Monday, June 24, 2013

Memories of the US Poet: Lyman Andrews


Writing a blog about being a Brit in the US, my mind often goes back to the expat Americans that I’ve known living in England over the years.  So I thought I’d dedicate this post to by far the most colourful character I’ve been friends with, the poet, Lyman Andrews, who had a creative and non-conventional approach to life (often fueled by alcohol).


When I knew him, he was an American Studies lecturer, but he'd also worked as a poetry critic at the Sunday Times, through which he met literary luminaries such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg, as well as partying with pop stars, such as Mick Jagger and Ray Davies from The Kinks, plus he served as a witness at one of Britain's biggest obscenity trials of the 1960s.

Lyman in Denver 1979 (photo courtesy of Michael Baird: See comments!)

First Meeting


I met Lyman during my second year of university, when I was studying Philosophy at Leicester.  I was staying in student accommodation, a shared house of ten people.  Most of us had lived there the previous year, but there were a few new tenants, Lyman being one of them.


It was somewhat surprising to have a middle-aged lecturer move in with us, the rest of us were generally in our late teens or early twenties and undergrads or post grads.  It gradually came out that Lyman had previously been sharing a rented property with his boyfriend, but the relationship had broken down.  Lyman had continued to live there on his own for a time, but a burglary had made him nervous about staying in the property.  Further complicating the matter was Lyman’s heavy drinking, which always added a layer of chaos to his personal life.  So he had approached the university authorities and said he’d needed a place to live, and they had put him into university accommodation with us.


I suspect that they chose our house because we already had a reputation for drunkenness and had received numerous official warnings for rowdy behaviour.  I think they assumed that we wouldn’t object to one more crazy person, which on the whole was correct.  Although the university authorities, being of an older generation, seemed even more concerned by Lyman’s sexuality than his drinking and antics (he was bisexual, but tended more towards homo than hetero).  Lyman’s sexuality wasn’t really much of a concern to us, with the exception of the Methodist who lived on the bottom floor, who told us that he prayed regularly for Lyman to be cured of his homosexuality (Lyman found this hilarious, rather than patronizing).  


From Denver to the Sunday Times


Lyman was born and raised near Denver, Colorado, and would often relate with affection stories of hunting with his father when young.  Despite the homosexual stereotype, Lyman was in not effeminate in any way, if anything, he veered to the opposite – he expressed a dislike for effeminate homosexuals, relating far more to the very masculine writer, Ernest Hemingway, who was one of his great heroes.  Apart from his father, the only other family member who I ever heard him mention was his sister, who he managed to maintain contact with over the years, despite very infrequent trips back to the USA.


Lyman studied at Berkley and then crossed the pond to study at King’s College, London.  It was during the late 60s and early 70s that he had his poetry collections, including his most respected, Kaleidoscope, published.  He effectively achieved a great deal of artistic success at a young age, although sadly, he would never again reach those creative heights.  He used his creative and academic success to carve out an academic career for himself, however, teaching American Studies in Leicester, and working for many years as a poetry critic for The Sunday Times.

Lyman reading in Yugoslavia 1960s
 

The Sunday Times Period


The 1960s and 70s was an interesting and exciting period, as far as culture goes, and at the Sunday Times, Lyman was notable for being one of the first poetry critics to take popular song lyrics seriously, an example being the well-crafted songs of The Kinks – this seems uncontroversial nowadays, but was revolutionary at the time.  This meant that he was often invited to backstage music parties (some of them pretty wild), as well as the more formal events that might normally associate with a Times poetry critic (he was asked to attend a royal garden party, for instance).


One of Lyman’s anecdote’s was how he “slept with Mick Jagger”.  He'd say that to get your attention and then explain that in truth, that he’d attended a drunken party, collapsed onto a bed fully clothed and woken up with Jagger slept next to him.


Another of his anecdotes was when he first met William Burroughs, he’d confused him for a waiter at the party after the Last Exit to Brooklyn obscenity trial (see below) and requested a drink before realising his mistake (Burroughs was dressed smartly in a dark suit and tie).


At another occasion to mark the release of a Kinks album, he got into a drunken food fight with singer and lyricist, Ray Davies.


According to Lyman, his relationship with the Sunday Times eventually soured when it was taken over by Rupert Murdoch.  There was a lot of disquiet at the newspaper at the time – for one thing the paper had a history of political neutrality and Murdoch brought with him a reputation for conservatism, which many suspected (rightly, it turned out) he would impose on the newspaper.  Some of the journalists who resigned at that time went on to form The Independent, but Lyman dropped out of writing for newspapers altogether, as far as I am aware.


