Unseen for Edexcel IGCSE practice: Long Distance II. Tony Harrison.

As usual, an unseen response written in 30-35 minutes to the Edexcel format with focus on the 3 bullets for that exam – descriptive devices, language choice and structure.

Long Distance II
Tony Harrison – 1937-

Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.

You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.

He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.

I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.

Harrison’s poem is divided into four stanzas which seem to explore the affect of grief, not only on the elderly, but also, as we reach the final stanza on the children left behind by the death of their parents. He uses the device of exploring his father’s grief at the death of his mother in the first three stanzas, before altering the ABAB rhyme scheme to ABBA offering a more open ended discussion of his own grief following the death of his ‘Dad’.

In the first stanza we notice at once the difference in formality between ‘my mother’ and ‘Dad’ which might suggest through the formality that his mother has been dead for some time – her passing has allowed him some closure and hence the less obviously affectionate address. During this time, Dad has maintained a sense of comfort for his dead wife – the description of his actions focuses on little acts of kindness typical of a couple who, through the length of their relationship know each other’s foible inside out. His father warms ‘slippers’ suggesting that he sees his wife as being about to return from some for of journey -something picked up in the reference to the ‘transport pass’ and the energetic mention in Stanza 3 of her having ‘popped out’. His action of the placing of the hot water bottle on ‘her side’ of the bed is a suggestion both of the habitual comfort they give each other, but also perhaps a way in which his father seeks to give himself some physical comfort at that loneliest time of day.

After establishing the love and affection of the pair in the opening stanza, Harrison delivers more information about the affect of grief in the following two stanzas. In the second stanza, the two short sentences with a strong caesura in the first line help to emphasise how this death has broken the bonds of family. The use of second person direct address helps to establish a sense of conversation whilst also distancing Harrison slightly from the reader. In short, where once there was an open door, there is now a need to make an appointment to visit. It is in the last line of this stanza that the simile – ‘as though…’ helps us to see that Harrison understands his father’s feelings and recognises why he clears the house. Importantly, it also suggests that Harrison does not share the feelings of guilt associated with this action, as will become clear in the final stanza.

In stanza three, grief is explored. It is clear that his father will suffer a physical pain by his ‘blight of disbelief’ suggesting that he fears his son’s reaction should he see the preparations his father is making. Harrison explores these actions further – the key in the ‘rusted lock’ my suggest a door long since unused and offers the idea of an end to his grief in the process. This is interestingly ambiguous: maybe it simply refers to a belief held that happiness will be miraculously restored by the mother actually returning from her shopping trip; maybe it suggests more an awareness that death will be the only release from grief possible. In this reading, the key suggests more an idea of a key unlocking the gates of heaven to allow the pair to be reunited. Certainly the italicisation of ‘knew’ seems to suggest that this is something oft repeated by his father, as though to avoid the need to look into the bleak reality of a finite life all alone.

This sense of a finite life opens the last stanza in which Harrison explores his own views – foregrounding his experience with the placing of the first person personal pronoun at the opening of the line.The short clause following the caesura seems to echo the finality of the message – the monosyllables are short and to the point, echoing life without any sense of a possible after life beyond. In the second line we learn that Harrison has now lost his father as well – he places the plural ‘you’ at the start of the line and addresses his parents together as the poem concludes. We see by his actions – adding a phone number to his suitably funereal ‘black leather’ phone book – that he and his father share the same response to death – an unwillingness to put it behind them and to move on. In this case,a dding the name might well be dismissed as habit; calling the disconnected number ion the vain hope of hearing their voices is a way of keeping them alive and giving solace, just as ‘Dad’s’ little domestic acts had done when his mother had died.

This poem suggests that grief is an open response which changes on experience from person to person. Perhaps the title of the poem with the Roman numeral suggests that the poem is itself part of a longer response to the grieving process – the second in a sequence of thoughts as death is explored.

A short discussion with a remote group of Year 11 Students can be found below: