Simon Curtis, who died a few days ago, was one of the unsung heroes of our culture: the kind of person who brings intelligence, illumination and enjoyment to countless people in a quiet way without ever becoming well known.
I first met Simon in the 1970s, when we were both teaching at Manchester University. He’d done a Ph D on Charles Darwin – viewing him as writer as well as scientist – and was teaching comparative literature. Simon’s style was always conservative: at a time when I was coming to work in purple flares, beads and a kaftan (it was the hippy era!) Simon sported a tweed jacket, brown brogues and a pipe. We seemed poles apart.
But we were both writing poetry. Simon’s was – and remained all his life – what’s now called ‘formalist’: it rhymed and scanned, and it was noticed by Kingsley Amis, with whom he corresponded for some years. His work also appeared in Faber’s Poetry Introduction 6 in 1985.
Simon was a versatile man: besides teaching French literature (he was fluent in the language) he was deeply knowledgeable about Thomas Hardy and taught a course on him. He also found time to do a lot of work for the CPRE and became an expert on planning laws and nature conservation. He also spent a spell as an academic for a semester or two in Australia, which he loved. He eventually left Manchester and moved to Dorchester: by that time he was a leading figure in the Hardy Society, and took over the editorship of the Thomas Hardy journal, which he did excellently.
Unfortunately literary societies are fraught with faction, and the Hardy Society was no exception. Simon became fed up and resigned after one particularly nasty conflict (no fault of his).
He moved to Plymouth, where he had family, and became editor (following Merryn Williams) of an excellent small poetry magazine, The Interpreter’s House. He was an exemplary editor: catholic in taste, lively in his editorials, balanced in his choice. And he gave talks locally on literary and historical subjects.
Despite being so different, we’d kept in touch and kept up a regular exchange of letters – real ones, not just emails. Simon was a great letter-writer: lively, varied, amusing; full of news about local theatre, opera and books, but also about wildlife, the landscape, the seasons. And he would usually send a new poem or two with his letters. We’d criticise each other’s work and often make small revisions in response.
Then – I suppose it was a couple of years ago – he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It remitted but left him paralysed from the waist down. He went into a care home near Plymouth where he was wonderfully looked after and had many visitors. He remained as mentally lively as ever and after a while was able to go out – even to theatre and opera – in a powered wheelchair. But it couldn’t last, and he died quietly last week.
Here’s one of his poems:
READING A RIVER
A heron lifts away as we approach
Where cloud-grey Hodder and grey Ribble meet;
A spit of stones, an eddy-knuckled reach,
And glassy patch downstream as dark as peat.
There’s movement in that pool, see? and you’re sure
It’s grayling, moving gently to large duns;
The Hodder, there, is acid, from the moor;
That’s why it’s good for autumn sea-trout runs.
What strikes my eye as surface, April-cool,
You read like braille, uncannily and clear,
Connecting signs of life in flow or pool;
A river’s script, and palaeographer.
All waters have their temper, temperament,
Each river-face, its moods and tics and traits,
As individual as a finger-print;
The shoals and shallows, lies below still glaze,
And alders, stoneflies, sedges, each month’s hatch
On Coquet, Lathkill, Driffield Beck or Dee;
A living web, I’d say, where you’re in touch …
It’s practice, pal, not flaming ESP;
It’s try and try, a knack you pick up, right?
And ‘knack’ for ‘art’, you speak the northern way,
To deprecate what works like second sight,
Transforming all I saw that cloud-dulled day.
Simon wasn’t a ‘major’ poet; he didn’t publish a big scholarly tome; not so many people have heard of him. But he published several delightful small books of poems (I particularly like Views, with fine wood engravings by Ian Stephens), and a last ‘New and Selected’ volume of his poems, Comet over Greens Norton, came out just before his death from Shoestring Press. He was a fine teacher, who inspired hundreds of students, and an energetic worker for environmental and literary causes. And some of his poems deserve to last. He contributed in countless ways. And he was a good friend to many people besides myself. A lot of us are going to miss him deeply.
Before I put in the link to Simon’s own website, here’s a quote from Matt Simpson reviewing Simon’s book Reading a River :
there isn’t scope here to do justice to all the pleasures to be had from this book – for instance, Curtis’s gentle satire, his wit, his quiet irony, his ventures in Australia, The blurb simply hopes readers will enjoy the poems. Well, here is one who does. What he does splendidly is summed up in the last two lines of ‘Weymouth Nightingale’
So much floods back to mind, of worth, of loss,
Of time that’s gone, and debt of thanks I owe.
That just about sums it up. And here’s the link: