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Teacher gifted with a poet’s unerring insight on life

09 July, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Alan Frederick Smith

VERY shortly after Alan Frederick Smith died at 85, his daughter Bella found a half-finished letter on a table at his Hampstead home.

It gave instructions, among other things, about his funeral. And his daughter wondered whether I would mention her father’s life in this little column – and I feel honoured to do so.

How could I fail to honour such a gifted man and not trace his long journey from a working-class home in Lytham in Lancashire to Cambridge University, various teaching posts across north Africa, the Middle East as well at British colleges.

But, above all, he became a gifted poet whose works show the insightful, sensitive working of the human mind and stunning observation of nature – and who, inevitably perhaps, loved reading his poems at Hampstead gatherings and among friends in local pubs.

It was at a Hampstead festival more than 20 years ago that I caught up with him and wrote a few words in this column about Hampstead’s bard . My only regret is that I did not keep up an association with him – it was my great loss of course.

Born in 1935, the son of a bus driver, he passed the 11-plus examination and won a scholarship to a grammar school, and from there read moral sciences and English literature at Cambridge. During his researches he became associated with the famous literary critic Richard Hoggart.

But teaching drew him across the world, making him a wanderer at times, at different colleges.

Yet while teaching gave him a degree of satisfaction as well as a living, it was poetry that proved his real love. And no wonder, because like all good poets he saw in life and people around us what many miss.

He genuinely loved to share his thoughts as a poet with an audience and was known for his readings at local fringe theatres and pubs and once with the dramatist Arnold Wesker.

People found him endearingly eccentric and charismatic and with a finely tuned mind and hardly aware that he had been honoured by various literary bodies including those in Europe.

The fact that he loved playing darts possibly drew him to strangers.

While preparing this piece I came across several of his published works – one a touching mellowed view of one of his four daughters (see box left).

His funeral was due to take place yesterday (Wednesday) at Golders Green crematorium where part of a famous poem by DH Lawrence, “The Ship of Death”, was read – requested in his half-finished letter because it was “positive” about death, said his daughter Bella.

Two poems by Alan Frederick Smith:

Ten years since I watched you play
The Lion to Androcles at school
No predator then nor now, you flopped about
In a lion’s pelt and your floppy thanks,
Teeth unbared to the gladiator who cared…
You grew despite the barbs of life
To laugh, to dance, to paint and sing
with many friends who often ring
Maybe your Androcles is out there ready to pluck
The thorn from random care…

Hampstead Heath:

Home of Keats and Kenwood
Hampstead loves itself
In cuddly mews
Stroked by blossom and the Ivy leaf
Its private parts, delicate and attenuate
Its public place, the Heath.
Here kites angle the Sunday sky,
Anchored by ponds where radio jet-boats
Skim narcissistically on mirrors of water
To the touch of middle-aged adolescence.


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