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A selection of poems by Robert J Bell Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, a selection of poems

Robert J Bell Born in Halifax and brought up in Hull, he was educated at the Marist College (Hull), St Andrews and Oxford Universities. He works on Humanitarian and local challenges in frontier markets and has written poetry for a number of years. Recently, he decided to join the throng and has staged performances of his work combining poems, music and images. His first collection, Sharp Street (2012) was about the impact of the First World War on a Hull community. He has had poems published in Amnesty International’s Small Candles (2012), the English Chicago Review and, he was commended in the 2013 Larkin and East Riding Poetry Prize. His current focus is on the complex story of migrants moving through Hull from 1830 to 1914. The first group of poems, The Land of Green Ginger, explores origins, journeys and arrivals in Hull. The second, A Kind Of Belonging, takes the story further to migrant destinations and legacies. Meanwhile, he is developing the theme of the First World War with work on troops from the Dominions and a Performance piece called Oppy Wood. For more of his work:

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger One of the oldest street names - the Land of Green Ginger – is here in Hull; not far from the River. They say that a Dutch man called Lindegreen (meaning green lime trees) owned a place in the streets by the High Street and his son took it over. Lindegreen jonger – simple as that. Maybe the Land of Green Ginger comes from a time in the medieval age when spices were a precious cargo and ginger was one of them - gingivere; that fibrous cousin of tumeric, cardamon, galangal. Perhaps. Just maybe … this is a place – for dreams. The Land of Green Ginger is Hull’d Yellow Brick Road, a place with a hint of destiny. For some, a refuge with the promise of freedom; for others, the Land of Green Ginger is the land of opportunity; that place paved with gold where dreams become a reality. This is not just a place to go to. This is the place to become the person you want to be. From 1830 to 1914 an estimated 40 million people emigrated from Europe to move to North America; South America; Australasia or South Africa. Over 2 million people came through Hull. Most of them passed through on their way further afield from Liverpool, Glasgow or Southampton; some of them stayed. The sheer scale is – when we try to grasp the enormity of this individual and collective experience - enormous. Back in the 19th century there were millions of people who needed or wanted to escape from villages, shetls, towns and cities all over Europe. There were Irish – over here to work the harvest or dig the docks out by hand. There were Norwegians, Swedes and Finns – over 20 per cent of their populations left for the New World. There were Germans from the Upper Rhine – constant wars, weather storms and floods washed away fruits and hay. There was no work for day labourers. There were Jews – fleeing the pogroms. These pogroms were called storms in Negev; a Biblical world for the South. Reaching for the Land Of Green Ginger has been developed as a Performance combining Poetry; Music and imagery. Several of the poems have been adapted by Derek O’Connor working with other musicians Jody McKenna and the Hillbilly Troupe. There are plans in place to explore this complex and all too often neglected narrative still further. This e book is a selection taken from over 100 poems exploring the origins, journeys and experiences of millions of people on their way to find freedom and opportunity.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Rosenthaler Tor, Berlin

I’m the gatekeeper at the Rosenthaler Gate. Today, there passed six oxen, seven swine and a Jew with a hunchback. I asked him what he sold. He said reason. I asked him why Berlin? He said to learn. Among these Yiddish were men of letters; “useful Jews”; Jewellers; shoemakers; those selling hats; paupers. Others, poor and deranged; one of them rocked in a prayer-like trance endlessly, faster than the rhythm of a clock. There are many types of silence like the one when he walked away from the gate; his journey a home.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Famine, County Clare, Ireland

We have all seen women in shawls keening; kids in their bare feet; fat bellies full of wind. Landlords in Sunday best praying to their God as ours slept. I remember the fiddler at a crossroads playing to the moon. And then, seasons turned against us; nothing from the ground we had cleared of stones. After a time cottages were torched and soon no age on any street – then the young had to go; sup from the parting glass, leave hearts behind and journey with all our souls about them. We would journey to any warm chimney corner, swarm like crickets to the crevice of a Brew-House, fetch their harvest, dig their roads, sell ballads on street corners, wheen our childer as theirs.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Storms in Negev, Riga, the Russian Empire

