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Jack the Stripper by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Jack the Stripper by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Paul Sutton, perhaps somewhat of a cult figure in contemporary poetry, is approaching his sixties. His first collection Broadsheet Asphyxia was published eighteen years ago around the time he abandoned working in contract negotiations for offshore gas fields. Since then he has published six collections and a plethora of pamphlets, while teaching English in secondary schools, a job he finds creatively stimulating:  

the joys, rages and stresses are exactly the spurs needed for writing. And the insight gained is revealing; of how dull and pointless most ‘mainstream’ poetry seems, to those who don’t have to feign interest.[1]

Sutton is no doubt a little proud of his outsider status, relishing opportunities to decry political and poetical conformism in what he conceives as the ‘mainstream’. His favourite subjects for poems are “decay, violence, crime, gentrification, authenticity, serial killers, humiliation…[2]” so it seems a natural move for his latest offering to be a pamphlet punning on one of Britain’s most notorious murderers. Sutton’s macabre fascination with Jack the Ripper lasts for just the first two poems: ‘Prologue’ and ‘a Man in Acton Wearing a Trilby’, both alluring and unsettling affairs, though the theme of murder does resurface in the pamphlet’s twenty poems.

Outside of Roy Fisher’s city centred writing, Sutton’s biggest influence may well be Larkin, their similarities shine not just in mutual dispensation for ironic humour and poetry of place, moreover they have a pronounced talent for metrical sophistication, a scrutiny paid to the rhythm and beat of syllables and sonants, something of a lost art in contemporary poetry. Sutton’s poem ‘Under Gas’ starts beautifully:

My grandfather’s book on meteorology

starts gently, with him reminding us:

‘We live under a sea of gas.’

‘gently’ picks up the last syllable of ‘meteorology’ before leaning into the mesmerising image of a hazy world ‘under a sea of gas’. Sutton can be a poet of such delicacy, as technically gifted as any of his contemporaries, even the ‘mainstream’ figures he despises. Another particularly mellifluous moment comes in the opening to ‘Mud and Sun’:

Sudden sunlight hits the road

as you drive past what you’ve known –

seen in the rear-view  then gone

the juxtaposition of moving on from the past, physically and emotionally, floats out along the dashes and the repeated, clashing o sounds of ‘known’ and ‘gone’. However while the aforementioned ‘Under Gas’ has a clear focal point for its drooping nostalgia (the memory of Sutton’s grandfather), the nostalgia evoked in ‘Mud and Sun’ lacks directness, the poem features a mystical yearning for a forgotten place. Martin Stannard locates this in his blurb as a ‘sense of loss (but loss of what?) in contemporary Britain.’ The subject matter ties Sutton to Larkin once more while also harking back to the Georgian school, but it is also a point of departure for me. I simply don’t believe in what Sutton is mythologising, his idyllic visions of a lost Britain seem to my eyes constructs about as real as Neverland in Peter Pan, or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. In ‘Mud and Sun’ Sutton’s craft is sublime but his sentiment misses the mark.

Jack the Stripper also features a ripping pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is rude, puerile and seriously funny, while also demonstrating Sutton’s fine hand for prose. Could it be time for a collection of Sutton’s Sherlock Holmes sagas? I think so. His sharp tongue and acid sense of humour are well suited to satire plus he knows the shimmies and feints of Conan Doyle’s as well as any writer. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is then a highlight of an original, often disarming, addition to the Sutton catalogue. 

Charlie Baylis 8th July 2021


[1]    https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/26/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-paul-sutton/ [accessed 5/6/21]

[2]    https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/26/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-paul-sutton/ [accessed 5/6/21]

The Review by Martin Stannard (Knives Forks & Spoons Press)

The Review by Martin Stannard (Knives Forks & Spoons Press)

The book title gives no clue as to content. Individual sections are not titled either. Who is doing the reviewing and of what? Life? An old bus ticket? A bird in an unnamed tree? A neat alphabetical list at the back of the book, ranging from abortion rights to urban sprawl, tells us of some issues to which the author is paying scant or even ‘flippant’ attention. Otherwise, he presents no signposts. ‘I am a patchwork,’ he says. A set ‘of limbs and brain cells’ that appear to be dressed up, in disguise, after a ‘fairly late-in-life shift’.

The Review is a delightful book that offers far more than the ‘snippets of pleasure’ that Martin Stannard claims for it. Most of all I appreciate the clever and witty way the whole text is built on paradox. If an issue is profound it is described on a superficial level, if there are elements of tragedy we are given a comic, throw-away line, if the author is in danger of seeming serious, caring too much, then he will be light-hearted and indifferent. 

No signposts or destination but nevertheless it feels as if we are on an expedition of sorts. There is a guide, a narrator, or rather a persona who goes to great lengths to pare his personality down ‘towards an oversimplified self.’ A persona that clings on ‘determinedly merry’ and more than willing ‘to pass an empty/few minutes,’ to share ‘a perky tale or two,/spruce up the day’, one who will try and live in ‘a constant state of cheer.’ This is someone who wants to be accepted for his ‘creamy brain flipping and flopping around like some kind of/barmy joint of meat determined to enjoy/the best and worst of times.’

No signposts, no destination, no apparent landscape for this outing, only a series of impressions of somewhere vaguely pastoral, fluffy as an idyllic holiday, ‘a convoluted expedition during/which men in safari suits and women not in/anything much at all gallivant around/without any apparent object in mind/except to fill a few lines of narrative on a /dull day.’ Or maybe Martin Stannard intends us to feel we are at a coffee morning or a ‘lovely country house weekend/with society women turning up at the party/with jewelled scarabs and slicked-back hair/with silk underthings’ Enviable? Probably not if one is hoping for love or friendship or any kind of real contact. This is a world where ‘People drop/in, you share a splendid dinner and a few drinks,/then they drop out, then they’re replaced/by other people.’

This brilliant evocation of futility is underpinned throughout the text of The Review by every aspect of language. ’This is no time to mess about in/the misty regions of symbolism,’ says the author, dismissing clever similes and selecting deliberately watered-down imagery: ‘My treehouse is above ground,/hovering with the wasps and wispy clouds’ he says, for here there will be ‘jingly birds in the bouncy boughs’. As for tone – it ‘must be full of the wisdom of (pick something/at random) …big things.’

The Review is rich in irony and humour. Martin Stannard is adept at the witty turn of phrase or the play on words such as ‘they can come after wool and go home fleeced.’ Several lines are pure laugh out loud: ‘The best advice I ever received was not to/have another half’. ‘Does a chicken have a favourite/egg among those she lays?’ Or here, in a description of the ‘leafy summertime of youth’: ‘On my face/ is an expression suggestive of trying/to ignore a runny nose’.

Delightful writing, light-hearted, clever, funny. But don’t be fooled. This is serious. We are always in ‘the dark side of the world’ with panic and desperation. ‘If I pass by a hole in the ground’ comments the writer, ‘I/shout into it in case someone is down it and/lonely.’ It’s all about trying to hang on: ‘Wild or beautiful/or savage or poignant it’s all really just/a coping mechanism that prevails despite/the weather.’

Toward the end of the book there are sentences that make an attempt to sum up the impossible: ‘If this is clumsy and lacking poetry/all I can say is, ‘You can’t have everything/but there’s no harm in trying. Lantern-bearers/sometimes wander in darkness but are able to retain/their sense of humour.’

I said there were no signposts in The Review, no final destination but perhaps this line offers a suggestion: 

‘On the final mattress it all makes sense’.

Mandy Pannett 22nd June 2021

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