Book Talk S06E03 transcript: On becoming a poet: down and out in London |
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Book Talk transcript : S06E03 — On becoming a poet: down and out in London

Jill Kitson: Welcome to Book Talk on ABC Radio National. This week; down and out in London. Clive James and Peter Porter in the third of six programs on their careers as poets.

Born ten years apart, Peter Porter and Clive James are two highly successful Australian poets who have lived in England since their early twenties. Peter's first collection of poems, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, was published there in 1961. In 1988, The Automatic Oracle won the Whitbread Poetry Award. His most recent collection, Afterburner, his 17th volume, was short-listed for the 2004 TS Eliot prize. In 1990 Peter was awarded the Gold Medal for Australian Literature, and in 2002, the Queen's Medal for Poetry.

Clive James's first poems were published in student journals at Sydney University. His first book, The Metropolitan Critic, was published in London in 1974. Since then he's published over a score of books, most of which have never been out of print. They include collected essays, mock epic poems, novels, autobiography, and verse. The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958 to 2003 was a bestseller.

Like so many Australians in the 1950s and early 60s, they headed for London as soon as they had the fare.

Clive James: Peter, after I sailed from Australia I arrived in Britain in the very early 60s which were supposed to be a lot more fun than the early 50s which was when you arrived. Is that true? How much fun was it in the early 50s?

Peter Porter: I thought it was no fun at all, but then again I thought that was me; I tended to bring no fun with me whenever I came. I had my 22nd birthday in the Bay of Biscay and I remember going up the Channel and hearing Australians making remarks like, 'Look at the white cliffs of Dover, as dirty as an Englishman's shirt,' and things of that sort. So I got on early with the anti-Pom feeling. I didn't have that myself, but I did find London very drab. I arrived in time for the Festival of Britain which at the time seemed like a big deal and the BBC was even allowing someone to say that they had a fine erection on the south bank, which was the Skylon which was one of the signs of the festival. But the festival was indeed something that we did feel pretty happy about, and the artistic arrival was something worthwhile. I saw lots of wonderful shows at the Old Vic, including of course that superb Tamburlaine done by Donald Wolfit. It was a very exciting for us in the sense that we were watching something that was going on which we hadn't known back home, but our actual day-to-day life was very constricted. The English atmosphere at the time seemed rather drab, I felt.

Clive James: Tell me about that actual day-to-day life...because you were writing and, I presume, trying to publish, but you weren't living off that, were you?

Peter Porter: Good heavens, no. I got a job in a paint firm, and the day I arrived the English meat ration fell to ten-pence-worth a week. We were living, I suppose, under some degree of hardship but we were young and the hardship didn't seem all that great. As for writing, it was entirely something you did at home, something you did for yourself. You took it very seriously but you were well aware that no editor took it seriously. They were always very courteous; I never had a nasty dismissal notice from something I submitted, but they were equally severe about it. I think I mentioned in an earlier talk we had together that it's very important to have the right discouragement, and I think on the whole I got discouraged very clearly and very properly by editors who enabled me to see that what I was writing was full of what I knew was interesting but I was failing to make it interesting to anybody else.

Clive James: I would go along with that. I got nowhere in my first years in London, less than nowhere as a writer, in any genre and especially poetry. But I got rejection slips mounting up beside my left elbow, and some of them were quite useful along those lines. A lot depends on how the editor turns you down. Allan Ross of The London Magazine put in a very nice note saying, 'You're probably going to be pretty good one day, but these poems aren't finished,' and he was quite right, they weren't, and it was a real problem with me and my poetry for years to come. I thought the ideas weren't bad and there was an exuberance of language but there was no tone control and they weren't publishable and, my God, nobody published them. I was absolutely nowhere.

Peter Porter: I still have the evidence of all this because sitting in a secret domain back in my flat are 800-odd poems which are hopeless miscarriages...

Clive James: What a goldmine, though, for the scholar.

