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Things to Do Around Piccadilly and other London Street Poems

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by Samuel Charters with photographs by Martin Colyer


Things to Do Around Piccadilly and other London Street Poems

Portents


Poetry by Samuel Charters The Children (1953) The Landscape at Bolinas (1960) Heroes of the Prize Ring (1964) Looking for Michael McClure at the corner of Haight and Ashbury (1967) Days (1967) To This Place (1969) As I Stand at This Window (1970) From a Swedish Notebook (1972) From a London Notebook (1973) In Lagos (1976) Of Those Who Died (1980) A Note on the Varieties of Locust (1987) A Country Year (1992) The Poet Sees His Family Sleeping (2008)


Things to Do Around Piccadilly and other London Street Poems

by Samuel Charters with photographs by Martin Colyer

Portents


Designed by Martin Colyer Š Samuel Charters & Martin Colyer First Printing, 2014 Huge thanks to Ann Charters and Michèle Colyer for their assistance All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. ISBN 978-1505832365 A Portents publication


for Martin and Michèle with love


An Introduction

I

don’t know what to say about these poems. They aren’t like any other poems I’ve written or like anything else I’ve ever written. Although some of the poems are new, most of them come from one of my life’s freest and most exuberant moments, London in the 1970s. It wasn’t that London was new to me – I’d first come to a darkened, discouraged London smelling of acrid coal smoke and boiled cabbage when I was making my way through a still-shattered Europe as an eighteen year old in 1948. In 1960 I’d come back to London with my wife Annie and for the first time we met the Colyers – Bill, his wife Betty, and their four-year-old son Martin. It was a meeting that in itself would change our lives, and I think we understood it from that first moment. In 1960 I had just published the first two of the books I’d been writing on New Orleans jazz and the blues – Jazz: New Orleans and The Country Blues – and London had probably more enthusiasts for these styles of music than anywhere else in the world, even New Orleans itself. There were noisy downstairs places to dance, like the 100 Club where the New Orleans style bands played, where everybody danced with sweaty energy and the bar was always crowded. There were the small, dedicated record shops like Jimmy Asman’s and Doug Dobell’s, where the talk and the concentration were so intense there sometimes seemed to be no air left in the room. Some nights groups of fans met in the upstairs rooms over many of the pubs to listen to the irreplaceable 78 rpm records they carried carefully with them. Bill Colyer was an elder statesman as the older brother of trumpeter Ken Colyer, who had sparked the British New Orleans jazz revival with his legendary journey to New Orleans only two years before. My wife Annie and I had been married less than a year, and we had dreamed of coming to London even before we were married. London’s jazz world was busy and exciting, but it was also scattered through the city, and on our first afternoon Annie and I didn’t know where to begin. Then we walked by Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop on Charing Cross Road, cramped into a row of modest shops with its window filled with the music we’d come to find. Within a few 9


moments after we entered the talk began, and soon Bill Colyer came upstairs from the shop’s basement where he did the packing and shipping. He was wiry and intense, and he seemed always to be giving you his whole attention, looking at you with considered seriousness and then in a moment just as ready to laugh – his face brightening with a sudden smile. We didn’t manage to stop talking, and as the afternoon went on Bill insisted that we had to come across the road and have dinner with his family. It never felt in those early years as if the talking stopped. There were only interruptions when we didn’t happen to be in London. The Colyers lived almost directly across Charing Cross Road from the record shop in a large, dark Victorian, brick-built block of flats called Sandringham Flats. There were ninety-four steps and at least a dozen landings to their two bedroom flat on the top floor, and over the next decades we were to count the unending steps many, many times. Bill’s wife Betty was dark-haired, quick and bright, as direct and immediate in her responses to the life around her as Bill, and she also loved the jazz and blues we did. Their son Martin was the pleasantest four-year-old either of us had ever encountered, and it was with Martin as a model of what we might hope for ourselves that Annie and I found the courage to begin our own family a few years later. An Int ver the next ten years there would be many changes in all our lives, and our relationship with the Colyers became even closer with their visit to us in New York in the late-1960s. In the early 1970s, when I began writing the poems about London’s streets and its noisy, spirited street life, I had taken a job as a record producer for the Swedish company Sonet Records, and Annie and I had moved to Stockholm with our young daughter Mallay. Sonet had just opened a small London office and it needed new albums to release, and in part this was what Sonet had hired me to do. Soon I found myself in London on what seemed sometimes like an unending stream of recording projects, and there was no question that I would stay anywhere else than the Colyers’ flat on Charing Cross Road. Annie would join me whenever her own busy schedule allowed her the time. Bill was now working on his own as a painter and decorator with a small van that he threaded through London’s jammed streets with his tools and materials. Betty had taken an office job, and Martin had become a gangling teenager who turned into one of the most pleasant teenagers we’d ever met. The family’s

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Martin, aged 12, with Sam in Vanguard Records’ recording studio, NYC, Summer 1968. Photograph by Bill Colyer.

serious interest in music had never faltered. If I was working in a London studio with one of the groups I was recording, Bill and Martin would usually be there, entirely absorbed in the music, and with Bill ready with his camera for a quick snap between recording takes. As a freelance producer I had also begun working with artists for Transatlantic Records, a small but energetic company owned by Nat Joseph. Now there were many more long climbs up those stairs, catching my breath across all those landings to the Colyers’ flat. Many of the artists Transatlantic was recording were living in squats around the city, and the only place we could talk was in a nearby local pub. It was at this moment that the poems began. During these days in London, walking its streets, feeling London’s pulse and chaotic dramas, its sometimes raw coarseness and its endless variety, I felt as though I were beginning a new life, and I wanted somehow to preserve some of these moments.

