TODAY the term 'Essex Man' conjures up various images, not all of them complimentary, but in 1919 when the poet Frederic Vanson was born the people of that county would have been more concerned with memories of a war rather than any collective image of themselves. Frederic's birthplace, West Ham, was then part of Essex, bordering on the rural, and somewhat less frenetic than our modern motorway-riddled countryside.
There is no doubt that this area shaped his childhood but there was also another influence at work. Before the First World War his grandmother was employed in the house of the then Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin - her working environment and enthusiasm for literature had a marked effect on the future of her grandson. She encouraged him to read her encyclopaedias and told him stories of Austin composing his poetry while walking alone in the garden. At the age of eight he had a box of his own writings (always kept locked, according to his father), but in his late twenties he destroyed everything he had ever written.
During the Second World War Frederic Vanson was in a non-combatant unit engaged in search and rescue during the London blitz. One of his later poetry collections, A War Ago (1990), echoes these years but often indirectly. 'The night is beautiful with fires; they are burning the stubble.' And the poem moves through harvest to hell, from horror to hope.
A Dementia of Days (1982) is another collection that laments the death of his first wife but also reveals certain emotions that most people would rather erase. These two collections are just two of a score published between 1949 and 1990. He also had hundreds of poems published in magazines and his work was broadcast on national and local radio, collecting many prizes on the way.
Apart from poetry he had three other obsessions: photography, music and steam locomotives. John Betjeman was also keen on 'trains' and Vanson and Betjeman corresponded, trading locomotive verse for railway rhyme. For the last 25 years he was married to the painter Olive Bentley. Together they were a team (and a tonic) but as individuals were able to support as well as stand back.
Frederic Vanson's depth of reading, his wide spectrum of hobbies and his knowledge of the sciences and the arts, as well as his interest in people and the countryside is all reflected in his writing. He was poetry columnist to Essex Countryside Magazine for over a decade and in this capacity helped hundreds of aspiring writers.
Only days before he died he was still full of ideas, still writing, waiting for his next collection, Another City, to be published in October.