Beginnings and a little more
A “son of the manse” (Baptist not Presbyterian), born in the middle of the second world war, my parents were from South Wales. This background prepared me for a life of low living and high thinking as a British humanities academic. My first consciousness of the world began in the old Victorian industrial north of England, in Bradford in Yorkshire where the dwindling members of my father’s congregation used powerful hearing aids because they had been deafened by the noise of the old woollen mills with many machines driven from a single shaft. In the great snow of 1947, we wore our outside clothes indoors and my father carried me to school on his shoulders. The next place was the Old Basford slum area of Nottingham, perhaps with its shades of D.H. Lawrence.
After that, by a kind of North and South flip, was the North Wiltshire market town of Chippenham, just touching the edge of the South Cotswolds, and with the famous spa town of Bath within easy cycling distance. I have retained a love of the Wiltshire landscape, the small farmland of North West Wiltshire with its unbroken history of outstanding domestic architecture, and of South Wiltshire with its downland, and trout-stream valleys, its tucked away villages, not to mention the megalithic sites, ever since. One grew up with a strong sense of ancient and modern history. Late primary, junior, and grammar school education all took place in Chippenham, a town which now serves London commuters but was then a sleepy market town with its incongruous American Art Deco Westinghouse brake and signals factory serving Brunel’s old Great Western Railway, dominating employment.
Yet Chippenham retained centuries-old connections with the countryside where the cattle were still driven down the town’s high street to the market at its centre. There wasn’t much to do except read and take ones ‘ Observer’ guides into the fields and woodlands. In terms of education my happiest memory is of two teachers of music, Kenneth Broune at the grammar school who inspired a life-time love of classical music, and John Tomlins who used to give me organ lessons at the parish church of St Mary’s, the old wool church, and the older of the two Anglican churches in the town. Apart from that, all life revolved around a small-town Baptist congregation. My junior school, Ivy Lane, was exceptionally good, but it was decades later that I discovered that it had been taught in by Robin Tanner, one of the greatest English twentieth-century etchers. My family these days is is a twentieth-century story of family dispersal. It is far-flung to Brazil, the United States and Canada. I shall add some of them, and other friends, to my links as the site develops. My nieces and nephews with their growing families, and now great nephews and nieces, are a great delight. I remain in touch also with a number of my graduate students who are teaching at universities in Denmark, France, England and the United States.
On leaving school it was the religious background which doubtless prompted me to join up with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in just the second year of its existence. I was posted, at the age of eighteen, to what was then called the Mid-West of Nigeria. With a place secured to read English at King’s College, London, I went and taught English, History and an awful lot of Latin at the Isoko James Welch Grammar School at Emevor (it still exists) some forty miles from the city of Warri, in the last year of the British Empire in Nigeria. The political contradictions of such a moment I still think are just outweighed by the astonishing nature of the experience itself.Â It confirmed my vocation as a teacher, opened my eyes to a radically different culture and made links and friends at a visceral level with a Â people, themselves in profound cultural revolution.Â In those days there was an older sense of time and space: letters took a minimum of a week to arrive if the postman was sober, and I travelled slowly there by sea onÂ HMS DevonshireÂ taking British troops to police the plebiscite in the two Cameroons, and came back on a Norwegian oil tanker: a powerful image, in retrospect, of the way global power was shifting from the European gun and flag to the American globalized market and the politics (and devastations) of oil. My interest in the United States began at this point as well as the dawning of political consciousness.
There is much more to be said and perhaps one day I will write a book based on my extensive diaries and letters home.Â The rest of the career is more conventional.Â Three degrees at King’s College, the inspiring teaching of Eric Mottram, the English Poetry Revival with its links to American modernist poets a number of whom I met. I have given many tapes of poets I recorded in the subsequent decades to Warwick University, and in 2012, a “Clive Bush Audio Archive” will be housed in the library. Â From 1966 onwards I helped pioneer American Literature, American Studies, and Film Studies at the new University of Warwick, finally returning to King’s College in 1992, becoming chair of the English department, surviving cancer and much else, then retiring early to write my latest monograph,The Century’s Midnight.Â Much of my research life has been conducted in the wonderful libraries of Yale University.
Two other strands need noting. In a busy life I have managed to continue to play the piano to a reasonable amateur level. My teachers have included William Westney whose book The Perfect Wrong Note every pianist should read, Diana Richardson, Ray Alston, and currently Clare Clements.The second strand is my participation in the British alternative poetry scene. Initially this was a loose group of diverse poets around Eric Mottram from the mid-sixties onwards.
I wrote about five of them including Mottram in my book, Out of Dissent. Mottram was an old Leavisite, a force of seemingly inexhaustible energy who had gone to Cambridge after the war (taking a double first), taught in Singapore and Holland and unlike most English academics in English departments at the time had a thoroughly international outlook on culture generally..
He was not only abreast of European movements in the arts from modernism onwards, especially in the new music and performance arts, but also had a reverence for classical culture from the Greeks to the Renaissance.Profoundly English in his love for the Gower peninsular, he was deeply engaged with the long history of English settlement from the megalithic era onwards, not to mention his love of Ealing comedies.
He took enormous pride in his war experience and Cambridge and he was permanently at odds with the â€œlittle Englanderâ€ mentality, especially in poetry. His enthusiastic embracing of American culture from Melville to movies, also marked him out from the traditional Leavisite.
Wayward, unpredictable, he was an inspiring teacher, though one from whom one sometimes had to keep an intellectual distance if one was to develop any perspective of one’s own. His lasting legacy was to convince most of his students of the supreme value of cultural and intellectual life in a seriously anti-intellectual society.