Roy Fisher and Worcester – Ralph Pite

‘Introducing the Archive’, Amanda Bernstein’s article in the first Roy Fisher Newsletter, includes a scan of the original ‘Then Hallucinations’, published by Migrant Press in Autumn 1962. On the title-page, two addresses are given for the publishers: first, ‘1199 Church Street, Ventura, Calif. U. S. A’, where Gael Turnbull was living at the time, and below it, a second, less glamorous and sun-drenched: ‘2, Camp Hill Road, Worcester, England’. This was Michael Shayer’s home, where he occupied a first-floor flat. It stands near the junction with London Road, one of the main routes into the centre of the city.

shayer house

                                                                                    2, Camp Hill Road, Worcester (November 2021)


Gracious houses, dating from the early nineteenth-century, are placed in large and often walled gardens along both roads. In-fill housing has now taken over much of the earlier green space. 2, Camp Hill Road’s once extensive garden has been built on and so has the plot of land next-door (undeveloped when Shayer was living in the house). Similarly, on the opposite side of the road, a villa (now demolished) and its garden have been turned into a block of garages; beyond them stands Royal Fort Lodge, whose wide grounds contain several low-rise blocks of flats.

camp hill rd

                                            Characteristic housing (early nineteenth-century) near Camp Hill Road

Despite these changes, the area retains much of its earlier elegance. Though within easy walking distance of the city centre, its elevated position, near Fort Royal Hill and Green Hill, lends it a feeling of sanctuary. Views to the west of the Severn valley and Malvern Hills make the countryside feel close.

                  hill rd 2

                                                                2, Camp Hill Road (close-up) – the Malvern Hills visible in the distance

Though Migrant published both Fisher’s City (1961) and his Then Hallucinations, subtitled ‘City II’, the addresses suggest a publisher a world away – perhaps two worlds away – from Fisher’s Birmingham: either Ventura, on the Pacific coast of southern California, or Worcester, which was physically far nearer but culturally still very distant.

It’s hard to imagine that Worcester is only 17 miles southwest of Birmingham, connected by the Birmingham & Worcester Canal, but a world apart in terms of history and outlook – very much a traditional ‘shire’ city.

(Urban Rambles: Worcester:; accessed 15/11/2021)

Fisher, though, had stronger connections to the city than one might imagine and the similarities between the two places, at the time, were greater than one might expect. Worcester was, for Fisher, connected with a moment of considerable creative excitement. It was there that he was shown for the first time the new wave of mostly American poets who, Fisher said, revolutionised his thinking about what poetry might aim for and accomplish. At the same time, Birmingham’s redevelopment was paralleled by Worcester. The city was razing its medieval centre in order to make way for (in effect) an urban motorway. Hence Worcester displayed as clearly as Birmingham the disruptive force of human will, for both ill and good. In the transformations effected on both, creative energy and the will-to-power appeared together. Worcester showed, furthermore, that there was no escape from either of these forces, not even in the country. And, lastly, Worcester showed that Fisher’s own work was subject to (as well as expressive of) the intertwining of visionary creativity and the will to control.


Michael Shayer and Gael Turnbull, who ran Migrant Press, were school- and later college-friends, both of them scientists fascinated by literature. Turnbull, who had grown up in Canada, moved between there, the United States and Britain during the 1950s, living in Worcester  from 1956-58 and in Cradley, near Malvern from 1963-83. Shayer was in Worcester from 1959 until at least 1965. Turnbull noticed Fisher’s poetry very early on, encouraged him and often placed poems for him in the many small-presses he had links with. The friendship that grew up between them was lifelong. It was established by ‘a two-day visit to Worcester late in 1956’ during which Fisher:

saw for the first time the work of the later Wiliams, Basil Bunting, Robert Duncan, Alan [sic] Ginsberg, Louis Zukovsky, Irving Layton, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, Charles Tomlinson, Larry Eigner, and Charles Olson. I’d never seen poetry used as these people were, in their various ways, using it, nor had I seen it treated as so vital an activity.

