Around the late 1970s, the present writer had the good fortune to be invited to a party somewhere in Kentish Town. Whilst there he came across two remarkable people. The first was a rather intense Canadian woman in her sixties who turned out to be Elizabeth Smart, the author of the renowned cult novel ‘By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’.
The book was a prose poem detailing her hectic lifelong love affair with the English poet George Barker (although they never married she was the mother of four of his fifteen children – the other eleven were by several different mothers). As the evening wore on, her intake of alcohol increased. By 11pm, she had reached the maudlin stage and, incredibly, sat down on the bottom step of the stairs and wept. It was startling evidence for Wilde’s claim that nature copies art.
However, earlier in the evening, Elizabeth had welcomed into the company a short, wiry man with a wheedling Scottish accent and a permanently worried frown who kept pressing the guests to buy copies of his poetry magazine. During a break from his sales pitch, he mentioned in passing that he had been the original inspiration for the character of ‘Spooner’ in Harold Pinter’s play ‘No Man’s Land’. “Oh, aye, Harold always said he’d put me on stage.”
It transpired that the man was a legend of the North London literary world – Eddie Linden. Eddie’s story has been told many times before, most notably in a 1979 biography ‘Who is Eddie Linden?’ by George Barker’s son Sebastian, and also in a 1995 play of the same name by William Tanner. For any who missed the above, Eddie himself provides a pithy autobiography: “A manic depressive alcoholic lapsed Catholic Irish working-class pacifist communist bastard from Glasgow. And would you like to subscribe to a poetry magazine?”
Eddie’s early life was so ridiculously appalling that it borders on black comedy. In 1935, he was born illegitimately in Northern Ireland and was immediately removed from his mother and taken to Glasgow to avoid scandal. In Glasgow he was fostered until his foster mother died when he was ten. His foster father remarried and his new wife refused to have Eddie in the house. He was dumped on his real mother’s doorstep but she also rejected him. After a few more relatives refused responsibility he was sent to an orphanage. He left school at fourteen barely able to read and write and was sent to work down a coal mine. Having been sacked from the pit, he was put to work in a steel-mill. He was conscripted for army national service, but was rejected as being underweight and suffering from a duodenal ulcer. He suffered agonies of conscience as a result of a Roman Catholic upbringing and his realisation that he was gay. Having consulted a doctor, he attended a hospital to be treated for homosexuality but left having fallen out with the medical staff. He found a measure of purpose when he joined the Catholic CND organisation. But even here he was unfortunate. On a protest demonstration to Holy Loch in Scotland, Eddie was stoned by Irish Catholics who mistook him and his companions for an Orange Order March. Later, he lost his belief in Communism after the Soviet 1956 invasion of Hungary and became an alcoholic.
So far, so bad.
Then in 1958 he came to London, discovered the bohemian world of Soho, and his own world slowly turned around. He said that: “London was a liberation. I could be something I wanted to be.” That ‘something’ was a poet and a damn good one.
His most famous work was ‘City of Razors’ – a poetic conjuring of the savage world of the Glasgow Gorbals where he was raised. But the contribution for which he will be most remembered is his editorship and passionate, untiring promotion of his poetry magazine ‘Aquarius’. In 1969, with some help from John Heath-Stubbs, Eddie managed to persuade mainstream bards such as Peter Porter and George Barker himself to contribute work gratis, and somehow repeated the same trick for forty years. (He repaid Heath-Stubbs’ assistance in the most practical way when he attended a Heath-Stubbs recital. The blind poet was performing his work on a romantically candle-lit stage when he managed to set fire to himself. It was Eddie who lept onstage to extinguish the flames.)
‘Aquarius’ could not be described as a regular periodical as it only appeared every three or four years but it achieved a level of respect and affection that few magazines ever manage. For his 70th birthday in 2005, a group of over one hundred poets, painters and collaborators created a book called ‘Eddie’s Own Aquarius’. It consisted of tributes to this stubborn survivor of everything life could throw at him. The contributors included Seamus Heaney, Roger McGough, the emeritus Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Danny Abse, Alan Brownjohn, the academic Sir Bernard Crick, Brian Patten, Tom Paulin, Ralph Steadman, the redoubtable CND leader Bruce Kent, and the Labour Minister Clare Short. Not bad for a Gorbals bastard.
Back in the 1970s, Eddie wrote one poem that captured a mood and a time.
Hampstead by Night by Eddie Linden
Comfortable little suburb north of London
With its wooded heath
Where queers and heteros nest at night
Little girls in mini-skirts
Boys with long hair and pockets full of French letters
Preparing for a night’s fucking
Pubs flowing with artists
Conversing about their masterpieces
Not yet on canvas
Playwrights with introductions to the latest play
That they plan to write in their bed-sitters
Writers with unfinished novels
Poets reciting their newest poems
That only find a hearing in the Rosslyn Arms
Or Leonie’s parlour in Downshire Hill
Middle-class civil servants off-duty
Dressed in jeans for the weekend rest
Middle-class ladies hoping for parties and men with big pricks
Public schoolboys with effeminate looks
Hoping to win the hearts of butcher boys from Islington and Camden
While the comfortable bourgeois hide in their castles
On top of the hill
And the rest of the bourgeois amuse themselves
In the village two stops from Camden Town.
(I owe you, Eddie – next time)
Overheard at the saloon bar counter:
“I went to the Chelsea versus Millwall football match last Saturday.”
“Oh, yeah. Who won?”
“The police, mostly.”
To see other chapters – go to top of page and, under the main title, click on the small heading ‘Under Ken Wood’
Feb 28: 1 South End Green – Prologue
Mar 7: 2 Where Eagles Dared
Mar 7: 3 Murder and the Magdala
Mar 14: 4 The Hepburns
Mar 14: 5 Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho
Mar 21: 6 Garland and Mercer
Mar 21: 7 Laureates and Spies
Mar 21: 8 The Silver Fox
Mar 28: 9 The Hoffmeister and Kelly
April 4: 10 The Harvey Brothers
April 4: 11 The Journos
April 11: 12 Five Funerals and a Resurrection
April 18: 13 Scallawag
April 25: 14 Crime and Punishment
May 2: 15 Good Companions
May 9: 16 Sasthi Brata
May 9: 17 Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat
May 16: 18 Eddie Linden
May 16: 19 The Branch Offices
May 23: 20 The Mulls Kid
May 30: 21 The Musos
May 30: 22 Closing Time