Acclaim for poet's first book, age 93

Published on: 30 Sep 2016

Thumbnail Image

A younger Ray Webber

He now lives in a supported housing complex in Knowle.

Sometimes we expect people who have reached a venerable age to recount a life of virtue, hard work and dedication to the war effort. Ray’s poetry is about none of this – except for a single, harrowing war poem. Instead his volume, High On Rust, is crammed with hangovers, escapades, Beat-era excesses and a pitiless self-awareness.

That makes it sound like hard work. But the wonder of Ray’s poetry, which has won the praise of critics from the Guardian and the Times Educational Supplement down, is the humour that flows through them.

There is also a lot of swearing – which makes it hard to quote in a family publication.

 

my real name

is Mervin Derryberry Grubcock.

my father was a part-time docker 

and a full-time anarchist.

my mother was a full-time domestic slave

and a double-time catholic saint.

 

So begins ‘The beautiful miracle of childbirth’, which involves a drunken midwife, a bomb going off and a father arriving with a flagon of stout in each pocket, with unmentionable disasters all around.

“The element of truth in it is the nature of the conflict between me and my parents. The actual facts are very dull,” he said.

“It seems to be a middle class obsession to remember all sorts of details about their childhood that are of absolutely no interest to most people. So what I do, I make up things which are only psychologically true.”

What is true is that Ray’s father was a full-time anarchist – actually a member of the Communist Party who worked so hard for a revolution that he rarely had a job, and the family was always getting kicked out for not paying the rent.

His mother was an indulgent figure who would give him cigarettes at the age of 12 for running errands. (Ray gave up smoking in his 80s, when, he said, walking up hill became difficult.)

He left school at 14 and was conscripted into the army at 18, serving through the bloody battles to liberate Italy.

He began reading poetry in the army, consuming the Romantics, disliking the First World War poets and moving on to the poets of the 1930s. At first impressed by the complex rhythms of Dylan Thomas, he began to realise that what he couldn’t stand was poetic conceit, and Thomas was full of it.

Then he was hit by TS Eliot, author of The Wasteland, the era-defining poem which in ordinary speech seemed to voice the despair emerging from the First War without ever mentioning it: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” being one of many iconic lines.

“Eliot just said his piece,” said Ray. “There were no conceits, he used the vernacular. It was much deeper than the other poets.”

Ray determined that when he wrote poetry, it would be like no-one else’s. He called himself “the poet who abhors the poetic”. He realised that what Eliot had done in free verse was actually harder than working with the structure of rhythym and rhyme.

A working life as a Bristol postman left him time to study literature. He won a competition for a poem to mark the 600th anniversary of Bristol’s city charter. When he joined a poetry group at the Bristol Arts Centre he began to receive praise.

So why has he left it so long to publish?

“I didn’t like myself.,” he said. “I didn’t suffer fools gladly. Though a lot of people [at the poetry group] had been to university, I had read a lot more than they had and I became a bit arrogant. ”

So his early outpourings – 500 poems – were thrown away. Over the years he built up 500 more, but when anyone mentioned publication he could not face the work of revising them.

Finally Steve Bush, an admirer of Ray’s work for 30 years, persuaded him that he would take on the task of selecting and revising the poems. Richard Jones of Tangent Books, the well-known Bristol publisher based at Paintworks on Bath Road, took on promoting the book, winning attention from national critics.

Ray is pleased with the book, adorned with his surreal drawings, though he was too unwell to go to last month’s reception at the Arnolfini to launch it. 

“I’ve timed it just right, just as I have got one foot in the grave,” he said.

Ray has never married but appears far from lonely with many friends and now well-wishers visiting to praise his publication.

He told the Voice: “I can praise myself now and again when I think I have done something good. Too much modesty is almost inverse vanity.” 

Plenty of people who love literature will be hoping Ray is around for a while yet to soak up other people’s praise.

 

Invitation (extract

come on in and sit down

have a cigarette

a drink

what would you like to talk about?

being stabbed through the heart

stabbed in the back

being swindled

rejected

humiliated

bored with routine

confused and exasperated by bureaucracy

dissatisfied disillusioned

disgusted with yourself

i’ll listen if it helps

but beyond that

i can’t do anything for you

i can’t change the world

i can’t change human nature

if i had that sort of power

i’d go raving mad

anyone can go

slighty round the bend

you’ve only got to look at me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poet who abhors the poetic persuaded  into print

O

NE of the most distinctive poetic voices Bristol has ever produced has just published his first volume – at the age of 93.