Peter Porter: Well, I think any scholar who wades through them deserves a big reward. But the point about this is I'm not trying to suggest that I was bad once and I'm pretty good now, quite the contrary. What I'm really trying to say is that I don't know that anyone in the end can fully monitor you other than yourself. I know I just said how good it was to have the discouragement of intelligent editors, and even more advantageous that when you do get published your editors stop you from doing silly things, but I still believe that the impulse to write is so generous, that it comes out of the principle of your own mind. You don't ever approach total control over what you're doing.

Clive James: I think the control I had over my work was less than adequate. There was nothing wrong with the good bits in my poems, it's just that they were packed around with lots and lots of bad bits, and I think that the only way I've improved in the last several many is it now? God, it's getting on for more than four that I've learned to leave out the bad bits. I'm not sure you do improve beyond that.

Peter Porter: Yes, improvement is something only the gods can bestow upon you. You aim for it, you work for it, but it is so sporadic; it comes in sometimes and it comes out some other times. But to return to the 50s just for the moment, I didn't have any real acquaintance with editors and publishers and even with many poets until quite late in the 50s. What I did do in those early years, which I still think was a valuable was like taking on coal if you were a fleet battleship, you had to take on your coal before you could go on service, and I took on the coal, I went all over the place. I didn't mind going to difficult theatres and I read books...

Clive James: How were you staying alive? Were you in an advertising agency?

Peter Porter: No, that was much later. No, I was working as a clerk in an office, and then I had one whole year off. Even I, who regard myself as an absolute embodiment of respectability, spent one whole year dropping out and living in a basement flat. My landlord, who was a very poor and very nice Irishman...I didn't help him pay, he helped me.

Clive James: So he was poorer for meeting you.

Peter Porter: Yes, he was much poorer for meeting me. But I was taking on coal, as I say, that's how I see it anyway. For instance, I was able by queuing most assiduously to get to the world premiere of Benjamin Britten's Billy Bud in December 1951.

Clive James: It occurs to me that I was taking on a bit of coal in the early 60s. I was down and out in London in the early 60s, living in a bed-sit when I was living at all. I wrote the story of it in a book, a volume of my memoirs which I wrote much later called Falling Towards England, and if anything I underplayed the gloom and doom. I came damn near to freezing to death in that big winter of 1962 or 1963, whichever it was.

Peter Porter: That was the one that killed Sylvia Plath. I remember that very well. The ice was streets high up in Hampstead.

Clive James: It would have killed Clive James too if I'd had the courage to act on the way I felt. I was really, really getting nowhere. But I was taking on coal, as you put it, almost for nothing. The libraries were great and the galleries were free. I was in the National Gallery a lot, mainly because it was warm there, and I learned quite a lot about painting. You could go and see...somehow I got to Chichester and saw Olivier in, not Macbeth, what's the one where he blacks up? Othello! And I saw the great moment when he rips the crucifix off his neck and flings it away, and of course it goes straight down the gallery into the dressing room and hangs itself on a hook. I was bowled over by the precision and dynamism of his performance. I was taking on a lot, but what I wasn't doing was producing anything that I could sell at all, I got nowhere as a writer. I had a series of odd jobs. I did write one poem that actually got published, just one. And it got published back in Australia, and it was a poem about Australia. It was a poem about a friend I had when I was a kid who got killed on a motorcycle. The poem was called...I've got it here somewhere, wait a second...the poem was called 'The Young Australian Rider, PG Burman', and I sent it back to Australia to a magazine called Pluralist. There were two issues of Pluralist and this poem was in the first one.

Peter Porter: Well that makes it plural anyway, doesn't it?

Clive James: Yes, exactly, it was in one of the single issues of Pluralist, and I've got it right here in front of me so I can read the last stanza. He'd got killed, right? And I was in the army at the time and I'd been told that he'd been killed just as I was coming home on leave, and in the last part of the poem I recalled how we'd once built balsa model aeroplanes together, and this is the way it went:

[reading from It's not that I felt nothing... to ...we overreach ourselves.]

