Colin Phillips (1936-2016) was one of those people that are just larger than life. Even now, almost a year after his death, it is still difficult for those of us who knew him to really believe that he’s gone. He was like a character from the pages of Conrad or Kipling, or even Dickens, a dissident intellectual, a traveller, and a man whose wit, wisdom and generosity of spirit enriched the lives of everyone who knew him. Marxist, existentialist, piss artist and cyclist, Colin was a man who transcended his humble origins to seek out a richer cultural life in India, his second and spiritual home. He was immensely well-read, and fluent in half-a-dozen European and Asian languages. He liked a smoke, a drink and a song, and his tales got taller with every telling, though nearly all of them were true. He was a great raconteur, but although his friends always nagged him to write an autobiography, while publishers wanted travel narratives, he was above all else a poet.
The Cockney Boy
Colin was a true Cockney, the son of a cabbie born in Brick Lane in Hackney to a Quaker family at the start of the Second World War. When his older brother left home, Colin inherited his room and an abandoned collection of jazz 78s. The records inspired him, and he began to trawl bomb damage sales in search of more. On one such expedition he bought a bookcase, with which the seller threw in a bunch of unwanted books. Colin was amazed by a pocket encyclopaedia of science and nature, a lot of which he memorized, being particularly taken with Newton’s Laws. Much to his family’s and teachers’ surprise, he thus sailed through the 11+ and went to a good grammar school, escaping the working class existence fate had previously ordained.
The Soho Poets
Colin was a beatnik in the 1950s, part of a group of intellectuals – the so-called ‘Soho Poets’ – who hung around the bars of the West End, including the poet and mathematician Brian Higgins, the poet George Barker, the poet and literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith, and the poet and translator, Oliver Bernard, brother of the journalist Jeffrey Bernard; all at the start of their careers and scraping by on freelance journalism, private tutoring, and the odd piece in the Poetry Review. Colin was the political activist of the group. He was a conscientious objector, refusing to undertake National Service on the grounds that the soldiers of the Warsaw Pact were, like him, working class socialists, and therefore not his enemy. He once shared a police cell with Betrand Russell after they were both arrested for ‘breach of the peace’ at an anti-nuclear demonstration in London in 1961, a fact of which he was immensely proud.
An Indian Love Story
But while his friends pursued careers in publishing and academia, Colin began to travel. He lived for a time in Paris, sharing a flat with James Jones, later the author of From Here to Eternity, also competing in several Tours de France. In the early-60s, Colin cycled across India, drawn to the country’s art and spirituality, studying its languages, and supporting himself by mostly teaching English. He fell in love with one of his students, a beautiful young woman called Gulcheher from a high caste Mumbai family, and the couple eloped. They married, and remained together for over fifty years, having three sons: Joshua, Matthew and Ashok. They moved to England in the mid-60s, buying a rundown farmhouse outside Old Buckenham in Norfolk and adopting a self-sufficient and alternate lifestyle. They spent the next ten years renovating; raising the family in a railway carriage and running the farm as a smallholding. Oliver Bernard lived in the neighbouring village of Kenninghall, and the men set up a weekly Shakespeare reading group which ran for the next thirty-five years, until Bernard’s death in 2013. Colin got around to completing his education in the late-1980s, and enrolled on one of the first Access Courses in Arts and Social Sciences at Norwich City College, going on to gain a joint honours degree in literature and philosophy at the University of East Anglia. In retirement, Colin and his wife remained in Old Buckenham, active on the parish council (Labour until Blair, independent thereafter), living in a converted Methodist chapel and splitting their time between England and India.
Colin and Gulcheher were by nature sociable and Bohemian. They lived a life surrounded by a United Nations of friends and family, including artists, writers, academics and musicians from several generations, their home an Aladdin’s cave of books, paintings and old records. Colin loved to talk literature and philosophy, and was known for making phone calls at impossibly early or late hours, intent on deconstructing whatever he was currently reading, and whatever his state of sobriety. He remained an active cyclist into his 70s, but was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014. He faced it down bravely and cut out the drinking (though his beloved pipe remained), staying positive and active even after it metastasised into bone cancer. He finally succumbed on October 17, 2016, dying peacefully at home. In accordance with his wishes, his body was donated to medical science.
Colin was a meticulous poet, but did not believe in traditional publishing, preferring to refine his art in private, sharing only with friends and family, and simply writing for the sheer joy of it. He saw himself as essentially in the Modernist tradition, being particularly inspired by T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and, especially, Wyndham Lewis, whose influence merged with his interest in European literature and Indian philosophy, although Gulcheher notes that there’s an almost Audenesque quality to much of his later work. Colin was a complex man, whose Quaker upbringing merged with his interest in Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, Enlightenment philosophy, socialism, and existentialism. Like many Modernists, his faith was Art, but he also believed in people, and felt strongly that you should always do what you could to help another human being, a virtue he passed on to his sons. But there were demons, too, and in later life, Colin struggled with alcoholism, fits of explosive temper and periods of profound despair. His poetry is equally complex: it can be rhythmic and pastoral, reflecting his love of Shakespeare and the English countryside, and also Modernist and experimental; it is also at times romantic, playful, and extremely funny. There is also a certain darkness, as the existentialism of exuberant youth is challenged by age and experience – the darkness of growing old, of pain and addiction, of lost friends, illness and approaching death. But above all, his work is a celebration of life and language, often dedicated to friends and family. At the time of his death, Colin was working on a ‘Book of Days’ (an archaic literary form inspired by Robert Chambers’ Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character), organising his private library, and looking to open a bookshop in Norwich based on Shakespeare and Company in Paris.
Colin left behind a large body of unpublished manuscript poetry, going back to the 1950s. This is now being collated, transcribed and edited by his friends Dr. Stephen and Gracie Carver of Green Door Books – working closely with Gulcheher and the family – with a view to publication. This website is part of that process, by which the work of the last of the Soho Poets can finally be shared with a wider audience, while also raising money for Cancer Research UK. Although he eschewed publication, critical success and, indeed, the Internet, we can only hope that on whatever astral plane this wonderful old devil currently resides, he would approve.