The Pembridge Poets
On 17th June 1976, Robert Greacen (56, Northern Irish poet), hosted the first of his poetry workshops from his flat in Pembridge Crescent, Notting Hill Gate. Also present at the first meeting were: Peter Rodda (39, South African writer and activist), Tim Dooley (25, poet and English teacher), Matthew Sweeney (24, poet from Donegal), Gerald Clarke (maths tutor; age unknown – a possible time traveller from Camelot), and Chris Rice (24, unpublished poet and EFL teacher).
Chris kept a diary of the group’s comings and goings, and continued to do so for several. The following extracts are a personal record of 15 public readings presented by the Pembridge Poets in London over a 6-year period from 1977 – 1983.
Sunday 22 May 1977. The Horseshoe Hotel, Tottenham Court Road: Peter Rodda, Aidan Murphy, Gerald Clarke and Chris Rice
My first public reading. In a dusty top-floor room, uncarpeted and smelling of scout hall, an audience of thirteen (fourteen, if you include Robert): Naked white mannequins line the walls, which is creepy, but makes the room feel less empty.
Matthew says I was the best of the four, but only because Aidan was ‘off-form’.
Sunday 10 July 1977. The Plough, Museum Street: Matthew Sweeney, Robert Greacen, Michael Hamburger
My job again to collect money at the door. Good audience of about 40 or so. Matthew’s ‘Garden’ is one of his best. Robert is, as ever, workmanlike, slightly drab. A seated Michael Hamburger reads riddle poems for adolescents. I look around to see if Sebastian Barker is in the audience (he suggested I take up ploughing, and this is The Plough, after all…).
Wednesday 7 September 1977. The Ship Tavern, Holborn: Dannie Abse and Tim Dooley
Dannie Abse has the air of a furry, friendly but mischievous hamster – poems about farewells at stations and ‘swing high, swing low’.
Tim’s poems provide a view from a cockpit on urban and suburban themes; wryly observed details; poignant and elegantly expressed:
‘When someone was crying on the end of the phone, you’d think something was wrong with the line.’ [‘March 19th 1977’]
Wednesday 26 October 1977. The Ship Tavern, Holborn: David Holbrook
With Matthew in Germany and Mari visiting cousins, I go alone to the reading. Holbrook has a playful wit. Two lines of his, for some reason, stick in my mind:
‘Somehow, they never met.’ And: ‘Swan-shit, but who’d understand me?’
Thursday 10 August 1978. The Orangery, Holland Park: Roger Garfitt, Gavin Ewart, Robert Greacen
Robert reads well, despite his cold. Matthew is depressed because Garfitt, editor of The Poetry Review, doesn’t like the poems he sent him. I leave early, before Gavin Ewart takes the stage. Mari’s coming back from Iran tomorrow and I need to straighten the flat.
Friday 29 June 1979. The Poetry Society, Earl’s Court: Robert Greacen, Derek Stanford (once upon a time Muriel Spark’s lover – thanks for the gossip, Peter Rodda) and Chris Rice
About 20 or so in the audience (including Derek’s present partner, Pembridge Poet Julie Whitby) – a big improvement on the Horseshoe Hotel. I read 14 poems. The one image of mine that Derek Stanford picks out for special attention is one he has completely misheard. I liken the moon to ‘the dead eye of a herring’; DS mishears the last word as ‘heron’. I don’t mind too much. I wonder, though, how Matthew would have reacted …
Sunday 9 September 1979. The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill: Robert Greacen and John Heath-Stubbs.
JHS, as usual, recites from memory, interspersing poems with lucid anecdotes and useful introductions. He talks about visiting Provence earlier in the year, how he loves the landscape. It’s as if, at some level, he refuses to admit he’s blind. As he recites his poems, he slowly rotates away from the audience. We can barely hear his final poem, which he recites in profile, in a whisper, to the wall.
