This Is Not A
The Quiet Subversive
Poet and parodist
b. 30 January 1947, d. c. 14 January 2023
The passing of Les Barker at the age of seventy-five takes from the world one of its most quiet yet most subversive poetic talents.
A native of Manchester, Barker discovered in his late twenties that he had a happy knack for writing humorous verse. He turned that facility into a means of amusing and entertaining audiences - mostly at folk clubs and festivals - for the next forty-odd years. That he didn't achieve what most would regard as 'fame' was no reflection upon his talents, and was certainly not for want of word-of-mouth support from his many fans around the English-speaking world and beyond.
The po-faced and self-regarding of the 'official' poetic world (that is to say, nearly all of them) would no doubt have dismissed his work as 'doggerel' had they ever bothered to read it. But that would be to fail to take account of the fact that Barker was part of a long tradition of English humorous verse which includes Lear, Carroll, Gilbert and, latterly, the music-hall monologues of Marriott Edgar. He combined the down-home joviality of Ogden Nash with the surrealism of Ivor Cutler and the verbal playfulness of Ken Dodd. He wrote to entertain, even though - as you will see below - there was a serious intent to many of his works.
He was - to use a phrase used by Anne McCaffery to describe Terry Pratchett - a "funster punster" (a quote which, it always seemed to me, spoke far more of her than of him). Just a look down a list of titles of his poems will give you some idea of the way his imagination worked; see how many plays on the titles of well-known songs and literary works you 'get'.
This would be merely a facile trick had he not been able to back it up so often in the substance of his verse. Here, for example, he turns one of the key events of twentieth-century English self-mythologising on its head:
There was always a gentle empathy apparent in even his most surreal flights, such as this sad tale of an African savannah creature who didn't fit in with his surroundings:
Animals of all sorts featured heavily in his verse, particularly dogs (in the early part of his career he was always accompanied by his mongrel dog, Mrs. Ackroyd), and this reached its Peke (sorry, 'peak') in another moving tail (I mean, 'tale') about a pair of star-crossed...dachshunds?:
Les Barker was also a master parodist, and here he is recounting one of the most persistent annoyances of turn-of-the-century home computing to the form of one of George Formby's most famous songs (no ukuleles were harmed in the making of this poem; sad, but you can't have everything):
It wasn't just Les himself who performed his pieces, however. His poems - serious and not so serious - were often performed by other luminaries of the folk scene, even if - in the case of Steve Tilston, for example - it was a parody of one of his own best-known songs. Starting in 2003, he collaborated with a charity to produce a series of albums under the general heading of Guide Cats For The Blind, in which Les and some well-known singers, broadcasters and other public figures performed his pieces. In this example - a personal favourite - Brian Perkins, long-time doyen of BBC Radio 4 announcers and therefore the ideal man for the job, recites Barker's take on another staple of latter-day English culture, The Shipping Forecast:
Remarkably, when he was well into middle age, Barker left his native Manchester and moved to the village of Bwlchgwyn, scarcely two miles from where I sit typing this. More remarkably still, he immediately got down to learning Cymraeg and immersing himself in its culture. So successful was he that he was able to gain a whole new following in poetry 'stomps' and eisteddfodau, and was for many years a stalwart member of his local team, Tegeingl, on Y Talwrn. Here he describes his struggles with one of the supposedly most difficult aspects of the language, the mutation system:
There was a 'serious' but no less entertaining and beguiling side to Barker's work however, and here is another folk legend - June Tabor - singing the opening number from his 1989 'folk opera' The Stones Of Callanish, where Les' words are set to traditional melodies:
Even in poems which had a serious intent, however, there was a lightness of touch which meant that - for all the solemnity of the subject matter - the listener never feels lectured. The tone is that more of sorrow than of anger. This is Les' response to the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath:
And bang up to date (well, 2021), here's his take on the way in which desperate governments use the panoply of self-affirming and exceptionalist 'Britishness' to cover up their multitude of sins and deficiencies:
Sadly, ill-health and old age caused Les to cease performing in the autumn of 2022, and he died last weekend of a suspected coronary in his car in the car park at Park Hall stadium, Oswestry, where he had just seen his team The New Saints win a cup match.
To amuse and to entertain; that is one of the highest callings of art - however defined - and in that Les Barker was a consummate artist. He leaves a legacy of hundreds of poems collected in books and on record which should provide that amusement, that entertainment, for many ages still to come.
Let us take our leave with another parody, this time of the only piece that Max Ehrmann will ever be remembered for. Hopefully, someone will recite this at Les' funeral:
"Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead.
Do not walk in front, for I may not follow.
Go over there somewhere."
Cwsg mewn hedd, Les, a diolch yn fawr.