Review of 'In the Colonie', Michael Rosen, Penguin £7.99
Why do our holidays - and especially our childhood holidays - often leave such vivid memories? Is it solely because we are confronted by the unfamiliar? Or is it also because, in removing ourselves from routine, from the unconscious assumptions about our lives and relationships, we clear the mental clutter and look at ourselves anew? That in separation we realise how we belong?
This is one of many questions prompted by In the Colonie, Michael Rosen's third and final collection of autobiographical prose-poems. In his wonderfully perverse way, he has concluded with a set dominated not by his most recent past, but by his most distant. This break with convention works extremely well - just as an onion cannot be peeled from its core, so Rosen has stripped away years of experience to arrive at his early, formative moments.
The kernel of this book is therefore set in the 'colonie', the retreat run by French Communists in which Rosen spent a glorious long summer when aged 16. This setting combines the usual tentative and tactless ploys of young people to impress their peers with the ironies of a Communist-influenced culture. So the students debate striking against the lentils served on a Thursday and are compelled into a fraught production of Don Quixote, which they spend tilting at cardboard boxes.
In the colonie Rosen confronts being an outsider. It's not a new feeling - it's apparent in the anti-Semitic taunts he faces at school and the confusing certitude of class solidarity and internationalism displayed at home. But it is only in France that he articulates his fears:
'I needed them more than they needed me. They knew each other, their mothers and fathers worked together, they shared the same schools and streets and shops. They talked about meeting in the market. I wanted to be them but I was irritated that I wasn't them. There didn't seem to be anything they wanted from me or anyone English they wanted to know about, or any English words that they wanted to hear.'
But he overcomes these anxieties, and by the end of his holiday French is symbolically pushing 'English out of its seat in the middle where it thought it was safe' in his mind. He begins to belong in a place that had seemed so alien, and he learns more than French in the process.
The journey doesn't start or end with the colonie, though. It also takes in Aldermaston, Grosvenor Square, the sounds and smells of the 253 bus, and 'the February when we could see that the reason why was not the reason why'. There is a tribute to the Chartist William Cuffay, to mutineer Richard Parker, to the Shrewsbury Two, and a poem condemning class society by reducing it to its basic, absurd logic.
The style is eminently readable and appropriate. When he recounts the slanders thrown at the Aldermaston marchers it is with his adolescent voice - so 'the papers said we were all doing sex', rather than having it. There is no artifice to Rosen's prose-poems, and their conversational, sometimes stream of consciousness approach means that insights are sugar-coated with self-deprecation and modesty rather than the pretensions that blight so much poetry. All in all, we can only be glad that he decided to drop medicine for 'books, and books about books'.