The Gwyn Jones Lecture, 2009
The Meaning of Apricot Sponge: John Tripp’s Taste for Life by Tony Curtis
His art was blunt inside its shattering glove,
his spleen well thrust against a failure of the heart.
He offered no quarter to the grubbing merchants of cant.
But did his scarecrow vision of flesh and spirit,
his flapping arms that terrified the crows of sin,
ever let in a glimpse of golden cornland?[i]
John Tripp’s poem biography of “Caradoc Evans (1878-1945)” first appeared in the Anglo-Welsh Review in the autumn of 1973 and those closing lines have more than a passing element of autobiography, of self knowledge. Tripp’s own art, his poems, stories and articles could be blunt. Tripp himself offered no quarter to those he felt were traders in cant and hypocrisy. John Tripp’s anger, often expressed in venomous language and aggressive behaviour did indeed terrify the crows of sin, but also too often those who wished him well. His arms and tongue flapped, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to no purpose. And what “golden cornfield” did the later writer himself walk through?
In common with some members of this audience I knew John Tripp; and accepting the invitation to give the 2009 Gwyn Jones Lecture gives me the opportunity to remember the man and re-examine some of his work. I will consider both the poems and the prose, fiction and what we now call creative non-fiction, a term which he would surely have taken to task. I will illustrate three broad themes or concerns in his work: War, Sex and Food. They are continuing and central issues for John Tripp’s writing and his life.
John Tripp was born in Bargoed in 1927. He grew up with his parents in Whitchurch, Cardiff, while his father Paul Tripp worked as a blacksmith at the Oak Tree Forge in Taff’s Well, a business which he ran until 1969 and the building of the A470 by-pass. John left Whitchurch Senior School and after a course at technical college he got a job as a junior clerk at the BBC in Cardiff. During the last years of the war he worked there in a variety of roles and was involved in creating sound effects for programmes, including Children’s Hour. He was called up for National Services where “boredom was worn like a second skin”[ii], but did not complete training until the war was over. His experiences of drilling, followed by the tedium of clerking in a succession of army pay offices would inform the “For King and Country” poem sequence and other poems in which he cast a cynical eye at the life of the military; though he was genuinely
passionate about the real business of war and was, no doubt, affected by the experiences of his father Paul who had served in the Great War, including several years on the Western Front where Lloyd George had “paid the butcher’s bill.”[iii] He had survived and Tripp’s family had not suffered “the long solitude of widows/and spinsters”.[iv] One of the pensioners John sees at the side of Roath Park lake in Cardiff
…wears the ribbons of calamity
on his jacket – still ram-rod proud in an age
when the evidence is stacked against it.[v]
And there is a reluctant pride acknowledged by the poet; something which that “one soldier of goodness and truth” David Jones would surely have understood.[vi]
In fact, the tedium of his National Service years made a contribution to the education of this most notable autodidact. [vii] Though he writes that he frittered “my lean 19th year/among the reek of latrines and bolt-oil/in the bleak scooped uplands of Epynt”, he had plenty of time to read and, indeed, he wrote his first poems in barracks in Edinburgh, some of which were performed at army shows.[viii]
After John’s demob he discovered that there was no work back at the BBC in Cardiff and he moved to London, “Dylan Thomas’s ‘capital punishment’”,[ix] to work as a despatch clerk and record tester in the overseas service; in 1951, at the age of twenty-four, he became a news researcher and sub-editor and worked in these roles for some seven years. These were the years of drinking at the fringes of the famous: W.R. Rogers, Francis Dillon, Rene Cutforth and “Louis MacNeice at the Cock”, though “I never approached him, being nothing much/at the Old Beeb, and he/seemed formidable…holding a glass/and looking at the world from a distance/through half-closed eyes.”[x] That could pass for a description of John himself in his later years.