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he pubs also were part of my days. There was still early closing – from three pm to five pm – so the pubs could clear out the morning’s debris and urge the regulars off their stools at the bar. At three in the afternoon after three or four pints I would find myself walking the streets, staring around me, wondering where I’d come. I don’t know when I wrote the first of the poems, but it was one of those sudden, intuitive moments when I stood alone on a London street, with an intense conviction that I had to 11


preserve just this moment – just this street, these buildings, the traffic, the people crowding past – and what it felt like to be just there just then. At the beginning I usually didn’t have any loose pieces of paper in my pockets, so I began carrying a small, paper bound notebook with me, and as the months went by the poems grew. I never could predict just what it was that I had to get down on the notebook’s pages. I only knew that it was something that had an overwhelming sense for me of what London was. I’d never written poems that looked anything like these did – the breathless lines trailing down the pages in streams of words – but I had a decided sense that I should also give the words the same rush of freedom I was feeling myself. I let them stand up by themselves. What I hoped with the poems was to catch some of London’s tumult, some of its silences, something of the sense of history that gave its streets so much of their character, and the newness of London’s life being discovered by its new generations. The poems just as often crowded the pages with my consciousness of London’s proud vulgarity, its often insistent tastelessness, its seediness, and its dismissal of any concern that it should be anything but what it was.

B

y 1973 there were enough of the street poems in my notebooks or scribbled on odd pieces of paper that I decided to publish some of them, but they didn’t seem to be the kind of poems that would fit into the poetry collections I was publishing then. Since what I was trying to do with the poems was to capture the feeling of these moments – specific moments at a certain place – I realized I had to find some other way to match this experience. The first and only “publication” of the poems from the notebooks was on a London day – February 11, 1973 – when with the help of Annie’s cousin Anthony Stoll I drove around London on what felt like a warm early spring morning with mimeographed copies he’d printed for me of each of the poems I’d chosen in a small cardboard box. I took some string with me so I could tie the box to whatever doorway or fence was at the place where I’d written the poem. I had been given the names and addresses of people who were interested in new poetry by Nick Kimberley at Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town, and I sent them a list describing the places where the poems could be found. I ended it by saying that if we met at the end of the day at the Holly Bush Pub in Hampstead I’d buy a drink for everybody who found them all. Nobody did, 12


An original copy of Portents 23, from a london notebook: “Go across Heath Street from the Hampstead station (Northern Line) and walk Holly Hill. Stay on right side and turn right on Holly Mount about 150 yards up. The pub’s right there. I’ll be there from 7.30 onwards with extra copies of poems, copies of the cover etc…”

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since a conscientious, sharp-eyed gardener at the Embankment Gardens immediately spotted the small carton tied to one of his fences and threw it in the trash. Annie was at the Stoll’s home in Hampstead nursing our newly born daughter Nora, but with my five year old daughter Mallay I stood with my box of poems at Speaker’s Corner at Marble Arch in the warm sunlight as people came and went, some of them looking for their poem. My suggestion on the list I sent was that they should stop and read the poem right there – where I’d written it – and then look around them, and share the moment I had experienced. As I thought of people looking for my little cartons around the city I realized that was the most fulfilling, the most satisfying day I would ever know as a poet. The people who made their way to the Holly Bush later in the evening told me with satisfied smiles that they could share what I had felt as they stood there reading their poem and looking around them at what the poem was describing. It had given them London in ways they hadn’t sensed before, and they insisted on buying me the pint. Later I stapled together some of the pages that were left over and gave them to friends, but the true first and only edition of the poems was that Sunday on those London streets where the poems were written.

W

hy London? I’ve never really known. I tried to write poems like them in other cities where I spent a great deal of time, among them New York and Stockholm, but New York was too jangled and I never found anything I could say that felt like just “this place” or just “this moment.” I felt at home in Stockholm, but it seemed too ordered for moments like these, though there were a few city poems in the collection From a Swedish Notebook, published in 1972. I am also conscious that part of the deep layering of perception that anyone who writes has of London is their awareness of its literature – literature that shapes the emotions and the consciousness of anyone who grows up with English as their first language. Of all our great cities today I have the feeling that London has aged well. Despite the changes that have come to some areas of it in the latest decades, the old London is still there, behind a weathered wall or in a careful tended garden at the end of a row of houses. At one point in my association with Transatlantic Records, Nat Joseph offered me the position of recording director for his company. I realized that I had only lived in Stockholm for a 14


short time and I still had much to find there, but also I wanted to have London as this ever new, continually changing experience. I never wanted to hear myself saying tiredly, “Oh, London – again.” Perhaps London also continues to live for me because so much of those early years is still there for me to experience again. Bill Colyer has died, but Betty, though troubled with her eyesight, lives only a short distance from Sandringham Flats. Annie and I stay with her when we’re in London. Martin – with a long and successful career as a designer of magazines and books, a song writer and photographer – is still the warmly generous, unfailingly enthusiastic person we found him to be when we first met him as a four year old. He lives with his wife Michèle and their son Gabriel close enough to his mother’s flat for them to walk to see her. Their daughter Jordan is not far away. The London I knew for so many years ago is still there for me. Perhaps this is part of what the poems mean to me – they have kept some moments of my life alive. I can read the poems, close my eyes, and I’m there again in London’s swirls and its jumble, its certainties and its confusions, its vulgarities, its eternities, and its brassy insistence on being itself. Somewhere within the poems I still find myself.

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The Poems 1 A Pondside Encounter {at the Serpentine, Hyde Park} 20 2 Things to do Around Piccadilly 22 3 Conversing with Women {near the Victoria and Albert Museum} 29 4 The Thames at Night {on Charing Cross Bridge} 31 5 A Twilight Song {at Victoria Embankment Gardens} 34 6 Time Passing at Sandringham Flats {Charing Cross Road} 37 7 Truths in All their Glory {Sunday at Speaker’s Corner, Marble Arch} 38 8 Summer Shower at “Imported Snuffs” {on Shaftesbury Avenue near the British Museum} 40 9 What Hyde Park has to Offer On a Sunny Afternoon 43 10 Things Men Say on Hot Days {Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road} 47 11 Addicts Dancing in Trafalgar Square 51 12 Standing in front of Charing Cross Station {on The Strand} 55 13 Considering an Elephant’s Knee under the Trees {on Leicester Square} 58 17


14 In The Chandos {St. Martin’s Lane near Trafalgar Square} 61 15 With Monet on the banks of the Thames {on a bench on South Park Walk} 62 16 Seeing the Future in Camden Town 64 17 Under Hammersmith Bridge {Thames-side at slack water} 66 18 The Uses We Have for Songs {in The Bridge Pub just across the way from Hammersmith Bridge, 2:30pm} 67 19 The Girl on the Other Side of the Bus {on the No.87 bus from Charing Cross to Lavender Sweep} 71 20 Thoughts of “Ozymandias” {near Bow Street} 73 21 Hyde Park July {behind Marble Arch} 74 22 And there is Sadness {at the Warren Street Tube Station, Northern Line} 76 23 Sunday on James Street {near the Marylebone Tube Station} 80 24 Beauty is What We See {at the Embankment Ferry Platform} 84 25 Honest Trade at the Inverness St. Market {in Camden Town} 86 26 What We Have {on High Street, High Barnet} 91 18


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A Pondside Encounter {by the Serpentine, Hyde Park} As I idle on the path by the pond’s dark marbled mirror a large swan drifts close, looking with intent eyes to see if in my hands I hold anything at all and when my empty hands do not move to my pockets he glides away, though still almost within hand’s reach. I am filled with awe at this beauty that so many before me for so many centuries have told us about – the flowing arch of neck, nibbed beak, the measured movements in the water, the whiteness of the feathers as if all the white of the world had been gathered to create it, and the softly, rocking balance of its body against the pond’s muted swirl. In him I see a beauty I can barely conceive.

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He sees me as I am, someone who has nothing in his pockets.

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Things To Do Around Piccadilly Looking at things is a start, and a sign board hints at sights behind a downstairs curtain – “We DRESS them in GORGEOUS COSTUMES then they UNDRESS to reveal their GORGEOU BODIES” Or you can look down stairs with dank walls at shadowy photographs of women with chests that seem a little exaggerated but they are smiling, though in front of them you are met by the dark slit eyes of a man in a shiny suit and you know you are not anyone he wants to see. But along the sidewalk, you’ll also notice discreet window offerings where more photographs also have 22


excited chests as their coyly smiling themes, “Arthur, look at that will you!� says a man in a proper jacket, stopping a few steps in front of me and who is lingering by an especially saucy pic, and grins down at a boy who is certainly Arthur Jr. in a New York Yankees baseball cap who is about eight years old and wonders why his father is stopping in front of so many of these droopy photographs. So you look for other things to do around Picadilly, and so many people are going into the wide open doors of STARLIGHT ARCADE you go in to join them but mostly all you see are the frantically jostling backs and waving arms of people in saggy, much-dyed shirts ringing noisy machines 23


that light up and everybody points as cars go by, or rockets soar, and fleshly figures in tights shoot at other fleshly figures in tights in shivers of colored light that would blind the sun. But you decide to leave the arcade because it

is

too

loud! But eating is always something to do in Piccadilly, bins, counters, containers, shelves of sweets and lollies, rainbows of yummies! And eddying in the streams of smells from the exhaust of passing lorries, old stones, and the street’s rubbish, you smell meat burning on sticks, meat burning in bubbly grease to be squeezed into a bun. Fish with its tastes cleverly disguised, and tomato-y smells of of ovened dough, as flat as the pavement, and 24


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as shiny red as a Christmas card. And the children will be excited, happy, impatient, certainly noisy, and will spill things on their clothes. Then you will go back to the things to do around Picadilly. And if you only look up you might see other Picadilly habitués who consider you a show all by yourselves – Starlings line the sky on stone ornaments of the dirty buildings, whistling, wings shrugging as they watch us hurrying. Black shapes whistling down at us, though certainly NOT laughing at us. But you walk on looking for more things to do around Picadilly, and there’s another doorway, properly shrouded in folds of faded velvet and with its own mysteries. 27


