Monday, 7 September 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old poet called P.J. Kavanagh

Patrick, who has died at the age of 84, had a many-faceted, sixty year career in which money made from work as teacher, film actor, television and radio presenter, novelist and journalist was used to financially support P.J.Kavanagh, the poet.

What you possibly didn't know about Patrick, that he :

* was born Patrick Joseph in Worthing, Sussex in 1931, the son of mother, Agnes O' Keefe and father, Ted, initially an Edinburgh medical student who switched to free-lance journalism and sketches and lyrics for the stage, whose family hailed from County Carlow, who he recalled : 'was born in New Zealand and brought me up to be more Irish than the Irish' and in addition was 'Catholic. And the sense that gives you of being in a minority remains with you all your life' reinforced, at the age of six, by attending a girls' convent school in Barnes, where he remained until he was 8 and learnt to “take for granted the love and forgiveness of women more than life itself; they were life itself.'

* as a very young child, recalled his father would drag him 'round the music-halls and down the end of piers' to see comedians' and eight years old when the Second World War broke out in 1939, the family living in London was 'bombed from flat to flat' and life was 'a show on the road, a series of one-night stands' during which time his father created and worked on the radio and film scripts of Tommy Handley in 'ITMA', 'It’s That Man Again' (photographed seated to the left of Tommy).

* as a boy grew up knowing that the ITMA characters and the phrases they used, he heard repeated by the general public : Mrs Mopp's "Can I do you now sir ?" and Mona Lott, the depressed laundry woman's "It's being so cheerful as keeps me going", were his father's inventions.

* when the BBC moved facilities to North Wales, was relocated with his family in a house which looked out across the Menai Straits to Anglesey and recalled, following the bombing of Bristol, "the house next door being on fire and hoses being played against the outside wall to stop them cracking, while my father sat writing."

 * in 1943, at the age of twelve, was sent away as a boarder to a Benedictine public school, Douai Abbey, in Woolhampton, Berkshire which was 'Jansenist-Irish and English Puritan all at once and seemed to isolate all the coldest elements of these until only the rules and the fear were left' and where, cut off from the company of women recalled : 'I wanted to die. I willed myself to.'

* was fourteen when, back in the family house  in 1945, his father featured in the Pathé News short, 'How ITMA is written' : , while he at school, with its atmosphere of repression and incompetent teaching,  discovered the poetry of W.B.Yeats and T.S. Eliot and 'the really tremendous excitement of Prufrock', began to write his own verses and covertly read his 'beloved Francis Thompson wrapped in the lurid covers of a Bulldog Drummond novel' and exercised 'defiances' which 'had become those of a slave', while at the same time recalled : 'I was good at rugby in school because I was Irish; I was funny because my father was funny and I was Irish.”

* in 1948, at the age of 17, spent summer working at a Butlin's Holiday Camp, where, he later speculated, his father had sent him in order to counteract what he felt was his son's 'cultural snobbery', refused to go back for his last year at boarding-school and to his relief, was sent to the 'Lycée Jaccard' in Lausanne, Switzerland, 'a sort of boy's "finishing school."'

* now followed his own work schedule, read Cecil Day Lewis and Jean-Paul Sartre in his room, learned French from the cleaning maids and having decided that he might want to go to University, took and passed the Higher Certificate.

* at the age of 18, moved to Paris where he took a job reading the news for the English Section of 'Radiodiffusion Française', met the jazz musician Charlie Parker, enrolled in a drama school run by René Simon, a retired Comédie Française actor, but in 1950, was called back to Britain to do his National Service, then on the outbreak of the Korean War, as a Second Lieutenant, volunteered to go to the East, transferring to the Royal Ulster Rifles who were on standby duty and left Liverpool with a copy of Joyce's 'Ulysses' to pass the eight-week voyage.

* on arrival in Japan, was posted to Korea as a 'War Office Observer', saw at first hand, some of the horrors of war and on the second day of the Battle of the Imjin River where comrades in the Gloucestershire Regiment made a defiant stand against the Chinese Army with many of his friends killed or captured, he himself was taken to hospital with what turned out be a merely a flesh wound to his shoulder in what a doctor called "a million-to-one shot."

* returned to Britain and demobbed, started life as an undergraduate reading English at Merton College, Oxford, but after Korea 'found it impossible to take the place seriously', declined to join any societies, spent his evenings writing verse, and 'concentrated on the only unfiltered experience Oxford had to offer -- the marvellous girls', one of whom was, in his final year, Sally Phillips, the daughter of the novelist Rosamond Lehmann and artist, Wogan Phillips, son of 1st Baron Milford (left), who was 7 when her Mother moved in with the poet Cecil Day-Lewis and 16 when she moved out after divorcing her father when she was 10.

* after staying on at Oxford for an M.A, in 1954, accepted a job at the British Institute in Barcelona, where he combined teaching and writing and was struck by the practice by young prostitutes in the lodgings in which he was staying, of saying the prayers of the Rosary to find husbands to take them away from the life.

* in 1955, returned to London to work as an 'Assistant Floor Manager' at the BBC, married Sally and feeling he needed a "bolt-hole" where he could earn a salary and still write, accepted a teaching assignment with the British Council and left for Djakarta, Indonesia with Sally in 1957, where he established a writing schedule which was shattered by her sudden death from polio at the age of 24.

* after his return to Britain, saw the devastation of  Sally, followed in 1958, by the death of his much-loved father and made death and loss and the pain both of memory and forgetting, the dominant themes of his work in the years that followed and evoked her loss in his 'Dedication Poem' in first volume of poetry published in 1959, 'One and One' :
'Curled in your night-dress on the beach,
Corn-yellow ghost, pale with sleep'

* turning to acting, began a career in films and television and in 1962 at the age of 31 played 'Mike' in 'Masters of Venus', a crew member in a spaceship which encountered a race of beings suspected as descended from the lost city of Atlantis :

* moved to Gloucestershire in 1963 with the translator Catherine Ward,
'I would if I could write new words for women
Because of you'
who he married two years later, living :
'By a lake,
Not even the Green Dragon locals know is here'

* lived near Elkstone, a village halfway between Cheltenham and Cirencester where, in a whitewashed room of a tiny ruined cottage, a short walk from the house, he sat at a table without a telephone, wrote from ten to six, then spent an hour in the village pub, 'The Green Dragon' at Cockleford.

* had published as 'P.J. Kavanagh' in deference to the celebrated Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh who he had sought out on a visit to Ireland only to be told : "Why don't you change your feckin name ?" and it under this name that in the winter of 1964/65 exploited his talents as a performer and co-presented 'Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life', a short-lived satirical television show, alongside David Frost and Willie Rushton.

* in 1966, at the age of 35, published his autobiographical : 'The Perfect Stranger' : 'The house I'm outside as I write this was built by men who are dead. All my life I've been feeding on the ideas of dead men. So it is impossible to imagine my present without the sustaining, confusing past, without Sally. To turn her into a memory would be impossible, there are some persons, some events, it isn't possible to shrink in this way; they're outside our range . .Once you've experienced the infinite significance of another person's life you feel something of the same for all lives, and for your own  . .This is my memorial to what happened between us . .The rest of my life, any sense I can make of it, is a memorial to that.'

* in 1967 published 'On the Way to the Depot', his collection of poems focussed on 'a common journey to an unknown destination' and his attempt to confront and transcend his grief over Sally's death, referred to 'Westwell Churchyard, Oxfordshire' where she was buried and concluded it was time to move on:
'A scatter of frozen
Bokhara roses . . .
And then the blur of snow. Time to be gone.'

and also included 'Lines For My Father' addressed to Ted :
'Were you happy ever? Do you still snort at such questions?
When you stared at the wall when you died, what did you see?'

* in 1968, his 'A Song and Dance', the first of four novels for adults, won the 'Guardian Fiction Prize' and in 1970 published 'About Time', a sequence of ten poems dedicated to his father with 'One' recalling :
'The worst
Was that his genuine smile went first'
'He was right, he was wrong,
He was weak,
He was strong'

* in 1973 narrated a six part tv documentary, taking a country walk through six parts of Britain, 'Journey Through Summer' and in 1974 after 23 years, followed in his father's footsteps as Roy Plomley's 'Castaway' on 'Desert Island Discs', chose Bach's 'Partita for solo violin No 2 in D Minor' as his favourite track and the 'Collected Poems of  Edward Thomas' as his book and a 'pair of shoes as his luxury'.

* and in the same year published his collection, 'Edward Thomas in Heaven' with the title poem taking comfort from the positing of the location within Heaven of an unbelieving, Thomas :
'There must be doubt in heaven, to accommodate him
And others we listen for daily, who were human,
Snuffing and puzzling, which is why we listen.'

* subsidised his poetry, including 'Life Before Death' in 1979, by his journalism writing for the 'Daily Telegraph Magazine', whose editor, John Anstey commissioned him to write from around the world and recalled : "Nobody could stand him. I loved him. He once rang up and said, 'I enjoyed your piece so much – may I raise your fee?'"

* in 1981 had one of his two children’s books, his 1978 'Scarf Jack', adapted and serialised by Southern Television on a low budget, based on American Western theme with pistol fights and scenes set in bars, wagons and the outdoors and saw it enjoy early popularity only to be cancelled after one season.

* in the 1980s presented Radio 4’s 'Poetry Please!' and observed that : “A surprising number of requests come from people who have read little or no poetry since they left school” and in 1982 edited the 'Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney' whose work he admired and publicized and in 1985, edited The Bodley Head 'G K Chesterton' and in the same year with his friend, the poet James Michie, with whom he enjoyed walking holidays along the Severn, edited the much-admired 'Oxford Book of Short Poems' while at the same time writing column in 'Life and Letters' for 'The Spectator' which he continued until 1996.

* in 1986 at the age of 55, featured as General Sir George Newhouse in the film 'Half Moon Street' based on Paul Theoux novel 'Doctor Slaughter' starring Sigourney Weaver and Michael Caine : and

* in 1993 at the age of 62 was awarded the Society of Authors’ 'Cholmondeley Award for Poetry' following the publication of his 'Collected Poems' and the following year published 'Voices in Ireland: A Traveller’s Literary Companion', having already used his Irish ancestry in his 1990 travel book, 'Finding Connections' and declared in 'The Perfect Stranger' in 1966 that 'my blood on both sides of my family is Irish as far back as anybody can be bothered to trace.'

* played a cameo role in the tv series 'Father Ted' in 1998 as Father Seamus Fitzpatrick, a collector of Nazi war memorabilia, whose relics included a surviving member of the Wehrmacht after which he, with his distinctive face and voice, was plagued with offers of more work playing Irish priests :

* in 2004 recorded 'Something About', 'A poem set in Dublin, St Stephen's Green' in the Audio Workshop in London :

 * in 1992 the year in which his 'Collected Poems' was published also selected and edited 'A Book of Consolations' and compiled the anthology under nine headings :

Love, Christianity, Human Solidarity, Personal Faith, Defiance, Comedy, Pleasures, Age, and Lament
and addressed the question which he spent his life trying to answer :
'How can we cope with being in this world?'