What’s the latest news from the sky? A gold toothed woman would say, turning cards on a copper table. Everyone held days close; buying and selling in the market, paying their patch. All the while badchans singing bawdy verse, acrobats turning along the wire, minstrels stroll, stall keepers weigh fruit on tin scales. There was something you knew about a police state amidst all of this – no news beyond the sky, just a rumoured cruelty with stark choices – compromise or acquiesce, the gossip at street corners: “You can’t trust a man who sells tools but doesn’t use them”. Each day opens like a stage cleared; building back tensions and hopelessness waiting for Jerusalem in a pause as wide as the sky.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Roadside CafĂŠ, Lithuania, the Russian Empire

It was as if their eyes and ears were bolted shut, with writers and mystics the only ones to catch the inner voices of dreams at twilight; to sense a clearer air beyond their dogmas and the howl of the unchained street. In a cafĂŠ at the crossroads on market day, he was reading a letter from the Land of Green Ginger imagining its sinuous pleasures. It was the same with all these letters; he would read and leave the page to float above this time, travel to be where cares were gone as tea went cold in the samovars.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Maksymilian Faktorowicz's dream

Migrant boats sailed on tears; just like plants uprooted you could see the Elders wilt. For me the run of the sea could not be fast enough. Months flew by: carts filled with homes, a rabid look on our suddenly feral neighbours. Meanwhile, I watched myself smile at my dreams in the long wall mirror of the cafĂŠ by the Church. The Nefertiti bust at the time of the Pharoahs introduced me to eyeliner; I used burnt cork and learned more from Litvak circus clowns building mood about the face. Books on masks took me further. The tranquil half shut eyes of the Senufu, lines etched about the mouth; Inuit masks made of driftwood; stylised kabuki and Tuscan mannequins. For months I collected hair to make my wigs, packed them tight in my shoes with all my other props and potions. There was no need for prayers all I needed was for fashion to reveal itself and me to work my magic with the mood of the moment. When we arrived I sketched the pale pallor of ladies at Music Hall; studied mystery smouldering in the shadows, remember the smell of Bay Rum on the men, worked on thin layers of greasepaint for the big screen. I saw my future in faces all about me; shaping them again with fantasy; all their cares fall away. It was enough to see them all stare at their image

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


in a wall of mirrors in a splendid saloon feasting on now. For me, there was no looking back.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


A migrant child’s journey from the woods of Pomerania to the moon

Out in the forest where mushrooms grew a thief stole wood; hacking away young spruce and then, the sleeping Zoomzeman’s leg. We children chased that rascal, all the way to the moon, through a meadow of stars by a lake filled with honey and curd. And now, we are here on a quayside in the middle of a journey to a place by the railroad track far from our island full of trees but light on soil – or so Pappa said when he kissed us at the crossroads. We had no books on the journey but stories and dancing on the decks kept us dreaming. My Mother had eyes for all of this; holding us under her shawl as the boat climbed and fell, singing songs as night covered the ugly towns. I told no-one how I stitched back the June Bug’s leg, carried him to Amerika on a troika of golden hay.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Emmanuel Cohen, the biggest Jeweller in Hull, tells his tale of oranges

Here, before I pull up the shutters of my shop on Humber Street; I polish the candlestick offered at Passover to my grandmother in Libau; lay out the fare for the traders, clean dust from the windows, ready myself to care for their pieces and smell a burst of oranges from Seville. Just see this. A landscape of wet cobbles; steamers strung out along the quays; a smell of coal, rancid butter, fish manure, stale beer, fresh horse shit from clay horn shires, cough mixture from Owbridge’s factory, a sight of women back alone from the night. Ballast brick at a gable end; the dramatic articulation of the prayer hall; arcades of piers and arches; alternating red and white voussoirs in the Umyyad style. I peal an orange in the Sephardi tradition; take in an exotic smell of groves. More flood off the boats; lost in a forest of brick and cobble, wide eyed with the blast of it all.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Humber Street Hawkers

