Strange as it seems now, I lived in London for almost thirty years—from the mid-seventies until the beginning of the current century. For most of that time I lived right in the centre, in Holborn, on a small strip of road called Dombey Street (renamed after the Dickens novel at the end of the war) which joins the bigger, trendier Lamb’s Conduit Street, at the end of which is the elegant pub, The Lamb. Outside this hangs a sign, depicting a lamb, and there are stained-glass pictures of lambs on the windows. Inside, it retains its old-style design, with little swinging snob windows all the way round the bar (so the posh gentlemen wouldn’t have to look at the minions serving them their pints of ale), and not a cheep is even yet to be heard from a television or a jukebox or any piped music system. Conversation still rules here, and it’s quite an art to find a seat on a Friday evening.
The reader can imagine the pleasure of having such a pub as one’s local, and indeed I was often to be found there, as I was much more partial to beer back then than I am now. I used to even slip down there to scribble in my notebook, aware that the pub had a very special literary heritage, for Dickens had drunk there in the nineteenth century, and it was there in the late fifties, that Ted Hughes had courted Sylvia Plath. As Plath was my poetry goddess, and I was quite partial to Hughes as well, I hoped that some of their magic might rub off on me. I spent so much time there in a little snug that one day when a friend found me in situ, Rosemary, the wife of the publican, announced that Matthew was in his office. She was an English lady, and her husband, Richard, was from Northern Ireland, and they were both very tall. They had a very tall dog, too—a gentle giant of a wolfhound which was possibly named Rory. Anyway, they seemed happy enough to accommodate my scribbling, and were well aware of the Hughes/Plath story.
By that stage, the mid-eighties, I was embarked on my publication career, with a couple of books out. I was also attending a poetry group that met every month or so in Notting Hill Gate, at the home of the Derry-born poet Robert Greacen, who had not so long before published a collection with Gallery Press, A Garland for Captain Fox, that had caught my attention. Robert’s first publications had been during the Second World War, so it was safe to call his recent publication a renaissance. Anyway, I went along to Pembridge Crescent every month, clutching my bottle of cider, which was the entry requirement, as well as the obligatory new poem to be chewed over. It is safe to say that the standard of poetry at that group was variable. There were some published poets, and some not so published—one elderly chap whose only claim to fame was that he’d published a poem in The New Statesman in the 1950s. I will not name any of the people who attended that group, I will just mention that one always wanted the poet who was the fiercest critic there to sum up one’s poem as ‘A splendid piece!’, as he was known to occasionally do, although I remember his comment to The New Statesman contributor once that the poem just shared with us was the worst poem the critic had ever read in his life.
Robert had been earning his living teaching adult education classes and when he retired he moved to Dublin to avail of Aosdána’s Cnuas, so that was the end of the Pembridge Poets. After a decent length of time I decided to form another poetry group, inviting a few of the earlier group but a lot more who might be called the poets who were emerging just then. I’m talking about people like Jo Shapcott, Michael Donaghy, Don Patterson, Lavinia Greenlaw, Eva Saltzman, Sarah Maguire, Ruth Padel, Maurice Riordan, Tim Dooley, and I’m not going to run through everyone who attended. Besides, people didn’t always show up. To begin with we met in my flat in Dombey Street—we opted for Saturday afternoons, rather than the evening meetings of the earlier group. We tended to meet slightly less often, nearer every two months, than monthly. I instigated further changes as well—I decided that the poems would be presented anonymously, so in theory no one would know whose poem was under discussion (often, of course, one would know or think one knew). I’d nominate someone to read the poem out loud, and I’d hand out photocopies to everyone. Having calculated how much time we had for each poem (which depended on how many poems had been brought—often people brought none), I’d appoint someone as timekeeper whose job it was to indicate when the discussion time was up by making a loud noise appropriate to the poem we were looking at.
As can be imagined, the standard of poetry brought to this group was usually pretty high, and the level of criticism tended to be searching. The drink of the afternoon was wine (which my daughter Nico, then twelve or thirteen, took delight in distributing), rather than the cider of the Notting Hill sessions, and one hoped one’s poem would come under discussion earlier rather than later. I remember a funny incident happening during one of the workshops. Four poems had been looked at, and were unusually good, and I distributed the photocopies of a fifth to the participants. Ruth Padel had brought her dog, Jenny (a labradoodle), and I left a copy of each poem under the dog’s nose. For the first four poems the dog had made no sound. This fifth poem, however, was a different kettle of fish—none of us knew how to begin commenting on it. The dog started growling, then got to its feet and started barking at the poem, and I announced that the dog had good taste, whereupon the knives started coming down on the poem, as they came down on Banquo in Act III Scene III of Macbeth.
It was, I admit, a bit disruptive of family life to have the flat taken over for four hours or so on a Saturday afternoon. As well as my daughter, my son Malvin, two years younger, was also in the picture. After three or four workshops I began trying to think of an alternative meeting place. Some of us must have been talking about this in the Lamb afterwards—we tended to repair there following the workshop, to celebrate or lick our wounds—and the conversation was overheard by Richard, the landlord. To my delight he informed us he had a large room upstairs, and he would be more than happy to let us borrow it for four hours on the occasional Saturday afternoon. Thus was born the Lamb Poetry Group.
It was the perfect solution. We would meet around 1.30, have a drink, and take another upstairs to begin the workshop at 2. We’d have a drink-pause halfway through, and would bring the session to a close at 6pm. At the beginning of the first Lamb meeting the wolfhound Rory came into the room, put his front paws on the table and looked around the group, as if wishing us and our poems well. We needed the dog’s good wishes. Sometimes one would bring a poem along thinking it was all right, but would take it away knowing a lot more work needed to be done. This was all to the good, of course, and an excellent experience for an emerging poet. It is fair to say, however, that not every attender came looking for suggestions to improve their poem. Michael Donaghy, for example, once told me he’d never changed a single word of any poem he’d brought to the group.
We occasionally had visitors from outside. Usually it was other poets (I remember Kit Wright coming once with a poem urging people to beware of a man in black) but not always. Once, Greg Gatenby, the organiser of Toronto’s Harborfront Festival, dropped in—he’d heard of the group. As it happened, the first poem up that afternoon was one of mine, from a new venture of writing poems for children, and as such, quite different to my normal stuff. So safe in the extra anonymity, I proceeded to criticise the poem strongly, causing other people to defend it. Afterwards, Gatenby came for a drink with us. ‘Jeez,’ he said, ’Are you guys always as tough as that on each other?’
That wasn’t the only example of people outside the country hearing about the group. One day I was contacted by a Mexican poet who was in town and wanted to meet with me and some of the others. I rang Donaghy and he came round to Dombey Street, where we were joined by two Mexican poets, Pedro Serrano and Carlos Lopez Beltran. Over a bottle of wine the Mexicans told us they wanted to edit a poetry anthology called The Lamb Generation. In time, this came out, and six poets flew out to Mexico to the launch, three from the Lamb group but three others who had nothing to do with it. Still, the name stuck.
There’s an old cliché that all good things comes to an end, and so it was with the Lamb workshop. We’d had two years, or maybe three. I felt it had run its course—none of us were emerging now, we had our own distinct voices, our strong likes and dislikes, and the general tenor of the discussions wasn’t as open to difference anymore. I discussed it with the others, some agreed with me, some wanted the group to go on. It didn’t, although I heard later there were a couple of spin-off groups. I even visited one once when I had a poem I didn’t know how to end, but I was appalled to find a level of bad-tempered disagreement such as never had been encountered in the Lamb workshop. It put me in mind of opposing football fans at a derby match. I never went to a poetry group again.