Sunday 27 February 2022

70s book coming soon

New bulletin
I have finished proofing and am awaiting a test copy of the fully manufactured book, for a final quality check. And… it arrived while I was typing this.

Meanwhile, my announcement of the book on Facebook incited an inquiry whether I had included Rivelin Press. If people want chapters on each of about 80 small presses, I am toast. What do I know about Rivelin… actually I do have ‘Tunis’ which they published. It lists some of their output around 1972: Kevin Borman, Owen Davis, John Freeman, Jeremy Hilton, AG Hill, David Tipton. Hmmm. More research needed.

Rivelin is a part of Sheffield. I looked at the 1974 defining list of the “British Poetry Revival” and counted that 5 of 36 poets lived in the north of England. Evidently there was a geography of the new poetic culture. I prefer to deal with the generational aspect, which is easier to grasp. I have just seen in Poet’s Yearbook an anthology of five Suffolk poets coming out in 1978 from Syntaxophone… including Martin Stannard. And Joe Soap’s Canoe started in Ipswich (later Felixstowe). I am tempted to interview Stannard about this, although I don’t have the materials to develop the right questions. So actually I know nothing about what was happening in Suffolk. The reality is that I have information about half a dozen “scenes” but there were scenes in every city.

The poets I am looking at now are Hilton and Houédard. It seems impossible to come to the end of reading the 1970s. I am also reading the memoirs of Charles Osborne, who was demonised by jilted grant claimants when he was chair of the Arts Council’s Literature Panel. He claims to have played Pilot Officer Foxlee in the film "The Dam Busters". Wow. I am wondering if another viewing would expose Eric Mottram and John Heath-Stubbs in even smaller roles. He also quotes an essay by Peter Porter describing how vital was the book shop which Osborne co-ran in Brisbane in 1947-9: “the once or twice I met Charles Osborne I found him dauntingly sophisticated. Charles ran the Ballad Bookshop in the city, where I often bought books… Charles was always a man of great courage, and he led the way in defying Brisbane’s puritanism and philistinism. […] All this group dared to practise a mixture of left-wing politics and high camp at a time when such notions were dangerous.”
Osborne comes out in his memoirs as a very sympathetic person. I suppose that re-personalising someone who has been depersonalised is the most unforgivable thing and you can never be forgiven by the people who did the original depersonalising. But the whole process is so central to the history of the 1970s. It is not just a matter of recovering what was repressed, but also of uncovering the act of repression. Clearly most of the things which the folklore recalls about the Poetry Society flap never happened.

I got an email from one of the poets in the book, “Hi Andrew, the grand events that I was interested in had very little to do with poetry, and more with politics. I was a trotskyist from the age of 16, selling papers down the docks in London, and having them burnt out of my hands. I was as active in that as I was in poetry. I was at the American embassy when the police first tried out their "kettling" procedure in 1968, with my pregnant wife. I was there at the New Cross/Lewisham protests in 1981, which I must admit was more like the carnival of the oppressed than I have ever seen – all the streets in Lewisham & New Cross came out to support the protestors.” This is something I would have liked to write about more – the problem with discussing political commitment is the diversity of opinions and (also) the lack of information recorded about what individual poets identified with.