“Dance In A Roman Mist and view Forbidden Photos of a LADY Above Suspicion” And surely we are being enticed, not warned, by a seriously intent sign, “WARNING SEX AIDS & SEX PRODUCTS SEX FILMS & SEX BOOKS ARE STOCKED IN THIS SHOP” If still there seems to be nothing to do around Piccadilly, this small card, stuck into a doorjamb, could answer. Only a telephone number and a hand printed message, “I AM AVAILABLE”

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Conversing with Women {close to the Victoria and Albert Museum} I think they are Italian? Spanish? Greek? more sunny skinned than English and hair more blackly, fiercely curled, behind the counter of their modestly cramped café as I look at the much fingered menu for a fresh-cut round of tomato sandwiches without cheese. One woman who is short and round faced I’m certain would understand what I say, but uncertain whether the fat, broadly aproned woman – certainly her mother – beside her not think she understands too much. A sister, as well dressed in a flowery shirtwaist who sidles close to the sun soaked window with its pretty curtain, doesn’t seem to care, but seems uncertain what this is saying to her sister and her mother. 29


When finally I say “A round of tomato on brown bread, please. no cheese,” hearing from my stringy voice I am as foreign as they, smiles flash! In sweet chorus all say at once, “Yes,” and the mother’s rich accent adds “Yes love, Just the way you want it.”

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The Thames at Night {on Charing Cross Bridge} Crossing the Thames after the Tippett concert I let myself saunter across Charing Cross bridge, dawdling over the breadth of the Thames, the garbage slick, the dark shapes of thick boats rising and falling on the tide’s sighs, and as I saunter through wafting smells of oil and rust, BOOM! FIREWORKS!!! and the air streaks with flashes of glistening comets and the Thames below me streaks with streams of wavering stars! and the embankment rattles with fierce echoes of glowing stars! 31


And I have no idea why they’re firing them. “It was rather better last year,” says a girl to me, her face green tinged from a falling rocket. “Oh,” I say. “Yes, rather, they had, you know, more of the squiggly ones.”

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And our voices are lost in the ringing echoes sweeping back and forth over the river’s slick, and our faces dim to shadows. A hand covering an ear I saunter on, considering the mysteries of we humans and our pleasures.

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A Twilight Song {at Victoria Embankment Gardens} So still the streets this empty Monday Whitsun afternoon – but in the Victoria Embankment Gardens nestled in the Thame’s great sweep a scattering of loyal listeners wait for Romeo Bertoff’s Medvedeff Balalaika Orchestra at golden sunset. Fifteen of them sitting in placid calm on the striped stage, as old and worn as their gypsy costumes. Romeo Bertoff – who is stout and balding also looks gypsy-like in elaborately knotted black sash 34


and full sleeved white satin blouse – smiles out at his lawn chaired audience who are as old as his orchestra, but not gypsy-like. As slowly the sun settles the orchestra takes up their balalaikas and music quavers in the air. They play bravely into the evening, the shadows stretch, but the sun is not missed since we have Romeo Bertoff, who smiles and smiles and smiles at us.

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Time Passes in Sandringham Flats {Charing Cross Road} It does change, London, as anything changes, as I change, our newnesses there layered over our oldnesses. At the beginning of the ninety-four steps to clamber up to the flat where I stay, on the wall inside the courtyard off Charing Cross Road, painted over on the wall a sign that used to say – its outline like a lost hieroglyphic inscription under old flaking paint, “These stairs have winders.”

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Truths in All their Glory {Sunday at Speaker’s Corner, Marble Arch} Only a single speaker’s platform set up at Hyde Park Corner early on this evening of June 2, 1971. And only a single speaker in rumpled suit, red-faced, and a single listener, also red-faced who nods. The lettering on the platform reads, “Catholic Evidence Guild.” Then with as red-faced a speaker a platform is noisily set up beside his. “Protestant Truth Society.” Rising sounds of voices as I stroll toward the stillness of the trees. 38


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Summer Shower at “Imported Snuffs” {on Shaftesbury Avenue near the British Museum} I can see the wind shifting its feet on the street, and rain spills from its clothes in rivulets streaming down the glistening windows of the shop beside me, the corners of its sign darkening in the rain but announcing still “Imported Snuffs.” A pretty woman with soaked blouse and sagging striped skirt, the rain sticking in the lank strands of her hair, hurries to huddle beside me under the striped awning of the local tobacconist, and with the surprise of what the summer shower has done to her clothes she allows herself a moment free of any 40


thought of decorum, looks up at my face and in a laughing voice announces, “It does come down!�

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What Hyde Park has to Offer on a Sunny Afternoon As I walk into Hyde Park this sticky June afternoon I come into light spread in new shaped patterns on the stretches of grass as the scatterings of what the trees have dropped drift idly across it, and over my head suddenly a tree’s limbs are momentarily white as the wind’s picking fingers softly turn over its leaves. Down another path to a reach of meadow and noises of airplanes – far distant – boys running after a football with shrill shouts, and a sound that for a moment could be the sea’s shush but as I stop to listen it’s the sighing echo of the traffic ringing me in to this idling space of grass. 43


Still another path and in orderly lines tended by a man uncomfortably stationed under a stiff visored cap, orange wind bellied lawn chairs. A restless fleet of wooden sticks and orange canvas undecided to what edge of the park they will voyage. And flowers everywhere, everywhere, flowers nested against the earth, stretched toward the sky, every color, colors I couldn’t name: reds, oranges, myriad blues and violets, and swaying above them blazing, strident whites and yellows, the curled petals splayed to the sun. I stop and sit on a green painted iron bench that is as solid as a stone turning the tide of the grass. I am content. If after all this, I 44


need to see still more of Hyde Park’s offerings on this golden afternoon, I have only to turn my head.

