Where I’ve been. Part one. The road to Vilnius. Part One.

In 2010, I was invited to appear at the Lithuanian Festival of Concrete Poetry in Vilnius. I’ve always been big in the Baltics; ‘Centre Point’ was translated into Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian, and in 1978 I was invited to read ‘On The Opening of the Scunthorpe Power Station’ at the re-dedication of the submarine pens in Kaliningrad. There are those who feel that I lost out on the Laureateship because of this all-expenses paid and hot-and-cold-running-ladies-of the-night laid on trip. Mimsie’s old colleauges at the Circus (where she worked on the switchboard between stints at the Windmill)tipped me off that I had been photographed in a compromiing position with an accommodating young lady, a stirrup pump and a large waterproof tarpaulin. This had nothing to with the succession of the Laureateship; Ted got it because of a bet he won from me back in the late fifties. (see blogs passim).
As touched as I was by the offer to attend the festival in Vilnius, I faced my habbitual problem of cash flow. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, concrete poetry has lost most of its funding in the old Warsaw Pact countries, even in enlightened states like Lithuania. While they could accommodate me for the duration of the Festival, they could not afford my travel expenses. It seemed as though spume’s hopes of a return to the Baltics were doomed, until dear old Ritchie Edwards out of the Manic Street Preachers stepped up to the mark. Ritchie and I go back a long way (‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ was written in the library here at Botoplh Hall), and he could see that I had my heart set on the trip. Since he’s alright for a few bob, and has lots of time on his hands, he offered to drive me in his Quattroporte. He thought that we would be best off going through the Channel Tunnel, up through Belgium and Germany and into Denmark, from where we could catch a ferry to Klaipeda on the Lithuanian coast.
I made the mistake of announcing our intentions in the Turk’s Head, Botolph St. Otto the night before we set off, and then of course, there was no dealing with old Sid Nolan (Australia’s greatest living painter) until we’d agreed that he could come too.
The first morning of our trip dawned bright and early, to the horror of old Sid and me, if I’m honest, as were hungover like fucking goats. But Ritchie insisted that we get underway, and he was kind enough to tell old Sid not to worry about throwing up in the backseat since the Quattroporte has fully washable upholstery.
Through the tunnel and into France threatened to be awkward for our driver, I thought, but what’s the point of being dead if you can’t get fake passports, as Ritchie insisted. He asked that we call him ‘Nat Lofthouse’ for the duration; and on showing his fake credentials, we were through. Old Sid tried a few sketches on the way up through Belgium, but looking down just made him sick again, until we stopped in Osnabruck for a few beers, which seemed to settle his stomach.
We stopped the first night in Hamburg, where I hadn’t been since 1960, when old Mimsie had a season in the Star Club, and fell hideously in love with drummer Pete Best. She it was who ‘did his hair.’ Sadly, the band chucked him out a few years later just because he insisted on sticking with Mimsie’s do, the silly boy. I’d come to Hamburg to bring her home at the urging of the group, as they felt that having her hanging about in the studio while they recorded ‘My Bonnie’ was counter-productive. I was worried that this return to Hamburg after so long would bring back powerful memories, but a night up the Reeperbahn with Sid Nolan soon drove any memories away, and in the morning when ‘Nat’ urged us back into the car, we were soiled but happy. A fairly short run up to Kiel where we would catch the ferry to Lithuania seemed to flash by, and when we saw the bar arrangements on the ferry, Sid and I began to unwind from the rigours of the night before. Little did I know that this was where the difficulties would begin.

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Just got back after a very odd adventure. They’ve been feeding me up for a week in Ulea hospital, and just tonight back in the Brewer street flat. Botolph St Otto tomorrow!

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Orange betting coup disgrace

I’ve just been tipped the wink that Barabara Kingsolver is a shoo-in for tonight’s Orange Prize. It’s a cert. A done deal. But the fucking book closed this morning; three hours before I got the tip! So what use is giving people tips when you can’t get on? I am, as the young people say, gutted.

