Thursday, 26 July 2012


In his nineties Philip Gross’s father, a wartime refugee, began to lose his several languages, first to deafness, then profound aphasia. Deeply thought as well as deeply felt, these poems reach into that gulf to find him – through recovery of histories both spoken and unspoken as well as an excavation of the spoken word itself. Readers who admired Philip Gross’s subtlety and range in his T.S. Eliot Prize-winning collection The Water Table will find those qualities brought to a new human urgency in the compelling sequences of Deep Field. Published by Bloodaxe in November 2011, Deep Field, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Poetry Award (Wales Book of the Year) in 2012.

Victoria Field reviews Deep Field in Lapidus Journal:

The cover image of Philip Gross’s new collection shows the Hubble Deep Field, a keyhole view of the universe, taken by the Hubble telescope. It’s a tiny speck of sky which reveals thousands of galaxies in deepest space, all at different stages of development. The image is both beautiful and bewildering; showing something unimaginably large and complex and, simultaneously, tiny, representing just a two millionth part of the total sky.

The mind, with its ability to hold memory and convey thoughts in language is also a deep field, full of mystery and strangeness. We can only guess at its structure and content. We know that the mind is dependent on the brain and that organic damage, whether from stroke, dementia or accident, can cause various kinds of aphasia, the technical term for language impairments. Like the astronomers with their telescope, Philip Gross shows us the effects of aphasia in his father, such as difficulty in remembering words – ‘you’d lost barley’; echolalia, a tendency to repeat what someone else says – ‘a bat-vault full of panicked rags of words’; or speaking nonsense – ‘words in no language but a style of hesitation’; and needing to sing but ‘not prettily’. But more than that, he takes us into a world of twentieth century and personal history, of his own emotional responses to the aphasia, the shifting qualities of the universe and the natural world, all conveyed in daring, memorable and confident poems.

One definition of a human being is that we are story-making creatures. The sharing of stories is one of the ways in which we build relationships. Philip Gross, an only child of his wartime refugee father from Estonia, grew up ‘fluent in English and silence’. His father spoke five languages, but in his nineties, began to lose them – he ‘stared through a sixty year gap in the trees,/ … out into the fields/ (all-angled, small, pre-Soviet)// of wordlessness.’ Philip Gross said in an interview:
I knew there was something not being said. He had just emerged from years of trauma in his life, and the last thing he wanted to do was pass that on.
I suspect the untold stories of parents are often what sting us into writing poetry. As Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘every poem breaks a silence’. Tony Harrison put it memorably in his four-liner, Heredity:
How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry –
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.
Philip Gross remembers how his father would ask him what he was working on and now how he would have to answer,
Building your memorial
like something grand raised out of rubble,
out of the redundant stuff of
Theodore Roethke wrote that ‘in a dark time the eye begins to see’ – in a time of silence or incoherence, the poet begins to write. A prolific writer in many different genres, Philip Gross has already written about a distressing family experience, his daughter’s anorexia, in The Wasting Game (1998). Since then, he has won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his brilliant study of the River Severn, The Water Table, in which his subject and the language he uses to describe it, come together remarkably. The same can be said of Deep Field. Ostensibly a book ‘about’ his father’s loss of language, Deep Field uses this theme as a way of exploring the ways in which language, something generated from within us, relates to the outer world, both in how it denotes experience and reality, and how it mediates relationships.

Perhaps this can only be done in poetry. In poetry, something is constructed from words but also from silence and, in a book, from space on the page. We have a sense in Deep Field of words losing their moorings, and becoming, even as they describe his father, an echo of the natural world that permeates the collection. Whilst still clearly the building blocks of poems, the words behave in new and unexpected ways, as if autonomous of the poet. They shift themselves to the right and create a constellation that looks like lace on the page, coalesce into diamonds or droplets, or form the shape of a breaking wave.

The poems in this collection are not all immediately accessible but on reading and re-reading, I found myself drawn into a world of retreating galaxies, constantly changing seascapes and that familiar tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when a word we know is ‘in there’ becomes fugitive and shy. Philip Gross ‘grew a stammer/ that said something too’ – another layer of complex engagement with language. I was also taken on a emotional journey from first learning about John, his life and his aphasia, to eventually feeling viscerally the huge loss that has taken place, for both him and his son. There is something matter-of-fact about the crossword puzzle described in the opening poem that reminds me of how, often, men make connections with each other through engaging with an external entity – crossword, car, football. The poem explores the word ‘scry’, a ‘word to peer into’ that can be turned ‘round in my hands // this crystal ball, this cryptic syllable’. It has an old meaning of second sight, of psychic divination and the speaker of the poem is attempting to solve a puzzle, the crossword his father used to ‘unpick seamlessly’ and also the bigger and more intractable mystery of how to relate to his father.

