FRIENDSHIPS are not measured by lengths of time. It was only on 3 March 1992 that John Adlard first wrote to me, sending his poem about Edward Thomas - one I had annoyingly missed when editing an anthology of poems for and about that poet. 'And I do know,' the letter ends, 'that today is Edward Thomas's birthday.'
We arranged to meet at the South Bank Poetry Library and if the place had been crowded John Adlard would have stood out: a tall, spare man, with long, thinning white hair, some strands swept across a balding head, dressed casually in navy-blue sweatshirt and cagoule, a large book-filled knapsack on his back. When he turned I was immediately struck by incredibly blue eyes, very wide and candid. His voice was pitched high, excitable; from the first our conversation was fast-moving and unreserved.
Over tea we discussed common interests besides Edward Thomas: Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, theatre, John Gawsworth and the Redonda enigma, the 1890 writers of whom his knowledge was unique.
Over the next nine months we met several times, telephoning and exchanging letters in between. I pieced together something of his life as we jumped from subject to subject. He was born and grew up in Handsworth, Birmingham, and was top of the class at his primary school, recalling in a poem:
I remember the skin diseases of kids
I sat among at Rood End Infants
'We try to keep the clean books for
the clean children,'
The weary, kind Headmaster told my mother.
The scholarly schoolboy Adlard emerges from other poems in his collection The Lichfield Elegies (1991). Already, at school, appreciating Virgil and Racine, he was convinced, 'There would always, it seemed, be time for books.' He wrote of wartime air-raids, sleeping on shelves under the stairs with his brother, Roger, and one night watching in silence 'the flames of Coventry dance in the far sky'.
After grammar school he refused a scholarship to London University in 1946, determined to get to Oxford; the following year he gained a scholarship to Merton College. His closest friend at Oxford was the poet Alan Brownjohn; together they edited the magazine Departure. John Adlard was always a loner without being remote or 'stand-offish'. A 'sociable loner' is how one friend described him, and 'the most charming of eccentrics' another. He removed himself from the mainstream of literary life, and chose to teach abroad for the British Council in universities in Yugoslavia, Poland, Finland, Holland and Belgium. Each place added to his unusual, exotic and bizarre experiences.
There never was such a literary detective. In the short time I knew him he was on numerous fascinating trails, spending hours in the British Library in search of dates and details. One only had to mention some personal venture to him casually to be presented, within days, with useful leads. Perhaps now someone will show interest in Adlard's favourite Nineties heroine, Menie Muriel Norman, and succeed where he failed, in re-publishing her splendid story 'A Girl in the Karpathians'.
Some time before our meeting he had discovered, living in Epping Forest, an elderly man called Ernie Miller, thought to be the telegraph boy who, back in 1917, had delivered the news of Edward Thomas's death to his widow, Helen. Nothing during our friendship pleased John Adlard more than to take me, with two other friends, to visit Ernie. We met at Loughton station on an April morning, and on our walk were regaled with stories of every hut, track and clearing in the forest. On many fine days he would take a tube to the end of a line, then trudge through suburban countryside on the trail of a forgotten writer or minor literary figure.
Is it John Adlard's destiny to become one of these himself? Some of his published work remains well-known; his fine studies of Rochester, Blake, Apollinaire and Owen Seaman; the highly individual Christmas With Count Stenbock. Some poetry and translations are available in small press editions, and he was highly delighted to appear in Fiona Pitt-Kethley's Anthology of Erotic Verse. A novel is with one publisher, a book on Edward Thomas with another; he should have been reading this week at events to launch his Surrey anthology, just published by the Brentham Press.
The last few years had not been easy ones. Beneath his enthusiasm remained sadness at the ending of his short-lived marriage, anger at the road accident which left him a little lame, and most of all the belief that his writing had been neglected. If John Adlard chose sometimes to be private and apart, he was also meticulous over promises and arrangements and I am not alone among his friends in wondering where he was last Christmas and in the weeks before we heard news of his death. In a prose piece, 'Snow', he wrote:
On the day I was born my father walked alone in snow. If a man in black had approached and told him he would die alone, in snow, on my birthday just 50 years later, that would have been true. But of course there was no man in black.
John Adlard was to die on that same day, 14 years later.
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