(Roy Fisher ‘Antebiography’, Interviews Through Time & Selected Prose (Shearsman Books; Kentisbeare, 2000), 31)

A ‘two-day visit’ meant Fisher’s sleeping over – a significant act for ‘a non-traveller’, who until he was thirteen years old ‘didn’t sleep a night outside the city of Birmingham’ (Interviews 62). His first encounter with all these different – and differently challenging – innovative poets took place over two days in a sedate, provincial city.


Eight years later in 1964, as Shayer recalls, Worcester was again the location where Fisher was introduced to powerful new poetry.

Gael was living in Cradley, just the other side of Malvern at the time and Gael had invited Basil [Bunting] down for several days and we had a flat in Worcester. First floor flat in Worcester which was convenient. And it was arranged that Basil would do a reading of some new poem that he was working on and we had quite a select audience there, whistled up at very little notice. My memory is that there was Roy [Fisher], I think there was Adrian Mitchell […]. Anyway there we were, five or six, or six or seven of us sitting in a sitting room and Basil started reading his bloody poem. It was coming out of nowhere, if you understand what I mean. There was nothing that prepared any of us for anything like that

 (Michael Shayer, interviewed by Richard Price, in PS [prose supplement to Painted, spoken], No. 1 (2006), quoted in Richard Price, ‘Migrant the Magnificent’ --; accessed 15/11/2021)

Bunting was reading sections of what became ‘Briggflatts’.


         It was in the same year – 1964 – that Worcester and Birmingham became, materially, more similar. Peter Barry, in Contemporary British Poetry and the City (Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York, 2000) rightly connects Fisher’s ‘City’ with ‘the almost nationwide experience in mid-century Britain of urban loss and destruction’ as post-war development ‘motorised’ city space. ‘Notoriously,’ Barry continues

this sudden obliteration of the past was greater and more sweeping in Birmingham than in any other British city. (197)

Worcester was, however, in the running for similar notoriety.


    On 28th November 1964, Geoffrey Moorhouse published in The Guardian an article titled ‘The Sack of Worcester’, drawing attention to the demolition being carried out on the city’s medieval centre. Buildings in the Lychgate area, just to the north of the cathedral were being cleared, to be replaced by a shopping centre, multi-storey carpark and a widened, dual carriage-way road, running down to the bridge across the River Severn. The St Albans area, north-west of the Cathedral, was also being demolished to accommodate Worcester Technical College, built on the banks of the river.



                                                                                                                    Article by Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Guardian 28/11/1964

W 1

                                                                  Buildings just north of Cathedral prior to demolition.

The same location, present - 1


The same location, present day – 2.


Looking north, towards the Cathedral and city centre, along Sidbury towards College Street, the A44.


The recently created ‘Know Your Place Worcester’ website (based on the Bristol equivalent) overlays modern and historical maps, making it easy to see the changes made in the 1960s and 1970s. See

Moorhouse’s article made Worcester the focus of indignation: ‘Nikolaus Pevsner […] described [the demolition] as a “totally incomprehensible… act of self-mutilation”.’  It has had a lasting effect on the city’s reputation and its self-image. ‘The redevelopment has gone down in town planning history as an example of how not to do things’ (Urban Rambles Worcester). The sense of outrage was intensified by the Worcester’s status as an ancient, ‘historical’ city, whose heritage was worth preserving. Its fate showed that the experience of ‘urban loss and destruction’ was, indeed, nationwide and inescapable.


         Fisher may have been more than usually sensitive to this assault on a provincial city, nestled in the countryside, because his home-territory in Birmingham lay on its fringes. His father, who was dying when Fisher wrote ‘City’, was (Fisher records) closely connected to ‘the area of countryside which opened up ten minutes’ walk away [from his home], across the Holyhead road’. This area was ‘an enclosure whose edges you didn’t have to think about’, ‘a vista of fields and copses and rags of hedgerow, stands of tall trees’. And:

it was a regular Sunday-morning excursion with my father, part of a routine set of activities. We’d walk the lanes while my mother cooked.

The countryside, as Fisher refers to this place, he ‘took to be righteous’. On the other hand, there was:

a whiff of addiction about my appetite for the beauty of the great rusting sheds, the tarry stinks, and the slimy canals of Smethwick. It was a lonely and gigantic landscape, with hardly anybody in it.

