Rupert Loydell is shouting at the countryside. I have got up at sparrow-fart to drive him to the Blandford Forum Poetry Festival, where later he will read from his work in the back room of a hotel to about twenty-five people. It is early October, the sunshine already burning off vestiges of mist which do their best to cling to the sides of fields. In exactly six months a spindly, shy-looking boy from the provinces by the name of Swampy is going to make this road and the countryside it cuts through famous by digging himself into a network of tunnels many feet below the surface to protest at the environmental and economic costs the new road will take to build. For now, the road is empty. Take away the tarmac and you have a scene Hardy would recognise. We round a corner to a view of cylindrical hay bales perched wantonly across a recently-shaved field of stubble. ‘Abstract art!’ Rupert says. ‘Look at it! Pure abstraction! It’s all around us: art!’ He fumbles in his bag for his camera, cursing when he realises he has left it at home.
I do not know it yet, but this is the first of many such road trips that I am going to make with Rupert over the next few years, always with me behind the wheel. On a whim and the back of an envelope we are going to concoct a poetry performance duo called Charlie’s Midlife Crisis which will take us across the country to venues only poets living on Planet Poetry have heard of. The Exeter-to-Cambridge-and-back-in-a-day, all eight hours of it, for an arts festival in a park, where we read to three people and swap banter about the paucity of our fee with our fellow performers Martin Newell and Lemn Sissay. The London-and-back raid on the Poetry Society, where I launch my first book, with Phil Bowen, and arrive home at two in the morning, having been stopped by Exeter’s one patrol car for having a faulty brake light. London again (did we take the train?), for the Forward prizes, where Rupert buys me dinner for the first and last time, and I reward him by getting drunk and announcing to anyone who will listen that I am going to be next year’s winner, just you watch. The one without Rupert, when he refused to come, where I read our Charlie’s set alone in an arts centre in Bridgwater to a bus load of Czechoslovakian tourists, none of whom speak English.
Today, the road is empty and we are laughing. Rupert has brought with him the latest edition of Poetry Review, the back page competition of which has caught his eye. In the same spirit as Ian McMillan’s poem ‘Some Poetry Presses I Will Certainly Set Up in the Next Three Weeks’, the competition asks readers to invent titles for new poetry magazines. ‘Dive! Dive! Dive!’ says Rupert. We start to rattle them off, each one sending us struggling into a new wave of giggles: ‘Nude in Berkshire. Sidekick. Not For Us. The Swift Half. Dangerous Junctions.’ This carries on for several miles, until I draw the line at Anal Cajun. ‘What about Out to Launch?’ Rupert says, tee-heeing through his own joke. It’s his worst one yet, but it gives him a second wind. ‘Terrible Wok! Brilliant,’ he says, roaring. We are definitely going to enter, and win. We know it.
On the stereo is a tape he has brought me, Lighthouse Family’s Ocean Drive coupled with Everything But The Girl’s Walking Wounded. ‘Their masterpiece,’ Rupert says. It’s a bit mainstream for him, but today, with the sunshine and laughter, they are perfect. At the end of the day, gig done, books sold, the air still warm, I will hand him back the tape as he jumps out of the car. ‘It’s yours,’ he says through the open door. ‘Keep it. The kids’ll love it.’ As acts of generosity go, this might sound small, but in the context of my recent decision to ‘go freelance’ and juggle looking after my kids while trying to eke out a living doing the odd reading or school workshop, it is enormous. The day after my last pay cheque ran out I walked into a record shop in Exeter (I still call them that) and realised I could buy nothing in there. Without a word being spoken, Rupert has quietly been furnishing me with new sounds for the last two years. He never expects anything in return, not a tape of my own, and certainly not payment. From the ambient noodling of Holger Czukay and David Sylvian to what he calls the ‘fourth world’ music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook, the tapes keep coming: Wrecking Ball, by Emmylou Harris. Listening Cap, by Licorice. Aqaba, by June Tabor. The astonishing When I Was a Boy, by Jane Siberry. Talk Talk’s final albums, the peerless Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. Secrets of the Beehive, by David Sylvian. When my children sleep, or while I cook or run errands alone in the car I immerse myself in their worlds. Over time it begins to dawn on me that they are political documents, acts of resistance rather than albums. Neither of us knows it, but these will be the records I turn to in ten years’ time, this time buying them on CD, when I am diagnosed with cancer. Just listing their names is a kind of found poem: Opposite Sex; Flux and Mutability; Music for Airports; Ten Song Demo. Right now, though, we are hurtling towards Dorset sing-shouting ‘Lifted’ in the riotous sun.
We reach the venue in good enough time for Rupert to fill the bookstall with his latest books and pamphlets. There is coffee, though some of our compatriots have advanced straight past GO to begin on the wine. Rupert is on last thing before lunch. ‘We’ll head out for a curry when I’m done. I know a place,’ he says as the first of the poets, none of whom I have heard of, begins his set. A wiry looking man in a pinstripe jacket who, we are told, writes about art for The Times jerks around and incants his poems as if being yanked by giant, invisible puppet strings. His final poem, which he seems to know from memory, lasts for twenty-five minutes. Without looking at it (or his audience) he clenches a sheaf of paper in his left fist, occasionally waving it above his head. ‘Makes you long for a bit of Simon Armitage,’ mutters the poet sitting next to me. As he finally comes to a climax and takes his applause by bowing, he is surrounded by three women who have been eyeing him from the front row, each of whom appears to have come dressed in nothing more than a negligee. ‘Follow that,’ Rupert says, striding to the stage. His reading is exemplary, a model of its kind, and could not be further from what we have just witnessed. His minimal, tender-tough, Creeley-ish poems with the appearance of gossamer are in fact constructed of steel cable. ‘I am completely torn apart’, one of them ends. I know he means every word.
Now I look back at it, this was Rupert’s great education of me. The day he came round to dinner after a visit to States and handed me Mark Strand’s Dark Harbor (he had tossed me his Selected a week or two before) and Lowell’s Day By Day merely because I had mentioned them; review copies of Charles Wright and Deryn Rees-Jones (I watched my children sleeping and itched to get back to them); the spare Burnsides and Farleys he thought I would like; the trips, the tapes and the banter, sure, but more than that, a way of looking at the world that was premised on an enormous Yes, followed by an equally assertive No. Yes to winging it and flying by the seat of your pants. No to set lists and prepping your filler. Yes to generosity and buying Stephan Micus albums on spec. No to Blur vs Oasis. Yes to playing Dinosaur Jr during writing workshops. No to explaining why. Yes to putting everything on expenses. No to the notion of ‘too many’ poetry books. Yes to second-hand bookshops. No to Waterstone’s. No to Blur and Oasis. (Though later he will cave to ‘Song 2’.) Yes to notebooks, postcards, Graham Rawle in The Guardian, Barbara Hepworth’s garden, Cornwall, trading paintings with friends, Brian Louis Pearce, name dropping Terry, Tony, and Steve Frost, sometimes all in the same sentence, Fairnie’s trip to New York, Bruce Cockburn bootlegs, and dropping everything for a show by a friend in the middle of nowhere. Apart from The Spice Girls’ ‘2 Become 1’ (my kids loved that too), I still can’t name a hit single from around that time. I was tuned into three things: looking after my young family, writing poems, and radio Rupert. When young poets ask me what strategies they should employ to further their career, I always go back to this time: ‘Disappear,’ I tell them. ‘Then keep doing it. If you can’t do that, find a Rupert.’