Sunday 27 August 2023

John Ash

I found out yesterday that John Ash was dead. He died almost four years ago (so less four months). I didn’t even know he was dead. I really liked his poems. I realise now that he published two books during the 21st century, which I haven’t read. There is a note by Michael Schmidt on-line which records that he had returned to England in 2015 but minus his “living archive” and as he couldn't even type there are major problems in recovering his late work. (“He left Istanbul having abandoned all his possessions – books, manuscripts, records, paintings. It seemed they were irrecoverable, though in the last few weeks Carcanet has begun assembling an archive of his letters, poems and other writings [.]”) There will be a Collected poems, I guess that is still in the works. I don’t feel compulsive about the possible lost poems (from say 2010 to 2015?). My feel is that he had worked out how to sound the same in every poem, so it doesn’t matter too much if you have a collected of 300 poems or 500 poems. The way that the “John Ash voice” is a role he played is connected to how well the poems go over and how much you can play at using that voice while reading them. He had that combination of Bohemian lifestyle, economic vulnerability, and a work ethic when it came to poems. I recorded that the volume (two books in one volume, allegedly) Anatolikon/ To the City was 140 pages long. Clearly he had a shoreline on abundance.

There is a moment of fertile excess here, which is the amazing number of serious poets who were born in 1948: as well as Ash, Denise Riley, Grace Lake, Brian Catling, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney, David Harsent, Peter Didsbury. It is surprising how few of these are still around– we do have their works though. The direct cause for the spike in creativity must be the student uprising in 1968, so that the idea of a new society became convincing and poets wrote thereafter from inside that idea. The spike must also be an artefact – there were three year-groups at university in 1968, not just one, and people didn’t always start or end university “on time”. Also, the people who became vital poets were not necessarily even at university in that year. I think it sounds a bit superficial to consider student radicalism in terms of producing fab poets rather than looking at the bigger idea of entering a new society and living there. Corbyn was born in 1949 and is part of this wave. Partly channelled by Corbyn, a new upsurge of student radicalism has made an electoral impact and may also have produced a new generation of poets.
Ash evidently fell into a certain disarray, towards the end of his stay in Istanbul, if he couldn't even transport his personal possessions home. Similar disarray was a feature of the lives of at least one of the poets mentioned. Their commitment to poetry may have been accompanied by a refusal to “get a proper job” and a mortgage: dropping out, then. To recite the obvious, the radicals who got academic jobs made things better for students and actually changed a key institution.
The other point often made is that poets who became academics became cultural bureaucrats bound to defend the institutions and their own positions, and that their residual wish to write radical poetry has failed because it was in contradiction with the circumstances of their everyday lives. I have a friend who makes this point to me too often.
In general I find that over 55 years since 1968 too much has happened, too much data has arrived and it doesn’t fit into any known pattern. People didn’t just fulfil ideals. However, the poets of that generation are on my mind because they took fascinating positions and had a symbolic role because of their ability to dramatise the issues and live them out.
I should add that I don’t have the biographical details of these poets (or at least not all of them). What I do have is the legends, the rumours. The legends exist because the poets made significant gestures, their messages were startling and yet did not have the flaws that big gestures usually do. Formulating these signs was to some extent outside the poems, in another way was the basis for the poems, the ground on which they rested.
If you drop out you are intentionally not supporting the institutions. That indifference may be mutual. Someone like Ash needed the institutions to hold him up. It is apparent from Schmidt’s brief account that Ash was phoning him every morning after his return from Turkey. This shows that there was an institution which supported him and that it was Carcanet as a body and Schmidt in particular.

I think the shared element between these poets is derepression. Ash wasn’t political but it occurs to me that he was the first English poet whose style, whose voice, was consciously gay. I am worried about this because he started in the late 70s and it seems as if there should have been lots of such voices prior to that. (I can cite Dunstan Thompson but after all he was American, and moved here after having become a poet.) Perhaps more research is needed.

Someone posted on Facebook this week about reading Ash’s poems and enjoying them. He also didn’t know Ash was dead. Found this out from comments on his post. I think Ash dropped off the radar and it must have been because he lived in Turkey for 20 years.

