Sunday, 21 December 2008

Adrian Mitchell

I’ve just returned home after a weekend of unseasonally mild weather spent trail running to learn of Adrian Mitchell’s death. The first message on the answerphone bore the news, the tone of the first words enough to know what was to follow.

I’ve known Adrian and his wife of 47 years, Celia, for a long time, and in one of those twists of life that make some think beyond coincidence to meaning and fate we’ve had much more than usual to do with each other these past few weeks. Celia and I have been engaged in wrapping up the Medical Aid for Iraq charity, of which we have both been officers since the first Gulf War. And I had been trying to get Adrian to pick up his journalistic pen again (his writing career began in journalism), specifically to write about David Tennant’s Hamlet as he’d seen all the great Hamlets of the past half-century.

As it happened, Tennant injured his back, so he wasn’t playing the part at the press night. Adrian said he was too ill to write anyway, spent the next day in hospital and was ‘desperately trying to rest’ – a notion that barely entered the vocabulary of a man who felt an almost moral imperative to fulfil every request to appear, no matter how remote the venue or small the audience. His unwillingness to rest, his reluctance to miss a reading almost certainly delayed the diagnosis and exacerbated the consequences of the pneumonia he developed this autumn. And as if his writing, his performance and his other work was not enough, he remained a tireless campaigner in the cause of peace.

In his last email to me, a week before his death, he wrote of ‘trying to get Ian Hislop to set his hounds on the New Statesman for regularly printing full page colour adverts for BAE Systems and asking his investigators to trace the effect of the ads on the editorial side of the Statesman’. I had made Adrian poetry editor of the New Statesman when I edited the magazine in the 1990s, and his was an importance influence on my editorship well beyond poetry. From Benjamin Zephaniah to Brian Patten, and from Alex Comfort to Paul McCartney, Adrian’s pages – like the man himself – sparkled with enthusiasm, commitment and verve. I’m glad that in what I never dreamed would turn out to be my final email to him, I took the time to tell him how those pages were among my proudest achievements at the Statesman.

The world will miss him, and my heart goes out to Celia and their family.

Postscript: I've just unearthed one of five poems that Robert Graves wrote in his seventies and Adrian published as part of a 'Poetry Extra' in the NS in 1994. It seems absolutely fitting to Adrian's memory:

How is it a man dies?

How is it a man dies
Before his natural death?
He dies from telling lies
To those who trusted him.
He dies from telling lies -
With closed ears and shut eyes.

Or what prolongs men's lives
Beyond their natural death?
It is their truth survives
Treading remembered streets
Rallying frightened hearts
In hordes of fugitives.


Fred said...

indeed very sad - I remember seeing him often in the late 60s, reciting 'Tell me lies about Vietnam', which had great impact on me.

Bill Greenwell said...

Thanks for that eloquent tribute, Steve. And how much I agree that your bringing him to the NS was among your greatest achievements.

Bill Greenwell

Fiona said...

The Robert Grave's poem is beautiful and yes, so fitting. I think these lines from 'So many different lengths of time', by Brian Patten are quite wonderful too at making some kind of sense of the senseless. (As is Neruda's original.)

So, how long does a man live after all?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret and ask so many questions -
then when it comes to us
the answer is so simple after all.

A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.

colin o'brien said...

I also remember Adrian from his/your NS days. Adrian "The Messer" Mitchell challenged James Fenton to a public poetry contest to defend his (Fenton's) title as "the greatest poet in all England" which had just been bestowed on him by the New Yorker. Fenton the po-faced poetry professor made some comment about not being prepared to stand up and have Adrian Mitchell hurl insults at him. First round KO to The Messer. Yes we'll miss him.

Anonymous said...

Poignant now to read another of Brian Patten's poems from the same collection as "So many different lengths of time"

Tumour-ridden, the brackets close in.
They drop against the ends of names,
Not orderly, but any old how.
Henri, Mitchell, McGough - watch it mates,
The brackets, any day now.

49 said...

Thanks Steve. Watch out for the Telegraph Obit - it was their brief that inspired him to produce 'Royalty is a neurosis - get well soon'.

Alistair Mitchell

Ian D Smith said...

I saw Adrian Mitchell read at Southill Park, Bracknell in the nineties. Or should I say, Adrian Mitchell read for me, that's how it felt.

wow power leveling said...
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Chrys said...

With Adrian at the Peace Festival

if you saw him running it was because he’d spotted truth in the crowd and was chasing it if you saw him smiling it was at a good deed waving from a balcony if you saw him jumping it was in a playground with all the other daft kids on the block raising anarchy if you heard him singing it was girls and boys come out to play if you saw him laughing he was laughing he was really laughing if you saw him waving it was to say HELLO come in and join the feast of the human race if you saw him writing it was a love letter to the world on the day of its crucifixion if you saw him dancing it was to a Beatles tune about giving peace a chance and waiting for that moment to arrive