Thank you one and all!
“There’s nothing more exciting than something you don’t know!”
Eric Mottram (in whose case it was remarkably little)
Eric meets a bear!
In 1966 I was on the American Embassy’s list of available speakers on American cultural topics. Elizabeth Singleton in the Cultural Affairs office phoned me and asked if I could do a talk on the San Francisco beat poets. I said I’d love to, and would like to do it like a radio documentary with lots of recorded examples and linking commentary in between, but I no longer had the materials.
“Let me introduce you to Eric Mottram,” she replied, “he’s the best! I read American Lit with him at Kings. He has lots of recordings and he’s always helpful. Come around to the embassy for lunch and I’ll introduce you.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Lunch stretched to a three-hour conversation in which he offered exactly the material I wanted, including recordings that had been made for and at KPFA – stuff I had long been familiar with. Mutual passions ripened into friendship and he was best man at Mary’s and my wedding in 1968.
Eric knew more about American culture, both past and present, than anyone I’d ever encountered on either side of the Atlantic. He became my mentor, even guru – I dislike the word, but it conveys the reality more succinctly than any other. Ultimately I enrolled in the Institute of United States Studies to do an M.A. with him, not because it was part of a career plan, but simply to get my mind stretched.
His seminar that year was titled “The American Imagination of Synthesis” and introduced us to a series of interlocking selections that included such unlikely but enlightening juxtapositions as Norman O. Brown, William Burroughs, Ezra Pound, Norman Mailer, Alfred Korzybski, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Wilhelm Reich. (The latter’s The Function of the Orgasm was an education in itself – a nobly romantic work whose seminal (!) value extended from the classroom to the bedroom.)
Over the next two years I recorded virtually every lecture and seminar Eric presented, both at the Institute and at King’s College – countless hours of unique insights into how much happier and better the world could be than the mess we inherited.* What will happen to all these tapes? All over Europe and America, official archives are now so strapped for money that they can no longer afford even to give storage space to private collections, let alone catalog them and make their contents accessible to scholars. A virtually complete collection of mint condition classical LPs going back half a century was recently disposed of piecemeal through Oxfam because no archive could accommodate it.
At least two of the tapes in my collection got a public hearing. In 1982 both of my Eric[k]s were in London at the same time and I got to introduce them to each other. They came to my studio on November 2nd and Erik Bauersfeld, who was drama and lit director at KPFA, interviewed Eric Mottram for KPFA broadcast, with occasional interruptions from me in the control room. (They were having so much fun I couldn't stay out of it!). This is not to be missed! In this exchange between two compulsive and eloquent communicators, Eric Mottram's contageous enthusiasm comes across as vividly as in all those seminars so deeply etched in my brain. Can such sheer mental and spiritual energy ever dissipate?
Eric Mottram stayed on to record one of the very few poetry readings he was ever able to do under studio conditions.
When Eric died in 1995, his enormous archive went to Kings College. Poet Bill Griffiths was hired for a couple of years to put it in order and partially itemize it, but then the money ran out. If you Google Eric’s name, you get virtually no hits that date past the turn of the century. The only online recordings of his voice that I’ve been able to find, either in interview or poetry reading, are those linked to above on my own website. History? It’s so yesterday.
In 1995, Peterjon and Yasmin Skelt put together a festschrift, Alive in parts of this century: Eric Mottram at 70. I had the honor of leading it off. As a very brief summary of who and what he was, I can’t better what I wrote then:
Eric survived his 70th birthday by less than three weeks, dying on January 16, 1995, just a few days after I had brought him together with John Kenny. On March 3 there was a public celebration of his life held in the Kings College Chapel, in which a selection of poets, musicians and friends paid him a memorably creative collective tribute. My recording of this event has sat idle for fifteen years. Since no institution has ever expressed an interest, I’m making it public here for the first time. It consists of the following:
A Celebration of the Life of Eric Mottram, 1924-1995
King’s College Chapel, March 3, 1995
5 Reading by Eric Mottram. (recorded at October Sound, November 2, 1982)
7 Second improvisation by Barry Guy
10 Tony Joyce reading a tribute by John Page
12 Recorded interview with Eric Mottram, who opens with a description of his one-sided conversation with a bear
Three years later, there was an official opening of the Eric Mottram Archive, with a lecture by the distinguished Harvard aesthetician, Professor Stanley Cavell. His talk, Identifying Praise: in moments of Henry James & Fred Astaire, included extensive excerpts from old films. There was an ominous prognosis for the archive's future in the fact that his VHS tape containing the selections was in the American NTSC format, which resulted in a highly distorted image when played on the Pal VHS projector.
John Kenny and I were prominently featured in the evening's programme, which began with a recorded presentation of John's setting of poems from Eric's A Book of Herne (click HERE to listen). There are extensive notes and a complete text in the printed programme (click on the cover, above right). The evening ended with one of the longest improvisations that John and I had ever performed (click HERE to listen. It was one of our best; sadly, it was to be our last. We never did another duo recital.
The archive catalog is ON LINE and its contents are probably still available for examination, but it will get precious little use by Kings' own students. The Department of American Studies which Eric worked so hard to establish is to be wiped out at a stroke by the College as part of Britain's great austerity drive. There's a furious letter from its Professor Emeritus Clive Bush on the No Cuts at Kings website.
Who understands distinction? Who really cares for art?
Tu Fu, Tu Fu
* Listening again to these seminars from almost forty years ago, I came across a brief analysis of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia for eight singers and symphony orchestra. If I had known at the time that throughout the 90s I would mix over thirty performances of this work with orchestras all over Europe and America . . .
John Whiting can be reached HERE