Given the volume of paper that flowed into the house from such a substantial list of subscriptions, discussed in the “Reading Ephemera” page, one would expect that piles of back numbers of the various publications might have been stacked in every room. But although there was usually a frantic scramble to impose some semblance of order on the general litter of paper every time the doorbell rang, I don’t remember this being the case. Possibly the paper salvage that had been part of the civilian duty in the “war on waste” during the Second World War continued to influence attitudes to paper ephemera after official programmes had ceased to operate.
In any event, our family seems to have resisted archiving past issues of the periodicals to which we subscribed. There were, however, a couple of exceptions. The Artist, a large-format monthly targeting a market of amateur painters, was never thrown away, but back issues were stacked inside a long window seat in the front room. They formed a broad stack at one end next to the four or five high piles of piano sheet music. At the other end was a stack of decades-old issues of the arts and crafts movement magazine, The Studio, which my father had preserved from his own father’s collection. Although these two journals were carefully preserved, I don’t recall that they were consulted often, if at all.
My own archival efforts were strangely systematic and selective. With motives that I can no longer recall, I began in my mid-teens to cut out all poems published in John O’London’s, The Listener and Times Literary Supplement and to tape them into scrapbooks.
The first volume of these scrapbooks, now lost, included articles and other clippings from these publications, but its two successors concentrate almost exclusively on poems, except for occasional line drawings which seem to have taken my fancy. The third scrapbook is the most systematic—a fat hardcover notebook previously used by my brother for his university chemistry lecture notes—it even incorporates a five page index which must have taken many hours to compile. Looking now at the index of over a hundred and thirty individual poets, it’s striking that so many are still considered notable names in the poetry of the period. The TLS and Listener editors’ preferences seem to have been weighted heavily in the direction of the “Movement” and the later “Group” poets whose influence first derived from their inclusion in Robert Conquest’s New Lines anthology in 1956.
For the most part, these writers recoiled from what they thought of as the rhetorical excesses of Dylan Thomas and revert to the more measured tones they admired in Hardy. The surviving scrapbooks contain multiple poems from these groups, notably Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, D.J. Enright, Donald Davie, Philip Hobsbaum, Edward Lucie-Smith, Peter Porter, and Davil Wevill. The later pages include poems by the differently-influenced Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Theodore Roethke. Neither The Listener nor the TLS seems to have had much truck with the emerging performance-orientated British Poetry Revival or the Mersey Beat poets, though I notice a single poem by Christopher Logue and one by Ian Hamilton. Judging from my almost total recall of several individual poems, I must have pored over these scrapbooks, repeatedly re-reading some entries often enough to commit them to memory. Underlinings and asterisks in the index also provide clues to what seem to have been particular favorites, though the determinants of these choices now seems obscure. Looking now at the asterisked selections, several of which have lodged fairly permanently in my memory, I think that many of them appealed to a young reader’s love of rhyme and emphatic metre more or less regardless of subject matter. Why else would Adrian Mitchell’s “Ode to Money”—“Man-eater, woman-eater, brighter than tigers, /Lover and killer in my pocket,/ In your black sack I’m one of the vipers. Golden-eyed mother of suicide, /Your photo’s in my heart’s gold locket” appeal to someone whose contact with money extended no further than the small change of weekly pocket money?
While perhaps two thirds of the poets appearing in these scrapbooks remain recognizable names from the twentieth century, others, often represented only by a single poem, have passed into literary obscurity. In at least one instance, though, an individual poem has managed to take on a life of its own beyond the printed page. Published in 1961, Jenny Joseph’s “Warning”— “ When I am an old woman I shall wear purple /With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me. . . “ has been absorbed into popular culture and was voted as the UK’s most popular post-war poem in 1996. The poem, or more frequently, its first eight lines, has been reprinted endlessly on posters and greeting cards, and has even spawned an organization for older women, the Red Hat Society. This organization, with its multiple international “chapters” and its on-line shop of society knicknacks, greetings cards and jewelry, must be one of the oddest examples of “escaped literature” &of recent times. Joseph’s poem is cited in the society’s material as the inspiration for its founding, though the society’s structure of membership dues, organized chapters and so forth is strikingly at odds with the more anarchic elements of Joseph’s poem—“I shall go out in my slippers in the rain/ And pick flowers in other people’s gardens/And learn to spit.” Odd as it is, the survival of Joseph’s poem in its many transmutations both in print and in cyberspace is an example of how ephemera can endure quite unpredictably in forms completely detached from their original publication or even from their author. Perhaps no odder than the survival of two of the three original poetry scrapbooks through half a century and a score of house movings.
Complete runs of publications like the National Geographic, Punch, The Listener or the Times Literary Supplement continue a kind of ghostly existence in the stacks of large libraries, consulted only rarely by either specialized or quixotic researchers. Most of the other periodicals, daily, weekly or monthly, that flowed into our house in such regular tides in the post war years barely exist anywhere except for odd caches of microfilm or digitized files. But the hypnotic power they exercise at first reading ensures their persistence in the reader’s memory. The flotsam and jetsam from these tides of print can persist in memory for decades. Etched still deeper in Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” recording her seven year old self transfixed by the National Geographic and finding, fifty two years later, a nearly total recall so that “it was still the fifth/of February, 1918.”