Some notes towards a Life of Spume, by Ian Marchant.

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It is, I suppose, no secret in the world of English letters that I am the official biographer of Hilary Alaric MacFaddean Spume, and that in addition I am editing a small festschrift for publication next year on the occasion of his eightieth fourth birthday. The biography itself will appear after Spume’s hopefully long postponed demise, and will run to around 800 pages. I’m sure it will make a huge critical splash, and that many of Spume’s literary friends will choose it as one of their books of the year.

Now Spume has contacted me to announce that he wishes his contribution to the festschrift to take the form of a ‘blog.’ He has on occasion sent me poems, which I have been pleased to publish on my own blog. He has enjoyed this experience so much that he has decided to publish some of his pieces which have previously only appeared in ‘The Book Magazine’, ‘The Cotswold Review’, ‘Broad Sheep’ and ‘The Tuber’, the house magazine of The Potato Marketing Board. He also hopes to rescue some of the content from a previosly ill-judged attempt to publish ‘on-line.’ It is possible that if so moved, he may write some entirely new material, which may, if we are very lucky, include some new poems.

Here is the short biographical sketch I have prepared for the introduction to the festschrift. I hope that it might serve as an introduction to Spume’s latest project for those who know his work, but little of his life; and also as an introduction to his work for those who are just embarking on a thrilling voyage through the works of the Twentieth Century’s most cruelly over-looked man of letters.

The Spume family have owned land in the Cotswolds village of Botolph St Otto  since at least 1526 when Toby Spume came to live at Botolph Hall. He was Companion of the Stool to Henry VIII. His great grandson Dudley was made baronet in 1611, in thanks for his services to James I. Over the centuries the family have acquired more and more acreage, and the fifteenth and current baronet, Sir Leslie Spume, is now the largest landowner in the area, and Botolph Hall a compact but fine gentleman’s residence, since its restructuring in the late 17th century.

The fourteenth baronet, Sir Bufton Spume, married late in life, after a youth and early middle age spent in somewhat rackety company. Sir Bufton had been close to The Prince of Wales in the period immediately after the first war, and the locals around Botolph St Otto whispered that he was spending too much time at the baccarat table in Le Touquet. But to the surprise of all, in 1924, when he was forty six, he married Dorothea MacFaddean, the daughter of a Scottish landowner, who was then just 19, and embarking on her career as ‘une grande horizontale’. Sir Bufton devised his own method of childrearing, to which his three sons were subject. Sir Leslie (b. 1925), Carol (b. 1926) and Hilary (b. 1927) were largely brought up outdoors. Sir Bufton believed that, as boys were essentially savages, their savagery should be given free rein. The boys therefore lived in three bell tents in the woods around Botolph Hall, largely foraging for themselves, until they were seven, when they were sent to progressive boarding schools. Leslie and Carol both attended Gordonstoun, while young Hilary attended Bedales. Unfortunately for the family, Sir Bufton was also an enthusiastic supporter of the British Union of Fascists, and he was detained for the duration of the Second World War. Hilary Spume did not see his father between the ages of twelve and eighteen, and, when they were reunited, each took an instant dislike to the other. While Leslie was groomed to take over the estate, and Carol had begun his flirtation with Roman Catholicism, which was to lead to his ordination as priest, Hilary found it difficult to establish his identity.

He left school equipped for very little, and so his mother helped him find work with the BBC. This necessitated a move to London, where he arrived in 1947, ostensibly to work as a production assistant on The Third Programme. His parents arranged a room with an old school friend of his mother’s, Bunty Haynes, who was now married to a dentist in Wimbledon.

