My dear old friend James swam into my more-than-conscious mind yet again on the 19/20th January 2017 in London when I was privileged to be present at a monumental performance by Ian Pace of Michael Finnissy’s five hour masterpiece The History of Photography in Sound. James is one of the poets recorded/celebrated/memorialised in Chapter Six of the History which is named Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets. History being ‘that which is always being forgotten, newly remembered and created’ and Photography that ‘which records things as they seem to be’…
I was also very pleased to meet the very first of the Seventeen Immortals, Gregory Woods, during those two days.
Part One of REMEMBERING JAMES KIRKUP consisted of a slight redrafting of an article I wrote for James in 1997. Part Two begins with a letter I sent to him then enclosing a poem called on the 23rd April 1994 (his birthday) which I suggested might go in his 80th Birthday Celebration book (published by the University of Salzburg in 1998) as well as the article. I little supposed that he’d choose to put the whole letter up for publication, the remainder of which consisted of a record of a memorable visit I made in 1997 to America together with poems & haiku resulting therefrom.
Our exchanges always ranged widely over this & that so, as though I were still writing to him I’ve included things from earlier times that I think he might have enjoyed.
Hope you got the package; I sent it Swiftair so it should have got to you in three
days – please let me know the date of arrival.
I meant to say that I’d like the following poem from Svetlana of Urgench [Hub Editions, 1997] to go into your FESTSCHRIFT. Of course, you can choose anything else you’d like there! If that’s appropriate.
on the 23rd April 1994
in Neal Street Oriental Bookshop Covent Garden
James Kirkup sat holding dignified court
and signing copies of his books
underneath a sign which said ENQUIRIES
can you tell me the time of the next train
to Birmingham… mister? I asked kicking
myself for not enquiring more: I have
subsequently thought of other things I could’ve
asked; so in my mind’s eternal bookshop
I put James back behind the counter
where he looks and sounds so comfortable
and proceed to ask my questions:
what are my cats doing right now?
what is the average length of the Universe?
what gauge for the ‘hearts of dead warriors’?
what symphonies of weather in Andorra?.
who won the Grand National in 1937?
how soon before the multi-coloured Utopias
drop slowly down from the Autumn sky
different for each and every one of us?
what sense in my insistent dream
of the stranded flounder I return
(carrying it in my arms) to its crystal stream
where it seems to bask and smile?
when will all the bloody tyrants be expunged?
when will the long reign of tyranny
finally abdicate from the human soul?
how many pebbles on Brighton beach?
how many semi-quavers in William Walton’s
First Symphony? what is the very best page
in the whole of Proust? how do swifts know when?
where & by whom is Blake’s anvil kept now?
just how Blue is Bamboo?
what will the Next Fireworks be like?
where do all the Stars Shoot?
how long are Short Aches?
how swift the Oxus at Urgench?
how cuts the cold on winter nights?
what does Socrates say to Walt Whitman
round the fire in the great Hall of Heaven?
and James just smiles his giggles nest
answering all just so; the sun and moon
advance correctly round the day
which falls neatly into its allotted place…
outside Neal Street Oriental Bookshop
in the Spring sun a man dangling upside
down with a non-blue guitar plays
and sings for his supper – but not for long
and a diminutive green paper man
dances against a brick wall just for fun
while you look for strings & nearby people
offer to sell you bugs in walnuts
Note: Blue Bamboo, First Fireworks, Shooting Stars & Short Aches are among the titles of the first of James’ paperback books I published in Hub Editions
The rest of the letter in the FESTSCHRIFT goes on thus:-
I’m assuming that you will send this and the Essay to Salzburg. I do hope you like the essay – I’m a bit on tenterhooks about it, really!
Apart from all the predictable things that fill my life currently and keep me from contacting friends (poor excuse!) there was a great visit to America for the Haiku & Music seminar in Alabama. It was a very thrilling trip. I can see from my notebook that I was entranced by the idea of being in Manhattan: ‘I am in Manhattan. I am in New York. Manhattan. I am. I am. I am. Manhattan, Walt Whitman the son of…’ Just like some simple adolescent! I do find it so exciting to think that in the morning I was digging my back garden and that same evening, slipping 6 hours, I was walking in the streets of Manhattan. And the excitement went on non-stop for eleven days!