The collection has several sequences, three titled Something Like The Sea and one, Vocable, in 28 parts. They take the reader deep into an exploration of language and voice, spoken, groaned, involving other family members and the body in its expression. Philip Gross employs a multiplicity of forms, both in the sequences and the individual poems. The latter sometimes gave me the sensation of the poet, like a whale or dolphin, coming to the water’s surface to draw breath, before diving down once again into a sequence exploring the unfathomable depths of his father’s aphasia.

The last poem in the collection is painful, arranged in stanzas of short lines and few syllables with a dramatic economy of style. The whole, long, complex father-son relationship, and a human life from beginning to end, are conveyed through a simple touching of hands, the tender way in which a parent guides the first steps of a child.

At the heart of this moving and intriguing collection are the mystery of life and its relationship with language. The recurring image of the sea is not always comforting – Philip Gross grew up not far from the wild North coast of Cornwall and knows how it can be ‘uneasy, ulterior, insatiably // lightless’. Language is at its mercy. There are ‘purposes / beyond us’ which, like the far galaxies of the Deep Field are ‘out beyond words beyond / most memory’.

This book speaks directly to the heart of Lapidus concerns with how language can convey, transcend and re-enchant human experience. Philip Gross has not only honoured his father but created something of great beauty and wonder out from those final wordless years.

Victoria Field is a writer and a qualified poetry therapist. She has worked with people with aphasia, on a Stroke Rehabilitation Unit, in care homes and one-to-one. She is a regular tutor on the Ty Newydd Writing in Health and Social Care programme and will be co-facilitating a one-week workshop with Graham Hartill in November 2012 at which Philip Gross will be the guest reader.

This review was first published in Lapidus Journal, Spring 2012 Vol 6: Issue 2, an online publication covering writing, reading, health and wellbeing. Recent articles have looked at the role of writing in prisons, healthcare and professional training; bibliotherapy and poetry therapy; writing and ecology; cultural and theoretical perspectives; personal views on experiences of writing. Subscription to the Lapidus Journal is £30 per year via membership of Lapidus, the networking and information organisation for all interested in the field - see link for details.

From the reviews of Deep Field:

'A powerful and tender successor to the T.S. Eliot prize-winning The Water Table… The writing is sinewy, urgent and resourceful. This poet is a master of form, deploying his visual and aural patterns for emphasis, as if the page were a musical score… The collection evokes an essence of what it is to be human, the sense of both wonder and estrangement, our place within science, the sheer oddness of who we are. Deep Field is as strong in celebration as in lamentation. With language as its theme, it soars linguistically' – Michael Symmons Roberts & Moniza Alvi, PBS Bulletin.

'Philip Gross's previous collection, the T.S. Eliot Prize­-winning The Water Table, suggested a deepening vision based on focused contemplation of the world and our place - or lack of place - within it. This new collection takes us deeper still, sustaining with extra­ordinary virtuosity a series of meditative variations on the related themes of language and wordlessness, human existence and the loss of identity’ – Jem Poster, Planet.

Extracts from 'Something Like The Sea':

from PART I

Washed up at the tideline these days,
              jetsam: words
in Estonian, German, Russian, history
              ditched out at sea
between coasts sixty years ago —

              too much, too
heavy, you said later, what child
              could need it —
languages I never heard you speak
              and so I grew

bilingual in English and silence,
              grew a stammer
                            that said something, too.


One day you woke to find that you’d lost barley.
Oats. Wheat. Tried each of your five languages
and nothing answered to its name.

You stared through a sixty-year gap in the trees,
past the farmhouse, out into the fields
(all-angled, small, pre-Soviet)

of wordlessness. What you were seeing there
wasn’t nothing. This one… You tensed
your fingers, upwards. And this…

Your fingers tremble-dangled. ‘Oats?’ Yes!
Yes. And that itching-and-scratching
down the back of your neck:

threshed husks in the shade of the barn. Later
hordeum and triticum came to you, then
some English, some Estonian.

But you’d been back there, in the gone place,
absolutely, with each Ding an sich.
You’d been it, and no words between.

from PART II:

On the shores of Lake Aphasia
mist seeps upwards, early morning, in fine strands
like milk in water. Almost Japanese.

In some Zen light, or Pure Land,
we might see it so:
                            the more
white paper, the more eloquent;
measuring the distance between this and this.


I wish I could say

‘We sat for half an hour in silence.
Nothing needed to be said.’

It isn’t true. You can’t stop
rattling a box of empty syllables

while something needs, it cries out,
for the saying. Is this it?

I write on your word-pad, I
mime. Is it this? Or this?

Help me! Who looking in
the window now could say

which of us was the one deprived of speech?


