Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

SIMON CURTIS

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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.

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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:

http://simoncurtis.net/index.html

16 comments to “SIMON CURTIS”

  • Maryse Goodall

    01.01.14

    Thank you for your lovely article concerning Simon. I am his cousin ( daughter of his father’s brother, Arthur Curtis ). Simon was a lovely person who always kept in close touch with us. Myself and my family are not academics but Simon was always very down to earth and a very good friend to us. We visited Simon several times in Manchester, Dorchester and Plymouth. Simon was extremely close to his mother and very devoted to her when she was in a nursing home in Dorchester. We accompanied him to the Home on a few occasions to visit my Aunt.
    We last saw Simon a few weeks ago at Cann House. Although obviously very disabled by his illness, his mind was as alert as ever and he was remarkably cheerful in the circumstances. I am so glad we were able to see him again.
    We were so sorry to hear of his sudden but peaceful passing. You knew Simon as a poet and academic with a brilliant mind, we just knew Simon as a thoroughly nice person and we will miss him very much.

  • Martin Malone

    04.01.14

    Hi Grevel,
    many thanks for this wonderful tribute to my kind predecessor at TIH. Had I had the opportunity I’d have asked for it for the TIH website. As it is we have 2 other heartfelt ones, though not as nuanced and tenderly detailed as yours here.

    No doubt we shall run into each other some time whereupon I shall buy you a drink. Oh, and do send us some of your own stuff. See website.

    Martin Malone

  • Grevel

    04.01.14

    Many thanks, Martin; and yes, I hope to send you some poems before too long. Hope to meet you soon. – Grevel

  • Nicole Schmitt-Mercier

    11.01.14

    Today is Simon’s birthday and I was about to give him his annual ring when the news of his death hit me thanks to your obituary. I couldn’t agree more with your description of Simon as a lecturer, and I’ll always remember the smart gentleman smoking his pipe at tea-time in our Senior Common Room at Manchester University – where I also used to teach in the seventies.
    Then I moved back to France.

    we last met a few years ago in London where he came to see me for a wonderful day of friendship, laughter and emotion – he took me to his childhood places and we shared some very moving moments.

    Today I miss him more than ever,I’ll miss our 10th of January appointments.
    Thank you so much for your tribute.
    I’d like to be in touch with Simon’s family and friends, but I don’t know how,I’d be grateful for your help..;

  • Penny Brown

    30.01.14

    Dear Grevel,

    I have only heard today the very sad news about Simon’s passing. The years I shared with him in Comp Lit at Manchester were immensely happy ones. He was highly regarded by students and colleagues alike, as you know,and all will be very sorry to hear the news. I last saw Simon a couple of years ago when he was on his way to a family wedding in the Lake District and we had lunch at the Deansgate Rylands cafe, and had a note from him just before Christmas. Thank you so much for your tribute – it expresses everything that I felt about Simon.

    Best wishes
    Penny Brown

  • Grevel

    30.01.14

    Thanks, Penny: I know you and Simon were great friends as well as colleagues. Many people will miss him and remember him fondly and with admiration.

  • Max

    16.01.18

    Hi I am Max and I saw and spoke to Simon just a few days before he passed.
    He was a great man with one of the best personalities on any one person.
    He was more then just a man with a personality, he was my Great Uncle.

  • John E Marks

    18.01.18

    I knew Simon in the 1990s. We attended Hardy society meetings together. I remember stumbling over the pennines with him to listen to Jim Gibson talk on, his then, recent, collected poems. Simon was replete in the quiet vitues of kindliness, wit and empathy. He was also blessed with a ‘seeing eye, and was, like Hardy himself, a man who noticed things. He encouraged me both as a contributor to the Journal and as a poet. He was, indeed, a lovely man.

  • Grevel

    18.01.18

    Thanks, Max: yes, a very fine person indeed. He added greatly to the joy of life.

  • Grevel

    18.01.18

    Yes: the link to Hardy’s gift of observation is quite true. Over time I’ve realised more than ever how much Simon enhanced my life and those of so many others who came into contact with him. I always feel happy when I think about him: though now of course tinged with sadness also. A privilege to have known him!

  • Carl Allsopp

    22.05.20

    Simon was a brilliant teacher who inspired me to take on research without having preconceived ideas. He was a thoroughly likeable person and one who did not deserve the many unkind things that happened to him. I shall always remember him with kind thoughts.

  • Grevel

    22.05.20

    Lovely to hear from someone with good memories of Simon. A dear friend, much missed, who enhanced many lives! Thanks so much for you comment. GL

  • David Fisher

    19.06.20

    Simon introduced a small band of French Studies undergrads who’d opted for Comp Lit in their Final year in 1973 and introduced us to the ’90s Poets, chiefly English but most with French (or Irish) connections. For our first meeting he brought along a selection of the beautiful limited editions of such poets as Wilde, Lionel Johnson, Francis Thompson, Wratislaw, Laurence Housman, Crackanthorpe, Symons, Yeats of course, and above all Ernest Dowson. One of thirty copies of Dowson’s Verses with Beardsley’s famous gilt Y cover design set me on a path from which I have seldom strayed since. I loved the poetry and the poets’ lives (and in many cases early deaths) and so I produced an extremely derivative undergrad thesis on The Decadent in Ernest Dowson. Simon was kind enough to wade through it, perhaps in the vain hope that I had something original to say; he even gave me a decent mark which probably allowed me to put Hons after my degree (which had otherwise not gone well.) I have spent far too much time and money in the ensuing years tracking down and buying modest copies of these early gems as well as works of ’90s criticism. What became rather an obsession initially settled into a deep and consuming quest which continues to this day.
    I realise I’ve hardly mentioned Doctor Curtis who impressed me hugely as a self-effacing, warm, charming and exceptionally literate man. His seminars were always a highlight; do I remember going to his flat in Mauldeth Road once or twice? Delighted to read so much about his subsequent life and career. He and Gilbert Gadoffre are largely responsible for my spending a happy career teaching French in Manchester.

  • Grevel

    23.06.20

    Yet another fine example of how Simon inspired people, enriched their lives and supported their development! Definitely a case where (contrary to , ‘the GOOD that men do lives after them!’ It’s marvellous to see how many people have been in touch with lovely memories of Simon. I’ve never written a post that has had so many reactions! Thank you very much.

  • Kevin Carpenter

    26.01.22

    I was one of the trio of students on the first Comp Lit MA degree course at Manchester in 1970/71. After I moved abroad, we lost touch, and, sadly, I never got round to telling him that my son’s middle name is Simon. He was a kind and gentle man.

  • Grevel

    27.01.22

    Thank you for this, Kevin. Good to hear from someone else – one of so many – who valued Simon’s teaching and friendship. The good that he did goes on!

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