Something on which we have always prided ourselves is our broad appeal. A Certain Regard draws submissions from all regions of the country, from villages and market towns as well as cities. Back when all this happened, we only accepted physical submissions, and only one per poet per issue, but in recent years we’d even been getting envelopes from overseas: America, of course, but also Canada and down under. Without any conscious effort, we seemed to have achieved a nice geographical balance. In three decades of the journal, however, we hadn’t had a single poem submitted from Cranham Town; we keep thorough records and I checked. No subscribers either: the nearest was in neighbouring Upminster – Barbara Beardsley, a long-time supporter.
‘Two poets from the same town!’ remarked Janet, looking through the authors’ bios for our autumn edition. I hadn’t noticed; I asked her where. We took to Google Maps in order to locate this Cranham Town. It lay on the eastern edge of London, north of the Thames and just within the M25. ‘Looks like we’ve got an outbreak of suburban poetry,’ Janet wryly observed. One poem was about some blue cows, the other a World War II airfield. Both were excellent. We published them side by side on facing pages. It was a funny coincidence, the sort of thing that’s not uncommon. We didn’t, as they say, give it much thought.
That winter, we saw a welcome boost in subscriptions, by which I mean an extra fifty or so. No fewer than seventeen of these were from Cranham Town addresses, one of them our blue-cow poet’s. Perhaps, we thought, this poet had a loyal writers’ group – but then there were the poems. This time we got five from Cranham Town authors, all of them new to us and each poem in its own way first class. I especially liked one about a woman changing a tyre. ‘There must be something in the Cranham water,’ was Janet’s comment. We decided we ought to conduct a little experiment.
There are eight of us on the editorial committee but the other six have nothing to do with subscriptions or the authors’ bios. So we decided to keep mum about the Cranham business, and let the others make their selections ‘blind’. Typically, the committee’s picks are all over the place; we have what are called lively discussions. But not this time. Never had we known such unanimity, and all six of them strongly in favour of the ‘Cranham Five’. Afterwards, at the Ram, we laid our cards on the table. They were amused and intrigued, but they didn’t see any real problem. I pointed out that twenty-five per cent of the poems in our next issue would be from Cranham Town. From the whole rest of England we’d only accepted six! ‘Surely, it’s the quality of the poems that counts,’ ventured Bernard and this opinion prevailed. At the end of the day, none of us, myself and Janet included, was inclined to reject any of the five poems or hold some of them over until the next issue. ‘Maybe, for spring, we’ll get fifteen Cranham poets,’ said Mo. Famous last words!
At this point, I should really insert a graph. Or two graphs: one to chart our subscriptions (Cranham Town v. non-Cranham) and another for poems received (CT v. NC). From the opening of the spring submission period on 1 January, each day’s mail seemed to bring an envelope from Cranham. Three of the poets we’d published already but, again, most were entirely new to us. Nor could Google turn up any previous publications. As for the poems – topical and timeless, free verse and sonnet, by male poets and female – they were among the best we’d seen in thirty years of the journal. Some made us laugh and others made us cry, while some achieved both at once. Reaching the end of more than one poem, I realised I’d been holding my breath.
Again, selections for our spring issue were made ‘blind’ and again the committee went for Cranham poets en masse. When we told them, they all agreed it seemed fishy, a bit too much of a coincidence. And yet the issue promised to be our strongest ever. Subscriptions, too, were up – markedly so, albeit most of our new subscribers shared a postcode. ‘I, for one, say rejoice,’ said Bernard, though not everyone was so blithe. At the end of the day, however, the poems from Cranham were simply better poems. We reached a compromise. The Cranham poets would all be published, all twenty-six of them, but alongside them we’d publish a dentist from New Zealand and two Welsh women, both schoolteachers; fortunately, the surge in subscriptions had allowed us to add extra pages. One decision Janet and I took unilaterally: fearing for the journal’s credibility, we quietly edited the authors’ bios to remove mention of any home town or city.
So we sent out the acceptance letters – our only two responses came from Wales – and set to work putting together our spring issue. When it came back from the printers the journal looked smashing. The cover photo was of irises, though Janet teased that a Welcome to Cranham sign would have been more appropriate. Twenty-six complimentary copies were duly dispatched to addresses in Cranham Town. We had a quiet week, then, before summer submissions opened, but new subscriptions were coming in all the while. I noticed, however, that Barbara Beardsley had discontinued, and that non-Cranham subscriptions as a whole were down eleven per cent. While the journal was thriving and the quality of the poems had never been higher, the long-term outlook was more doubtful. The way things were headed, we’d soon be publishing nothing but Cranham poets. And how much longer before our readership was confined to Cranham Town? Armed with our latest subscription list, I took once more to Google. There I learned that Cranham Town comprised fewer than 3,000 households. Of these, more than 400 – almost half our total – had already subscribed.
