Essay | Diary of a Pembridge Poet: June 1976 – March 1977 by Chris Rice

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Chris Rice


Diary of a Pembridge Poet:
June 1976 – March 1977….


On 17th June 1976, Robert Greacen, Northern Irish poet and colleague of Chris Rice at a private language school in Holland Park, hosted the first of his poetry workshops from his flat in Pembridge Crescent, Notting Hill Gate.

As the junior member at that first meeting, Chris kept a diary of the group’s comings and goings, and continued to do so for the next six years. The extracts below trace a ten-month period from the first meeting in a small flat in Notting Hill Gate to the group’s first public reading in Sloane Square.

Thursday 17 June 1976.   First workshop: Robert Greacen (56), Peter Rodda (39, South African writer and activist), Tim Dooley (25, poet and English teacher), Matthew Sweeney (24, poet from Donegal), Gerald Clarke (maths tutor; age unknown – a possible time traveller from Camelot), and me (24, unpublished poet and EFL teacher).

Robert sits at his desk while the rest of sit around him in a horseshoe on sofa, futon and (in Gerald’s case) an armchair to Robert’s left. When it’s our turn, we pass round carbon copies of the one or two poems we’re going to read. Afterwards, the poems are discussed by the group. Throughout the evening, we drink nothing but cider.

Matthew reads a poem about the moon. Robert, one about a secret agent called Captain Fox. Gerald, wispy white hair glowing yellow in the light of the standard lamp behind his armchair, reads a brilliant poem, ‘The Enemy’, published a while ago in The New Statesman. I sheepishly read a prose poem I wrote two years ago. ‘Amusing, free from passenger lines and unnecessary repetition’ is the general verdict. So far, so good.

Matthew and I have a drink afterwards at The Sun In Splendour. He peers at me thoughtfully over his drink, leans forward and, in a slow drawl, intones:

‘They’re selling postcards of the hanging.’

I lean forward and reply, in a low voice, as if to a secret password: ‘They’re painting the passports brown.’

‘Correct!’ he says, a crescent-moon smile breaking through the dark cloud of his beard.  

To celebrate the discovery of our mutual allegiance to Bob Dylan (and, by definition, our authenticity as poets and men), we recite, if not in their exact order, all eleven verses of ‘Desolation Row’.

*

Thursday 1 July 1976.  Workshop: Robert, Peter, Tim, Gerald, Matthew, Augustus Young (33, poet from Cork), Dermot Healy (29, Irish writer).

We’re joined by two more Irish poets. I feel a bit out of my depth with these older seasoned campaigners. No one has a bad word to say about Dermot Healy’s work. With his big red beard and ferocious blue eyes, who can blame them? He doesn’t just pin you with his gaze. He bayonets.    

*

Thursday 15 July 1976.   Workshop: Robert, Peter, Tim, Dermot, Gerald, Jenny Joseph (44, English poet).

Birdlike in her straw hat and glasses, without pausing for breath, Jenny Joseph talks about the objective ‘I’, conversation and rhetoric, dreams and morals. She says my poem, ‘Very Sad and Heavy, is an ‘echo’, and she’s more interested in the original voice. No time to digest her advice. She’s off again: ‘One could so easily work in other people’s rooms, couldn’t one? I think bias is so necessary in magazine editorship. Even when one disagrees, one knows what one is disagreeing with, doesn’t one …?’

I started the evening depressed over complications in my love-life. Meeting Jenny has sure taken my mind off that.

*

Tuesday 20 July 1976.   Peter introduces me to a friend of his at lunchtime, Jacques Pérèyre: a charming man who tells me I should be jumping for joy now that my girlfriend has left me. He gives me a copy of his book, which I’m now reading: Poètes Engagés Sud-Africains.

*

Tuesday 3 August 1976.   Peter and I see a one-man show of recitations from Juvenal at the Bush Theatre Upstairs.

Front-row seats in a small and airless auditorium. The constant misogynistic wailing gets a bit much at times. But Simon Callow, immaculate in an evening suit, is unflaggingly entertaining. At one point, halfway through a satirical sketch involving treachery in the senate, he looks straight at me, jabs an accusing finger in my direction and bellows:

‘And you Lucretius!’

