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James Kirkup: Poet, author and translator who also wrote approximately 300 obituaries for The Independent

Richard Canning,James Fergusson
Saturday 16 May 2009 00:00 BST

James Kirkup, who died on Sunday 10 May, aged 91, at his Andorran home, was an internationally celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, playwright and translator. James Falconer Kirkup was born on 23 April 1918 in South Shields, County Durham. He attended Westoe Secondary School before studying Modern Languages at Armstrong College (later incorporated in the University of Durham), where he co-produced the poetry magazines Dint and Fulcrum, which featured his earliest verse.

During the Second World War, Kirkup secured conscientious objector status, working as a farm labourer and for the Forestry Commission. The first volume of his expressive poetry was The Cosmic Shape (1946), co-authored with Ross Nichols. Based for some time in London, Kirkup became known for his wit, flamboyance, outspokenness, sociability and bibulousness. He befriended literary types such as Jon Silkin, John Heath Stubbs, David Wright, Roy Campbell, Muriel Spark and Stephen Spender.

Kirkup was teaching modern languages at The Downs School in Gloucestershire, when his first solo collection, The Drowned Sailor (1947), appeared. At Minchenden Grammar School, he was dismissed for failing to keep discipline. Meanwhile, he struck up a friendship with the editor of The Listener, J. R. Ackerley, who began commissioning book reviews from him, as well as publishing examples of Kirkup's increasingly risqué verse. One poem, "The Convenience", addressed mens' recreational pursuits in a urinal. Ackerley forced through its publication despite his typists' refusal to co-operate.

In 1950, Kirkup's growing reputation precipitated his appointment as the first Gregory Poetry Fellow at Leeds University. He later interpreted his responsibilities thus: "to be myself and do as I pleased with absolute artistic and bohemian freedom." He rented a flat in the red light district, to which he invited favoured verse-writing undergraduates including Robin Skelton, whose talents he encouraged. Kirkup's 1952 collection, A Correct Compassion, received very favourable reviews. A number of its poems related to Leeds, including the title-poem – much reproduced and anthologised – which recounted Kirkup's attendance at a heart operation in Leeds General Infirmary.

Kirkup became Head of the Department of English at Bath Academy of Art in 1953, but in 1956 he left England for good, convinced that "The Movement", and associated changes in literary tastes, would prevent his achieving greater renown. He lectured in Sweden and Spain before taking up a succession of teaching appointments in Japan, culminating in a 12-year tenure as Professor of English Literature at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies (1977-1989).

His engagement with Japanese culture was characteristically quixotic. Kirkup refused to familiarise himself with the language. However, he developed an admiration for both the haiku and tanka forms of Japanese poetry, co-opting these for his own versifying in English. In 1965 Kirkup won the Japan PEN Club Prize for Poetry. He established a magazine, Poetry Nippon, in 1966; and in 1969 was appointed President of the Poet's Society of Japan. The apogee of his Eastern achievements was an invitation in 1997 by the Japanese emperor to participate in the Imperial New Year Poetry Reading.

In 1964, Kirkup was made Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and between 1974 and 1977, he was often in England. He secured an Arts Council Creative Writing Fellowship at Sheffield University, and then became playwright-in-residence at the Sherman Theatre, University College, Cardiff. But Kirkup's verse was about to bring him recognition on the scale he had longed for, if not in the manner he had wished.

Kirkup had placed a long poem, "The Love that Dares to Speak its Name", in the June 1976 issue of Gay News. Its account of a Roman centurion fantasising about having sex with the body of Christ brought it to the attention of the campaigner for public morals, Mrs Mary Whitehouse. She instigated legal proceedings against the newspaper and its editor, Denis Lemon, for the "recrucifixion of Christ by 20th-century weapons."

The Crown duly undertook to prosecute for blasphemy. The trial opened in July 1977 at the Old Bailey. Kirkup was "mortified" by the scandal over what he had already decided was "not aesthetically a successful work." Being abroad during the trial, he decided to keep away. John Mortimer, barrister and author, led for the defence. Bernard Levin and Margaret Drabble agreed to defend the poem on literary grounds, though this would be ruled inadmissable. (Angus Wilson, a longstanding friend of Kirkup's, declined to do so, for fear of jeopardising several offers of lucrative teaching at American universities).

Lemon and Gay News were found guilty in the last successful British prosecution for blasphemy. Lemon was given a suspended jail sentence that was overturned on appeal. The judge, Alan King-Hamilton, rejoiced in predicting that the "pendulum of public opinion was beginning to swing back to a more healthy climate", making clear his own view of the "appalling" poem. Kirkup remained embarrassed by the whole affair, and in 2002 a commemoration of the trial which involved the banned poem's recitation in London drew Kirkup's disapproval; he felt he was "being used." Soon afterwards, Kirkup moved to Andorra, where he wrote and published more prolifically than ever.

His oeuvre includes around 40 verse collections, six books of autobiography (chiefly concerning his childhood), and many translations from the French, starting with Camare Laye's novel The Dark Child (1955) and Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958). He occasionally took on German works too, such as Friedrich Durrenmatt's play Physicists (1963). A run of impressively-rendered French novels in the 1990s began with Patrick Drevet's A Room in the Woods and Jean-Baptiste Piel's Painted Shadows (both 1991); the latter won Kirkup the Scott Moncrieff Prize for Translation. Jean-Noel Pancrazi's Vagabond Winter (1992) followed, and then four books by Hervé Guibert: The Compassion Protocol (1993), The Man in the Red Hat (1993), Blindsight and Paradise (both 1996).

