‘British Museum Reading Room Memories’

When I read the recent obituary of Cecil Woolf in ‘The Guardian’ on July 5th 2019, I was reminded of the many conversations that I had had  with him in  the grubby and smoke-filled little cafe that used to exist in the basement of the  British Museum in the 1970s.

Here, one could buy execrable coffee served in glass cups, have a crafty cigarette or two, and converse with all manner of interesting people.

To quote Louis MacNeice from his poem ‘The British Museum Reading Room’, the library was filled with:

‘Cranks, hacks and poverty-stricken scholars’, but also ‘haunted readers’.

This dark cafe was a meeting place for  the habituees of the Reading Room, who  loved to gather, smoke, converse and exchange ideas and thoughts, when they needed a break from their research and writing. A much-loved venue of mine. Sadly, now long gone, along with its  colourful, verbose,  and eccentric patrons.

 

Cecil, the nephew of Leonard Woolf, died on the 10th of  June, 2019, aged ninety-two, and like his uncle, had been a publisher. I was never sure what he was using the reading room library for, but his conversation was almost always about his uncle and the legal battle he was fighting in contesting Leonard’s will.  It all sounded fruitless and unsatisfactory, but, at each of our meetings, he would describe the twists and turns of the case.

He always looked worried and harassed, was in a permanent hurry, and was burdened with bundles of documents.  I bumped in to him some years later ( in Lambs Conduit Street), and he hadn’t changed one bit.

Among the ‘cranks, hacks and poverty-stricken scholars’ was the young Germaine Greer, who worked tirelessly, almost daily, at her seat, and who was never once seen to take a break, and certainly not in our sleazy cafe.  She was working flat out. I remember being very impressed by her industriousness.  She put us all to shame.

From 1970-72 , I had a job with Cambridge University Press, as a picture researcher for a series of rather imaginative school text-books.  This required me to acquire lots of arcane and very precise illustrations  from a variety of sources: the BM, the V&A, the Royal Academy, and  various other museums and picture libraries from all  over the world. I was busy, but still had time to enjoy my  lunch and tea breaks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Postcards from Les Murray’

My third postcard from Les was dated 1/11/01, and showed a photograph of The Royal Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa.  Les had been touring and reading across the UK, and had  even gone as far as Aberdeen, where he said ‘autumn has started’. I had complimented him on a poem of his  -‘ An Aunt Legend’ –  that I had enjoyed. In my previous letter to  him I had sent him my little book of poems, but he said he hadn’t received it, so could I send him a fresh copy.  On it, he had put his  home address in Bunyah.

My fourth postcard dated 21.10.02 , came from Versailles, and showed a picture of La Maison de la Reine.  Again, Les still hadn’t received a copy of my book, and asked me to get the publisher – Waterloo Press – to send one ‘at their expense’.

Basically, our correspondence was centred on my trying to get my little book to Les , and failing!

Finally, I received my last postcard from Les dated 14.11.02.  The  book had arrived. the front of the postcard showed a lovely linocut, handcoloured by watercolour by Maria Likarz entitled ‘Wien Sommer ‘ 1915, from the National Gallery of Australia. Les wrote as follows:

‘Your ‘Appropriate Country’ got through safely this time. Thank you warmly for it. I like your ruefully honest and I’m sure over-severe authorial judgement of the poems in it. I know the feeling, how dispiriting it is, and how little we can be swayed from it by others. I’m glad you quoted me on the rear jacket. Best wishes and cheers – Les Murray.

And that ended my little postcard journey with Les.  I continued to read  his prodigious output of  poetry.

Some time later I enjoyed reading Daljit Nagra’s appreciation of Les in the Review in Saturday’s  Guardian (3/9/2011), in the series ‘My Hero’, where he wrote:

‘It may be not obviously apparent, but the Usain Bolt of modern poetry is surely the great Australian poet Les Murray’.

Murray’s verve, energy and his ‘baroque linguistic excess’ to quote Daljit Nagra, certainly continues to inspire me.

 

 

‘Postcards from Les Murray’

‘A complex man and a unique but often difficult poet’, wrote Professor Peter Kirkpatrick of Les Murray.

Yes, his ‘world-view’ was certainly complex, but his use of language was lush and magnanimous – like the man; and his use of the Australian vernacular helped me to understand the country better, when I lived and worked there for a year or so 1974- 1975.  I had a complicated love-hate  relationship with the country, and suffered some ‘harrowingly dangerous experiences there; but I loved ‘the Bush’ and the glorious wildlife and countryside; and am enchanted by  Murray’s descriptions of this harsh but beautiful place.