Witness at the Last Exit to Brooklyn Obscenity Trial


Lyman’s poetry publishers for his book, Kaleidoscope were Calder and Boyers, who were also the British  publishers of the controversial novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, which ended up having obscenity charges brought against it.  It was one of the big literary trials of the 1960s, as the old obscenity laws were being challenged, and Lyman was asked to be a witness, defending the literary merits of the novel.

University of Leicester (via Wikimedia Commons)


American Studies at Leicester


Lyman had a reputation for outrageous behavior at Leicester University.  At a typical tutorial of his, the students would be castigated (in a semi-humorous way) if they hadn’t brought a bottle of wine along (even if it was morning) and someone would be given money by Lyman and told to buy a bottle from a local shop to bring back, if they hadn't.  


Lyman’s drinking would continue throughout the daytime and usually continue in the Student Union Bar after classes were over.  Normally by mid-evening he would be too drunk to continue and head home.  Usually he would ask the bar staff to book a taxi and make his way home by himself, but there were other times when he had to be physically carried from the building by university security (no mean task as he’d put on a lot of weight by the time he was middle-aged) and driven home.


Lyman almost always drank whisky in the bar and always did his drinking in the daytime/early evening, almost never at night time – he said that he didn’t like the rowdiness and loud noise.  Aside from the university student union bar, another favourite drinking place of his was the Magazine Pub (nicknamed affectionately, "The Mag"), now sadly demolished, which was near the polytechnic.


Despite being a smart man with a passion and deep knowledge of American Literature, Lyman’s relationship with the university authorities were always bad in the time that I knew him in the late 1980s, thanks to his personal behavior.  The relationship teetered on outright hostility and it was an open secret that the university powers would be happy to see him gone (it didn’t help that Lyman would proposition students when drunk too, invariably without success).  Lyman himself, however, tended to see the problems and his lack of popularity with the powers that be as amusing, generally reveling in his rebellious reputation.


One time, according to Lyman, he attended a big university function.  Drunk, as usual, and sensing that the university vice chancellor was cold-shouldering him, Lyman approached the vice chancellor whilst he was in the middle of a conversation with important patrons of the university, and declared in a loud voice: “Hey, it’s your puffy American Studies lecturer, why are you ignoring me?” before promptly biting him hard on his ear!


Reclusive in Nottingham 


Lyman’s problems with the university came to a head in the late 1980s.  Lyman negotiated his departure through his trade union, however, and managed to get early retirement with a decent pay off and pension.  He was very happy about the situation.  “This is what I’ve always dreamed of,” he told me, “a regular income and time to work on my writing.”  (Although, how much writing he actually got done, however, I’m not sure of, I don’t think he got anything published during this period). 


After many years of living in Leicester, Lyman had come to dislike the city.  He considered it to be mediocre and provincial.  It’s hard to separate his disdain toward Leicester, however,  from his feelings towards the university authorities, people who had pressured him for years and who he saw as small minded.


He lived in London for a time after he left Leicester.  All I remember was that it was a rather posh, traditional public school sort of place with a large portrait of the guy who’d founded the apartheid system in South Africa in the dining area (Lyman found this terribly ironic and amusing).  I still feel a bit guilty, but it me who got him kicked out of there.  I travelled down there with a friend on New Years’ Eve.  After socializing with Lyman for a time, we wanted to go to Trafalger Square for the festivities, leaving Lyman back at the flat (as I mentioned previously, Lyman hated too much rowdiness).  He also told us specifically not to bring anyone back (we were kipping in his small room), but after quite a few drinks and a few hours in central London, I forgot what he’d said and brought back a couple of women, who were looking for somewhere to stay.   That was enough to get him kicked out.


Lyman spent his final years renting a room at a YMCA in central Nottigham.  He had barely enough possessions to fill a small suitcase and no particular ties to anyone in Nottingham.  He seemed generally happy though, when I visited him, working away on a novel and listening to Michael Crawford singing Phantom of the Opera on his tape machine, smoking cigarettes and eating hot buttered toast (“It’s one of the few things in life that never loses its appeal, even sex can get boring”, he’d say).


My contact with Lyman stopped not long after I moved up to Leeds.  Years later, I looked him up on the internet, curious to see if there was anything about him and if he was still alive.  Lyman didn’t do internet, but I had email contact in 2005 with the artist, Paul O’Donovan, who wrote about Lyman in the magazine, Interzone  – he told me that Lyman had had to give up drinking due to health reasons and due to the passing of Marion Boyers, no longer had a publisher.  I considered going down to visit Lyman, but didn’t.  He died on the February 13, 2009.

