A David Gascoyne Celebration was one night in a series run by the Poetry Library called Special Edition. As I was organising this one – with help from Library staff Pascal O’Loughlin and Jessica Atkinson – it definitely began to feel special when out of the blue a great line-up dealt itself like a poker of aces. Jeremy Reed, Iain Sinclair, Nick Papadimitriou and MacGillivray all confirmed, after other potential contributors were already booked, or pulled out, or didn’t reply. With such a posse rounded up, a great night was guaranteed.
I kicked off the evening by plunging the packed-out audience in at the deep end of Gascoyne’s oeuvre, the collection Poems 1937-42, which I discussed as a classic of English Existentialism and my favourite slim volume of 20th century English poetry. That’s a copy in my hand from the Poetry Library’s vaults, and a signed first edition was displayed in a glass case for all to see.
The Scottish poet MacGillivray told the story of the infant Gascoyne visiting his father in Kinghorn on the Firth and being there when news broke of WW1 ending, a moment which must have had a profound influence on a sensitive writer who would become one of the great civilian poets of WWII. She performed his Surrealist poem – the first in English – ‘And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis’ as well as a poem from her forthcoming Bloodaxe collection The Nine of Diamonds.
I’d spotted Nick Papadimitriou on Facebook referring to Gascoyne as ‘Darling David’ and later furnished him with Gascoyne’s first address at 59 Gayton Road, Harrow, when Nick announced on Facebook he wanted to walk there and did anyone know the house?
Already a fan of his deep topography, it was a pleasant surprise that he shared a passion for Gascoyne so I was very happy when he accepted the invitation to do something. He talked of Harrow and of its ancient church St Mary’s which had been consecrated by St Anselm in 1094, and later of a visit to the Teddington Lock site of Gascoyne’s poem ‘The Gravel Pit Fields’. Nick read from that poem and from the radiophonic poem ‘Night Thoughts’.
Jeremy Reed had also featured in my 2012 event An Evening Without David Gascoyne, which was part of Mental Travellers at Pentameters Theatre. A close friend and editor of Gascoyne, he’d been hailed by Gascoyne as the most talented poet of his generation. Jeremy performed three new poems of homage to Gascoyne including ‘To Be David’; also putting in a last word for the other David who had influenced him so much, a certain Mr. Jones.
It was thanks to Iain Sinclair’s 1996 Conductors of Chaos anthology that I first began to appreciate Gascoyne. He was thinking of showing film footage of Gascoyne he had made with Chris Petit but it couldn’t be located in time for the event. Instead Iain read from the schoolboy novel Opening Day and reminisced about visiting Gascoyne on the Isle of Wight. Hallucinatory warmth, wit, wisdom and a bonus vision of a behatted Ezra Pound on Kensington Church Street.
David Gascoyne was undoubtedly a forerunner of Londonism and psychogeography in his poetry and prose, which is why he can attract such fascinating advocates. The audience included Enitharmon editor Stephen Stuart Smith, film-maker John Rogers, and novelist Will Self.
Someone very young in some bar at the end of the night asked me if the Poetry Library was ‘part of the establishment’. It was a funny question. Gascoyne himself was never part of any establishment and the line-up of the celebration was radicals and mavericks only, not members of what Jeremy Reed via William S. Burroughs called ‘the Club’. I hope I was persuasive in my reply that the Poetry Library is utterly unlike such elitist and exclusive literary institutions as TLS and Faber in that all poets are welcome to use it freely, all poetry books and magazines are stocked, all poetry events are advertised. The Poetry Library is a horizontal water-trough.
Here is the official recording of the event. Iain Sinclair’s mention of myself and MacGillivray’s ‘Celtic voices’ suddenly made me realise that – without planning – the event had been a pan-British and Irish Isles celebration of David Gascoyne featuring an Irishman, a Scotswoman, a Welshman, a Londoner/Englishman, and a Jersey Islander.
Photos: Max Reeves
Photo of MacGillivray: Julie Goldsmith