The complication of Fisher’s urban experience is brought to the fore by these recollections: squalid industry offers a visionary solitude, thrilling, liberated and sublime, while the nearby countryside provided regularity and security, imaging a conventionally stable landscape despite the fact that it was ‘dominated by a pair of collieries’, contained spoilheaps, and was being encroached on by golf courses, a cemetery and allotments – ‘the spacious, landgrabbing outreaches of city life’. (‘Antebiography’, Interviews, 21, 22).


This edgeland was Fisher’s piece of the ‘countryside’ and he travelled farther afield very little. However:

At six I was taken to the Malverns, and in a neighbour’s car to the Vale of Llangollen and the mountains and seacoast of North Wales. The same neighbours later took us to the Vale of Evesham and Dovedale. These places—I didn’t know where they were, or why they were as they were—excited me enormously. (Interviews 22)

The excitement is, perhaps, the curious thing. The more distant and usually inaccessible ‘real’ countryside – of the Malverns, Wales, the Peak District and the Vale of Evesham (which begins a few miles south-east of Worcester) – excites him in rather the same way as the industrial wastelands did when he was a little older. The remnant country landscape where he and his father walked together appears, through the comparison, steadying and containing – ‘you didn’t have to think about’ its edges; there, by being forgotten, confinement could become stability.


Fisher’s ‘Antebiography’ describes his father’s transformation of their backyard into a rural space and, in his notes to A Furnace, Fisher talks of his father as ‘born in exile’ (see Roy Fisher Newsletter no. 1). It would be misleading, in my view, to treat Fisher himself as a rural exile in the city. Rather, his recollections suggest a child who was, firstly, drawn to the city as an arena of self-realization and to the country as a place of enfolded security and who, secondly, found in rural scenes away from the city an intense excitement – an excitement comparable to that he experienced in industrial space. Visionary possibility emerged for him in both country and city, and perhaps confusingly so. The raptures and grandeur of his urban explorations seemed in conflict with family loyalties – with, that is to say, the pragmatic and restrained endurance which characterised his extended family. Secret walks in old factories were an escape from the regularity of his father’s countryside. At the same time, his father’s love in exile of rural life indicates that there may be a further source for Fisher’s excitement when in the country. His thrilled response suggests (to him, through an intuition that was, I assume, unconscious at the time) that he may be experiencing direct what his father had felt in the countryside and what he had later kept alive in the backyard in Handsworth. His excitement responded to the country’s being as revelatory and sublime as the city, and the more powerfully so because it seemed a window into (and a way of sharing) his father’s inner life.


         Michael Shayer was not only instrumental in publishing ‘City’ in 1961, he played a considerable role in the work’s construction as well. In one account of this process, Fisher says that he had ‘a voluminous series of prose pieces and poems which I was to help Michael Shayer to edit down’; in another Shayer’s role is more decisive.

Michael looked at my great heaving mass of odds and ends that I was writing about Birmingham [….] and saw that this material could be used as a kind of collage work; which he could see, and I couldn’t. So he shook it around a bit and produced the first draft of City (Interviews 33 and 47)

Peter Robinson’s edition of the City materials shows how much Shayer was involved, even to the point where he wrote both a preface and the closing lines. Fisher reports consistently how unhappy he was with the end-result.

I didn’t like it, but it caught people’s attention. The knowledge that people were reading the stuff, and that it was not perfect, so far as I was concerned—it gave me a screaming fit. I could hardly move out of my chair for months. It really upset me. (Interviews 47)

Shayer’s preface invoked Eliot, Joyce and Pound; a 1962 review by Denise Levertov likened the work to Carlos Williams'. Fisher’s distress may, then, have been produced by the work’s being taken over, first, by Shayer and afterwards by the literary system, whose points of reference and comparison homogenised the book. The more recognisable it was made, the less he recognised it. (See The Thing about Roy Fisher, edited by John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson (Liverpool University Press; Liverpool 2000), 20, 149-50 and 194). There is a parallel, in other words, between the urban make-over Fisher describes in the poem and the poem’s being, itself, made over.


         It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Fisher’s long period of writer’s block followed. He recounts the block as beginning, however, after an effort to reassert artistic power.

