Monthly Archives: October 2014

Penguin Modern Poets 2

Penguin Modern Poets 2: Kingsley Amis, Dom Moraes, Peter Porter, 1972.

Penguin Modern Poets 2The aim of the first series of Penguin Modern Poets was to introduce contemporary poetry to the general reader. The result was a wide-ranging sampler of English-language poetry in the 60s and 70s.   At the time, most poetry was published in expensive hardbound editions and Penguin Modern Poets offered readers a taste of modern verse in an accessible format. The first volume was released in 1962; the last, No. 27, appeared in 1979. A second series was launched in 1990.

I still have a battered copy of the most successful volume in the first series, No 10, The Mersey Sound, which featured Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. It sold more than 500,000 copies making it one of the best-selling poetry anthologies ever published. 225px-Mersey-Sound

The link between the three Liverpool-based poets is obvious. But what connects Amis, Moraes and Porter? And who designed the beautifully simple cover of the 1972 edition of the second book in the series?

The answer to the first question appears to be emphatically not very much at all. The three poets were from different countries and were born some years apart; Amis in London in 1922, Moraes in Mumbai in 1938 and Porter in Brisbane in 1929.   The wranglesome Amis was notorious for  drinking, anti-Semitism and adultery. He was photographed sleeping on a beach with “1 Fat Englishman – I fuck anything” written on his back. His long-suffering wife Hilly seen in the bottom left hand corner of the photo  was responsible for the lipsticked slogan.

Respect to HillyMoraes was also very fond of booze and women; he had a lifelong battle with alcoholism and three failed marriages, including one to the actress Leela Naidu. Unlike Amis, he was a vehement supporter of Israel.   Porter seems to have been relatively happily married, although his first wife killed herself in 1974, and he was not known either for his views on Judaism or for his drinking. Ironically, he died of liver cancer.

However, the three men were all substantial poets. Clive James described Amis’s poetry as “accomplished, literate and entertaining… a richly various expression of a moral personality coming to terms with the world”. I suspect Hilly may have taken issue with James’s use of the word “moral”. Porter was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and Moraes remains one of the best-known names in Indian poetry.

The only connection I can see between the three men is W.H. Auden. Amis and Porter both acknowledged that they were influenced by his work. In those days it was either Auden or Yeats; a bit like “The Stones or The Beatles?” in the 60’s and “Galaxy or Cadbury’s?” in the 90’s. The precocious 15-year-old Moraes is reported to have shown Auden his poems. I wonder if Auden offered to show him his?

Regrettably, I have no idea who was responsible for the black and white feather design on the cover of the 1970 edition of Penguin Modern Poets 2.  

Edward Burra

The Penguin Modern Painters: Edward Burra – John Rothenstein, 1945.

Edward BurraThe Penguin Modern Painters series, edited by Sir Kenneth Clark, was launched in April 1944. Clark was the Director of the National Gallery and the  author of Edward Burra, John Rothenstein, was Director of the Tate Gallery. Rothenstein was an atypically feisty gallery director. When fellow art historian Douglas Cooper tried  to have him sacked,  Rothenstein punched him in the face.

Burra was born in 1905 and had his first solo exhibition in London at the age of 24. He went on to establish an international reputation as a painter and set designer. He worked almost exclusively in watercolour and achieved the rich tones and dense, vivid colours which are prominent in many of his works by applying paint, layer upon layer, like a Lebanese bride putting on her makeup.

The theme of much of Burra’s early work was modern, urban life. His subjects were multicultural, encompassing all races, ages and sexualities. Between the wars he travelled to the US, France, Italy and Spain and seems to have spent his time abroad enjoying new experiences, absorbing the exotic situations in which he found himself and storing up memories that he turned into paintings when he returned home to the Sussex coast.