Just before I got on the train to leave King’s Lynn it was struck by lightning! Had to wait an hour for the next one to leave so I was in a bit of a state at Heathrow – made the plane with twenty minutes to spare. [But not in the same state as a woman who seemed to have left her passport at home.]
in that moment of thunder
at the station I said
I wonder if this is going to be
the first time I go up
on silver wings into a storm
and you said we’d already flown
in a storm when we circled round
and round before landing at Nanjing
which I remembered not as storm
but as an iterative review (executed
by the pilot while he was trying
to remember how to land) of plateaux
and silver rivers in the dusk around Xian
but we may not have been thinking
of the same event and then I
got into a long muse about
the impossibility of verifying
the small chunks of the past –
how we all live in self-generated bubbles
of complacency at our versions of reality
the broad strokes are relatively certain:
we did go to China… when head-high
to the dining-room table I did hear
about Hiroshima but we never know
about the intricate network of dissent
about the uncertainty of the generals
or about the self-doubt of the politicians
as they contrive decent and indecent deaths
as this train came south towards Alabama
spring suddenly happened above the red earth
and all around the proud wood-clad homesteads –
each individual statement dumped on Nature
raw & simple; unspecified forest trees bursting
into flower purple & pink & blue
lynch mob of wild wisteria & white dogwood
and how shall I ever verify the detail
in these moments spent imagining how it is
to live by a railway line in Georgia
in some combination of colonial Gothic
shack & palace how it is to sit there
in the ubiquitous white chair
on the sometimes colonnaded terrace
as the evening sun sinks down;
how shall I remember this cruising into Atlanta
pyramid-tops of towerblocks dreaming
in low grey cloud? what little synaptic
commotions are head-high to me now?
(Atlanta Station 8.40 20th March 1997)
The first thing I did in New York the following morning was to walk round Central Park thinking of Charles Ives and Humphrey Bogart and The Beatles and various miscellaneous films in which I remembered seeing the slopes and paths of the place; somebody told me later on about the number of murders and muggings that take place there! I walked right round the reservoir in company with the hundreds of joggers who all seemed fairly harmless thinking back on the experience… Then I walked the whole length of Broadway almost to Wall Street to find Ann Street, an obscure little nothing street near the Woolworth Building where the Ives’ insurance office used to be. Ives wrote a beautiful haikuic-minimalist very short song about Ann Street. The song starts with the singer shouting out ‘Broadway!’:-
Quaint name, Ann Street.
Width of same, ten feet.
Barnums mob Ann Street,
Far from obsolete.
Narrow, yes, Ann Street,
But business, both feet.
Nassau crosses Ann Street.
Sun just hits Ann Street,
Then it quits – some greet!
Rather short, Ann Street.
Waiting in Atlanta Station the following morning, ‘in tranquillity’ I wrote the following:-
the whole length of… say on both feet
from Central Park today to Ann Street;
seen better days Ann Street
no quaint ways about Ann Street
except maybe the sour smell dwarfed quite
by Woolworth Tower very neat;
veering towards obsolete
the sound of shards of decaying concrete
all along Ann Street
something’s wrong with Ann Street;
still not too long but more than ten feet
& Nassau still crosses Ann Street
brief snow just hit Ann Street
vans bump through it none greet;
sex shop the glory of Ann Street
very sad story about Ann Street
I suppose that this fascination with places where revered people have been is something to do with the mystical hope/faith that something will rub off on oneself!
The train ride was overnight; I really enjoyed eating on the train. After I got back from America I learned with something approaching dismay that this line is on line for the chop. The train was packed and the restaurant people bent over backwards to please, presumably to encourage customers. 1000 miles down to Alabama. Saw the Appalachians on the way back but missed them in the night going. It was such a great ride; if I’d had longer I’d have liked to break my journey lots of times to visit Atlanta properly, Philadelphia, Washington, and all the obscure little places.