John Tripp then joined the Young and Rubicam advertising agency and worked on the Maxwell House coffee campaign amongst others. He later worked as journalist in London and from 1960 as the Press Officer for the Indonesian Embassy. From that time he began to publish his poems more widely – in Tribune, Poetry Wales and The London Welshman.He became friendly with Tudor David, the editor of The London Welshman, Bryn Griffiths, Robert Morgan and Sally Roberts who together formed the Guild of Welsh Writers which was later absorbed into the Welsh Academy. One member “who was a former undertaker from the Rhondda …who had been a tank-driver in the International Brigade in Spain…had plenty of money and took me once to a French café in Soho for snails, which we scooped out of the shells, dipping up butter, garlic and parsley sauce with bits of brown bread, and drinking a carafe of Riesling. Then through that afternoon we drank a Martinique
rum called St. James, calvados (apple brandy from Normandy) and Southern Comfort bourbon which was stickier than I thought it would be, with ice and ginger ale and a slice of orange. It was a memorable day.” The “capital punishment” was mitigated by such sophisticated Sixties attractions. Contrast that with the fare he experiences on a “Border Run” poetry gig back in Wales: “We stopped at a Berni’s sort of inn and had a shrivelled steak with one unripe tomato, smallshot peas and a mound of chips, which helped to fill us up. I think the red plonk was a Berni vinegar.”[xi]
There were also visits to meetings of The Group at Edward Lucie Smith’s house in Chelsea where “Juicy-Myth, in his Acquascutum dressing- gown” and “Banjo Hamilton held court.”[xii]
On Fridays we would gather at Lucy’s
He squatting like a Buddha well fed
While my eye kept shifting from poetry
To a poetess I wanted in bed…
Tea cups clinked, marzipan offered round
As the poets stabbed absent friends.[xiii]
Wales was beginning to call him back from those horrors where “the Muse was kept/Locked in the cold deep-freeze” and where one might be “fanged by mad dogs/of the metropolitan mafia”.[xiv] It was also the case that London was becoming hectic and expensive and his work meant that he was often “panting to ulcer deadlines”.[xv] Following a Commonwealth Poets Conference in Cardiff in 1965 Tripp had had a poem included in the anthology Young Commonwealth Poets and his first selection of poems was published the following year as the second of Meic Stephens’s Triskel pamphlets. Of Diesel to Yesterday John Stuart Williams said, “His alien years have made him passionately conscious of his roots” with “an exile’s keen feeling for his own land.”[xvi] John Tripp attended the
annual general meeting of Yr Academi Gymreig in 1968 where it was agreed to form an English language section. He returned to Wales in 1969 “I’d bought a single back to the beginning,/where people live at room temperature/and shopgirls call you ‘love’” much encouraged by the award of an Arts Council bursary. He had poems included in the Stephens and Williams anthology The Lilting House[xvii] and attended the launch held appropriately at Dylan Thomas’s house in Swansea. Things must have looked promising. He contributed a poem to the “Dial-a-Poem” scheme that began in 1970 and “An Elegy for England” received 996 calls.
On Valentine’s Day in 1970 after a reading in the Angel Hotel with Dannie Abse, Gwyn Thomas, Harri Webb, Roland Mathias, John Ormond and others, John Tripp met again Fay Williams who worked as Meic Stephens’s assistant at the Arts Council; they had first met at the launch of The Lilting House in Swansea in the summer of 1969.[xviii] Despite the difference in their ages, he was 42 and she was 23, they formed a close relationship which lasted for some years. Things must have looked promising.[xix]
For the next two decades he tried to carve out a living as a freelance writer and served as an executive member of the English language section of Yr Academi through to my time as Chair of that organisation in the mid-1980s. He undertook as many readings as he could get and accepted many magazine commissions, though none was well paid. He also appeared on an HTV arts programme “Nails” in which he hoped to celebrate the arts and also rail against “the problem of the Coca-Cola/Coronation Street ethic creeping into the potentially great township of Cardiff.” [xx] He even once worked as a film extra on a shooting of a production of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” at Cardiff Castle. In seventeen years of living back in Wales he never moved out of his father’s house and both of them and the property grew old and time-worn together. He died of a heart attack in that bungalow in Whitchurch in 1986.
