Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was
evening bus ride . . . bumping along to the smell of chips — Frank Williams, Stepping Stones ed. Martin Lucas (British Haiku Society, 2007)
Mojde Marvast remarks:
This bus reminds me of today’s life.
The evening, end of a day, on a bus
With strangers on a path though known built by the unknown, the driver, unknown and the chips prepared and packed by the unknown!
What strangers we are in the life of civilization.
And we bump into obstacles unprepared.
The only company that is known is a smell, unseen but familiar.
Marion Clarke remembers:
Ah, how I love the smell of vinegar on chips! This brought me right back to traveling by the night bus in London after evenings out in the pub with my brothers and their friends down the local pub. The ‘bumping’ about as because the seats were hard in those days! It also reminds me of summers in my seaside hometown at nightfall, when the local bus stop would have a queue of day trippers returning home all eating a bag of chips. A really evocative ku for me.
Garry Eaton renders:
This modest haiku distills from the myriad events of the day a few concrete details that in themselves mean little but combined evoke clearly the way of life of the English working class, with its reliance on cheap public transportation (I see a double-decker), cheap food (I see fish and chips wrapped in grease-soaked newspaper) and cheap entertainment (the public bus ride itself, with its immense possibilities for private speculation and amusing observations.)
To cap the rendition of the experience, I think that the verbal phrase ‘bumping along,’ evoking the notion of a bumpy ride through life, alludes stoically but also with some pleasure to the trials, mishaps and the sense of a common plight that the less powerful can usually expect from life.
Scott Mason compares:
The dominance of our sense of sight is certainly a hallmark of our culture and perhaps even a characteristic of our basic makeup. I’m reminded of the advertising industry expression “video vampire” that warns of the common tendency of visual elements in TV commercials to obliterate audience recall of the accompanying soundtrack, which often carries the “selling message.”
But when visual cues are withdrawn or suppressed our remaining senses may blossom. Many examples in haiku come to mind, including this pair:
an empty beer can
taps the dock
— H. Gene Murtha
we turn out all the lights
to hear the rain
— Peggy Willis Lyles
Most such haiku attest to a heightened sense of sound. Frank Williams’ poem evokes sound but more explicitly invokes tactile and olfactory sensations. If he’s the one munching the chips, then the whole gang’s along for the ride!
And Alan Summers plumbs history:
A bag of chips is the perfume of life. Chips, and their bigger combination of Fish and Chips aka Fish n’ chips or Chish and Fips, is over 150 years old as a culinary institution. Chips is British English for a kind of (potato) fries, though not really French Fries, but fatter, where a small bag could be a meal for some people. Confusion will lie in some areas as American English dictates that chips are packeted potato slices otherwise known in the U.K. and Ireland as crisps.
Why does Frank Williams’ haiku mean so much to us living in the U.K. and Ireland, in particular? I could easily write a doctorate on chips; fish and chips; or fish suppers; and Frank’s haiku.
More about chips and buses later, but for now, according to a survey in 2004, the aroma of fish and chips is Britain’s tenth favourite smell, just behind perfume.
Read more facts about us chip eaters, and newspapers and more.
Just like chocolate is for the broken-hearted, and for the very happiest of us too, so too are chips and their sting and bite of salt and vinegar aka salt n’vinegar. There are so many facts around chips, brought about around 1860, including that the humble bag of chips was vital during two world wars, when populations were rationed over real and needed food. Winston Churchill, Britain’s War Leader, called them “the good companions” and so they escaped being rationed for the ordinary citizen. John Lennon smothered his in tomato ketchup, which is quite normal for many British people at least, and sometimes I’d even smother them in both tomato and brown sauces. Michael Jackson liked them with mushy peas, and Doctor Who liked them with cold custard. Chips, and their combined alternative meal of fish and chips literally sustained morale through two world wars fueling Britain’s industrial needs at the most dangerous of times.
Frank’s opening line already evokes a lot of memories of very long queues waiting a very long time only to find that they could not all fit into the long awaited bus. An evening bus ride can mean late season evenings getting dark earlier, so after a day’s work a long journey is lightened by holding a bag of chips even before diving into them. Or this could be a bus ride after leaving a pub or bar after work, partly to avoid the rush hour, and getting back home late, where even one bag of chips, with its distinct perfume will cheer up an entire audience of tired and hung over bus riders.
With Britain’s roads often neglected and wet cold days creating deeper potholes, a bus ride was often an violent experience of multiple jolts and sharp braking. A bag of chips is its own multi-sensory overload in music, including lip smacking our fingers because we love the chip fat, vinegar and salt as we finger pick our chips. Combine that with the sounds and sensations of badly organized traffic flow at rush hours, and it melds to make the experience enjoyable, both to the individual and as a crowd-pleaser, believe it or not.
So although chips are all-year-round cheap food, unlike most fast food that is both slow getting prepared and highly expensive, they are strong double seasonal markers: The Summer holidays by the seaside; and the winter side of Autumn sliding towards Yuletide. Yes, a bag of chips comes into its own on late Autumn days and into Winter as both hand-warmers and instant body energy, and as a mood enhancer. A bus load of passengers might resent the stench of burgers and fryer fat but never the tang of vinegar, salt, and chips. It lifts your spirits, and enables you to be excited over the simple things, and more happily resigned to waiting more even an hour for a bus to take you home after work.
The British wax lyrical about chips and they may well have been a life saver when rivers froze over regularly in the 19th and early 20th Centuries when fish was impossible for the average person to buy. Why? Because women began cutting potatoes into fish shapes frying them as an alternative, while Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain also came to the rescue as they have many times before, and since the old world wars, and the current ones.
The bag of chips available as an early street food and then cheap corner shop repasts is a cultural heritage partly brought to us by refugees who have so often delivered traditions or innovations to make our cold and wet islands (Britain and Ireland) just that bit more bearable. Reading Frank’s haiku cheers me up, makes me smile, and brings to the forefront ten thousand memories through childhood, into young adulthood, and beyond. There is also just the sheer delight of passing a chip shop with its warm glow, old-fashionedness, and that incredible alchemy of visual and olfactory sensations that brings a skip to our tired lives.
As this week’s winner, Alan gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
amniotic sac the floating nests of prairie doves — Marianne Paul, Frozen Butterfly, the video journal of English Language Haiku 2 (2015)