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Peter Scupham obituary | Poetry

Peter Scupham, who has died aged 89, began publishing his poetry relatively late: a pamphlet, The Small Containers, and a first full-length collection, The Snowing Globe, both appeared in 1972, when he was almost 40.

So the apparent jauntiness of those “early” poems, with their delight in randomly assembled domestic objects and odd compound words (“flim-flam”, “hugger-mugger”), is already underpinned by hints of something deeper. And deepening, in various senses, is what happens in his next two books. Prehistories (1975) opens with poems, precisely grounded in the landscape before in Excavations, moving further down, while in the title poem he writes: “Ghosts are a poet’s working capital. / They hold their hands out from the further shore.”

The Hinterland (1977) is centerd on a sequence of 15 interlinked sonnets that move between the outbreak of the first world war and the mid-1970s summer of Dutch elm disease. In a note written at the time, Scupham said: “I feel acutely ill-at-ease in places where now is the only dimension visible; life is a texture where past and present become each other.”

This kind of layering, which he would self-deprecatingly describe as “sitting on things and squashing them down”, informed much of Peter’s work – especially his sequences, which often relate, directly or obliquely, to each other. For instance, a group of theater poems in Summer Palaces (1980), where the bright illusions of Lighting Rehearsal are tempered by “darkness gathered in the wings”, prefigures a complex set of variations on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Out Late (1986) .

Conscriptions: National Service 1952-4, from the collection Winter Quarters (1983), is the bridge between poems about his childhood wartime—a recurring and absorbing theme—and a later sequence about his student years. National service, he once said, was “time out of time”, and the poems catch this perfectly: “A choleric sun, nailed to its meridian, / Bothers the lazy hours from slipping westward, / Idle on their afternoon parade.”

The Air Show (1988), Peter’s favorite among his own books, is a sequence of sequences about his childhood in “the land of was”, juxtaposed with the realities of war: the title poem takes in both aeroplanes and insects, while Good Flying Days is unexpectedly about kites rather than bombers. Watching the Perseids (1990) is built around two major sequences, Young Ghost and Dying, in memory respectively of his mother and father; yet, while the poems in the first are formally poised, the uncharacteristic free verse of the second consists mostly of the dying man’s fragmented (and in places very funny) dialogues with his son, whose identity he tetchily disputes: “You say you’re Peter. / Do you want to persist in this claim?”

The centerpiece of The Ark (1994) is A Habitat, 11 poems celebrating the “cock-eyed house, set by open fields / And too much wind” to which he had recently moved. Night Watch (1999) has The Northern Line, ostensibly a pendant to Conscriptions, which grows into an allusive ghost-train ride through the 50s.

Peter’s shorter poems embrace a surprisingly wide range: from sinuously tender love poetry to the sharp literary parodies of The Poets Call on the Goddess Echo (in Out Late); from a hilarious – and, at readings, show-stopping – concoction of replies to Victorian schoolgirls in Answers to Correspondents (from The Hinterland) to enigmatic little narratives such as Incident Room (Winter Quarters) and Accident (The Ark).

A recurring theme is the strange integrity of broken and abandoned things, such as the overgrown cart and garden lantern (a “dull pavilion” with “dark nonsense in its cavities”) in Summer Palaces or the damaged spider’s web in The Ark: “The web is hung how something wants it hung / And would not be more perfect were it whole.”

All these earlier books were gathered together into a splendid Collected Poems (2002), and this was followed in 2011 by Borrowed Landscapes, in which many of the shorter pieces have an attractively supple, pared-down lyricism.

There are also two more sequences: A Civil War draws on the papers of Peter’s German father-in-law, while Playtime in a Cold City, set in the 50s Cambridge, brings his extended autobiographical poetry as close to the present as he would allow. He was always wary of “confessional” writing: “I would like my poems to be windows, not mirrors.”

Peter was born in Bootle, Merseyside, to Dorothy (nee Clark) and John Scupham. His father, after teaching in Liverpool and Derby, became controller of educational broadcasting at the BBC, and the family moved south, to Cambridgeshire. It was a bookishly intellectual household, in which literary allusion and quotation were conversational norms; this was educationally more formative for Peter than his schooldays at the Perse school in Cambridge and St George’s, Harpenden.

After two years’ national service, he studied English (quickly switching from history) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1957 and two months afterwards married Carola Braunholtz, an Oxford classicist; they had four children.

He taught English, first at Skegness grammar school and then, for almost 30 years, at St Christopher school, Letchworth, where for 12 of them I had the good fortune to be among his colleagues.

He was a brilliant teacher, moving effortlessly from scholarly close reading with the sixth form to verbal game-playing with younger pupils – for whom his guiding principle was “keep English sweet” – while treating all administrative chores with amused contempt. Once, during an especially tedious staff meeting, he decreed that we should each write a poem before it finished: mine ended up in the bin, his (The Sledge Teams) in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry.

With the school’s drama teacher, Margaret Steward, who was to become his partner (and, in 2012, his second wife), he co-directed plays which established and then enhanced the school’s international reputation for drama, first in an adapted wooden gym and later in a purpose-built theater; There was even a traveling group of actors, Phoebus Car, who each year would tour a production during the summer holidays.

At the same time, he established with John Mole the Mandeville Press, a cottage industry that produced fine, hand-set, printed and sewn pamphlets of work, mostly by new or neglected poets, in the cellar of Peter and Carola’s terraced house in Hitchin : they began with a little Adana, then graduated first to a Pearl treadle press and eventually to a fully mechanised Vicobold.

I recall one of the bigger machines being fitted with an electric motor, plugged into the ceiling socket and controlled by a dimmer switch on the wall, but this can’t be true; or it couldn’t be, except in Peter’s endlessly inventive and improvisatory world. The pamphlets were painstakingly set, character by character, in Baskerville or Ehrhardt.

In 1990, he and Margaret moved to a semi-derelict manor house in south Norfolk, with mermaids in the first-floor pediments and, as they soon discovered, Tudor hunting scenes in an attic gallery. There Peter developed his antiquarian and secondhand book business, Mermaid Books, whose idiosyncratic and astringently witty catalogs were posted to many of their recipients in comically decorated envelopes. It was the right place for him to work on Arthur Golding’s 1576 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; his edition appeared in 2005.

For several years, on summer evenings, there were Shakespeare productions in the garden – these naturally included a memorable Midsummer Night’s Dream – which were in due course succeeded by annual poets’ picnics. But many visitors to Old Hall will affectionately recall more modest occasions: amiably disputatious lunches in the big kitchen tumbling with crockery and cats. Old Hall was the perfect expression of Peter’s life and values: it figures frequently in his later poetry, and his forthcoming final collection is aptly called Invitation to Visit.

He is survived by Margaret, by three children, Kate, Chris and Roger, from his marriage to Carola, which ended in divorce, and by his sister, Ann. Another son, the poet and painter Giles Scupham, predeceased him.

(John) Peter Scupham, poet and teacher, born 24 February 1933; died 11 June 2022

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