Introduction by Andrew Anderson
Former pupils of Audrey Nicholson who read her obituary will be reminded of shared experiences and gain a greater insight into the life of a gifted and dedicated teacher who in part moulded their early lives.
My own memories of Audrey relate to her life following her return from America when we taught together at Erkenwald Comprehensive School, Dagenham. Along with other young teachers I benefited from her experience, watchful eye, guidance and generosity. She provided us when needed with second hand clothes and shoes from ‘the scruffy shop’ as she called it, meals in her tiny flat on the edge of Wanstead Flats (her home-made cheese cake and home brewed mead were legendary) and organised outings to play cricket and swim in the outdoor pool in Epping Forest. She led numerous trips to the Stratford East Theatre for pupils and staff where mysteriously, whenever the school where there, the main villain always had the name of our headmaster (there were no limits to Audrey’s influence).
Knowing I was a former Mayfield pupil Audrey sometimes talked to me about her years at the girls school. She spoke of those times with great affection but I suspect her ‘enlightened ways’ could have been slightly in advance of her surroundings.
I attended her funeral in March 1996 and the wake afterwards in an east-end pub (organised by Audrey). Both were uplifting affairs and an appropriate tribute to an exceptional teacher and human being.
Monday 11th March, 1996
Audrey Nicholson Obituary
Audrey Nicholson, English teacher and friend to poets, died of kidney failure and bone marrow cancer on March 1 aged 71. She was born on July 15, 1924.
BLUNT, unmarried and maternal not even in manner, Audrey Nicholson became like a mother to contemporary poetry after she retired in 1982 from teaching English at Downshall and Mayfield schools in Essex, Berkeley High School, California, and, lastly, Erkenwald School in Dagenham. She was an exceptional teacher who got very good exam results for those she taught both in England and in the United States. She took her pupils to the theatre and on cultural excursions in her own time and often on her own money. But it was as the friend to a large group of poets’ work that she will be most missed.
In person and in letters, written in her upward-rushing hand, with abbreviations such as LA, for ‘Love, Audrey’, she rallied support for poetry readings and book launches and kept people informed of the triumphs of a famous poet or the need to send £5 to celebrate a poor one’s birthday (the two were sometimes one).
She helped the smallest high-standard events, such as the Torriano Poets in Kentish Town, her light blue eyes friendly behind big spectacles, her red hair beginning to pale. She subscribed to poetry magazines and knew the staff of Acumen, Agenda, Ambit, Aquarius, PN Review, and bought sometimes 40 copies of a poetry book or pamphlet to give away. Yet she was not soft; she decided for herself what was right without any form of equivocation.
She also helped poets. She once gave Eddie Linden a coat. She gave the blind poet John Heath-Stubbs pullovers, escorted him to poetry occasions and typed his manuscripts and letters. John Heath-Stubbs dedicated a poem to her called ‘All the fun of the fair’, and Gavin Ewart wrote two about her. She was a close friend of Michael Hamburger and Anne Beresford and of Peter Porter. She tried to further the careers of Heather Buck, Jonathan Griffin, George Oppen and those of many unknown young poets.
The Nicholsons were from Ord, Isle of Oronsay, and Sleat on Skye. Her father became a miner in Yorkshire. Her mother’s family were pure Yorkshire, and Audrey with two brothers (as well as four sisters) was mad about cricket. Visiting her recently in hospital, the poet Marius Kociejowski tried to talk about poetry to her but she wanted only to hear the cricket scores. In the 1970s she, Gavin Ewart and the American writer Marvin Cohen started an annual August Bank Holiday cricket match held on Leytonstone Common near where Audrey lived in Teesdale Road. Writer-cricketers Allen Synge and Kociejowski became regulars.
It was a ramshackle match of both sexes, Audrey in her whites hitting boundaries (gorse bush) past the waggling hands of other players who had never held a bat in their lives; but she tolerated them provided they, in turn, respected the occasion. After the game she gave a supper in her bedsit, everyone wedged in on borrowed chairs and her divan bed, eating a rice dish and discussing literature.
Gavin Ewart’s death last October was one of Audrey’s last efforts for poetry, as she helped his widow to organise the friends for the funeral. ‘Audrey is a saint’, said poet George Wightman. She was beginning to be ill herself. She later refused chemotherapy and discharged herself from hospital, only to return later.
Audrey Nicholson is survived by four nephews and four nieces.
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