Have you ever seen those upbeat words on the outside of that closed down pub just before curry mile? Now and then it catches my eye, and the rundown building turns into a kind of poetry.
Only once have I entered Hardy’s Well. It was not a haunt of mine. But, having had a meal with my parents who were visiting, and walking back to Fallowfield, I thought that we ‘waterless wonderers’ might as well.
On entry, the first thing the three of us noticed was that the amount of people inside the pub had just increased by four hundred percent. This place did not seem like the ‘wonderous world’ of which its eponymous poem spoke.
I looked through to the back of the vast room where there was a table on which stood speakers and children’s toy disco lights. It was unattended, but cheery pop music played. I looked to my right as we approached the bar and saw that in lieu of decoration a dying plant lay draped over the edge of its flower pot.
Oh well, I thought, despite the air of discordance created by the clash of happy music and symbols of mortality, at least we would be able to get a drink ‘whereafter waves of wonderment will wash all weakness.’ I had interpreted this line from the poem on the outer wall of the pub to mean that you can get pints inside, so we got some pints.
Or at least we tried to get some pints, only for the girl behind the bar, lonesome as a seafarer in the middle of this empty ocean, to tell us that the pumps were not connected to any beer. The message on the surface of the outer wall of the pub was beginning to appear more and more distant to the internal reality.
Briefly we drank from bottles, for they had bottles, before deciding we should escape the scene. My dad said that this was the sort of place where you might return to the site the next day only to have an older local tell you the pub had burnt down seventy years ago. That seemed about right. It seemed not to be anyone’s haunt at present, but haunted by those from an age gone by.
As we left Hardy’s Well, Lemn Sissay’s poem, from presumably simple uplifting and sincere intentions, had reached an almost deafening pitch of situational irony. The words ‘why wait’ were once intended to encourage you to come on in, whereas in our experience they might more readily have been a suggestion to leave swiftly.
And now this dichotomy is even more extreme. With Hardy’s Well boarded up, the once cheerful poem of goodwill seems to take on the tone of the loveable friend who always tries to put a positive spin on things, even when it seems overly romantic to do so.
But perhaps this chirpy message on the surface of Hardy’s Well was only ever doing an impression of joyfulness. Maybe it was merely putting on a brave face. For life is not all ‘wonderment’. Even that word itself appears too gregarious, too ostentatious, too consolatory to be a consolation. It wants us to read it as a feeling of awe, but instead becomes a hybrid utterance. When we are faced with unequivocal happiness, such as this word wears on its outer layer, we begin to doubt whether things are really that perfect on the inside, we begin to wonder… is everything alright?
Lemn Sissay reacted despairingly on learning of the proposed demolition of Hardy’s Well. Though Sissay – and this is where he and I differ – sees the poem and the building as separate entities, as he has suggested the words might be transferred to a different building in Manchester. ‘The building may be condemned but the poem is not!’ he says.
Yet, in my view, the poem becomes something more interesting precisely because of its placement. Form here does not just influence content but constitutes it. The joyful words are literally superficial, surface level, as thin as a layer of paint. The three dimensional thematic network then arises out of the tired, abandoned, and potentially soon to be demolished building that draw the words into dynamic conflict.
I want neither the building nor the words to be condemned. But it is only in this suspended position of soon-to-be-condemned that the poetic scene has finally reached its most provocative dramatic state. The brave smile is fading but still stands; it has not fallen from the face of Hardy’s Well, yet is doomed to fall.
The poem announces that the pub is ‘a world which will waken the wilting wallpaper of work and worry.’ But those evenings at any pub, where one can forget the stress of work, are forever soon-to-be-condemned by their own ephemerality. The smiles and laughs as the third round is bought are always poised on a knife-edge. The end of the evening will eventually come. The building and the words will be destroyed. We will all have to return to work and worry. But not quite yet.