Some years ago, when I was working in a tree-nursery, an ex-detective-inspector weeding alongside said he would like to give me some old magazines he had found in his attic. These turned out to be seven editions of Poetry London, from the early ‘40s, in mint condition. Never having heard of the magazine, I was intrigued by the name of the editor, Tambimuttu, captivated by the stunning covers (Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland,) and impressed by the quality of the poetry, which included early Raine, Dylan Thomas, Barker, and a Keith Douglas, and tended to the lyrical, sinewy, highly coloured stuff of that period, that was soon to be eclipsed (in terms of critical taste) by the Movement.
If this book is anything to go by, that unlikely introduction to Tambimuttu’s achievement conforms to the man himself: exotic in the Blitz years, increasingly sad and crumpled as his visions failed to materialise, this Tamil Hindu Catholic of Royal blood and distinguished kin, inventor of the term ‘Fitzrovia’, haunter of pubs in same, founder of poets and presses, believer in the total man and of poetry as ‘vitality ‘, comes across as quixotic, maddening, brilliant and impossible. This Festschrift includes some of his poems, essays, and autobiographical pieces on his childhood in Ceylon, but is mainly a multitude of recollections by friends and fellow luminaries, which, in the way of these things, grows somewhat repetitive, and frequently bears scars in what is left unsaid. There is a great difference between the memories of the men, who tend to be fellow Fitzrovians, young hopefuls of the ‘40s giving Bohemia a certain charged innocence in the face of enlistment and action, and the women, who put up with Tamhi’s proclivities, and typed. But the roll-call of recollectors is impressive, testament itself to the man’s peculiar genius: Murdoch, Durrell, Smart, Gascoyne, Raine, Patten, to name at random, a wonderful aura-packed contribution from Timothy Leary, for whom Tambimuttu was guru:
‘I felt some strange fraternal bond with this man. We had some wonderful heritage in common, some secret that we shared, some ancient connection.’
As with all the best gurus, Tambimuttu (Tambi to friends) has an earthier side: ‘Tambi would strip naked and run through the rooms just like a little boy …’ or ‘Perhaps the fact that Tambi ate so little and drank so much contributed to this modest body odour – pints and pints of bitter beer!’ A master of obsence limericks as well as transcendental statements, he kept submissions in a chamber-pot under his bed and was proverbially able to intuit a real poet by what Kathleen Raine (an early discovery of his) call ‘the direct perception of that living radiance.’ Auden and the later Eliot were not so favoured, Dylan Thomas was. Raine regards Tambi as having been too great for London’s ‘provincial duck-pond’; Poetry London foundered after 23 issues and Editions Poetry London after 62 items, many of them lavish, and important (Raine’s Stone and Flower, or the famous Gascoyne Poems: 1937-1942, illustrated by Sutherland). Various publishing ventures in the US, where he spent the ‘50s and the more suitable ‘60s, never came to much, and an attempted revival in 1979 of the old magazine produced just two issues of Poetry London, while weeks before his death in 1983 he laid the basis for the Indian Arts Council (having been welcomed in India as a star) in order to bring the two worlds of the ti tie closer together – his most lasting achievement, perhaps.
For, despite this beautifully-produced book, the final assessment must be tinged with regret: that this lyrebird’s song did not root itself more firmly, more persuasively, in the ears of a culture hijacked, on the one hand, by the materialist academics he so suspected, and on the other, by conformity and commerce. In the London of the ‘90s, there’s not even a Bohemia for a young, poetdrunk Indian to ‘instinctively set forth’ for : reading this book is to enter after closing time; the warmth still there, but the silence poignant, sharp after the shouting.
‘September. The war barely declared. A party… swinging fully in my shared Charlotte Street Flat… Suddenly in front of me: an appanuon. No less! Thin, flailing arms ending in dark slim hands, one pinioning a cigarette, the other batoning with a half-full pint glass. A sunburst of a smile; dark rock-pool eyes, shining with spontaneous, exuberant joy; dark ascetic (O! artless fraud) face mantled by puma-black mane…
‘Hello, Russel! Thank you for asking me to your party…
My name is Tambi, are you a poet?’