Bus from Birmingham AL at midday to Huntsville. I’d been reading the Pogson biography of Maurice Nicoll and read on the train – a tolerant attitude gained by suffering is necessary before one passes on to anything else which will stand as a quotation at the top of the following poem when it appears in my next book!
that it is good to suffer
I chose to ease down into
the space (one of only three
remaining on the 12.45 bus to Huntsville)
on the double seat already three quarters
occupied by (to say the least of it)
an overwhelmingly plump black woman
who was engaged in making little wavings
at an entranced diminutive white girl
two rows in front and thus
did not have to make eye contact with me
as I shoe-horned my way down
nor did she make any attempt initially
to roll her prodigious girth window-wards
but placidly continued to feed her bulk
with sweets and crisps and chocolate sticks
only shifting a bit sometimes to cough loudly
at Decatur I resisted the lure of a seat
vacated by a departing traveller –
a seat three miles wide (well large enough
for three elephants to squeeze into) –
feeling that to move at that stage would have been
too unsubtle a comment on her enormity
which perhaps she was trying to hide
from herself I fed myself
on impressions from the passing landscape
the freshly blue sky and the very loud sun
through the occasional unsubtle squirm of flesh
I sensed she was more uncomfortable than I
being in the matter of acreage used perhaps
to getting her own way
once she heaved sideways to avoid
the painful projection
of the top of my thigh bone
and in doing so effectively parked
her bum on my lap – what a thought!
this for a suffering from Birmingham AL
to Huntsville two and a quarter hours
of a fine spring afternoon
this for remembrance but I’m sure
she suffered more than I who wished
to suffer in the cause of learning
in the bus station at Huntsville she still
studiously avoided eye contact
as though any hint of recognition
might confer on me the status
of a dime-in-the-slot machine
I made a lot of suppositions about this trip! Somebody was supposed to meet me at the bus station. I waited half an hour. Nobody came! So confident I had been that somebody would come for me that I’d not taken any of the bumf about where I was staying or even where the seminar was taking place or what it was called. I dimly remembered reading the name ‘Bevill Centre’ in a letter. The bus station lady phoned the Bevill Centre which turned out to be a Marriott Hotel connected with the University: they had no booking for me (I had assumed one would be made). What to do? Well, I had enough money to last me and I decided to get a cab to BC (that’s what it felt like) and take it from there. Extraordinarily the black chap on the reception desk knew what a haiku was (his brother who was a jazz musician had set some to music) and, having reassured me that they had a spare room for four days, promised to contact somebody he knew well in the University and phone me in my room. Which he did within ten minutes having located right person and found out the name of the seminar!
It turned out that we were intended to compose music for haiku with the promise of having the music performed on the Saturday evening. Wow! I set to with their electronic gadgetry to compose a piece for harpsichord, recorder and soprano, setting three of my own haiku. There were only a few relatively local people (amazed that I’d come all the way from yUK) at this all-America haiku-fest but the atmosphere was terrific. Everybody wrote music of one kind or another and there were two nice people on hand to help those who’d never done this kind of thing before. The performances were fabulous. I gave a talk on the Sunday morning about possible approaches to setting haiku to music in which I quoted snippets of Webern, Holmboe, Ives (Ann Street), Britten etc with appropriate readings; I also had a tape-recording of a group of piano pieces which I composed specially for the occasion designed to be interspersed with readings of my own haiku. This seemed to go down quite well.
During my own time, I wandered round old pre-Civil War Huntsville – beautiful wood-clad residences set in three-inch cut lawns. This was a great experience.
Then the train trip back to New York. The plane didn’t take off till the following evening so I had another day in New York: went to Brooklyn, walked over Brooklyn Bridge (Whitman country), Washington Square, went up the Empire State Building.
I’d like to go back to America and be a bit more leisurely about my itinerary!
I read Michael Foot’s biography of H.G. Wells a month ago since when I’ve read nothing but Wells; I’m doing it in date order and should be finished by Christmas; revisiting some things I haven’t read for forty years. It’s exciting times. I’m sixty this year – I feel no more than sixteen.
