Creative Evolution Has Arrived! The Norwich and Norfolk Poetry Scene
As a postgrad studying literature in the School of European Studies (sadly and regrettably extinct, its disbanding in the 1990s a bellwether of Brexit mentality) at the University of East Anglia, I was also an occasional editor in 1969 of Norch, a poetry magazine whose title was supposed to reflect a local way of pronouncing the city’s name out of the back of the mouth. The task of editing and producing this roughhewn publication was shared like a joint by a circle of individuals who frequented Bristow’s Paperbacks in Bridewell Alley. Enthusiasm was as high as production values were low, as we strove to get the occasional issue out by way of various creaky, messy printing machines and a seriously overworked stapler.
It befitted Norch to be published out of Bristow’s, as Giles’s shop was the hub of the alternative scene in Norwich in the late 1960s to early 1970s. As befitted its countercultural credentials, the day-to-day running of the shop was often cheerfully chaotic, and it was the only place in town to order or find more radical and esoteric titles. On one occasion, having ordered a copy of a work by philosopher Henri Bergson, I received a postcard in the mail from Giles merely stating that “Creative Evolution has arrived”.
In the spirit of a moveable feast, one issue of Norch came out of the Poetry Workshop at Norwich City College and was edited by that exemplary trendy curate, the Reverend Hilton Francis. I still recall with delight the sight of Hilton walking away from Robin’s record stall on the back of Norwich market with a copy of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon under his arm. In the collective ethos of those years, the contributors to that issue were listed but the poems were not individually attributed. Norch also set the stage for magazines of a similar type to appear, such as Eltsac and Doris.
Informal poetry readings at various city venues other than the legendary Back’s on Gentleman’s Walk also played their part in this underground scene. Bishopsgate was the site of two of these events: in a back room of the Red Lion, by Bishop’s Bridge, where Colin Cross ran the show, and in the main “bar” (drinks were carried in from the taproom) of the venerable Adam and Eve where David Sexton masterminded its fortnightly gatherings. Diz Willis, Derek Neville, Tim Sillence, Colin Cross, Hilary Mellon, Peter Watson, Bill Jervis, and the inimitable Willis Feast, rector of Booton, were among the regular readers there in the city’s oldest pub.
Though I cannot recall meeting him, George Barker came to my attention when I skirted a literary micro-community over which he presided. A major poet in his younger days, praised by Yeats and Eliot, Barker had spent much of the 1950s “being a poet” and drinking in Soho pubs. After drifting abroad for much of the 1960s, he and his long-term partner Elspeth Langlands decided in 1967 to settle in deepest Norfolk. Tucked away in the narrow lanes of the north Norfolk countryside, the tiny village of Itteringham included among its residents at various junctures a number of poets and novelists: Maurice Carpenter, a former communist and Barker’s old friend from the 1930s; Derek Neville, who lived in the Mill House; the American poet Seb Lockwood; Tristram Hull, co-founder with Martin Green of the literary magazine Nimbus in 1951; and, at Bintry House, George and Elspeth, their son Sebastian and their daughter Raffaella. Though I never made it onto his guest list, several of my acquaintances. attended some of Barker’s notoriously well-oiled Saturday evening gatherings whose purpose purpose was declamatory poetics and generally boisterous behaviour. While the dust settled between those wild weekends, Barker got on with the serious business of writing poetry and maintained an output of considerable quality up to his death in 1991. These later compositions included several beautiful reflections, like “At Thurgarton Church” and “Morning in Norfolk”, on the age-old rural environment in which he had chosen to cocoon himself.
Though hindsight may place the significance of this scene into strict perspective, a genuine sense (in the spirit of an old Norfolk phrase) of “doing different” pervaded our activities in those few crazy, heady years.
A Footnote: Thoughts on the Dearth of Countercultural Political Poetry
One thorny question to be asked of that entire scene is why so little political poetry was written given the highly charged political atmosphere of those years. It’s still an issue, as betokened by a 2011 book by American writer David Orr entitled Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. If we look overall at the British Poetry Revival that started in the late 1960s and defined itself broadly as anti-Establishment, then political poets do seem thin on the ground. I think, for example, of Adrian Mitchell, Tony Harrison, Jim Burns, Bill Griffiths and Ken Smith, but then struggle to name any other fairly well-known practitioners.
One explanation may be that from the 1950s onward, with emerging “Angry Young Men”, social and political themes found readier expression in fiction. Another may be that countercultural rebelliousness sat easier in a literary variant of pop art (e.g., the Liverpool Poets) than in a neo-Auden ideological strain. Yet another explanation—perhaps the most convincing—may be that the bulk of political protest in verse shifted heavily from literature to music, and so came from the pens of pop and rock lyricists led and inspired by Bob Dylan. He looked back to Ginsberg’s “Howl”, for sure, but even more so to the proletarian songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. I doubt that a latter-day poet like Billy Bragg would argue with such a conclusion.
C Philip Mosley 2018