Muriel, Unity, Baron and 'Vulcano'
My friend Muriel Walker celebrated her 94th birthday this month. Happy birthday! We called on her for a coffee and a chat.
Muriel had a long association with the Hayward Gallery. In this photograph she is standing beside a wonderful portrait of her by her friend Philip Sutton RA.
Just as striking is a photograph of Muriel taken many decades ago by her brother.
I got to know Muriel when I was researching into the novelist Alexander Baron. At 18, she got a job at Unity Theatre - and quickly became part of the team working on the monthly journal Baron edited, New Theatre.
In this 1948 photo below taken during a Unity Theatre outing to Box Hill, Muriel is third from left at the front, with dark hair and a hand towards her mouth. Alexander Baron is three to the right - with glasses and arms folded.
After a few years, Muriel and her friend Beryl - another Unity Theatre regular - decided to head to Italy. Baron had served in Italy during the war, an episode he wrote about powerfully in There's No Home, and he wrote Muriel this letter of introduction:
While in Italy, Muriel worked on location during the filming of the cinema classic Vulcano and then with the actor Anna Magnani - what an adventure!
Dorothy Bonarjee's 'Immensity'
Dorothy Bonarjee's in print for the first time in a century. She's the Indian woman who, in 1914 when a student at Aberystwyth, sensationally won the college Eisteddfod - more on that story here.
Well, while in Wales, she published quite a few poems in The Dragon and in Welsh Outlook. One of these, 'Immensity', is included in a new anthology of women's writings on nature:
And as you can see, she in good company in this anthology -
Doesn't it look idyllic! Batley Park in West Yorkshire. I went there this week for the first time in almost sixty years.
My mum used to take me and my brother here when we were toddlers - we used to fish for tiddlers in this pond. And I remember the nearby museum with its array of stuffed birds and animals, birds eggs, things like that.
That must have been the Bagshaw Museum - not just by the pond, as I remember it, but a ten minute stroll away through fairly steep, wooded paths - much too tough for a five-year-old. My mum must have driven us from the museum up above to the pond down below.
This is the museum. It's a former mill owner's house and, yes, it still has a stuffed golden eagle and a snowy owl, and the whole wall of a room is taken up by a century-old recreation of sea birds breeding on a cliff, which must have kept an army of taxidermists busy for quite a while.
The museum now has much more to it - one floor of Batley local history (though alas no accompanying leaflet or booklet) and one floor which is global in aspiration. Plus the ornate billiard room of the Bagshaw mansion much as it would have been (minus the billiard table).
My dad went to Batley Grammar (founded 1612) - then a very different school, I imagine. But until this week I had never been there. Strange when I grew up just a few miles away. Apart from childhood visits to the park, I don't think I ever came to Batley.
If the name 'Batley Grammar' rings a bell, well, that's the school with a lot of Muslim pupils where a teacher recently showed a religious studies class a caricature of the Prophet. No, it didn't go down too well with many of the parents!
The other reason you may have heard of Batley is because Jo Cox was the local MP. She was murdered during the Brexit referendum campaign five years ago by an extreme right-wing Brexiteer. She was much liked and is warmly remembered.
And there's a by-election there at the moment - the sitting Labour MP has stood down as she's been elected a mayor, and there's intense speculation that this 'Red Wall' seat will fall to the Tories. If it does, it won't be because of voters switching from Labour to Conservative - but because the unscrupulous George Galloway will have won over sufficient local Muslim voters to deprive Labour of its fairly modest majority.
To judge by the tiny straw poll I conducted, Labour is likely to lose Batley and Spen. Galloway doesn't have much of a support base - but his campaign is very visible, and his name is known, and tolerably well respected, within the South Asian community.
But for me the visit was a chance above all to see a bit of Batley - a former mill town which specialised in 'shoddy' and the cheap end of the woollen trade and which seems to have bounced back better than most.
The town centre is smart - the sandstone has been cleaned up, and some of the buildings (the Methodist church, the Town Hall, the Carnegie library and art gallery) are impressive. As you can see -
Most of Batley's mills - those still standing - have also been spruced up and put to other uses. Some are designer brand discount stores - others are being used by the bed and bedding trade which is one of the biggest employers in Batley - others again are car sales depots or car repair workshops. I only saw one old mill which looked to be falling down.
The town has a large South Asian community: Gujaratis, Punjabis and Kashmiris, and overwhelmingly Muslim. There seems to be very little integration. But also little of the grinding poverty you see in some other former mill towns.
