Peter Hughes: Life Writing: i.m. John James

I met John James soon after moving to Cambridge in the autumn of 1978. I’d gone there, after doing some farm labouring in the Isles of Scilly, to do a degree in English Literature at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology. Later they changed the name to Anglia Windows Polytechnic, or something. After my course finished I moved away. First to Brighton, then Stirling, then Italy. But I moved back to Cambridge in the early 90s just in time for the first Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry. I had the pleasure of reading with Ralph Hawkins and David Chaloner at that first event. I taught in schools in and around Cambridge for the next 15 years. John James was a central figure in poetry. I had the good fortune to hear him read on several occasions. In 2007 I moved away from Cambridge and did up an old coastguard cottage on the Norfolk coast. I started Oystercatcher Press at the same time. John did two pamphlets with Oystercatcher, ‘Cloud Breaking Sun’ in 2012, and ‘Sabots’ in 2015. Between 2007 and 2017 John came to visit quite often. He wrote me this poem for my 60th birthday in 2016.

STUDIO   POEM                             John James

 for Peter Hughes


 the Boston Deeps give way to the North Sea

a grey canvas expanse punctuated

by streaks & flecks of Titanium White

under a variable veil of cloud


but where in this are the opening moules

in their black casserole & rising lid

with a bottle of Chimay Blanche still life

or site specific obsolescent sphere


difference in the face of image saturation

resistant to continuous screening

a redemptive calm to be recovered

in a twisting vine of ripening beans

as the music in your head floods the page at night

the distant flickering lights of Lincolnshire


Perhaps the sonnet form was a little nod to the fact that I’d been knee deep in my versions of Petrarch over the preceding months.

When I took up the Judith E. Wilson Fellowship at Cambridge in 2016 I was keen to organise an event to acknowledge the importance of John’s poetry. The conference on the poetry of John James was hosted by Magdalene College in March 2017. The contributors included Ian Brinton, Ian Heames, Drew Milne, Peter Riley, Simon Smith, Andrew Taylor and Geoff Ward.


John died in May 2018. This is a poem I wrote in his memory soon afterwards.


Life Writing: in memoriam John James


the proliferation of Cambridge street food stalls

shows no sign of slowing down John

& I’m sitting eating in the market place

while a guy plays the guitar

in front of the monument to Snowy

me with a fistful of Mediterranean sausage

nestling in a bright refreshment of mixed salad

invigorated by a generous ejaculation of chilli sauce

as your man moves on

to a song about feeling it in your fingers

& feeling it in your toes

though I am mainly feeling it in the pit

I neglected to mention the cucumber

& mint tinged yoghurt lining

the whole dense wrap where the sausage is halal

& the music here is free

& finds its way into the witnesses & sky

we cock an eye at now & blink

away an inappropriate sad anger

reflecting on the Irish referendum

Windrush & the grotesque stupidities of Brexit

we join in with barely audible humming

bodily registration of the rhythms

a tapping foot or two fingers patting the thigh

the sun is moving round the building

& in the circumstances John

I’m going to fuck shamelessly

with the playlist & he effortlessly

segues into a moving instrumental

take on love is the drug



Peter Hughes is a poet and painter. He is also the founding editor of Oystercatcher Press, winner of the Michael Marks Award ‘for outstanding UK publisher of poetry in pamphlet form’. Peter was born in Oxford, worked in Italy for several years and is now based in north Wales. He also teaches, and has been Judith E. Wilson Visiting Fellow in Poetry at Cambridge University. Described by Tony Fraser as ‘one of the U.K.’s most interesting and unclassifiable poets’, Peter is the author of over a dozen books of poetry which include Nistanimera, The Summer of Agios Dimitrios, Allotment Architecture and The Pistol Tree Poems. Nathan Thompson describes the latter as ‘flickering, intense, innovative and utterly mesmerising’.

Peter’s Selected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2013 alongside a volume entitled ‘An intuition of the particular’: some essays on the poetry of Peter Hughes, edited by Ian Brinton. 2013 also saw the publication of Allotment Architecture, by Reality Street. In 2015 Reality Street published Quite Frankly. This substantial volume contains Peter’s unconventional versions of the complete sonnets of Petrarch.Peter has also published versions of Cavalcanti and Leopardi. His most recent books are A Berlin Entrainment (Shearsman), and Arrangements (Aquifer), a collaboration with Eléna Rivera.


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