From 1991 we’d frequently meet in London Committee meetings (to which he came from Andorra) and haiku gatherings in other places around the land before he was deposed as President of the British Haiku Society during some very unZen political manoevrings; these hurt him considerably. The last time I think I saw James face to face was in the bar of the St Giles Hotel near Tottenham Court Road in London at the beginning of October 1995. An entry in an old notebook goes like this: ‘…with James & Makoto drinking lager and swapping newly published books for James’ cheques and words about this & that – tanka as extended haiku, the idea of the last two lines of a tanka being a comment on the haiku moment recorded in the first three; the appallingness of England under Tory rule; James’ problem with his eyes and his forgetfulness.
We somehow got on to the things we had done in early life that led us both to the conclusion that ‘Reality’ was not at all as it appeared to be to the rest of the world, the things that without our being conscious of it happening, set us both apart from the ‘normal’ world, caused us to be out of kilter with the way things appear to others.
I had just read Henry Miller’s Big Sur from which this from my notebook at the time seemed to fit: ‘…Many things had happened to me in years gone by while strolling through that well-known landmark [a shopping arcade]. I mean inner happenings, events one never thinks to write about because too fleeting, too impalpable, too close to the source…’
James told me he used to cross his legs until one of them went dead and then sit back to enjoy the sensation. I used to sleep on an arm so that when I woke up I’d have delicious pins & needles. These are ‘inner happenings’ that don’t seem worth writing about, I suppose. There are many other out of the way things I prize the memory of that I’ve sometimes written about: the mystical road-sign at the top of our road that, as I stared at it lying on my back, presented me with the pattern of what in after years became the constant feeling of ‘alienation’ – the sensation of being detached from the sensational familiar road; discovering lines in books that chimed with me so that I had to recognise that other people must just perhaps be able to think in exactly the same way as I did – so difficult to believe! Lenbach’s painting of The Shepherd Boy which mesmerised me for a whole year in Mr Bullivant’s classroom (oh that I could have been that boy by the side of the tall grass stalk weighed down by that butterfly! He had either emptied his mind of everything or was deep in Self-remembering which is where I fancy James is in the autobiographies).
Opening Sorrows, Passions & Alarms at random, I find in an account of a bit of James’ babyhood crawling by the fire:-
I remember trying to pick the firelight’s reflections from [the shiny steel fender], and for a long time ‘fire’ and ‘fender’ were interchangeable in my infant mind, though I never actually used the words until well after my third birthday. I did not have to be told that fire was dangerous: I kept well away from falling cinders.
The poker and tongs were brilliant objects at eye-level: they had bright brass handles in which I could see the image of the window and a dark head that I was a long time in discovering was my own. I tried to put the handles in my mouth, but was discouraged by the bitter taste of the tarnished brass – or maybe it was the taste of ‘Meppo’, the metal polish my mother used. As I gazed at the head in the handle of the tongs, I used to think there was another person in the room, and would turn my head to see who it was. But the person had always vanished before I got round to the window.
The sensation of being detached from the sensational… A double-take, one world and another and being at home in neither but somewhere in between – a private no-place.
Sitting in the bar of St Giles Hotel, it occurred to me that for all people who feel out of kilter with the world as it seems to be to others – Ouspensky’s Good Householders who have at last arrived at the conclusion that ‘there must be more to life then this’ – there were probably moments, events of little significance to anybody else and therefore not recorded that caused them to feel differently about themselves, things that gave a curious lift to life, transformed it in that moment and continued to do so every time something similar happened to them or every time the associated environment was revisited. Or perhaps every time the excitement of the feeling of separateness is suddenly recognised for what it is.
Because the world does not value such small events, or the recording of them, they are submerged causing one to deny this alternative reality. In order to survive in a world of ashes & toil one must keep it all to onself. For how many is it like this?
An interesting question to ask all Good Householders would be: “What event/s led you to the idea that there must be more to life than all the very ordinary things like shopping, earning a living, renting a car, decorating a house and so on?”
