Knitting Time by Colin Hambrook has just been published by Waterloo Press, part of a project comprising online content and an exhibition at Pallant House in Chichester. Here John O’Donoghue describes the mentoring process that led to the book’s publication.
When Colin Hambrook asked me to act as his mentor while he worked on Knitting Time, I wasn’t quite sure what I would be letting myself in for.
Knitting Time emerged over a period of months, and I began to slowly see just where it had come from. After I’d put Colin through the wringer a few times on some of the poems – getting a more ballad-like structure for ‘Crow’, trying to get a Dylanesque lilt into ‘All Along The Watchtower’, gently encouraging him to gather the fragments of his haiku sequence – it began to dawn on me just what had gone on in Colin’s young life.
His mother’s doorstep conversion to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness started a spiral of descent into psychosis and institutionalisation, ostracism from the Kingdom Hall, and guilt, grief, and profound disturbance for Colin, his sister, and to varying degrees the rest of his family.
There were hints of some or all of this in the poems, but the whole story seemed to be hidden amongst them, almost as if they were riddles, as if the experience was too traumatising and disturbing to be told directly, as if Colin needed to encode what had happened to him to make his poetry. I then made a suggestion. Why not write the story out as a short prose memoir? Robert Lowell had done this in his landmark collection Life Studies – why not try something similar?
I’ve just reread that memoir this morning, remembering what it was like to encounter some of the phrases and sentences that knocked me in the eye the first time I read them:
"As we children grew older mum taught us not to drop our ‘aitches, as if they’d clamour on the floor and alert the neighbourhood to the fact that we were really just working class pretenders."
"When we came to her bedside she couldn’t remember who her children were… It took me back to a recurring nightmare I’d had as small boy in which I’d be with mum as she melted."
It’s a powerful and moving piece, placed in the collection at the halfway point, so that the poems run into and out of it. The hallucinatory quality in the prose is also there in the titles of some of the poems: ‘The Mirror That Refused To Look Back’, ‘When The Scissors Cut Her Sky’, ‘Am I Jesus?’, and in the accompanying pin-sharp black and white images that accompany the text.
Knitting Time is a book made up out of patchwork pieces – the poems, the images, the prose memoir – sewn into a patterned quilt where each element works off the other. When I hold it now in my hands I can feel all the fragility that went into it, all the tenderness, all the strength.