Sunday 13 August 2023

Macleod at the BBC

Macleod at the BBC Joseph Macleod (1903-84), a rather marginalised poet, published A Job at the BBC (1945) after leaving them. It is rather paranoid but documentation now coming to light has suggested to several Macleod scholars that he was right to be suspicious. He describes the firm as being run by people with no official title or job, and these people also censored his scripts and prevented him from workng.

I don’t mean to upset you further, Andrew, (and it upsets me greatly to recall and write this), but I found out a great deal when I went to the BBC Written Archive at Reading in 2007. I was only 27, so I reckon I could have pushed a bit more if I’d gone at my present age - but I was quite pushy and maybe my youth helped extract that little bit extra information. The Head Curator, a lady in her 60’s, was remarkably abrupt and clipped in her speech with me from the get-go. She knew exactly who Macleod was and what he was “about” she told me. She showed me a set of files from the early period of his employ and was strangely reluctant to show the ones from 1943 onwards. I photographed a great deal of it with my digital camera, as surprisingly I was permitted to do, but I’d brought it just in case. When I got up to leave, having seen the scandal of Macleod’s being bundled out of the BBC due to his accent and leftish leanings by the then Director General Lindsay Wellington and also the surprising (and, bizarrely, later super-famous as (not the best) Oxbridge boat race commentator) thorn in Macleod’s side - Head of Presentation, John Snagge - I mentioned the scandal of 1945 and how Macleod had clearly had been swiftly removed from his position after reading Churchill’s election defeat, to which the strict curator replied very defensively and I thought even aggressively- “Macleod was NOT removed. He RESIGNED!” I decided not to argue - though the papers I’d just seen and photographed showed a mighty row took place before he departed. 
(email from James Fountain, author of the only book about Macleod)

I have just copied this from the BBC website:
"By that stage [1985], a policy of flatly denying the existence of political vetting - not just stonewalling, but if necessary lying - had been in place for five decades.
As early as 1933 a BBC executive, Col Alan Dawnay, had begun holding meetings to exchange information with the head of MI5, Sir Vernon Kell, at Dawnay's flat in Eaton Terrace, Chelsea. It was an era of political radicalism and both sides deemed the BBC in need of "assistance in regard to communist activities". These informal arrangements became formal two years later, with an agreement between the two organisations that all new staff should be vetted except "personnel such as charwomen". The fear was that "evilly disposed" engineers might sabotage the network at a critical time, or that conspirators might discredit the BBC so that "the way could be made clear for a left-wing government"."
Macleod had sympathies with the Soviet Union (publishing three books about Soviet theatre) and his problems with BBC management almost certainly related to his uncertain security status, rather than anything else.
His book does not mention a purge of leftists already on the staff, in the later 1940s, but I hear persistent rumours that this is what took place, even if MI5 had been vetting new recruits since 1935. The radically changed conditions of the Cold War brought more polarised attitudes towards hapless staff members. Presumably this had not happened when Macleod was writing his 1945 memoir – the Cold War had not then begun.
My feeling is that the archivist reacted so extremely because she knew what James were looking for and because she had had other people looking for evidence of the same process. Because the process had occurred and it is of considerable interest.
What upsets me is the ability of a large organisation to cover up new ideas and opinions and then to cover up the fact that a cover up had taken place. Suppression was itself suppressed from the record. So meetings that never got minuted, people in vetting jobs that aren't shown in the organogram or in a job title, decisions hidden behind fake “performance issues”. The frame itself is not visible even though it is the restriction on what is visible.
James also mentioned the yawning gap between the coverage by the British media of Middle Eastern politics and what had actually happened. This brought us to a new theme – Robert Fisk, writing about the great war against the truth, is dealing with the large scale, but the BBC coverage of what happens in Britain can only distort subtly, because the audience have the means of comparing the broadcast with the reality. So we as cultural historians are tracking subtle distortions. We are directed at the small scale. This is our situation. But perhaps long practice has also given us the ability to detect what was never entered into the record. The skill we admire is that of detecting the frame and seeig where the cut-off is.