Tambimuttu claimed to be descended from the kings of Jaffnapatam; he certainly ruled over the principality of Fitzrovia. Tambi, as he was known in the literary bohemia of London during the 1940s and 1950s, was a poet but was better known as an editor and publisher – and for his friends, Dylan Thomas, Anthony Burgess and Julian Maclaren-Ross, among others. Later, he was associated with the Beatles’ Apple Corps.
Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu, born in Ceylon in 1915 in Atchuvely, in the island’s northeast, was taught by Jesuits in Trincomalee and studied botany at Colombo University. He had already published three volumes of his own poems before sailing to England in 1938, aged 22. Within a year of landing in London he founded, with Anthony Dickins, the journal Poetry, which later became Poetry London.
The term Fitzrovia refers to the Fitzroy Tavern on Fitzroy Square. Fitzrovia was spiritually part of Bloomsbury and definitely included Soho. (Today the area is the haunt of ‘media types’ of the 21st century.) Fitzrovia was based on scattered enclaves of drinking dens, cafes and publishers’ offices, and the area’s chief chronicler was Maclaren-Ross. Anthony Burgess has asserted that there was no literary movement in London during the 1940s except in the sense that ‘poets and poetlings’ moved together from pub to pub to take advantage of different closing times.
Lawrence Durrell, who chronicled Tambi’s working methods, noted that ‘the contents of his first number reposed under his bed in an enormous Victorian chamber pot.’ Tambi sometimes held court at Turkish Baths at Russell Square, where he could escape the London cold. Summer and winter he wore a blue overcoat buttoned up to the chin. He only relinquished his tenancy at the baths when he could no longer ignore the ‘deleterious effect of the steam on his manuscripts’. Maclaren-Ross describes Tambi waving at piles of manuscripts in his home. ‘I have not time to read them. If they are no good perhaps they should be returned. They have been here a long time, the rats have eaten some.’
Tambimuttu has been described as a snake-hipped charmer, with a broad but angular, sharp-boned face, and wavy, velvety black hair that fell over a high-domed brow. His mouth has been described as sensual, his eyes intense and dreamy, dominated by large black pupils. His teeth and eyeballs flashed in the dusk of his face. A prehensile pink tongue flicked from his purple lips like a chameleon’s. The Scottish poet and critic G S Fraser’s wife, Paddy, described Tambi thus: his ‘loud peremptory voice made you notice him at once. He was a commanding figure, though often the worse for drink. Tambi could be childish and stamped and swore when he could not get his own way. Yet he had a sweet smile and could be gentle and charming. He went straight for what he wanted, especially girls, and if he was rebuffed, he flew into terrible rages.’
Indeed, he surrounded himself with attractive women. Helen Scott, his secretary, had an air of refined exoticism, strong features, graceful, slim, with a dancer’s body and long legs, black hair piled up Japanese-style. It was reported that one of her duties was washing Tambi’s back. David Wright, the South African-born poet, called Tambi ‘a kind of peripatetic rendezvous, a one-man Institute of Contemporary Arts through whom, at a time of scattering and regimentation, poets and painters met one another. He kept the lines of communication open.’
Tambi was, however, more than an exotic dilettante. The critic A T Tolley observed in The Poetry of the Forties that Tambimuttu’s ‘decided achievements deserve to be disengaged from the legends that have come to surround him.’ Tambimuttu himself called Maclaren-Ross’s account ‘a highly coloured book of misrepresentations and fairy tales’. Maclaren-Ross emphasised Tambimuttu’s ‘otherness’, his difference. He often described him in animal terms. Was there a hint of racism? The first encounter between Irish poet Robert Greacen and Tambimuttu led the former to ask: ‘Was this a species of indigenous deviation or was it to be counted a Ceylonese import?’
In the model of cultural migrancy, developed by Ruvani Ranasinha in a study of Southasian writers, Tambimuttu is presented as an assimilator who ‘adopted a self-consciously Asian cultural identity that embodied ideas about the East produced in the West’. Tambi used Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for his own purposes. Rather than disguising his difference he exaggerated it, playing up to the expectation of exoticism and otherness. In Bridge Between Two Worlds, Robin Waterfield wrote ‘how utterly and essentially Hindu he was.’ Well, no. He could not speak Tamil. English was his first language. And he was a Catholic, not a Hindu.
G S Fraser accused Tambimuttu of ruining the works of the great poet Keith Douglas by imposing his own ideas. Others argued that Tambi, who seems to have been trusted by Douglas, was more faithful to the poet’s intentions than Fraser himself. A reviewer following Fraser’s line wrote: ‘Keith Douglas, like many other poets of the early war years, suffered at the hands of a certain editor who shall be nameless. This temporary sultan of the world of letters was in the habit of altering whole lines and phrases of the poems he printed to conform with some imaginary theory of modern poetry of which he was the self appointed midwife.’ Is there a touch of racism in the use of the word ‘sultan’?