I got a CD called "English Weather" which collects examples of a style in rock music which the editors (the guys from St Etienne) claim only lasted for a couple of years around 1970. I find this method of anthologising very interesting, certainly styles changed very fast during the Seventies. In the packaging is a photo of a poster for a benefit gig (on January 23, of 1972?). The beneficiary is “UCS” which I believe to be Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, a workers’ co-op set up after an occupation of the works by workers facing the loss of their jobs. This was part of the mix at the time – the idea was to have an economy composed of a myriad co-ops as an alternative to a largely discredited model of State monopoly corporations run by civil servants. This model is what a lot of people had in mind at the time – it seems to have been forgotten after 1979. In building seagoing ships, you are exposed to the world market. When the state of world trade is poor, the existing capacity of ships is enough, and there are no orders. Then, when things pick up, you have to build your ships, spending a lot of money before you receive payment. So this is a capital-intensive industry and an unlikely sector for firms without capital and relying on human assets to succeed in. At the time, Tony Benn was very keen on this model of workers’ takeover – it was a line of divisions between Right and Left of the Labour Party because the Right was against this sort of progress and was, in practice, much happier to stick with capitalism. The step before the occupations was bankruptcy – the owners were firing everybody as part of closing the business down. If you had some money to invest, a bankrupt concern is the last place you would invest it – there was a deep problem with the socialist cause pouring its energy into concerns that were not in any way “going”.
There was an analogy with the world of squats, which were generally derelict properties which had been rehabilitated by young people moving in to find rent-free homes. Again generally, they were owned by town councils which did not have the funds to fix up the houses themselves. Because the squats were self-governing (often in housing associations), they were also co-ops (and even ‘occupations’). But there was also a focus on the derelict which did not promise a hold on the future. There is a symbolic link between poets seizing and modifying source texts, to modify them, and squatting a house.
Quite a lot of Britain was derelict in 1972. One effect of this was a pulse of self-confidence (and self-regard) by the young, as the old system seemed so unable to defend itself. This does explain quite a lot of the culture at the time. It was a later time which saw everything either being modernised or closed down altogether.

Osborne says somewhere (sorry can’t find the page!) that, around 1980, everything was worse than it had been 25 years earlier, i.e. 1955. Music, theatre, novels, etc. This is an unusual judgement. Personally I think everything was better in the 1970s, and that is what I assume when writing. In the 50s Osborne was trying to work as a actor and supporting himself by writing music journalism and sleeve notes etc. I am sure that recorded music was much better at that time than in the 40s, because of the arrival of the long-playing record and of stereo. But it is fair to say that he was hearing the 19th and late 18th century repertoire being transferred to vinyl, and that was not music composed and devised during the 1950s. He wasn’t interested in Boulez, Nono, and so forth.

Am looking at Sam Gardiner’s Poet’s Yearbook for 1976. He says “Throughout this book the Arts Council emerges as by far the greatest patron poetry has ever known. As an agency whereby public money can be directed towards the arts with a minimum of state interference it is easy to imagine less desirable arrangements.” I should have quoted this.

I quoted Eric Mottram:

a helmet set on a head
for the horns reach from brain folds
to planets above towers
beyond a lens
moon light in his antlers
curl and spiral of universe
curve out of the brain
skill of mountains receptors to wind curve
from space to caves in the heart
a coil of horn around a nerve
which tunes the herb
(from A Book of Herne, 1981)

Mottram is referring to the etymological connection between keras “horn” and cerebrum “brain”. Both are curved (or convoluted) organs growing out of the head. Herne was a deer-man figure whose name is cognate with the word horn (which is itself cognate with keras). There is the symbolic image of the cornucopia, the horn of plenty, which could be associated (perhaps not before the 20th C) with the fertility of the brain. The link goes back to an ancient time (the Bronze Age?) and reflects how etymology gives us a liminal zone, with ‘roots’ as primal things which mutate to develop the concepts of everyday life. The reconstruction of a world of etyma rather than of real words carries us to a realm of creation and timelessness which fits in well with a theme of my book. However, I have left it out. I find Mottram’s poem obscure – the connection between keras and cerebrum is not recognisable to most people. The horn: brain link does not work in the English language. And the whole world of etymology, fascinating as I find it, is antiquarian and not well suited to poetry. You can’t write a poem in roots, you have to use actual words.
Evidently the creativity used in a poem is a part of the collective creativity which created language in the first place, a gigantic act of creativity and blossoming analogies, lasting thousands of years.
Many poets were aware of a realm of origins, with connections which were profoundly exciting and beyond conventional associations. Etymology is a door onto such a creative realm, but may not be the best way of getting there.
Herne seems to be connected with the cosmos and in fact his horns seem to be working as antennae. The phrase about “curve and spiral of universe” is reminiscent of something else – isn’t this about the spiral force described by John Michell and Guy Underwood, and isn’t the comparison between cosmic spirals and the convolutions of the cerebral cortex?