His poems provided a kind of solace for me, and helped me to understand and come to terms with my experiences in Australia.

 

 

‘Postcards from Les Murray’.

There’s a resonance that exists between certain poets, and I could see that Les was decent,and  kind-hearted , as well as prodigiously verbally gifted.    The fact that he was supportive of  me ( and many  other writers) impressed me as well.

There were also some interesting parallels between us:  like Les,I was a lonely, only child of Scottish descent, who had experienced early childhood poverty, loss of a mother, and the generalised dislocation of the outcast; the misfit in society.  But he knew none of this . He knew absolutely  nothing of my background at all ( and never was to).  So  how extraordinary was it that he may have intuitively connected with  and related to  these aspects of my being as  expressed in my poems. I feel that at some sub-conscious level that he did.  This may sound fanciful, I know.

After he received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1998, I began reading more of his work.   I particularly love his volume  Conscious and Verbal, published in 1999 by Carcanet , and a Poetry Book Society special commendation.   These lines made me laugh ( from  The Instrument) :

‘Poetry is read by the lovers of poetry/ and heard by some more they coax to the cafe/

or the district library for a bifocal reading.’.

It summed up the often fruitless struggle of trying to write verse and to be appreciated , if only by a very small group of people!  It gave me the courage to continue. And when I finally met Les ( at a Brighton Festival reading, many years later), I asked him to sign my copy, which he generously did , with the inscription:  ‘For Amanda – with cheers and encouragements, Les Murray’.  I also reminded him that he had kindly published me in Quadrant  some years before.

  He spoke to me of his intense gratitude that he had recovered from his previous illness and coma and that he  was now glad to be alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Postcards from Les Murray’.

I was very sad to read of the recent  death of Australia’s most prolific poet and stunning wordsmith – Les Murray – on April 29th 2019. But, also, gladdened to see that he had lived a long life until the age of eighty.  This,  in spite of years of depression, struggle,  ill-health and melancholia.  I found this to be profoundly inspiring.

And I also recalled the kindness and encouragement   that he showed to me, and the brief and friendly correspondence that we exchanged, and our subsequent meeting.

It was in 2000 that I sent some poems to the magazine Quadrant, where Les was the Literary Editor. I had written a poem called ‘ Chekhov Visits Bagara’  and, to my astonishment and delight, Les liked it and accepted it for publication.  Even better, he took two more poems: ‘ Marine Parade’ , and ‘End of the Road’.  He wrote me a note, which said: ‘Good on you, as we say … and best wishes – Les Murray’.

I also received a cheque for $120 Australian dollars!

It was around this time that another great literary editor – Alan Ross of  London Magazine  – was also  taking a few of my poems ( five in all); and it was, at last, for me, a joy to experience a little recognition and response. I had by now a healthy collection of rejection slips from all manner of little poetry magazines. To experience  two editors who returned work promptly and added useful comments  was astonishing and a joy.

All in all, I was to receive five postcards from Les in the coming  years – the first dated 29/9/99, when he wrote to say he’d taken my ‘Chekhov’ poem, and did I have any more ‘of that quality’. This first postcard was of South Head, Watson’s Bay in Sydney. Such an astonishing coincidence, because Watson’s Bay was where my late father had lived with his third wife for many years.

The second postcard was dated 9/5/01, when I told him that my little book of poems was due out soon, and that I had asked if I might quote him on the rear jacket cover. He then said he’d ‘be interested to see how you’ve been doing’.  All his postcards bore the same address: Cecil’s Lane, Bunyah, NSW 2429.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘In Praise of Alan Ross’, p.2

From 1961 until his death on February 14th 2001, Alan was the to remain the exemplary editor of  London Magazine.

During those years, when I was busy trying to write poetry, and sending off submissions to various editors of poetry magazines, I would long to be able to write something that Ross might accept.  It was a longed-for but unimaginable dream.

  • But I slowly had the odd poem accepted by Derwent May at The Listener, (1969), and by Michael Ivens for Twentieth Century;  Graham Ackroyd for Nineties Poetry  and Les Murray for Quadrant along with countless rejection slips ! Most editors kept submissions for quite a considerable time, too. I once sent a poem to the New Statesman, and Anthony Thwaite returned it and said ‘sorry that I’ve kept it so long’.

