by Mike Fox
It’s odd, but at first it wasn’t his poetry that so intrigued me. It was the stories of his early years in Swansea. But gradually I found myself steeped in the poems too, seduced by their sound, apparently free from the normal constraints of meaning. Then his voice, heard in wireless broadcasts, took me by surprise: nothing Welsh there, except perhaps the sonority, but I’d never heard a voice like it. I wanted to live his life as though it were my own.
My father was a printer who could write in copperplate. He loved the shape of words on a page. Because of this, and because he was meticulous, a number of his customers were publishers, even though the firm he owned had only four staff. The craftsmanship of his generation could speak of an artist’s sensibility, a fact recognised by a number of authors, who took the trouble to write and thank him when the first pristine copies of a book arrived to reward their long hours of effort. He was also patient when asked to accommodate last-minute revisions, even when typesetting was well under way, feeling that he was sharing a quest for precision, and perhaps truth. He was a gentle man with fierce standards.
When I was very young I used to think the walls of our home were made of books, because they were almost all you could see. Even the hall was lined with them. I learned to treat them with reverence. It would be unthinkable, for instance, to corrupt the spine by placing a book face down with pages open, let alone dog-ear a page. As a small child I began to lift them from the shelves, and reading, somehow, just happened.
My father looked on. I would sometimes catch him smiling. I absorbed the understanding that books were both symbols and mental currency, and, because of their abundance, any he recommended carried the weight of the chosen few. So when he passed me a small volume with a simple green and cream dust cover, I could barely wait to open it.
‘Right up your street, I think,’ he’d said.
It might sound strange, but at that time I used to imagine each page as a collection of sounds, whispering sentences to myself, hearing them as music. At some point I began to write poetry, something my father did nothing to discourage. I see now that by the passage of that book from his hand to mine a path had been revealed.
But the idea of seeking a person who already walked it, alive somewhere but mythical, came only gradually. After losing myself in those first vivid pages, I read all I could by and about him, while his exploits grew in my imagination. I discovered that he often travelled to London, for what he called his ‘capital punishment’. Eventually, inevitably I suppose, I resolved to go there to find him.
I took the train on a quiet spring day and arrived at Euston in the early afternoon, equipped with my six best poems, printed by my father on single sheets of plain vellum. I booked into a cheap bed and breakfast off the Tottenham Court Road, ready to seek Fitzrovia, that square mile of all that was marvellous and sordid.
As soon as I had been shown my room I stepped out to walk the grey, compelling streets, still pocked with bomb damage, locating the pubs in which I hoped to find him. I knew them so well from my research I could recite their names. I was as ready as I could be.
Later that evening, and several thereafter, I moved from one to another, sipping frugal halves of bitter. I felt like a pilgrim, vigilant but alien. I was one of few, both men and women, who didn’t smoke, and in this new company my clothes seemed dull and provincial. I looked on and imagined, wondering if I might ever become part of what I saw.
Londoners with generations of the city in their bones mingled with the artist-types and wide boys, foreign-looking men with cockney accents and the bearded youths and polo-necked young women who would soon be known as beatniks. But my cautious enquiries met only indifference or suspicion, and as hope dwindled I decided on a final tactic. I would spend an entire evening in the Wheatsheaf, which I understood to be his favourite haunt, and then, either way, go home.
Arriving at six-thirty, the saloon quarter-full already, I settled myself at one end of the bar, where I could see every seat and table. The Wheatsheaf was very different to our local pubs, not that I’d spent much time in them. The floor was covered in white and purple checked linoleum, stained by footfall into monochrome. Swivelling brackets for blackout boards still attached to the windows. A single bench, purpose built of oak and leather and in places spewing upholstery, ran the entire length of the furthest wall from where I stood. The other walls were oak-panelled with linen-fold carving to dado height. Above them tartans bearing clan names vied with the odd oil painting, perhaps donated to redeem an unpaid slate. A large hollow china swan stood incongruously in the bay window, accumulating cigarette butts. The overall impression was of haphazard grandeur fallen into mild decay. This, it would seem, was his territory.
I looked on. A young couple, talking quietly at a corner table, were abruptly dispossessed of their seats by an elderly woman clutching a bag and a glass of stout. Once ensconced she pulled out some crosswords and an alarm clock which she glanced at periodically, either to time her solving powers or space her drinking. Glancing round I saw the clear outline of a knife in the breast pocket of sharply tailored silk jacket, and quickly looked away. A large imposing woman, full of bonhomie and exuding an aroma of wine and garlic, came in and began holding forth to a group of ribald men at the bar. I recognised her from a photograph as Anna Wickham. Perhaps I was getting warmer.
There was so much to take in, but alas not the thing I had come for. Growing restless, I felt the need to visit the gents, where I found myself admiring some of the drollest and most profane limericks I would ever read. Could this be the work of my elusive hero, one hand free, muse in attendance?
I would never know, but when I returned two men had seated themselves at one of the larger tables and, like a photo made flesh, there he was. No-one could mistake him: the tight curls brushed back from a prominent brow, a man in whom I could still see the boy, the cherub of early portraits not yet fully debauched. For a few moments my heart raced and my breath grew shallow.