It’s 18.58 and the festivities are due to start in half an hour or so. The fragrant authoressess and their elbow dressing are probably already on their way to the do. Here’s Spume with a pony he can’t get on, and a betting slip for fucking Hilary Mantel at odds of three to one. You might say, ‘At least you got value, there, Spume.’ Bollocks to value! It wouldn’t matter if I’d got tens about her, since Barabara bastard Kingsolver is going to win the bloody thing.

I’m sorry if I sound bitter, but when you are lucky enough to get somebody inside the stables, it would be nice if they got the tip to you in time to get on. Bum, as Larkin used to say.

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Micky Finn, Simon and Sid.

Of course, I knew Micky Finn; Mimsy took him under her wing, and he and Marc were frequent visitors to our flat in Brewer Street. But that’s by-the-bye. The point is, I think I might have been ‘slipped a Mickey’ last week. This is the only possible explanation for my missing 72 hours,  of which I remember nothing before waking up on the floor of a burnt out caravan in Capel Y Ffin (oddly).

And who, you ask, would stand to gain from such a dastardly act? I’m naming no names; let’s just say he’s hairy, American, and once made an improper suggestion to me in a Gent’s lavatory just off the Fulham Palace Road. I know who you are; and I shall be avenged!

On a lighter note, who should I run into this afternoon in the Green Room but dear old Simon Armitage and his family? He reminded me of our last meeting; six years ago now. How time flies; and how little there is left of it for Spume. I dug out my diaries from the occasion of his last visit to Botolph Hall, and I reproduce them in full below. Those were happy days!

Monday, August 09, 2004

Terribly exciting news. Dear old Simon Armitage has just called, and asked if he can come and stay for the week. He arrives tomorrow. I look forward to hearing his views on the new football season. Simon is a Man U fan of course, as he comes from Huddersfield, whereas I’m a lifelong devotee of Fulham. Sir Leslie is a season ticket holder at Shrewsbury, and he takes me to home games sometimes. Perhaps we’ll lure Armitage up there for a mid-week match!

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Been sitting up chatting with Simon Armitage, and enjoying some of the fruits of Leslie’s cellar. Armitage has to be up early tomorrow morning, because he’s appearing on ‘Today’, to talk about his dramatisation of ‘The Odyssey’. So he’s gone to bed with ‘Ulysses’. Now I see why he wanted to come and say for a few days; as is well known, my early collection ‘Phtung’ deals with my relationship with my wife Mimsy, and is loosely based on that greatest of myths. He’s more than welcome to pick my brains!
I never met Joyce, but Pound was a good friend to my Father, and I visited him several times in Rome. Like my father, he remained an unrepentant fascist, which was always difficult to square with my own views, of course. In fact, on our last meeting, shortly before his death, he hit me with a stick. Talking of death, and punching, I see old Bernie Levin has gone across; Alzheimer’s, like Iris. Such a loss. Who can forget the edition of TWTWTW when Mimsy got up and punched Bernie on the nose, just because he called her ‘a fat old whore’ in the Colony Club one night. She could be very sensitive about things like that, could Mimsy.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

It has been pouring with rain for days, so much so that I had Mrs. Cutler, the housekeeper, come and light the fire in the library today. As I write, Armitage is curled up in front of the fire, sucking a pencil and working on his radio dramatisation of ‘The Odyssey’, while I have been reclining on the chaise longue, casting my eye over the declared runners and riders for this years Whitbread.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

It has been such a pleasure having dear Simon Armitage to stay; I shall miss him terribly when he heads back for the industrial north tomorrow. Tonight, Mrs Cutler cooked dinner for Simon and my brother Sir Leslie and me, and Leslie cracked open a bottle of the ‘62 afterwards, and he doesn’t do that for everyone, so I know he has enjoyed having Simon about the old place.
A slightly sour was struck at about midnight. Leslie was preparing to take to his bed, and Simon and I were settling down for a chat in the library, (I had been looking forward to sharing my views on the latest crop of Next Generation poets), when fucking old Sid Nolan came hammering on the library windows. He’d been chucked out of the Turks Head again, and knows that he can always get a nightcap at Botolph Hall. I’ve been chucked out of the Turks Head with Sir Sidney on many and many an occasion, and he often comes round to ours if he can’t make it home of an evening, but I wasn’t in the mood for Sid’s abrasive Aussie humour tonight. He was pissed as a bishop, and he told the one about going on the rampage in Balarat with Les Murray, which I’ve heard a hundred times before, and which I could see was not to Simon’s taste. Simon excused himself and went upstairs, leaving me to share a few with Sid, who threw up on the persian rug and passed out on the chaise longue. Really too bad of Sid, who can be a bore when he’s pissed, Australia’s greatest painter and Botolph’s most distinguished citizen or no. Now poor old Mrs Cutler will have to clear up his mess in t
he morning.

