Jim Burns

I was first attracted to the writings of Paul Potts when I came across some of his poems in New Lyrical Ballads, an anthology edited by Maurice Carpenter, Jack Lindsay and Honor Arundel, published by Editions Poetry London in 1945. I can’t recall where I found the book with its tattered cover and dusty pages. Probably in a second-hand bookshop and most likely in the 1960s. Second-hand bookshops were plentiful in those days. Potts’ poems were what I liked – straightforward and open in their sentiments. His work, he said in one of them, was “To sing on-/Until the world is Blackpool/in August/in the afternoon.” Reading this I thought how the smart and successful would have sniggered at that reference to Blackpool and its popular image as a gaudy playground for the working-classes. But I grew up not far from Blackpool and went there often, and I knew what Potts meant when he referred to “August/in the afternoon” and its evocation of noisy, good-humoured crowds and cheap entertainments.

I wanted to know more about Potts, so over the years I tracked down nearly all of the few books he’d published and some of his contributions to magazines. And slowly began to establish a picture of the man.

Although often referred to as Canadian, he was born in Berkshire in 1911 to an English father and Irish mother, but moved to Canada when young and was educated there and, after returning to England, at Stonyhurst College. He also attended a Jesuit college in Florence. By the 1930s he was in London and at some point got to know George Orwell and the poet, George Barker. His poems were published in Poetry London in 1939, alongside work by Louis MacNeice, David Gascoyne, Dylan Thomas, and Stephen Spender. His first collection, A Poet’s Testament, was published by the Whitman Press in 1940.  It is now a collectors’ item. Potts also wrote “Don Quixote on a Bicycle”, an insightful appreciation of his friend, George Orwell, which appeared in London Magazine and was incorporated into Potts’ best-known book, Dante Called You Beatrice (Eyre & Spottiswood, 1960), some years later. His poems were also published in New Masses, Poetry Quarterly, and other magazines.

Potts was in the army during the Second World War, though there is little available information about his length of service (it would seem that he spent time in the Royal Ulster Rifles and 12th Commando) and exactly what he did. Robert Hewison’s Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1949-45 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977) suggests that he had been discharged “after passing through the Army’s psychiatric hospital at Northfield, outside Birmingham”. Hewison seems to have got this information from Rayner Heppenstall’s autobiographical novel, The Lesser Infortune (Cape, 1953), where Potts appears as a “Canadian poet”, and Potts himself in Dante Called You Beatrice says that he was “invalided out”. It might be worth adding at this point that Potts went to Israel in 1948 to support the Jewish struggle to establish the new state. I don’t know if he took part in any actual fighting, but being there was an expression of his deep feelings about little countries such as Israel and the Irish Republic.

A second small collection, Instead of a Sonnet appeared from Editions Poetry London in 1944.  Although copies of this edition are scarce it has survived in a later version, supplemented by an additional ten poems, published by Tuba Press in 1978. I’m not going to over-rate the poems. Potts himself said of them: “These few poems, if indeed they are poems at all, are not terribly good. The poetry of the English language would be no poorer without them and it is unfortunately no richer because of them”. Many people would, no doubt, agree with Potts’ opinion of his own work. But for all their faults, real or supposed, there is still something about them that helps to overcome their problems. Perhaps Derek Stanford, who knew Potts in the 1940s and after, summed it up reasonably accurately: “Woodenness of statement and lack of rhythm marred most of the small amount of poetry he published, but there was a small percentage of it which by its economy and simplicity overcame the poet’s technical awkwardness”. And as evidence he quoted the complete, “Prayer to Our Lady”:

Mary Cohen get for me
Those things you had yourself
You wrote a poem
Had a son
Lived a proper life

It’s a poem that perhaps sums up Potts’ yearning for a settled life, despite his bohemian proclivities.  If Potts’ poetry output was slim and unsteady it was because he was really destined, as he himself said, “to write prose as charged with intensity as true poetry”. And with Dante Called You Beatrice, published in 1960, he may well have succeeded. I’m not sure how the book is regarded now, but it did attract some attention when it appeared. To quote Derek Stanford again: “ there are pages in Dante Called You Beatrice and its follow-up, To Keep a Promise (for all the book’s disfiguring sentimentality), which are among the finest passages written in prose since the war”. 

The opening lines of Dante Called You Beatrice essentially set the tone of the rest of the book:

“This book is an attempt to tell a woman, while I was standing on her carpet, asking her to marry me, just what kind of a man it was who loved her, and what other love he had beyond his love of her. Had she wanted my love she would have had to share it, with all of the poor and each of the lonely.”

It’s said that the woman referred to was Jean Hore, who rejected Potts and married Philip O’Connor but was later diagnosed as schizophrenic and confined to an institution for fifty years.  There is a section in Dante Called You Beatrice called “A House with no Address” in which Potts writes about his love for her and his relationship with O’Connor who, like Potts, was well-known in Soho and Fitzrovia. The friendship between Potts and O’Connor is explored in Andrew Barrow’s Quentin & Philip: A Double Portrait (Macmillan 2002), which is about Quentin Crisp and Philip O’Connor but has quite a few references to Potts. It was a friendship that eventually foundered, with Potts seemingly accusing  O’Connor of  exploiting Jean Hore for her money, and O’Connor describing Potts as “a complete scoundrel……He did everything he could to ruin Jean and me”. Where does the truth lie with two extravagant characters like Potts and O’Connor?

Potts published two more books which, in tone and intention, were similar to Dante Called You Beatrice, and can be seen as continuations of it. To Keep a Promise (MacGibbon & Kee) was published in 1970 and Invitation to a Sacrament (Martin Brian & O’Keefe) in 1973. There is a note in the latter which says that another book, A Piece of English Prose, was due to be published in May 1974, but there is no record of it ever appearing. It was a fact that by that date Potts was probably too deep into the alcoholism that would affect his capacity to settle to sustained creative work. I’m not sure of the exact year, but at some point in the late-1970s or early-1980s I happened to be in The French and talking to Jay Landesman when Potts lurched past us. Landesman said something to him about a promised manuscript and got in response what sounded like a dismissive curse. Potts was clearly drunk and in no mood to discuss anything coherently.

It may be that, Dante Called You Beatrice apart, what Potts will mainly be remembered for are his appearances as a bohemian character who  crops up in numerous accounts of Soho in the 1940s and 1950s. Derek Stanford devotes several pages to him in his Inside the Forties: Literary Memoirs 1937-1957 (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1977) and indicates how volatile Potts could be at times, with imagined slights bringing about smashed beer glasses and shouted insults. Wrey Gardiner, in The Flowering Moment  (Grey Walls Press, 1949), says: “I shall never sell out to the little successful journalists. I shall always walk in the gutter with the funny men with the humorous saddened eyes. Fred Marnau and Ruthven Todd and Paul Potts have qualities that no other human beings I know have. The qualities of the grandes pitres”.

Mentioning Wrey Gardiner inclines me to point out that he’s another neglected figure whose effusive prose style would not find favour today. He edited Poetry Quarterly and published Potts’ essays about George Barker and the American, William Saroyan: “William Saroyan is in love, in love with nearly everybody and almost everything. Furthermore he uses his sleeve as a blackboard on which to write his love letters. (P.S. - I like Saroyan very much indeed)”. And Saroyan is one more writer who probably goes largely unread these days.

Potts crops up more than once in Daniel Farson’s Soho in the Fifties (Michael Joseph, 1987) where he’s noted as frequenting the notorious Colony Club. Farson also mentioned Potts in The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon  (Vintage Books, 1994) in relation to the Colony: “His appearance, increasingly like that of a Soho wino, was tolerated with saintly forbearance by Muriel as he smouldered and stank in the corner, for he rarely washed. With her curious instinct she knew that he was all right, a man of some worth in spite of his failure”.

There are anecdotes concerning Potts in books about the Colony Room, though they inevitably frequently focus on his misbehaviour. In Darren Coffield’s Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia (Unbound, 2020), a recollection by Jay Landesman perhaps explains the background to the encounter I witnessed in The French. Landesman said that Potts had proposed editing an anthology, Poems for Poor People, and they discussed the idea: “His enthusiasm for the project increased in direct ratio to the drinks I was buying. Before the afternoon was over, we had a golden handshake. His advance was possibly the lowest in publishing history…..£5 and free Guinness…..We both knew the book would never happen, but I enjoyed the liquid negotiations”.

Another book, Sophie Parkin’s splendid The Colony Room Club 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho (Palmtree Publishers, 2013), also includes Potts, bringing in the dishevelment of his later years and noting that “Philip O’Connor and Paul Potts were always cadging drinks or getting angry and there was a lot of emotional behaviour around”.  But it’s worth mentioning that “Poet George Barker described his friend Potts as,” ‘that criminal whose felony is to love everything a bit too much’, as well as dreadfully poor, selling his poems for a penny on street corners and often destitute, he was always welcomed by Muriel, despite his smell and rags”.

Incidentally, many of the references to Potts describe his appearance as untidy, even dirty and smelly, but a photograph by John Deakin, chronicler of Soho bohemia, taken in the early- 1950s, shows a cleaner and smarter Potts.

As well as the various books and magazines I’ve referred to, it is relevant to draw attention to The Faber Book of 20th Century Verse (Faber, 1953, with several later reprints), edited by David Wright and John Heath-Stubbs, where Potts was represented with two poems. And Michael Horovitz included an excerpt from Dante Called You Beatrice in Children of Albion: Poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain (Penguin Books, 1969), as if to demonstrate that he had some similarities of mood or manner to certain of the new poets and bohemians. Potts’ old sparring partner, Philip O’Connor, was also in the anthology, no doubt for the same reason.

Paul Potts died in 1990. His last few years had seen him more or less housebound due to ill-health and living in what would be described as squalor. He died when he fell asleep while smoking and set his bed on fire. Some of the obituaries commented on his role as a Soho character, but others drew attention to the books he had written during his better days. George Barker thought that Potts’ real achievement was with his prose because “he found it hard to conform to the rigours of verse”. He was right, though lines from a simple poem by Potts stay in my mind longer than most of the poems I come across in books and magazines:

I want to write something holy
Holy about life
Where a kiss is a prayer 
And God is worshipped
By the way a woman combs her hair.

When Potts died I was often publishing reviews and poems in Tribune, the left-wing weekly paper in which he had appeared in the 1940s. It seemed appropriate to commemorate his passing with a short tribute. I make no claims for it as a poem – as Potts said, “The history of the English language would be no poorer without it” - but it served its purpose and I liked to think that in its directness and simplicity it was not unlike some of what Potts himself wrote.

PAUL POTTS (1911-1990)

I once saw Paul Potts plain,
in a Soho pub and drunk again.

A sad decline, perhaps,
for someone who had the skill 
to write Dante Called You Beatrice.
But while he lived he raged, 
and never gave in like those

who favoured easy conformity.
And in our smooth-toned world
I’ll remember his broken voice,
and say it again and again.
I once saw Paul Potts plain.