The author Francis King recalls Kirkup as "a narcissist and exhibitionist; he was as witty as Quentin Crisp and had the same admirably courageous effrontery". Paul Bailey remembers a rococo figure, startlingly individualistic, desporting himself among the burghers of Newcastle in late middle-age, clad in a kimono. Kirkup could regale listeners with baroque accounts of his sexual adventures. There was, however, a more sombre, even sadder, side to him. One can feel this when he notes how Pancrazi's novel had displayed "the eternal problem, for gays, of establishing a fairly durable human relationship with another", and celebrated its portrayal of "a totally neglected segment of the homosexual population – those who are no longer young and beautiful." Still, Kirkup celebrated his own former youth and beauty – much acknowledged in its day – in the tongue-in-cheek self-regard which characterise his underrated autobiographies such as I, Of All People (1988), A Poet Could Not But Be Gay (1991) and Me All Over (1993).

Richard Canning

James Kirkup was a loyal and expert contributor to The Independent, writes James Fergusson, still writing for the paper when he was almost 90. He was a one-man world literature necrology department, supplying obituaries of writers from every country in which he had ever worked – and a few others. No dry academic (despite all his overseas professorships), he was an enthusiast, an evangelist for the untranslated, and an active translator himself. His enthusiasms were wide and extended well beyond writers – notably to actors, actresses and, his glorious staple, chansonniers.

Over nearly two decades Kirkup wrote some 300 obituaries, hardly any of them written in advance of death, and most neatly typed on two sheets of close-set A4 and faxed from his eyrie in Andorra. Fax was his only concession to modern technology. Occasionally there were crises over typewriter ribbons. Once, with difficulty, he sourced a brand-new typewriter.

The first obituary he contributed was not, as he told the story, for the French novelist Hervé Guibert (who died of Aids), but for the "grand old man of Japanese letters" Yasushi Inoue. That was in 1991 – the year the first Independent Foreign Fiction Award was presented. The Independent prided itself on its international coverage and its obituaries pages were deliberately, sometimes provocatively, unparochial. Some readers were as infuriated by James Kirkup's poets with unpronounceable names as others were by Steve Voce's of drunken American jazz saxophonists.

Kirkup's subjects were most often French, or Japanese, but a dip in his files shows provenances from Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden to Algeria, Morocco, Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Cuba. The British, he said, "are neither my province nor my cup of tea". There seemed to be no writer he hadn't read, or at least looked at; and for many of his characters there was a telling anecdote – he had sat in their audience, sent them a letter, seen them in a bar in Paris, met them at a party in Tokyo. The range of occupations he covered was virtuoso – not just poet, novelist, playwright and publisher, actor, singer and film director, but also circus artist, sculptor, architect, philosopher, mathematician, historian, kimono designer, shoemaker, shakuhachi player, sumo wrestler and businessman (I note Den Fujita of the "vivacious patter", founder of McDonald's Japan).

Many of these subjects were the delicious small fry that are the best thing about an obituaries page, but he also addressed himself to Ingmar Bergman, Marcel Marceau, Elias Canetti, Jean Marais, Julien Green, Julien Gracq, Stanley Kubrick and Shusaku Endo. His elegant account of Jean-Dominique Bauby was reprinted in a recent edition of The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly. One person he refused to write about was Mary Whitehouse. When I asked him in 2001 whether he would like to add anything to our obituary coverage, he sighed. He was heartily sick of the celebrity the Gay News blasphemy trial had given him, and of the poem that caused it.

Kirkup admitted to a fascination with the obituary genre. Writing in 2002 in the magazine The Author (his article was headed "The Grateful Dead"), he spun a telephone romance. It was the "laughter" in the voice of Emma Hagestadt, then an assistant on the obituaries desk, that had recruited him to The Independent. When he was in London, Emma had left flowers at his hotel. He gathered himself a new library to satisfy her future demands, and now he could scarcely move about his apartment. His favourite subjects, he said, were "always people of a rather eccentric and dubiously entertaining character": these allowed him to introduce "a certain light-hearted tenderness" into the obituary pages. When future students come to write theses on "Light-Hearted Tenderness in the Obituaries of James Kirkup" they will find boxes and boxes of his original typescripts in the Beinecke Library at Yale.

The discipline of obituaries suited him, I think. They took him outside himself. In his autobiographies, or in the portraits drawn of him by his mentor J.R. Ackerley in the 1940s and 1950s, he can appear fey, extravagant, self-centred. Necrology demanded self-denial. In old age James Kirkup was less fey than shy on the telephone, spoken English coming to him almost as a foreign language. Yet he remained playful. Two years ago he sent me his "poems for Andorra", An Island in the Sky, mostly exercises in tanka. One of the poems is entitled "Obituary". It is a tribute to the "grand old man of the Pyrenees" – Papillon. Papillon was not a man at all, but a brown bear. He had been found dead, aged 30.

James Falkender Kirkup, writer, translator and poet; born South Shields, Co Durham 23 April 1918; died Andorra 10 May 2009.

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