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Dead Teds.

It’s all been a bit bonkers, really. I’m still in Hay, but it has been a peculiar few days. Things are a little fuzzy, it must be faced.

I woke up this morning on the floor of a ruined caravan which, upon further investigation, turned out not to be in Hay at all, but high up in the Black Mountains, in Capel Y Ffin. How I came to be there, and how I came to have soiled my undergarments quite so severely, I cannot now say for sure. A sheep farmer was kind enough to give me a lift down into town in the back of his Land Rover, and dear old Anne Robinson was kind enough to let me clean up in her room at The Swan.

One bright spot of my lost few days is that I seem to have written a poem! I found it written on a piece of lavatory paper stuck to my shoe when I was disrobing in Anne’s en-suite, and it’s certainly in my handwriting, but because of the nature of its composition, (ie, I have no idea when I wrote it or how it came to be stuck to my shoe) I’ve decided to file it under ‘Found’ poems, of which I have a great many. Here it is…

Dead Teds.

Poor old Ted was 68 when he died.

Ted Heath (out of Ted Heath and his Orchestra) was 67,

Whilst Ted Heath was 89.

An average of 74.66666667 years.

How cruel averages are! How cruel!

I wish we’d had another 6.66666667 years of Ted’s poems:

Lots more stuff about pike, and crows.

Or 7.66666667 years of Ted Heath’s smooth yet muscular Big Band arrangements,

Rather than 14.33333333 extra years of Ted Heath;

Even though we would have missed his service

As Father of the House.

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Dear Old Ronnie

I hear on the wireless this morning that dear Ronnie Biggs has taken a turn for the worse, poor old love.

I first met him in Lucy’s, here in Hay, in 1963, him and a bloke who called himself  ‘Stan Agate’, but who was immediately recognisable as my mother’s occassional caller, Professor C.E.M. Joad. Joad it was who got me my first job with The Third Programme. Everyone knew they were the Great Train Robbers, though I was surprised to witness Joad’s involvement. But since this was Hay Festival, everybody was looking over their shoulders to see if there was anyone else in the pub who was more important that they should be talking to, and so didn’t take any notice of the lads. Joad (or ‘Stan’) gave me a wink, so I kept schtum. Ronnie and I got on famously, and we stayed in touch all through his travails.

Just after my wife Mimsy was lost off Majorca in 1975, my brother Sir Leslie invited me to join his annual reading party to cheer me up. That year the party included (of course) dear old Peter Mandelson, and, for the first time, that little shit Michael Jackson. Unusually, rather than in Tunis, as per, the group had decided to go to Rio for their leisurely month of reading, translation, and amateur versification. I jumped at the chance of a ticket to Rio, but rather than sitting around translating Hegel’s’ Phenomenology of the Spirit’ into Welsh with my brother and his friends, I slipped the leash, and spent a pleasant few weeks with old Ronnie and his toothsome companion. Much drink was taken during the course of my stay, and we made a little film together, which we called ‘The Great Villanelle Swindle.’ I held Mimsy’s old Super 8, while Ronnie railed against lyrical formalism. Tremendous stuff.

Lucy’s has lost all its character now, I’m sorry to say. Tried to get in there this lunchtime, but the dear old girl has gone, and The Three Tuns is turned into something that looks like it would be happier somewhere off the Fulham Palace Road. I took my credit to The Blue Boar, where last year was quickly forgiven and forgotten. It is, of course, pissing with rain here in Hay, so the place is full of exciteable girls from the great London publishing houses in wellies, no bad thing; I might be eighty-three, but that doesn’t mean I’m averse to a glimpse of elegant, well-groomed knee twixt summer skirt and rubber boot.

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Packing for Hay

God, I feel bloody. Don’t know why. Hardly touched a drop last night, as the skinflint landlord of The Turks Head proved unwilling to stretch my credit, and if it hadn’t been for Sir Sidney Nolan, Australia’s greatest painter standing me a few pints, I don’t know what I would have done. Gone without, I suppose, as so often.

Mind you, when you get to be my great age, unexplained ailments can overtake one at any moment. Here’s an extract from my diary which I found this morning:

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


It is always a huge privilege to be invited to speak at the Hay Festival of Literature, one which has been long denied me. This is a woeful oversight which I have taken somewhat to heart. What do you have to do to get invited?
Imagine my surprise and delight, then, if you will, when my old sparring partner Stephen Spender asked me to share the platform with him at this years festival, subject; ‘Whither Socialist poetry?’
I agreed at once, as this is a subject to which I have given a great deal of thought. On the morning of the event, a car driven by an ex-ostrich farmer from South Africa came out to the house to pick me up, and I was whisked into the saloon bar of The Blue Boar, where I spent a most pleasant late morning, afternoon and early evening in the company of some roofers from Chepstow, who had just been paid on completion of a job of work, and whose free-spending habits reconfirmed my commitment to the working class.
Unfortunately, a pork pie I took for my lunch must have disagreed with me, because by the time of the talk, at 8 ‘o’ clock, I was most unwell. I was sick over Spender’s brogues, and had to be helped from the Festival site.
Now Stephen isn’t talking to me. I’m told that my chance of being asked back have lessened somewhat, to put it mildly. Moral; in future, (and both Ledbury and Cheltenham have put out feelers for next year), I shall avoid solids before my talk.

I’ll be staying in Hay for much of this year’s Festival, and hopefully filing blogs for my loyal readers. I’m packing my valise this afternoon, and heading off in the morning. My needs are modest and few; a change of underwear and my shaving gear, a third class return ticket from Moreton-in-Marsh to Hereford, and fifty quid lent to me by my brother’s companion Eric, who sold a Welsh dresser of questionable provenance to a couple of bug-eyed Yanks at the weekend, and who is subsequently in funds. Cheers Eric! Sing Ho! for Hay!

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Pigs as Prizes. By Spume.

I hear on the grapevine that Ian MacEwan has won the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. The prize is a pig. Just goes to show you. Write something pallid about sulking poetesses sitting around in dustmotes lit by the westering sun, get 30k. Write something funny, get a pig. Not even a pig. You get a pig named after you. It’s like saying to the Nobel winner, oh, here’s a cheque. We’re going to keep it ourselves, but we’re going to name it after you. Drives me mad. Mind you, I wouldn’t say no to the Booker or the Nobel or the fucking pig naming, though my chances are vanishingly low.

The only time one of the glittering prizes fell within my purview was after dear old John B died, and everyone knew it was between me and Ted for the Laureateship. I’d been encouraged to believe that neither working largely in concrete form, or my covert support for the RCPGB(ML) would necessarily prevent my appointment. Larkin had dropped by at Botolph Hall with Monica while on a final touring holiday of the Cotwolds, and insisted that it was mine if I wanted it. What nobody knew except me and Ted was that I’d lost it to him in a game of backgammon, funnily enough while we both staying with old Plum himself, in Le Touquet. 1957, it would have been. Mimsy got us out there somehow, me and her and Ted, and, having nothing else to gamble with, we gambled with our future. That’s when he won his clear run at The Laureateship. I stepped down in honour of that old gambling debt, and the rest is history; Ted in Westminster Abbey, Spume contemplating a pauper’s grave.

Now, Plum was funny. I’ll give him that. The people who’ve won the prize named in his honour, they’re not funny. They’re humourous. Different thing. I’ll tell you who else was funny, and that was old Malcolm Hardee. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children her cunt fell off, that was one of his. But did he win a prize? Did he win so much as a virtual pig? No, he did not. He drowned in ignominious circumstances, dragged down into the rat piss infested waters of Limehouse Basin by pockets bulging with change from a fruit machine. Bloody good luck to him, say I. I’d take it all with me, if I had anything to take other than a few hopeful betting slips, and a perilously over-heated slate at The Turk’s Head, Botolph St. Otto.

