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Friday, March 06, 2020

Robert Sheppard: in memoriam Lawrence Upton

My memoir of attendances at Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum workshops carries a pertinent memory of fellow attendee, Lawrence Upton, extemporising a text, while leafing at speed through a paper: ‘Lawrence Upton improvising a marvellous, irrecoverable text from that day’s newspaper photos; a sly smile of success as he sits down: June 19 1994 .’ (See section 5 of the following That’s it. It was gone forever. And that, the smile suggests, is success. Instant ekphrasis.

Now Lawrence has gone. There is some fear that his work, his archive, his place in literary and performance history, might be gone with him. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper would have said. (Lawrence would have liked that.)

There is an online petition to save his archive. There are friends. There is a posthumous ghoulish Twitter feed. (I realise I am aping Lawrence’s expository prose style, by the way.)

I am amiss, I know, at leaving it so long to respond to this bad news. I have two personal resources with which to respond, my memories and his performances and publications. As my opening gambit suggests, these overlap. But I’ll try to keep them apart.

I have many memories of Lawrence, of his general affability (who else could suggest to our son, when he was only about 14, that all the brothels of England should be regulated by an organisation called Offuck?) and of his intransigent neo-Stalinist poetry warrior positions, which he would explain in meticulous detail. I can hear him now. I’d rather mute that second side. At least I managed to get him to talk to Bob Cobbing after a 20 year hiatus, over a dispute about … what?... nobody can remember. Or was it the other way round, I can’t remember? At any rate, I told one of them to go upstairs to speak to the other in the empty workshop room. When we returned, they were chatting merrily – and began to work together again on Domestic Ambient Noise, their 300 pamphlet epic …. (See here about that.)

I helped him run Subvoicive readings in my last couple of years in London. He made all the decisions. I collected the door money.

I have a large cardboard folder bulging with Lawrence’s publications, some ephemeral beyond the usual meaning of that word, others (his Reality Street book, say) less so. There is a beautiful visual poetry volume published in Canada. (Jennifer Cobbing called it, slightly un-loyally, the best book of visual poetry ever! Lawrence told me that, with some glee – or was it pride?) There never was a selected poems, though there ought to be. Still. I always thought people never quite realised how good he was. Part of the reason is that the work is so varied: the MacDiarmid-like ‘Letters’ to various folk, weird narratives, visual texts (who else would use Marmite in a concrete poem?), conceptual pieces, posters (his ‘All England is Alarmed’ hung over our front door in Tooting). I’m NOT going to open that folder now, because it will distract me from my task, and I shall never finish.

Lawrence appeared on this blog when it was more of a blogzine. See here for two wonderful texts: He came to visit us in Liverpool, but after that he spent so much time in Cornwall that our paths never crossed much. The last time may have been Jennifer Cobbing’s 90th birthday reading. He performed a brilliant vocal piece with a violinist. I know he studied at Goldsmith and collaborated with a multitude of his equals.

Oh yes, I first met him in the mid 1970s at the Poetry Society. We had already corresponded and I'd sent poems (which he wisely never published) to his early magazine Good Elf. But it was many years until we met again and we became friends, late 1980s. ‘Good ’elf!’ seems a good way to conclude this all too brief note.     

The twitter feed is here:

A detailed website is here:

See Robert Hampson 's obit in The Guardian here