On 21 February 2002, a letter from Adrian appeared in the Guardian:
‘In response to your piece on the poet laureate
[Andrew Motion] I offer my unjubilee poem.
Liquid sunshine gushing down
To dance and sparkle on the Crown,
I see the Laureate’s work like this
A long, thin, streak of yellow piss.
Adrian Mitchell (shadow poet laureate)’
We wanted to let Red Pepper readers know what had prompted this short deadly shot across the bows of the incumbent poet laureate, Andrew Motion.
An interview ensued (see ‘Contra verses from the shadow’, Red Pepper, April 2002). It was, as ever, a joy. Adrian was sharp and quick and funny, and always honest and critical.
Adrian always considered himself an anarchist, rejecting many aspects of the state, and particularly the ways that monarchs and the powerful were puffed up and stroked by the sycophants in all their courtly garb. He was appalled that titles were so easily offered and accepted – and with such gross solemnity and pomposity; he often said of the royals that they were just humans! When, however, a man whom he regarded as a great poet had accepted the mantle, Adrian did not feel the urge to puncture. Ted Hughes had been a royalist and yet was a great poet. But Andrew Motion was no Ted Hughes.
For Adrian such masquerades were intended to gloss over the real world. In those worlds injustice was never recognised and therefore never tackled. Wars maybe could happen to other people but somehow we would be inured or absolved. And the poet laureate could continue to offer the veneer of poetic forms to celebrate a monarch or her spouse, or their grandsons’ army exploits, and nothing new or questioning or uncomfortable would ever be introduced.
He knew he was in the tradition of particular poets – those who had seen and spoken out in the face of great tyranny and horror, such as Byron, Blake or Whitman. And for Adrian, poetry was about speaking to the powerful. Sometimes with great sorrow, sometimes with humour.
Last September when the present incumbent announced that he would be standing down, I wrote to Adrian saying, ‘We’ve been sitting around talking about the bleating of the PL and how his well springs are drying up and who would be the replacement. We thought there ought to be a critical debate about the archaic nature of the position and the need to remove it entirely or to ensure the whole bended-knee nature of the post must be made central … so that anyone accepting it would realise its pathetic nature and poets will say “never no more”. Shouldn’t there be a wonderful, wild, loud, popular, funny challenge to this remnant of the era of Lord Chamberlains?’
Adrian replied that he’d done his bit by declaring himself shadow laureate. ‘I think anyone who disapproves of the post should also declare themselves shadow poet laureates. Maybe there should be an election for the Worst Poet in Britain, who would then get the poet laureateship. That could be fun!’
Adrian was – and remains – the tallest man I can imagine. When I picture him with his long face, I see a campanile of voices, rhyming, joking, teasing, lamenting, and showing losers how to be tall. Wherever he went, he carried all he had ever heard and observed, everything piled up like plates, inside him. (Infuriated by an injustice, he could throw plates.) When he was young – he wrote songs, dirges, slapstick during half a century – he was already old, and when he was old he was still like a kid. A skylight not a cellar man.
Doctor rat explains
we place each subject
in a complicated maze
with high walls and bright-flickering lights
to those who work well –
pressing down the correct levers –
we give rewards
to those who prove useless –
recalcitrant, scratching themselves in corners —
we allot punishments
are the gourmet delights of Wealth
are the electric aches and pains of Poverty
this experiment proves
that the meaning of Money can be taught
to the majority of human beings
His poems are often like ladders. Listening to them or reading them, you climb rung by rung and as you mount, you see further and further into the distance. At the top you have no choice but to jump and like Mercury you find you have wings on your heels. Mercury the god of messengers and crooks.
Adrian loved tall stories because he loathed every form of putting down and keeping in place. Also because tall stories are generous and he didn’t have a speck or smudge of meanness in him.
Poet, playwright and window cleaner. He had large hands. Methodical hands. Whilst cleaning he joked. Joke after joke. Yet when he moved his ladder on to the next window what you saw through yours was painfully sharp.