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No prizes for Spume.

What a tragedy it is to see Her Majesty the Queen forced to act as mouthpiece for the ruling classes. My unlamented father, Sir Bufton Spume, knew her uncle, of course, back when he was Prince of Wales. David would be turning in his grave if he witnessed the vicious cuts the so-called Government are making to the poetry budget. I mean, how am I to live? It was hard enough to be reminded this morning that the Orange Prize giving do is weeks away, meaning that I can’t collect the sure thing bet I’ve got on the favourite, but then to have one’s nose rubbed in it in this way is almost more than I can bear. I’d hoped to get away to town this morning, but, there’s no prospect now, and nothing much to drink except a half bottle of Wincarnis I found in Mrs. Cutler’s pantry. I just hope the Potato Marketing Board doesn’t slash its poetry budget, or I shall be on the streets.

Seeing the Queen on telly reminded me of her sister Margaret. Do you know, she once gave me the glad-eye in the crush bar at the Royal Opera House? No word of a lie. This would have been 61, or 62, when she was after pretty much anything in trousers, but still. Terribly flattering. I would have made a move, but my wife Mimsy caught me winking at her, and put the kybosh on it. Bloody rich, in view of the fact that Mimsy was entertaining a great many gentleman callers herself, including most of the staff at the Circus, where she worked on the switchboard between shifts at The Windmill. Who knows what might have come to pass if Mimsy had let me off the leash a little? I bet you I wouldn’t have been sitting here staring into the £78 million blackhole carved out of the poetry budget by Her Majesty’s Government. No, I’d be Poet In residence on Mustique, that’s what, instead of the fucking Potato Marketing Board, no offence.

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Spume on the Orange

I’m looking forward to this evening’s Orange festivities, having backed the favourite months ago, and got three to one about her. Mrs. Cutler, our redoubtable housekeeper being in one of her ‘moods’ (a consequence, she always claims in her clearer moments, of her time as a volunteer at Porton Down in the 1950’s), I was only able to extract a tenner from the household purse. Still, all being well, I’ll have forty quid in my pocket tomorrow afternoon, and I’m off for the night in the Brewer Street flat, and who knows what else? I’ll start at the French House; my friend and ally E.G. Pugh (‘Bus Stops of Huntingdonshire’) gets in there early evening, and he’s usually in funds.

Still, thinking over what I’ll do with my winnings caused me to look through my diary entries from other Orange nights. Here’s a short extract from a few years back, which has made me nervous…

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Orange Prize

I hear on the grapevine that Andrea Levy has scooped the Orange Prize this year. It often seems to go to outsiders and I honestly think that it is starting to look like a value bet. The book seems a little unbalanced in favour of the punter who is prepared to have a go on the 6/1, 7/1 shots. Circle it in next years racing calander, if you want my advice.
The Orange has a venerable and distinguished history. It was Virginia Woolf who was the first recipient, in 1936, and I remember seeing the trophy on the mantelpiece of Monk’s House when I was taken to see her as a child. Leonard was a cousin of my mothers, by marriage I believe. My Father was a huge favourite of Virginia’s, and she sent a charming letter of condolence to my mother when he was interred for the duration. I was no more than eight; Virginia couldn’t have been kinder; she listened to one of my first ventures into verse with an indulgent ear, and after tea we played french cricket on the lawn. She had a good bowling arm, and could put a little bit of left hand spin on it if the conditions were right
. Terrible loss to the Women’s game.

Why don’t I ever listen to my own advice? Should I have had a pop on one of the outsiders? I could have got twenty fives about some of them.

The only thing of mine which ever won an award, of course, was ‘On The Opening Of The Scunthorpe Power Station’, which won the Morning Star Marxist/Leninist Poetry Prize in 1978.  The editor said at the Award giving at the Soviet Embassy that he wished everybody could have won. Bollocks to that. Twenty quid, that was, which was quite a lot of money in those days.

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