We visited Wales to discover Dylan Thomas; we also found J M Tambimuttu.

The portrait of James Meary Tambimuttu (known as Tambi to his colleagues) was hidden in the section dedicated to Thomas’ London connections, at the Dylan Thomas centre, Swansea. It was rather like a treasure hunt prepared for the children visiting the centre – 1) Find the name on a panel down a hallway 2) Locate the picture 3) Unearth a letter from Thomas to Tambimuttu.

J. M. Tambimuttu left Ceylon for the United Kingdom in 1938. He was a poet, editor and publisher, and edited Poetry London from 1939 – 1947. The magazine was only one part of the entire venture – there were approximately seventy books and pamphlets produced by the publishers in the 1940’s. Some of these are now in the Northwestern University (Illinois, USA) and the British Library.

There is apparently a bronze bust of Tambimuttu placed beside a commemorative tree planted in his honour in Fitzrovia where he lived for 13 years. Fitzrovia is the area between Fitzroy Square and Oxford Street. In his book London Calling, local resident Barry Miles credits the invention of the name ‘Fitzrovia’ to Tambimuttu, not because of its proximity to the Square or affiliation with Charles Fitzroy, Lord of the manor of Tottenhall, but because of his favourite watering hole, the Fitzroy Tavern.

This is just one of many anecdotes associated with Tambimuttu, who appears to have been an extremely colourful character indeed, and is said to have ‘startled literary circles with his Bohemian lifestyle’. One story which caught my imagination is mentioned by Andrew Sinclair, “He kept all the submitted manuscripts (to his famous magazine) in a large chamber pot under his bed”. Sinclair goes on to state, “The Swiss and the French pubs and the Hog in the Pound were frequently his offices, although he also used the public baths in Russell Street, even if the steam room tended to dissolve the work of his contributors.”

Despite his eccentricities, Poetry London was a success for many years, and published many famous writers. The manifesto printed in the 1938 prospectus includes heavyweights such as Walter de la Mare, T. S. Eliot, David Gascoyne, Louis Macneice, Stephen Spender, W. B. Yeats, Lawrence Durrel and Dylan Thomas. Interestingly, we were able to find this piece of correspondence in the Letters of Dylan Thomas, written in 1939, where he submits a poem to the magazine and inquires if he could be paid a guinea since he hasn’t a single penny at that moment!

Tambi’s greatest supporter was T. S. Eliot, who observed that, “In the present chaos of opinion and belief we may expect to find quite different literatures existing in the same language in the same country” and “It is only in Poetry London that I can consistently expect to find new poets who matter.” When Tambimuttu entered a period of poverty and depression in the early 1940’s Eliot stepped up to assist the editor he admired. The result was Poetry in Wartime which appeared in

August 1942. Alan Smith writes, “Eliot also made personal contributions to help Tambi through this period and was a source of influential support.”

Following disagreement with his business partner Richard March, Tambi returned to Ceylon in 1949 to seek capital for a fresh start. He eventually settled in New York and in 1956 Poetry London – New York was born. Later he founded The Lyrebird Press in 1968 and the Indian Arts Council in 1983. He died of a heart attack in 1983 in London. Poet Kathleen Raine said in an obituary, “The torch Tambimuttu has lit should not be allowed to go out.” His ashes lie in Atchuvely, Jaffna in the North of Sri Lanka.

Tambimuttu’s greatest legacy must be his ability to find the diamond in the rough. Many a writer has attributed his success to the leap of faith taken by this editor and publisher. In the words of poet Keith Douglas, “I had given up all idea of writing in the Army and your efforts nerved me to try again.”

Most of Tambimuttu’s work is difficult to access and much has been lost to time. I would like to share here some papers which are now in the Tambimuttu archive at the British Library which were shared with us by his daughter Shakuntala. These are a rare find since his early poems which were published before his arrival in London, were presumed lost for many years.

Bali and Maya Now Dance has annotations and corrections by the poet. What I find most interesting is this – he wrote a poem later in 1948 titled Natarajah: A Poem for Mr. T. S. Eliot’s Sixtieth Birthday (which is only available in a handful of libraries in Singapore and UK) – could this be a precursor which paved the way to the lengthier pamphlet?

