The last time I saw John Rety, in a café at the Royal Festival Hall in London, three floors beneath the Poetry Library, he told me he didn’t feel old. He was off to play in a British Senior Masters chess tournament in Austria, close to the border with Hungary, the land of his birth.
“I don’t really believe in old age,” he said, as if this was another of those myths, like the overriding importance of money, that needed puncturing. I had no idea how old he was and didn’t think much about it. He looked exactly the same as he had always done: hair and beard thick, trousers and jersey rumpled, deep brown eyes peering out from under bushy brows with what I thought was an inextinguishable mischief and contrariness.
But John, poet and publisher – of my poems and those of others, some well-known and others not – died suddenly at home last month. It turned out he was coming up to his 80th birthday. For the past 30 years he’d been publishing poetry at his small press, Hearing Eye, and hosting weekly poetry readings at Torriano Meeting House in north London. He kept going, as small grants came and went, as the publishing and bookselling climate became more and more inhospitable to small press poetry.
John refused to publish my work while I was poetry editor of the Daily Express, as he disapproved so strongly of that paper’s politics. But he did show interest in the Daily Poem column that I ran there for nearly five years in which, more by accident than design, I ended up featuring a number of poets from his stable. One day he said to me, “Why don’t you print your commentary on the Daily Poem upside down, like the solution to a chess puzzle?”
As the poet Julia Casterton rightly remarked, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, John “had an eye for all things counter, original, spare and strange”.
Politics was something that might have come between us. I came to voting age just as Margaret Thatcher came to power, in what seemed a post-socialist world. But John was a lifelong anarchist and peace activist who never renounced the political commitment and principles forged in the fight against fascism. During the Vietnam war, he chained himself to the railings of the Imperial War Museum.
He was once asked when he had become an anarchist. “During the war in Budapest,” he replied. “I think I was part of the resistance.” Maybe he was not quite sure because he was only nine when the war began. On the day the war ended, in Budapest, his grandmother, who had looked after him when his Jewish parents went into hiding, approached a guard who had a Swastika armband and a rifle. “You can put those away now,” she said. He shot her dead.
Later, living in England, John became editor of the anarchist paper Freedom and more recently the poetry editor of the communist daily the Morning Star (presumably old rifts between anarchists and communists had been healed). His anthology of poems from the Morning Star, entitled Well Versed, with an introduction by the veteran socialist politician Tony Benn, recently went into a second printing.
The reasons for this are more poetic than political. It is, in fact, an excellent and enjoyable anthology (I must declare an interest: it contains one short poem of mine) and not at all what you might expect. The best poems in it are not tub-thumping but intelligent, funny and human. Paul Birtill is a poet John supported and published for many years and time and again his dark humour hits the mark; I love his poem “Global Warming”, which ends like this: “I’ve also/ noticed those old guys with/ ‘The End Is Nigh’ signboards/ seem a lot more confident/ these days – have a certain/ spring in their step.” There is also fine work by Jeremy Kingston – even better as a poet than as a theatre critic for The Times. Well-known names include Dannie Abse and John Heath-Stubbs.
Open-mindedness and catholic taste do not always go with intense political commitment, but in John’s case they did. His short introduction to Well Versed is one of the wisest short statements you could find about the place of poetry in our time: “A choice of poems cannot be divorced from one’s view of life ... There is real love, there is real anger, there is biting satire, and there is also celebration when it is called for ... [These] poems hint at a new age when the ethics which exist behind closed doors might suddenly, as by quantum leap, take over the public domain.”
What John represented, battled for and supported all his life, was well described as a “bizarre old-fashioned decency”. Poetry readings at Torriano Meeting House were the least glamorous occasions you could imagine but they had something that the glitzy, vacuous gatherings more characteristic of this age are completely lacking; call it humanity. And then you could ask why decency, and the expression of real human emotions, should have come to seem bizarre and old-fashioned.