Hylda Sims remembered

Hylda Sims (centre) performing in The Poetry Café, London, with her beloved post-skiffle and blues group, City Ramblers Revival.

We were very sad to hear of the death of Hylda Sims, a stalwart of Poetry Café programming for 15 years and of the wider poetry scene for decades more. As the founder and indefatigable host of Fourth Friday, she connected up the creative energies of poets and musicians; she was also a brilliant performer of her own wonderfully inventive poetry and songs.

The love child of itinerant, communist market traders, says her biography, Hylda was educated at A.S. Neill’s ‘free’ school, Summmerhill.  She began singing and performing in the coffee bars of 1950s Soho, with the City Ramblers Skiffle Group in Soho’s Skiffle Cellar, and subsequently on TV and radio. She was also the resident ‘Elizabethan minstrel’ in the Elizabethan Rooms, Kensington.

Hylda taught English as a Foreign Language in London and Spain, table tennis to young Londoners, and founded and lived in a community on the South Yorkshire Moors. She received a BA and an Msc in Russian Studies from Hull University and the LSE, and published three novels and two poetry collections with Hearing Eye: Sayling the Babel (2006) and Reaching Peckham (2009). Togther with Melanie Mauthner, she co-edited Waterwords (BLUpress, 2008), a collection of poems written to celebrate the Brockwell Lido’s 70th birthday.

Hylda contributed regularly to Poetry News, writing most recently of the joy that Fourth Friday had brought her since its founding in 2014. She said, “It’s been my pleasure and pride, with much help from door-persons and co-hosters, to present a wonderful variety of acoustic music by groups and soloists – singer songwriters, jazz, blues, folk, klezmer, classical and Flamenco guitar playing, fiddle and banjo, bouzouki, medieval Italian lute and more, as well as excellent poetry from the well-known to the unknown, the humorous to the hell-fire, the romantic to the political, the rhymer to the surrealist. And increasingly interesting voices from the floor. It’s been hard work but I’ve loved it, loved them all.” The last Fourth Friday evening, with Hylda reading and playing with the City Ramblers Revival, alongside guests Dinah Livingstone and John Wheeler, was held at the Poetry Café on 22 November.

In 2010, Poetry News commissioned Hylda to write about her experiences of working in poetry and music and why bringing the two together was such an inspiration. In her memory, we reproduce her article in full below. It paints a marvellous picture of her twin enthusiasms, and the many ways in which she was such a force and her company such a delight. Our condolences to Hylda’s family.

. . .

“ British Poetry needs its own stroppy militiamen… to reassert the bold, non-aligned utterance that fired us in the sixties, that inspired school-kids to write, however stumblingly at first, about things that really mattered.” – John Walsh, The Poetry Review, Autumn 2008

Hylda Sims: Woke Up This Morning…

Hylda performing with the City Ramblers in the 1960s.

…thinking about the sixties. Like many a famous decade it was a late starter, didn’t really get going till halfway through and tailed off early with the political failures and compromises of ‘68.

I was a student at Hull University at that time. We were well-supplied with poets. Our librarian was Philip Larkin but he avoided students. Though I spent much time in his fiefdom I never saw or spoke to him. Cecil Day Lewis was our visiting poet. I attended his lecture on Thomas Hardy and a friend of mine took his poems to CDL’s poetry surgery and received polite advice. Douglas Dunn lived down the road in Terry Street. When we students occupied the administration block at the end of that summer term, none of these was in evidence though Larkin, somewhat panicked I’m told, wrote a poem about the likelihood of Soviet tanks invading the campus – not one of his masterpieces.

The city of poetic innovation, equally northern, industrial and deprived was further west, and very much sexier… We’re talking Liverpool – Beatles, Merseybeat and not least the Scaffold, including Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and various instrumental accomplices (including Michael McCartney, Paul’s brother). They didn’t oblige us to read, re-read and digest, but made poetry funny, political, pertinent and popular. The term ‘performance poet’ had not been invented then, but they were nevertheless reviving and revitalising a tradition of and a need for the performed spoken word – a tradition as old as civilisation. They even made the top ten – remember ‘Lily the Pink’!

We did read them too, lots of us. Penguin Modern Poets 10, featuring Henri, McGough and Patten, sold 500,000 copies, unique in poetry publishing. This Penguin series, begun in the 1960s, helped define the decade giving poetry a new audience, relevance and focus.

Then there was Al Alvarez’s anthology, The New Poetry (1962), calling for the death of the English disease of “gentility”. It included poets of the younger generation and, in a later edition, a number of Americans: Berryman, Lowell, Sexton and Plath. These poets were, on the whole, not ‘genteel’ but neither did they have the entrée to popular culture that the zeitgeist of the time required. As R.S. Thomas, a contributor, plaintively put it, “For myself, I cannot even boast a guitar.” In an era when Bob Dylan and the Beatles showed that a song lyric could be as complex and compelling as any poem, a guitar was a significant asset.

But the poetry revolution started first in the USA, giving voice to a generation traumatised and politicised by the Vietnam war and the violence shown to demonstrators. Voices came. In June 1965 the American ‘Beats’ were invited to perform at an international festival of poetry at the Albert Hall, London. 7,000 people turned up to listen and Allen Ginsburg, Laurence Ferlinghetti, Christopher Logue and Michael Horovitz performed. Adrian Mitchell did his anti-Vietnam-war poem ‘To Whom It May Concern’ (Tell me lies about Vietnam) to wild applause; marijuana fumes wafted round the hallowed sphere; LSD and Mescalin-induced performances occurred; there was accompanying jazz and dancing in the aisles; Peter Whitehead made an award-winning film, ‘Wholly Communion’, of the creatively chaotic occasion. Poetry should never have been quite the same again – and maybe it isn’t…

This article was published in Poetry News, Summer 2010 © The author and The Poetry Society.

14 January 2020