Thursday, 5 September 2013

The poetry of Mary Wilson

Say what you like about Samantha Cameron or Justine Miliband as political arm-candy - at least they don't write poetry. Or if they do, they keep it to themselves.

Younger readers of this blog may never have heard of Mary Wilson, wife of the former British Prime Minister Harold. Younger readers may never, come to that, have heard of Harold Wilson either or, as he was never known, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, FSS, PC. Older readers who remember them both may be surprised to learn that Mary is still with us, aged 97 and living close to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Harold died in 1995.

She wrote poetry, and some of it was published. A cynical view is that it's the kind of stuff only a statesman's consort would get into print. The blurb on the back of my copy of her Selected Poems, published in 1970 by Hutchinson, says:

This selection from the poems of Mary Wilson, wife of Harold Wilson, has been made by herself from those she has written over many years. They reflect the compassion of a serious, kindly and sensitive woman who derives great joy and consolation from the poetry of others and is moved, by all sorts of varying experiences, to express her own views in the same medium. Very many people, to whom poetry and its writing may be something of an intimidating mystery, will gain an understanding and appreciation of it from Mary Wilson's reflective writing.

The hardback sold an astonishing 75,000 copies to readers who might otherwise have found poetry 'an intimidating mystery' (and there's nothing wrong with mysteries, and we all benefit from intimidation when it comes as a beneficial shock). There's an underlying assumption in the blurb  about the relative roles of Harold and Mary in the political and cultural life of the nation that is very much of its time.

Here's a sample of her work:

After the Bomb

After the Bomb had fallen,
After the last sad cry
When the Earth was a burnt-out cinder
Drifting across the sky,

Came Lucifer, Son of the Morning,
With his fallen-angel band,
Silent and swift as a vulture
On a mountain-top to stand.

And he looked, as he stood on the mountain
With his scarlet wings unfurled,
At the charnel-house of London
And the cities of the world.

And he laughed..........

And as that mocking laughter
Across the heavens ran,
He cried 'Look!' to the fallen angels -
'This is the work of Man
Who was made in the image of God!'

© Mary Wilson / Hutchinson

I grew up during the Cold War. Or rather I didn't, because the concept of utter extinction following a four-minute warning and nuclear holocaust wasn't conducive to maturation. So it's closer to the truth that I lived through the Cold War, through a period that instilled in me, in all of us, a disabling existential terror. The cynical 'No Future' nihilism of the 1970s punk movement and its attendant cult of arrested development was largely attributable to the fear induced in a post-war generation by the threat of imminent annihilation. What was the point of anything? 

Mary Wilson's poetry makes me unhappy because it was written by the wife of a nondescript man who, for much of my childhood, wielded power of a kind that is barely imaginable today - power to end life on large parts of our bit of the planet. She may well be a 'serious, kindly and sensitive woman' but that counted for little at the time. The psychic damage of growing up under the threat of atomic holocaust is hard to calculate - but it made me feel bad all the time, and still does. "On a mountain top to stand". Christ almighty.


  1. The theme of her poem is original and consistent: The chief Christians gods, God and Lucifer are antagonists.
    God is the nice guy.
    Well, if beings made in the image of God do what's described in the poem, then, as Lucifer implies, "Which one is the nice guy?"

  2. I find it a little odd that you don't mention Mary Wilson's support for CND in this post.