What men fear in women
is as camouflaged
as a group of cougars
among the spots of light and shadow
below a hot, astonishing tree
What men fear in other men
is as obvious
as the shining photographs
and cross-section diagrams
in a brochure provided,
with a smile, by a car salesman
What he didn’t know about politics wasn’t worth knowing. But he never fell into the conceit and deceit of knowing the answers.
He could persuade words to stop and to create a special silence, a silence which encouraged listeners to say things together under their breath. Under their breath but with confirmed confidence.
When he himself was reading out loud he could whisper like a kid at the back of the class, and, a moment later, he could assume the immense breathing of a crowd in the streets demanding their rights.
The first two lines in his very first book of poems were:
He breathed in air, he breathed out light.
Charlie Parker was my delight
The doctors say Adrian died of pneumonia. But the campanile remains.
A children’s tale
In 1997, shortly after I became artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre for Children, Adrian Mitchell invited me to meet at his house. Long a hero of mine – artist-rebel, anti-Vietnam war poet and translator of Peter Brook’s Marat-Sade – I could hardly contain my excitement. After shooing his beloved dog Daisy out of the sitting-room, he proposed that the Unicorn produce a musical trilogy based on his stage adaptations of Beatrix Potter’s tales.
I must have raised an eyebrow. Adrian enthused that it would be like The Ring Cycle, only for juniors. When I told him I’d never read Potter he stared at me in astonishment. But, he protested, she’s one of our greatest writers. He put a stash of her beguiling little books in my hands and sent me on my way. Adrian’s version of Tom Kitten And His Friends had already been a Unicorn favourite. So we started to work on Jemima Puddle-Duck and Her Friends.
Composer Steve McNeff and I thought the text was a little slim dramatically. I approached Adrian to see if he’d consider fleshing it out. Again he stared at me dumbfounded. What on earth for?
I suggested that nothing much seems to happen in The Tale of Jeremy Fisher. Adrian replied that if I’d almost been eaten by an enormous trout I might see it differently. In the end, Adrian’s lyrical economy, especially in the songs, proved a perfect match with Potter’s exquisite sense of wonder and precision. And his love of words, animals and children sang through each note and line.
He was a standard-bearer for the Unicorn, where he was writer-in-residence in the 1980s. He went on to complete the Potter cycle with Peter Rabbit and His Friends, which we produced for Peter’s centenary. But it was that daffy duck Jemima that proved to be our Götterdämmerung. We staged it three times over ten years and with each tiny detailed modification it grew into something special.
I think that Adrian enjoyed theatre for children as much as anything else in his rich, prodigious life. He would sit surrounded by our lively, curious young audiences and laugh and weep and beam with pleasure (and then give me countless notes about how things could be improved). He wanted to share the books and poems and music that had affected him so deeply as a child. Was there anything he liked as much as inspiring children to draw their own pictures, write their own poems, tell their own tales?
The dog of peace
When he was about 25, Adrian came to read some of his poems to a group of students in Oxford. I can see him clearly. I’m surprised when I try to think about him now how few concrete memories I have, considering the hole I feel in my life now he’s no longer there. We’d run into each other at a meeting, demonstration, reading, play, over 50 years, and I took for granted his being there, a warm, like-minded, inspiring colleague. The last time I saw him he was walking on Hampstead Heath, as always with the dog of peace. Small vivid images linked by strong feeling, rather as you get in a poem.
How is it a man dies?
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’d had much more than usual to do with each other in the weeks leading up to his death before Christmas. Celia and I had been engaged in wrapping up the Medical Aid for Iraq charity, of which we have 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; he 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 last 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 NS when I edited the magazine in the 1990s, and his was an important 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.
Among the many fine poems that Adrian published during our time working together was one that Robert Graves wrote in his seventies, which appeared 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.
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself