When very young and new to writing I joined a writing group. I had to audition for a place in it. ‘Send in a piece of original work,’ said the secretary, Ken, in his letter. He didn’t have a phone. Later I was to discover he didn’t have running water either. One of the kindest men I’ve ever met, he became a close friend, right until his death. Ken lived, with his artist wife, in a tiny cottage, with a water pump in the front garden and a chemical toilet in a shed at the back. Chocolate biscuits were a treat for this couple who lived so frugally, and I never visited without taking a box with me.
My piece of original work was read at a meeting and a secret ballot held. Ken later informed me that I had been accepted as a new member and, a few weeks later, I attended my first ever meeting.
We sat in rows facing the front where Gladys sat at a desk, flanked by Ken and her husband, Harold. Harold Bradley was a respected poet and former headmaster.
Edgar Billingham was there with his wife, Sybil. Edgar had won awards for his poetry, in the days when awards meant something. He was also the writer of the radio series which filled the slot later taken by Mrs Dale’s Diary. He was a teacher and used to set the boys in his class some work and while they did it, he would work on another episode of his radio ‘soap’.
One of those boys was Roy Plumb. He’d joined the group as a seventeen year old but was asked to leave as Lady Chatterley’s Lover was to be discussed and the conversation would have been too advanced for such a youngster. Roy returned when he was 21, wrote several novels and had forty-plus stories read on the BBC’s Radio 4 Morning Story slot.
Rosemary Bazely, an elderly lady, wrote poetry, producing an anthology each year which was published by Orbis and broadcast on the World Service. As she aged her talent expanded. She died in her late eighties, with a pen in her hand.
And then there was Philip. Our very own Quentin Crisp. Philip, I was informed by Gladys, henna-ed his hair all through the war. As Gladys had red hair at the time I think she was jealous because Philip managed to acquire the henna she so desperately wanted. Philip had long fingernails, was sometimes seen wearing a crocheted shawl or a large Panama hat. A total eccentric who presented me with a collection of his love poems.
‘What do you think of them?’ asked Gladys.
‘They’re beautiful,’ I told her, and meant it. ‘They’re all written for boys, you know,’ was her reply.
I sat, at that first meeting, surrounded by talent and eccentricity, and felt completely out of my depth.