Conversation with Roger Draper

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.         
Roger, we have been walking and talking for over 50 years. You were there with the 1964 poem at the beginning of my ‘Giants’ book and you have very recently joined me on the South West Coast Path, with which my book ends. Thank you for the stimulating company over so many years. Posted by Picasa

7 thoughts on “Conversation with Roger Draper

  1. Great interview – thanks to you both for sharing.

    I am left with a rather scary vision of your visit to a nuclear reactor : ‘a caged, minor sun struggling to burst out into the universe’. That was when we talked optimistically about ‘atoms for peace’.

    I think you portray a time of new hope in the post war era when technology was ‘white hot’ but benign and we all thought there would be time enough to sort out any minor problems that this technology threw up.

    Am I right or have I got this wrong? I feel a walk coming on……….

  2. I think you are spot on, Alastair. That seemed to be very much the spirit of the times to me. And in our over-regulated, risk-averse, Health and Safety culture, I sometimes smile with irony when I remember standing on top of that reactor like the obedient little pupils that we were. At other times, I almost tremble at the recollection.

    I also remember bending down to touch the roughened concrete beneath my feet and being seriously surprised by how hot it was.

  3. You write, Andy, about ‘the innocence and the optimism of the time ‘. Alastair has picked up on this idea in relation to the attitude to nuclear power in the 1960s, but I wonder if it also applies to the 60s attitude to education. Your Field Club was surely a good example of this. And it is really interesting that this experience and the influence of a particular inspirational teacher remain important to this day for both of you – and perhaps for others.

    Of course we cannot move the educational clock back to an era of naïve innocence and false optimism. But how well, I wonder do the utilitarianism and ‘realism’ (how I hate that word) that have taken over from innocence an optimism serve the deeper needs of learners today?

  4. Nikki Botting

    Just want to add that a) science is *still* exciting b) Uta Frith wrote recently on art & science and learning from fiction as a guest Royal Society blogger Inspiration in Fiction’ and c) you should tweet this blog if you don’t already!

  5. Found Terry’s and Nikki’s comments late last night on arriving home from the theatre. Talk about synchronicity – we’d been to Sheffield with friends to see Michael Frayn’s ‘Copenhagen’ – a richly textured play about the relationship between quantum physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. As well as tackling the intellectual complexity of their theorising and making it (at least partly) intelligible, the play also homed in on their contributions to attempts to build the first atomic bomb for the Nazis and the British/Americans.

    It seemed to touch so many themes from the little exchanges here – the intellectual joys offered by science and mathematics, the optimism and the deep fear engendered by developments within physics from WW2 onwards, inspirational teachers and walking together as the medium offering the most hope for resolving intellectual, political and personal dilemmas and differences (and for fun).

    There is far too much in the play to discuss in one post but, given the conversation above, one thought that has stayed with me concerns this period of post war optimism about the applications of physics. If so many of the scientists who worked on the Bomb in WW2 were so overwhelmed by what they achieved (‘I am become Death – the destroyer of worlds’ – Robert Openheimer), how come that from the late 1950s onwards for a while there was such an optimism about the benefits of the new ‘white hot technology’ albeit with the few remaining little niggles that Alastair has referred to?

  6. You ask, Andy, “how come that from the late 1950s onwards for a while there was such an optimism about the benefits of the new ‘white hot technology'”.

    I hope I will not sound too cynical if I say that one reason we may have been optimistic about nuclear energy in the late 1950s is that we were simply told downright lies about it at the time. When the Queen opened Britain’s first nuclear power station, Calder Hall, in 1956 she said:

    … this new power which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community.


    But we now know that the purpose of building Calder Hall was to produce weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons. Electricity ‘for the common good’ was just a (rather expensive) by-product.

    It’s little wonder that when people realised that lies on this scale had been told they should become pretty sceptical about technilogical progress more generally. But, like Nikki, I still find science exciting. And to come back to Werner Heisenberg, his ‘uncertainty principle’ is of vital importance to our contemporary understanding of how people learn. I intend to write about this in my own blog ( quite soon.

  7. Terry, I agree about the misinformation around the real purpose behind the nuclear power program. Looking back, totally self-consciously, it’s interesting to recall my own political ‘coming of age’ on such matters. In my early teens, I was reassured by the plummy-voiced politicians on the BBC and by my Dad’s Daily Express and shared their antagonism towards the ‘layabouts hooligans and ideological hotheads’ opposed to our country’s development of nuclear weapons. And then I grew up a bit more.

    I’m going to pop over and have a word on your blog too soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *