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This View From Above

Considering a poetic influence

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

One mizzly mid-week afternoon early in 1972, I was in Camden High Street in London, wondering how on earth I was going to get to the A1 in Mill Hill to hitch a lift back to Bedfordshire in time for tea. This was a very wayward period in my life. I’d been chucked out of Tech college for non-attendance and to say I was at a loose end would be an understatement. 1972 would turn out to be a bit of a gap year for me – although we didn’t call them gap years then. For much of that period I was winging it, living on my wits, existing from day to day. That particular mid-week afternoon I walked up some stairs in a narrow passageway into what I would later discover was Compendium Books, at that time just a small shop on the first floor of the building. On the shelves was an abundance of literature drawn from what was then still called the alternative society or the counterculture, and it was within such culture I was trying to find some sense of purpose.

Pinned to the wall was a newspaper article, the gist of which was that you couldn’t make a living out of writing poetry. The tone of the piece was brusque and unrepentant, tough love for those creative spirits who thought they might be able to cobble together subsistence of some sort out of their dodgy juvenile doggerel—kids like me for example who had just started writing but hadn’t found their voice yet. During the course of 1972 I was gradually disabused of the fanciful notion that it might be possible to make a living out of my adolescent literary endeavours. I suspect that the process may have even begun there that very afternoon as I perused that newspaper clipping pinned to the wall. The article basically said do not think for one minute that you are going to be Adrian Henri, Brian Patten, or Roger McGough. As if to provide further evidence of this, a small box sat on the floor by the counter. It was full of loose-leaf folders, banda sheets, hand bills and xeroxed booklets, self-published poetry in all its myriad manifestations, good, bad, lucid and impenetrable. ‘Help yourself’ said a sign, so I did.

This View From Above by Paul Green it said on the cover, the author’s name and the title indented, white on white, like an inversion of the Beatles’ name on the album that isn’t actually called ‘The White Album’. ‘Copyright 1970’ it said on the inside back page. ‘An edition of 250 copies of which 26 lettered A to Z contain an additional holograph poem. Published by the Ferry Press 177 Green Lane London SE 9.’ My copy didn’t contain the hologram poem. They all went to friends and colleagues I’d imagine, but I did get one of the 250, one of the several that had ended up dumped in a box a couple of years after the publication date, thus giving added weight to the thrust of the article pinned to the wall.

Paul Green’s poetry I found weird, like I found a lot of stuff weird when I was seventeen. I was actively seeking out the weird, and probably projected weirdness onto a lot of stuff that wasn’t actually very weird at all. It was just rubbish. But Paul Green’s poetry wasn’t rubbish. It was strangely beguiling, full of choppy irregular rhythms and ellipsis. I didn’t have the literary chops then to be able to evaluate it convincingly but one look at titles like ‘The Room Yes Square Long Beautiful and Loved’ and ‘So Now It’s The Cool And Diffident’ alerted me to the fact that this clearly wasn’t Philip Larkin and the Movement. (I’d stuck around for long enough in my English A level class at Tech College to work that one out.) Another poem was called ‘The Dedication’ and began:

a cloud of rain is not the memory
summer has gone curving past ‘cares’
almost the blossom shaded train
you climb an enormous night

I was intrigued by those speech marks around cares. I was intrigued by all of it. I wanted to see like that, write like that, observe what Paul Green observed in his strange little world of small press poetry that you couldn’t make a living out of. I got on a bus to Mill Hill, didn’t pay my fare, and curved past ‘cares’. I stuck out my thumb where the bus dropped me on the A1 and climbed an enormous night that went on for the rest of the year until I got my act together, went back to Tech college and sat my A levels. This View From Above moved from a box by a bookshop counter to a box in my house, along with all kinds of other sub-cultural residue. Months might pass, years even, but whenever I looked at it again it still retained the charm and otherworldliness of that first encounter. Over the years, as almost all the other trappings of that impressionable age fell by the wayside, This View From Above retained its prominence in my affections.

Thinking back I suspect its lack of linearity was one of the elements that came to inform my own experimental approach to writing and to thinking. I was always influenced by those who built strange interior landscapes. English Beat poets like Spike Hawkins and Pete Brown for instance, in particular Brown’s song lyrics for Cream and for Jack Bruce’s solo albums. I also instinctively got the elliptical lurches and wonky momentum of Syd Barrett’s imagery and ended up writing a biography of the man which was published by Faber and Faber in 2010. I still have a taste for the stuff that folds in on itself, where opposing discourses collide, and parallel worlds overlap, where you can’t quite work out how they did it, and where you can’t see the join. Paul Green’s modest little anthology did as much to introduce me to that way of thinking and that way of working as any of the more better-known names I have cited.
Thirty years on from my first encounter with This View From Above, I was intrigued enough to try and trace Mr Green. Partly to see if he was still writing, partly to make sure he hadn’t just been some fly-by-night figment of my imagination. Search engines drew a blank for some time until eventually I struck lucky purely by chance. How appropriate. I contacted by email another writer of the same name, who said ‘No, I’m not the poet called Paul Green, but I know the man who is.’ He gave me a Peterborough address which I wrote to and within days I had a reply. It began:

Dear Rob

Thank you for your letter of April. Without further ado, I can say it was one of the most surprising letters of my life. I always remember my first poetry pamphlet with a mixture of feelings, most of them well intentioned, although with hindsight I believe most of the poems were either rash or brash, but at the time of their writing were innocently wild.

I had a wry smile at that last line. Rash, brash and innocently wild was a good summary of me at seventeen. The me who selected a pamphlet out of a box on a floor pretty much at random and kept it all those years, just another of those chance cultural encounters that form themselves into the patterns that eventually make a life.

Mr Green was good enough to send me a whole stack of his subsequent small press publications. It was good to know that all that time he was still being productive, still putting out his gnomic and oblique verse for those who wanted it.

And me? Well I have closure of sorts I suppose. Another of life’s circles has been squared. But I don’t think it’s resolution or denouement I was ever seeking. When I think of Paul Green’s first published pamphlet now I think of all those times it went in and out of a box, how it has travelled with me from house to house, town to town, and how many times it confirmed, mirrored or provided an adjunct to my own artistic development. This View From Above is ultimately a tap root that goes back to a source and connects me with a person who was once me. Even the title is appropriate. I can look at that seventeen-year-old questing spirit with detachment now. What was he seeking all those years ago? Ultimately of course it’s not about the chance encounter in a passageway that led to some stairs that led to a shop and to a box on the floor and a pamphlet randomly selected. There were after all many other chance encounters and random selections to come. No, ultimately, it’s about the search itself and the me now thinking about me then. The boy who was there on that day in 1972, adrift from his moorings, rash, brash and innocently wild, curving past ‘cares’.

Rob Chapman is a music biographer, novelist and sometime academic lecturer, formerly a singer and lyricist with punk band The Glaxo Babies. He has recently started writing songs again. They still owe a debt to Pete Brown, Spike Hawkins, and Paul Green.

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