Friday 15 April 2016

On Kenneth Allott

From 1938 comes 'Lament for a Cricket Eleven', a fine poem by Kenneth Allott . It can be found is several anthologies, notably Philip Larkin's Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse (my favourite of the several versions, not least because it includes the single most harrowing poem in the language: 'The Stockyards' by Sir John Squire, which I've never seen in print elsewhere. Do seek it out).

I was reminded of the Allott poem by my good friend Patrick Lyndon, who tells me that he once recited the poem as a schoolboy to an assembly hall full of aghast schoolmasters (do we still have 'schoolmasters'?). It was a remarkably precocious choice. Here it is:

Lament for a Cricket Eleven 
Beyond the edge of the sepia
Rises the weak photographer
With the moist moustaches and the made-up tie.
He looked with his mechanical eye,
And the upshot was that they had to die.  
Portrait of the Eleven nineteen-o-five
To show when these missing persons were last alive.
Two sit in Threadneedle Street like gnomes.
One is a careless schoolmaster
Busy with carved desks, honour and lines.
He is eaten by a wicked cancer.
They have detectives to watch their homes.  
From the camera hood he looks at the faces
Like the spectral pose of the praying mantis.
Watch for the dicky-bird. But, oh my dear,
That bird will not migrate this year.
Oh for a parasol, oh for a fan
To hide my weak chin from the little man.  
One climbs mountains in a storm of fear,
Begs to be unroped and left alone.
One went mad by a tape-machine.
One laughed for a fortnight and went to sea.
Like a sun one follows the jeunesse dorée.  
With his hand on the bulb he looks at them.
The smiles on their faces are upside down.
" I'll turn my head and spoil the plate."
" Thank you, gentlemen." Too late. Too late.  
One greyhead was beaten in a prison riot.
He needs injections to keep him quiet.
Another was a handsome clergyman,
But mortification has long set in.
One keeps six dogs in an unlit cellar.
The last is a randy bachelor.  
The photographer in the norfolk jacket
Sits upstairs in his darkroom attic.
His hand is expert at scissors and pin.
The shadows lengthen, the days draw in,
And the mice come out round the iron stove.
What I am doing, I am doing for love.
When shall I burn this negative
And hang the receiver up on grief?"  

© The Estate of Kenneth Allott

Patrick recalls changing 'randy' to 'rowdy', no doubt to avoid a thrashing. I'm intrigued by that early appearance of 'tape-machine' in the fourth stanza - when did they become part of daily life?

I know only a handful of Allott poems, scattered throughout anthologies from the 1930s, and was prompted by this poem to see what Allott books were available on my favourite website -, the thinking man's Amazon. It's the most addictive thing - you enter an author's name and a title. You can specify first or later editions, hardback or paperback, signed or unsigned and so on. The terrible thing I do is to sort from the highest price down, beginning with mouth-watering and unaffordable manuscripts and fabulous association copies, or de luxe limited editions, or authors' letters to their their publisher  or editor or - well, you name it,  

Among the 300 or so books listed under Allott (including a fine biography of Matthew Arnold, a stage adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View and many editions of other poets) I found an absolute treasure , which I snapped up. Here it is:

New Oxford Poetry 1936 was published after a four-year hiatus in a series that began in 1910 and is still going strong. This volume was edited by one A. W. (Alastair) Sandford, who appears to have left little trace. Past editors included (big breath) Dorothy L. Sayers, Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves, Vera Brittain, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Thwaite, John Fuller and Bernard O'Donoghue. As for the contributors, look 'em up here. It's a breathtaking list.

Only fifty copies of New Oxford Poetry 1936 were printed in this de luxe format, making my copy rare by any standards. There was a standard issue, greater in number, and I expect the de luxe version was snapped up by the contributors for presentation to loved ones (or proud retention). My copy has been signed by all twenty-seven contributors including Allott (who contributes an early poem entitled The Albatross). My next task will be to find out what I can about the other contributors, most of whom appear to have had illustrious, if not always literary, careers after graduation. Among them are Paul Engle (1908-1991), founder of the Iowa Writers' Course, a trailblazing creative writing programme that attracted a lustrous cohort including Robert Lowell; Sydney Carter (1915-2004), later to write the hymn 'Lord of the Dance' ('Dance! Dance! Wherever you may be, / I am the Lord of the Dance said he'); the Cairo poet Alan Rook who co-edited the wartime Oxford magazine Kingdom Come (backed by the family planning advocate Marie Stopes and dubbed by some wag Condom King); the writer and traveller Patrick Howarth (1905-2006) the altogether remarkable Margaret Rhodes; the distinguished scholar of Russian literature Henry Gifford (1913-2003); the future Labour peer  Rufus Noel-Buxton (1917-1980) and twenty others yet to be identified.

There's enough material here for several future blogs, if my readers can stand it - although I'd like to do something more  . . .  substantial?

Allott's Collected Poems, introduced and annotated by Michael Murphy, were published by Salt in 2009 (a snip at £11.99) and come with enthusiastic plaudits from Seamus Heaney, Russell Davies and Julian Symons.  You can order it from the publishers here.


  1. There used to be a complete online index to the Oxford Poetry series, but it seems to have vanished. There were 50 copies of this de luxe large paper edition signed by the 27 contributors; there was an ordinary edition, too: I don't know the size of that.

    1. Thank you - an online index would be useful. I'll clarify in the original blog that the book was produced in two versions. Was this a standard practice for the publication, do you know? I presume the deluxe versions were snapped up by contributors, which seems like a sound piece of marketing.