[Peter Reading: Vendange Tardive (2010)]
i.m Peter Reading
born Liverpool 27 July 1946
died 17 November 2011
Well, it's happened again. I was just looking up a few details for my lecture on Peter Reading on Saturday when I saw that he had died:
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead ...
- Callimachus, tr. William Cory
I have to say that the news left me feeling quite upset. It was almost exactly the same sequence of events as I experienced with J. G. Ballard a couple of years ago: you start checking someone's dates online, and next thing you know, you find out they've been dead for months ...
Don’t think it couldn’t be you -
bankrupted, batty, bereft ...
as he says in his most famous poem, Perduta Gente [Lost People] (1989), exploring the cardboard canyons of the homeless in Thatcher's Britain.
"Don't think it couldn't be you" -- now that Thatcher's been Hollywood-ised, another notch in Meryl Streep's list of accents, it's hard to remember that cold face presiding over Nuremberg-style rallies at Brighton, the faithful baying with ecstasy as she preached her crusade against the poor, the starving, the mentally ill:
grievously wounded veteran of the Battle of Bottle,
jobless, bereft of home, skint,
down in the cold uriniferous subway ...
It's a curious irony that she should have ended that way herself, her mind betraying her, all that self-reliance eroded into complete dependency on the social services she so deplored.
Peter Edwards: Peter Reading: Poet
But who was Peter Reading? The "laureate of grot" was one disimissive phrase (dreamed up by hollow-man pundit Blake Morrison) ... People who considered themselves quite well-informed on contemporary British writing would turn out never to have heard of him. To me, he was one of the very few justifications for even daring to speak of a contemporary British poetry scene.
You loved him or you hated him. For most readers, it was clearly the latter. His strange books, with cut-out newspaper clippings, classically turned verses, scribbled notebook entries all jostling for position on the page, were calculated to excite or offend.
When Perduta gente first came out I was living in Scotland, recently targetted as the victim of one of Thatcher's bigtime social experiments: the poll-tax. The subject matter Reading had chosen did not surprise us; what was really surprising was that no-one else seemed to be writing about these things. All the news round the streets was that the last time someone had tried to bring in a poll-tax, it had led to the Peasants' Revolt ...
That's not to say that he was neglected, exactly. After his London publishers dumped him in the mid-nineties, Bloodaxe Books of Newcastle reissued his entire back-catalogue in three successive volumes of collected poems. He ended up being one of the most extensively available poets around: another factor in this being the decision of the Lannan Foundation in America to record his entire back-catalogue on a series of DVDs - 24 hours or so for him to read out 26 separate poetry collections.
And here they all are:
- Water and Waste. UK: Outposts Magazine, 1970.
- For the Municipality's Elderly. London: Secker & Warburg, 1974.
- The Prison Cell and Barrel Mystery. London: Secker & Warburg, 1976.
- Nothing for Anyone. London: Secker & Warburg, 1977.
- Fiction. London: Secker & Warburg, 1979.
- Tom O'Bedlam's Beauties. London: Secker & Warburg, 1981.
- 5 x 5 x 5 x 5 x 5. Ceolfrith Press, 1983.
- Diplopic. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983.
- C. London: Secker & Warburg, 1984.
- Ukelele Music. London: Secker & Warburg, 1985.
- Essential Reading. London: Secker & Warburg, 1986.
- Stet. London: Secker & Warburg, 1986.
- Final Demands. London: Secker & Warburg, 1988.
- Perduta Gente. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989.
- Shitheads. Squirrelprick Press, 1990.
- Three in One. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.
- Evagatory. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992.
- Last Poems. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994.
- Collected Poems Volume 1: 1970-84. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 1995.
- Penguin Modern Poets 3 (Mick Imlah, Glyn Maxwell, Peter Reading). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.
- Collected Poems Volume 2: 1985-96. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 1996.
- Chinoiserie. Bay Press, 1997.
- Work in Regress. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 1997.
- Apophthegmatic. Bay Press, 1999.
- Ob. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 1999.
- Repetitions. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University, 1999.
- Marfan. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2000.
- Faunal. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2002.
- Collected Poems: 1997-2003. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2003.
- -273.15. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2005.
- Vendage Tardive. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2010.
- Martin, Isabel. Reading Peter Reading. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2000.
[Isabel Martin: Reading Peter Reading (2000)]
It is, however, revealing that the one major critical work about him was written in German, before being translated and published (in somewhat abridged form) in English. There was something a little "European" about his immense, concentrated pessimism; his decision to be a professional Jeremiah. The UK newspaper obituaries tend to concentrate on the his (alleged) "sense of humour" - as if that were a kind of excuse for daring to take things so seriously for so long, in such a thoroughly un-English way.
I suppose, too, that some saw a degree of affectation in his refusal to take up the usual "poetic" ways of making a living: the Academic teaching, the light journalism and reviews. Instead, after an early stint at Art College, he worked as a weighbridge operator for almost twenty years, a job which he claimed gave him "plenty of time to think."
That is, until a newly appointed manager tried to get him to wear a uniform. He promptly resigned and (according to Isabel Martin, his principal witness to the world) managed to achieve depths of indigence rivalling those of his characters Mucky Preece and Boris the Swine in Perduta gente, until he was rescued by the Americans.
Reading's books are complex, intertwined, Dickensian in their balancing of form and content. Their message is grim, but his late shift from social to ecological lamentation certainly showed a refusal to settle into any reconciliatory "final manner" - no Shakespearean late romances for him. The very last one, Vendange tardive seems, in retrospect, prophetic of a mind at the end of its tether. There was little more to say that hadn't been said already, so many times over, but those last words of Perduta gente somehow had to keep sounding out:
Woe vnto woe vnto woe
vnto woe vnto woe vnto woe
It seems a fitting epitaph.
If you'd like to hear the man himself in action, reading from his later works in the Lannan Foundation archive, here are a few links:
For the rest, what can I say? A great soul has passed. No-one can claim he didn't warn us, though, to the very utmost of his ability. We'll regret not having listened more carefully as the last tree falls in the ash-pits of the future.
[Peter Reading: -273.15 (2005)]