‘Well, I’ve had my fill,’ said Janet when I reported the results of my research. ‘Enough twiddling our thumbs – it’s time we took some action!’ I asked what she had in mind. ‘Pay a visit to Cranham Town and see what we can learn.’ As a plan it seemed vague, but I could understand my wife’s appetite for action. Visiting Cranham, however, proved to be easier said than done. Just getting to London took us three and a half hours and two changes of train. As we rode out east on the District Line, I wondered for, I think, the first time: why us? There were a number of respected journals far closer to Cranham Town. I could imagine London might not appeal, but why not Canterbury then, or Colchester, or Cambridge? Was there something particular about A Certain Regard that appealed to Cranham’s poetry readers and writers?
The District Line ended at Upminster but we were told we could easily walk to Cranham. ‘Or you could take the bus,’ said the helpful man at the station, ‘but it’s only ten minutes and…’ He tipped his head to indicate the fine weather. ‘Sort of blend into one another, they do, Upminster and Cranham.’ All the more curious, I told myself, that of all our recent subscriptions not one had come from an Upminster address.
Meanwhile Janet decided to quiz our local informant. She asked what Cranham Town was like and he said it was much like anywhere else. What about the people? He told us they were very nice. In fact, he added as we were about to go, he’d grown up in Cranham. His parents still lived there. ‘Do your parents like poetry?’ Janet inquired.
‘I couldn’t tell you.’ Abruptly he turned to help a disabled woman negotiate the barriers.
Strolling through Upminster, we formed the impression of a well-to-do town. The high street was alive with kids in uniform and mothers with pushchairs. A sign at the crossroads informed us that Cranham Town was a mere mile away. The shops dwindled, giving way to squat brick houses tucked behind hedges. There was no sign for Cranham. Like the man at the station had said, the two towns merged into one another. It wasn’t until Janet consulted the six-page list of our Cranham subscribers – she has a mind like that for lists and maps – that we knew for sure we were there. ‘Number 32,’ she confirmed, already unlatching the gate of a semi-detached house. The doorbell was answered by a shoeless, head-scratching teenager. ‘Hello,’ said Janet brightly. ‘We’d like to check that you received your spring edition of A Certain Regard.’
The teen blinked twice. ‘I’m not buying,’ he said, and went to close the front door.
Janet put her foot in. ‘Someone at this address ordered a copy of our poetry journal. We’re the journal editors. Is there someone else we can talk to?’
‘You can piss off!’ he bellowed with surprising venom.
Back on the pavement, I suggested to Janet that the young man didn’t seem like one of our readers, but she told me to save the sarcasm. We’d come too far to be put off by an initial setback. So on we pressed, deeper into Cranham Town. The sky clouded over and it began to look like rain. At the next two addresses there was nobody home. I began to see Cranham as a poor relation of Upminster. The town was singularly featureless, nondescript, devoid of charm. I hate to judge books by their covers but the people we passed, on foot or in cars, or sitting in their shabby houses, didn’t look like poetry lovers. It was hard to imagine them, as they went about their days, composing verses in their heads. My impression was confirmed when, the rain having come on, we stepped into the Essex Ploughman. We were met with an unwelcome combination of large-screen TVs, exhausted décor, piped-in pop music, flat bitter and cooked-from-frozen steak-and-kidney pies. I’ve rarely been gladder to head back out into the rain.
We resumed our tour of Cranham Town, knocking on doors and ringing bells. The town was home to plenty of angry dogs but few of their owners. Those who did answer their doors were uncomprehending at best, suspicious and hostile at worst. No eyes lit up at the mention of A Certain Regard. Even Janet grew disheartened, especially as the rain persisted and she struggled to keep her list of addresses dry. Resigned to make the long journey home without resolving the Cranham mystery, we turned back towards Upminster. And there, quite unexpectedly, all was revealed.
We were on a broad road of big four- or five-bedroom houses. The station was actually in sight when Janet halted and pointed out the house across the road. It was Barbara Beardsley’s. Our train didn’t leave London till six o’clock. Why not pay a visit to our one and only Upminster reader? Why not ask her why she’d cancelled her subscription? I had no objections.
She answered the door promptly, a white-haired woman in her late sixties. ‘Barbara?’ asked Janet. ‘Barbara Beardsley?’
‘Yes, that’s me,’ she confirmed, wiping floury hands on an apron. ‘Can I help you?’
No sooner had Janet told her we were from A Certain Regard than Barbara went to pieces. First her cheeks ripened like tomatoes. Then she stammered incomprehensibly. Finally she took a step back from the door and buried her face in her apron, sobbing. Eventually, however, she recovered enough to invite us in. ‘I can see I’ve got some explaining to do.’
Janet and I exchanged puzzled glances on a leather sofa while Barbara made tea. I was all set to reassure her about the subscription; we were grateful for her years of support and the journal was prospering. But before I got a chance, with tea brewing in the pot, a shamefaced Barbara confessed to having authored every one of the Cranham poems.
I told her flatly I didn’t believe it. She seemed genuinely perplexed. ‘Why would you come here otherwise?’
But I wasn’t done. ‘I’ve been reading and publishing poetry my whole life. You’ll never persuade me that all those dozens of poems, in all those different styles, were written by the same person.’ I looked to Janet for corroboration, but she looked pensive. Barbara poured the tea.