All this way
by single rail track
through the forest,
by truck and by footslog,

by the last boat left
and leaving, by nights
in the open and years’

hiatus, Nacht und Nebel,
fog of someone else’s
war. All this way

to arrive at an impasse
here, sixty years on, caught
in a sentence you can’t finish,

your good neighbour
backing away, first nodding
then shaking his head

at unstoppable word-slur.
You’re touching his arm
and he flinches

as if from the cling
of cobweb. All this way
to learn a life, to pass

through checkpoints, not to wear
the marks of silence on you
(like the names

not to be mentioned
in your censored letters home —
they’d leave their stain

on those you loved). All
this long way
to be a foreigner again.



in a flicker of gunfire (off to one side;
I believe you when you said you never fought);
caught in a war

of three sides and not one
to call your own; and when the dreadful music
stopped, caught

on the wrong side of the line
through Europe that the powers at Yalta ruled;
caught out of place;

caught in the zone, with transport waiting
to a bone mine in the Urals when the deadline fell; caught
wind of that

and walked, walked west and long;
caught out by sunrise in the wrong sort of uniform,
caught sight

of a scarecrow in a turnip field,
gave thanks for its coat and tatty britches; snagged
for a moment

when the snare of history pulled tight
you jerked free, torn somewhat, never quite mended but
not caught.

Philip Gross is Professor of Creative Writing at Glamorgan University. He has published seven books with Bloodaxe, including Deep Field (2011), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, which was shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Poetry Award (Wales Book of the Year); The Water Table (2009), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; The Egg of Zero (2006); Mappa Mundi (2003), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation; and Changes of Address: Poems 1980-1998 (2001), his selection from earlier books including The Ice Factory, Cat’s Whisker, The Son of the Duke of Nowhere, I.D. and The Wasting Game. His book I Spy Pinhole Eye (Cinnamon Press, 2009), a collaborative work with photographer Simon Denison, won the Wales Book of the Year Award 2010. He is also the author of ten highly-praised novels for young people.

His poetry for children includes Manifold Manor, The All-Nite Café (winner of the Signal Award 1994), Scratch City and Off Road To Everywhere (winner of the CLPE Award 2011). Since The Song of Gail and Fludd (1991) he has published nine more novels for young people, most recently The Storm Garden (2006).

Born in Cornwall, he lived in Bristol and Bath for many years, and now lives in Penarth in South Wales.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A.S.J. TESSIMOND (1902-62)
by James Bainbridge

On the death of a great man 
He goes. You, world, are poorer for his going;
And poorer yet again, world, for not knowing
Your loss … ‘Tis well, world. You deserved to lose
That which you neither sought, nor cared to use!

May 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond. July 2012 marks the 110th anniversary of his death.

The fact that you are reading this page, probably suggests that you have some awareness of Tessimond’s work – though the fact that your chosen search engine has led you here, is also an indication of how little is now known about the poet. In those fifty years since his death, almost all trace of A.S.J. Tessimond has disappeared.

Tessimond has joined the ranks of the lesser-known poets. A poet who certainly deserves our attention – who in his own lifetime was hugely popular – but who now is perhaps only known to a few. I want to briefly explore how that might have come about.

The Mystery of Peter Black

Some time in the 1980s, the journalist and poet Hubert Nicholson received a letter. It was sent to him in his capacity as literary executor to his friend, the poet, A.S.J. Tessimond. “Had he seen,” the correspondent wondered, “Roger Skelton’s Penguin anthology Poetry of the Forties?”

Nicholson had not.

“In it,” the letter continued, “is a poem entitled ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ by Peter Black. The same poem is included in A.S.J. Tessimond’s Collected Poems, which you edited. Was there some mistake or had Tessimond perhaps plagiarised this work?”

Nicholson was by no means certain how to reply. In the twenty-four years that he had managed his late friend’s estate, this was the first he had ever heard of a Peter Black. It was a puzzling business. For one thing, this was one of Tessimond’s best-known poems – if people recognised it, as many people did, then they knew the piece with his name attached to it. Frequently he received letters from publishers asking permission to reprint ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’, this accusation of plagiarism was a new and somewhat troubling development.

Nicholson went to his local library and got hold of the Penguin anthology. There between Drummond Allison’s ‘A Great Unhealthy Friendship’ and Kenneth Allott’s ‘Departure Platform’, was the poem. Here it is as it appears in Poetry of the Forties:
I am the unnoticed, the unnoticeable man:
The man who sat on your right in the morning train:
The man you looked through like a windowpane:
The man who was the colour of the carriage, the colour
of the mounting
Morning pipe smoke.

I am the man too busy with a living to live,
Too hurried and worried to see and smell and touch:
The man who is patient too long and obeys too much
And wishes too softly and seldom.

I am the man they call the nation’s backbone,
Who am boneless – playable catgut, pliable clay:
The Man they label Little lest one day
I dare to grow.

I am the rails on which the moment passes,
The megaphone for many words and voices:
I am graph, diagram,
Composite face.

I am the led, the easily-fed,
The tool, the not-quite-fool,
The would-be-safe-and-sound,
The uncomplaining bound,
The dust fine-ground,
Stone-for-a-statue waveworn pebble-round.

p. 1943       PETER BLACK
There was no doubt that it was the same poem, and Nicholson was also certain that this was his friend’s work. He had known the piece for years, had heard him read it on many occasions. If there was plagiarism to be detected, it was Black who had clearly stolen Tessimond’s poem. Either that or it was an error on the part of Robin Skelton, or the publisher to whom he immediately wrote – but something stuck in Nicholson’s mind; something that didn’t seem right. The date of publication given in the Penguin anthology was 1943. Not only was the name wrong, but ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ had not appeared in print until Tessimond’s collection Voices in a Giant City published in 1947. Where had 1943 come from? It was a nagging detail. The authors’ index to the anthology which gave the poets’ dates of birth and death in brackets after their names gave no clues either – after Black’s name there were no brackets. He was a biographical blank. Hubert wrote to friends to see if anyone could shed any light on Peter Black’s identity. Nobody could.

There was something strangely apt about all of this. Here was a poem about an anonymous man – ‘the man you looked through like a windowpane’ – being claimed by a person nobody had heard of. It was a situation that no doubt would have amused Tessimond. ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ was an elegy to the unnoticed in the world; to a figure such as Black, whose name itself was an impenetrable void.

The one identifying feature of the man in the poem – the bowler hat – is an emblem of his everyday ordinariness, the blank uniform of the morning commuter. Like the crowd flowing over London Bridge in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) where the actions of ‘each man’ is identical, or in Ezra Pound’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1912) where individuals are reduced to a mere ‘apparition’, the daily transit to work has frequently been seen as a theft of identity in the twentieth century. Man ceased to be an individual, but part of the crowd.

The scene described in the poem is played out again in the opening moments of Galton and Simpson’s 1961 film The Rebel. There, Tony Hancock, furnished with bowler hat and umbrella, boards a train and looks about the compartment to take in seven other identically dressed commuters. His identity reaches a crisis point because all of his neighbours seem the same. He goes off to be an artist.

But the neighbour in the poem is the reader: we are told that he ‘sat on your right in the morning train’, and in so doing we become part of the same anonymous being. Like Magritte’s faceless figure in The Son of Man and other paintings, or Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, or Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the hat gives a sense of uniformity to the wearer; a commonplace. However, where Magritte’s figure has his face obscured, the man in the poem’s face is visible, but it is ‘composite’; it is all faces, a representative image of everyone. We assume the man in the bowler hat to be everyman.

It is possible to see why the mysterious Peter Black might wish to claim this poem, but these ideas could equally apply to Tessimond himself, who today can hardly be considered a household name. I would like to thank you at this stage, as audience, for coming along to a lecture on a poet that you might well have never heard of. Unnoticed, unnoticeable, in the fifty years since his death next month, he has slipped from our attention into ‘almost complete oblivion’. What I want to stress to you, is that whilst today he might not be particularly well known – his work has only recently come back into print – this was certainly not always the case. The fact that Tessimond is not much read anymore is not simply down to ‘undue neglect’ but the result of a far stranger story, in part a wilful act.

The face behind the face

In 1958, the publisher Putnam brought out a volume of Tessimond’s verse titled Selection. It was a slimmish book – thirty-three poems in total, some old-favourites that had appeared in previous volumes (including ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’), but about half the collection was new work. It was the second-bestselling poetry book of that year, only beaten by the collected poems of John Betjeman. The Poetry Book Society made it their Autumn choice. The poet was interviewed by the Guardian newspaper. In a sense Tessimond was at the height of his career, but it was the last collection of his poetry that he would ever see published.

The first poem included in Selection is titled ‘Portrait of a romantic’. Portraits are a complicated idea. We tend to assume that a successful portrait, conveys something of the sitter’s interior life as well as their exterior; that their personality is on view as well as the way they look. Magritte’s portrait seems to forbid much of this reading – all we see are exterior surfaces – the apple, but also the clothes. His dress is an act of concealment; and yet the stance of the figure may convey certain attitudes of the man behind the mask. Tessimond’s work tends to pivot between these two ideas of revelation and concealment – in his ‘Portrait of a Romantic’ that idea of the ‘half-hid, half-lit’ world is crucial:
Portrait of a romantic

He is in love with the land that is always over
The next hill and the next, with the bird that is never
Caught, with the room beyond the looking-glass.

He likes the half-hid, the half-heard, the half-lit,
The man in the fog, the road without an ending,
Stray pieces of torn words to piece together.

He is well aware that man is always lonely,
Listening for an echo of his cry, crying for the moon,
Making the moon his mirror, weeping in the night.

He often dives in the deep-sea undertow
Of the dark and dreaming mind. He turns at corners,
Twists on his heel to trap his following shadow.

He is haunted by the face behind the face.
He searches for last frontiers and lost doors.
He tries to climb the wall around the world.
A great many of Tessimond’s poems – as in ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ – use the personal pronoun ‘I’ to depict their subject. This is not to say that they are personal expressions – that the figure speaking is necessarily Tessimond himself. Often they clearly are not – the poem ‘The Prostitute’ say, or ‘The Occultist’, or ‘The Smart Boy’ – all are spoken by a narrator that identifies as ‘I’, but the poems inhabit lives that are conspicuously different from that of the poet. They are pen portraits. Sketches of characters that Tessimond had known in the world. Conspicuously, none of the new poems written for the 1958 Selection, do this, and here the subject of the portrait is identified as ‘he’ rather than ‘I’. The images are no less obscure than those in ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ – here, ‘the man in the fog’ and the ‘lost doors’ create an equally anonymous backdrop for the poem’s subject – but these images are not of the romantic himself, but his loves of preoccupations. What we see is not the sitter in the portrait, but the things he responds to, the ‘echo of his cry’.

Twice in the poem we are drawn to the image of the mirror – the subject makes the moon his mirror, reflecting back is loneliness – the view he is in love with is ‘the room beyond the looking glass’, and this idea of reflection, of portraiture being reflection – forms a crucial idea. This figure, is conspicuously made ‘He’ not ‘I’ – other rather than self – it seems perhaps more reflection than portrait. ‘The face behind the face’ conveying an image of masks that has striking resonance for a man whose own identity seems to have been a constant concern. One of the great qualities of Tessimond’s poetry is that it expresses such views that appear shared by a great many readers. But there is evidence of the deeply personal experience too – the public merged with the private. Here, this time in the first poem of his first collection The Walls of Glass published in 1934, he gives voice to that Everyman figure, lost in the world searching for human connection:
Any man speaks

I, after difficult entry through my mother’s blood
And stumbling childhood (hitting my head against the world);
I, intricate, easily unshipped, untracked, unaligned;
Cut off in my communications; stammering; speaking
A dialect shared by you, but not you and you;
I strangely undeft, bereft; I searching always
For my lost rib (clothed in laughter yet understanding)
To come round the corner of Wardour Street into the Square
Or to signal across the Park and share my bed;
I, focus in the night for star-sent beams of light,
I, fulcrum of levers whose ends I cannot see…
Have this one deftness – that I admit undeftness:
Know that the stars are far, the levers long:
Can understand my unstrength.
It is a powerful, humbling, tightly packed sonnet. The voice of the poem seems universal – any man – a figure adrift, scattered as if after the fall of Babel, seeking another person who will understand his stammering dialect, and yet not only aware of his inability, but understanding of it. The poem identifies common feelings – of being part of the world but being apart from it; of sought after love; of being incomplete; Adam in search of his ‘lost rib’.

All of which might seem to be experiences that are felt, at one time or another, by every, or, ‘any man’. But right in the middle of the poem is something quite different – more particular than general experience. Seemingly out of nowhere the poem breaks from generality to confront us with specific geographical locations. The poem moves from the common human experience to Wardour Street in London and then from the public street to the shared privacy of the bed. For a moment the poem requires us to share its dialect, to understand its ‘private signs’ and ‘cipher’, to know the relevance of Wardour Street and the Square, and ‘decode’ the ‘signal across the Park’. Whether we can read the cipher or not, briefly we are made aware that this is not in fact the voice of ‘any man’. It is not even the voice of any man on Wardour Street. It is a particular, personal, private experience which might be understood by the reader or not – may be ‘shared by you, but not you and you’.

As a portrait, this poses something of a puzzle. To fully understand the poem, we must pick up on the meaning of the personal references – but this is a poet that we don’t know very much about. There has been no biography of Tessimond, there are short accounts of him in Hubert Nicholson’s introductions to the posthumous poetry collections, and an affectionate, though brief, portrait of him in a pamphlet by his friend, the artist Frances Richards – but even in these, certain details of his life seem contradictory, as if the poet told different friends slight variations in the account of his life. In the poem we have already looked at, ‘Portrait of a romantic’ we are told that the romantic likes ‘stray pieces of torn words to piece together’, and in order to fully understand the poetry, this is what we must do. He is to be found scattered about the country in university archives of other people’s correspondence; in footnotes and index entries that lead to single sentences. In the course of my work on him I have unearthed a great deal of papers that were not previously known to exist – most important of these ‘stray pieces’ perhaps, is the revelation that for the final twelve years of his life A.S.J. Tessimond was writing a journal of his life – a daily account, but also a sort of biography, or memoir that he intended for publication.
Arthur Seymour John Tessimond was born here in 32 Devonshire Road, Claughton, on the 19th July 1902.