London at that time was like Shangri-La to an impressionable youth, and Hilary quickly found his way to Soho, where he fell into the company of a new breed of poet. He cut a dashing figure, even at the start of his career, with his trademark pink shirts and loose ties. There is some evidence, mostly from his early poem ‘Bunty’s Room’, that he had formed his first amorous attachment with his landlady; certainly, he was not inexperienced in matters of love when he met Morwenna ‘Mimsy’ Trelegget in 1953 at ‘Daddios’, a jazz and poetry cafe in a bookshop basement on the Charing Cross Road. Spume was finishing his early collection ‘A Light Wind’ (1954), where the influence of Housman is perhaps a little too all-pervasive. The discovery of Daddios, and his meeting with Mimsy, changed his poetic style forever.

Daddios was a stronghold of bongo playing goatee beard and sandal wearing beats. Mimsy worked as a stripper at The Windmill, but she was a regular at Daddios where she performed exotic dances to the sound of a tape loop, bongos, and vers libre. After meeting her Spume abandoned lyric verse for the raw excitement of concrete poetry, and his next three collections ‘Splurge’ (1958) ‘Phtung’ (1963) and his masterpiece ‘Centre Point’ (1971) are all firmly rooted in the concrete tradition.

Spume and Mimsy were married in 1957, the same year that Spume left the BBC to live off his wife’s immoral earnings, and their tempestuous relationship was legendary throughout Soho. Their two hour fist fight over lunch at The French House in 1964 is still remembered with great affection, as is the time that Mimsy threw Hilary down the stairs at The Colony Club at the launch party for ‘Centre Point’, a fight that saw them both barred for a week. But theirs was, as well as a blood soaked gladiatorial contest, one of the great literary love affairs of the twentieth century. Their tiny flat in Berwick Street, although a cockpit for the worst kind of domestic horror, was also a warm and comfortable nest for the Spumes, and a refuge and asylum for their many friends from the pub. ‘Phtung’, the title poem of Spumes third collection is both an urgent celebration and a bloodstained map of their passionate relationship.

By the time of the critically acclaimed issue of ‘Centre Point’ the Spumes were living hand to mouth. Mimsy, approaching forty, was in less demand as an exotic dancer, and Spume’s poetry brought in virtually nothing. But, in 1973, a stroke of good fortune came their way when Sir Bufton Spume died at the age of 92. Although his will went out of its way to ensure that Hilary received nothing, the new baronet, Sir Leslie, had always had both a soft spot for his errant younger brother and an intimate and loving relationship with Mimsy. He granted Hilary a small monthly allowance. All seemed set fair for the Spume menage when, in 1974, during a visit to Robert Graves in Majorca, Mimsy  dissapeared; her body has never been found, so it is fair to assume that she is dead.

Spume’s grief knew no bounds, and he considered not going to the pub on his return to London, but felt that this would be disloyal to Mimsy’s memory. He took his accustomed place at the bar, and announced that he was renouncing concrete poetry, as it smacked of bourgeois individualism. He had become a Marxist. He described his ideological position as  ‘a pinch of Stalin, a spoonful of Lenin, and a bushel of Mao.’ He was offered his old job at the BBC, but declined, as the money wasn’t right. His collection of Marxist poetry, ‘On The Opening of The Scunthorpe Power Station’ (1977) is still his best known and best loved work. The Morning Star said of the collection that it represented ‘a smack in the mouth for Trotskyite re-entrist verse.’ He was appointed poet-in-residence of The Potato Marketing Board in 1980, and FRSL in 1983.

Spume returned to Botolph Hall after the supposed death of his mother in 1988, since when he has been working on a collection of nature poems, which combine both strands of Spume’s oeuvre, both concrete and Marxist. Life is quiet for Spume at the Hall, but is not without its surprises. For example, all three brothers were shocked to discover that their mother had not actually died in 1988, but had in fact been living in the Priest Hole at Botolph Hall with her elderly maid, Edith. Mrs Cutler, Botolph Hall’s fearsome housekeeper said that she always thought that food had been disapearing from the kitchen, but had put it down to Eric, Sir Leslie’s companion, who is prone to midnight feasts. The world of English letters waits breathlessly for Spume’s long promised new collection, ‘Mumbles’, but for now must content itself with his work for the Potato Marketing Board.

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