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.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

In Search of Cider

Some British expats may crave a creamier form of chocolate, others may desire Heinz baked beans on toast, but my main miss (well, apart from affordable dental care) is a certain fermented apple drink.

Yes, English cider is tasty, refreshing and surprisingly cheap.  It was my chosen beverage back in my Bohemian days (many fond memories of slurping Old English with various punk and anarchist types), but it is far less common in the USA, which comes as a surprise, as it must have been brewed by some of the early settlers and pioneers?  Another casualty of Prohibition perhaps?

To be fair, there are American ciders out there, commonly sold in small bottles, rather than the large one or two litre ones you get in the UK – but it is often a bit on the sweet side for me (no sharp taste) and more mid-priced than cheap, as well as being weaker in regard to alcohol content. 
It is also the case that many Irish bars here in Florida do sell cider from “across the pond” on draft, according to my experience, although it is usually the modern Irish brew, Magners, which dominates.  I have come across Strongbow on draft a couple of times, however, which is always a pleasant surprise.

The truth is that I like the very dry, and strong taste that is associated with the traditional English ciders, rather than anything sweet and weaker.  In fact, I am not averse to seeking out some scrumpy or a pint of “rough” when down in the English West Country – the cloudiness of the cider certainly isn’t an issue for me.

Which is why I was thrilled to bits to find my recently revamped local liquor store now selling cans of Blackthorn cider at a pretty reasonable price (I like the way that the Americans label it: “Hard Cider” by the way, it makes me feel a little more manly for drinking it!). 
But seriously, I am so happy, I am tempted to go into a few verses and choruses of the Wurzels’ classic, I am a Cider Drinker.  But I won’t.  Oh, all right then: “When the Moon shines on the cowshed…”