  1. This Tuesday afternoon (September 10, 2016) I sat in Cheltenham's tree-lined Promenade and remembered the first time I met P.J. Kavanagh. It must have been 1973 or '74 when he was director of Cheltenham Literary Festival. He was puzzled that any small magazine should want to interview him. His modesty belied the fact that his poetry was much read and quoted while his unforgettable autobiography, The Perfect Stranger, was in paperback at last.
    We met in Cheltenham's town hall and went for coffee in a baker's shop in the Promenade; today I sat under the big trees and tried to work out exactly where that bakery was, but Cheltenham's shops have all been poshed up since the early Seventies.
    I do remember catching the Cirencester bus with Patrick and getting off at a tree-shaded spot where his beautiful wife and their small sons were waiting in a car.
    During the bus journey he spoke of the novel he was then writing, People And Weather. He said he didn't want to see the world just as a broken place, bandaged and bleeding; the man in his narrative wanted to reach out and embrace the Gloucestershire countryside to which he had come, not in any kind of escape, but in order to confront reality.
    When I finally read People And Weather I was struck, as Robert Nye said in his Guardian review, by P.J. Kavanagh's eye for the countryside and its wildlife. The Scottish wildlife writer Jim Crumley has Kavanagh's genius when it comes to an exactitude of observation that goes way beyond the merely descriptive; both writers are embedded in the often violent drama of nature. They take the reader with them.
    In his poems and in two volumes of journals, Kavanagh celebrated those who had gone before him on that strange and at times lonely journey. Margiad Evans, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney and Richard Jeffries who, at times, all remind me of the stubbornly observant protagonist of People And Weather.
    P.J. Kavanagh lived near Elkstone and here it was that Margiad Evans lived. He had a major hand in getting her writing in print again through Calder the publishers. But it is as a poet of the very first rank that he will be read, now, and one hundred years from now. In spite of the fact that he read superbly, P.J. Kavanagh was reluctant to give readings. I remember the hush that fell over the audience when he finished reading his poem Edward Thomas in Heaven. There's an audience for poetry as wonderful as this. He would tell his audience how long the poem was; he felt people needed more help with poetry than they got; it was always startling to hear how witty many of the poems are when spoken aloud, for this poet could be as funny as he was tender. Everyone who reads A Perfect Stranger remains haunted by the book. Fewer turn to his other personal prose work, Finding Connections, which took the poet to Australia and returns to his unfinished theme, 'trying to make sense of what remains of my life' after the sudden death of his first wife Sally.
    Kavanagh's two novels for children, Scarf Jack and A Rebel For Life, turn on his interest in Irish history. I am sure he wrote them with his sons in mind. Has any English poet written so well about children? He loved his sons and that love was apparent on the day we met, over forty years ago.
    Jack Haggerty, Glasgow.

  2. Just today a last memory of PJ Kavanagh came back to me.
    He was director of Cheltenham's Literary Festival. He said he wanted to invite writers who believed in God or had some spiritual life that was evident in their work.
    I suggested Graham Greene but he said the famous novelist would never come. I then suggested William Golding and PJ said he had already written to him.
    He had been in touch with Kingsley Amis who would talk at the festival about GK Chesterton. Kavanagh had asked Amis, who was an atheist, how he would approach Chesterton's Christianity. Amis had replied, somewhat fiercely, 'Rationally.'
    I now wish I had suggested writers such as Monica Furlong and Rosemary Haughton; there were also a number of contemporary poets with a profound interest in Christianity - K Raine, a woman of profound faith, being one. She had a tortured friendship with Gavin Maxwell.
    The first time we met I asked PJ Kavanagh about his own faith. He spoke for a few moments about Christianity and then said, 'That's enough about that.'
    On our second interview I raised the subject again.
    He said: 'There is only a small rock on which my faith rests and I don't want to look down and find that it isn't there.'
    I wish now I had suggested reading some sound systematic theology such as Louis Berkoff's A Summary of Christian Doctrine.
    John Calvin said we should speak of those things which the Scriptures speak about and remain silent on those things on which the Scriptures are silent.
    PJ's faith was private.
    J Haggerty

  3. Erratum.
    A Summary of Christian Doctrine was written by Louis Berkhof. It was first published in 1960 and was republished in 2009 by the Banner of Truth.
    While I am doubtful if PJ Kavanagh would have enjoyed this kind of theology, it should be said that Berkhof's work of just 166 pages is unequalled as a popular handbook of Christian doctrine.
    Berkhof died in 1957 after having attained world-wide fame as a systematic theologian.
    John Haggerty, Glasgow, Scotland.