Robert, in contrast, comes over as flat-footed and pedantic. I keep thinking of Denis Healey delivering a budget speech. Light relief is provided by Sir John Waller [founder of the Salamander Society of Poets in Cairo in World War II, I later learn]. He lets Robert finish his ditty about John Logie Baird, then, complaining loudly about the heat, gets to his feet, potters across the stage and opens a door. Robert stares at the audience as if a coconut has landed on his head. Waller closes the door (it’s only a cupboard) and tries another one. Another cupboard. Muttering to himself, he finally locates the door that leads out of the room.
Later, in the Prince Albert next door, Eddie Linden gleefully informs Matthew that Robert didn’t want to co-edit an issue of Aquarius with him (Matthew). Matthew justly regards this as an insult. So, I’m not talking to Aidan, and Matthew’s not talking to Robert. Small wonder there’s no such thing as a Poets’ Union.
Sunday 14 October 1979. The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill: Matthew Sweeney and James Sutherland-Smith.
An audience of about twenty, one of them in response to the ad in Time Out. I collect takings at the door. I get drunk again. On the positive side: I haven’t smoked a cigarette since May.
Matthew’s depressed because Douglas Dunn has rejected his poems, as have Carcanet Press.
Sunday 18 November 1979. The Prince Albert, Notting Hill: Gavin Ewart and Aidan Murphy.
An audience of about twenty-five: a good number, given the rival Ted Hughes / Thom Gunn reading in Hammersmith.
Wednesday 23 January 1980. The Kensington Bookshop: Dannie Abse and Chris Rice.
Minutes before I’m due on, I can’t find my poems. I run across the road to the Churchill and eventually discover them in the loo.
A good audience: about 35-40 people, peering round pillars and craning their necks over book shelves. Waterfalls of sweat pouring down my back, I begin the first part of the evening by reading a long poem about Iran. I soon realise this is a mistake, but plough on regardless, struggling more and more to be heard above the whirring of a fan heater. I think everyone’s relieved when I finally sit down. Dannie Abse, the consummate professional, purrs like a Rolls-Royce engine through his slot. Meticulous and immediately engaging – but then, he doesn’t have that fan heater to compete with.
The second half goes much better for me. D.A. pays me the compliment of referencing my poems twice in his final reading. He even reads a poem called ‘Peach Stone’, echoing a mention thereof in my ‘Joie de Vivre’. He ends by saying ‘Unicorns don’t exist because they have better things to do.’
He tells me later he enjoyed my second batch of poems, but perhaps I ‘should have kept the long poem till last?’ – difficulty of opening a reading, capturing the audience’s attention etc. And perhaps try some breathing exercises before I start to read? He listens good-naturedly while I explain my mad dash across the road to retrieve my lost poems. Then, a pile of papers and books under his right arm, he offers me a weird, Masonic-like upside-down, left-handed handshake, and hurries away.
Gerda Stevenson, a Scottish actress and occasional Pembidge Poet, invites Aidan Murphy and me to her nearby flat for a coffee. Once there, she introduces me to her flatmate, Juliet (also an actress, also called Stevenson) and earnestly proceeds to scrutinise my poems:
‘Why is your ideal love grey? How can a woman be likened to things trimmed with scissors?’ And so on.
Juliet makes us coffee, and asks me if I ever feel nervous reading in front of so many people.
Later, when we’re alone, Gerda tells me Juliet has just finished working on a TV series called The Mallens.
And no, they’re not sisters.
Sunday 9th November ’80 (from a letter to Egypt, Matthew Sweeney)
Robert wishes to adjourn the group meetings. He too is disgusted with the assortment of people we gather these days, and would rather cease altogether until we can assemble a decent critical crowd once again. I applaud that.
On Wednesday we have a public reading – Brian Patten alone. Rumour reaches me that Robert will lose a lot of money on this one (Patten charges £100 & I believe the London Poetry Sec. are at a low ebb this time of year, & cannot cough up very much). Poor man. Though if he must enlist prestigious names …!
