Telling the life story of 'forgotten' local poet Felix Noonan, a poet who wrote his verse in a thick Sheffield dialect (there is a quick foreward explaining word usage and pronunciation), hoping to do for the distinctive South Yorkshire accent what Robbie Burns did for the Scottish one.
Telling the story of his forebears sets the scene, starting with his boxing champion grandmother Kitty and his mother Henry (named when the rather punch drunk and confused Kitty was convinced she was having a boy) and their adventures which ultimately resulted in the production of young Felix. The story then follows his life from gruelling hardship of industrial Sheffield until his rise to fame as Britain's nominated poet for the Second World War. Now a perons with a reputation he manages to get involved with many of the great people and events of the 20th Century.
Reading this book is an absolute blast. It's one of those that you can just pick up and read more of with a big grin and the occasional chuckle (if not out loud laughter, followed by a rather embarrassed check to see if anyone else in the room noticed). The style of writing is confident and tells the story as straight biography without a trace of irony, no mean feat. We are told for instance that as a child Felix suffered from poor health, in particular "mumps, cholera, flu, scarlet fever, a bad back, polio, consumption, Athlete’s Foot, measles and chilblains".
Excerpts from his poetry abound and are well worth reading (possibly including a quick refresher from the foreward). The excepts from Noonan's Poetic Places, a sort of thumbnail sketch of a tour of Britain in poem form are particularly fine. For example for Weston-super-Mare:
If da likes a sunneh beach else visitin a fair
Da could doo a damn sight wess dan Weston-super-Mare
Or my personal favourite, the terrific Anglesey rhyming couplet:
If yoo should cross ooer t’Menai Bridge get readeh for a shock
There are also quotes from other famous literary people of the time who apparently met or mentioned Felix but strangely the passages were edited out of their works before final publishing. There are tales of his hounding by the FBI and the McCarthy anti-communists in America and of his search for his routes in Ireland. There are a veritable Who's Whom of cameos such as Brendan Behan, George Orwell and Alan Ginsberg.
All of it is terrific stuff, told with a lot of brio and tongue firmly in cheek. This is a firm favourite of mine and will be a book I will be re-reading from time to time. It might be said that if there hadn't been a Felix Noonan, someone would have to invent him.
Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet is available from The Besotted Wretch bookshop, 329 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield S7 1FS and if any trip to Sheffield was not already a great day out, why not make it even better than popping in and buying a copy and browsing the other books they have for sale?