Stuart Mills

Publisher of the little magazines 'Tarasque' and 'Aggie Weston's' who took 'Blast' as his model
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Thomas Stuart Mills, poet and small press publisher: born Mancott, Flintshire 21 April 1940; married 1963 Rosemary Deval (one son, one daughter); died Belper, Derbyshire 2 March 2006.

The word Tarasque can be found in certain French dictionaries. It denotes a fabulous beast, said to have once terrorised the Valley of the Rhône, and its representation which was customarily carried in procession through a number of Provençal towns. On the cover of the eponymous little magazine that Stuart Mills co-founded in 1966, the creature was no polite memorial, but took on a menacing, almost Aztec character, belching flame from its beak.

This was decidedly not a publication that was ready to endorse the current state of the republic of letters. It stood fierce and firm in acknowledging its obscurity. Tarasque 2 asserted from the start that "as very few people will be totally concerned with the magazine we have dispensed with an editorial". Its parting shot came on the last page: "It may depress readers to learn that the TLS is in its 65th year."

Mills had been born in North Wales in 1940. His father died when he was aged five, and he was brought up by an aunt in Birmingham, where he attended junior and secondary school. He met his wife, Rosemary, while training as a teacher. But he soon tired of the teaching profession. When the Tarasque Press was founded in 1964, he had taken the more congenial option of opening the Trent Bookshop in Nottingham with a fellow refugee from teaching, Martin Parnell.

In the course of its first year, Simon Cutts began to assist with the publishing agenda of Tarasque, and soon his characteristic voice as a poet began to alternate with that of Mills. Both were evidently in agreement about the type of poetry that they valued, and the poets that they preferred, both modern and contemporary. Tarasque 6 intimated: "A mistake most commonly made stems from the assumption that the small poem is of necessity less important than the near epic." The poets featured in the issue included J.M. Synge, T.E. Hulme, Georg Trakl and Ezra Pound, together with Hugh Creighton Hill, Jonathan Williams and Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Condemned for their arrogance in the metropolis, Mills and Cutts had no compunctions about attacking the metropolitan writers then in vogue. Quite a bit of space was taken up in pointing out the defects of the work of Anselm Hollo, and a bit more in countering his wounded response. But, though Mills explicitly regarded the tone of Wyndham Lewis's Blast as the one to be aimed for, Tarasque continued to reach out to the select group of contemporary writers with whom they could make common cause.

Their spring catalogue of 1969 records the publication of books of poems by Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull and Hugh Creighton Hill. It also proudly recalls Ian Hamilton Finlay's Ocean Stripe 5, by all accounts one of his most significant poem booklets to date (published in 1967), with its inspired juxtaposition of avant-garde poetic texts by Kurt Schwitters and evocative photographs of fishing-boats.

Stuart Mills had made the journey to see Ian Hamilton Finlay at Stonypath in the Scottish Borders in August 1967, and returned in September with his wife Rosemary and what Finlay described as "their very large Weimar dog". This was the beginning of a friendship to which Mills remained faithful all his life, and one whose influence resounded in the future course of his own work. As champions of the "small poem", both Mills and Cutts used the press like Finlay's Wild Hawthorn Press to publish numerous poem cards, postcards and poem prints. A wry example of their close collaboration was Cutts's card with the neat ad hominem text: "All his life Mr S. Mills has been trying to say something exactly arbitrary about the sea."

My own connection with Tarasque also dates from this period, and I fill a small corner of the 1969 catalogue. I remember occasional visits to Stuart and Rosemary Mills at Apple Cottage - a house, as I recall it, with an orchard - and Rosemary's grave presence lends the scene an almost Pre-Raphaelite quality in retrospect.

Poem constructions based on fishing-boat names, designed specially by Ian Hamilton Finlay, were later installed in the garden. There was also, in those years, the companionship of that "very large" dog - a Weimaraner whose ancestors had been bred to hunt at the Saxon court, yet whose manners were as gentle as his coat was satin-smooth.

The achievement of the Tarasque Press was well summed up in the exhibition "Metaphor and Motif" that took place at the Midland Group Gallery, Nottingham, in 1972. Characteristically, Mills wondered aloud in his entry for the catalogue about the "very little exposure" that the Tarasque publications had received over the preceding years. But he expressed the hope that "if the catalogue is read widely enough then it should be clear that something surprisingly consistent has been going on in Nottingham for the past few years."

In effect, this catalogue has survived as a clear testimony to the defined aesthetic position that Mills and Cutts sustained over the previous eight years. But it also illustrates the expansion of their poetics from the printed page to the world of crafted objects. Mills's photographs of the inscriptions in the garden at Stonypath indicated this incipient development. A photograph of his own Arcadian poem-construction, entitled Glade, was published in Tarasque 11-12.

However the 1972 exhibition marked the end of Tarasque as a coherent artists' group. Cutts moved to Birmingham, and subsequently to London, where he continued his work as poet and publisher of the Coracle Press. The painter Ian Gardner, who was already collaborating with Tarasque by the time of the 1969 catalogue, created the Blue Tunnel Press, and later became one of the main participants in the New Arcadians group, whose pioneering studies of garden history have continued up to the present day.

It is probably true that all of these enterprises are today more greatly valued, perhaps indeed more well-known, in France and the United States than in Britain. Tarasque is certainly acknowledged to have been at the origin of this distinctive mode of publication, culturally rich yet direct in its message and always professional in design, that has few parallels in contemporary artistic production. Its legacy contrasts markedly with the cult of the ephemeral, the throwaway and the deliberately amateurish associated with avant-garde movements like Fluxus.

Mills himself taught on the foundation course at Derby University in the 1970s/ 1980s. But his work as a small press publisher continued. Aggie Weston's, the publication that ran to 21 editions over the period 1973 to 1984, was too irregular to be classed as a magazine, and was explained by Mills as offering "some sort of refuge". Its title was indirectly derived from Kurt Schwitters's notion of "A Small Home for Seamen", and more directly from the record of an "Aggie Weston" who had founded seamen's homes. Among those who accepted the hospitality of an issue were Robert Lax, Richard Long and Jonathan Williams. Mills's own photographs of Stonypath formed a memorable compilation.

From 1990 onwards, Mills held several exhibitions of the work of the poets and artists with whom he had been associated at the Atrium Gallery in Derby. But his most ambitious recent venture was the series of "Poetspoems" that he initiated in 2000, and that had reached the total of 21 small books by the end of 2005. This was an idea that he cheerfully stole, with full acknowledgement, from Desert Island Discs.

Poets were invited to choose eight poems (no more, no less), and the selected works were published with no further editing. It was a formula that created instant attention, and the response by poets such as Robert Creeley, Edwin Morgan and Iain Sinclair was both generous and timely.

Mills's own selection, placed in a sealed envelope to avoid second thoughts and appearing as No 10, combined Wyndham Lewis with Wallace Stevens, Spike Hawkins with Robert Garioch, J.M. Synge with Sir Thomas Wyatt, and ended with Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford) and Robert Creeley's "The Bird". Here, as in the other cases, the splendidly eclectic choice fully justified the exercise.

By far his most ambitious publication of another poet's work also dated from this recent period. In time for Christmas 2004, he brought out a copious selection of Ian Hamilton Finlay's Domestic Pensées, ranging from 1964 to 1972. Only his long and close connection with Finlay could have elicited this series of aphoristic gems, originally recorded in a notebook on a regular basis but not intended for publication. It is clear that Finlay's 80th birthday celebrations in Edinburgh in 2005 were a great joy to him, and Mills enthusiastically participated in the openings of the two fine exhibitions.

No doubt he was delighted with the evidence that, in this case at any rate, the world had (however belatedly) rendered poetic justice.

Stephen Bann