Hayden Murphy meets James Fenton, a very English radical

JAMES Fenton is rich. Word-wealthy. Unique. A rich and wealthy poet.

We met, early morning, in a central Edinburgh hotel. Opulence surrounded

us. The night before, the award-winning writer, as guest of the Poetry

Association of Scotland, had given a reading to an appreciative but

small audience in the Netherbow Theatre. Elsewhere in the capital a huge

audience applauded Les Miserables. Fenton's words were being heard all

over the city.

James Fenton was born in Lincoln in 1949. ''In or near the Cathedral

Close''. Third child of a theologian. His mother died when he was 10.

His father remarried. James spent holidays from boarding-schools with

Aunt Eileen in Wales. As ''Uncle's mother's sister'' she later turns up

as the poet's guide to Jerusalem. The poem of their travels appeared as

The Holy City in The Independent. Was the secularisation to Jerusalem in

later versions significant? ''Compositor's necessity'' chuckled the

Buddha-shaped figure before me, finishing a full breakfast.

In 1967 he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read English. Two

years later he switched to psychology, philosophy, and physiology. His

teacher, John Fuller, became his friend and later collaborator in a book

of ''light verse'', Partingtime Hall (1987). Edmund Blunden set an

oriental theme for the 1968 Newdigate poetry prize. Fenton's contrary On

Western Furniture won. His theme, coincidentally, was similar to

Sondheim's in Pacific Overture, written a year later. Musicals are a

backdrop to Fenton's career.

In 1972 Terminal Moraine (Secker & Warburg) won The Gregory Award. He

used the #1000 to go to Indochina. From there he wrote ''political

commentaries'' for The New Statesman. His account of the fall of Saigon

is harrowing, confessional about fallibility and frailty, and memorable.

Later he went to Germany reporting for the Guardian. Inspired by a sense

of a radical responsibility for ''a shifting-sand historical past'' he

wrote in A German Requiem (1981), ''It is not what they built. It is

what they knocked down.''

His Edinburgh-based brother, E.I.S. activist Tom Fenton, recognised a

gap in the marketing of poetry. The brothers bought out the remaindered

copies of Terminal ''at about 30p each'' and sold them to ''specialised

shops for #10''. The S.A.C. responded with grants for new work from

Kathleen Jamie, Ron Butlin, John Byrne, and Liz Lochhead. Star of this

''literary gym'', and The Salamander Press, was best-selling The Memory

of War: Poems 1968-1982 by James Fenton. Compassion subjugated by

pragmatism was a reverberating theme.

Critical acclaim, followed by prizes, was compounded financially with

paperback acceptance by Penguin. Fenton was working as Drama Critic for

The Times. Journalistic ''ephemera'' was published as You Were

Marvellous (1983). Jonathan Miller, impressed by the reporter's

theatrical sense, asked for an English libretto of Verdi's Rigoletto.

English National Opera made it a success. The retired reviewer became

the toast of London.

Impresario Cameron Mackintosh commissioned a script for another Hugo

adaptation in 1985. This was ''Les Mis''. Fenton's lyrics were rejected.

But sections of his text were ''assimilated'' by subsequent writers. His

agent had negotiated ''a somewhat less than one per cent on box-office

takings''. It is packing in audiences at Edinburgh's Playhouse. The poet

is financially safe for life. A modest flat in London, a five-acre farm

outside Oxford, are evidence of a content, secure life-style.

But what of the poetry? ''A parsimonious brilliance is its own

reward,'' said John Mole of Fenton. James is not prolific. As book

reviewer for The Times he christened ''The Martian School'' (Craig Raine

etc), ''fireflies brilliant with the hyphen''. Physically he was in the

Philippines reporting on ''Pacific politics'' for The Independent. In

1989 he produced from ''out there'', in a limited edition of one

thousand, The Manila Envelope. Polemic, poster, and poems were sent on

request ''abroad''. New poems followed.

On Christmas Eve, a year before the poem eventually entitled Jerusalem

appeared, Aunt Eileen had guided him around what he obviously found a

most unholy city. This is one of the few, maybe the only, radical

statement in contemporary English literature about Semitic/Christian

divides. It is centrepiece in his new collection Out of Danger (1993).

Heated writing where ironic wrath cascades: ''There is no covenant

between your God and me.'' In sad anger it concludes: ''the

interrogation will not die . . . I have destroyed your home. You have

destroyed my home.''

Discussing this, the beaming breakfasting Buddha became a radical

Blakean invoking the wrath of a God, deploring human waste in lives.

As we separated he questioned ''Nationalism''. He winced at the Irish

in Belfast labelling him ''Brit''. He declared as ''English''.

I departed, leaving behind a Radical, true as Tom Paine, Shelley, and

E. P. Thompson. A ''true begetter'' of a respected, if badly preserved,

even traduced, tradition.