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Things Men Say in the Heat {at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road} 1 In the summer’s languors they linger on a corner in the heat as girls pass bare legged in wrinkled shorts to general approval. “Lord, love, “Just look at you! oh, yes love!” a man on the side walk observes as she glances up sweaty faced, “I’ll take you home love, any time love.” But she doesn’t stop. “Oh dear, oh dear, feelings hurt?” though no feelings 47


show on her shining face. 2

With what easiness of half-smile the tall girl passes with sweeping skirt and breasts certainly bare under a filmy blouse, and barely covered with a basket of strawberries squeezed between them, offering their own shy shade of pink. Breathy sighs, groans from the chorus leaning against the corner of the building, at this fruity hint of summer’s ecstasies. 3 Sidling past 48


the corner, a girl with bounties of skin knows she’s observed and casts them a toss of shoulder when a step away, and the chorus of men – so touched to be noticed – swells. “O Sweetheart!!” “Look at the walk on ’er! Would you just look at the way she walks with it! She’s goin’ to ‘urt somebody if she don’t watch where she’s walkin’ with it!” 4 They know they offend, this jeering crowd of noisy men, their will to be noticed 49


laid as bare as a dirty cloth thrown out onto the street. Do they hear themselves in their voices the darker tone every woman, at some moment, learns to fear?

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Addicts Dancing in Trafalgar Square For moments their stumbling shuffle is almost dance-like – four addicts in a dance in gray October in Trafalgar Square. They dance with snatchings of fingers pulling at frayed sleeves, fumbling again in gaping pockets, faces squeezed, mouths slack as fallen leaves. Pleading, they stumble after one whose voice despairs – “I ’aven’t got I couldn’t get I couldn’t find. No, I’m tellin’ you, No. I ’aven’t got I couldn’t get I couldn’t find.” 51


They dance in Trafalgar Square, four addicts, gray faced, clothes wrinkled as fruit left to rot and they dance with legs jerking inside spindly trousers and their song winds on, in whines as thin as this last light. Hurrying past them, people don’t stare at the dancers stumbling close as the sky darkens over Trafalgar Square where it’s begun to rain. A new step in the dance as he drops his sagging coat in a heap on the wet pavement. “See – you can” (a sob?) “search, but you won’t find nothing’.” The dance is a crowding huddle now, the music now new sad cries, as trembling hands reach 52


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out from ragged sleeves to hastily pick at the wet coat, pick pick groping in pockets, as the voice trembles forth – “You go on and you look all you want. Just like I said, I ’aven’t got I couldn’t get I couldn’t find,” and the dance goes on round the dingy ruin of rumpled coat on a wet pavement on Trafalgar Square in the crowds’ midst, who in their evening’s hurry, do not see anything as they pass the stumbling dancers, or hear their song.

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Standing in front of Charing Cross Station {on The Strand} for H. D. LM11GYO I notice is the yellow number plate of the quivering cab stalled at the corner where I stand waiting on The Strand in front of Charing Cross Station. 500CUMO is the number of what I have to say is a very nicely appointed silver gray, slouch seated MERCEDES. A giddily painted van shaped like a largish shoe box with “WHO’S DRIVING?” the question painted on its side is W419VMU. The number for which I am waiting is 87 the Wandsworth Bus which does 55


not come. MU09CGY is the number of a PARCEL FORCE delivery van, which complains loudly in effusive, cardinal red IMPATIENCE!!! W419VMZ is‌

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Considering an Elephant’s Knee {under the Trees at Leicester Square} What has made me think of elephants in Leicester Square is the baggy, aged tree trunk beside the bench behind the Half Price Theatre Tickets booth where I sit counting my change and putting away my tickets to an Alan Bennett play. What has molded the ponderous body of this great tree, elephantine in its heaviness, in its encrusted brown gray knobs and stripped peelings of its darkened bark? Beside me a swelling of the tree’s trunk has also the seamed skin and sag of an elephant’s knee, and another tree, as aged, behind the next bench, could be its companion grazing on the small park’s littered grass. I don’t know the names of the trees, but looking up I see the branches of the two so close they intermingle, so close they must be talking, 58


as elephants do, in tones too low for my hopeless ears to hear. What names, I wonder, do they call each other?

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In The Chandos, {St. Martin’s Lane} “What?” says the rumpled short man who in from the street hurries straight to the floridly colored theatre poster hanging on the pub’s darkly varnished, Victoria paneled wooden wall – cloth cap sloping to his eyes, thick jacket sagging from undistinguished shoulders, and unnecessarily shabby trousers – “My Goodness!” he says with a honey syrup’s voice of pleasure, “Oh, my Goodness!!” and with a breathless smile he rushes to the bar to order his pint. So easily achieved, his day’s excitements.

