for a bag lady. But Elizabeth Jennings was one of the nation's greatest Catholic poets. Nick Thomas pays tribute to a kindly friend with hidden genius, who died earlier this month, aged 75 Long-time residents of Oxford will no doubt remember the Emperor's Wine Bar, which used to occupy a tiny vertical nook in Broad Street, and its founder, the genial gentleman wine merchant Michael Maguire, who died last year. 1 worked there in my youth, and was privileged to be part of the extraordinary conununity of staff and regulars Michael managed to attract with his distinctive combination of good humour and good taste. We did a good trade in coffee and croissants in the mornings, and no customer was more regular than Elizabeth Jennings, who would come and dump her carrier bags on the ground floor, and happily sit and chat with whoever happened to be working. When The Sunday Times magazine ran a profile of her in 1981, they did the photo shoot in the Emperor's and many of their Oxford readers were shocked to discover that weekend that the familiar figure they had always taken for a bewildered bag lady was in fact out foremost Catholic poet. Indeed, after her death two weeks ago, a friend of mine confessed that he had once spotted her in the street, and, moved by a sudden rush of Christian charity, offered her £10. Her refusal, apparently, was remarkably polite.
1 first met Elizabeth in 1976, when my mother went to recover from an operation in a private nursing home. As with most such places, convalescence was something of a sideline, the main business being "long term residential care"; in other words, it was full of old people whose relatives were salving their consciences by standing order, and pretty grim for a woman of 50 with a lively and intelligent mind. But Elizabeth was living there, notionally invalided by a disease that later turned out to have been misdiagnosed, and for my mother to meet someone of her own age, who shared many of her interests, and whose work she had long admired, was a God-send. They became friends at once.
A year later, the collection Consequently I Rejoice appeared, including "Old People's Nursing Home":
The men have ceased to be men, the women, women.
Or so it appears at first.
Here are children dressed for a meal, napkins in collars, Here are meals from the nursery, here is the nurse.
So it appears to one who is half Within this house and half outside.
I had to get to know Elizabeth a lot better before I caught the full metaphorical force of that observation. All writers, all artists are outsiders in some way, trapped in the hard place between the community in which they are obliged to move and the creative world within, but in Elizabeth's case, the phenomenon was particular acute. She was a Catholic in a Protestant country, of course, and played at ritual as a child, muttering gobbledegook to herself in a pious imitation Of Latin (see "A Serious Game" from Extending the Territory, 1985). But even her faith tormented her. Engaged once while at Oxford, she would never have been suited to marriage, and yet could not feel called to the religious life either:
Thinking of your vocation, I am filled
With thoughts of my own lack of one ...
The fitful poems come but can't protect The empty areas of loneliness You know what you must do So that mere breathing is a way to bless.
Dark nights, perhaps, hat no grey days for you. She was a nun manquee. her love, indeed all her emotions, retaining the innocent simplicity of childhood, even though her understanding of the English language could not have been more sophisticated. She was without malice. Some poets behave like spiteful lovers towards their readers, relishing the pain they cause with the home truths.
But if Elizabeth's ruthless exploration of her own fears and failures, her sense of loss, of guilt at the unhappiness of her faith. strikes an uncomfortable chord in us, we have only ourselves to blame.
When a friend dies, there are little memories that make us smile, others that surprise us with their force. I remember her adoration — there is no other word — of the Pope, but also of Mountbatten and John Gielgud, expressed with a breathlessness that resembled a girlish crash. I would run into her in town, see her first shuffling along the pavement, looking thoroughly cheesed off with life, and then see her face transformed with the joy of meeting a friend; childishness again.
much of her work refers to childhood, and the pain of having to abandon its certainties, the inevitable disillusionment that comes with adult life. And then, after the initial hellos and how-are-yous, there would come an incoherent rant at something she'd just heard on the radio, a stream of tearful vexation at the cynicism and wickedness of govenunent (any government) or the (grossly inflated) spitefulness of her neighbours, or the rudeness of modem youth ... she needed to feel oppressed by the modern world. It wai what spurred her to write.
But rereading the later poems now, full as they are of lamentation that the promises of faith have still not fallen into place, I can see something deeper in the resentful distress of her face in repose. It is the welling fear of St Paul as he aged; so old, and still no answer. And so she wrote, of belief and the guilt of unbelief, of things lost and things remembered. The astonishing thing about Elizabeth to anyone who knew her was the contrast between the writer and the friend in conversation. The latter was chaotic, sometimes barely intelligible.
But there is a lucid economy to the poetry which is unmatched and her critical prose was outstanding. The turmoil inside became ordered through expression, the word coming out of chaos. She lived on paper, and ruled its world with calm and wisdom. It had only one metaphor in her external life, while her baggy jumpers and football socks drew pity or derision from strangers; her collection of doll's houses, with all their perfect intricacy and, of course, their associations with childhood. Otherwise, she was almost the perfect artist, uncomprehending, irresponsible and scruffy in the world that did not matter to her, consummately controlled in that of her creation; normality turned inside out.
It was a fitting coincidence, for me, that Elizabeth died in October, in the midst of chilly sun and windy nights, for that is the setting of "Death of an Old Lady" (from Consequently I Rejoice, 1977). Having described the storm of the night, and the death of the friend, she continues: The stormy night In retrospect seemed part of all this, The quiet morning suitable with bright Still air, a calm much like the fantasies To which you gave me right Of entry.
That will serve for a valediction.