There were solid achievements arising from his availability in the Fitzrovian pubs to commission worthwhile work. During wartime, at a time of paper shortages, 14 editions of Poetry London were published, building a circulation of 10,000, and over 60 books of poetry and prose, often exquisitely illustrated by up and coming artists. The young Lucian Freud is represented by a number of line drawings as well as several colour plates. Barbara Hepworth, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious, Henry Moore and Gerald Scarfe all make an appearance in Tambimuttu’s publications.
There is ample evidence in a cache of papers acquired by the British Library in 2005 that Tambi could be a strong editor. ‘Many of your latest poems read like chunks out of a newspaper,’ Tambimuttu told Alan Ross, later distinguished editor of London Magazine. ‘A flock of words streaming on and on, and one wonders when it will stop.’ Captain Hamish Henderson was told: ‘I am sorry I do not like this poem. Too full of blood and snot.’ Even established poets such as Kathleen Raine, Michael Hamburger, Ruthven Todd and Vernon Watkins had their work returned for revision.
Tambi’s charm coaxed the publishing firm of Nicholson & Watson into taking a planned loss of GBP 6000 (about USD 9000) a year as a ‘prestige gesture’. He was fond of using the phrase ‘My imprint will add lustre to your work’. Nicholson & Watson had provided him with real offices but he still used pubs and restaurants to conduct business. Nicholas Moore tried to run an efficient poetry magazine with Tambi from an office in Manchester Square but the editor still took prospective contributors round his regular pubs in Fitzrovia. The tenth issue, published in 1946, was nicknamed ‘Chums’ Annual’ because it included all the poems that he had promised to publish and had forgotten over the past five years. There was a two-year gap after that issue and, in 1949, his backers gave up on him.
Tambi returned to Ceylon in 1949 and left a cache of personal papers with a friend. This collection, now with the British Library, tells us more about his 1949 dismissal. Writer Chris Beckett says of these papers: ‘The Minutes of the Board Meeting record, in terms not unlike an unfavourable entry in a school report, that Tambimuttu was dismissed because of his “extremely unsatisfactory behaviour”.’ We also read that before 1949, Tambi missed Ceylon and those at home longed for him. By a quirk of fate, Anthony Dickins, one of Poetry London’s earliest sponsors, was posted to Ceylon. The letters he sent back to Tambi are moving. Dickins visited Tambi’s family (five brothers, one sister), marvelling at the kindness of his people and the richness of his culture. Dickins saw the qualities of his friend shining forth in all these things.
Many passages in Tambi’s letters from Ceylon after 1949 show bravado and humour, as he plots his progress between married women and dowries, weighing attractiveness, age and wealth in the pursuit of a return to publishing (with the support of ‘a rich ravisher’). He admits to adopting a new religion – expediently: ‘She is from one of the most important Muslim families, and between you and me I had to become a Mussalman in order to marry her which means I believe in Allah, a plurality of wives and divorce by repeating “Sister” thrice.’
Along the way, Tambi won the respect of T S Eliot and George Orwell among others. He was commissioned by the latter to contribute to the BBC’s ‘Through Eastern Eyes’. As a policy, Tambimuttu published the popular, archaic verse of Walter de la Mare, as well as European poetry in translation (Hölderlin and Rilke), along with work from young poets (Charles Causley, R S Thomas, Alan Ross, Christopher Logue). He championed the virtues of minor poetry, published Americans abroad (Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin) and welcomed English surrealism (Philip O’Connor and David Gascoyne). At his peak, he created two publishing houses, Editions Poetry London and Lyrebird Press and was responsible for publishing major works by Elizabeth Smart, Vladimir Nabokov, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller. Of Poetry London, T S Eliot wrote that it was only in its editions ‘that I can consistently expect to find new poets who matter.’ Above all, Tambimuttu welcomed modernity.
He certainly did not live in the past. After travelling to the US, the 1960s brought him into contact with much of what was new on the American scene; he stayed awhile, for example, at the Millbrook compound of Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. Eventually, he seemed glad to return to London, however, and this second era in England, where he would remain for the rest of his life, saw Tambimuttu involved in a host of new projects. In 1972 he and his partner, Katherine Falley Bennett, launched the Lyrebird Press. Tambimuttu restarted his poetry journal once again in 1979, and this time around called it Poetry London/Apple Magazine, the ‘Apple’ a leftover from a plan for a magazine Tambimuttu had made with the Beatles some time previously.
In June 1983, Tambimuttu fell down his stairs; a few days later, he died of a heart attack. His ashes were sent to Sri Lanka. At one point, Tambi had said to Maclaren-Ross: ‘My principality is everywhere. The Principality of the Mind.’
~ Padraig Colman is a freelance writer and poet who has lived in Sri Lanka for nine years.