Peter brays with laughter as I wipe a spray of spot-lit sweat and spittle from my brow.   

*

Saturday 7 August 1976.   Move into a tiny flat next to Peter’s first-floor bedsit in Keith Grove, Shepherds Bush. Listen to Joni Mitchell. I feel lazy; I enjoy stretching.

*

Thursday 12 August 1976.   The Black Bull, Fulham: Peter reads a selection of mostly political poems.

Robert gets drunk. Jenny can’t stop talking. Peter is euphoric. A triumph! But, as we walk out into Fulham Broadway, am I alone in being shocked that nothing has changed? People pass us by with no admiration or envy in their eyes; just a clinical, benign indifference. As if the poems had never been written, and nothing but blank pages have been read.

*

Friday 20 August 1976.   Peter and I throw a joint flat-warming party.

Peter accidentally sets fire to his curtains with a candle on the window sill. No laughing matter since, with newspapers and magazines piled to the ceiling, the room’s a death-trap. Robert, sitting in the room’s only armchair, is the first to notice the flames.

‘Oh, I say,’ he chuckles appreciatively, as if admiring a clever lighting effect.

I lift the sash window, pull down the burning curtain and toss it out onto the Keith Grove pavement.

Everyone crowds into my slightly larger room next door. It seems safer. Talk with Matthew and his girlfriend, Rosemary, about the moon, Apollinaire and surrealism. A student of mine, Mona, says a tearful goodbye. She’s going back to Lebanon next week. She kisses me twice on the cheek and says ‘I’ll miss you,’ then, seeming about to faint, sways towards me, stops, turns and makes an abrupt departure.

Peter later tells me, when the guests have gone, that her father was killed in the fighting in Beirut earlier this year. I didn’t know.

*

Wednesday 25 August 1976.   Workshop: Robert, Matthew, Rosemary Barber (Matthew’s girlfriend), Tim and Jo (his partner), Dermot, Jenny, Peter, Gerald, Aidan Murphy (24, poet from Cork), a man with no voice called George.

Robert’s tiny top-floor flat is packed and very hot. Poems pass me by completely. Jenny’s are particularly hard for me to take in on first hearing.

Dermot’s accent is impossible to understand, but his ferocious blue gaze makes me want to try.

Robert reads a ‘Captain Fox’ poem called ‘Rats– a parody, I think. Clichés galore: ‘shot rang out’, ‘figure loomed’, voice ‘boomed’ … Enjoyable.

Aidan Murphy reads a great poem called ‘Massacre of Innocents‘, on a biblical theme, relating it to today.

Gerald reads an excellent poem called ‘Mother‘ – ‘If hatred was all, I could shrug it off / But the love mixed with it chains me.’

I read a prose piece called ‘The Opposite Directions of Algy the Solo Wizard’, which causes some mirth. Robert says it’s a successful, entertaining ‘light’ poem. Tim, with a disarming smile, reproaches me for being a ‘bit of a chauvinist’ (‘Her skin smooth enough to skate on’ just one of the offending lines).

Matthew reads poems about the moon.

*

Tuesday 14 September 1976.   Two poems rejected by Limestone. The editor, Geoff Adkins, says he likes ‘The Revolutionarybut finds it uneven.

*

Wednesday 15 September 1976.   Workshop: Robert, Matthew, Peter, Tim, Gerald, Aidan.

I read an old poem, ‘Paint No Wings’. Matthew says he’ll use it in the next issue of Cracked Lookingglass, subject to the approval of his co-editor, Joe Mallon.

I walk home to Shepherds Bush, too excited at the prospect of my first ever published poem to hang around for a bus.

*

Monday 20 December 1976.   Workshop (Christmas Special): Robert, Matthew, Peter, Tim and Jo, Gerald, Aidan, Dermot, Robin Hamilton, Eddie Linden (42, Glaswegian poet and editor of Aquarius).

Eddie Linden bellows, with a lot of angry arm-waving, a poem about Glasgow. Robin Hamilton criticises it for promoting only the ugly, ‘known’ side.

Matthew and Aidan collaborate on a brilliant parody of Captain Fox. Robert reads a poem incorporating everyone in the group.