It is fatal for me to grub around in old notebooks. On the page before the record of the meeting in the St Giles Hotel is the following (7th October 1995) which seems to follow on neatly! It’s just the sort of thing I would have put in a letter to James.
How is it I can whistle along with so many pieces of music? I just caught myself at what I used to do way back in the late 1940’s which is when I think that my facility for recalling and recreating music began.
In Lászlo Lajtha’s Symphony Number 4 (Le Printemps), which I picked up in Budapest airport coming home in July, there’s a long sinewy tune reminiscent of Bartock, coming from the same stable; it twists & turns and I could only get it right by fixing the shape of it gradually in my whistling brain: got the first bit right; now the strange downturn; a kind of repeat and a dismissal then a series of phrases that change key each time, rising then to a disintegration of the obvious.
And before that something I think James would have liked:-
you get on a bike
with your mate
and cycle off towards the West
towards the Irish Giant Feud Lake
down this lane over the railway
till you near the slap of the tide
wire fences dividing the water
and it’s an amazement –
the broken walls and deserted houses
distant mountains moving into cloud –
an amazement to be there
suddenly without precognition
as amazing as it is
to step in a single instant
on to any train any time:
the new instant of embarking
on any project singing Doh!
intent on progressing
from me to fah before sundown;
the conductor raises his baton
& the orchestra shimmers into life
you rest at the point
between exhilaration and misery
to gather up the state of being whole
(Note: Gurdjieff advises that before you embark
on anything important you should sound the note Doh! in your head…)
And before that a poem dated 17th September 1995, a month before we moved into what was then this wreck of a house, I think I might have sent to James:-
in the new house by The Wash
I see myself sitting in the library
contemplating a glorious sunset
over the river reading at random
a chunk of Walt Whitman
or downstairs looking east listening to
Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony
or long term weeping over
a cycle I shall organise
of all his symphonies –
listening in a new place
with new ears
to things long known
I see myself sitting in the garden
by trees new-planted
on the eighth lawn of my life
reading a novel or embarking on
further adventures in Ouspensky
poised equally between
sunrise & sunset
at the turn of the tide
Finally, a letter that for some reason, to my unending regret, never got sent. James died on 10th May 2009 in Andorra.
January 24, 2009
Once more a case of terrible neglect of my friend…
Everything went well without rain etc on my annual motorbike tramp in September last year till three days from the end when, as a mere pedestrian, I tripped in the street in Longtown, north of Carlisle, (where I’d gone from here via Weymouth and Torrington (Devon)) and dislocated my left shoulder against a concrete bus shelter. I’d been planning to do a quick circuit in Scotland before returning home but had to be rescued in a rather sorry state by Jan. The arm still throbs & aches a bit and in spite of physiotherapy it’s not back in total working order yet. However, the first consultant I saw said I’d never be able to do some of the things I can do now so that’s OK.
I was so relieved when the first doctor I saw in hospital after ‘the event’ relocated my shoulder that I waggled my arm about in thanks and promptly dislocated it again!!
This whole experience has knocked a good deal of stuffing out of me. I also fell on my left hip which was already playing up and that’s still causes pain when I walk. I hate having to focus on pain!
In spite of which… 71 & inside I still feel like 15. How old do you feel, James? About the same I expect. Creativity is certainly what keeps one going. I was so impressed by the interviews of and programmes about Elliott Carter @ 100 still keeping up his composing schedule. Bought several of his CD’s at Xmas to get myself up to date with his music which is constantly fresh and awkward, never repeating a ‘tune’.
Anyway, though my bones creak a bit, there’s still so much to do and I can’t really be bothered with what seems to ache. Weeding the rockery has become more difficult but sitting on the back lawn & reading after mowing it is OK. A band of moles have moved into the front garden and are very busy excavating the lawns. I have installed a battery-operated buzzer to persuade them to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, I’m still churning out poems & philosophical rants and making books for people.
