Shadow on the sun

At the end of the 1960s a conference of British poets voted for the next poet laureate. Their choice was Adrian Mitchell, who died before Christmas. Some three decades on, {Red Pepper} asked him to don the red and black cloak of 'shadow poet laureate' and write poems regularly for the magazine. He has been 'our' shadow poet laureate ever since

March 26, 2009
11 min read

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!’

Jane Shallice


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

the rewards

are the gourmet delights of Wealth

the punishments

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

lying, perhaps,

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.

John Berger


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?

Tony Graham


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.

Caryl Churchill


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.

Steve Platt

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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