 As an adult, he would tell his friends that he had been an only child, but in fact he was the third of George and Amy Tessimond’s children, his elder brother – also called Arthur – dying four years before he was born, and his elder sister Lillian dying when he was twenty-two, unmarried, in a private maternity hospital in Southport. On account of the memory of his brother, the family never called him Arthur, but Jack. Such use of familiar names was common for the time, but it marks the start of the poet’s ever-changing identity, the first of many names he would use that were not his own. In the journal he paints a vivid picture of these early years growing up in Birkenhead:
I was born in 19–. There were still horsecabs and hansoms clopping along the streets, housemaids and cooks in ordinary middle-class houses, gaslight and croquet, tea in the green light of tall trees leaning over lawns that smelt of summer grass after the gardener had mown it, and Edward VII was king of a Land of Hope and Glory and a land of starvation in slums, and Britannia ruled the waves, and ‘the war’ meant the Boer War and stories about Kitchener of Khartoum in the Boy’s Own Paper.

My father was an Inspector of Branches in the Bank of Liverpool, and we lived in Birkenhead. Trams and ferryboats across the Mersey grind and splash through my early memories. The trams (like the first London buses I rode on later) had open tops. When it rained, did the people on top hoist their umbrellas or did they all rush downstairs? I can’t remember.

Our family consisted of my father, his sister Ellen, my mother, my sister Lily and I. Ten minutes walk away lived my maternal aunt Clara, her husband Dr Major and their daughter Alice. In their house was an awe-inspiring oil painting of Dr Major when he was an army doctor. In this picture he wore high shiny boots and so presumably had been a cavalry doctor. He has a fierce impressive waxed moustache. He was haughty, elegant and terrifying.
His life at this time was very comfortable, much unlike the time spent there in relative poverty by his contemporary Wilfred Owen. He attended Birkenhead School until the age of 14 (where he was ‘good at lessons’ but ‘bad at games’), before being sent away to Charterhouse. This was an unhappy experience, which led to him running away. His main occupations as a child were music (his father was a key figure in establishing church music in the early days of the Anglican Cathedral) and photography, developing his own films and making prints at home – a hobby which he continued in adult life and led to a life-long interest in the visual arts.

From 1922 to 1926 he attended the University of Liverpool, reading English literature, French, Philosophy and Greek. In the journal he remembers:
soon after I became an undergraduate I discovered two magazines The Dial and The New Age. Through these magazines I discovered Ezra Pund, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, Frost, Sandburg, Cummings, Hulme, Aldington, H.D., Marianne Moore, Katherine Mansfield, Murry, Muir. And through the Dial and Colour and the Burlington Magazine I discovered Degas, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Vlaminck, Modigliani, Paul and John Nash, Augustus John and Epstein. When the Diaghilev Ballet came to Liverpool, I discovered Stravinsky, De Falla, Poulenc, Ravel. To me contemporary art, literature and music were new bread and strong red wine. New gates were opening. New suns were rising. The 1920s and 30s seemed a wonderful time. God almighty, it was a wonderful time. A wonderful time to be young!
But two aspects of the journal perhaps need particular explanation. In that first passage I quoted, when he gives the date of his birth he does so as ‘19–’, the second point is that final reflection about the trams. He says: ‘I can’t remember.’

Mugg, Carroway, Alamo, Sucker, Quest, Tango

Tessimond first started writing his journal on 18th May 1950. Begun late in life, in part it was meant to be a memoir, but also a record of daily events – an ‘autobiographical ragbag’ that would be completely candid about the most personal aspects of his life. At some point during its creation it becomes apparent that he intended the work for publication, but in order to protect the identities of those mentioned, he would give ‘everybody in this book a fictitious name’ despite the possibility ‘that people may [still] recognise me’. His uncle wasn’t called ‘Dr Major’ for instance, but ‘Dr Butcher’, they lived in a house called Elmslie facing onto Birkenhead Park. What the journal presents is the poet’s life, but told from behind a thinly drawn blind. As such, he obscured such detail as the date of his birth and if published intended the journal to appear under three different pseudonyms:

