I first met Maurice in the sitting room of a mutual friend, a lifelong Labour supporter, the night after the 1997 General Election. We raised a glass, dreamed some dreams, and pinched ourselves that this was really happening. None of us believed we would live to see it happen. How long ago that seems now.
I saw Maurice often after that, always with a secret nod and a smile, usually not yards from where I live, at the shops, in the newsagents, buying bread. I grew to recognise his bright red scarf, his purposeful stride into the wind, his wife at his side.
Some years later we met more formally at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter at Uncut Poets, hosted in those days by Ann Gray. On this particular evening she was unable to travel up for the show due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak, and had asked me if I would mind overseeing proceedings. In the event about four of us turned up, one of whom was Maurice. We got some drinks at the bar and settled ourselves into an out-of-the-way sofa in the corner, where we began to talk poetry.
That evening remains one of my very fondest memories in what I laughingly call my career. Few in number, there was nothing for it but to depart from the usual format of timed readings and applause. No doubt brought about by a feeling of crisis, even siege, something hushed and enthralled entered our voices instead, almost like conspirators, or lovers, as we read and discussed our favourite poems. There was room for silence, openings and sharings and sudden insights. In the words of Seamus Heaney, ‘We all knew one thing by being there.’ Nothing about that evening, we knew, could be repeated, overstated, or paraphrased.
I continued to see Maurice on an off after that, always with a wave and a chuckle. As the years have gone by, first with Iraq, then the MPs’ expenses scandal, these sightings were presaged by an almost invisible grimace or shrug, a shared, secret code of disappointment at our shattered hopes. One thing remained: if Maurice said he could come to a reading, he would. And if he couldn’t, he would apologise. Old school, as my kids would say. A gent, I say back.
Once he stopped me after a reading and told me my poems about cancer were more like poems about depression. That kind of feedback is rare in my experience, and all the more precious for it.
I seem to have seen him a lot lately. He is still committed and engaged, walking everywhere, undeterred by the wind. He’s been clearing the local dissenters’ graveyard, he tells me. I marvel at his energy and rue my own laziness. But we always return to poetry. He wrote to me, not an email, but a letter, with ink, on proper notepaper, about A Poet I Really Must Read. ‘It’ll be right up your street, I should say. From New Zealand!’ He said these last words with great emphasis, as though in acknowledgement at his own surprise, and, perhaps, his guilt at the same.
I am grateful for friendships like those with Maurice. Reliant more on chance meetings than technology (I have never spoken to him by phone), it reminds me of the kind of relationship I used to have with an old university professor, who seemed to disappear for months at a time, only to reappear in the midst of an essay crisis, just when I needed him. Maurice is like that. Just when I give up hope of life, and of poetry, he is there.