John Tripp never owned his own property, he never drove a car, did not have any substantial possessions, save his books and manuscripts. He never entered that state of marriage when “two people set out on the journey/of custom and habit,” though he could be, and certainly saw himself as a romantic man.[xxi] His education was elementary, supplemented by evening classes at Morley College, though he often implied that he had been a full-time student there.[xxii] He was, however, an autodidact of considerable breadth and depth, knowledgeable in terms of current affairs and reading seriously among the English poets and his own Anglo-Welsh tradition. His return to Wales was prompted by political problems in Indonesia and therefore difficulties at the Indonesian Embassy; he was also drawn home by his growing commitment to Wales and the promise of a new sense of independence in his homeland. But Wales could not
sustain him as a professional writer: his occasional articles for the press, polemical pieces, poems and short stories for “The Anglo-Welsh Review”, “Arcade”, ”Poetry Wales” and “Planet”, at which magazine he served as Literary Editor between 1973 and 1979, and brief sessions on radio and television were not the steady income he really needed. These were the early days of Arts Council supported poetry readings and John Tripp’s power as a performer of his work also gave him a small, steady income from regular invitations to read.
Still, Wales let him down; his homeland did not live up to his expectations, especially after the Referendum vote in 1979. That was a catastrophe for John Tripp from which his spirits and sense of purpose never fully recovered. Much of his early poetry and creative non-fiction had been directed at the cause of Wales’s independence and fuelled by a perceived sense of grievances against England, “the slow choke of a race.”[xxiii] Indeed, much of his poetry was marred by the forces which powered it. As Sally Jones observed, “…so much concern and so much violence, un-tempered by a sufficient irony, comes at last to seem perhaps too loud, too monotonous.”[xxiv] John Tripp himself came to acknowledge that when in a letter to Poetry Wales in 1980 he said, “One sees now that a large slice of this poetry is now dated. In my own case it was written very fast in fulminating heat,
disgust, outrage and despair…but this didn’t seem to matter against the larger issue of a nation going down the drain.”[xxv] He characterised the Wales of the Sixties and Seventies as a “social, political and cultural shambles,” and in the face of that challenge John Tripp shouted and railed.[xxvi]
Though his position as an Anglo-phone poet also proved a dilemma: he was an
…Anglo, dipped in England’s sewer,
worse than a Michigan tourist, odd as an Eskimo,
roaming like a campless Arab
through the heart of his people.
All that his fingers touch, his mind bites at,
give voice to Wales,
all his verse will strain to bridge the gap.[xxvii]
John Tripp felt as angry as Harri Webb, Meic Stephens, Raymond Garlick and R. S. Thomas about the political condition of Wales, but unlike the younger poets – Peter Finch, Gillian Clarke and Nigel Jenkins – he did not learn the language and like his character Thomas, Tripp feels an outsider at the National Eisteddfod, no matter how vehemently he campaigns.[xxviii]
It is easy to regard such loud expressions of outrage as dated from our position of living in a post-Assembly, bi-lingual Wales, but who knows what effect a fire-brand like Tripp might have had in galvanising protests in the decade before he returned to Wales, the decade that saw the drowning of Treweryn blinked through a largely indifferent House of Commons? Instead, he was caught up in London in a succession of jobs, working to make a living. If at the end of his life the nationalist stance he had struck appeared forlorn, it is also the case, as Nigel Jenkins has pointed out, that John Tripp was certainly aware of the new problems in Thatcher’s Britain in which was created “…a vulnerable ‘under-class’… without any obvious future” whose plight was “… private individual, almost invisible.” They were “the marginal people in our botched society.”[xxix]
Such acute observations articulate a real concern which resonates up to the end of the first decade of our new century.[xxx] In my review of what was to be his last collection Passing Through I wrote: “Tripp is still the greying knight in rusty armour in search of a grail one knows will prove to be battered and tarnished.”[xxxi] Also, that “John Tripp finds it harder and harder to stay fresh, to find in his language and in its rhythms the means to jolt himself and his reader into the expression of feelings which are undoubtedly there, under the skin.” In an earlier review of The Loss of Ancestry Roland Mathias had concerns that there was “a lack of sufficient verse structure: discipline, one feels, might cramp the quickness of the next hit.”[xxxii] John Ormond in his introduction to the Selected
Poems emphasises this point with his call for more “slow left-arm spinners” rather than the bouncers that Tripp sent down the page, sometimes unrelentingly. Tripp acknowledged this himself: “I tried to oblige/but the language cherry reared up/again, wide of the off-stump.” In my review I single out “Connection at Bridgend” as the most successful poem, with its near-absurdist sense of the need to make connections in order to confirm the meaning of living, for as John says:
…. We are in it
together, until the last buses go out.
One by one they leave the bays.
Having caught the diesel to yesterday, in the last year of his sixth decade it may be that the poet feels he has latterly missed the bus.[xxxiii]
John Tripp was often short of money, sometimes blatantly borrowing and leaning on friends for food, transport and shelter. He would rail against the lot of the poet, too often peripheral to the flow of society. As John Ormond remembered: “…he could burst into barely-controlled rages which would offend strangers and half-acquaintances and try hard the patience of friends.” At the same time Ormond “… never sensed any great sadness in him; rather the quiet of a man who had eaten a sustaining if somewhat frugal meal at the table of life’s joys.”
I was to discover both aspects of the man from 1974 when I moved back to Wales to my first job in higher education. I included John Tripp in the exhibition of poetry manuscripts which I organised in the South Glamorgan College of Education in 1975 and published his work in the magazine “Madog” which I tried to base there in the late Seventies. In my “poem for John Tripp”[xxxiv] written after the tragic, early death of a friend my wife and I had known at Swansea University, I wrote:
John, we are under the weight of this thing
And we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth
clench the fist around the pen, we riotoures three:
you and I and the third – our dead friends and fathers,
on the road, at the desk, looking over our shoulders.
John had lost his mother Muriel Tripp “the most powerful influence on his life”[xxxv] in 1966
I wanted to run
the other way, but was hemmed
by convention. My father coughed
and the long line shuffled to the brink
as she was lowered into clay.[xxxvi]
My father had died in 1978 an event which saddened John, though I think they had not met more than once, because my father was not much older than John and, strangely, in photographs had more than a passing resemblance to the poet. John empathised with my family’s grief to a surprising degree. In Passing Through John included “Poem for a Father” which was dedicated to me.
He misjudged the hung dust
of sorrow, how it lingers
in rooms, on a road or beach,
at the edges of celebration.
What we see is how they looked
and laughed, the way they walked
towards us, their arms opened wide.
I am sure that the poem has moved at its conclusion to a confessional poem about John’s own feelings, his continuing grief for his mother and the knowledge that given his father’s age he would surely be left alone. Certainly, that death brought us closer together.
In my fictional account of a bizarre poetry reading trip to Pembrokeshire we both undertook a few years later I have the Tripp character Griffiths say: “I write in order to slow the whole thing down – I want to catch death by the balls.” That is probably a quote or paraphrase of John; it certainly represents in my mind or imagination his defiance in the face of mortality.[xxxvii]
It is difficult at this distance to recall precisely where John Tripp aligned himself between the poles of anger and frustration in the face of mortality and the vagaries of the modern world. He latterly dressed rather shabbily and seemed to present a persona that was out of time with contemporary life in the late Seventies and early Eighties. At the same time, this rebellious outsider could express real interest and no little knowledge of the finer things in life, particularly concerning food, drink and women. He was “an occasional connoisseur/Of hotel fitments and glimpses of the soft life”[xxxviii] and relished the opportunity to enjoy those after the austerity of the war years and the grim Fifties. Tripp wanted to cut a dash, live high on the hog, to paint the town with a bobby dazzler on his arm. He walked the walk and wrote the life that was rarely achieved in his own: though on rare occasions he proved that “he was an extremely good
ballroom dancer.”[xxxix] On Valentine’s Day, two days before he died, John sent two cards to Jean Henderson, the second inscribed, “Love to the Tory girl in stylish wine-coloured shoes – Jx”.[xl] How many men remember the shoes a woman wears, how many men are that
Continued in Part Two