Here is the title page from 1960: ‘John Carroway’, ‘John Fool’ and most unlikely of all, ‘John God’. The codes used are hardly difficult to crack – he would have been fairly easy to identify by anyone reading the work (after all, there was hardly a glut of poets born in Birkenhead at the start of the twentieth century) – but the names used too are also telling. As I mentioned before, Tessimond had never been known by his Christian name ‘Arthur’. But since university he was no longer Jack, but John (and on occasions, in humour ‘Jeremiah’), which he used until the Second World War when things became more complicated:
I wasn’t called up until the second, third or fourth year of the war. When my call-up came I ignored it. I argued that a neurotic coward like me would be more a hindrance than help to the armed forces. And a life without privacy would be like going back to a public school.
 I lay low, became a deserter. I changed my name, became Peter Black. But to the Gas Board I was J. Emersley, which might pass for J. Amberley written illegibly. (When I pay my gas bills I’m still J. Emersley so I pay it in cash.) And these were the days of Identity Cards, and on your Identity Card your name was your name, yes a name: unalterable.
And here we find the true identity of Peter Black, the author of ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ and many other poems (and possibly a detective novel) in the 1940s. The alterable name became the poet’s insurance of privacy. A torn fragment of a foolscap file amongst his papers sketches out a list of these various and unlikely monikers: ‘John Mugg’, ‘John Carroway’, ‘John Alamo’, ‘John Sucker’, ‘John Quest’, ‘John Tango’. There were names he lived by, names he privately called himself, and names he would occasionally use to send poetry off for publication. Amongst the poetry magazines of the 1940s are to be found various pieces by Tessimond apparently written by different people. ‘How much simpler’ he reflects in one poem,
If people were, even at times, consistent wholes;
If the actors were rigidly typed and kept their roles;
If we were able
To classify friends, each with his label,
Each label neat
As the names of cakes or the categories of meat.

    (from ‘If men were not striped like tigers’)
But life is rarely simple and ‘nothing’s as tidy as the mind could wish’. By nature, identities have many different sides to them, and to an extent it is reductive to pin them down with a single label or name upon a card. What the journal presents is not an anonymous life story but an account that plays a game of anonymity, inviting us to decode its cipher. In part Tessimond’s disappearance from public view seems wilful, a conscious retreat from a world in which he did not feel he belonged.

In that long list of people who caught Tessimond’s imagination in the 1920s, is the Italian painter Modigliani. Of all of these, Modigliani was perhaps the figure he held to for longest – buying a pencil drawing by him that he proudly hung in his small Chelsea flat. Modigliani’s portraits often point towards his interest in African masks – their faces seem to bare less a face, than a mask – the eyes seem empty, almost appear to be showing the wall behind the sitter – it seems the exterior image of an unknowable figure. The idea clearly captured Tessimond’s imagination. Many of his poems refer to masks – or ‘the face behind the face’ he refers to in ‘The portrait of a romantic’, and in his flat when he died, one of few objects that he had not sold, was a large African mask which he propped up against the gas fire.

But even as he carried out this game of disguising himself with masks, he was consciously leaving behind traces – enough clues, enough poetry of exceptional worth – in the hope that he might one day be returned to, and then find his place within that world after he was gone. He declares the desire for privacy whilst conscious that he reveals more than ‘is usual, or (some people might think) decent’. In reality, the unnoticed man is unlikely to declare that he is ‘unnoticeable’; announcing your anonymity tends to draw attention to yourself.

As it turned out, Tessimond’s life story was never published. Shortly before his death the poet destroyed the manuscript of the journal – the only means by which I am able to read today, is that just before he did destroy it, he handed a carbon copy to his friend the radio actress Joan Hart. Like the mask left behind in the flat after he died, the destruction seems an act of obscurity, but by ensuring a copy of it was safely kept, it was only an act.

Whilst he was certainly playing with masks and disguises, this is only part of the picture. When he writes in the journal of his childhood that ‘I can’t remember’ the words penetrate far deeper than we might imagine.

 “Just a prick in your arm”

Some time in the early 1950s, Tessimond read in David Stafford-Clark’s book Psychiatry Today, an account of the relatively new treatment of electroconvulsive therapy. He had suffered for several years from what his doctors termed ‘involutional melancholia’ and had seen a succession of psychoanalysts in the hope of dispelling these regularly recurring bouts of depression. Electroconvulsive therapy, he believed, would be a way out of this ‘deep grey tunnel’ from which he could see no escape. In the 1950s and 60s, the use of ECT was increasingly common, but Tessimond’s case is perhaps more unusual in that he had sought the therapy out for himself, rather than receiving it through the intervention of a doctor. His accounts of it are positive, firmly believing that it had saved his life:
You are given a quick-acting anaesthetic, “Just a prick in your arm, it won’t hurt you” and before you come to, you’re being helped into a comfortable armchair in the cheerful room where you can smoke (shades of Florence Nightingale) and there are reproductions of modern paintings on the walls […] Four to nine shocks at intervals of (generally) a week and gradually, or suddenly, you’re out of the tunnel into the light and sun. Life is worth living, you can even enjoy it.
Friends disagreed; seeing these escapes from the tunnel to be brief and costly. Joan Hart in letters to her husband, the poet Dawson Jackson, detailed much of this treatment. In January 1954, she wrote to say:
I escorted John from the hospital again today and he seemed rather less dazed than last time, though he said he had a worse headache than usual; he has had a longer series of treatments already than the first time, but seems determined to go on with it until he gets another fit of “confusion” which he seems to have accepted as the sign that it is working.
Only five months later, Tessimond was back in hospital receiving more treatment. As the years of ECT built up, it began to rob him of his memory. The journal became an attempt as much to remember as to record the events of his life. It is filled with successive rewrites of the same stories, each with diminishing clarity and certainty of the facts. He writes there, that:
For anyone with a very bad memory to try to write the story of his life may sound like the attempt of an idiot to do the impossible; but a bad memory has advantages. It edits and abridges. It prevents you from including too much of the trivial. You remember only the gulfs and peaks of your past. You forget everything but the unforgettable.
When depression engulfed him, Tessimond would stop writing the journal. After a course of ECT he would return to it, his handwriting reduced to a series of tiny illegible shapes, unreadable even to himself, that over the course of days and pages began to reform into his usual expressive handwriting.

