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I’m very pleased to have a poem in this anthology – it’s great to be between the sheets with so many admirable writers. So how did this happen? Well, it’s not a simple story, even without the digressions

I was taught by a first-class English teacher called Harold Sheldrake, at Southend High School for Boys (and incidentally also by a fine Latin teacher, Dickie Coakes). Shel looked the spitting image of the standard portrait of Shakespeare we all know; he had studied in the rather rigorous London University syllabus, and gave us the benefit of it with his own sardonic twist. During WW2 he served in Egypt; where, unlike the other Tommies, he enjoyed the local food. it wasn’t till the oration at his funeral (which Robert couldn’t get to) that I  learned he had at one time been engaged to Herman Goering’s neice, I don’t know any more about that story. I used to go and visit him in my first years at Oxford: I enticed his wife, Vi, into image-making, which may have been some consolation for being kept up late by a garrulous young man with inadequate sensitivity to other people’s stamina, going on about.the wonders he was encountering. 

Also at the School was Robert Nye- two years lower down, I think. He knew of me, because he had seen me receive The Jope Prize for English (sic), money for books, with which I bought a copy of Keats’ Complete Poems and “Ulysses.”

I lent “Ulysses” to. Yvonne Patterson, who didn’t return it, so I had to buy another copy. If you’re still out there Yvonne…. .And yes I have read it, cover to cover. 

I knew about Robert because he was a published poet before he even left school, and I was able much later to send him a copy of an early poem of his which I  had admired in the School Magazine, cut out, and kept. Shel was sympathetic to young Robert, and used, so R said, occasionally to conjure a fag for him, away away from the main building , so that they could comfortably smoke and chat together.  Decades later I published my second small book of poems, which I dedicated to the people who really taught me something. This included Dickie and Shel, to whom I sent a copy. Shel was by this time almost 90. He  replied, suggesting that I should also send a copy to Robert. He said he wasn’t sure about the novels, but however thought Robert a fine poet.

I did as I was told. Robert replied, in a very friendly way,and thereafter we wrote to one another, and exchanged poems, with the occasional image from my wife and I. Robert’s poem “Instructions for a Burial” sprang from a picture of mine. There was also the occasional phone conversation (he had an extraordinarily young voice and it was a joy to converse with him). Part of our connection was quite local: “Runes,” one of his best poems, is about as a child running up Hamlet Court Road, which I knew very well. At the top of it, just over the London Road, was a primary school which might, at the poem’s point in time, have been educating little Helen Mirren, Robert speculated…..I said “Why not send her a copy?”. I don’t believe he did.

So there it was, this friendship with an old school-friend I had never met, and shamefully I never did go over to Cork to meet him in person. You think there will always be time, but there isn’i. On one occasion I said “Who shall I submit this poem to?” and he replied “The SHOp.”

THE SHOp: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Hilary Wakeman and Hilary Elfick The Liffey Press, 2020.

A Message

I walk into the bathroom in the dark,          

on tip-toe to avoid

two sheets of paper

laid out on the floor

They were not there before,

The walls, embarrassed, shuffle, They confer

“A Message from Her Majesty the Moon”

So now that’s clear,

I pull the light-cord

and they disappear.

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