Nicholas Johnson

The cover of Sean Rafferty's 16 Poems was by Murray Grimsdale, showing a heavily armoured horse soldier, musket over his shoulder. After Durer's 'Knight, Death and the Devil’, the black and white gravure effect attracted me, a boy who loved mediaeval armour but was less keen when the knights carried muskets. Halberds and maces yes. This knight looked plague ridden but carried a mace.

The booklet was near the window on the floor in our Devonshire sitting room, surrounded by vandalised cushions, spent gunshells gleaned from the black woods behind the Eggesford hunt kennels, lint smelling art books that had lost their jackets, sometimes their bindings, and we four children. I knew the poems were written by the man who ran the pub I sometimes got taken into for a meal : I was nine or ten and the days of the pub were drawing to a close for Sean and Peggy Rafferty. The Raffertys had run the pub leased from Watneys since 1948, run on a generator and fine clarets bought at Wickhams, Bideford.

16 Poems, Rafferty's first collection, came out in 1973. Sean was 64. The pub The Duke of York at Iddesleigh overlooking the north side of Dartmoor was seven miles from home. Last Friday my son Reuben and I were taken to the pub for supper by friends. The montages of photographs taken by diverse photographers, including a 1911 Club Day parade restored and enlarged by James Ravilious, are still there : the caramel and woodbine ceiling the Grays Inn Road clock and large fireplace are unchanged. There are photographs of Sean and Peggy by Houston Rogers from 1958, published in The Daily Sketch, a later photo of Sean's daughter Christian, and of people who populated some of his poems, like Fred Hockings who lived on pasties biscuits and tea - who thatched our house in 1977. At about 9 o'clock Tom Simmons came in. He is over 90, and has lived all his life in the village. We talked a little of Sean and Peggy, of his only child Christian who made a rare visit two years ago. He remembered the Raffertys taking the pub over from the previous owners 60 years ago.

Nearly 15 years after Sean died there is a continuum: now I live four miles from him. Walking along the Okement I can reach the fields that lead up to his final home, Burrow.

In the summer of 1984 I spent a couple of summer afternoons with Ross, the daughter in the family who gave the Raffertys their home at Burrow. She was a teenager and liked Sean. We talked about him. But I can't remember what she said, except that he told her he liked Yeats' poetry. (Years later I had a letter from a book dealer who'd bought two beer-ringed volumes of Yeats' letters from Sean in the pub who later received a photostat of his poems from him, a plea to find a publisher for his poems.)

In 1987 my first book of poems, The Telling of the Drowning, was privately published. I selected 17 poems, which I chose as a safe bet between Sean's 16 and Dylan Thomas' debut 18. My book's dark Bodoni font and space each side of the : evoked the typography of the Grosseteste edition. That September I sent Sean the book. I'd not had the confidence to write to him before. He wrote back. It was, he said, the last vanity of the old, to be acceptable to the young. One poem 'Forges / High Tide' evoked the lyric of his poem 'You grow like a beanstalk'.

I was going to be home in Devon for Christmas; and I wrote again asking if we could meet. He replied declining but said if I wanted to, write to him from the country I was going to stay in : New Caledonia.

Twenty years ago. And throughout that year; from the aeroplane to San Francisco, from Tahiti, New Caledonia, my father's house in Armidale New South Wales, from the Annandale Road in Sydney which intrigued the Scottish remembrancer, New York and finally from the address he loved copying out, Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville Virginia, c/o Brother Benedict. He replied to each letter by aerogramme. To Holy Cross he sent his Codex, an A4 buff envelope, two photographs, an annotated P.N. Review that contained a wider selection of his poems [1982] and old stapled foolscap typescripts of 'The First Fabliau' and '1945', '1959'. The poems published in PNR were annotated for the odd Scottish word and phrase, and for reference occasionally to other writers' poems, 'Felix Randall' by Hopkins was one instance.

The aerogramme suited Rafferty's temperament. His letters could build up along the page and accentuate the mood on the flap overleaf and he could say a man had no time to stay because the page was running out. His letters were similar to his poems. His letters contained the language and form of address he used in the poems. Words began upper cased, accentuated and emphasised; like a prose poem. Later he told me that he sometimes copied out the letter before committing it to the aerogramme.

