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The perfect Bivvi

The perfect bivvi will be level and flat

  • ssduncan3

Imagining Childhoods

Updated: Mar 27

What is real, and what is imagined? Can there be an emotional reality expressed through imagined events? The ‘Ode to Sergeant Mandy’ in the earlier post on unrequited love and the sonnet may be an example. Is there a factual and historical accuracy divorced from emotion.? These are good questions posited by Simon, and not easy to answer!

Memories exist in the fluid grey area between these binaries. It is problematic, since we don’t have total recall (unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger). What do other people tell us? And how do we relate to these narratives.  How we connect with the words of others, and how these make us feel, is crucial. It is our interpretations which offer truth.

 The memories that I have of childhood are fragmentary at best, some are blurred and indistinct, like fading old photos. Often the most powerful memories, those that linger are the ones which were unpleasant. As a three-year-old child I was locked in a dark room at playgroup. I was terrified, screaming and yelling. I thought there was a monster in there about to get me. I don’t have such powerful memories about eating an ice cream. Memory then is a strange, unreliable beast. Does this matter when we write? Do we learn more about Sylvia Plath from her numerous biographies, or from a collection of her poems? Are the poems we write about ourselves ‘the truth’? do they reveal our personalities, offer insights into our lives?

As Simon says these questions become particularly telling in poems about childhood. The poem ‘I am born’ must depend on what others have told him, on pervasive family narratives, on what he imagines might have been, and on historical accounts of that far of year.  


I am born.

The Peoples’ Republic of China is proclaimed.

Book at Bedtime begins on the BBC.

Chocolate and sweets are no longer rationed

and I am born.


I am told I had extraordinary long arms

Or so it seemed to my father,

shocked, holding his counsel

He thought I was deformed.


Late August, back end, promises unfulfilled.

Taking in the harvest

One granma will name me Spencer

Luckily switched to a second name.


I lie on my dad’s flying jacket, rescued from the war.

Fear and hope impregnate the thick, woolly lining.

He came out of it alive,

so do I.


In ‘The “Girl with red hair’, Simon attempt to speak in his voice when he was 5 or 6 years old, living in Greenisland, in Northern Ireland.  The poem collates a number of memories into one narrative. Despite his attempts, a nostalgia leaks through from the next 70 years.


The Girl with Red Hair

 And she dared paint her nails red

Our new teacher, from Belfast, they said.

Neighbours overheard

‘She must be a loose woman’.


Play fighting across the rows of desks

Rulers for swords.

She caned your open hand

At least you were noticed.


Out in the playground

Everyone running, shouting, shrieking.

Except you

Hugging safety by the school wall.


At last Sadie, the girl with red hair

Took hold of you

To play tig.

Her father shot an IRA man last night


Finally, a short acrostic poem from Simon’s grandson - Freddie. He is 10 years old. No memories, no nostalgia. Rather he makes a direct commentary on one aspect of his life, now.









Which I have to say made me laugh, and reminded me so much of my experience of school!


Here is my version of the birth poem, following the same structure as Simon’s. Having no memory of this event, all I can do is draw on my imagination. Mum tells me that she had a difficult birth, that I was laid ‘the wrong way’, and that I was ‘shocked’ at birth, being whisked away into an incubator. I have attempted to imagine what this experience was like for my Mum, putting myself in her shoes.


I have no memory of what life was like in 1973, all I can go on is what I have seen on television or what I read online, and what others tell me. And so I have used a bit of creative licence in bringing this world to life.


What do you think? Have I succeeded?


The Happy Event, 1973


Outside, a long total eclipse

Arabs and Israelis lock horns,

peace accords in France are fixed, a

new era for Vietnam dawns


Inside, bright light, sterility

'Don't you want to push?' asks the nurse,

confused by her reality -

the chaos of my mum's first birth


Outside, a city is throbbing,

it's Saturday night, disco time -

bodies shimmering and dancing,

to the beat, a rhythm sublime


Inside, I am still, something's wrong,

Dad is told to leave the room now,

this labour has gone on too long -

ripped out by forceps, shocked, I howl.

Since writing this blog post, this post has been published by Poetry Catalog online at


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