My long-standing friend and HappenStance poet Geoff Lander has died. We were almost exactly the same age. We met as students: he was studying Chemistry and I was wrestling with English Literature. He and his friend Simon used to come and drink mugs of instant coffee with me and my room-mate Clare. I don’t recall what we talked about half a century ago, but while the connection with Simon got lost, the one with Geoff (and Clare) survived. We exchanged Christmas cards all our lives, with news and family photos.
In the last fifteen years, communication with Geoffrey (as he often called himself) was by email, from Bexleyheath to Fife and back again. He knew all about HappenStance Press and took an interest from the start, but I had no idea that after a life-changing stroke (which led to early retirement, among other things) he would start to write that poems himself. Not poems about loss or disability or acute unhappiness (all of which he experienced) but witty, rhyming pieces about politics, science and current affairs.
Geoff was a formalist. He’d tried free verse but it didn’t work for him. When he wrote without rhyme or metre, the results were wooden, whereas the pattern and challenge of a formal structure gave him wings. He read closely, carefully and widely, especially the lyricists and noble rhymers of the twentieth century: John Masefield, Rudyard Kipling, W S Gilbert, A E Housman, Hilaire Belloc. He loved Auden and MacNeice too, and even Larkin. He would find a poem he admired, analyse its form, and then try doing it himself, again, again and again.He sent me many of the results, and I would tell him what was wrong with them.
It took a while until he really got his head around metre. I love rhyme but I’m a hard taskmaster. I was tough with his: no half-rhyming cop-outs, or singulars matched with plurals. He worked intensely on this and got better and better.
Latterly, he would send me something he’d been working on for ages, and tell me it was finally ‘finished’. I would send it back, pointing out the things that needed adjusting. He would write back, ‘Have I ever told you how much I hate you?’ I loved that. Then he would really finish the poem.
He had a whole array of talents. He possessed a fine tenor voice and had sung all his life in choirs or, in earlier days, light opera. (His email address was jussiblo9@ etc, a nod to the singer he most admired: Jussi Björling.)
He played piano and violin.
He could draw, a dab hand at head and shoulders portraits and wacky cartoons. He would regularly make entomological depictions of insects: butterflies, bees.
He loved gardening, and cooking: made great bread and fabulous dumplings.
All of this was on top of his background in science: he had excelled at university and completed a PhD in Chemistry.
But he was a private person. He didn’t write about personal feelings, with the exception of rage. His fury about social inequality and shambolic politics found its way into poems. If only Boris Johnson knew how frequently he had fallen victim to Geoff’s scathing turn of phrase!
He also wrote about what he admired. I published a pamphlet of his poems about great scientists in The Lesser Mortal in 2018. It was enormously educative for me.He attended at least two local poetry groups, and would often comment wryly on how his own work didn’t fit in with contemporary expectations. Sometimes he would deliver the more ribald pieces in a mock-cockney accent, or the voice of a literary ‘toff’. Here he is, for those who would like to hear his voice, with a pastiche of Masefield:
The Craft of Poetry
The theme of Welling Poetry Group’s meeting 27.10.2018
I must go down to the library where this week’s theme is ‘craft’.
Craft in out-dated meter? Don’t be so bloody daft!
There is no skill in the triolet or the bawdy limerick
and as for the curse they call light verse—fetch me a sick-bag, quick.
No, do not waste a second on that worn-out jingo Kipling—
nobody dare admit today they like his rhythms’ rippling.
Art in the murderer Deever? or that guileless Gunga Din?
And above all else that twaddle ‘If’? —file ’em in the rubbish bin!
I must go down to the library and read them this pastiche
(its shifting-metric balderdash belongs in a passé niche).
I’ll say no one should give a damn if the odd stress get misplaced,
then laugh at the hornets’ nest I’ve stirred, outwardly po-faced.
A recording of him reading the above himself is here: https://soundcloud.com/nell_nellson/the-craft-of-poetry-geoff-lander
Geoff was variously kind, thoughtful, and infuriating on any issue on which he’d already made up his mind. At times he drove me nuts, and I loved him. Latterly his health was failing. His diabetes was an issue and so was balance and, increasingly, deafness. He was subject to fits of what he called ‘the black dog’. He decided it was time to go and took the necessary steps to secure his own speedy exit.
Funeral details for those who knew him are here: https://geoffreylander.muchloved.com/
When struggling with strong emotion, formal verse does help. Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, etc. Geoff was especially fond of a rondeau (and even a rondeau redoublé); he wrote many of them. The poem that started him off was the well-known First World War lyric by John McCrae, ‘In Flanders Fields‘. So I chose that form to remember him with. I worked on it carefully, but can’t let him check it to see if he approves. So I hope he would understand why I changed the rules at the end, just as he did himself in making his departure.
In Lander’s Fields
A flawed rondeau for Geoff
Geoff Lander’s gone (he liked to go
without a fuss). He used to know
much about music; also why
an acid needs an alkali
and how a well-made loaf should grow.
And he could write. Short days ago
he rose, made bread, saw sunrise glow,
wrestled with rhymes. But now this sigh:
Geoff Lander’s gone.
I knew him kind to friend or foe
though on himself prone to bestow
scant praise. Geoffrey could make you cry
singing a simple lullaby —
with such a voice, a man might fly.
Geoff Lander’s flown.