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With Monet on the banks of the Thames {on a bench along South Bank Walk} Somewhere from behind its nose the voice I hear is American from a bench beside me, “Monet – or one of those others, you know – should have painted this!” And “this” is the undulating sheen of water below a weathered gray stone parapet along the wide-flung, many buildinged bank of the Thames. “This” is the calm breadth of the Thames gilded with bits of September colors in a streaky sun. And “this” is the tapestried background of the Embankment’s trees as the white, streamlined shape of a tourists’ boat drags reflections of bright colored streamers past calmed barges that heave solemnly in acknowledgement, while on the streaming current the shadow of 62


Waterloo Bridge flutters. And I sit on my bench smiling to myself – knowing Monet did!

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Seeing the Future in Camden Town “Hair Master” reads the placard held by a man with purple and green hair rising to points and in clothes of studs, chains, plaids, and beads, shoed in much street-worn red boots, while across the street a billboard presents a smiling view of a naked baby and suggests “Work Naked at Home!” At the same time, advancing toward me, a grubby teen lifts over his head a puce-green and black sign reading, “Eclipse Tattoo and Piercing Studio,” whose stained upstairs windows open to a notice admitting they are not first aid trained.

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And though further on the wary entranceway shows its dirt, I feel more confidence in the gold lettering on the stairway’s wooden wall painted in two tones of purple, “Cold Steel Body Piercing Studio,” which announces, Health Authority Registered All Piercers First Aid Trained We Exceed Hospital Sterilization Procedures. Idling a few steps further on among the noisy crowd, I stop at a street display offering “Genuine Gucci Bags” for three pounds and nod agreeably at the anxious salesperson. There is some comfort in knowing that whatever the future is bringing, I haven’t missed it.

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Under Hammersmith Bridge {Thames-side at slack water} “God, this place fucking stinks!” are the words I hear from below the weed strewn path where I walk beside the Thames’ tidal muck, and I can see the sucking mouths left by muckers’ boots in the glistening ooze. God, it fucking does.

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The Uses We Have for Songs {in The Bridge Pub, just over the way from the Hammersmith Bridge, 2:30 p.m} Baby, baby don’t get hooked on me, she would say, the faded girl with creased mouth but the gleaming, shiny tubed neon of the juke box, pressed squatly into the pub’s disrepairs, says it so well for her she walks acros the room and pays the shiny machine to play it again. Across the pub’s drab concessions of carpet, Sometime I feel like not even trying, is now playing for a house painter, fingering his yesterdays in paint dribbles down his overalls. In the booth behind him Oh baby why can’t we be lovers, moves the lips of a blue sweatered woman to the cheek of the stubby man in a bus conductor’s uniform. 67


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In a cramped corner smelling of spilled beer and aging polish, I feel as if the music slowly is engulfing the room, the words drifting like soggy leaves eddying on tremors of neon. You wear it well, those kinds of eyes, mouths the man in anxieties of buttoned sweater who now has joined the faded girl with mouth pursed, who leans close. When my body’s cold, when the sun goes cold, you wear it well. Which does for what they have to say just at early closing’s intoning. Last Call Last Call Last Call Last Call Please! as the barmaid dries her hands on the afternoon’s much sodden bar rag. The last song for all that has still to be said, You make my love grow so very warm, hurries a rumpled couple from their suddenly nervous booth, hurrying a little – 69


hurrying – the door slowly closing after them. The juke box stops. Faces look uncomfortably at other faces. The faded room, like a ship left to drift with shreds of sail, runs aground at last on its own uneasy silence.

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The Girl on the Other Side of the Bus {on the No.87 bus from Charing Cross to Lavender Sweep} The girl across from me on the bus thinks I’m staring at her, but I’m just trying to read the advertisement over her head. She scowls with pursed mouth as though I’d reached across the aisle and tried to touch her, since to her I look old. But I do look at her now as she turns her head and I realize I know something about her she doesn’t know – I know how she’ll look when she’s old. I know already which of those lines so smooth now on her forehead will begin to have their own concern with old moods, know how that shining hair will twist into dry knots, how her cheeks will begin to shape with age’s heaviness.

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The expressions that will be on her face are certainly already there, and that’s how I’ll know her, since they were already there when she was only a girl. I can also see across the bus that I will like her – or I would like her – since I probably won’t see the woman she will become. But I like her now.

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Thoughts of “Ozymandias” {near Bow Street} “Formerly” reads one side of the carved column with metal scenes emplaced and heads, skulls surmounted by hooved dragons and within a fluted niche some king or other, and over him reads “stood here.” The explication on the third column face reads inexplicably MDCCCLXXX. Was it shyness – perhaps? – that kept them from adding Shelley’s immortal line, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

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Hyde Park July {behind Marble Arch} Dry dry dry July as I stretch out to lie on Hyde Park’s burnt grass behind Marble Arch. Not listening to keens of auto noise borne on stale automobile fumes as boys – creatures of sweat – struggle through this sticky sea, flounder red-faced, mouths gasping as they plod along the gritty sod. One, in soaked red shirt, skipping on one 74


foot to pull up

a falling

sock.