Over the years, I would send poems to Ross, and, astonishingly, he would send them back ‘by return of post’.  This was  the pre-digital age – before ‘Word’ and ‘Docx’.; and he was probably the only editor who did this!  He would also enclose a colourful ‘post-it’ note with a very courteous and useful comment, such as:

‘Not quite for us now, but very nice to read. Such a recapturing of pleasure and enthusiasm’  AR.

After rejections from Poetry London, Poetry Review and RialtoI gave up sending my poems to magazines.

However, after a trip to Barrow, in Alaska, in 1998, I came back with renewed inspiration, and some new poems.

I found the courage to submit once again to Alan Ross.

To my delight, they appealed to him, and he very kindly made some excellent editorial suggestions.  The multi- coloured post-it notes contained useful suggestions and encouragement this time.

End of the Road’  the best but weakens in line 4. Trans-coastal better than bi – try and make it perfect’  AR

I tried for perfection, and he wrote back:

‘Nearly a v.effective poem’.

Almost  there.

‘We’ll take  End, and if you can improve the last line of Arctic –  a bit awkward, I think. Your poems are vivid and real, but I think tend to the jerky and elliptical. Thanks for sub.’ AR

Finally, the deal was closed.  Alan took 5 poems. And I received this letter from him.

‘Dear Amanda

‘Arctic’  reads well now. Did you go, or is it imaginary?  A lifetime ago I was in the Arctic in a minesweeper called ‘Harrier’ ( see overleaf) . Someone sent me the photocopy last week.

Can you send me a few lines about the past and present?

AR.

And, a day before my 51st birthday – 22/9/01, he wrote:

‘Thanks for the poems. We’ll try and use them all together’.

They were published in the last two editions before Alan died.  Feb/March and April/May 2001.

I think that the cheque Alan sent me must’ve sadly been one of the last that he wrote.

After Alan’s death I sent a copy of my volume of poems ‘The Appropriate Country’ to Alan’s partner, Jane Nye.  She sent me a lovely letter, and told me that Alan had really liked my poem ‘End of the Road’, and had given it to her to read.   She also mentioned Alan’s love of Sussex ( where I have lived for 40- odd years), Alan’s love of cricket at Eastbourne, and walks around Alfriston, Cuckmere  and Clayton, and his schooldays at Ardingly.

Jane also invited me to Alan’s Memorial Service at St Paul’s, Covent Garden at 11 am on

Tuesday 30th October 2001, which I attended.

It was a poignant and stylish event, with Harold Pinter, Charles Osborne and William Boyd, among others, all contributing  eulogies to Alan’s life and career.

I am so glad that I persisted in sending poems to Alan. He was a true mentor – and just the kind of engaged editor all poets dream of encountering.  Over the thirty or so years that I submitted MSS, he always responded immediately and with great gusto.

I came across a ‘with compliments’ slip that he sent me c. 1985 recently, and it read as follows:

‘I thought these very promising, the last one specially – but a bit Eliotish and literary, and I think  they need compressing more. But please send again’  AR.

I’m so glad that  I did.

 

 

 

 

‘In Praise of Alan Ross’p.1

In 1965, when I was twenty, I bought a book of poetry called ‘North from Sicily”:

Poems in Italy (1961-64), by Alan Ross.  I was attracted to the book by its rustic- looking cover ; and had never heard of the author before, although I later discovered that he had become the editor of  London Magazine  in 1961.

In the Acknowledgements page, I saw that some of these poems had appeared in  Encounter, The  New Statesman, Spectator, Twentieth Century and  London Magazine.The poems had a punchy, fresh thoroughly contemporary feel. I had never read anything quite like them before : they felt risky and  risque.  I was a naive, under-travelled girl –  usual for those times – and these poems delivered Mediterranean warmth and sensuality into my life.

The closest I had come to  experiencing the flavours, colour and vibrancy of this world  before was by reading  Elizabeth David’s  French Country Cooking from  cover to cover!

I’d also spent a week in the Costa del Sol, courtesy of Freddie Laker airlines. But Italy sounded gloriously louche and exotic in these lines from Beach Routines:

         ‘From rocks they dive like advertisements/ Or gods, and surfacing, shake oiled heads

The colour of olives, and the sea like grapes’.

Now, when I read these poems, from the perspective of having visited and even worked, briefly, in parts of Italy, I understand and savour these poems better.  As, in these lines from Symptoms of Withdrawal :

Passegiata, and hot Romans hurrying to pasta,/ Piazza di Spagna littered with tourists’.

The mundane mixed in with beauty and romance.

 

 

 

 

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