It was, in fact, Lucien Stryk who suggested to Michael Pennington that he should put on a ‘one-man’ show about Chekhov. More about this can, of course, be accessed on-line.
Lucien was friendly and sociable, and I was to meet him again at ‘The Poetry Society’, but after that I lost touch with him.
At the BM cafe, however, I recall him chatting to other ‘regulars’, one of whom was the industrious ‘man of letters’, Vincent Brome, ( 1910-2004), who was once called ‘
‘the life and soul of the British Museum Reading Room’.
Vincent Brome (1910-2004) was a prodigious writer of biographies of Freud, Jung, H.G.Wells, Havelock Ellis, Aneurin Bevan, and novels and essays of his own. He regarded biography writing as ‘slavery’, and he held court, most days, in the BM cafe, with his friends, cadres and companions. He spoke constantly and vividly on many subjects that he was working on: politics, gossip and general chat. I still vividly remember his sparkling animated eyes. He was always interested and amused by those around him. A loyal friend. As Margaret Drabble has written :
‘The biographer Vincent Brome has been working in the Museum almost daily for more than half a century and he still looks as though he’s about 60: the Museum air must have preserved him’.
The museum was his office, playground and sanctuary. Vincent lived for 50 years in his third floor flat in Great Ormond Street, and commuted to the reading room almost every day. He became a fervent supporter, however, for the library’s move to its new home at St. Prancas, which I find quite brave. He must have realised how bright and light the space would be at the British Library, which it is.
One of the kindest ‘boon companions’ that I met in the cafe at the BM, was the charming and delightful Polish/ American poet : Lucien Stryk (1924-2013) . Nicknamed ‘Lucky Stryk’ by his schoolmates after his first poem was published while he was still a schoolboy, Lucien was a life-long poet, who is probably best-known for his translations of Japanese Zen poets .
Certainly, in my conversations with him, he would passionately explain the poetics of haiku to me. Incidentally, I recently won a haiku – writing competition, so I concur that haikus are a lot of fun to write!
Lucien was living with his family in London at this time (late 60s early 70s) at 7a Homer Row, W1H 1 HU , and I recall my first meeting with him in my diary (April 28th 1969):
‘I met the Zen Buddhist poet, translator and Fulbright scholar Lucien Stryk …excellent man’.
I have been re-reading Stryk’s poetry ( not the Zen haikus), and he really produced many beautiful poems such as: ‘Dreaming to Music’, ‘Rooms’, ‘Cormorant’, and the delightful ‘Chekhov in Nice’, which I have only just read. By an extraordinary coincidence, I also wrote a poem about Chekhov, where I imagined him visiting Bagara in Queensland, Australia. I wonder now, if perhaps I had read ‘Chekhov in Nice’ years ago, but I don’t think I did.
In reaquainting myself with Lucien’s work, I came across the poetry of his son – Dan Stryk , whose poetry I also admire. On her website, Stryk’s formidably talented artist wife Suzanne, published a You Tube clip of the fascinating meeting that took place between Lucien and the actor, Michael Pennington, on the Trans-Siberia express train. An extraordinarily synchronous meeting , which enabled Pennington to understand Chekhov better.
Pennington, who was researching the life and work of Anton Chekhov for a one-man show he famously played, was greatly helped and influenced in his project by Lucien’s wider knowledge of the writer, and. especially, the time he spent on Sakhalin.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.