I wanted more bulk or power. I spent ages trying to write a massive novel. […] the person I had in mind was Patrick White, the way in which he could make great and massive epic effects. I was reading things like Voss [White’s 1957 novel], and being very impressed by large verbal structures, gothic or baroque things which would take you out of normality. (Interviews 47)

When writing the novel proved unsuccessful, he tried to return to poetry and found it impossible to write at all. Derek Slade’s bibliography shows that, although Fisher’s poetry never absolutely dried up, he wrote very little from 1961 through 1969 (The Thing about Roy Fisher, 325-31).


         It would be a mistake to attribute Fisher’s block to the ‘sack of Worcester’, though the coincidence of dates is curious. It may be, however, that the meanings Worcester acquired for him – the figure the city made – offer a partial explanation why he became unable to go forward. Demolishing a city is necessary within the logic of industrial capitalism; it expresses the economic system’s will-to-power, to exploit and to dominate. It is also revelatory. Not only do demolition and archaeology go hand-in-hand, demolition exposes momentarily the innards of buildings. And, in Fisher’s understanding of poetry, the will to expose and to reveal is shared by developer and poet alike. The creative energies of the new poetry, which Fisher came across when staying with Turnbull in Worcester during the mid-1950s, not only existed, therefore, alongside the city’s brutal redevelopment in the immediately succeeding years, the two seemed to originate in the same drives. This, moreover, was true everywhere. In Fisher’s childhood, a nearby patch of countryside offered security and refuge. Worcester’s fate showed the country to be permeated by the same creative and destructive energies which built, destroyed and rebuilt urban landscapes. Similarly, the excitement he had experienced in the countryside outside Birmingham, when a boy, could not be seen any longer as innocent of a wish to command. It betrayed the dangers of the sublime along with its rapture. Fisher seemed, following his experience with the first publication of City, to be a victim of such destructive forces (which inhabited the art of poetry as well as the processes of publishing and literary career-making). At the same time, he found himself to be determined to acquire in his writing a comparable kind of creative power.


These events and contexts suggest that his block was provoked by his perception of the alignment, particularly evident in cities, between creative activity and destructive process – or, in other words, the poet’s complicity in the work of power (redevelopment), even when the poet is seeking to oppose centralising authority and to speak instead for ‘a perceptual environment which was taken as read, which was taken to be assumed and not a thing for which any vocabulary needed to exist’ (Interviews 62). If this was the case, then his effort to release his home-territory from its erasure and marginalisation would have seemed to him a further act of conquest – by both his own poetic ambition and by the literary. And this would have been disabling.


Fisher said that The Cut Pages, published in 1971, was an important step in releasing him from the block. Commenting on the work, he said that the aim of its cut-up technique was ‘to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations’. That aim corresponded with the writing’s concern with ‘the dissolution of oppressive forms’. The process of writing meant (and it made possible) ‘getting out of my own way’ (Roy Fisher, The Cut Pages (Oasis Shearsman: London 1986), 8, 9). Planners were somewhere in his mind, I suspect, when Fisher wrote of ‘planned situations’. His words also recall the paradox that, while ‘the dissolution of oppressive forms’ was claimed as one of the goals of redevelopment (as slums were cleared and roads widened), the act was itself an oppressive form – one that extended the reach of economic and political power. His writer’s block was profound because, when it came to ‘the dissolution of oppressive forms’, whether these were geographical, economic or personal, language was, as he saw it, so much enmeshed in the processes he wanted to write against.


An Objectivist neutrality had been one of his earlier remedies for binds of language such as these. It is not, though, the aim of The Cut Pages. The poem’s unpredictability seeks, certainly, to dislodge the self that would dominate and control, at once create and overwhelm. This randomness, though, that is built into the composition, does not seek impersonality; it accords instead with a passive subjectivity – one that could reveal, as he later said of City: ‘how much the place was dependent upon very evanescent, temporal, subjective renderings of it, which might never BE rendered’ (Interviews 62). The city was made up of multiple, hidden subjectivities, among them Fisher (both one among the many and a multitude himself). His writing can ‘render’ that multiplicity by not seeking to govern it. This approach makes possible an uncovering which is not exposure. The new technique of The Cut Pages is able, in other words, to separate the writer from the developer, the poem from the bulldozer and the wrecking-ball.


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