Helen Tookey, ‘Unadopted’
in Missel-Child
(Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014)

When you lift the receiver the story
is already unfolding: quiet
insistent cross-talk of

a party line. Behind the lock-ups
June hangs heavy,
deep sea-green and sour

on the tongue. Wires hum
along the cutting. At the edge
of the permissible you finger-

spell the word: unadopted. Radios
talk of Rhodesia, and at night
the fitful banging of the trap.

During the 1970s, there was a certain sense of community when the power cuts arrived unannounced: spare candles and gas cookers were useful long before the arrival of the microwave oven. This sense of togetherness extended also to telephony and the availability of a neighbour’s or relatives’ phone where leaving a coin as payment was enough renumeration. Not everybody had the luxury of their own phone, hence the phone box was a common sight on the high street, in the village and on the council estate.

Helen Tookey’s poem ‘Unadopted’ locates itself firmly in the 1970s of the power cut and the party line; an outside telephone line shared between two or more homes. The listening-in to others’ conversations and, in turn, waiting for the line to be cleared and the click of the line being closed so that one could place a call, was all part and parcel of making, or attempting to make, a call. These overheard snippets of conversation, in the era when children were seen and not heard, when the ‘wires hum’ and nefarious or otherwise suburban activities (‘behind the lock-ups’), combine with the news being carried through the wires ‘along the cutting’, and paints a picture of past modes of communications.

The poem’s concerns with communication further extends to the narrator finger spelling ‘Unadopted’; the poem’s title and an allusion to unadopted roads which were unmanaged by the councils and a key to the possible location of the house with the party line.

by Andrew Taylor