Prolific, experimental poet who became fascinated by the dialect and history of north-east England
Published: 20 September 2007 in The Independent
Brian Bransom Griffiths, poet: born Kingsbury, Middlesex 20 August 1948; died Seaham, Co Durham 13 September 2007.
The poet Bill Griffiths was an extraordinary writer: radical, experimental and scholarly, but also fun. His was the poetry of a biker, a cook, a boat owner and a social historian. He was also a scholar of Old English and dialect who knew how to make his work accessible. Griffiths exemplified the task of poetry without ever wishing to be treated as a poet. Private and uncompetitive, he was at least these things: poet, archivist, scholar, translator, prison-rights campaigner, pianist, historian, curator, performer, editor, short-story writer, essayist, teacher, book-maker and folk loricist.
The range of Griffiths' poetry encompassed found text, slang, dialect, visual writing and neologism. He coined his own speech and chose how he punctuated his work:
Over the cat-flanx of our guts,
broadsider is hide is sky-square
az the expert teeth grin
in the lid; safety checks.
Hid I the kind ears
& the wheat-dunlop-power-hair
to set up lips on gears, demon,
He went to live in the north-east of England in 1990, drawn there by the dialect of its coastline and its history of Old and Middle English. Early works like The First Three Novellas of the Second Row (1980) drew on an etymology that was a thousand years old.
Griffiths was a cussed pioneer, bringing a slew of gifts to the poetic table. He was the author of several hundred published works, some of whose hand-coloured, individually fashioned covers could be found at the many small-press book fairs he attended. Griffiths had begun to publish his poetry in an era marked by Ezra Pound's death and it is not unreasonable to conjecture that his poetry may one day be held in equal regard. Their poetry shares a magnetic surface that draws on Old English, Oriental and Romance languages and idioms, with a magpie's hoarding eye for words and ironic persona and an extraordinary, musical ear.
Griffiths' early poetry was self-published by Pirate Press, from his family home. As Billy Griffiths he published Masses-Texts / Allied Texts in 1973. He joined a silk-screen class and created covers for mimeographed editions. His poetry was quickly championed by Eric Mottram, editor of Poetry Review, who introduced him to Bob Cobbing and Jeff Nuttall. The latter wrote in 1976: "Griffiths reads with the light hesitancy of a hunting thrush... His voice, grey with roll-ups, skips in a series of syllables and short gasps along his perfectly tuned lines."
Cobbing introduced him to the joys of the Gestetner duplicator. With a "blobby duplicator and a fizzy scanner" Cobbing ran Writers' Forum, a small press that focused on sound, visual and performance poetry. Much of Griffiths' self-publishing was done in collaboration with Writers' Forum, and it was through Cobbing that he met Tom Pickard, the Geordie poet, with whom he'd collaborate in later years on Tyne Txts (2003) and Iain Sinclair, who was to become his editor at Paladin and is the author of an essay in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths which has just been published.
He was born Brian Griffiths – but known as Bill– in 1948 in Kingsbury, Middlesex, the youngest of three children. His great-uncle Wilfred Hambleton was a member of the London Symphony Orchestra, set up as a workers' co-operative in the early 20th century. His father, William Griffiths, had a neon-light business that failed at the onset of the Second World War; and who later became a teacher of religious education and technical drawing. His mother, Irene, had been a civil servant.
Aged four, Griffiths began playing the piano. He took lessons at the Royal College of Music while still at school, and became a biker at 15. His father would sit at home at the table with a dog leashed to his arm. The poet Allen Fisher remembers: "If you missed one of Griffiths' Pirate Press publications, you could pop by Kingsbury Road and he would collate a copy on the spot from a curving heap in his wardrobe, with a dog yapping at your trousers." The dog was Douglas, who accompanied Griffiths to poetry readings.
His four A levels, gained at Kingsbury Grammar, correspond with his artistic life: Latin, History, Music and English. He read Medieval and Modern History at University College, London, graduating in 1969. By this time he was a fringe member of the Harrow Roadrat bikers, knew many Hells Angels chapters and was resourceful and precocious on a red Ducati. He had already become a flâneur of Greater London, bearing witness to notions of tribe, gang and the wild verges of the law. His early masterpieces War with Windsor (1973) and Cycles (1976) revealed the savagery of prison life:
as a beaut nose-shouting horse, swervy,
my head so soak bright blood.
