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In print: a shy poet

05 April, 2019 — By The Xtra Diary

Poet John Franklin Halpenny


They represent decades of fascination with how emotion can be expressed through poetry.

But the thoughtful words of John Franklin Halpenny (pictured), a former librarian, were never shared with others in his lifetime.

Now, two years after his death at the age of 86, his work has hit the bookshelves after being discovered by his three sons, Sam, Liam and Tom. They had no idea he had written thousands of poems in his spare time and only realised what he had been doing when they came to sort out his belongings.

Mr Halpenny, originally from Canada, had typed them all up into manuscripts in the hope of one day being published; but his work remained unseen, stored under a bed in at his north London home.

And among his poems were tranches that relate to the old Covent Garden Market, a place he obviously new well.

He writes in one such piece:

Among remembered odours of carrots from Cyprus
and onions from Malta, boutiques squeak where cockney crowed.

Where do Aphrodite or the Knights
stand now in Covent Garden Market?

It is not opera without them.

His son, Sam told Diary of how surprised he was when he cleared out his fathers house.

“I had to the clear out our family home in Chetwynd Road, Dartmouth Park,” he recalled.

“He had a little, secret room at the back of the flat absolutely full of books and under the bed there were bags and bags and bags, packed full of hand written poetry. It was astonishing – all very carefully written and presented, but what we all find most bizarre is how he never told us about it.”

He added: “He was very modest and rather private. When he got more and more infirm – he was diagnosed with Alzhiemer’s – he mentioned to us his poetry, but we had no idea to what extent.”

Now the family has published The Vase: and other poems in his memory, and copies are available at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town.

Mr Halpenny was born in 1931 in Ontario, and moved to Europe in 1958, working his passage on a ship. He spent time in Holland and Scandinavia, and then moved to Paris for a year.

A fan of modern jazz, he was soon immersed in the Beatnik scene and when he moved to London, he naturally gravitated to the clubs of the time, dotted around the Soho area, and populated by other aspiring poets.

One can only wonder the conversations and readings in dimly-lit cellar bars, the air blue with cigarette smoke and jars of beer helping give the shy poets a bit of courage to express their inner thoughts.

He had also visited New York in the 1950s and was further inspired by his aunt, Isabel Sinclair, a Latin-speaking, poetry writing, English teacher, who greatly encouraged him to write; but quite how much did not become clear to his family until after his death.

Sam said: “He was very close to his aunt and she was his culture muse.”

John settled in London in the late 1950s and worked a librarian. .

Sam added: “On the face of it, he had given up his youthful ambition to be a writer and radio broadcaster, but that was far from the truth. We knew he liked poetry, literature – he had so, so many books – and we would receive funny poems in birthday cards.

“But we had no idea at all of his output.”

Among the neatly handwritten and typed works, placed in to folders, were tape recordings of him reading his poems and also heart-breaking letters of rejection from publishers. There were more examples of his creative output in his mother’s home in Canada, too, which John visited for the summer months.

Sam said: “My father would go back to Canada each summer to see his mother. And it seems he shuffled his unpublished poetry backwards and forwards from Canada to London.”


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