Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Update : March 2009

I have been pleased that in the last couple of weeks I have been contacted by a number of people who have looked at the material in this blog, and got something from it. On March 2nd. there was a program by Lee Hall on the 'Archive Hour' on Radio 4, covering aspects of the North East poetry scene, including the Morden Tower and Basil Buntings work. I was also pleased to note that the Morden Tower website has loaded up yet more of my fathers photographs - a few the same as these, but many additional ones. At 84 he was a techno-phobe - no telly, never mind a PC with Internet, so I don't know how much it would have meant to him - but I find it pleasing that his major 'hobby' has outlived him in this way.


Blog comments have been useful too - so I can update one of the photos with additional names, and correct two spelling mistakes. Poetry is about precision - so I shall put them right as soon as I can.

Jeremy James

Thursday, 13 November 2008

'Bloggers Introduction'

In July my father, David M James died, at the age of 85. Some weeks later I joined my elder brother to help clear his house – a task that we have all learned to face with some dread. The clothes, furniture, the things we need for everyday life were all old, and could be disposed of with relative ease. But he left behind a huge collection of photographs and papers, and it was out of dealing with this large collection that I came to see my upbringing in a new light.

He had always been a man of varied interests. While professionally he had been a research scientist, and then a teacher, his interests had been wide – literature, music film, art, architecture, the living world. As we sorted through these papers, I found persistent reminders of the first sights of these things that he and my mother had provided. I can’t list them all, but as I looked through the collected playbills, programmes, and catalogues, I came to appreciate just how broad these introductions had been, and at what a young age. So, here was the catalogue for exhibitions of Futurism and Surrealism, in Newcastle and Durham. The programme for a cello recital by Paul Tortellier, violin by Yehudi Menhuin, plays from Shakespeare to John Arden, sculpture by Moore, and so on.

He also took me to poetry readings, an interest of his. Much earlier, at the age of eight or nine, I had lain upstairs unable to sleep, while my parents had entertained friends downstairs. It wasn’t a normal evening – they were to have an early meal, and then listen to a play on the radio. After dinner the adults gathered in our front room, and it was at that point that I crept downstairs in my dressing gown, complaining that I couldn’t sleep. It must have been 1963 or thereabouts. I was allowed to sit in the corner of our living room and listen to the broadcast of ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas, very probably the original BBC version. I was captivated, and listened to the music of the words, even though I couldn’t understand a lot of it. (Why was there a gathering ? It's inconceivable now, getting together to listen to a radio broadcast ! Dad had a very fine vhf tuner, its green glowing valves driving big Wharfedale speakers. He was proud of it, so was there an element of showing off, both the technology and the knowledge that this would be a special event?)

So I was used to sitting still and being quiet, and listening to stuff that was hard to make sense of. I can’t remember my first trip to the Morden Tower, the unique poetry venue in Newcastle, but I do remember hearing Basil Bunting read Briggflatts there. The somewhat scruffy man arrived with his grip stencilled B. BUNTING, WYLAM, containing his collected poems and a half bottle of whisky. The first part of the evening covered shorter pieces, and then there was the reading of Briggflatts. As with the opening lines of Milk Wood, so with this poem – the hairs rose on my arms and neck, as the opening line ‘Brag, sweet tenor bull’ was delivered in the most musical Northumbrian brogue.

My father’s interests in photography and poetry merged, as he started to photograph the readings that he went to. He always gave the poets and other participants copies of the photos, and some were used in books and at exhibitions. Many have been donated to archives, the Basil Bunting archive in Durham, the Poetry Society, and many will go to the Morden Tower, which celebrates an anniversary this year.

So, as we worked on clearing the house, I found a ring binder with a short work about photographing poets and poetry readings. I remembered that he had tried to get it published, 20 years ago. Well, black and white photography of live poetry readings is a small subject area, unlikely to attract the interest of publishers. But I wondered…. Could I publish it myself, in blog form, as kind of thank you for the introduction he had give me? The chapters seem to be about the size of blog entries, but I have done it backwards so to speak – so it reads as a narrative down the blog. The photographs were scanned in, the words retyped, and some minor changes made to suit the format. I probably need to explain one aspect of the work. He loved photographing women, and he was surprisingly good at persuading them to pose for him, in varying stages of dress and undress. This explains some of the references in the text.