Dockside Café, Marseilles – 1929

Going by the detail in many of his paintings he must have had an excellent memory. Dockside Café, Marseilles is a good example; this is not a conventional café and the young man in the magnificent pink sweater is wearing what appear to be ballet shoes. In contrast, the two barmaids look like stokers in drag. Sailors and bars – whether steamy, late-night gin-joints in Harlem or shady dockside dives in the south of France – are recurring themes in Burra’s work. Strangely, he never married.

In the 1930’s, Burra’s paintings became increasingly macabre and grotesque. He never considered himself a Surrealist, but his work was included in the International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. However, after the Second World War – especially from 1959 to his death in 1976 – landscape became his main subject matter.


Not One of Burra’s – But My Favourite Landscape Joke

Unlike Burra’s earlier work, which is crammed with detail, there is a lot of space in the later landscapes. But the themes that ran through the internal, urban scenes re-appear in many of them. Burra’s landscapes are not conventional, picturesque views and there is often a sinister edge to them, emphasized by dark, brooding colours.

Hastings Beach

The Harbour, Hastings – 1947

The Harbour, Hastings links the two main periods of Burra’s work. The painting shows fishermen going about their daily routines; unloading crates of fish, winding in the nets, taking down sails. But the muscular figures echo his earlier, homoerotic urban scenes, especially the louche figure stretched out beside the boat. The dark clouds prefigure the looming skies that he painted into many of his later landscapes.

Ironically, The Penguin Modern Painters: Edward Burra, is the only landscape cover in the box. I’m grateful to The Perfect Library for re-introducing me to Burra’s work.

Still She Wished for Company

Still She Wished for Company – Margaret Irwin. The Bodley Head, 1937.

Still She Wished for CompanyMargaret Irwin’s best-known work is a trilogy of novels about Queen Elizabeth I. The first of these, Young Bess, was made into a Hollywood movie starring Jean Simmons as the young Queen, Stewart Granger as the suave, handsome Thomas Seymour, and the not so suave and handsome Charles Laughton as Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII.

Irwin also wrote two novels about James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, who fought a civil war in Scotland on behalf of the English king, Charles I. Montrose achieved a number of spectacular victories but met a sticky end in Edinburgh in 1650. Wikipedia records his cause of death simply as “execution” although, in true Game of Thrones fashion, his head was mounted on a spike outside Edinburgh Cathedral. To make absolutely certain he wasn’t going to reappear from beyond the grave his limbs were sent to Glasgow, Perth, Stirling and Aberdeen. You can imagine the scene in a tenement flat in Glasgow,

“What was that in this morning’s post Morag?”

“Och, it was only one of Lord Montrose’s legs dear…”


Still She Wished for Company…

Irwin also wrote a number of ghost stories and two fantasy novels; the first of these, published in 1924, was Still She Wished For Company.

The story moves between the 1920s and the 1770s, following two heroines; 20th century Jan Challard, from London, and 18th century Juliana Clare, the daughter of an aristocratic Berkshire family. The two heroines see one another from time to time through a magical time slip, but never actually meet.

The title of the novel comes from the poem, The Strange Visitor, published in Joseph Jacobs’ 1890 anthology, English Fairy Tales. Like many of the tales collected by Jacobs it is terrifying. A woman sits at her spinning wheel and wishes for company. As she spins and wishes, a series of disembodied body parts arrive one by one, starting with the feet:

 “In came a pair of broad, broad soles, and sat down at the fireside; And still she sat, and still she span, and still she wished for company.

When the body is complete the woman asks it a series of questions culminating in,

“What did you come for?”

If I were writing a handbook for babysitters I would include the poem in the chapter, “How to Deal with Kids – and their Parents –  Who Give You a Hard Time”. It should be read aloud shortly before the parents arrive home. The final line is:

… “I came FOR YOU!”

If this is delivered with sufficient gusto, accompanied by a quick change into a Halloween mask, the child will levitate from its bed, petrified with fear. The returning parents will then have to deal with the sleepless nights which follow and – if you’ve really put in a performance – several months of counseling.

Like The Strange Visitor, Montrose’s mangled body was reassembled.  Eleven years after his execution he was given a state funeral in Edinburgh.