Even wrote a couple of haiku recently. First for ages – came to me just like that. One of them the first non-5-7-5 one I have ever written other than in a dream.
the sound of cellos
from stained glass
Last Sunday my little granddaughter Rosie was playing the cello in a beautiful old church in Sleaford. I was not far off tears all through the damned concert. At 10, the youngest member of a cello ensemble, there she was beavering away at all those notes with total focus & lack of nerves (on the outside anyway) with a stack of much older people who clearly treated her as just one of them… I know how she is when she’s playing the errant compositions I write for her here – suave and self-possessed. Every time my daughter brings her beautiful little kids over to see us I write a piece of music for us all to play. The little lad can only play the open string on his violin but he performed a long piece last time they came with great stickability Chip off old block he may well be… Rosie too.
The other haiku is 5-7-5:-
I get to hear just
one end of their argument—
a sparrow hops by
Shades of John Keats!
On Ely station I sat down next to a young lass on her mobile saying with complete control: “…I don’t need to listen to this… You’re not listening to me… I can’t get a word in edgeways… I’ll phone you back later when you’ve calmed down… I said I don’t need to listen to this…” on and on. When she eventually clicked ‘off’, she turned to me with a smile and I said, “I’d just like to say how much I really admired your calm control…”
“Did you hear him yelling at me?”
“No, I was too busy admiring your air of calm and wondering how you managed to do it…”
When she left to catch her train she gave me another smile and a cheeky little wave. Maybe I did something for her to earn that!
Did I say that I took up the clarinet last Xmas and am nearly at Benny Goodman improvisatory stage – reading the notes is a bit slower… The highlights of the Colchester year were a professional performance of a piece I wrote for viola, cello, piano & clarinet back in May; a performance of various pieces, amongst which were two of my own which I played in, in the Victorian bandstand in Colchester Park in August:-
and most recently an hour & a half structured improvisation walking around all parts of an icy decommissioned church in Colchester a town which is beginning to feel like a second home. It’s certainly the scene for a realisation of a long-time dream of music-making for me:-
We got plugged into the sun last month with solar panels on both roofs. Pity there’s not been much in the way of sunshine ever since! The man who sold it to us wanted to know why we wanted it: my answer was not for economy nor for saving the planet (which I believe is doomed as far as humanunkind is concerned…) but because it pleases me to think that I am plugged into the sun. Now that it’s no longer safe to sit in the sun and feel it beating on my forehead it’s a minor miracle that we can be using its heat to have a shower. I don’t think the man thought much of my solar idea.
Jan’s happily obsessed by delving into her family history and is writing a book relating her family – which spread itself around from Carlisle to Newcastle to Swaffham and Cromer and Devon and the East End of London and Edinburgh, most of which places she visited during the year and, being much less of a hermit than I am, met up accidentally with some great responsive people – relating her family to the social and political context. It’s proved to be an exciting detective story. It’s just a pity that she can’t contact all the people she’s discovered back to 1800 by some sort of celestial telephonic system to interview them on their life & times but she’s managed to reconstruct their ‘navel’ connections and their agricultural goings-on and their movements around the country.
The teaching which I did with a colleague [Ed – the mate (who died in 2015) with whom I went on a bicycle ride in Ireland recorded in the poem above you get on a bike] has stopped. I really miss the challenge of making each course into fresh event for new people. It was a great 12 years of doing just that.
I’m still doing other teaching here but not as much as I’d like to. Since my mother & sister died and I was left with the money from the sale of their bungalow I’d don’t feel much need to earn money!!
We had three beautiful holidays last year: one in a little village in Suffolk that coincided with the concert in Colchester when my bit of music was played; one in a National Trust fairy-tale mill-cottage deep in the woods on some estate in Herefordshire where we did a lot of watercolours; and then in October a week in a converted farm barn near Appleby – the Carlisle/Settle railway ran through the grounds! The barn conversion was beautiful – a two-storey hall with bedrooms off it at one end. I took the Bruckner Symphonies on CD and the acoustics expanded them evening by evening amazingly.
Strange for me, I’m beginning to look forward to Spring. I usually just go with whatever’s on offer as far as weather is concerned.
Lots of Love to both
I much regret that the letter never got sent…
I often suggested that I cycle or motorbike to Andorra but it never happened… Various things got in the way.