I have removed just two rather scathing references to individuals. Time has passed, and I have no wish to cause any offence to any who are pictured here. I have also removed a page of deeply technical information on photography, which is unlikely to be of interest due to changes in technology. It is possible that some of the pictures have been published before, but I have no reason to suppose that copyright has been infringed. If anyone does feel that they have copyright in any of the material presented, or that they would prefer not to have the photographs reproduced here, please contact me, and I will rectify the position.

Jeremy James, November 2008.

Poets in a Lens : Introduction

This is a book of pictures, the subject being readings of poetry in the North-East of England from 1969 to 1987. My eye has wandered from poets to audiences, both have provided me with a great deal of innocent fun.

You will notice that very little is said about the poems. This is because although I enjoy listening to them, I understand little of them, at any rate on a first hearing.

There is rather more about the photography, useful tips about taking pictures in difficult circumstances, with minimal light, and where the clunk of a shutter may be an intrusion. The only advice not in the text is: “File your negatives in a proper album from the word go.” I wish I had.

I : The Morden Tower

I first heard of it in the late sixties, when of course its great days were over, as they always are. The name of Basil Bunting caught my attention, and brought an echo of my schoolboy past in the mid-thirties. I had seen it in Ezra Pound’s “Active Anthology”, borrowed from Croydon Public Library (a treasure house, incidentally, of Trotskyist books, put there at the suggestion of a local radical called Arthur Ballard; books which had an influence far more immediately intoxicating than that of poetry, though of far less enduring value). Among the alliterative and otherwise funny names Basil’s stuck in my mind; his poetry didn’t, nor has it yet, though his reading of “Briggflatts” was well worth hearing, and can be heard on an L.P.

Tom Pickard had dug Basil out of obscurity, and Tom ran the Tower.

Basil Bunting in the Morden Tower, 14/02/1975.



Basil with Jonathan Williams and Thomas Meyer, Colpitts, 18/11/1977.


The Morden Tower, outside 04/06/1982





The Morden Tower, inside 29/01/1971







Connie (Pickard) awaiting Carol Rubenstein, 11/09/1969





The Morden Tower looks its age on the outside, and on the inside has beams, wall mouldings and white-washed walls, decorated with posters and line drawings, varying with time. In one phase, fortunately short, it was lined with pictures in glazed frames. Nowadays there is warmth and electric light and some modest seating, but in 1969 when I started going there were piles of damp cushions and a chill. A note in my album to the picture of Connie Pickard above says: “Connie at the Morden Tower, awaiting the arrival of Carol Rubinstein, who occupied the Bard’s Cushion and read her poems.”

Morden Tower reading by Hugo Williams and Galway Kinnell


There was a long period during which the lights failed, due to vandalism or possibly to unpaid bills. This was overcome by storm-lamps and candles, making for a stage-Bohemian effect, a challenge to the photographer, not to mention the reader.


Jerome Rothenberg Tower, 02/11/1971





David Wright and Philippa Reid 08/06/1972




Adrian Henri and Nell Dunn, Morden Tower, 29/09/1972



For a while a move was made to the upstairs bar of the Old George. These were the days when illumination was still provided in pubs; though I must in fairness report that amid the gloom of the downstairs bar of the Old George it is still possible in 1987, to obtain a pint of D.B., and Archie Rice need not yet emigrate. These middle class surroundings attracted a matching audience, the lumpenproletariat of duffle-coated students was leavened by some more academic figures, notably the tall ascetic-looking figure of David Burnett, librarian and poet, who appeared later as an anchor-man of the Colpitts.


Tom Pickard, The Old George, 05/12/1973



Jeremy James note : I saw Basil Bunting at the Tower, and heard him read Briggflatts three times - there, in Harrogate, and at Durham University. One of the web links has a recording of him reading 'What the Chairman told Tom' and there is the start of Briggflatts. I never heard an accent like his, until several years later I came across an IBM engineer with the same Northumbrian burr. "Tchere may be a fault wit' the chard chreader". It made this prosaic piece of electromechanical IT kit sound like something that could accompany the holy grail. I've inherited the LP of "Briggflatts".

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

II : Listening Women

The picture of Tom Pickard and Connie illustrates an aspect of poetry readings, the figures in the audience (I shall come to the poets later). Here are captive models. There are men listening, but I don’t take much account of them. Often the women remain unattainable figures, remote objects of contemplation; sometimes, as in the case of the delightful Ann Bellingham, I make an acquaintance : “Three years at the university ? It’s gone like a dream. I had to take a General Degree, because of my social life, you see.”