‘I can believe it,’ said Janet at last. ‘It does explain quite a lot. I actually wondered if it mightn’t be that: all the poets one and the same.’ There was a Portuguese modernist, she went on, who’d adopted different voices and personas in his writing. ‘How many?’ I asked. She thought six.
I remained sceptical. ‘What about all the addresses?’ I protested. ‘All those letters of acceptance we sent out, not to mention the complimentary copies.’
This prompted another fit of sobbing from our host. ‘I’m a postmistress,’ she managed to communicate at length. ‘I’m in charge of the post office in Cranham; I’ve been there forty-two years. I wrote all those different cover letters, from all those addresses and under different names – I even forged their signatures – and I put one of my poems in each envelope. Then, when a letter or a package came in with one of your journals, either a complimentary copy or a subscription, I just had to… I intercepted it.’
‘So where are all those journals now?’ I asked.
‘They’re in the shed. Would you like to see?’
‘Not right now,’ I told her, sounding a bit like a TV policeman. ‘You mean to tell me all those new subscriptions were you too? Why on earth? It must have cost a fortune.’
‘To avoid suspicion. To give you the impression that Cranham had a thriving poetry community.’ Here she directed her gaze towards Janet, who’d remained oddly quiet as I interrogated our hostess. ‘Do you think I might go to prison?’
Janet went and perched on the arm of Barbara’s chair. She put an arm around her, assuring her it wouldn’t come to that.
I sniffed the air. ‘Something burning?’ I suggested. ‘My lemon drizzle cake,’ exclaimed Barbara and darted away to the kitchen. It wasn’t too badly burnt and we all enjoyed a generous slice. The cake seemed to fortify Barbara; at least there were no more tears as she answered our questions. We learned that the biographical details in some of the cover letters had been based on her regular customers. ‘Not so closely that anyone could identify themselves, in the unlikely event of them ever seeing the journal.’ And she admitted that the notion of poems from Cranham Town, of Cranham as a poetry town, had tickled her; the elaborate scheme had begun as a private joke. ‘Can you imagine anywhere less poetic?’
As for why she’d chosen A Certain Regard, she said she’d always enjoyed our journal. ‘Plus it felt safely distant. I never thought you’d come all this way. I know it was wrong, defrauding you like that. I’m so terribly sorry.’
‘Fiddlesticks!’ Janet insisted. ‘Your poems are wonderful and we’re honoured to have published them. Do you have more?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Barbara, ‘several hundred. I’ve been writing them since I was a girl, but my late husband resented my habit. I never submitted anything – fear of rejection, I suppose. I really just wanted to know if they were any good. I was honestly surprised when you accepted those first two. I’m afraid, after all those years of stuffing them in drawers, I got a bit carried away.’
I suggested that we’d best be away ourselves, if we were going to catch our train. But Barbara prevailed on us to stay. She’d make dinner and then we could sit up late and talk poetry. While she cooked and opened a bottle of wine, Janet and I hatched a plan. Janet outlined it over dinner. She said Barbara’s poems deserved a wider audience. We could start by publishing a special issue of the journal with the thirty-three poems we’d already published. There would be a foreword explaining the whole business while mentioning other great literary hoaxes. ‘We won’t mention the post office or intercepting envelopes, even if the contents were rightly yours. You might want to think of a pseudonym though, to be on the safe side.’
Barbara already had one in mind: ‘BB.’
Janet said we’d aim to launch this special issue at the York Festival where it was sure to make a splash. ‘Would I need to be there?’ asked Barbara diffidently. ‘Not if you don’t want to,’ Janet told her. ‘You could always come incognito. We’ll establish BB as a fierce recluse.’ Barbara said she’d like that and produced champagne.
We left late the next morning with promises to keep in touch. That was the one time we actually met her, though she claimed to have been at York in disguise. And she wrote a few months later to thank us for her royalties. We’d sold out of the special issue as well as the journals from Barbara’s shed; the latter, I’m told, are now a collector’s item.
We invited her to further festivals and readings – one with some well-known actors reciting her poems – but she politely declined. Her first festival, she wrote, had brought her enough pleasure to last a lifetime. Besides, she added, she was busy at work in ‘these challenging times for the post office. I have a few amends to make for my behaviour.’
A week or so after that, Janet received a box of typed poems. The first was dedicated to Janet and myself, short and simple – a poem called ‘In Gratitude’. It wasn’t clear if she meant this to be considered for the volumes Janet’s putting together. We’ve decided to keep it to ourselves for now, in a frame on the office wall. Meanwhile, we’ve passed the journal on to younger hands, Bernard’s and Mo’s in particular. I think we’d both had enough and, anyway, Janet has her work cut out with BB’s poems. I’ve decided not to read them until they’re published. Instead, I’ve finally found my way back to my own writing. After all, if BB could write while working in a post office in a place like Cranham… I’ve yet to have any of my poems published, or even to send many out. Some days, my writing seems like a pale imitation of hers. But I do think our new hats, the different pastimes we’re engaged in, have been good for me and Janet. Actually, I think they may have saved our marriage.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.