Now, it's the tone of an 80-year-old man, and it's actually quite prescient because it's only in recent years and it's a long time later that I've actually started to write about Australia in my poetry. So that was a forecast of what I would one day do, but it was an absolute one-off, and the main thing that made it a one-off was that somebody published it. Eventually I received a copy of the magazine, and there I was shivering away in my bed-sit in Tufnell Park and I thought, well, I'm getting somewhere, I published something. But that was all there was.

Peter Porter: My experience of writing was that always there were Australian images, and things I had taken in, possibly osmotically, in Australia kept coming out in poems which were not specifically about Australia. Even over all the years, I keep getting rebuked for this. The Australian critic Robert Gray says he's counted the number of poems in my publications which are about Australia and it is pathetically few. But the point about it is that Australian images, however, keep coming in.

My very first published poem, which later became the title of my first book of poems, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten...ostensibly it was about the Depression in Australia during the 1930s, and it invents a kind of man who seems to live on just trapping rabbits, but it gave me the chance to indulge in a sort of awful looking at penury and despair, and weaving sex into it because my ambition in those days was to prove that sex was the way we knew we were miserable, and that was the kind of thing I wanted to work into my poetry. Poets, I think, are always on the lookout for something which will be better for them than for the truth, and this is something which I've kept working on. I mean, you've only got to look at the titles of some of my first poems, titles like 'Suicide Unmasked' and 'Syrup of Figs Will Cast Out Fear' and all these things. These are urban poems which try to dig into the kind of carapace of this poor suffering creature wandering around who, in fact, wasn't having such a bad time. I mean, he had the statutory miseries with ladies and things, but he wasn't having such a bad time. He was really in England, anyway, not to make a career for himself but to enjoy what England offered — which was a lot of good writing and a lot of good theatre.

Clive James: Well, I was having a bad time, or at least I thought I was. Of course I wasn't if you compare it with the fate of the average Soviet prisoner in the gulag; I was just shivering in a bed-sit. But one of the things that kept me alive was I was really reading modern, recent poetry seriously, and one of the things I read was that little Penguin modern poets that you were in, along with Kingsley Amis and Dom Moraes. I loved that, but I didn't know from that that you were an Australian poet. I sort of half guessed it, but what rocked me about the poems was the way they seized on contemporary reality, or anyway on the previous decade. Some of the imagery you picked up on, in the Kings Road for example, 'the flesh-packed jeans, the car-stung appetite, the pretty girls in Jensens' and heading off from the coffee bars, heading off to Hazelmere, and I read all that and those were exactly the lusts and desires I had. I thought you were plugging exactly into contemporary life, but I didn't realise at that stage that you were an actual Aussie. I figured that out later when I started reading your collections. I imagine that Penguin publication was fairly important to you.

Peter Porter: Enormously important. It was a very peculiar thing the way it happened. I've several times stressed this and I'll keep it short here; I was taken up by a group of young men down from Oxford and Cambridge who were very bright and gave me a chance to go forward, and they got me published in a few places, but I wasn't doing very well. Then I was lucky enough, through a policeman poet named Edwin Brock who remained a dear friend until he died, who got me published in a hardcover form for the first time, in a very obscure firm called Scorpion Press. Somebody pointed out, you can't have a book called Once Bitten, Twice Bitten published by Scorpion Press, until it was revealed that scorpions do not bite, they sting. But the truth of the thing was it was looked at by a young man who had just been commissioned to do this new Penguin series, and he wanted me to go in. I met this man, Richard Newnham, and we stood on the road, at the intersection of Hays Mews and Hills Street, Mayfair, from where I was at that time working at an advertising agency, I'd just begun, and there was a wind blowing. I had a lot of new poems that I wanted to show Richard and the wind blew half of them down the street and they didn't get into the book. By that process of selection I was just lucky enough to get into that first book, and of course after that things were much better. But there is a problem involved with this; that Penguin sold at two and sixpence and my royalties on each sold copy were one farthing, and so I therefore did not make a lot of money.

