“The Past is a Dangerous Driver” Neal Mason (Holland Park Press) – Book Review

Neal Mason The Past is a Dangerous Driver book cover

Through “The Past is a Dangerous Driver”, Neal Mason explores the permeability of history and present time. Sometimes it’s about how history shapes current attitudes. Others about the folly of man believing he mind leave something permanent to stand for him, e.g. in “Derelict Classroom” where

“Where the red roof was is white and blue
sky; clouds, unformed
and uninformed of nimbus
or cumulus, writhe as they try
outlines a teacher might approve
and on which textbooks can rely.

A puffball is the globe that children held
in awe, its national colours
now brown, not the variety
primary childhood saw;
the spores would mature to khaki, then fall,
obeying some natural law.

Beyond the broken glass grow pampas
and canes; wind-punished nettles
sting empty air
while butterflies play games
on buddleia. The wilderness encroaches, unaware
of culture, geography or names.”

Nature has reclaimed the former school, its behaviour far from the regulated children prescribed geography, language, science and names. Although ignorant of gravity, the spores still fall to the ground. The rhyme scheme adds to the sense of teachers trying to control and guide children’s learning. Whereas nature only has the wind to attempt to tame it and knows nothing of its origins or laws, just that it’s important butterflies play and growth happens. Perhaps there’s a hint too that the children could have done better with more play and freedom to grow at their own pace. But their names have been lost to the wilderness.

Martello towers are small, single storey circular buildings designed to provide space for one to two men with a bed and space for portable cooking gear. They were both lookout and gun towers dotted along coastal areas where guardsmen watched for beach invasions. Now some of them are used as places for holidaymakers to stay. In the poem “Martello Tower”, Mason merges past with present as a storm hits,

“Six-foot-thick walls tremble
as our revolving gun fires,
a cannonball moon, sulphurous
in smoky cloud, flashing
through windows.
If we had a corner
our dog would cower in it. Instead
of ammunition, our curved cupboards
store baguettes, Ardennes pate,
Camembert among towering
cans of beans, the wine rack’s
gun barrels pointing from Burgundy,
Cotes du Rhone, Medoc
and all the sleepy regions
whose soldiers attack tonight.”

The storm eases away by morning and a different invasion takes place,

“troops of tourists invade
through the Tunnel, casualties – words,
laws, weights and measures – mounting
as Brussels, near Waterloo,
advances its armies again.”

The tunnel is the one that connects England and France. Not sure the army metaphor works in relation to tourists though. Yes, they can feel like an invasion, but they are unregimented and too undisciplined to be an army.

Readers are taken back to the war in “Not as a Medal” when the war office appealed for metal to be used in munitions factories for the war effect. The poem’s speaker patroitically gives up garden railings and kitchenware but notes,

“my son is up there too, flying
pieces of bikes, prams, Epstein,
someone’s best cutlery, and I pray
he returns as he was,
not as a medal.”

It’s a poignant end and balances a poem where the humour in the idea of “someone’s best cutlery” being used to make part of a plane would seem inappropriate.

Towards the end, readers are taken back to school where the speaker, a pupil, asks what the letters “SPQR” represent. The teacher confessed to not knowing, leaving the speaker to speculate in “SPQR”,

“I learned, much later, what it meant, cap
exchanged for an academic hat.
After Mussolini – hello, headmaster – claimed it,
they put it on manhole covers,
though it concealed sewage long before that.

Seeking puerile, quack remedies,
society punishes, quashing readily
students’ play, Queensbury rules
cynically plied, queries rebuffed:
you’ll do as we say.”

There’s more suggested phrases that could belong to the acryonym,

“Senatus Populus Que Romanus
shouldn’t be perverted by the quixotically religious,
sophists, people with qualms about reasonableness,
scholars proposing quadrilateral rhombohedrons,
a silly poet quarrying rhymes
(I can only think of treasonableness –
not inappropriate for a betrayed boy)
struggling perpetually, questing ruefully,
surprised when portrayed a querulous renegade
whose search for personal quietude results
in stanzas, prosody, quatrains and refrains –
and if you expect sanity or an acronym,
be reasonableness; there’s a limit
to these childish games.

But no end.”

The adult still contains the child he once was. The child thinking up word combinations to make a lesson past more quickly grows into an adult who still enjoys word games. Our past is still with us and we have a choice as to whether that is a good thing or not.

“The Past is a Dangerous Driver” looks at how the past seeps into the present and the consequences of that. In some poems nature reclaims human structures, reminding readers of man’s relatively short time on the planet. In others the boundaries between past and present are more permeable. A storm prompts thoughts of war or the collection of metal for the war effort inspires thoughts of other uses of metal, particularly a medal representing a life after its end and the impact of a hypothetical lost life on the present. There are lighter moments too, the game of guessing what an acryonym might represent. Mason’s structured poems guide readers through a journey where people might be ready to move on but the past isn’t ready to let them go yet.

The Past is a Dangerous Driver” is available from Holland Park Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Queen Mother’s Rebel Cousin: Lilian Bowes Lyon and The East London Blitz“, Roger Mills’ book features quotes from the reviews I wrote of Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry.

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