Lyman in his flat in Nottingham, late 80s, wearing his stars 'n' stripes cardigan (Photo taken by myself)
 

Relationship with England and the USA


I talked to Lyman a lot about his views on England and the US in the years I knew him.  His feelings on both countries were complex and mixed.  As a Englishman living in Florida, I can understand his situation in some ways.  Lyman brought to the UK, a fresh perspective from across the pond, which was interesting to people like me.  But it works the other way too.  Living in other countries also opens the mind up to other ways of looking at things and makes you view your home country differently.  Not necessarily better or worse, just differently. 


Lyman could find English people amusingly passive, compared to the more independently spirited Americans.  He thought that the class system had created a race of people who were scared stiff of authority.  On the other hand, he liked the strong literary tradition of Britain and the fact that education and artistic/cultural values were generally taken more seriously by the public. 


He also, I believe, enjoyed standing out from the crowd, too – sometimes, when drunk he would bellow in an exaggerated Southern drawl and play the part of a “dumb American” just for fun and to get a reaction from the timid Brits.


His feelings about his home country were mixed.  With many issues, such as gun control, he felt that he could appreciate both the UK and US point of view – he could see why the Brits saw public gun ownership as dangerous, but also had a personal affection for his time spent hunting with his father as a young man coming of age.  


He saw the conservative forces in the US as sinister, however.  He was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, for instance, and was glad that he got out of the country at that time.  He did speak with affection for the US too, its independent spirit, his Colorado upbringing, its poetry tradition (he maintained letter contact with some writers, including Ginsberg and Lowell), Hemingway, the Beat writers, etc. but he didn’t seem in any rush to go back when I knew him.  His sister gave him all the family news he needed from the states and that seemed to be enough for him.  If he traveled anywhere outside the UK, it tended to be Morocco, a hangout for American expat writers in the 20th Century, including Burroughs. 
I would also add that whatever his misgivings about the US, in no way could you ever say that he "went native", despite living in the UK for decades, he always remained very much, an American.  He almost acted out a caricature at times, wearing, for instance a “stars ‘n’ stripes” cardigan, that had been knitted for him by a student.  But this was his humour – his way of poking fun at the British stereotype of Americans. This was the 1980s, remember, when holidaying in Orlando, New York, and Las Vegas wasn’t as common as it is now, and most Brits only experienced America through TV and movies.


Culturally, as I now live in the US, I can appreciate how he brought American sensibilities to the UK with him, which I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.  He was a very generous tipper, making him very popular with waitresses, cleaning ladies, bar staff, taxi drivers, and all other lowly workers, wherever he went.  Essentially, he tipped like he was in the USA, where wages are small for those type of service jobs and tipping happens all the time, as a pose to the UK where tipping is much rarer (but the wages are generally higher).


He also refused to walk anywhere.  Even if it was ten minutes away.  That seemed odd to me when I lived in Leicester, but again, it is a less uncommon attitude in the US, where the car is king.


Lyman’s Relationship with Alcohol


Was Lyman an alcoholic when I knew him?  I will leave that for others to judge.  He was certainly a heavy drinker and he did it pretty much every day when I knew him.  He certainly wasn’t a self-pitying or morbid drunk, far from it, he was boisterous and jovial when intoxicated - but he certainly drank considerable amounts every day and always ended up seriously drunk.  Like some other creative people, he had a romantic attachment to the idea of the writer as a heavy drinker and he reveled in the role of the rebellious provocateur.
 

I do believe that the drinking had a negative effect on his relationships and career, however, and more importantly, contributed to his decline as a creative artist.  Lyman also smoked heavily and took almost no physical exercise (as I mentioned earlier, he would take taxis everywhere, rather than walk).


As a young student, I found Lyman’s crazy lifestyle entertaining and exciting, especially when compared with the dusty world of academia.  But it is fair to say that all the older adults, both within academia and in the arts field that I met who knew him, even his old friends, generally saw him as an intelligent and gifted person who had gone seriously off the rails (they would tell you so private).  In middle age now myself, my views on Lyman’s behavior and drinking are somewhat different, and in truth, less favorable to what they were.  