Clive James: You were still doing better than I was in looked awfully established to me, and of course it's what I wanted to be. I was sending my poems out everywhere. Poetry for me was the bedrock, the proof that I was serious because I was in one dead-end job after another and getting nowhere but at least I was getting poems done, and I was sending them out. When I sent a poem to an English editor I would enclose a note with a brief biography of myself including the sentence, 'Has contributed to the Australian magazine Pluralist.' I don't think it impressed anyone. Anyway, it was a crisis, and after a while I found a way out. My professor in Australia, George Russell, who had had the thankless task of teaching me at Sydney University, said, 'If you ever want to get in out of the cold in Britain, you drop me a line.' So I dropped him a line and said, 'I really need to get in out of the cold.' He said, 'You should send a letter to Pembroke College in Cambridge,' which is the college he used to be at, 'fall on their mercy and say that you want to go back and study again, and I'll send a letter because I think you really could be a student this time.' He knew damn well I hadn't been last time. I did apply and lo and behold I was admitted to the college, and because I was admitted to the college I was automatically eligible for a grant from London and it's when I went to Cambridge and had a warm room to live in and all these wonderful university publications to publish my work in that I really got going. So I really didn't make it in London.

Peter Porter: Going to Pembroke, of course you could have joined the mythmakers there because that was where Ted Hughes established some of his more redoubtable sexual exploits.

Clive James: Absolutely. There have been a lot of poets at Pembroke, starting with Spencer and going through Gray and one of the mad ones was there...

Peter Porter: Smart was there.

Clive James: Christopher Smart; mad as a hatter.

Peter Porter: In a way I do envy you at least that redoubt you could go to because one of the things which is difficult for writers, especially if they are a little unconfident about their erudition...I mean, I've always been criticised for showing off, but this is entirely the mark of somebody who is not properly educated...

Clive James: Oh I think you're giving yourself a bad press there. I always thought that when you put your erudition into your poems you're not saying 'look how much I've read' or 'look how much that I've enjoyed'. You're saying 'look how much there is to enjoy'. It's one of the great benefactions you give your readers. It's a celebration, not a showing off.

Peter Porter: Well, these days I say to everybody 'go to university if you possibly can'. For a start, its chief advantage is you've got three years you can read. Now, I know you're supposed to be pursuing your sex life, you're supposed to be pursuing your social life, you're supposed to be doing all kinds of things, like getting to know the right people and all that sort of thing. Nevertheless, you've got a number of hours per week where you can actually read a book.

Clive James: And you'll get a big stimulus to read because you are surrounded by people who are reading things. One of the things that university did for me was it proved to me that there were people brighter than I was. I had a very, very bad conceit. Conceit has been very helpful, it's helped to keep me going, but if it had been left unchastened by a university I would never have found out that there are a lot of people who are a lot brighter than I am. It does help to have them around.

Peter Porter: Colleagues are very important in that sense. The Scottish poet Douglas Dunn has a very good poem about lunches and how important lunches are. I think a lot of the epiphanies of my experience have been lunching with other writers. The fact that you're drinking and eating at the same time does something to fertilise the imagination as well, and I believe that one needs colleagues, and one needs colleagues not as people to encourage one but as people to show that there is a scintillation outside yourself that you really ought to take part in.

Clive James: The nonexistent geographically but spiritually important Grub Street is the place where the writers traditionally gather together and eat and drink, and I was looking forward to it but I was a long way from it while I was still at university. I'd never published professionally while I was at university until quite late on. What I was doing, I was publishing in the university magazines and that was a very useful thing about university. It's not that I knew so many other writers at university; the ones I knew were much younger. I was two or three years older than the general run of undergraduate writer, and that was a crucial age gap because I knew what I was after, I was after publishing in those magazines. It was my first experience of getting published more or less on the nail, as it were. After I'd done that for several years while I was at Cambridge, I started to get noticed outside Cambridge because that was the big advantage of Oxford and Cambridge in those days is that the talent scouts from London watched them. Nowadays they watch all the universities. In those days Oxford and Cambridge were the ones that counted. Some of the people in Grub Street, like Nicholas Tomalin who was the literary editor of The New Statesman, had been watching the university magazines and decided I was worth asking to do a book review, and that's how I got started. The first piece that I got commissioned to do and published professionally came from London because of what had been published in Cambridge. So without that launching pad that might never have happened.

