Ten years have gone by since the death of Adrian Mitchell (1932-2008), for much of his life a sort of unofficial socialist poet laureate, today most widely known as the lyricist of the song “Victor Jara” recorded by Arlo Guthrie – a homage to the martyred Chilean left wing writer and musician.
Although I think he is in little danger of being forgotten, for memories to remain green, it is necessary to water them occasionally.
He was an industrious writer of verse, prose and works for the stage, but I predict he will be remembered chiefly as a poet. And as a poet, he stands comparison with contemporaries and near contemporaries like Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden. As a student in the 1950s, he was drawn to jazz and blues; their riffs and rhythms are found throughout his work, although his lines are much more than just song lyrics.
A writer from the age of nine – when his first work for the stage, The Animals’ Brains Trust, was produced at his school – he passed through the Oxford University Poetry Society and New Statesman, in which he published the first ever interview with the Beatles, en route to a career that encompassed screenwriting (his anti-colonialist reworking of Robinson Crusoe taken from his novel Man Friday, filmed with Peter O’Toole and Richard Roundtree, was a high point) and novels such as Wartime and a great deal of verse and prose intended for children.
His work for the stage included the anti-war classic US and the English-language version of Marat/Sade, both collaborations with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Tyger!, a celebration of his literary model, William Blake.
Often angry, often gently erotic, always compassionate, frequently at his most self-revelatory in his moments of English self-effacement but always buttressed by a strong moral and didactic purpose, he wanted to expand the poetic audience beyond the boundaries of literary coteries that were inevitably middle class and above.
“Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”, he was fond of saying, as he set out to communicate with a public largely excluded by the cultural establishment. He read at rallies, in pubs and clubs and, increasingly in his later years, for children (he had six grandchildren and increasingly relied on them as his test audience).
His pacifism was, well, at war with his equally felt revolutionary impulses. Socialists would be happy with friendly revolutions in which the ruling class sensibly agreed to bow out peacefully. But examples from Charles I and Marie-Antoinette onward indicate that they never will – at least not until the relationship of forces is so overwhelmingly favourable to the rising class that they are left with little alternative.
Adrian Mitchell was, however, principally an artist. And the standards one observes with an artist are different from those one would adopt toward, say, a political current; some ambiguity and contradiction are inevitable, as they were with other revolutionary creators such as Mayakovsky or Rivera.
His sincere attempts at collaboration with organised socialist currents, as in the case of the International Marxist Group’s political underground paper Black Dwarf, were usually unsuccessful and led him to condemn “dogmatic men and automatic dogs”.
His political engagements thenceforth were those of an unaligned free radical; always available for readings at demonstrations or often simply as another face in the crowd. He was or became a confident public performer because of his public readings (he probably gave thousands of them), but was a naturally modest man who didn’t seek fame.
Sharing one of his best-known pieces, “To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)”, I was impressed recently by the passionate reaction – not just from people with memories of the era, but from people unborn at the time – to his biting, searing emotional commitment, which went beyond sorrow into rage and resistance.
It seemed that people saw in it not just the Vietnam War, but every imperialist war: Iraq, Afghanistan and other ruling class wars that do not necessarily take on military form (the war on the environment, the war on knowledge, the war on science and reason).
For as long as the struggle to replace an outworn and now carcinogenic social system endures, Adrian Mitchell’s works and the example of his personality – warm, indignant, combative, courageous – will be companions on our journey.
I have quoted little because I would like you to seek his works out for yourselves. His verse works 1954-1979 can be found in For Beauty Douglas. The volume On The Beach At Cambridge brings him further up to date.
The novels Wartime and Friday are out of print, as are US, Marat/Sade and Tyger!, but they could be found with some assiduous delving. In addition, much of his work is online; I refer you particularly to his remarkable performance of 11 June 1965, at the Albert Hall, of “To Whom It May Concern”, in which the intensity of an anger born from love is on full display.