Obituary: Edwin Brock

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The Independent Online
Some poets' anthology pieces are justly representative, others are not. From their first appearance in the 1960s, two of Edwin Brock's poems have become constant anthology favourites, discussion material in many a classroom: "Five Ways to Kill a Man" and "Song of the Battery Hen". Laconic, chilling, colloquial, witty, these poems are good examples of Brock's intensely felt, supple, direct and memorable work. But before, alongside and after them are many other poems which deserve continuing currency.

Brock's first exposure to something like poetic fame arrived towards the end of his eight years as a constable in the London Metropolitan Police, in the late 1950s. Having been to his surprise interviewed by a Daily Express journalist, he opened a copy of the paper on a rush-hour tube (on the way to the Police Driving School in Hendon), furtively expecting to find - perhaps - a two-inch news item. Instead, right across the top of one of the pages, "in the blackest type the editor could find", it said: "PC 258 CONFESSES I'M A POET"; and below it, "THE THINGS HE THINKS UP AS HE POUNDS THE PECKHAM BEAT".

He realised with sudden horror that "a policeman-poet is as newsworthy as a dog-biting man", some time before P.D. James's poet-detective - who is, after all, fictional. Fortunately Brock's Metropolitan superiors were tolerant, indeed rather proud of him. The fact that he had, without permission, allowed himself to be interviewed - and photographed - was indulgently smiled at. He even appeared on television, "the bobby on the beat".

In fact Brock at the time had been writing poems for 10 years, beginning soon after he had done his two years' national service in the Royal Navy, towards the end and just after the Second World War. In 1946, a bored 18-year-old in the Royal Naval Barracks in Hong Kong, waiting for demob the following year, he had read all the well-thumbed paperbacks available except one: a paperback anthology of modern poetry. It was a revelation. Coming from a turbulent and totally unliterary family in south London, he had managed to win a scholarship to a local grammar school; but School Certificate was as far as he got. Now, a few years later, something more enticing beckoned.

After demob, during a short and pointless period as a trade journalist, he wrote painfully but prolifically. Gradually he began to publish in the little magazines of the time - Poetry Quarterly, Outposts - and then, amazingly, he was accepted by the Times Literary Supplement. By this time he had joined the police. Alan Pryce-Jones, the patrician and plummy-voiced editor of the TLS, at first published his poems without knowing anything about him, but was astonished - and probably delighted - to discover that his protege was a genuine proletarian.

This was the moment of "the bobby on the beat". But Brock never allowed himself to be patronised, never cashed in on this rather absurd spurt of notoriety. From his first discovery of poetry, and of his own gift, he went on reading and exploring a great deal else, always with his own characteristic blend of vision, seriousness, native humour, and crisp common sense.

They were qualities which infused not only his poetry but also his new- found employment as an advertising copywriter. In 1959, having left the police, he joined the firm of Mather and Crowther, and quickly established himself as someone who - in that public-school, Oxbridge world of cut- throat cleverness - was cleverer than almost any of them at identifying the market, inventing the right words, piercing through layers of fancy bullshit, to sell the maximum of stuff to the maximum of people. In his continuing, and continuingly successful, advertising career for the next 30 years, he was acknowledged both by his hard-nosed colleagues and by his "literary" friends to be supremely good at his job - though it was a job he frequently said he despised. It bored him, he said. It certainly frustrated him.

His real creative life, he knew, was his poetry. He published his first collection, An Attempt at Exorcism, with the small but prestigious Scorpion Press (early publisher of Peter Porter, Jenny Joseph, Christopher Logue et al), in 1959. He went on to publish another dozen or so books of poems, including his selection in Penguin Modern Poets 8, alongside Geoffrey Hill and Stevie Smith, in 1966. By that time he had also brought out his only novel, The Little White God, which drew on his police experience. Later, in 1977, he produced a striking memoir which mixed verse and prose, Here. Now. Always. He was one of the few British poets of his generation to be noticed by the Americans: James Laughlin of New Directions was a consistent supporter, and published several of Brock's books in the United States.

I first met Brock in the early 1960s, when both he and I were on the periphery of the so-called "Group" - Edward Lucie-Smith's intense and at the time important poetry workshop (as it might now be called): we had close friends in it, but weren't joiners. He was going through the agony of a divorce, source of several earlier poems, but was soon to marry his second wife, Liz, who was his close and essential companion for 30 years. I took to him immediately: convivial, sometimes reckless; but always gentle, generous, tough, funny, entertaining, lovable.

In the 1970s he and Liz joined us as almost next-door neighbours in rural south Norfolk. When in 1988 he finally retired, very cheerfully, from advertising, I saw him develop other gifts - potter, painter, bonsai-grower - along with his poems. He revelled, quietly, in his enjoyment of all these. Whatever he did, he did well - even (as he might have said) bloody awful advertising. And some of his poems will certainly survive, beyond any vagaries of fashion.

Anthony Thwaite

Edwin Brock, poet: born London 19 October 1927; police constable, Metropolitan Police 1951-59; advertising copywriter, Mather and Crowther 1959-64; creative group head, S.H. Benson 1964-72, Ogilvy Benson and Mather, 1972-88; poetry editor, Ambit 1960-97; married 1959 Patricia Weller (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1964), 1964 Elizabeth Skilton (one daughter); died Low Tharston, Norfolk 7 September 1997.