Friday, 19 September 2014

Laurie Lee... And me...

Whenever I see a new book about Laurie Lee I always look inside - just to see if I am in it...

Like you do...

As far as I know, I still I have not appeared in any book about Laurie Lee.  Since no one else will tell the story...

In the late 1960s I entered a poem in the Guinness Poetry Competition at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and the Arts.  And a letter arrived, saying that my poem had reached the short list - so, an expenses paid trip to Cheltenham, to read my poem one evening, alongside the other finalists...

What year was it?  I remember that Arthur Koestler was there, and he admired my coat.  So, that makes it 1969, the year Arthur Koestler spoke at the Cheltenham Festival...

My coat was indeed a lovely coat, of purple William Morris curtain material, made by John Stephen, Carnaby Street, London, and bought in Carnaby Street.  I still have that coat - it is in the back of the wardrobe and will one day be bequeathed to a less portly person.

And a copy of my poem from 1969 has now come (back) into my hands.

The poem is called 'In Praise of Lizzie Cotton'.  And it is long...

The main influence was Christopher Smart.  But William Blake is also there - especially in the little lyrics - and Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot. The idea of making a long thing by stitching together a sequence of short things.  Mostly it is Christopher Smart.

It is a praise poem.  As the title says.  That is what it is - a praise poem...  We study these things, they are an important part of literary history  - and every now and again we should write one...

That evening in Cheltenham a small man in a brown suit approached me, and explained that he used to be connected with the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and the Arts, but was no longer involved, and that he used to be a judge on the Poetry Competition, but was not a judge this year.  But he had read my poem, and he really liked it, and he hoped I would win.

And I said, Thank You...

By an accident of alphabet, I was the last person to read.  And we had had, by then, some pretty intense stuff.  I could only do my best.  My poem was long, yes - but it was funny, whimsical, entertaining.  The audience began to relax, to laugh, and be entertained.

So, I finished.  An allowed myself to go to the bar and have a drink.  Where people surrounded me, congratulating me on having won the competition.  Now, throughout that evening I was really, really good - I knew enough to know that chickens must not be counted.  I said, calmly, that we had heard some very fine poems - we must await the decision of the judges...

Back in the hall, the judges announced the name of the person who had come third in the competition.  It was not me.  And the person who had come second.  Not me.  And the first prize.  Not me.

And the audience revolted, led by the small man in the brown suit.  Who revealed himself to be Laurie Lee.

And Laurie Lee called me over, and instituted there and then a special Laurie Lee poetry prize.  (I remember two notes - two twenty pound notes?  But memory has maybe inflated for inflation.  Private Eye says 'ten quid' - so two five pound notes...)

And I went to the bar, where I bought two double whiskeys.  I took them back into the hall, gave one whiskey to Laurie Lee, and I toasted him with the other.

On the stage I could hear one of the judges say, 'Well, if you like rhetoric...'

Which, maybe, dates the event fairly precisely.  I went back to the bar and I took no further part in the proceedings...

I don't know if there are newspaper accounts of Laurie Lee's gesture that evening.  The incident was certainly mentioned in Private Eye.

After Cheltenham I was invited to a number of poetry events.  I particularly remember an evening at the Poetry Society.  And feeling that I really, really did not want to be part of this.  But that is another story...

Patrick O'Sullivan


Notes:

Arthur Koestler, Literature and the Law of Diminishing Returns, The Cheltenham Lecture, given at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, November 1969, is collected in Arthur Koestler, The Heel of Achilles: Essays 1968–1973, 1974. 

John Stephen's archives are now with the V & A.

This is The Guardian obituary...

http://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/feb/09/guardianobituaries.veronicahorwell

There is a book, Jeremy Reed, The King Of Carnaby Street: A Life of John Stephen, 2010.

A snippet view on Google Books of Private Eye 1969 gives that 'ten quid' detail.

There are now many books - and web sites - about Laurie Lee.  None of them mention me.

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