It should be noted, however, that during the exam marking period, Lyman’s lifestyle changed considerably.  He took a hiatus from the heavy drinking and worked away quietly in his room, marking student papers.  He was a different man when sober.  You could actually see the responsible, studious man who’d studied at Berkley and King’s College, London, and the dedicated writer who had produced such excellent poetry when younger.


He was a flawed man.  But his early creativity, his anarchic spirit, his intelligence and knowledge, his humour, unpretentiousness, and lack of materialism were and remain big positives for me.


13 comments:

  1. Lyman studied at Brandeis (not Berkeley) and he was appointed at Swansea (not King's College) before arriving at Leicester University in 1965. He was a resident tutor at Digby Hall, first living in Hastings House and then the Knoll.

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  2. He never prepared for his lectures, recycling old notes from years gone by. He frequently did not return in time for the beginning of term, one term turning up 6 weeks late. His attitude to teaching was rotten. He should have resigned and stopped wasting everyone's time.

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  3. Oh and I'm pretty sure he lost his job at the Sunday Times in the late 1970s or early 80s when they found out that he was writing his book reviews without bothering to read the books.

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  4. I too was a philosophy student at Leicester (79-82) and came across Lyman. I was pretty awed by both his knowledge of poetry and his capacity for booze! I'm very glad I met him!

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  5. Lyman was certainly flawed, but the world of academia can be very dry and grey at times, and it needs some characters... (this attitude is probably why I only got a 2/2! hehe!)

    Some of the biographical details from before I met Lyman may well be incorrect. I got them from Wiki. Lyman himself was also an unreliable source of factual information when it came to his own life (not unlike his great hero, Hemingway, who for years led people to believe that he'd served in the special forces in WWI, rather than as an ambulance driver).

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  6. The photo of Lyman in front of the Capitol building in Denver was taken by me, in 1979 - please correct this. I was a student at Leicester in 1972/3 and got assigned to The Knoll at Digby Hall. Lyman was pretty much together in this period, gave excellent lectures (Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Frost) and wrote courageous poetry reviews in The Sunday Times (e.g. he was the first to declare Lou Reed and Jimi Hendrix poets). He influenced my life.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Michael. I have updated the photo information to show yourself as the photo taker/owner.

      Lyman had series of unfortunate events in the early eighties. He split up with his long term lover and there a burglary at his apartment which seemed to have upset him a lot. How much his drinking problems and non-drinking problems were interlinked in terms of cause and effect is difficult to assess.

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  7. Knew Lyman 1982-1984.I remember him receiving a present of some pipe tobacco from an ex-Knoll resident;he was knocked out to be remembered so fondly. Early afternoon seminars in the American Studies building were short as we'd be in the bar within 10 minutes of the start. Lovely guy and I'm sorry Denver:Homecoming never found a publisher.

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  8. I recall Lyman from my time working in a pub (The Clarendon) near his ground floor flat around 1980-81. He would often pop in to the pub later in the evening, be loud and 'American' and leave at closing time. I often called in to see him on my way home where he would offer a drink and a joint. I still have a signed copy of 'Kaleidoscope' that he presented to me. Sadly I was never in doubt that he was an alcoholic; at home he drank cheap sherry advising me it was 'the best bang for buck' at the off-licence.

    He was a lovely man who doubtless wrestled demons and ultimately lost. RIP Lyman, I feel privileged to have met you.

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  9. Just stumbled across your blog entry. We must have been at Leicester in the same timeframe. Your impressions of Lyman tally closely with mine - he WAS extremely exciting and out of step in that era of encroaching conservatism, when universities were being encouraged to think of themselves as 'education businesses' and students as 'clients'. He made no secret of his contempt for what is now the unchallenged ethos in British universities.

    I remember his combative relationship with his almost equally legendary (though diametrically opposed) compatriot Paris Leary and the proxy war they'd fight with each other via their seminars and lectures.

    At some point around 1986, he moved out of Mary Gee houses and into a dodgy hotel at the bottom of University Road. I met him one evening in the Marquess of Granby and he invited me back to the bar for a nigh-cap. The bar-tender had a copy of Kaleidoscope behind the bar-till, so that when Lyman felt like reading from it,all he had to do was yell 'Gimme Kaliedoscope' and the bar-keep would spring to attention and thrust it into Lyman's hot little hand.

    I last saw him 1993, long after I'd graduated. By that time, he was living in the YMCA in Nottingham - I'd heard that he was there, so I looked him up while I was in the city. He pretended to remember me, but I don't think he did. He seemed fairly happy - certainly a lot happier than he'd seemed at Leicester, when he'd told me he was suffering from 'acute situational depression' and I remember him listening to Mozart and seeming generally stable. That was the last time I saw him. Sad that he didn't redeem his early promise, but then he might have had a less interesting life.

