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This report is taken from PN Review 138, Volume 27 Number 4, March - April 2001.

The Life of It John Welch

It is such a thing of hints and echoes. One lunchtime four or five years ago in Walthamstow, East London, where I was teaching, I had gone into a secondhand bookshop. It had some pretensions - 'modern first editions' wrapped in cellophane - and I got into conversation with an old man who was selling off some books there. He started talking about Soho, in the old days. He used to drink there and he knew them all, and reeled off a list of names, the Soho Bohemia of the time. The next time I was there, I bought Nina Hammett's memoirs, Is She a Lady? and I found he had made a bookplate, scratchily drawn and duplicated. Talking to this elderly cockney before he went back to his council flat on the outer fringes of London, someone who had been drawn, quite fortuitously as it seemed, into this circle, I felt, even at this distance from the centre and some fifty years later, how it exerts a ghostly pull.

Upstairs in the Public Library in Hendon. It's 1959 and I am seventeen years old, and wondering, where have all these paintings come from? Abstracts. It's as if they've flown in through the windows and alighted here on the walls in this North London suburb. I wander round, bemused. There are some pamphlets, and one of them I still have. It's a local poetry workshop, the early days of Bob Cobbing's Writers' Forum. More than forty years ...


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