This is another poem that caught my eye – Villanelle

“We won’t find peace in the language of war or threats” – Jawaharlal Nehru

We won’t find peace in the language of war,

I have seen homes on fire like gorse;

We live today under an evil star.

September ‘thirty nine heard the passions roar,

Friends faded and passed with the autumn rose;

We won’t find peace in the language of war.

They dropped down dead in the crowded bar

The bomb’s fierce message was sure and terse;

We won’t find peace in the language of war.

All was in flame, blood, hair and tar,

And lovers knew what death owes;

We live today under an evil star.

Dunkirk, Warsaw, Arnhem, brave Malta,

Remember all this and worse;

We won’t find peace in the language of war:

We live today under an evil star.

Tambimuttu died on the cusp of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. He was obviously referring to World War II in this poem, but it also seems prophetic of the horrors to come in his own motherland. Many places from Ceylon figure conspicuously in his early poems such as Atchuvely, Horton Place, Jaffna, Colombo Harbour, Kandy Lake, Closenburg, and My Country My Village which was written for the 3rd Anniversary of Independence from British rule.

Flat as a tabletop, the landscape;

Gothic cathedrals of palmyrahs, doves.

Salt estuaries with heron and flamingo

And pensive stork that memory adores;

All this, Jaffna, and more, you are to those,

Sprung in your red earth and bird-filled groves. (Jaffna)

His Catholic religious upbringing is reflected in Shrine in the Jungle Madhu, Corpus Christi Carol and Paalai Oothu, while his Tamil cultural heritage is seen in Invocation to Luxmi and Natarajah.

There’s a grotto in the heart

of the jungle

Where the Madonna’s blue with

the emerald mingles.

Pilgrims are fervent in the nave

of rollicking breeze

Fringed by the Gothic pillars of ancient trees. (Paalai Oothu)

There are also friends and family long gone now who are remembered – Atchuvely is dedicated to his grandfather, Hari, Bapoota, Sirdar, Birthday Poem for the very Busy Girl, Safia (his second wife) and Epitalamic lines for Haneef and Zahra.

When Safia dreams under the palm thatch

Her golden arms cool as water-melons,

The palms shoot off their chorus to the burnished sky,

And moon-beams are extravagant with their bright shillings. (Ceylon)

There is a resurgence of interest in the writing of the 1940’s in England. In Bridge Between Two Worlds Tambimuttu is remembered by Iris Murdoch, Brian Patten and Alan Brownjohn, among many others. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka only academics remember the pioneering intellectual who contributed so much to English literature. So, if you ever find yourself walking through Fitzrovia, keep your eyes peeled for the bronze bust of Tambi and say hello to the man known as ” a catalyst of chaos.”

References

Beckett, Chris (2009) Tambimuttu and the Poetry London Papers at the British Library: Reputation and Evidence Found online in The Electronic British Library Journal (Article 9, 2009)

Smith, Alan. Poetry London 1939 – 1951 in Tambimuttu: Bridge Between Two Worlds. Ed Jane Williams. London. Peter Owen Publishers (1989)

Sinclair, Andrew (1989) War Like a Wasp: The Lost Decade of the ‘Forties’. Hamish Hamilton. London

Williams, Jane (ed) (1989) Tambimuttu: Bridge Between Two Worlds. Ed Jane Williams. London. Peter Owen

Websites

Muller, Carl (2005) Remembering M.J. Tambimuttu found online in http://archives.dailynews.lk/2005/07/06/arts09.htm

Fitzrovia in http://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/fitzrovia/

Honouring Meary James Tambimuttu (2006) in http://tamilweek.com/news-features/archives/323

Nadishka Aloysius is a teacher, examiner, actor and author. Her main focus for the past 18 years has been training students for speech & drama examinations, and she takes to the stage with amateur theatre companies whenever possible (most recently in Macbeth and 12 Angry Women, in Colombo). She has also created content for an ELT app in Sri Lanka. As an author, she has published magazine articles, two academic books and some children’s fiction. Her mission as a writer, is to promote Sri Lankan culture internationally. https://www.facebook.com/NadishkaAloysiusBooks/

Visit the STSD members’ Facebook page for links to scans of Tabimuttu’s poetry.

(Re)Discovering Tambimuttu by Nadishka Aloysius