I read a poem which, like Robert’s, incorporates members of the group – untitled as yet. Eddie (drunk) invites me to send it to Aquarius. Aidan calls it a ‘great’ poem; Dermot, ‘a fine, vivid work’. Robin Hamilton says that it has a ‘nice, folk-songish quality’. Robert, Matthew, and Peter, who recognise my representation of them as, respectively, bear, owl and basking seal, make no comment. Mm …  

*

Sunday 27 February 1977.   The Royal Court, Theatre Upstairs: Tiger’s Night by Peter Rodda.

The theatre is packed. The general consensus seems to be that the play is funny in places, although not always where Peter intends it to be. Matthew thinks that Peter is too much of a scholar. He knows too much about what he’s doing. Nevertheless, the audience react warmly. Peter is evidently much loved.  

On the way home, Matthew says he’ll murder me if I ever abandon the surrealist element in my own writing.

*

Wednesday 23 March 1977.   Workshop:

Guest poet Norman Hidden, editor of New Poetry, sits in Gerald’s favourite armchair, drinking wine. Robert, like a schoolmaster, surveys the horseshoe of cider-drinking lesser mortals gathered around his desk. Norman remembers my name from poems he rejected a couple of weeks ago. He also remembers the comments he made, which makes me feel weirdly proud.

I’m prouder still when Matthew gives me the latest issue of Cracked Lookingglass (VI). Inside it, alongside poems by, among others, Michael Hamburger, John Heath-Stubbs, Barry McSweeney, Gavin Ewart, Thomas Kinsella plus several Pembridge Poets: my first ever published poem, ‘Paint No Wings.

*

Sunday 27 March 1977.   The poetry group presents, at the King’s Arms wine bar, Sloane Square: Jenny Joseph, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Greacen, John Heath-Stubbs

Rosemary and I collect money at the door. One woman seems to think she’s above paying the 50p entrance fee. I’m flustered. Rosemary nudges me – some kind of warning. With Robert’s support, the woman pays up with an air of wounded pride. (I later hear that she too organises readings. At one of them, Matthew and Dermot Healy were paid a princely £1 between them.)

Robert steps to the mic. A man in the audience, raincoat buttoned to the chin, takes this as his cue, and starts to recite a long poem about fighting for liberty. When the man says he has another two poems, Robert politely thanks him for sharing his work and asks him to sit down. The man remains on his feet and begins to recite the same poem, only this time more angrily. Robert looks around for help. Seconds later, Bob Dylan is playing, full volume, on the jukebox. The man gives in, folds his poems, and shuffles out into the rest of his life. I feel quite sad for him.

Jenny Joseph is the first to read. No surrealism, which means I find her poems difficult and I struggle to engage. However, I do enjoy the one about her wearing purple and learning to spit when she gets old.

Matthew is up next, and is superb: a gritty, humorous performance of ‘moon’ poems, and a few more recent ones. One about fantasy (‘Pet Clouds’) I particularly like. The audience love him!

After a break, Robert reads a series of Captain Fox poems. Moments of humour, a mix of satire and lyricism, but the poems slide by me like clouds.

John Heath-Stubbs: no surrealism, but utterly magnetic. Blind, he stands up and recites from memory. He talks engagingly about Hampshire fables and poets in love. All the while, he edges inch by inch towards the edge of the stage, only to be rescued in the nick of time by Eddie Linden guiding him gently by the elbow out of harm’s way. This is what poetry should be: lyrical, hypnotic, with a sense of jeopardy and fun.

Matthew, afterwards, elated by the response to his reading, talks excitedly about starting up a new surrealist group.. He tells me that my poem in Cracked Lookingglass is ‘superb – a great piece of writing.’

PS: The London Poetry Secretariat has given Robert £40 to pay John Heath-Stubbs and Jenny £20 each.   At the door, we take £27, £20 of which is needed to cover the hire of the wine bar. That leaves £7 for Robert and Matthew to share for expenses.

_

               Chris Rice started to write poetry again in 2011 after a twenty-year silence. His work has most recently appeared in The Poetry Review (Winter 2018/19), Orbis (as featured poet, January 2019), Obsessed with Pipework (November 2019) and The London Magazine online (October 2019).


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