Trumpets blown

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The poet Mick Imlah, some readers may recall, was the TLS’s poetry editor from 1995 until his death in 2009. Seek the evidence of his work in that role, if you will, in back issues of that period. One such issue will give you poems by Sophie Hannah and Peter Redgrove; another, Fleur Adcock and Colin Falck; a third, Elizabeth Smither or Jamie McKendrick’s elegantly barbed take on Catullus. Mick’s own poetry, meanwhile, was a work in progress. Birthmarks, an insouciantly ingenious first collection, appeared in 1988; an equally pleasurable second, The Lost Leader, took its time, and emerged twenty years later.

There can always be more to remark, of course, when such a writer’s papers become available to those who wish to know a little more about how he did it. Thanks to his partner, and fellow TLS editor, Maren Meinhardt, Mick’s papers now reside in Oxford, at the Bodleian Library. Those papers include drafts of poems such as “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (published in the TLS, October 2, 1992, a few days before Tennyson’s centenary) and “Goldilocks” (“This is a story about the possession of beds …”), plus the customary array of essays, notebooks and correspondence. Also included: eleven years’ worth of cricket score books, including the record of matches played by the TLS’s own team, among other “social matches” (“Poetry v Prose”).

Courtesy of the Royal Society of Literature and the Friends of the Bodleian, “Keeping the Flame: Celebrating Mick Imlah’s archival legacy” took place at the library last month. From Alan Hollinghurst the audience heard it confirmed that Mick “never wrote an uninteresting line in his life”, and that the working papers of a writer with an “almost unworldly investment in getting it right”, unsurprisingly, include “many key published poems … returned to again and again”. Passages are attempted then “heavily crossed out”; there is also some naughty “letting off [of] steam” about the “horrible, horrible” town of Sudbury, and a poem called “Breaking Bread with Stanley Spencer” in the “witless trochaic metre of Hiawatha”.

Typifying the inclination towards “concentration and reduction” found in those draftings and redraftings of Mick’s published poems is the development of a posthumously published piece in blank verse, called “Solomon”: over the course of many years, it shrank from around 300 to around 100 lines. With two thirds gone, it remained, apparently, unfit for publication in The Lost Leader. We quote a few lines here, describing an England that perhaps would have sounded out of place in that terribly Scottish collection of verse.

… when the English come to mind,
I see the blush of little pastels wrapped
Like apples in a basket, and remove
Layers of reserve like linen, to let breathe
Cathedral greens; the brass of trumpets blown
Through blazed cheeks; stipple winking from a pond;
Blood on the dairy floor, and the rum buff
Of broken pots in sheds; the pebbled blue
Of a spring sky; the quick flare of blue
Skimmed by the kingfisher through evenings dim
With dying bonfires … wet dawns, dripping mint,
A freckled spawning, and a sense of moss
On the inside of things, and rust, and gloom.

So much for England, then.

Also held at the Bodleian is the magical scroll pictured above – a magical scroll over 900cm long and written in sixteenth-century blood. According to one expert account, by Katherine Storm Hindley of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, the scroll was originally a “short and legible” two and a half metres long, before it was considerably extended; the “amuletic power” of the scroll’s bloody text (various names for God, the Lord’s Prayer and so forth) may not have depended, as far as its original owners were concerned, on having to read, or even unroll, the whole thing.

Anyone passing through Oxford between May 27 and December 4 this year may find themselves absorbing a touch of this scroll’s amuletic power. If they stray into the Weston Library’s ST Lee Gallery, they may find it exhibited there alongside books that move the tastebuds (Jack Campbell’s Scratch + Sniff Bacon Cookbook, 2018) or amaze the eye (John James Audubon’s Birds of America, 1827–38). These artefacts feature in Sensational Books, an exhibition curated by Kathryn Rudy and Emma Smith, that explores the world of books “beyond reading” – a world of “sensory engagement”, from the early days of books to the present. Entry is free. We leave it to readers to decide if it would be wise to risk an encounter with the exhibition’s “tactile displays” and a “smell wall”.

Bookish bohemians, meanwhile – snappers-up of unconsidered trifles and all true connoisseurs of the art of independent publishers – might like to direct their steps towards Peckham next month. June 11 sees the return of The Uncorrected to the arts venue called the Peckham Pelican (at 92 Peckham Road); The Uncorrected claims to be “the world’s smallest publisher fair”. It’s the world’s smallest fair for (independent) publishers, that is. It’s not a fair for the world’s smallest publisher. It was last held (guess why) in 2019.

Organized by Michael Curran of Tangerine Press, The Uncorrected promises to showcase the kind of abstruse publication that is rarely to be found displayed on tables at the front of Waterstones. We find ourselves strangely drawn to the francophilia of Les Fugitives, the poetic and prosaic playfulness of Prototype and the recondite arcana of Strange Attractor – not to mention the limited editions hand-crafted by Mr Curran himself. There was a time (can this still be true?) when his Tangerine Press could claim to be the sole English publisher of James Kelman; more recently, it has published the work of Wendy Erskine, Jenni Fagan and Billy Childish.

The prospect of such delights put us in a ghastly good mood. Yet the spirit of anticipatory elation did sink a little, we confess, when we heard that The Uncorrected is also to feature readings by various authors, live podcasting and music. “It isn’t a stuffy hall!”, Mr Curran exclaims of the Peckham Pelican. “You can order a beer, chill out and listen to the readings”, then “browse at your leisure through the stunning selection of books on sale, at special event prices.” Chill out? Doesn’t anyone know that all some of us snappers-up require is a little quiet stuffiness?

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