Timothy Winters

If you went to school in the UK anytime in the last sixty years then you will probably be familiar with this much anthologized poem.

Timothy Winters

by Charles Causley

Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.

When teacher talks he won’t hear a word
And he shoots down dead the arithmetic-bird,
He licks the patterns off his plate
And he’s not even heard of the Welfare State.

Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren’t boys like him any more.

Old man Winters likes his beer
And his missus ran off with a bombardier.
Grandma sits in the grate with a gin
And Timothy’s dosed with an aspirin.

The Welfare Worker lies awake
But the law’s as tricky as a ten-foot snake,
So Timothy Winters drinks his cup
And slowly goes on growing up.

At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves,
And the loudest response in the room is when
Timothy Winters roars “Amen!”

So come one angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says “Amen
Amen amen amen amen.”
Timothy Winters, Lord.
Amen!

Causley was often asked if this poem was based on a real boy. He answered: “My God, He certainly was. Poor old boy, I don’t know where he is now. I was thunderstuck when people thought I’d made it up! – he was a real bloke. Poor little devil.”

I was introduced to the poem in the sixth form where the A-level English teacher read it to the class – a rare digression from the set-texts. It stuck with me that he commented on the final “Amen” with “I’m not sure if Amen means so-be-it. If that is the case it makes for a powerful ending.” It’s been in my mind to look that up ever since and I just have.

Amen apparently comes to us via Latin, Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Essentially it is an interjection associated with the Hebrew words for truth and reliability, Verily, verily. It conveys agreement and emphasis and its precise meaning is open to interpretation. Merriam-Webster states that Amen is “used to express solemn ratification (as of an expression of faith) or hearty approval (as of an assertion).” That Timothy Winters ratifies the master’s plea for compassion for others is remarkable. 

I just came across a lesson plan for teaching the poem. It focussed entirely on the ballad form and not once in the series of suggested activities is there anything about emotional content or context. Another commentary suggested that Suez Street indicated  ‘sewer’. To me it just places the poem in the mid-fifties context of political betrayal and hypocrisy.

Causley lived almost all in his life in Launceston, Cornwall. This is a painting by the Cornish artist Gill Watkiss, The Schoolhouse Gates

Gill Watkiss, The Schoolhouse Gates

It reminds me of the work of L.S.Lowry who, like Causley, became something of a great national treasure.

Coming Out of School 1927 L.S. Lowry 1887-1976

Lowry was a solitary and reclusive man whose paintings hold a mirror to a bleak and grimy fog-bound industrial landscape of a shabby down-at-heel northern England. They convey a powerful experience of place. He said: “All my people are lonely’ and crowds are the most lonely thing of all.” After the death of his mother he said, “Were it not for my painting, I couldn’t live. It helps me forget that I am alone..”

This Head of a Boy is a departure from his usual matchstick-figures-in-a -landscape style:

L.S.Lowry 1960 Head of a Boy

Lowry failed miserably at school and his parents sent him to evening art classes to find out whether this was something at which he could succeed. He became an excellent draughtsman. There were no thoughts of becoming a professional painter. Instead he became a rent collector in Salford. This Man in a Wheelbarrow was also not a typical Lowry painting but it is a powerful evocation of abject despair and dejection. 

L.S.Lowry Man in Wheelbarrow 1965

If you like Lowry’s more populated scenes, or if you a fan of the Manchester band Oasis, then you will really enjoy this video where classic Lowry scenes jerk into life and the band plays on. . 

2 Comments

  1. Really interesting post. The poem reminds me that the “great” literary poems aren’t the only ones that stay with us, and Cornwall reminds me of our good friend and American artist, Ellen Lanyon (now departed), who was very proud of her Cornish roots.

    • It took me a while to get to it – but thanks to you – I’ve just spent a most interesting hour looking at Ellen Lanyon’s work. Wonderfully evocative curiosities. Midwestern surrealism at its best! Thanks Curt.

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