Tom Pickard & Connie, Morden Tower, 29/01/1971


Ann Bellingham, Colpitts, 18/11/1977



Ann Bellingham, Colpitts, 12/05/1978


From time to time my attention is caught by the poetry, or I recall my duty as recorder of the poet, but my interest always reverts. They are often students, though not always, as in the case of Audrey Cummings, or my regular stars Posy O’Neill and Patty O’Boyle.

Audrey Cummings at Castle Chare, Durham. 18/01/1980



Audience at Paul Buck’s reading, Colpitts. 19/01/1976



Posy O’Neill at Ed Dorns reading, Big Jug, Durham. 12/06/1981



Posy O’Neill, Castle Chare, Durham. 02/05/1980



Patty O’Boyle, Castle Chare, Durham. 20/02/1981



Patty O’Boyle, Castle Chare, Durham. 19/10/1984


Bron Frith, Castle Chare, Durham. 07/05/1983


‘Dark Beauty’, Castle Chare, Durham. 29/04/1983




Martha Lewis, Castle Chare, Durham. 09/03/1984



Audience at Anne Stevenson reading, Castle Chare, Durham. 07/02/1986



Peter Porter reading, Colpitts, Durham. 10/11/1978




Ric Caddel, Morden Tower, 14/02/1975. In the background Connie Pickard & Gael Turnbull.



The women fascinate me, and I take their pictures for their own sake. Sometimes, however, they form subjects along with the reader, and by their attention personify the attention of the audience. But where is my attention?

III : The Colpitts

Ric Caddel, librarian, poet and publisher, who had been for some time helping to run ‘The Tower’, set up a poetry-reading circle in the back room of the Colpitts Hotel in Durham City. The small back room was lit by one or two bulbs hung form the ceiling and heated by a gas fire; its trademarks are the wallpaper (Contemporary design, c 1951) and the dart board. It was frequently noisy from bar-chatter in the corridor outside, but had a good rectangular pattern of seats, and was seldom either over-crowded or embarrassingly empty. I would arrive early and take a seat at the far end, to command a view of both reader and audience; there-after it was pot-luck whether I retained an open view, but I seldom moved, taking obstructions, along with the available light, as conditions of the occasion.

Colpitts Hotel, Durham City, July 1982


Colpitts Hotel, Durham City, July 1982


Carol dusting, Colpitts Hotel, Durham City, July 1982


Carol drawing, Colpitts Hotel, Durham City, April 1986



The readings at the Colpitts came to an end in 1979, and the back room now has a pool table. But even without poetry the pub is well worth a visit : the beer, notably Sam Smith’s ‘Old Brewery Bitter’, the arrangement and fittings, including an active open fire of coal in the public bar, remain obstinately traditional.

The following pictures illustrate the room during readings. Tony Jackson’s hot water bottle was of more than merely symbolic value at the start of a reading in March.

The last reading in the pub itself was in June 1979. There-after the title “Colpitts Poetry” was kept, but the readings were moved, in the first place to the castle Chare Arts Centre nearby. This was a converted school, and at the start had all the cosy charm of a Sunday School, and what’s more no booze on tap, though that was put right later.

Tony Jackson (L) with Adrian Neatrour, Colpitts Hotel, Durham, 12/03/1976




Ulli McCarthy reading with Matthew Doyle, Colpitts Hotel, Durham, 11/03/1977


Ian Sinclair (L) and Chris Torrance, Colpitts Hotel, Durham, 20/05/1977

(Note that the focus is more appropriate to the previous chapter)


Tony Lopez and Lee Harwood, , Colpitts Hotel, Durham, 03/03/1978



John Riley, Colpitts Hotel, Durham, 02/12/1977




Audience at reading by Andrew Crozier, Colpitts Hotel, Durham. 06/05/1977

(Jeremy : interestingly, when doing web research on Andrew Crozier, a photograph at the Colpitts which I’m sure was taken by my father !)




Jeremy's comments : During my last year at Durham University I lived up the road from the Colpitts, in May Street. I used to cycle down there, fill a flagon with four pints of Sam Smiths, and wobble back up the hill with the flagon hung precariously from my handle-bars. A friend at University, Steve, had actually found the Castle Chare site unoccupied in 1974, and initiated the work to turn it into an Arts Centre. So when my Dad first went there, and compared it unfavourably with the Colpitts, I knew both locations - but not as poetry venues.

