Freelance poet, journalist, lecturer and jazz clarinettist, John Mole is a recipient of the Gregory Award and Cholmondeley Awards for poetry. His Selected Poems was published by Sinclair-Stevenson (1995) and he has two books forthcoming in 1999: For the Moment (Peterloo) and, for younger readers, The Dummy's Dilemma (Hodder). He is an experienced broadcaster and has compiled and presented Poetry Now, Poetry Please, Time for Verse and various feature programmes for Radios 3 and 4.
Some years ago I was giving a poetry reading at a West Country public school, and at the small drinks party which preceded it I was approached by the Bursar. 'I never know quite what to talk about with you poet chaps', he declared, as an opener, perhaps expecting it to be simultaneously terminal. 'Well. let's talk about what you do,' I suggested. 'My father was a Chartered Accountant, and my grandfather founded the family firm, so I do know a little about the world of finance.' For a moment, the Bursar seemed as much at a loss as he was evidently delighted. 'Good Lord,' he exclaimed, 'a poet chappie with his feet on the ground!'
Contrary to popular belief which would have them way up on Mt. Helicon, breathing the rarefied air, or writing poems on the back of their telephone bills, there are plenty of poet chappies (and 'chappesses' as my Bursar would no doubt have called them) whose feet have certainly been on the ground. Not just the celebrated examples of Eliot (banker and publisher), Roy Fuller (the Woolwich) and Wallace Stevens (the Hartford Insurance Co.), but a host of teachers, social workers, hospital orderlies and librarians familiar with in-trays, board meetings, pressing engagements, and the whole time-bound paraphernalia of what is often referred to as 'the real world'.
So as first 'official poet' of the City of London, I have not been in the least surprised to find myself working with hard-pressed employees of major firms who are also more than a little knowledgeable about poetry. Not all of them, as one does, can claim to have learnt Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' at the age of five or can recite reams from memory - preceded always by 'That reminds me of...' - but at the highly successful Drop-Ins set up and hosted by City firms, including Bates, Wells and Braithwaite whose Rosamund Smith is a key player in the whole project, the range of poems read aloud, and most expressively read, has been remarkable. So too has been some of the poetry written by members of a smaller workshop group which meets at these same firms around tables which usually witness a very different activity.
It has been this breaking down of stereotypes that has been one of my main concerns so far. From the start I avoided playing to them. Or almost from the start. Reporting on our first Drop-In at Wilde Sapte, the in-house magazine announced that 'John Mole wore a lot of corduroy which seems mandatory for poets' so I have, since then, been careful about varying my wardrobe. At the project's lavish February launch in the atrium of Clifford Chance, a couple of Gilbert and George-ish journalists from the Evening Standard kept on at me about how I was going to bring culture to the world of red braces. They seemed as determined to get a cartoon-image quote from me as I was determined not to give them one. As far as I was, and am, concerned, to be the City Poet is to work as a poet in the city, without compromise, and to learn as much from those I am working with as they (I hope) can learn from me.
Apart from my work with the firms, I am also visiting a range of maintained Primary schools in Tower Hamlets, Islington, Bethnal Green and other areas which would seldom be able to afford the sequence of five visits to each provided by the project's funding. This has been a rewarding experience for me and, I hope of value to the schools, several of which have a high percentage of pupils with English as their second language. I have become very attached to the children (and teachers). They have produced some splendid writing, already collected in several anthologies produced by the schools themselves, and I have dedicated my own forthcoming collection of poems for children (The Dummy's Dilemma from Hodder) to them. I was also delighted when some of their poems were displayed recently as posters on the South Bank as part of the Millennium Bridge project alongside one of mine and one of another of the City poets, Jane Duran. There were children at the Clifford Chance launch too, reading their work to an audience of two-hundred or so. They did themselves proud. This is what community is all about, and my hope is that throughout the rest of my term of 'office', I shall be able to do more to build bridges - millennial or otherwise - between the high-risers of the Square Mile and all those kids from the less glittering high-rises who need every advantage they can possibly be given.
- John Mole