Death of South Bristol's beat poet, Ray Webber

Published on: 24 Nov 2017

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A young Ray WebberRay Webber excerpt

Ray Webber 1923-2017

POET Ray Webber, who spent the last years of his life in Knowle, died on November 13 in the BRI a the age of 94.

Remarkably, Ray won national acclaim as a poet only after he published his first book, High On Rust, with Totterdown’s Tangent Books in 2016, when he was 93.

Ray Webber was born in Redcliff, his father a communist and his mother a staunch Catholic. The two contrasting belief systems helped forge his determination to find his own voice.

Entirely self taught, he was most deeply impressed by modernist poet TS Eliot, author of The Wasteland. Later Ray discovered the Beat poets. But his work was never derivative: “I became determined that everything I wrote would be different from everything I read.”

Ray’s poems are uncompromising: the Guardian called his book “a great yawp to the world – it demands to be noticed.”

Ray lived his final years in Broadfield Road, Knowle.

• An obituary by Tangent Books owner Richard Jones:

It is with great sadness that Steve Bush and Tangent Books announce that Bristol poet Ray Webber died peacefully on Monday November 13 at Bristol Royal Infirmary, aged 94.

Ray was a remarkable person and a significant poet. His first collection of selected poems (High on Rust) was published in 2016 when Ray was 93 years. The poems were compiled and edited by Steve Bush and published by Tangent.

Ray Webber was born in Redcliffe to Welsh parents Charles Webber and Kate Regan. His father was a communist and his mother a staunch Catholic – these two huge belief systems dominated his formative years. 

Charlie Webber was one of the three communists imprisoned for leading the Bristol Unemployed marches in the 1930s. Ray was brought up in poverty and had a poor education. He left school at 14 and was conscripted into the army aged 18 to fight in the Second World War. He left the Army in 1946 and it was while serving in post-war Italy and waiting to come home that Ray developed a deep love of poetry, having been given a copy of the Golden Treasury of Poetry. 

He particularly liked Shelley, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, the Romantics and Dylan Thomas, but it was TS Eliot, the leading light in the modernist movement, who had the greatest impact on Ray.

“As I began to understand Eliot, he became a major figure in my life,” said Ray. “I became determined that everything I wrote would be different from everything I read.” Ezra Pound’s literary criticism strengthened Ray’s resolve. In the 50s and 60s, Ray discovered the Beat Generation – poets Ginsberg and  Gregory Corso, and the novelists William Burroughs, Kerouac and Ken Kesey – which fuelled his life-long admiration of modern American literature.

Ray also cited Sartre, Kafka, Dostoyevsky and in particular the New York poets Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and others as significant influences on his literary taste. His world outlook was atheistic: “The Catholic church and schools cured me of my religion,” he said. Sartre’s fiction and philosophical works formed the basis of his view that our existence is accidental, not necessary.

In 1974 Ray was able to take early retirement from his job as a postman and concentrate fully on his research and writing. Ray was entirely self taught. 

It was in the late 70s that Ray met poet and musician Steve Bush at the Arts Centre in King’s Square, Bristol. They remained lifelong friends, and Steve, his partner Fiona and son Corin continued to visit Ray most days right up until his death.

Steve introduced Ray to Richard Jones at Tangent Books and was instrumental in selecting and editing the poems that appeared in High on Rust. The book was published in 2016 and brought him to national attention. Publication co-incided with the release of Ray Webber - Ferocious Jump Cuts, a short documentary film on Ray's life and work.

 

 

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