It’s very sad to hear of the death of Adrian Mitchell, who died at the start of the weekend of a heart attack, at the age of 76 – not that he ever looked it. His poems were often filled with anger, but his delivery of them was always gentle, smiling and generous – as he was. He was impossible to categorise as a poet, aligning himself with the experimentalists, but also very firmly associated with popular culture – he was, if you like, the grandad of performance poets (not for nothing was his Bloodaxe collection of his most famous poems called ‘Greatest Hits’). He wrote with irony, but never with ambiguity. He hated any kind of scholarly analysis, to the extent of making clear that he did not wish to be ‘set’ for any public examinations, and at one point deliberately sitting – and failing – an exam which asked questions about one of his poems (this sounds completely apocryphal, but even if it was, it was true to the man).
I knew him a little. He was New Statesman‘s poetry editor – the last person to hold that post – when Steve Platt was the magazine’s editor in the early nineties, and he pushed for a page of poetry which was designed to draw attention to itself. At the time, I had begun my stint as the NS weekly poet, so we did meet very occasionally, including on one well-fuelled occasion at the New Statesman staff Christmas party, held in an Italian restaurant, when, rather worryingly, Steve whispered in my ear that he wanted me to take part in a poetry duel with Adrian. A poetry duel with the leading poetry performer of the day. Was he kidding? (He wasn’t.)
I am not good – laziness, perhaps – at memorising my own material, and I only had two poems to hand – the ones published that week in the magazine. However, since Adrian had consumed a fair quantity of vodka, there was at least a possibility that he wouldn’t make it to the end of the poem. The whole thing actually went to ‘a second round’, which was generous of Steve. At this point, I sang a song, God help me, and Adrian just stood up and delivered, in his affable manner, the most famous anti-war poem of the 1960s (‘I was run over by the truth one day/ Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way… Tell me lies about Vietnam’). No following that!
He loved poetry, and he loved poets, and he loved audiences, and he hated mobile phones (he heard one go off in a performance I saw, and threatened it with a bucket of water). He also had a really disarming style of delivery. His eyes half-glazed, and he spoke with a smile ghosting his lips, his head shifting a little, his body moving slightly as if the words were coming through from a mysterious inner place.
He had an instinct for what was preposterous, but, in poetic terms, he didn’t go for the victim’s jugular. It was if he neatly undressed the offender, the subject of his distaste, and said ‘This is what you look like underneath: the same as the rest of us. You are a bastard, and you should stop it.’
He was also dedicated to writing poems for children, and many of his numerous collections were for children (he had at one point wanted to be a teacher, but baulked at the size of the classes). And there was an innocence and freshness about his poems – memorable and speakable, though his own voice wasn’t imitable – that made them great. I’m glad to have met him, and to have talked to him, and to have been entertained by his elegant, deceptive anger.
Here he is in his youth: