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Brian Waltham main biography page

Read Brian's own account of his early life here  

A fascinating mini-pen portrait of his younger self here

Brian's own Retirement speech Part One (pdf) - Facsimile of his own notes, complete with pencil notations

Part Two

Part Three

 

When  Brian died in 2002, his fellow poet and friend John Mole wrote the following obituary for 'The Independent'.

Brian Waltham

Maritime lawyer turned poet

His family described him in his death notice as “poet, sceptic and lawyer”. Brian Waltham, who died suddenly, only six weeks after the launch of his third collection, was all these – and a maverick.

A fully paid-up member of the awkward squad, he relished every nuance of the unpredictable, and made up for his late start as a published poet with work of a consistently high quality; humane, idiosyncratic, closely observant and, perhaps above all, conveying with a celebratory if often mordant wit what William Carlos Williams – another poet with more than one profession – once memorably described as “the bite of the actual”.

By temperament he was disinclined to put himself about on the circuit; his magazine appearances were few and only those lucky enough to attend the gregarious occasions of his launches  ever heard him read although, as one reviewer of his first collection remarked, “he is like the after-dinner speaker to whose wisdom and sure-footedness one may confidently look forward”.

Born in 1925, in Saltash, Waltham was educated at Colfe’s Grammar School in south London and at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. His studies at the latter were interrupted by an RAF course, though he was not called into action, serving instead down the Northumberland mines as a de facto Bevin boy before returning to university. After graduation, he made attempts to stay the course at two theological colleges but, though he was deeply interested in the history and development of Christianity, his lack of orthodoxy and stubborn non-conformism removed him from both.

Finding greater scope in the law for his gifts of tactical ingenuity, he became a maritime lawyer, joining the firm of Ince and Co in 1953. He was, by all accounts, outstandingly successful, and responsible for helping to expand the firm through imaginative recruitment, unconcerned by a candidate’s social background, in a field where previously appointment had often depended on the old boy network.

Perhaps the high point of his legal career, both in terms of the “fun” he always sought and the success achieved, came in the early 1960s when Ince was commissioned by Lloyd’s to investigate insurance claims arising from the collapse of several Greek shipping enterprises. Owners had bought Liberty ships from the US government and chartered them with great profit but when the bottom fell out of the market it became necessary to sort out the genuine claimants from the scuttlers.

Waltham, who had risen rapidly to become a partner in the firm, retired in 1987, having, while there, been associate author of two books on maritime law, The Law of Tug, Tow and Pilotage, (1982) and The Law and Practice of Marine Insurance and Average (1988).

It was, though, as a writer of poetry that he came to wish, and deserve, to be remembered. Never happier than at work in his twin caves of making, the eyrie in his house on Primrose Hill and the hut in the grounds of Bétou, the second home he shared with his second wife, Caroline, in Tarn-et-Garonne,  he had exchanged one world for another and dedicated himself to it with just as much, if less rewarded, professionalism.

His poems appeared in three collections from Peterloo: Music For Brass (1990), Masterclass (1994) and The Soldier on the Pier (2002). As the first two titles suggest, music – about which, himself a cellist, he wrote with particular insight – was central to the life of his imagination, and, as a curious traveller, his response to landscape as the repository of history was particularly acute. In perhaps, though, his most characteristic vein (that “trick of light between shade and sun”), he celebrates abundance and diversity even as he faces, with wry acceptance, the fact of his own mortality. “Living Will”, one of his last poems, is a fine example of this:

If it must happen as it must, let it be

Now, sudden, while I want to live

And, as in my tilting walnut, sap enough

Still runs under death-watch of lichen.

 

What better time? Noon without a morning,

Lizard and his crocodile eye, birds quiet as

The care-home-old, all now ready

For that last reach of breath.

 

If you come, as you must, come now merciless

Sudden as a dipping hawk while I cuss the

Nettles, probe the air between me and Andromeda,

Give thanks for clarity and shout everything I am

With what in another age would be prayer.

 

Whatever the age, in whatever language, thanks should surely be given for clarity of this order.

 

Brian Monty Waltham, poet; born Saltash, Cornwall 29 September 1925; married 1950 Sheila Campbell (two sons; marriage dissolved), 1975 Caroline Cooper (one son); died London 24 May 2002.

 

Friday 31 May 2002

 By kind permission of John Mole and 'The Independent' newspaper