AM: The first item in my book is a poem written and published, to my great surprise, in our school magazine in 1964. I enjoyed, in the Acknowledgments, being able to cite that this was also published by ‘Weymouth Poetry Sheets’. These were your creation. Can you say a little about their origin and format?
RD: Well Andy, it came about after I had read ‘Dharma Bums’ by Jack Kerouac which introduced me to Zen Bhuddism and the American Beat Poets. I read about Beat Poets holding poetry sessions at Venice Beach and I thought “we could do that, Weymouth’s a beach town too”. I was used to printing on an ink duplicator and so got some friends to let me print their poems on foolscap sheets and sell them for a penny on the beach front. Len the potter let me place them on his shelf in the alleyway where he threw pots and I guess people who watched him but didn’t want to buy a pot bought a poetry sheet as a gesture.
AM: This all comes flooding back, the summer of 1965 and the brilliance of the seaside colours. I was terrified that somebody would read my stuff and scoff at its immaturity and pretentiousness. But I also enjoyed the fantasy of being part of a ‘movement’, however tiny, parochial and tame it seemed compared to those American Beats. And, of course, seeing one’s own words in typewritten print was at that time a very rare and rather wonderful experience. I seem to remember that Len the potter had sold thirteen and sixpence’s worth of my booklet, ‘Hey You’, when he popped next door for a coffee and somebody nicked the takings.
We first met at school when I was about 12 or 13 and you were a couple of years older. Like me, you did science rather than arts subjects at A level. A lot was made of that divide then, C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ and all that. Do you think your own writing and perhaps the books you chose to read were different from what they might have been as a result of formally studying subjects like biology rather than literature? What else were you reading at that time?
RD: Well – science was exciting then, Harold Wilson had talked about the new white heat of technology, I was reading all about psychoanalysis, I loved history and politics, my biology teacher was a sort of beatnik proto-feminist and ran the Art Club – no I didn’t see any divide between art and science. Only a divide between those who were caught up in lots of new thoughts in the world of ideas and those who weren’t.
AM: I agree that science was exciting then. My A-level Physics class was taken on a visit to Winfrith Atomic Energy Establishment and we all climbed the little ladder and stood, in our school uniforms, on top of the reactor, a few feet of warm and vibrating reinforced concrete between us and a caged, minor sun struggling to burst out into the universe. I’m maybe being a little fast and loose with the science here but that’s the sense of it in my memory. That, and the innocence and the optimism of the time.
I felt at that age that I was dabbling in topics of huge intellectual and societal significance in a way that my contemporaries carrying around their Virginia Wolf and their Chaucer weren’t. And I’m wondering now whether my ignorance of the ‘established’ literary canon, and therefore my lack of confidence with it, was instrumental in my seizing hold of the sexy alternative offered by the Beats. Do you have any views on that? I had the sense, and I may be wrong, that in the breadth and quantity of your reading then, the established ‘Eng Lit’ authors and poets were not as prominent as they might have been for people studying literature formally at school?
RD: Well I have never read much of the Eng Lit canon – in fact for the first time I’m reading Anthony Trollope, having decided to join Val in a series of WEA talks on the novelist at the local St John’s Ambulance Hall. But I have always been perverse enough not to like what everyone else likes – I didn’t rate ‘On The Road’ by Kerouac, nor ‘Catcher In The Rye’ by Salinger though I loved their other works. I’ve always liked contemporary authors more than the classics. But re the ‘Two Cultures’, I’ve had a real buzz all my life from teaching science not withstanding my devotion to religion, art, gastronomy …
Some of the time of the Weymouth Poetry Sheets era overlapped with my transition from school to college – Chelsea College in the Kings Road in London in 1963 – the zoology department in which I was studying was on the top floor of the building shared with the Chelsea School of Art. While I was there it moved across the road to new buildings where exhibitions of the new art were shown on the ground floor. This was the time of Abstract Expressionism and the start of Pop Art. That was very exciting too. I had done the paintings of Acker Bilk and Sgt Bilko with collaged newspapers, ice cream wrappers and playing cards before I went to London and it was great seeing famous artists doing the same.
AM: Gosh, talk about coincidences and inter-connectedness! I’ve just said the same thing about Kerouac and Salinger myself in a conversation I’m having concurrently for this blog with the Cheshire poet, John Lindley. And, I think Trollope is Vally’s favourite author. I’ve never read him but, if Bridport wasn’t a couple of hundred miles away, I know we’d be down at that St John’s Ambulance Hall with you. What a vivid picture of London (and Weymouth) at that time you paint – at least you do for me – and, talking of painting, if those Acker Bilk and Sgt Bilko paintings ever go up for auction, please let me know. I’ve long admired them and they capture the era for me as much as any writing does.
Now then (as we say up here in Sheffield) ‘beatnik proto-feminist’ biology teachers in respectable early-1960s grammar schools on the south coast – whatever was the world coming to? Well, we know now and it was all rather wonderful. Can you say a little more about this inspirational figure and her influence upon the artistic – and personal – development of a group of youngsters? I was a little younger than the rest of you, a sort of junior member, but these influences felt life-changing to me too.
RD: Eileen Fowler was an inspirational figure for me – I became a biology teacher as well! She had a way of teaching that showed the wholeness of things, how they interconnected. She also was able to fire your imagination on a host of other areas as well – poetry, conservation, psychology. For example, I read Lynne Reid Banks’ ‘The L-shaped Room’ because she had recommended it to me (none of my English teachers ever recommended a modern novel to read). There was a bit of ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ set about it but I wasn’t a leading light as she had left teaching before I got to the sixth form to do Botany & Zoology A levels. Eileen ran the Art Group after school and the Field Club. I think I learned to work a 16 mm cine projector and we showed educational films from the county library and I certainly learned to work a stencil duplicator and to type out the Field Club magazine which stood me in good stead when I became editor of the Chelsea college newspaper in London.
AM: The Field Club was where I first met you, Eileen and the others. Here is a photo of club members out on a weekend walk which came to light when I was clearing out my mother’s attic a couple of years ago. It is from a different era and doesn’t it look it? It seems to me as if it comes from the 1920s or 30s rather than from my lifetime. Eileen can be seen centre left in conversation and I’m one of the two smallest people just discernible at the back. Clowning about with his hand raised is our friend Ivan, whom sadly we lost in 2010. You told me that when you showed it to him, not long before he died, Ivan was able to name everybody in it.
Last autumn I was asked by a friend if I would like to attend a weekend seminar on the Rhine, near Koblenz, and give a talk on Bob Dylan. I went and found a small group of people of various nationalities who came together occasionally to give talks to each other, to draw, paint and write and to explore a locality on foot. As we walked on the high plateaux on the western bank of the Rhine near the Lorelei Rocks, talking in twos and threes about the ancient and recent history of the region, Turner’s paintings of the river, and whatever, I was struck by how familiar and agreeable it all seemed. It was the Field Club – different people, different place and in a different time. When I later emailed this photo to these people they responded warmly to it, recognising an ethos and activity they all valued too.