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  10. Lyman Andrews was my English tutor in 1965-66, and also ran a weekly seminar on Eliot's The Wasteland. It was the most interesting thing about the Leicester one year English "subsidiary" course (my main subject was history); Lyman was a bit of a superstar in those days, being a published poet, and, as a young American, much more informal and approachable than most of the academics. A few other male students and I were sitting on the lawn with Lyman in the summer (must have been '66) when he invited another US lecturer to join us. While his colleague hesitated, Lyman whispered "If he does come over, place your hands surreptitiously over your gonads" "Is he like that?" one of the students asked. "Well," Lyman drawled, "He's a Southerner..." I don't remember any speculation about Lymann's sexuality, or any hint of alcoholism. Thanks for posting this, Paul

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  11. I met Lyman in about 1985/6, when I was about 17 or 18. At weekends, and during holidays,friends and I used to drink the afternoons away in The Globe in Leicester, and met Lyman there. I was interested in poetry and American lit, others just enjoyed hanging out with a loud American guy. Plus he would periodically turn up with people - once to my utter astonishment Carolyn Cassady.

    I can recall talking with him about Mayakovsky, about the Colorado countryside, about bourbon, Ginsberg, the countryside of Cornwall which I seem to recall he wrote about. He also told us that Harpo Marx played piano at his fifth birthday party: 'that fucker!' - I think something to do with his mother's job?

    I also recall feeling odd ordering his very American- and adult-sounding drink 'large bourbon, lotsa water lotsa ice' at the bar.

    I recall standing next ot him in the urinal one afternoon while he tried to remember Gene Pitney's name for some reason. 'Gene...gene...gene..PENNYFUCKER I DUNNO' which made us both burst out laughing and piss one our shoes.

    I remember him smoking two cigarettes at once on National No Smoking Day,and I remember going back one afternoon to his office at the University to drink wine. There were three of us - one of our number a pretty handsome boy who I think Lyman had designs on. It was a drunken afternoon but I recall him producing a replica revolver at one point and brandishing it whilst reading a poem about the murder of Che Guevara, whilst the rest of us passed various artefacts around - letters form Ginsberg, a photo of Lyman with Auden, things I've forgotten.

    I'm a poet, and years ago worte a short poem about Lyman which I still read sometimes:

    Americans in Leicester pt. 1

    Teeth like truck-smashed bollards,
    Lyman exhaled. Mausoleum vapours.
    A theatrical roll of his milky blue eye,
    curdled, lapidary, blood-lichen.

    “Harpo Marx played piano
    at my fifth birthday party.”
    he growled, coughing chains
    from an oily tin bucket

    “That fucker.” he added, needlessly


    Thanks for reminding me of him, I liked him a lot.

    Alan

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  12. I knew Lyman when I first arrived at Leicester as a lecturer in 1978 and remained a friend until he left in the early 90s. I stayed temporarily at Digby Hall in my first term and would spend the evening playing word games with him and others. I remember thinking at the time that I hoped all my future colleagues were as funny and intelligent as Lyman. I'm sure drinking was not a problem at that time. He was highly respected but his drinking later became notorious .
    Some time in the late 80s he was granted study leave which he spent in the US. The Universities Research Board gave him a grant to work on the origins of the lone anti hero in American Literature. On his return from the US there was a marked difference in Lyman , his drinking became a real problem and his behaviour became more erratic. In 1981 the University's government grant was cut as part of the first Thatcher government's cost savings. The administration produced an "academic" plan that included closure of American Studies. This was strongly opposed by the staff Union, the AUT and the plan was voted against by the Universty Senate. Lyman became involved in Union affairs. I remember wondering if it was entirely supportive of the Unions case that Lyman took to standing at the entrance to the Senior Common Room extolling entering academics to support the Unions case, often the worse for drink. The resolution of the University's financial problems was a generous early retirement scheme which Lyman was happy to accept. My own view was that his Department valued Lyman but eventually his behaviour became too much, particularly when he returned from North Africa several weeks after the beginning of term.

    A story that Lyman liked to tell was when he was (unusually) walking down Queens Road when he tripped and fell. A passing gentleman helped him to his feet. This turned out to be the Bishop of Leicester, Richard Rutt, who, seeing that Lyman had been drinking, advised him to pull himself together and find himself a proper job.

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