That July 1988 we met, not at his house but in his potting shed : and that is where I saw him in the courtyard of The Farm pushing a wheelbarrow. We took to the shed and drank a bottle of Burgundy he'd placed there, and talked. He didn't want to come to my wedding the following month, but he was pleased to meet Kate my bride and her parents fleetingly when they dropped me off at the farm. We'd spend another 90 minutes and then he'd leave, down trodden heading home, or sit in a grimy mackintosh on a bench in the autumn listening to the rooks, watching the great beeches sway. The Fall he called it. Melancholically he'd curse his poetry as an upturned waste paper basket, poetry unwritten poetry uncompleted tangled deteriorated lost forgotten. He wrote us a belated marriage poem, that really became a poem for our first son Louis, with its valedictory lines :

Before you are fully awake
I must be off : shuffling westward
over dead leaves : but content :
this last and loving message
has lightened the load

What do I wish to evoke for myself, or portray for the Rafferty enthusiast : the unfurling in 12 months of correspondence of a friendship with a man three times my age, who gave me books he'd loved and the O.E.D. in a barrow? Is it enough to acknowledge love and a guiding presence? I quickly learned that you learn more from a poet by not intruding; by not cataloguing a mooted chronology of literary persona. He told me of the Muirs, Empson, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Quentin Crisp, Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid, they were funny stories, affectionate but not as interesting to me as he was. Chiefly he told me the trajectory of his own life, with its emphasis on solitary but not lonely childhood, the fire service and music hall in the Second World War, the death of his first wife Betty on V.E. Day, and of their friends and their daughter.

Slowly, from March 1989, when Peggy died I gained some knowledge of Sean's earlier poems. He never showed his sorrow at her death, only weariness : I was too young to detect the sorrow, but sensitive enough to his reticence. Many of his poems committed to print seemed infused with grief. The poems and music hall songs he kept stuffed in various drawers in his home, lines and phrases on the back of seed catalogues and stout orders. He let me type them up one-fingered on his Smith Corona which I now use. He signed and dated these scripts from 1991 and 1992. A renaissance befell his life. He began to write again, at regular intervals a poem of two to three pages of paper. His friends Clare and Michael Morpurgo wisely suggested workers on the Farm lived awhile in the cottage to keep him company. Adam Fowler was first, a Scot, who became dear to him, and who is evoked to me at least in the poem 'I would be Adam', written during this renaissance. Next was Clare Shenstone, who painted horses. My family of four stayed at various times, Easter or in the summer. We seemed to live outdoors, eating asparagus, stewed rhubarb, quiche and drinking claret and Talisker. I spent a couple of New Year's Eves with Sean by the fire. Although he was not keen on being depicted, his presence is obvious and intentional in my work Haul Song, and in part of Show. I wished to evoke some of the tales he told me of life in Fitzrovia, how he met his first wife, and his bearing as a playful elder, alone with a thin box room as bedroom, a chair by the bed a tie on the floor and shelves of battered books, Latin, Greek and French, like a Left Bank book stall. Alone but not alone.

When Sean Rafferty died on December the 4th 1993 I learned he had written me down as editor in his contract at Carcanet. If that was his secret it was equally his dignity. He was proud gentle and generous on the one hand, competitive and scatalogically disdainful on the other. He had no need to be competitive with someone so young in practice. The timing of his wit was fine tuned. He left me an unspoken and ritualistic task; to edit and convey his poetry.

After his death his poetry led me quietly into friendships with Sorley and Renee MacLean, the poet Gael Turnbull, his daughter Christian, vital to the clear editing of his poems, the film maker Timothy Neat, his wife Caroline and a man he would have grudgingly delighted in : Hamish Henderson. The comedian and writer Rich Hall let me visit his flat in Fitzroy Square and climb the stairs to see where Sean would once have lived. He asked me to send a photograph of Sean from the 1940s as his girlfriend was being pestered by a ghost sitting on the end of their bed.

His papers, scant as they so far are, are housed at Edinburgh University, thanks to the labours of Gael Turnbull who orchestrated this. Although Turnbull could select a Rafferty poem as desert island disc in Poet's Poems and MacLean recite eight verses of Rafferty from memory not one editor has anthologised his poetry in any account of the last century.

Posthumously I heard from two people who visited his pub once and never forgot him, in his back cupboard behind the bar a man who staked the territory of his locale : the Milk Water, the waters of Leith, Fitzrovia, Clerkenwell, Iddesleigh. Apart from visits to his elder sister Helen in Powfoot Scotland he does not appear to have visited anywhere else. Somebody kindly sent me proof that he'd had a poem published in a Scottish magazine in 1968, and Heather wife of the poet Tom Scott gave me a biography by Gordon Wright on MacDiarmid, which contains a photograph of a mischievous Rafferty beside MacDiarmid at a party for Helen B. Cruickshank. The role Sean played for the young is well evoked in Michael Morpurgo's novel Farm Boy.

How could I then describe a presence, virtually a ghost? Could I again evoke somebody as clearly as his handwriting does and will again? The A3 art pads where he wrote in pen and pencil, copying out the phrases over and again, and the letters written where a few words had already, previously, been written : phrases clear, unique and wry : like this one : I PECK ENCYCLOPAEDIAS.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed