriage to recite my rhyme for the entertainment of the passengers and though I may have not a spark of literary intellect my work seems to amuse the crowds. In the summertime I decamp to the landing stage at Lake Windermere where I erect a stall with a large placard announcing my presence for the season to offer my books and pamphlets under the trees.
Just last year, in the preface to my Christmas Book, I drew a sketch of the kindness of that most distinguished Lonsdale Family. Upon his return to the Castle after His Lordship was last in my town he sent me a game box of two large hares and two fine pheasants. Fast on its heels a hamper came by rail containing the heftiest Stilton cheese and a paper with the words “From the Hon. Hugh Lowther” which astonished and pleased the Poet and Mrs. Close no little.
Quite apart from my notations on local life, I do continue to quietly write poetry for posterity.
There is the grievance: you know it now.
* * *
In the 20th Century, a verse entitled ‘A Vision of the Gods: Halos Not Hats’ won John Close a posthumous citation. As it happens, it affirmed his place among the best of bad poets in the Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse.
‘Around the gods, each seated on a throne,
The poets, crowned like royal kings they sat,
Around their heads a dazzling halo shone,
No needs of any mortal robes, or any hat.’
In the 21st Century there continues to be interest and amusement in his work especially by those who know this northern district well. The trouble lies in the difficulty of ascertaining what and what not to believe.