IV: The Telling Moment

This is the photographic art at its most distinctive, the snapshot. The sports photographer, with his leaping hurdlers and fouling footballers, is better provided with such moments, for which however he may need the 300mm f2.8 lens. They are more subtle and occur more rarely in poetry readings, but they call for no more than a 50mm or 85mm f2.8 lens. I have never possessed a motor-drive, nor would I be inclined to use one, it seems like taking a machine gun on a deer-shoot. Not that I’ve ever shot anything except a target, and no regret.

Alas, I cannot say what Barry McSweeney was telling us. On the other hand, I can say that Peter Mortimer was telling Dominic Behan, ever so nicely, to shut up. Peter had been reading when Dominic suddenly announced from his corner: “It’s shit, Peter!”

The audience was frightfully embarrassed. English type cries, “I say, give the man a chance!”, “Disgusting!”, “Fair play, there!” alternated with the doggedly repeated Irish literary criticism,

“It’s shit, I tell ye!”, which was now being enunciated from a standing position. The audience was further embarrassed by the suspicion that while the form of the criticism was deplorable, there might be something in its content.

Barry McSweeney, Castle Chare, Durham. 09/11/1979


Peter Mortimer and Dominic Behan, Morden Tower,
23/06/1978.


The telling moments are usually those of activity, but the picture of Alexander Trocchi (now dead), author of “Cain’s Book” and acknowledged heroin user, seems to tell us something.



Alexander Trocchi (R) with Dave Westerley (L), Morden Tower,
19/03/1971


Paul Buck reading, Colpitts,
Durham. 19/11/1976


Tony Jackson, Castle Chare, Durham. 15/02/1980


George McBeth, ‘Coelfrith’, Sunderland, 11/05/1982


Richard Kell, Morden Tower, 08/05/1981


Bill Griffiths had the bad luck to be paired with Geraldine Monk at a reading in the Castle Chare in 1980. From the moment she appeared, in scarlet dress and black stockings, he hadn’t a hope. (It was one of the few occasions when I should have welcomed a colour film. I tried to recruit her as a figure model when I sent her copies of the pictures, and had some hope of success, but she eluded me). He was luckier in 1985 at the Tower, along with Bob Cobbing, who performs in a curious and effective chant.


Geraldine Monk with Bill Griffiths (L) Ged Lawson (R) Castle Chare, Durham, 01/02/1980


Bob Cobbing, Tony Jackson, Bill Griffiths, Morden Tower. 01/03/1985

V : Reading Women

Geraldine Monk was giving a reading, though it is not apparent from the pictures: she is there for her appearance. I regard the women who read in the same light as those who listen, which is disrespectful, but I must add that my attitude to their actual readings is different.

Geraldine Monk with Ged Lawson, Castle Chare, Durham, 01/02/1980

Susan Musgrave introduced her poems as describing “what it feels like to be a sexy young woman of 23.” I have no experience of what it feels like from the inside, but plenty of what it looks like, and she’s a fine specimen of the type. Such poems are however unusual, as unusual in this matter as the early poems of Dylan Thomas.

Susan Musgrave, one of three Canadian poets, Morden Tower. 03/11/80


When it comes to the poetry, I find nothing to distinguish the work of women from that of men, unless they deal with subjects such as Motherhood or Feminism. The idea of ‘Wimmin’, to use Private Eye’s economical word, bores me. Writing women are just writers, to be judged by their writing alone. I doubt if anyone who mistook Joyce Cary’s sex on the basis of the name would be corrected by a reading of “Herself Surprised”; and I should be quite prepared to believe that Hemingway was written by some Ernestine.

Against that is a simple and awkward fact. The English novel has since its early days counted women among its outstanding practitioners, and this continues today. Over the same period, when women have been accepted as writers, I cannot think of single outstanding woman poet. This century has produced the novelists Woolf, Compton-Burnett and Spark, but no woman to set alongside Belloc, Eliot and Betjeman.

Anne Cluysenaar (R) with Diana Surman, Colpitts, 14/11/1975

Elaine Feinstein, Colpitts, 04/11/1977

Wendy Mulford, Colpitts, 27/04/1979

Vicky Feaver with Colin Falck, Morden Tower, 13/03/1981

Frances Horowitz, Castle Chare, Durham 04/12/1981


Gillian Clarke with Roland Mathias, ‘Coelfrith’, Sunderland 11/02/1982


Nicki Jackowska, Morden tower, 04/06/1982

Helen Dunmore, with publisher Neil Astley, Morden Tower 20/05/1983

Lorna Tracy (R) with Nicole Jouve, Morden Tower, 29/01/1982