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.