Tuesday 8 September 2015

On Ruth Pitter

From the enterprising independent Scottish publisher HappenStance Press, a splendid slim volume entitled A Conversation with Ruth Pitter by Thomas McKean (below). He is an American author, illustrator, artist and editor who admires her poetry and who, during visits to England in 1985 and 1987, recorded lengthy conversations with the poet. The HappenStance pamphlet is a transcription of their exchanges, and spellbinding. She's a great talker and he barely gets a word in, although his questions are always very well-judged, prompting a flood of recollections, judgements and torrents of poetry - mostly her own.

I'm tempted to refer to the poet's conversation as 'Pitter patter', but shan't. W. B. Yeats insisted that Pitter was "no name for a poet"but later became a great admirer. Her voice leaps from every page, every line - she is a wonderful, torrential natterer, her eloquent memories of a seventy-year poetic career regularly punctuated by a deflationary 'Oh dear'. Few writers in conversation come across as so completely loveable, and so reliably right. She is consistently delightful, and hilarious, and - although it seems an improper adjective - seductive. She is sharp, intelligent, and entirely without pretension.

She was born in Ilford, Essex, in 1897. Her parents were both teachers, working in the impoverished East End of London, and they all lived (with her other sister and a brother) in a modest cottage in Hainault Forest, a bucolic upbringing that made a lasting impression on her as a poet. A suburban Wordsworth, she wrote quite brilliantly about the natural world with a child-like alertness to light and colour and shapes, to flora and to fauna. There was little money around, and no luxury, but one senses the goodness and serenity of her family. They were not religious - her father had a keen interest in guild socialism. Both parents shared their love of poetry with their children.

Pitter received the Hawthornden Prize in 1937, the Heinemann Award for Literature in 1954, was the first woman to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry (in 1955). She was created a Companion of Literature in 1974 and a Commander of the British Empire in 1979. None of this went to her head.

She knew George Orwell when he was a hard-up teenager called Eric Blair. They had dinner together, and he was deeply embarrassed when she passed him some cash under the table to pay for their meal. 

One of my more unlikely possessions is a copy of Pitter's First and Second Poems 1912-1925 (with an introduction by her early admirer and sponsor Hilaire Belloc). This bears the square blue bookplate of Humphrey Jennings. I assume the connection was via Jennings's parents, who ran a failing arts and crafts workshop in Walberswick, Suffolk (where Jennings was born, appropriately enough, in the village Post Office; he went on to make a series of superb wartime documentaries for the GPO Film Unit). Pitter responded to a newspaper ad placed by the Jenningses and developed a successful career as a designer. She was a skilful painter, decorating furniture and - among other things - tea trays with floral images. I've never seen an example of her decorative work, which sounds like the type of thing that arty middle-class customers would snap up  in Heal's furniture store on the Tottenham Court Road.

There are many reasons to admire Ruth Pitter, although her non-modernist approach (which was not anti-modernist) has led, predictably enough but inexcusably, to critical neglect. She was much admired by Philip Larkin (no small recommendation, but the kiss of death these days). 

She published during the Blitz, a poetry collection entitled The Rude Potato. The marvellously silly title poem is about the sort of vegetable that made audiences shriek when held aloft by Esther Rantzen on her unfondly-remembered telly programme That's Life! in the 1970s.

Pitter became a committed Christian in later life, prompted in large part by her great admiration of, and close friendship with, C. S. Lewis (and readers of my blog will know that the initials stood for Clive Staples). Lewis once said that if he were ever to marry a woman it would be Miss Pitter. He did marry, disastrously, and Pitter's account of the marriage is one of the few moments when she is harsh in her judgement, and bracingly satirical. She was, one senses, very lonely but never, or seldom. downhearted, never bitter

She was also, in that pre-celebrity age, an unlikely celebrity, or sort of, appearing regularly as a panellist on the BBC programme The Brains Trust. You can hear her here. ('Hear her here' is unavoidable but  euphonious, which is a Good Thing.)

For much less than the price of ten cigarettes or even an average Christmas card, you can buy a beautifully-printed HappenStance pamphlet of Ruth Pitter's Selected Poems (above). HappenStance will be among the many independent publishers appearing at this year's Poetry Book Fair, at the Conway hall in Holborn on Saturday September 26th. Do go, and spend, spend, spend.

Cover images © HappenStance Press

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