Griffiths participated in many voice-performance ensembles such as Konkrete Canticle with Cobbing and Paula Claire. These were pivotal for the time, and developed into later ensembles like jg, jg, jg and arf arf, with artists such as Hugh Metcalfe, Sean O'Huigin, cris cheek and P.C. Fencott.
His own poetry evolved further, as he delved into Romany dialect, Jutish, and comic-strip and biker slang. He believed the dialect of the North East to be a descent of Middle English. Conversations with the poet Peter Finch on Old Welsh led, in 1974, to Griffiths exploring Middle and Old English and, between 1976 and 2005, publishing translations of works including Llywarch H'en, The Phoenix and The Battle of Maldon.
The 1970s were penurious for Griffiths. He had close friends from all walks of life, some – like Alf and Pauline – became the subjects of his poetry. While living in anarchist squats in dilapidated Whitechapel and Harrow, Griffiths witnessed football, architecture and biker festivals. He worked at a paint factory and subsisted on a diet of rice, sometimes with tea leaves mixed in. After a sojourn working as a concrete poet in Germany he took to a house boat, The Amra, in Uxbridge, but in 1989 welders mistakenly set it alight and much of his early archive was lost.
Griffiths took a part-time MA in Middle English at King's College London, and completed his PhD there in 1987. He eked out a barely adequate existence from readings, teaching and research assistance. Yet when he was earning more than he needed, he always helped out his friends.
Coach House Press published a beautiful edition of A Tract against the Giants in 1984. In 1992 Paladin published Future Exiles, featuring Griffiths' work alongside that of B. Catling and Allen Fisher, but it was pulped six months later. Griffiths was better off with his own Amra Press, which published Starfish Jail and Metrical Cookery. Countless other presses published his other works, notably A Book of Spilt Cities (1999), The Secret Commonwealth (1994), Coal (1990) and Nomad Sense (1998). In 2004 Salt published The Mud Fort, a selection of poems dating back to 1984, although Griffiths was often uneasy about the depictions of squalor and deprivation in his earlier works.
In 1995 Professor Eric Mottram died and Griffiths spent two years at King's College cataloguing his archive of 20th-century poetic life. He was an obsessive list-maker and researcher; with sleeves rolled up over tattoos, he would collate the Association of Little Press catalogues. He was also on the executive council of the Poetry Society from 1971 to 1977.
The insurance money he received for his boat was converted into a house in the Durham mining-village of Seaham Harbour, one beach up from where Mike Hodges filmed Get Carter. In 1997 he became joint editor, with Bill Lancaster, of Northern Review at the Centre for Northern Studies at Northumbria University in 1997. He became a Fellow at the Centre in 2000, where he worked on diverse projects including a history of the Northern Sinfonia.
By 2003, when he started work on the Wor' language dialect project, he was already very active in local-history movements. He lectured weekly to community groups and used these occasions to gather dialect words from his burgeoning audience (he was following the tradition of the Victorian clergy in taking dialect seriously). He published a seminal dictionary of North East dialect and an archive on T. Dan Smith, an infamous northern politician of the 1970s. He also built an archive on the life of Alfred Watkins, author of The Old Straight Track, and became a member of the Society of Archivists.
His exhibitions of local history in Seaham town hall attracted national attention, and, in 2002, the Queen visited one of his displays. But when the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay was appointed CBE the same year Griffiths declared that there were built-in repellants in his poetry to prevent similar nominations. Recent broadsheet coverage of his Pitmatic local-history project, about the North-east coalfields, coincided with an invitation to appear on the television programme Eggheads. His poetry continued to flourish, capturing one of his latest passions: Hungary, where he hoped to settle. He loved their pastries, and was known to demolish a Battenburg cake whole and unsliced.
On Thursdays, Griffiths could be found cooking for Seaham pensioners, chatting to them about their lives and their dialects. He attended Buddhist conferences and roamed car-boot sales in his shell suit. He played gamelan and went to piano auctions every three months. In 2002 he played Bartók on the grand piano at the Barbican alongside a triptych of Chris Petit's road movies, a performance by Wire and a cardboard cut-out of J.G. Ballard. He was at home with "charvers", the Coble and Keelboat Society and bedtime stories. His short stories and ghost stories drew acclaim.
The Saturday before he died, Griffiths discharged himself from hospital to host the Dialect Day at the Morden Tower in Newcastle upon Tyne. He died as he lived: cataloguing, awarding Best Dialect prizes, opera on his radio, the poetry paramount.