A poet of loud desperation

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The Meaning of Apricot Sponge – Selected writings of John Tripp
Edited by Tony Curtis with a Foreword by Peter Finch
Parthian, £9.99
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The title for this collection comes from a short story, Apricot Sponge with a Sage, published in Planet in 1973. The sage is glued to the TV set, watching westerns. When questioned about the meaning of life, the man of wisdom, “sitting under his three china ducks, frozen on the wall, can only respond with, ‘What’s the meaning of Apricot Sponge?” which he shouts out loud.

After a foreword by Peter Finch and introduction by Tony Curtis, we are introduced to John Tripp’s work through Farewell to a Shambles, a selection of autobiographical writings, many of which were first published in Planet in the 1970’s. In the essay, which shares the title of the section, Tripp describes his boredom during his national service at Brecon:

“It was always like that, preparing for a war we never went to. Not that we were particularly keen to see foreign parts where bullets were flying. We weren’t professionals and it had nothing to do with us.”

In this opening section there are also essays in which Tripp describes his work for HTV and some of his poetry readings. For the late night arts show, Screws, he created a character called Viriamu Jones, a penniless poet dieing of malnutrition, sitting in his garret waiting for a grant from the Welsh Arts Council. So successful was the spoof, that many viewers contacted the channel to ask where they could buy copies of Viriamu’s work. In Border Run, after readings at Abergavenny and Hereford, both of which went well, Tripp confesses:

“I just wanted to get back to my bed. I could feel the reaction coming, a blue mood, the melancholic post reading deflation, when all I wanted was to be alone”.

The second section, Radical Passing, contains unpublished poems, many of which have come from the collections of the two main women in Tripp’s life, Fay Cornes and Jean Henderson. The latter’s collection was given to the National Library in Aberystwyth. Four of his eighteen erotic poems, which Tripp called Intervals of Heat, are published here. He failed to get the collection published, trying Y Lolfa and Curtis’ own press The Edge. The poems bristle with laddish descriptions and are reports of his sexual conquests, or as in Conceit of Power, details of his failure:

“Unbuckling before the collision/ I trimmed her for my sword … my tom on the potent punch/ was soft as mallow/ and flopped at her door.”

A prose sequence in the collection, The Rainbow’s End, puts together a selection of his writing from a variety of sources, including Planet, New Welsh Review, Arcade and a fascinating report of the Welsh Union of Writers’ conference at Coleg Harlech in 1985. Characteristically, Tripp enjoys the free whisky and the camaraderie with other writers. In The English at the Eisteddfod he laments the treatment English journalists give this annual festival of Wales and bemoans the fact that one English newspaper headlined the event with the memorable typo Crowned Bird is a Parson.

Tripp’s literary criticism and his reviews are collected in Fringe Diversions. He reviews a whole galaxy of poets, including Raymond Garlick whom he predicts will “write a masterpiece” and Jeremy Hooker of whom he says, “would that there were more Jeremy Hookers crossing our battered border.” Whilst he acknowledges Gillian Clarke as a polished and one of the most interesting poets to emerge in Wales, he admits that he approaches her “touch of motherhood, her sub Lawrentian union of love and blood in family relationships with a shiver of misgiving.”

Having enjoyed B. S. Johnson’s prose immensely, he lambastes his poetry. There is a distinct feeling of payback in Tripp’s invective, for Johnson’s dismissal of Anglo Welsh poetry for employing traditional forms to “deadening effect”. Tripp claims Johnson’s poems are “hardly worked on” and “transmit a feeling of having been caught in mid air on their way to the waste bin”.

This section also contains reviews of a biography on Richard Burton, Ray Milland’s autobiography, a novel by Goronwy Rees and a non fiction book by Herbert Williams on the escape of 67 German officers from a camp near Bridgend. The penultimate section of Tripp’s writings, No Peace For Dando, contains seven short stories while the final section is a play for radio, The Seed of Dismemberment. The book concludes with poems by Peter Finch and Tony Curtis in honour of Tripp.

Parthian has done us a great service by publishing such a book. The autobiographical articles give us insights into his family life, his time as a soldier and responses he received while giving readings. It is also good to see many poems for the first time such as Jet to Palma. The 80 pages devoted to literary reviews are a delight. They show a poet with a huge interest in, and knowledge of, the modern poetry scene.

All the other sections possess literary gems and moments of genius. However, for me, the prose section has too much unsubstantiated assessment. The essay, At The Rainbow’s End, describes a day trip to Tenby. What purports to be an analysis of the modern tripper, seems to be based entirely on what a landlady tells him. Similarly, in The English at the Eisteddfod, the English reporters are lashed for coming into the country. There are no examples to support his dismissive views.

Amongst the seven short stories, The Casualty stands out and in other stories Tripp creates wonderful characters such as Dando and Dic Tidy. At times the pieces read more like works of prose than short stories, lacking, as they do, any sense of crisis or character development.

In his warm and excellent Foreword Peter Finch captures the duality of Tripp when he states that although he made radical political noises throughout his life, he talked more of poetry than politics and in Faye Cornes and Jean Henderson, had two Tory girlfriends. Tony Curtis is surely right in his Introduction when he says John Tripp finds it harder to stay fresh, to find in his language and his rhythms the means to jolt himself and his reader into the expression of feelings which are undoubtedly there under the skin.

As this is a collection of work which has not been collated before perhaps Curtis’ introduction could have offered more insights into how the material was found and the criteria for arranging the book in such a way. On the other hand, he does give us a stimulating essay on Tripp’s work, through the writer’s attitudes to food, war and sex, plus notes on the individual pieces of writing.

The Meaning of Apricot Sponge is a good read, and an excellent introduction for readers new to the Tripp’s work and idiosyncratic outlook. For those already familiar, it is a fascinating treasure trove.

Peter Read is a poet, playwright and ghost writer. His one man show, John Tripp’s Tragic Cabaret, which he wrote and performed, was premiered in Cardiff in 2009.

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