Day 68, No. 68. Colin Phillips (1939-2016): Traveller, Marxist, Existentialist, cyclist; last of the ‘Soho Poets,’ and a very dear friend, who died earlier today after a long battle with cancer. OK, this is a bit of a diversion from my usual stuff, but as this blog does include artists and writers, and as the charming old devil didn’t have much hair on his head, I figure he counts. He was certainly one of my heroes.
Colin was a proper Cockney, born in Brick Lane to a Quaker family at the start of World War Two; his father was a cabbie and his mother stayed at home. When his older brother left home after the war, Colin was moved into his room from the attic. His brother had left some jazz 78s which enchanted Colin. He began to trawl bomb damage sales in search of records, and on one expedition bought a bookcase for his room, with which the market trader threw in a bunch of unwanted books. Colin was amazed by a pocket encyclopaedia of science and nature, a lot of which he memorized, being particularly taken with Newton’s Laws. Much to his family’s and teachers’ surprise, he thus sailed through the 11+ and went to a good grammar school, escaping the working class existence Fate had previously had in store for him.
Colin was a beatnik in the 50s, part of a group of intellectuals – the so-called ‘Soho Poets’ – who hung around the bars of the West End, including the poet and mathematician Brian Higgins, the poet George Barker, the poet and literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith, and the poet and translator, Oliver Bernard, brother of the journalist Jeffrey Bernard, all scraping by on freelance journalism, private tutoring, and the odd piece in the Poetry Review. He lived for a time in Paris in the early-60s, sharing a flat with James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity. (An avid cyclist all his life, he also competed in several Tours de France.) In the early-60s, Colin cycled across India, eloping with a high caste Indian woman who he had been teaching English. The couple married, and remained together for over fifty years, having three sons. They moved to England in the mid-60s, buying a rundown farmhouse outside Old Buckenham in Norfolk, which they spent the next ten years renovating while raising the family in a railway carriage and running the farm as a smallholding. Oliver Bernard lived in the neighboring village of Kenninghall, and the men set up a weekly Shakespeare reading group which ran for the next thirty-five years, until Bernard’s death in 2013.
I met Colin in 1988, when we both took one of the first Open Access Courses in Arts and Social Sciences, and his wisdom and generosity of spirit were immediately apparent. We subsequently went on to study Literature and Philosophy together at the University of East Anglia, and he was a great encouragement to what became my academic career. In seminars, he was quite capable of beginning an anecdote with ‘As Sartre once said to me…’ while he was fluent in half a dozen European and Asian languages. In retirement, Colin and his wife, Gulcheher, remained in Old Buckenham, living in a converted Methodist chapel, splitting their time between England and India. Colin was a meticulous poet, but did not believe in publishing, preferring to simply write for the sheer joy of it. He was essentially in the Modernist tradition, being particularly inspired by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and, especially, Wyndham Lewis, whose influence merged with his interest in Eastern European literature and Indian philosophy; at the time of his death, he was working on a Book of Days. Colin was surrounded by a United Nations of friends, including artists, writers and musicians from several generations, his home an Aladdin’s Cave of books, paintings and records. He loved to talk literature and philosophy, and would call at impossibly early or late hours, intent on deconstructing whatever he was currently reading, and whatever state of sobriety he was in, leading to long and fascinating stories that never went anywhere. These calls would drive me crazy some days, but right now I’d give anything to hear his voice one more time. I went to see him on Saturday, and he was not in a good way, although a couple of months before he was trying to open a bookshop in Norwich based on Shakespeare and Company, Paris. So I got to say ‘Goodbye.’ My son loved him too. He’s too young to deal with death, so I’ve told him Colin’s gone to India. We are all certainly going to miss him desperately, wherever he’s gone, but it can truly be said that he lived a long and fascinating life, and enjoyed every moment of it. I would like to think he’s found Oliver, his best friend, on some far flung astral plane, and that they are getting twisted on Absinthe, smoking heavily and arguing about religion.
This is the poem Colin wrote for us when Vincent was born…
WAKING INTO INFINITY
More stars than people! They play above our heads,
Comfortable in their skies, and seed and fall
Endlessly towards a future-perfect tense.
And we, we also, burn and beget upon our beds,
Uncomfortable with histories – whose more than tall
Ghosts, charge us with their atavistic rents-
And yet, this sufficient world where lying people
Perform ever the cadences of truth;
In stellar violence with a seasonal theme –
The lively vaudeville, whose puerperal
Curtain-call will raise the roof,
To make theatre-space from a dream.
These events, coloured with blood, the red stars
We call our children – unimaginable the gain
For a universe whose epicentre
Is the whole in the heart – whose scars
Repair our loss, advertise our pain
And delineate the advent in adventure.
Always more life than death, where futurity
Demands an ever recurring series;
Wherein we place the possibility of what can be,
Before the NO, before the wait of eternity,
Before the strait-jacket of theories;
Made by man to comprehend the a + b –
-Of why there is something rather than nothing-