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The gospel according to John

Alan Brownjohn remembers fellow poet John Horder

10 November, 2017 — By Alan Brownjohn

John Horder. Photo: Chris and Carrie Ford

ONE of John Horder’s last public acts was to celebrate his 80th birthday two years running.

When I had a postcard some months ago inviting me to raise a glass for the occasion, I had a strange feeling that this had happened already. Yes, it certainly had, and John’s wanting to repeat the party wasn’t due to forgetfulness. He had enjoyed himself so much the first time round he simply thought he would like his friends to treat him again, for the same reason, on his 81st.

My parting words that evening included the encouragement not to feel downcast about his poor health that I had deployed with him for over 20 years. He was a strong spirit, and a fixture in the district, so I expected to go on uttering it indefinitely. But this was to be virtually our final exchange. John only just outlived his old sparring partner (and Cambridge contemporary), the poet and ferocious letter-writer Fred Grubb. In a touching phone call he declared, forgivingly, that he wanted to attend Fred’s obsequies at Golders Green (late in June), but he felt just too poorly. He himself died only days later.

The wonder with John was that his talents enabled him to fit into the world of literary journalism at the smarter end with such success for so long before his patent eccentricity began to take effect. His air of genial respectability stood him in good stead, as did the clear, steady Cambridge tones, the warmth in his greeting, and his wide knowledge of modern literature and enthusiasm for it.

All of this helped with literary editors. A readable style came naturally and rapidly when he wrote pieces for almost all the national broadsheets and weeklies. He managed to interrogate formidable figures who rarely submitted themselves to interviewers – Philip Larkin, Marianne Moore, William Empson – because he could look and sound authoritative and gentle at the same time.

But his most famous television appearance may have halted at its start his career in that medium, even hastened the demise of the programme in which he made it. Asked by Joan Bakewell on BBC2’s Late Night Line-Up for his opinion of a controversial Japanese novelist, he used one word: an American noun denoting activity with a maternal relative.

Alan Brownjohn

Pleasure in being outrageous combined awkwardly in John Horder with a passion for what he considered most valuable: poetry and composing it. Given an opportunity to make a statement for a massive volume of contemporary poets of the English language published in 1972, he wrote: “The only thing of importance in my life is the writing of poetry [but] I consider that Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Buster Keaton are better poets on the whole than more established figures like Eliot, Pound, Auden,etc.” From that, and from various instances of colourful behaviour, you might conclude that he would have thought he might write comic verse; but quite the contrary.

Leaving aside an early pamphlet and a set of late verses dedicated to a sage and mystic called Meher Baba, who proposed universal “hugging” as a solution to the world’s ills, John’s one solid volume of poems, A Sense of Being, was, sadly, his only book.

It provided a good start for him on its publication in 1968 by Chatto and Windus when C Day Lewis was poetry editor (Menard Press reprinted it in 1981) – and is the very serious work of a writer deeply beset by self-doubt. Should readers take literally the anguished images he summons up from his childhood, or see them as the stuff of nightmare? Two works, the title-poem and Planting a Body, became grim party pieces he revelled in presenting, the latter in a loud, challenging voice that could leave an audience chilled as the last item in a reading: “Shall we fill up the hole with gravel?/ The hole, I mean, that is inside your mind/ Most people spend most of their lives/ Trying to fill up the hole with a body, anybody/… Don’t worry. Fill it up with gravel. It’s far less trouble.”

These negative, if eloquent, poems deserve to be remembered, along with other less scary examples. But friends will also recall the service John Horder rendered to other poets with his exceptional reading talent. One memorable example: His interview with Stevie Smith led to a long friendship, and one of his last events was a recital given in her memory to a large audience at the Magdala pub in 2009. On that evening, the well-known poems inseparably associated with Stevie Smith’s voice took on a new resonance and life in John Horder’s. What greater service could a reader perform? I dare to wonder (assuming neither of these close friends would have minded) whether any reader, male or female, could have done it better.

The Claremont Project, where John was a member and enjoyed taking part in the book club group have agreed that we can commemorate and celebrate John’s life with a tea party with the book group on November 15, between noon and 1.30pm. We can all exchange thoughts and stories of John and maybe some of his work at 24-27 White Lion Street, N1 9PD.

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