Selling on the streets is a kind of hopelessness; hawkers selling damp matches, chipped plates, things washed up with arrivals. The decent stuff rests with pawn brokers; eyes shifting through you for clues, on rents unpaid, hungry bairns. All the rest is picked from fattened trees, pockets full of watches, kerchiefs, florins and snuff boxes. A man in a coat tied at the waist with rope is sharpening knives on the step. He sings his song of a thousand lakes in a vanished land and laughs; as mad as spoons.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


A migrant tells of Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, Hull

By day, we live in the breathless rant of fizzing streets; air heavy with drains, sour pickles, onion bread, open dustbins, rotting debris from market stalls, the sweat of men back from a shift and the damp lines of clothes in dark alleyways and courts. Sewing machines rattle, children dance a maypole round the street lamp, a fight breaks out, an aria rises from an ice cream stand, neighbours bang on thin walls. Tonight, in sudden calm, someone is typing; percussive key-strokes, ring return. Silence. A chime of words. Stop. Perhaps a letter from the Land of Green Ginger telling of a place to rush to with neat streets, smiling policemen, meat on every plate, feet for cobblers, wardrobes needing suits from tailors, coopers yards for smithys villages reject; high buildings empty of glass for sure handed glaziers, an endless stream of eligible men leaving ships. Songs of Erin; klezmer tunes, a harp. Or perhaps, those keystrokes weave rooms full of whispered argument, menfolk with sour eyes crowding dockside gates for work; women stitching pieces by candlelight on streets full of screaming kids picked to the bones, new streets to digest under slate grey skies, a parrot at the window sill in a rusted cage swearing.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Again, the clicking tide answering dreams; of brothers and sisters hemmed in by ancient curses far away, the open sores of bigotry or the forcing hands of tradition. Here, we speak of Odessa and Dublin as if they are suburbs of Hull; watch them turn tarot cards to keep in touch, tell us of our fading roots and futures crowded out by life now.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


The Amazing JonJoe Galvin comes back from New York

I say, I say, I say … My wife said to me “Wat you up to today?” I said “Nowt” She said “You did that yesterday” I said “I wasn’t finished”. You see. I was. There’s me doing songs and gags, burlesque and me “the Kings Jester” then, vaudeville on a New York stage. The crowded streets; the hen pecked husbands; and me the inventor of explosive devices, laughter away from the lines laid down. Yankee critics slated me; I came back to hear laughter again – heard it echo in the bottom of a bottle. All along I wanted to be Richard III; stand proud at the edge of the stage, thunder his lines. After me came the Lions Comiques striding the stage, walking the Zoo and me the Aq – which never caught on. I was magic as Humpty Dumpty; Marie Lloyd couldn’t touch me. Then, I was clog dancing; like the old days – on a railway platform. No one stood to watch; no one clapped; they rushed about me then, the rossers came to take me away. I was missing the rent; henpecked by my wife; wearing clothes that just won’t fit. Silence all about me and the click of clogs as I walked to the cells.

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Song: More than Us (Bell / O’Connor) The traveller is dew on a parched land; hands for the harvest, music for the band. Muscle for the cargo, young evenings blood courting - if they settle only if they could Chorus Where the women trace the coastline following the herring shoals sailing down from Aberdeen; keening their laments... All here with their music in the evenings light sharing the half dark of the bars at night They come to the Land of Green Ginger dreams chased so long. They spend words like sailors moneys all gone Where the women trace the coastline following the herring shoals sailing down from Aberdeen; There’s more than us. And the men will chase their old ghosts following a drunken road sailing under empty skies There’s more than us. [Three times] Sailing under empty skies / there’s more than us

Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, A selection of poems


Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, a selection of poems  
Reaching for the Land of Green Ginger, a selection of poems