Batley isn't prosperous but it does feel busy.
The visit was also a chance for me to reacquaint myself with one of the things Yorkshire does best!
Just off West End Lane in West Hampstead is an imposing building with a surprising blue plaque.
The building on Broadhurst Gardens is Lilian Baylis House and owned by the English National Opera. But it was once Decca Studios - and was where Lonnie Donegan recorded the old Leadbelly song 'Rock Island Line' (and don't even mouth the words "cultural appropriation").
The building has had a chequered history. It was built in the 1880s as Falcon Works, a location for workshops - became West Hampstead Town Hall (though it was never a local government centre, simply a venue for performance or hire) - became a studio in 1928 - was taken over by Decca in 1937 and remained their studios until 1980.
It then became a rehearsal space for English National Opera - and is currently facing an uncertain future, as ENO intend to put the site up for sale.
And Lonnie Donegan may sound like a name from another era - but before the Beatles came along, he was Britain's biggest recording artist. He had three number ones and 31 'Top 30' singles. His best known number is 'My Old Man's a Dustman'.
'Rock Island Line' was his first single - and here it is:
The Hamlet of West Hampstead
I called on Bernard and Erica Kops the other day. It was prompted by my recent post about the peace poems leaflet of 1962, in which Bernard's celebrated poem 'Shalom Bomb' first appeared. I dropped Bernard a line, and was invited round for tea (and chocolate cake).
Bernard, now 94, is working on a play - 63 years after his renowned 'The Hamlet of Stepney Green' was first performed at the Oxford Playhouse. But Kops believes that his poetry is what he will be most remembered for. He said that his own poetry sometimes moves him to tears - not for the beauty of the words but for the beauty of human life that the verse represents.
Then he read me a poem - I wasn't expecting that! It was 'After the Car Crash' from his recent collection Love Death and Other Joys - about a walk with his grandson around the communal garden on to which his flat opens.
Benard, Erica (she's 87 and the couple have been together for 67 years) and I went for a short walk round that communal garden - and fittingly it was alive in the afternoon with children playing and running around, a scene which brought the couple great pleasure.
Two of the Kops' four children live looking on to this wonderful green area. Never mind Stepney Green - this is Kopses' Green:
Shalom Bomb for Peace
Here's a wonderful broadsheet of poems for peace dating from 1962 and the peak of the first incarnation of CND. It's a single sheet which folds to six pages, and was published by New Departures run by Michael Horovitz.
He's one of four activist-poets whose work is featured - the others are Adrian Mitchell, Bernard Kops and Pete Brown.
This may be the first appearance of one of Bernard Kops' most celebrated poems, 'Shalom Bomb'. And what makes this copy special is an inscription by Kops -
To Douglas, As bombs go - this is the only one that must explode. Love Bernard. July 1962
I'm not sure who Douglas may have been [LATER: Bernard's wife, Erica, tell me she believes it was Douglas Hill, the science fiction writer] - but I bought this from Ripping Yarns, the (now online) book store run by Celia Hewitt, Adrian Mitchell's widow, and there is a good chance that this copy ended up in Adrian's possession.
And Adrian Mitchell's own contribution to this broadsheet shows him at his biting best - Lord Home, by the way, was a Tory peer who in 1962 was foreign secretary (and in the following year, as Alec Douglas-Home, succeeded Harold Macmillan as prime minister).
Hobsbawm and all that jazz
What a cover design! The work of Peter de Francia, a left-wing artist who was professor of painting at the Royal College of Art. He died in 2012 a few days short of his 91st birthday.
The Jazz Scene was published by MacGibbon and Kee in 1959. And Francis Newton was the nom de plume of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm., who also died in 2012 aged 95. 1959 was the year that Hobsbawm published his first substantial book-length work of history, Primitive Rebels.
Hobsbawm wrote about jazz for the New Statesman and his pen name was derived from Frankie Newton, Billie Holiday's communist trumpet player.
The Jazz Scene begins: 'This book is about one of the most remarkable phenomena of our century ...'. Hobsbawm describes jazz as 'a music of protest and rebellion'.
Several of the accompanying photos are by Roger Mayne, who was such an important part of the new forms of cultural expression on the left at this time. Among other things, Mayne took the cover photo for the first edition of Colin MacInnes's Absolute Beginners. But that's another story ...
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