John Fairfax: Poet, editor and co-founder of the Arvon Foundation
Saturday 14 March 2009
From the age of 14, John Fairfax's life was dedicated to poetry. He published six collections, edited five anthologies, and was for a time a small-press publisher. He served as poetry editor to Panache and Resurgence magazines, ran writers' workshops and gave enormous amounts of his time to founding and supporting the Arvon Foundation.
This life was sustained by unaccountable providence, probably traceable to the paradox and power-bank of his mother's side of the family, notably his Irish catholic grandmother, Marion "Big Mumma" Taaffe, who was celebrated by her son, John's uncle, the poet George Barker as "... a procession no one can follow after / But be like a little dog following a brass band", and his hero-grandfather, Colonel George. Big Mumma kept her holy-water font loaded with malt whiskey and supervised the unbridling of their five wild children, including the distinguished painter Kit and Eileen, John's mother. Colonel George fought at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.
John Fairfax was born in 1930, spent his childhood in Devon, witnessed the Plymouth blitz and in the latter part of the war was sent to Plymouth College. His father, Philip, a naval photographer, and his mother were mostly away and the resulting sense of abandonment was, he claimed, the cause of his compelling attachment to the secluded Berkshire thatched cottage that later became his home and was the primary theme of his poetry for 50 years. He loathed school but became captain of the cricket team and began to write poems – both occupations were jealously overseen by uncles George and Kit. These two became his mentors, and passed down the influence of Big Mumma, thus ruling out any conventional approach to livelihood, replacing it with an unworldly reliance on the imagination.
The OTC trained Fairfax to fly, and this counted against him when he refused national service (during the Korean conflict) on grounds of conscience. Even though he was then working for the Friends' Ambulance Service, he was jailed for three months and held in solitary to prevent him from contaminating the other inmates with his pacifism.
After his release he cycled to Cornwall to join his uncles and poets including Sydney Graham, John Heath-Stubbs and David Wright, who were lending solidarity to the emergent St Ives school of painters and failing to survive on odd jobs and beachcombing. Back in London, now 19, John was selling an occasional poem, being schooled by his uncle George and drinking precociously with the Soho lot – Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon – when he met the beautiful 18-year-old Esther Berk. In 1952 they sealed their marriage with a curtain ring. They lived for a time in Paris, where Esther was dancing in a nightclub.
Once more in London, John began a long series of jobs (excise clerk, private eye, coal-carrier), all of which ended in surreal disaster. When as ice-cream salesman at a School of Military Survey open day he backed his van into a minefield, detonating the load of ice-cream over the regimental band, the shock, together with the recent arrival of his and Esther's first son, Michael, indicated there had to be an attempt at secure employment. He found a job at a prep school in Berkshire, but left after two years when he and Esther discovered a derelict thatched cottage in a nearby wood. John persuaded the estate that owned the cottage that if they charged a small enough rent he would make it habitable. Here, over the next 15 or so years, as witnessed by endless visitors, John and Esther, with their sons Michael and Jo (both now artists themselves), somehow achieved a life of unaccountable luminosity, hospitality and richness.
John and I met in 1964 in Yattendon, in the pub. From the outset we talked the same language (I have two Irish grandmothers), which meant soon we were talking of the previous experience each of us had had, a form of apprenticeship under the guidance of a fine writer. We shared an anger at the seeming denial, at every level of so-called education, of any such formative authority. If there was bluff in this, it was called in 1968 when the two of us were given the opportunity to run a five-day residential course for 15 teenagers.
"You'll be living as writers", we told them. And that's what we did, cooking for ourselves, and writing, and reading in the evenings. John and I talking to them individually about their work. On the third day, Ted Hughes came and read from the manuscript of Crow.
Out of that grew the Arvon Foundation. The formula never changed, though it now runs 100 courses a year in four centres and has employed more than 1,500 professional writers, and unleashed the threat of goodness knows how many more. In 1972 we acquired the Domesday thatched manor-farmhouse at Sheepwash in Devon as the first Arvon Centre. In 1975 Ted and Carol Hughes leased Arvon their house, Lumb Bank, in Yorkshire; Moniack Mhor in Inverness-shire was opened in 1993; in 2003 a fourth centre followed.
Throughout, Fairfax was on Arvon's council of management and he tutored regularly for 30 years. His contribution was always focused and championed Arvon's original simple, elemental approach. Recently the novelist and poet Adam Thorpe told me that before he had started to write committedly he had gone to a reading of Fairfax's and at the end confided what he wanted to do, and bought a book. Fairfax signed it, together with the inscription "Live like a poet". That says about all one needs to know about John Fairfax.
His life was all to do with poetry: the Phoenix Press (inherited from George and Kit Barker and Maurice Carpenter), his teaching, work for the British Council, and editing. It tells of an integrity which may have asked a lot of others – there were times when partners might have been less taken with a finished sonnet than with a leg of lamb. But he seemed endlessly looked after, not least following his and Esther's separation, when he had a long relationship with the poet Sue Stewart; and then, towards the end, with the poet and film-maker Helena Michie.
Above all, there was his poetry. Most who know his work will think of his often exquisite and strangely stressed lyrics:
A geography of fire
Brands on an oak log
Huge as a thigh,
Those enchanting shapes
From the Barbary coast
That I see in the wood
Through prism of a tear
That dries on my cheek
As I dream before the blaze.
But he was drawn to big themes, too. "Wild Children" is a wonderfully poignant account of human alienation from the natural world. And "The Fifth Horseman of The Apocalypse", written (I remember) in a sort of shamanic fit that brought him literally to his knees, and out in sties and carbuncles, is a lament for all of us, identifying the insidious, corrosive element in our self-saturated culture that threatens the receptors of the imagination itself. A remarkable poet but, hardly surprising, not one that current fashion would have the nerve to notice.
John Fairfax, poet: born London 7 November 1930; married 1952 Esther Berk (marriage dissolved, two sons); died Reading 14 January 2009.
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