He wore a rough tweed jacket, pockets bulging, and a checked shirt stretching at his midriff, with the collar, also constricting, containing a neat bow tie which rode his Adam’s apple as he talked. His appearance, since likened to an unmade bed, had a certain unruly finesse, as if not wholly uncontrived. The stub of a hand-rolled cigarette adhered magnetically to his lower lip, its motion as he spoke an adjunct to his perfect diction. Despite my awe, and the intensity of the moment, there was an easiness about him that gave me hope.
He had probably been drinking steadily, but his speech and manner gave no sign of it. Soon after his arrival, the ancient crossword solver rose silently to kiss the top of his head, then returned to her seat, without either exchanging a word.
I tried not to stare, and yet when I think back those minutes retain a filmic quality. The time, the place, the person. I was standing near a man who would immortalise his dying father in a page, and take America by storm even as his own life slipped away. But for the moment I knew nothing of that, and was only conscious of the immediacy of the moment; thrill and fear mingling.
I had no idea what to do next. His voice wasn’t loud, but each syllable was so distinct I could hear everything he said. His companion, who also spoke quietly but with an American accent, was serious looking and they were talking intimately. To approach would be to intrude and so I held back.
I tried to relax, to let myself to feel part of this human collage, so unlike anything I’d been able to imagine, despite the times I’d spent trying. I sipped my beer. I waited, until eventually, laying a friendly hand on my hero’s shoulder, his companion rose and left. This was clearly the moment. I crossed the checked floor, feeling slightly bilious, and found myself standing before him.
The bulbous eyes settled on me, penetrating but benign, ready for amusement.
‘I wonder, may I ask your advice, sir?’
‘You must be in a very bad way to seek the advice of a chap like me.’ He indicated the seat opposite him with a slight gesture.
‘I suppose a lot of people approach you?’ I said, sitting down awkwardly.
‘And mostly meet with disappointment, I fear.’
‘It’s just that I’m trying to become a poet.’
‘You have my sympathy. I struggle similarly.’
I laughed nervously, aware that he was trying to put me at ease.
‘But you were published when you were young, sir.’
‘The easiest time to write—the ear and mind are fresh.’
‘Did you find it easy? Your poems seem so complex.’
He smiled. ‘I stockpiled and rewrote—most of my poems, most poems, are the result of a good number of drafts.’
‘My father says that too. He has a print shop and sometimes produces books of poetry. The writers often leave corrections in their manuscripts.’
‘So he sees the traces of our disordered minds.’
‘He respects writers more than anyone, sir—he views it as a sign of the care they take in their craft.’
No reply to this but the twinkling eyes looked at me a little more deeply.
‘Could you please tell me anything that would help me to write better?’ I asked to fill the pause, at once regretting the banality of the request, or at least its phrasing.
‘Let nothing get past unless you believe it’s true, but remember that truth lies in sound as well as meaning.’
I paused to try to take this in, then fell back on a question I’d prepared.
‘I read that Somerset Maugham uses clarity, simplicity and euphony, in that order, as a formula for writing prose. Do you think the same can apply for poetry?’
‘I think it can but it doesn’t have to—read Yeats and MacNeice if you haven’t already. Each is as clear as he needs to be when he chooses to be.’
I took a breath. ‘Could I ask you to look at my poems, sir? I’d greatly value any comments you could offer.’
‘What is it you want to know about them?’
‘Could you tell me if you think I could become a poet?’
‘If you are a poet you’ll be one already, then what you write will be the realisation of that fact.’
Holding out his hand he took the envelope I’d stamped and addressed in readiness, folded it carefully, and slid it into one of his voluminous pockets.
‘I’ll have a look by all means, but find your own approach—don’t try to write like me or anyone else.’
‘I could never write like you.’ I could hear the fervour in my voice.
‘But poetry is not a contest, and you and I are not contestants,’ he said, looking sideways above his glass before taking a swig; the remark so unexpected I could think of no reply. Instead I remembered a recurring phrase in his stories that had puzzled me.
‘May I ask you one more thing, sir—what are “wilful feet”?’
‘Feet that enjoy autonomy, of course.’
At that point we were joined by a cadaverous man in a camel hair coat, who had opened the pub door with his cane, also a woman in a tweed suit and pork pie hat. Both ignored me completely. Soon others arrived and the atmosphere became animated and rivalrous, with everyone eager to talk. Suddenly peripheral, I faded back in my seat, happy just to be there.
And I watched him. Anyone could see the humanity that fed his talent. He was generous and easy, and whether bored, tired or both, continued to entertain. He played with words, but there was nothing careless about the play. I thought him the wittiest man I’d ever met. The rest of us, who would never burn so brightly or darkly, or give our name and spirit to the world, sat around him and felt special by virtue of his company. All were included: more than once he caught my eye and winked.
At length someone produced a tray of whisky—Irish, as scotch was still scarce, and I knew it was time to leave. Offering something between a nod and a bow, I departed the pub to make my way back to my room, with a head full of words and images. The following morning I took the train home to give an eager account to my father, knowing it would only confirm his abundant faith in authors.
For a while I heard nothing, then, after about three months, a crumpled envelope arrived addressed in my handwriting but with a Swansea postmark. My manuscripts, now equally crumpled, were returned with a short note:
‘I fear a life of poverty and confusion may await you. You are indeed a poet.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His stories Breath and Outliving the Muse (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story Voices (Ayaskala) was nominated for Best of Net 2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Connect at www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2