19th January 1981 (from a letter to Egypt, Matthew Sweeney)
My reading with Guy [Carter] passed last Wednesday. A dismal affair. I do not like that bookshop as a reading venue! There was as much life or enthusiasm in my first half as in telling a bus conductor how far you’re going. The second half went slightly better, but still it was one of the feeblest audiences I’ve read to, and one of the few readings I’d like to forget.
One incident irritated me beyond belief: again, it says something about Robert’s insensitivity to others. I waited over an hour for a bus going there, which left me no time for more than one quick beer. So at the interval I was most eager to get over to the Churchill.
Imagine my chagrin (as Derek Mahon would put it) when my way is barred by three people – a woman with dyed blonde hair of about 40, clad in a scarlet jumpsuit & matching lipstick; and older man; and between them, a goofy 18-year-old clutching a portfolio of poems – and Robert whispered in my ear that he’d said it was alright for them to show me the young genius’s poems, and then went off to the Churchill himself. I couldn’t believe this was really happening!
Poems were thrust at me from all angles and, despite an early remark from me that I wasn’t really in a mood to comment on poems, that I was always nervous until my readings were over, I had to wade through his creations, with him asking me did I like them (he had a lisp, of course) and his jumpsuited mother motioning him to be quiet while I was reading. I remarked that the descriptions weren’t bad, but surely an image had to be used for some effect, and it wasn’t just enough to look out your window and list what you saw.
He replied by asking me if I ever wrote poems about Xmas – and that after sitting thro’ one half of my reading. (Meanwhile I overheard his father saying to someone that ‘the human brain can’t take in the spoken word unless it’s memorable …’ & that he’d spent the reading looking round the bookshop or thinking about a football match.) Then the mother produced a portfolio of photos of his paintings – all still-lives, I might add. The kid looked as though he lived in a box marked ‘budding famous poet/painter – do not contaminate.’ And I missed my drink!
22nd February 1981 (from a letter to Egypt, Matthew Sweeney)
We had another group public reading last week; and guess what the next one will be? – ‘An evening with Captain Fox’ – those same old poems read by an actor! When will it stop …?
Wednesday 3 November 1982. The Kensington Bookshop: Stephen Spender.
Late afternoon, I get as far as Notting Hill but, as a result of my cold and worsening cough, I phone Matthew to cancel my plans to meet him beforehand for a drink. He wishes me a speedy recovery and says James Sutherland-Smith has taken two of my Egyptian poems for the second issue of his magazine Siting Fires. I go home, missing my only chance to meet one the greats from the 1930s, feeling very sorry for myself.
Thursday 3 February 1983. After a reading by Douglas Dunn, Robert, a cold-ridden Matthew, my brother David (just down from Nottingham), D.D. and his girlfriend and someone from Faber have a drink at the MacAulay Arms. D.D. is talking about a disciple of Walter Scott who charged the shores of Java armed only with a cutlass then died of pneumonia from the chill he contracted while wading ashore.
‘A Javanese biography of the man would make interesting reading,’ I say.
D.D. laughs and says he’s thinking of doing the man’s biography himself.
A silver-haired British Legion-type fellow, who has been listening from a nearby table, offers us all snuff.
Later, in the loo, the same silver-haired gent is standing at a urinal next to short man of Asian origin.
‘Do you remember me?’ the short man asks.
The silver-haired man frowns down at him. ‘In the army, were you?’
‘No. Notting Hill Underground.’
‘Oh, buy you a drink then.’
Chris Rice started to write poetry again in 2011 after a twenty-year silence. Over the last 10 years has work has appeared widely in magazines, including The London Magazine, Magma and The Poetry Review, and has been placed and long/shortlisted in a number of major competitions. His first collection, Call of Nature (Lapwing, Belfast) appeared in 2013.