Ray Webber was born in 1923 near Bristol Bridge, into a city of slums, gas lights and back streets. 

He now lives in a supported housing complex in Knowle.

Sometimes we expect people who have reached a venerable age to recount a life of virtue, hard work and dedication to the war effort. Ray’s poetry is about none of this – except for a single, harrowing war poem. Instead his volume, High On Rust, is crammed with hangovers, escapades, Beat-era excesses and a pitiless self-awareness.

That makes it sound like hard work. But the wonder of Ray’s poetry, which has won the praise of critics from the Guardian and the Times Educational Supplement down, is the humour that flows through them.

There is also a lot of swearing – which makes it hard to quote in a family publication.

 

my real name

is Mervin Derryberry Grubcock.

my father was a part-time docker 

and a full-time anarchist.

my mother was a full-time domestic slave

and a double-time catholic saint.

 

So begins ‘The beautiful miracle of childbirth’, which involves a drunken midwife, a bomb going off and a father arriving with a flagon of stout in each pocket, with unmentionable disasters all around.

“The element of truth in it is the nature of the conflict between me and my parents. The actual facts are very dull,” he said.

“It seems to be a middle class obsession to remember all sorts of details about their childhood that are of absolutely no interest to most people. So what I do, I make up things which are only psychologically true.”

What is true is that Ray’s father was a full-time anarchist – actually a member of the Communist Party who worked so hard for a revolution that he rarely had a job, and the family was always getting kicked out for not paying the rent.

His mother was an indulgent figure who would give him cigarettes at the age of 12 for running errands. (Ray gave up smoking in his 80s, when, he said, walking up hill became difficult.)

He left school at 14 and was conscripted into the army at 18, serving through the bloody battles to liberate Italy.

He began reading poetry in the army, consuming the Romantics, disliking the First World War poets and moving on to the poets of the 1930s. At first impressed by the complex rhythms of Dylan Thomas, he began to realise that what he couldn’t stand was poetic conceit, and Thomas was full of it.

Then he was hit by TS Eliot, author of The Wasteland, the era-defining poem which in ordinary speech seemed to voice the despair emerging from the First War without ever mentioning it: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” being one of many iconic lines.

“Eliot just said his piece,” said Ray. “There were no conceits, he used the vernacular. It was much deeper than the other poets.”

Ray determined that when he wrote poetry, it would be like no-one else’s. He called himself “the poet who abhors the poetic”. He realised that what Eliot had done in free verse was actually harder than working with the structure of rhythym and rhyme.

A working life as a Bristol postman left him time to study literature. He won a competition for a poem to mark the 600th anniversary of Bristol’s city charter. When he joined a poetry group at the Bristol Arts Centre he began to receive praise.

So why has he left it so long to publish?

“I didn’t like myself.,” he said. “I didn’t suffer fools gladly. Though a lot of people [at the poetry group] had been to university, I had read a lot more than they had and I became a bit arrogant. ”

So his early outpourings – 500 poems – were thrown away. Over the years he built up 500 more, but when anyone mentioned publication he could not face the work of revising them.

Finally Steve Bush, an admirer of Ray’s work for 30 years, persuaded him that he would take on the task of selecting and revising the poems. Richard Jones of Tangent Books, the well-known Bristol publisher based at Paintworks on Bath Road, took on promoting the book, winning attention from national critics.

Ray is pleased with the book, adorned with his surreal drawings, though he was too unwell to go to last month’s reception at the Arnolfini to launch it. 

“I’ve timed it just right, just as I have got one foot in the grave,” he said.

Ray has never married but appears far from lonely with many friends and now well-wishers visiting to praise his publication.

He told the Voice: “I can praise myself now and again when I think I have done something good. Too much modesty is almost inverse vanity.” 

Plenty of people who love literature will be hoping Ray is around for a while yet to soak up other people’s praise.

 

Invitation (extract

come on in and sit down

have a cigarette

a drink

what would you like to talk about?

being stabbed through the heart

stabbed in the back

being swindled

rejected

humiliated

bored with routine

confused and exasperated by bureaucracy

dissatisfied disillusioned

disgusted with yourself

i’ll listen if it helps

but beyond that

i can’t do anything for you

i can’t change the world

i can’t change human nature

if i had that sort of power

i’d go raving mad

anyone can go

slighty round the bend

you’ve only got to look at me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (0)






Add a new comment:* (Allowed tags: <b><i><br>)

*Mandatory fields