Leo Aylen, Poet actor and film maker, on 15 October 2002

Leo Aylen was born in Kwazulu, South Africa. He is just completing a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Bath University. He performs and writes for the BBC and ITV and has just co-written the script for a film `Gods and Generals'. His recent books include `Dancing the Impossible' and `Rhymocerous', a children's book of poetry. His recitation at this meeting is best summarised by two of his poems.




You who have called me friend,

Welcomed me into your house,

Laid bread and tea before me,

Offered a bed for the night,

Under a lightning-cracked sky,

Possess one quarter of what

According to experts is necessary

To achieve a minimum subsistence

Standard of living in poverty.

One quarter of basic existence.

One quarter each slice of bread,

One quarter each dip of marge,

One quarter each spoonful of tea,

One quarter each bar of soap,

Yet you gave me a clean towel,

Soap, and a bowl of water

Lifted by hand from your well,

And you put clean sheets on the bed.

How much has that bread and marge,

The cups of tea which I drank,

The soap on my face and hands,

The cleanness of sheets and towel,

Taken away from your children

In mealie-porridge unbought?

In extra hunger-dullness?

How much have you given to me

At the risk of your own life?

You have called me your friend.

But this morning I have eaten

A breakfast of eggs and bacon.

I had steak and salad for dinner

With half a bottle of wine.

My clothes, my books, my car,

My house, my airline tickets—

How can I ever dare

To accept such a title — "Your friend".

For you stand at the gate of Heaven

With laughter and songs all around you

Like angel barriers of flame.

And yet you sing to me "Join us.

All that you have to do

To be part of our songs and laughter

Is come and take our hands."

Then your fingertips draw me

Easily through the flames

Into such abundant joy

That I have nothing to answer.


Shadowlands, the movie about C. S. (Jack) Lewis's love for Joy Davidman who died of cancer, is based on A Grief Observed, the diary which Lewis kept during the aftermath of Joy's death. But while the movie ends with Lewis lost in hopeless grief, Lewis's diary ends with a description of his encountering Joy: not a ghost, but a presence of "pure intelligence".

"Tonight the cluttered room remains

Cluttered as ever: the books in piles;

The frayed carpet; the groggy chair;

Always that distant smell of drains

Which I don't notice now; the files

Of manuscript. The book of prayer

"Lies open, coffee splashed across

The page which discusses how pain

Is god's device for drawing us

Away from this world's toys: the Cross

Waits for us all, it says…Rain. Rain

Rattling the windows… Grief, like pus

"Oozing from boils. I am repulsive,

Soiled by my pain of losing her

Yet it was her whose pain was real:

Crumpled, collapse; those shakes; convulsive

Writhings; her helpless last murmur…

But then we knew that was the deal,

"And knew it all the time. Three years'

Remission, three years joy we had.

Her name is Joy, and joy it was.

Now I've rotted in my own tears

To a lump of soggy grief, gone bad,

Mildewed with loneliness and loss…"

"Tonight the cluttered room remains

Cluttered as ever: the books in piles;

The frayed carpet; the groggy chair…

But she was here. No human stains

Smeared the air. I saw no smiles,

No misty tracings of eyes, lips, hair.

"There was no apparition But

All that I know is, she was here…

What did she say? It was not speech,

More like geometry. What was shut

Is now open. It is that we're

Within reach, being within God's reach."


In the discussion Leo revealed that his prolific writing and wide subject matter were a reflection of everyday experiences in his childhood in Africa and world-wide travels, including in Britain and America. He also told us that his classical background at Oxford, and his love of serious music, particularly Bach, were not lying fallow as with so many academics, but continuously used in the creative process. He mentioned Pasternak as an example of a poet with a musical and philosophical background. In this respect it was interesting that his poetry was modern and romantic rather than classical or Baroque.

Leo's father was a missionary, his mother an actress; both read aloud to him as a child.

He discussed his friendship with Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his hostility to apartheid.

His main literary influences were Sophocles, Shakespeare and Chaucer.

He stated that the origin of his poems was life experience and visual serendipity, and that he wanted them to be seen as theatre.

The audience very much enjoyed this meeting; some saying it was the best of the year. The convener noted that performance and original creative work was more valued by members than academic discussion.

Peter Valentine