Here is his handwriting in the journal in January 1958, several months after having had any treatment.

Here it is a year later, having shortly left hospital. The same effect is found in the final pages of Ernest Hemingway’s journal as he underwent the same treatment, and may indicate that Tessimond was also receiving the antipsychotic drug chlorpromazine in combination with his ECT. This loss of memory affected the poet deeply; at times he knew his own story only as he had written it. The memories gone, he began to rely on the account of the journal. As he hid himself from the world behind different disguises, his own identity began to disappear even from himself. He hints towards this state in the poem ‘Epilogue’
I am proud, humble, stupid, clever, anonymous
Man, who am lost in the only world I know;
Blind in my mask and tripped by my disguises;
Used by my tools and wounded by my weapons;
Chased by my echo, scared by my long shadow;
Fumbling with delicate hands; longing to be
Myself (who who? but who? if only I knew!);
Groping; self-torn, self-tortured, self-condemned;
Wormeaten angel, welter of dust and flame.
The ‘longing’ in this poem ‘Epilogue’, is painfully felt. What Tessimond observes with keen accuracy is the multiplicity of being in the world, how seemingly contradictory states are what build people’s character. Again, this is a condition that anyone might recognise, but such observations seem pertinent to the poet himself; a man ‘longing to be / Myself’ but separated by that break in the line from the knowledge of who that self might be.

In the poem ‘Any Man Speaks’ which we looked at earlier, man’s search is for someone else to connect with; in ‘Epilogue’ he gropes forward, trying to find himself. Like with portraits, the search is simultaneously inward and outward, private and public. In his own life, the poet saw himself engaged in a quest to find another person that would make him complete. The endeavour was all consuming, hopeless and romantic. He pursued love affairs with chorus girls and prostitutes, women for whom attraction was a wholly public spectacle.

To return then, to those private signals in ‘Any Man Speaks’ – the ‘signal across the park’ is the dialect shared between client and prostitute. In 1934 Wardour Street and Soho Square, were the heart of London’s red light district. This is a private code, the experience of this one particular man, but in publishing it he chose to speak it out loud. Through writing the connection is made with another person; the poet connects not with the prostitute, but with the reader.

Fifty Years On

So, now we have reached the fiftieth anniversary of Tessimond’s death. After years of ECT he suffered a brain haemorrhage and collapsed alone in his Chelsea flat two months short of his 60th birthday. There remains a need for his poetry to be read, for here speaks a great observer of human character. A general impression is that his work is accessible, which indeed it is, but few writers have struggled so much with the complexity of what it is to be alive. Thankfully his work has recently come back into print. Bloodaxe have reissued his Collected Poems and Faber has made the selection Not Love Perhaps… with its illuminating introduction by Hubert Nicholson, available again through its Faber Finds imprint. Perhaps most excitingly in this anniversary year, the Reading Room Press releases a small selection of some previously unpublished poems entitled Night Club Girl. He has left us enough visual signs – stray pieces of torn words to piece together – in the poetry and now it’s down to us to read him and put those back together.


James Bainbridge lectures in English literature at the University of Liverpool. He is currently writing a biography of A.S.J. Tessimond and also works on the Regency poet George Crabbe.

Parts of this text were previously used in a lecture ‘Not Art But Life’ given at the Lady Lever Gallery in April 2012, and in an article ‘Your Final Secret Self’ published in The Reader, issue 45.

A.S.J. Tessimond's Collected Poems with translations from Jacques Prévert, edited by Hubert Nicholson, was first published by Whiteknights Press in 1985, and reissued by Bloodaxe Books in 2010. To order your copy now from Amazon, click on this link.