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And there is Sadness {at the Warren Street Tube Station, Northern Line} I get things wrong more often than I know – though since no one notices me they cause no concern. The woman’s face, getting on at Warren Street station said to me – sadness – in her eyes, in the drab hair streaming down in strings over thin temples, sadness. I saw sadness in the spotted white collar of imitation fur, sadness in her tremulous hands clutching a small ball of handkerchief, like some bride’s bouquet found in the street. And I was drawn to the sadness of her 76


swollen mouth, and her face closed like a curtain behind it, as I dreamed of sadness, staring into the sadnesses of her reddened eyes. But as she stood up, picking up three string tied parcels and a split paper bag, I saw her knee was scratched and bloody, her stocking torn. She’d fallen with her parcels and paper bag. All the sadness was only in my imagination. Sadness, I was certain, but what she was feeling was her bloodied knee. (She stares back at me and I quickly glance at advertisements guaranteeing me the iron energy of old footballers and the new taste 77


78


experience of powdered vanilla custard.) But they are close, pain, sadness, one borne within the other. It is sadness I feel as she picks up her parcels and split paper bag and limps to the door. And it is pain I can see in those reddening eyes. The sadness is there in the ball of cloth clutched in her trembling fingers.

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Sunday on James Street {near the Marylebone Tube Station} Sunday Sunday

dreary Sunday and they’re tearing loose the last bricks of an old flat block on James Street. A greasy haired streak of smoke weeps down the sitting room’s dust powdered, cream papered partitions, down the fluttering strips torn from the lavender bathroom’s shades, down winnowed windowed eyes in crumbling walls. Sunday Sunday dying as I sit down 80


across the street, and they’re splintering the window frames of the old flat block on James Street. Who looked out of the window I just saw torn from its casement and tossed to pirouette down to the street to cascading dusts of applause? Could he have been someone who lived in that window’s shadows, the man who has stopped beside me on the sidewalk looking up, mouth working? I feel I might cry, but not the man, who only stopped beside me to clean his teeth, as the flowers of a once loved bedroom wall 81


go crashing down to the street in coughing breaths of dust on a cruel Sunday, a despairing Sunday on James Street.

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Beauty is What We See {on the Embankment Ferry Platform} She is plain, the woman standing across from me on the Embankment Ferry Platform, her awkwardly sweatered husband a step behind. Her face is of no particular shape, there is an uncertain whiteness to her cheeks, and her body is a little like clothes stuffed in a long clothes bag – but then I notice her hair is colored darkish red as if she were slyly smiling, and she is wearing a very trim, close fitting cap and its color is murmuring in harmony with her hair. Her jacket is in umber, with a lighter stripe, the color tones like the mood of autumn leaves, and a discreet touch of a scarf at her throat I see is edged in gold. Her skirt’s tone is a shade of a Burgundy wine 84


of a memorable year which certainly she has chosen to suggest her hair, her cap, and her jacket, and she is wearing shoes in two tones of scarlet and white! As she passes me to get on the ferry I look at her again, and I respectfully realize that she is as beautiful as she thinks she is.

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Honest Trade at the Inverness St. Market {in Camden Town} Stalls, stands, vans, stores, streets, Inverness St. and Licensee No. 404 Pitch No. 43 wagon of J. Phenney, oranges, crates, bananas, boxes, leeks, potatoes, and strawberries. Art students on canvas stools draw J. Phenney who stands uncomfortably in gray shirt and pressed pants. “Someone must buy if I’m to model for you,” insisting as he rearranges fruit. 86


What I see walking – and walking along I cross behind J. Phenney to J. W. Clark for horse meat, fido meat, millet sprays, bird seeds with green of painted van and a photo of Arsenal Football Club taped on the side at the curb in front of “Dick’s For Value No. 14 Toys. Genuine Reductions.” With shining round face a clerk kneels in glassy window among boxed games, inflated balls, folded carriages, and plastic models of the Queen. 87


I could find out anything I wanted to know about the people in this street, in the things they buy to eat, wear, smell, play with – find it in The Greek Food Center next to Dick’s. Red lettered on white, wines and groceries, window row of bottles and in the row of bottles next door at No. 10 Inverness Dairy lightly blue lettered, white, Provisions Groceries Mother’s Pride and in the tobacconist next at No. 8 – in lips of painted signs, advertising papers, sticky jars of sweets. “One of you 88


must buy� – I hear from J. Phenney as I breathe in flowers of old dresses on board shelves of No. 26 A. Tucker, in yellow below drab red of cornice. Revival Fit Cherry Blossom Puts New Life Into Tired Shoes. And last to the corner, someplace to drink, The Good Mixer A Courage House the pub. Sitting in an empty wagon I watch faces pass, faces in mackintoshes, faces in cloth coats, faces in handkerchiefs. I could even find what they dream about, the people passing in the slow rain on Inverness Street.

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Carved into the wood of the wagon I’m sitting in, Ellen Keeper 33 Neal Street Covent Garden On Hire the boards of the bottom – I just notice – strewn with the dried petals of roses.

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What We Have {on High Street, High Barnet} Along the line of shops the small cafÊ’s dirty enamel has a low gleam from tubes of lights and the record playing on the radio has the line This is all we want as the man in the greasy cap stares at the dirty wall and has 91


a floury piece of bread and margarine. This is all we want. This is all we have.

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Afterword From John Gay’s Trivia; or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, Book 2 For ease and for Dispatch the Morning’s best; No Tides of Passengers the Streets molest, You’ll see the Dragged Damsel here & there, From Billingsgate her fishy traffic bears, On Doors the sallow Milk-maid Chalks her Gains; Oh! how unlike the Milk-maid of the Plains!

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Biography

S

amuel Charters has written poetry all his life and has been part of the world of small presses for over half a century. He began publishing in the 1950s in New Orleans when he shared a rundown French Quarter building with Gypsy Lou and Jon Webb and their Loujon Press. He made his first appearance in print in an issue of their groundbreaking magazine The Outsider. Beginning in the mid-1960s his poetry chapbooks, broadsides, and literary essays were published by Berkeley’s Oyez press, many designed and printed by the legendary Graham MacIntosh. With his wife Ann he established their own Portents press in New York City at that time. In the other world of publishing he has written innumerable books on jazz and the blues, as well as novels, biographies, translations, and travel memoirs, and worked with Ann on the first biography of Jack Kerouac and the authorized biography of Beat novelist John Clellon Holmes. He is also responsible for the poetry section of their college introductionto-literature textbook anthology Literature and Its Writers. His most recent book is the biography Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and Slave Songs of the United States

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Sam and Martin in Ă…rsta, Sweden, 2015. Photograph by Ann Charters.

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About Portents

P

ortents began its life in Ann and Samuel Charters’ five-story walkup, railroad-flat apartment on New York’s Upper West Side in the fall of 1964 as a very small and entirely independent record company dedicated to the classic ragtime of Scott Joplin. Portents #1 was an LP titled A Joplin Bouquet – Ann Charters’ first recordings of Joplin’s music played at the correct tempo in the classic style. A later LP presented the first recordings of selections from Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, performed by the Concert Chorale of Utah State University. After Portents had made Joplin’s music available for people to hear, it felt like time to move on to publishing. The name Portents itself means something like “premonitions of future happenings,” which seemed part of the darkening mood of the mid-sixties. Specifically it was a reference to Herman Melville’s poem The Portent about the hanging of abolitionist John Brown and his premonition of the Civil War. In 1966 in a new apartment in the Lower East Side – the haunt of The Fugs, the Velvet Underground, and most of New York’s underground poetry scene with Allen Ginsberg a few blocks away – it was only a natural step for Portents to turn to the new writing to begin its life as a very small avant-garde publisher. As a gesture of the ’60s new-freedom, many others such as Lower East Side poets Edward Sanders with his Fuck You Press, Diane di Prima with her Floating Bear magazine, and Anne Waldman with her Angel Hair Press made the same decision at the same time. It felt like an individual way to step outside of America’s corporate culture. A network of adventurous bookshops across the country would take a certain number of whatever the small presses were producing, and costs were calculated with this very modest cushion. On the Lower East Side and then later in Brooklyn Heights, Portents published broadsides, pamphlets and small books by Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Tomas Tranströmer, Jack Spicer, Larry Eigner, and Ted Berrigan. One ambitious project was an homage to West Coast artist Wallace Berman and his now legendary series of Semina publications in the form of small envelopes or folders filled with contributions of the West Coast poets and artists and his own strongly original graphics. A Portents Semina included contributions by Kerouac and a cut-up fragment of a William Burroughs broadside. In a boxed construct Melville in the Berkshires 98


Ann presented a gathering of materials relating to Herman Melville’s years on his Berkshire farm. Along with copies of railroad schedules, local newspaper clippings mentioning their neighbor Melville, and historical descriptions of the nearby town of Pittsfield, were Ann’s photos of the scene as well as her dialogue with Melville’s prose and a recorded tape of Charles Olson reading his own long poem about Melville. Ann also recorded a group of the Lower East Side poets, among them Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, reading Poems for Peace, a protest against the escalating war in Vietnam, and she edited the tapes as a new Portents LP, later reissued by Broadside Records. In 1970, just before the Charters left Brooklyn Heights and moved to Sweden, Portents found its largest audience. Working with Allen Ginsberg and his collection of photographs at the Columbia University Library, Ann created the first visual history of the Beat Generation, Scenes Along the Road. Designed by Sam and distributed in its first edition by New York’s Gotham Book Mart, and in its later edition distributed by City Lights Press in San Francisco, it reached readers everywhere in the world. Today Portents lives on thanks to Martin Colyer in London, who revived it for the publication of Things to Do Around Piccadilly, a collaboration between Sam and himself. In addition, there are two other new Portents titles by Samuel Charters, the novel The Harry Bright Dances and his selected poems, What Paths, What Journeys. A collection of Portents publications and related work materials is on deposit at the Special Collections Library in the Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

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This book is typeset in Hoefler & Frere Jones’ Sentinel, a face, they say, “designed to address the many shortcomings of the classical slab serif. Unbound by traditions that deny italics, by technologies that limit its design, or by ornamental details that restrict its range of weights, Sentinel is a fresh take on this useful and lovely style.� Sentinel is also, it should be noted, a re-drawing of the font used in the original from a london notebook.

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Profile for Martin Colyer

Things to do around piccadilly  

Things to do around piccadilly  

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