Peter Porter: Curiously enough, the same was true for myself as a Londoner in the sense of an adopted Londoner and having no connection whatever with the universities except those people I'd known who'd come down from there, but was that the moment you published a book and it got noticed in some journal, then you began to get asked to do other things. It is the real thing of how to catch the eye of the speaker, as it were, in the House of Commons, how to get called, how to know that you're going to be someone that they're going to want to do things. You can make terrible mistakes because early on I was got in to do things which I had no talent for and I made a muck of, but I think the point is that, for better or for worse, you turn out to be someone who can write things without having any intention whatever of being a high-brow journalist...

Clive James: I'm not so sure that I would have got to the stage of people asking me if it hadn't been for Cambridge because one of the things I did at Cambridge, as well as bombarding all the student magazines, was I started publishing prose. In The Granta and in the Cambridge Review I started writing regular columns about films or plays and things. The film column I wrote for the Cambridge Review was my first experience of getting the work in on time once a week and making it intelligible and as amusing as I could, and that was the thing that the editors in London noticed. Of course I made all my mistakes and got past the mistakes and started to write more openly and conquered the big temptation of trying to put too much in and I tried to make it amusing and readable, I got all that done at Cambridge. So the talent scouts from London could watch me doing it and pick their moment. If I'd actually learned on the job, as it were, I probably would have screwed it up, because it's actually quite hard to do, writing a book review.

Peter Porter: But there's something which is true of a lot of's not actually true of me unfortunately, but it's certainly true of you and Barry Humphreys, is an incredible capacity for hard work. All my life I have been edged into...I feel a bit like Caliban, I'm continuously beaten...

Clive James: How can you say that? I was looking at the shelf of your books this morning and it took me about five minutes to look along the whole shelf.

Peter Porter: Yes, but that is recreational writing, it's not the same as hard work. I've had to do a lot of hard work but since I worked in advertising which is...I think it was one of the American novelists who said that there's no example in the whole history of the world since the beginning of greater waste of effort, greater destruction of resources, greater appalling shame than the advertising agency. I'm grateful to them; for nine years they at least helped me pay the bills, and they tolerated my incapacities. They allowed me to go on being a very poor advertising writer. Now, I know it sounds, to say that after you've come out of advertising, as though you're trying to rid yourself of the shame of ever having been in it, but the truth of the matter is I wasn't good and I do feel appreciative of them.

Clive James: We have to know...there must be some slogan that you devised. Salman Rushdie's famous for...what was it? It's Fay Weldon who was famous for going to work on an egg, wasn't it?

Peter Porter: I knew Fay well, yes, she did say that. But that's only the tiny top of what you do in advertising. I spent hours doing things like draw a line from A to B and cut along, that kind of thing. It is still a shameful profession, more shameful than journalism, and that's saying something.

Clive James: It's time to admit your real guilt; did you use the office Xerox machine to print your poems?

Peter Porter: No, but my friend William Trevor, the Irish novelist, wrote one of his novels in office time and produced it on the office machines. I'm sure that everyone does that. Another old friend of mine, now deceased unfortunately, the poet Peter Redgrove who I have a great respect for, he put forward the notion, which is a true notion, he said, 'We must write in the boss's time,' and that seems to be the only way you can justify the appalling systems of mercantile capitalism which operate all around about you.

Jill Kitson: Peter Porter, ending that conversation with Clive James, the third of six programs about their careers as poets. Peter Porter's latest collection of poetry is Afterburner, a Picador. He edited The Best Australian Poetry 2005 for University of Queensland Press. The Book of My Enemy is the title of Clive's collected verse, 1958 to 2003. His latest collection of essays is The Meaning of Recognition. Picador is the publisher. And that's all for this edition of Book Talk

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