21 November 2013
Allan Sutherland reviews Knitting Time, an illustrated poetry collection by Colin Hambrook published by Waterloo Press
When Colin Hambrook was a baby, his mother was converted to the millenarianist beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. She subsequently descended into her own psychosis and delusions, and was cast out from the church, who preached that Satan had entered their family. From the age of 12 Hambrook began to experience psychosis himself.
From this history, Hambrook has created a remarkable piece of work, an evocative poetic memoir illustrated with intense black and white drawings. (As a student, Hambrook was told to ‘stop doing grey drawings’. The tutors were wrong.)
The book is structured in four sections. In the first, Hambrook describes his childhood in 1960s Peckham, being ‘a family defined by war/weaned on the harsh damp wombs/of bomb sites and Anderson shelters’ who fell under the malign influence of the Jehovahs, who ‘brought their message across the sea/mixing money and religion with a devilish dread’ but took no responsibility for their part in tipping his mother into psychosis. ‘Judgement Day’ refers to their millenarianism, but also to the appalling day when Hambrook and his sister, ‘clinging like Hansel and Gretel’, were denounced as agents of Satan.
Section Two describes his mothers descent into psychosis and introduces the idea of knitting which is a defining theme of the volume, ‘the safe place of cross stitch, cable and twist/where the breath can be measured/just one step, one small step, beyond fear’. (But ‘Knitting Time’ is a phrase with more than one meaning: the book’s title also refers to the larger process whereby Hambrook is taking the experiences of his life and fashioning them into an artwork.)
The third section describes Hambrook’s own experience of psychosis, his ‘encounters with strange states of mind’: ‘around the bend,/all sides up and no one down/in a daze around the town,/a suburban schizophrenic.’ While some of these poems succeed admirably in providing an ordered description of chaotic states of mind, I found others more impenetrable, at least on a superficial reading. This is perhaps the point at which one most needs to give oneself over to the combination of words and illustrations rather than intellectualise.
There is the odd false note here; I thought ‘Ontological Security’ a rarefied title for a poem whose tone is a very direct one, starting, ‘There are tense waiting places/that smirk behind turned faces’ and leading to a terrific final stanza, beautifully rooted in the everyday: ’And on the steps of the housing office,/a resistant wind pushes doors/closing on sanity, tissue-thin,/holding the roof above your head’.
Finally, he describes moving forward into fatherhood, ’the soothing of your toothy cries an acknowledgement/that I could finally let go the carrier spirits;/let them turn back to wild covetous smoke/in the hall of ancestors from where they had come’. The last poem describes a happy family scene, children playing together, smiling adults in the background. This is a narrative with a happy ending, but one that does not seem at all contrived.
The two halves of the book are separated by ‘The Watchtower Revisited’, a short prose memoir which provides a very useful account of the events being described more tangentially in the poems. I was particularly interested in Hambrook’s account of learning from punk music how to deal with his own psychosis: ‘In realising that something was not right, I learnt how to process psychotic thoughts by refusing to believe them’.
Hambrook is someone who has journeyed through psychosis - in his family background, in his own head - yet has managed to avoid being institutionalised and find his own path to stability and a happy family life. For that story alone, this book deserves to be widely read.
The book forms part of a wider project. (See www.knitting-time.com.) This has includes an exhibition of stunning coloured versions of the book’s illustrations. A fascinating audio installation, which can be found on the project website, talks about the wider context and the relationship between the visual art and the poetry.
To order a copy of Knitting Time by Colin Hambrook (price £10 plus p+p), please click on this link to go to the Waterloo Press website