I always reckon that a county can be defined by the people who write about it; in the modern era James Herriot and Gervase Phinn have presented the face of Yorkshire to the world and of course Emily Bronte gave us the shape of much of the way we think about the White Rose County in Wuthering Heights. Poets who catalogue Yorkshire for posterity and for the people on the Huddersfield bus include Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage, and one writer who I reckon has been, until recently, in danger of being forgotten: Pete Morgan.
On a breezy night in late spring of this year I was proud to be part, along with the new Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the great Yorkshire singer Martin Carthy, of a celebration of Pete Morgan's work as he turns seventy. The setting was the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall at York University and it felt majestic enough and yet informal enough to present Pete's unique talent.
Pete was born in Lancashire in 1939 and, after a spell in the army and a time in Edinburgh during the 'pop poetry' boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he then moved to York, and then to Robin Hood's Bay where I think he wrote some of the best poems ever written about the town that hangs onto the cliffs for dear life. He's since lived in Beverley and villages on the outskirts of York, and he's now back in York and writing as well as ever about the county.
I first met Pete at a writing course in the West Riding in the mid-1970s. I was a young lad with a wispy beard who wanted to be a full-time poet but I really had no idea about how I could do it. Pete was a glamorous figure to a lad from Barnsley because he made his living giving readings and doing school visits and running workshops and getting asked to write poems. He also didn't live in London, which made him even more of a hero in my eyes at a time when we were told (as we're still being told, though perhaps less so) that we've got to live in London if we want to be anybody.
Pete left Robin Hood's Bay in the 1980s but the Yorkshire sea and the Yorkshire shore continued to haunt his writing. After a long period of poetic silence he published August Light in 2005 with Arc Press, a fantastically enterprising Todmorden publisher, and the book proves that you can take the boy out of the Bay but you can't take the Bay out of the boy.
Here's the opening of one of the best Yorkshire-based winkle-picking poems ever written, in my humble opinion:
Yesterday through rock and wrack
Someone in God's likeness stepped
Between the tideline and the sea
And bent to judgement, made his choice
From rockpools where his image quivered.
Or how about this marvellous stanza about fishing from the poem Fish:
The fish we haul from dark to light
Smack and flicker at the sun
Angry with their own decision
Raging at their muscle's failure
Tapering to helplessness.
Pete Morgan is a poet who has written memorable poems about Yorkshire, and my view and vision of Yorkshire has been refined by reading his work over many decades. August Light is still in print, and I'd urge you to get hold f it, and if you ever see any of his other books in a second-hand shop, grab the shopkeeper's hand off! As Carol Ann Duffy said that evening in York, Pete's the real thing...