Up Morden Tower
From Poetry London:
Chris McCabe: As I’m interviewing you for Poetry London I’m wondering what your relationship with London has been like. Has the city been a source of inspiration?
Tom Pickard: I’m not sure it’s been a source of inspiration but a source of work and of pleasure too. Although, while on the Wapping picket line opposing Murdoch, I was inspired by the best piece of street poetry that I’ve ever heard, when an old cockney printer shouted at a scab ‘you’re so low you could walk under a snake, wearing a top ‘at’. I joined the North East’s greatest growth industry in 1973 which was the drift south, as there wasn’t any work in Newcastle of any kind. So I left and went to London and dossed on mates’ floors. A lot of Geordies were doing that as a way into London. I always had a lot of friends there and I got to know it really well and liked it. Eric Mottram was always an important figure and influence and he was very much a London man. Tom Raworth, who I think was in London at the time, Allen Fisher, Bob Cobbing and Bill Griffiths. I was also involved with Fulcrum, Stuart and Deidre Montgomery’s press, which published my first book, High on the Walls, and they were publishing Basil [Bunting] so I had those connections. Also with Barry Miles who was running Indica and later set-up the International Times, and I was there for the Dialectics of Liberation, which brought together lots of interesting counter-culture figures. I was also part of a band from Newcastle, which moved to London in the late sixties. We were performing on stage at Middle Earth, in Covent Garden, when it was raided by the Met. The biggest police raid on a club in Met history, I believe. The band fell apart because my kids were back in Newcastle and a couple of the members were hospitalized with jaundice from using smack with shared needles.
CM: Did you feel that what you’d achieved with the reading series at Morden Tower and the Ultima Thule Bookshop, had parallels with what was happening in London in the sixties, for example Cobbings’s Better Books? Was it an attempt to create a similar kind of energy?
TP: No, not at all. Connie [Tom’s wife at the time] and I had been to Edinburgh, we’d run away there together as she was married and we went to the Edinburgh Festival, this must have been around 1962. John Calder had set up a writers’ conference, which had Burroughs, Mailer, Mary McCarthy, McDiarmid and all kinds of writers. We visited Jim Haynes’s Paperback Bookshop and thought it would be great to set up something similar in Newcastle, where you could get hold of work that wasn’t otherwise available. The bookshops were pretty much standard fare in Newcastle at the time, student textbooks – nothing adventurous – just flavour of the month stuff. So the initial influence was from the north, from Edinburgh, and it was only later that I thought of going to London and met people like Stuart Montgomery. Of course London’s bigger, has more money, possibly more energy; but we’d already set up Morden Tower in 1963 – I don’t think London had any impact at that time, we didn’t look to it for permission or inspiration.
CM: Was setting up Morden Tower and the bookshop related to a sense of political activism? Did you see your role in the counterculture as coming first and poetry as being the vehicle for getting those urgent messages across?
TP: They were both together, in parallel. From the age of fifteen and sixteen I was going to demonstrations, so I was engaged with political activism before starting Modern Tower. When I left school they had to open new dole offices, Youth Employment Bureaus, to cope with the massive numbers of ‘bulge babies’ coming onto the job market. With my first typewriter I made leaflets to give out on the dole line, trying to form an unemployed union with the other teddyboys. Ever since I was a child I’d been interested in poetry, the two just came naturally together. In the north-east there’s a tradition of political poetry, they’re not separate – for example in the miner’s ballads and other folk songs – poetry was imbued in the political struggle or was never far from it; check out Tommy Armstrong. The Chopwell miners banner, dating from the Twenties, has Walt Whitman’s line, ‘We take up the task eternal, the burden, and the lesson, Pioneers! O pioneers!’. This was a tradition that I felt a part of.
My first publication was in Anarchy, the magazine. It was about teenagers and what it felt like to be on the dole. We were selling anarchist publications, leftist publications, also Wilhelm Reich (author of The Mass Psychology of Fascism and The Sexual Revolution) all kinds of stapled-together publications with ‘avant-garde writing’. So that’s how it began. By this time I’d met Bunting and he was the next person to read at the Tower [after Pete Brown]. It just started rolling. It became, as well as a bookshop, a centre for the distribution and availability of counterculture material and also a place where people just hung out. But I don’t see my poetry as ‘messages’.