Leading lights of the literary world pay tribute to poet and
playwright Adrian Mitchell
by DAN CARRIER
23 December 2008
FRIENDS of the poet Adrian Mitchell, who has died aged 76, have
spoken of his immense contribution to the two passions of his life:
the peace movement and the spoken word. The poet and playwright
passed away on Saturday night.
Children's Laureate Michael Rosen first saw Adrian perform his poem
To Whom It May Concern at a massive anti-Vietnam war demonstration in
Trafalgar Square in the early 1960s and became a life long friend of Adrian's.
Mr Rosen said: "Adrian was a socialist and a pacifist who believed,
like William Blake, that everything human was 'holy'. That is to say
he celebrated a love of life with the same fervour that he attacked
those who crushed life.
"He would point out how society crushes the inventiveness and play in
children, and he created poetry for children that is full of
wordplay, mystery, absurdity and music.
"There are more than 50 years of revolutionary literature that he has
given us. He has sung, chanted, whispered and shouted his poems in
every kind of place imaginable, urging us to love our lives, love our
minds and bodies and to fight against tyranny, oppression and exploitation."
Kentish Town based poet Jehane Markham first met Adrian when she was
15 and performed at many readings with him.
Ms Markham remembered how he articulated political views in
brilliant, memorable prose. She said: "He was always himself. He
never compromised his views. He was the first radical poet I had ever
heard. He put his money where his mouth is. He never deviated. He was
never part of a fashionable in-crowd. He was very much his own man."
She added that his genius in writing for children came from his own
innate sense of mischief and fun.
She added: "He was naturally anti-authoritarian, a natural anarchist.
He had a child's spirit. It is beyond me to put his genius into
words. He was a tender poet, yet political."
Playwright Sir Arnold Wesker recalled running into Adrian at shows and parties.
He had performed at Sir Arnold's Centre 42 at the Roundhouse, in the
1960s, springing on to the stage like a rock'n' roll front man.
Sir Arnold said: "His death has come as a great shock – it just seems
so wrong. It really takes something away from the period."
Actor Roger Lloyd-Pack worked with Adrian at the children's theatre
company Wonderful Beast. He said: "Adrian had a spark about him. It
is a very sad loss."
In the last years of his life, Adrian did not slow down in expressing
fierce anger at the stupidity of war. He travelled to the Faslane
nuclear base in Scotland in 2006 to demonstrate against the Trident
missile programme. He was arrested for taking part in non-violent
direct action to disrupt the convoys going into the base. He recalled
spending a night in the cells and being treated kindly by the
Scottish officers who took him in.
He told the New Journal: "They didn't want to charge me with anything
– they thought it was too much bother and I'd get the publicity of
being in a magistrates' court.
"They thought a night in a police station might inconvenience me a
little bit. But they made me endless cups if tea and made sure I was
warm and comfortable, so I wasn't inconvenienced at all."
Adrian had been suffering from pneumonia through the autumn, although
he seemed to be bearing up well – he was occasionally spotted walking
on the Heath, albeit at a slower pace than usual, with his golden
retriever Daisy, "The Dog of Peace" as she was dubbed in his
children's book of poetry called the Zoo of Dreams.
Adrian lived near the Heath for much of his life and was born in
Parliament Hill in 1932. His father, Jock, was a chemist and Adrian
showed early promise, writing his first play aged just nine. He did
his national service in the RAF and his experiences in the forces
confirmed his anti-militarism.
He studied at Oxford and then became a journalist, moving back to
London to work on the Evening Standard. He worked on the Sunday
Times, but fell out of favour for reviewing Peter Watkins
anti-nuclear film The War Game, which had been banned.
Reporting on the arts, he began writing poetry, novels and plays from
the mid-1960s onwards.
Adrian was a British beat poet – his love of jazz influenced him in
his writing, and he was aware of the importance of the rhythm of the
language he used, writing of the trumpeter Charlie Parker: "He
breathed in air/He breathed out light/ Charlie Parker was my delight."
His back catalogue includes an adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and
the Wardrobe for the RSC and a Beatrix Potter trilogy for the Unicorn
Theatre. Other works included a play about William Blake, Tyger for
the National Theatre. His version of Pushkin's Boris Godunov is due
to be performed by the RSC next year.
Always willing to give time to the peace movement – the windows of
his house in Dartmouth Park are still festooned with 1960s-style CND
signs – he helped write and produce an open air show for the
Woodcraft Folk in a field in Kent.
Adrian leaves his wife, the actress Celia Hewitt to who he was
married for 47 years, their two daughters, as well as two sons and a
daughter from his first marriage.
My Literary Career So Far
(Adrian Mitchell's last poem, written on Thursday evening)
As I prowled through Parentheses
I met an Robin and a Owl
My Grammarboots they thrilled like bees
My Vowelhat did gladly growl
Tis my delight each Friedegg Night
To chomp a Verbal Sandwich
Scots Consonants light up my Pants
And marinade my Heart in Language
Alphabet Soup was all my joy!
From Dreadfast up to Winnertime
I swam, a naked Pushkinboy
Up wodka vaterfalls of rhyme
And reached the summit of Blue Howl
To find a shining Suit of Words
And joined an Robin and a Owl
In good Duke Ellington's Band of Birds