2011, in TLS., published: 22 November
I hopt a pays ore too, wylst givin vent
too mee emowshunz, & herd someone showt
‘A Bedlamite, got luce without is droors!’ –
the most embarrassust I ever bean.
The ground flew up and hit me on all fores.
I girded up my Lions & fled the Seen.
Those lines are from “Artemus’s Wardrobe” in Tom O’Bedlam’s Beauties, the first book of Peter Reading’s I read, and, I still think, one of his best. The vivid mimicry, sly detachment and wild humour in its depictions of the rural-provincial mad and their uncaring carers only pretend to be heartless. The afflicted are not mocked. Our patronizing “concern” and easy compassion are.
The book – and like all of Reading’s, it is very much a book, deploying fiction’s cast of characters (in more than one sense), linkages and echoes – appeared in 1981; it was sent to me in a sizeable box of new verse for review in Encounter. Its metrical savvy and dour exuberance delighted me as much as its subjects discomfited. I must have tried to say as much, for a week or two after the review had appeared some recent poems of Reading’s turned up in my mailbox at the TLS, where I’d been working for about a year, with a note thanking me for the two or three hundred words I’d devoted to him in my round-up and an open invitation to visit him in Shropshire – Little Stretton, a hamlet at the bottom of the Long Mynd.
It was another commission that eventually took me there – from Mick Imlah, to interview
for Poetry Review, which he was then editing. In a cottage that was tidy-tending-to-Spartan Reading lived frugally but well. Superb meals cooked by his first wife, Diana, were washed down with bottles from his “cellar” – a tiny space under the stairs. He liked to choose vintages to match guests’ birth-years, so we were feted with two of the best wines I have ever drunk – I had taken my girlfriend along “for some fresh air”. Reading
It could hardly have been fresher. The Mynd was snow-covered, the little stream that ran through the village was a glacier in miniature. In a battered waxed Barbour and heavy boots
strode ahead – a lot of strength and determination in a very compact frame. We toiled up after him, panting and reddening. Over his shoulder came his headers and catchlines for the Shropshire Examiner or some such: “London Man in Stretton Visit”, “Bright Lights Beckon for Poet Pete”. He was, and he liked to play, the provincial versifier relishing his distance from “the literary world”; at the same time he liked to know about that world and to be known by it. Back at the pub I was introduced with comical deference as “a Times man”, to general amazement. It was the 1980s but 1956, with just possibly touches of 1966, was on the clocks. Roles were traditionally distributed. Diana and my girlfriend made their way back to the house to “see about lunch”. Reading and I sat on a while and continued our interview, as around us drifted the voices, inflections and endlessly repeated stories that were the substance of his poetry. Reading
Which he did not like to call poetry. Nor did he like to call himself a poet. “Clearly I’m some sort of writer”, was all he would admit to. But what sort of writer? An unclassifiable original, as has been said before. The work became tougher, “harder to take”, as the world did and, especially,
did, in the course of the 1980s and 90s. Reading was just about the only poet – all right, the only writer writing verse – in this country, as opposed to Northern Ireland or Scotland, and with the exception of Michael Hofmann, whose work seemed to me to show anything like respect for the facts. It made and it makes, as Paul Batchelor said (exaggerating a little but not much) in his TLS review of England ’s Vendange Tardive, everything else look ornamental. The books came at the rate of one a year – a new one always about to go to press while another was half-written – for ten years or more. They were various, inventive, un-putdownable and hard-hitting. I reviewed many of them, and poems appeared steadily in the TLS, as they continued to do when Mick took over “the poetry” for the fifteen years before his death in 2009. Reading
Those poems might, in later years, arrive from Melbourne, or Marfa, Texas.
had found some wondrous necessary men and women at the Lannan Foundation who supported him wherever creative or ornithological impulse took him. When he came back to this country it was to Shropshire again – Shrewsbury and then Ludlow, where he had once, he told me, lived in a house with a view of the blue remembered hills, and stood at his window, glass in hand through the long evenings “with Elgar going full blast”. Elgar, Barbirolli’s Elgar especially, the Reading Halle and the Philharmonic were all important to him as a boy in Liverpool. He grew up there, was an art student there, and briefly taught art there, before getting out to the country, the villages and small towns that were his heartland, and giving up painting because he wanted to paint big pictures like Rothko or Pollock, but couldn’t afford the canvases and, as a non-driver, couldn’t have lugged them around anyway.
He went on loving painting as he loved music (Bach; Handel; Sibelius, whose forty-year silence moved him almost as much as the last symphonies), with a deeper knowledge of both than anything except birds, wine, geology, palaeontology, mycology – and metres. In the last he was the greatest innovator since
– innovations that drew on the very old. Self-taught, he seemed to have read everything but the touchstones were Cotterill’s Homer, Rabelais, Piers Plowman, Gil Blas, Smollett, Hopkins, Hardy – he was, like Hardy (at most times), an un-doubting atheist and Darwinian – and Frost. Religions were pernicious folly; he had little time for ordinary politics, hating the “Cro-magnon” antics of the mob and their rulers, but he was resolute in defence of the underdog against the “impertinent” intrusions of the welfare state and the brutal imperatives of consumer “culture”. In the last few years he withdrew further and further from both, into a proud isolation, “holy penury” and the consolations waiting in his corner of the pub on Hopkins ’s market square. Ludlow
He had always drunk steadily and unapologetically. An electrifying reader of his work, he could occasionally be undone by the one stiffener too many – to the consternation of audiences and festival-organizers. More than once in some moment of expansive madness I had dined splendidly but alone in a haunt of gourmandizers while across from me
, his forehead reposing on the tablecloth next to his untouched quenelles of pike, emitted a gentle sussurration. I had put him, mud-caked and stinking, to bed in Reading King’s Lynn after retrieving him from the other bed where he had mistakenly thought to meet the Great Ouse at the flood. There was a purposefulness in all this, as I see I suggested in a “conversation” with “John Bilston”, the schoolmasterly amateur scholar and poetaster whose surprisingly well-informed, mildly pompous expertise Reading drew on at ticklish moments. In the sparser textures and more painfully direct emotion of Reading’s late work, I opined, we could perhaps find a parallel with those modern artists he loved best – Rothko, Shostakovich, Beckett – who “continued to create with less and less, moving inexorably towards the point where they would be left with nothing, the point (presumably) of artistic extinction”.
Alan Jenkins on a poet closely associated with the TLS for more than three decades