I’m reading “The Three of Us” by Julia Blackburn. I knew Thomas Blackburn, her father, in the sixties when I was training to be a teacher, as one of a group of men who taught me English. In the formal sense he was a hopeless teacher but just by being what he was, he made a great impact on me.
For a start, he was a poet and came with a reputation as winner of the Leeds Poetry Prize – and his brother was a writer of detective novels! This was the real thing. Tom was absent-minded and repeated himself; he was ill-prepared and made rambling, obscure observations about writers that made note-taking impossible – and for a ramshackle student like myself, mercifully unnecessary. He often wandered in to a lecture theatre forgetting who he he was supposed to be teaching. Some people were annoyed by this but I was fascinated by him. I felt myself in the presence of an artist who lived life on a superior plane. He felt what Conrad felt, it seemed to me. “He’d peeped over the edge himself, d’you see?” he would urge, working his lower lip.” He had seen THE HORROR! Temendrous!” He introduced us to Larkin, making us all jump by reciting what your mum and dad do to you without meaning to and thundered out, pounding on the table to keep time (as I often did later in my classes) Vachel Lindsay’s “Congo”:
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room
Barrel house kings with feet unstable
Sagged and reeled and POUNDED on the table
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom …
BOOMLAY-BOOMLAY- BOOMLEY BOOM!
Somehow, if Tom stamped a writer as “temendrous”, you felt he or she was worth taking seriously. He knew other “temendrous” poets and introduced them to us – often in pubs and accompanied by jazz. Lots of them were as fascinatingly other-worldly and unpredictable as he was – Stevie Smith, Michael Horovitz and his colleague and fellow lecturer, the almost blind John Heath-Stubbs. One rubbed shoulders with and spilled brown ale on the likes of Danny Abse and Jeremy Robson, Dom Moraes and Peter Porter and in that way, my lifelong pleasure in poetry took root. I have to admit that I struggled to enjoy Tom’s poems but I remember with admiration how much himself he seemed to be as he delivered them, particularly “Hospital for Defectives” – a reflective piece inspired by his having seen a warder knocking about mentally disabled men who had been put to work in a field, grubbing up turnips.
What Julia’s remarkable memoire reveals is just how defective, not to say bonkers the poor chap was himself, how damaged by his mad missionary dad who made him wear a steel clip on his penis at night to prevent nocturnal emissions and to deter erotic dreams; how misguided by his long-term Freudian analyst; how unfortunately matched he was to his three long-suffering and equally needy wives; how wildly bohemian his life actually was. I mean, a fling with Francis Bacon? – and him a fully paid up womaniser. Blimey.
I was far too bourgeois to have any idea of what was really going on in Tom’s life although later in mine I did tow my wife along to meet him and Peggy, his third. Now Julia, in her affectionate way has allowed me a precious and fascinating peep over the edge into his private universe. To her – as I shall always be to him – I am deeply grateful.