Like a Fish Out of Batter by Catherine Graham

Reviewed by Charlie Baylis

Catherine Graham is a ‘proudly working class’ poet from Newcastle upon Tyne. Her pamphlet Like A Fish Out Of Batter, inspired by the paintings of L.S. Lowry, vocalises the iconic painter of the industrial north. In the pamphlet’s acknowledgements, Graham encourages the reader to seek out the paintings where each poem began (the paintings are almost all named and therefore only a mouse click away). However, for the majority of the pamphlet, Graham paints so vivid a picture with words that the post-poem image search becomes unnecessary, or an optional intrigue for the intrigued.

Most of the time in Like A Fish Out Of Batter, Catherine Graham is not so much looking at Lowry’s paintings and describing what she sees, as exploring the deeper contours and contexts of Lowry’s canvasses. It is there that Graham invents two protagonists, the factory workers Maureen and Ray, whose story she weaves through the poems like warm air from an open window. The first poem  ‘Factory Outing’ opens confidently:

Red and yellow sails like flames
out on the water; the salt-sea air

so good for factory girls like me,
girls who spend their days in overalls

and daft hats;

It is easy to see why Graham turned to Lowry’s paintings for inspiration as many of the qualities of Lowry’s paintings can be found in Graham’s poetry: attention to detail, evocative settings, very human characterisation. Later in ‘Factory Outing’ the central character, who must be the aforementioned Maureen, exclaims while staring at the sea: ‘what the hell/do I know about life beyond any horizon’ and prays that her period will come. Her frustration is palpable, it fits perfectly with the pervasive sense of futility and loneliness which haunt some of Lowry’s finest works. Graham’s poetry suits Lowry like a flat cap on a balding miner or a blue bonnet on a Sunday morning stroll, in plainer words, the two go very well together.

Whether you reside on Downing Street or Dead End Street, social class is an inescapable part of life on the British Isles. Graham’s telling depiction of working class lives share an inverted relationship with the poetry of John Betjeman, who satirically tickled the upper-middle classes with a shade of boredom in famous poems like ‘How To Get On In Society’:

Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served

The crucial difference between the poets is that Graham does not satirise but celebrate her subjects. The reader sympathises with Maureen and Ray, particularly in two poems towards the end of the pamphlet: ‘A Letter from London’ and ‘Head of a Young Man in a Cap’, in which Maureen is caught, once again, yearning for life beyond the horizon. Like Betjeman, Graham also has a strong sense of humour, ‘it must be hard having one foot/longer than the other’ she dead-pans in ‘Ray, Upstairs On the No. 8, Waiting For It to Pull Away’  based on the famous Lowry painting Man Lying on a Wall (if you don’t know this painting – it is exactly as the title suggests).

Another quality of Graham’s poetry is her eye for detail, in ‘Putting Aunt Adeline On the Train’ Graham picks out pleasant colours and aromas:

I’d never tried cheese and pineapple
Until I’d met Aunt Adeline

never seen a real feather in a hat.
I though perfume smelled of violets

The importance to Graham of finer points and particulars reminds me of another proudly working class poet, Helen Mort, although Mort often uses these small details to hint at bigger things. In Mort’s brilliantly visceral poem ‘Scab’ she contrasts the miner’s strike with her ‘opportunity to leave’, an offer to study at the University of Cambridge. Mort’s matter of fact descriptions of Sheffield amid the violence of the strikes hint at a more personal, deeper subject: her guilt at betraying her working class roots, her fear that by leaving to study at Cambridge she herself is the titular ‘scab’.

The few poems that don’t work in Like A Fish Out Of Batter are those where Graham leans too heavily on the paintings. ‘The Funeral Party’ is a well put together piece:

The strawberry blonde chap looks pasty,
like a solicitor, tormented by his client’s ghost.

But what was the bloke far right thinking of,
to turn up late in boots and red tie?

The descriptions alone however, are not enough, and for a rare moment I feel the need to see the painting behind the poem, craving more of Graham’s inventive flourishes. Fortunately, these moments are very much in the minority, I greatly enjoyed reading Like A Fish Out Of Batter and hope it attracts as wide a readership as possible.