Obituary

Inge Elsa laird

bu Michael Horovitz

Inge Elsa Laird, the minimalist poet, translator, and practical muse to my New Departures/Poetry Olympics bandwagons, died of cancer on 3rd January. She had been my best friend since the death (also of cancer) of the poet Frances Horovitz in 1983. One of several things Inge had in common with Frances is that she was a rara avis among artists and writers in the near ego-less purity of her aspirations and achievements. More piano and less ostentatious – but no less coherent – than Keats, Dylan Thomas or Philip Larkin, she celebrated even her own life’s transience: “what little I have/drifts quietly towards/the open window”.

Inge was born in Düsseldorf in midwinter 1939 (three seasons before the outbreak of World War II), the younger child of Margarete and Robert Drenker. Her mother’s parents sold trucks in Düsseldorf, and when Grete and Robert married they co-founded a heavy lorry transport company. Grete had previously been a hospital nurse. Robert Drenker was conscripted soon after Inge’s birth, and paid scant attention to his family thereafter. She was summarily placed in the care of a cleaning woman’s family who, according to what Inge told her brother Günther and myself, and also disclosed at several public readings from her journals half a century later, treated her very badly.

When the war ended and Robert returned to Düsseldorf, it was immediately clear to both parents that their marriage was over. Inge only ever saw her father once again around 1990, having hated everything she remembered and was told about him in between. Grete was left in possession of just one truck which she ran, after a while marrying its remaining driver. Inge and her brother lived with their mother and stepfather for the following decade or so in a small apartment way out of town near her uncle’s and aunt’s farm. It took the children more than an hour to walk to school and back every day, but Inge seems to have acquired her lifelong love of nature and the countryside during this period.

Notwithstanding the dark shadows that beset her origins, Inge would later retail happier reminiscences of her childhood – of being a dab hand at basketball and other sports, and evidently popular with high-spirited fellow students. There were convivial reunions with a number of these in Düssel every few years between the early 1980s and the late 1990s.

She was equally joyful on the subject of after-school camaraderie, fun and first loves that gathered momentum from Düsseldorf’s vibrant New Orleans Jazz Bar, with animated recall of marvelling at and dancing to Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen, who had the swingingest gigs of their lives there in the mid-1950s. This club and its occupation by these and other legendary pioneers of the Skiffle and Trad booms appears to have rapidly accumulated a local and then national notoriety and atmosphere comparable to that of the Cavern Club in Liverpool at the outset of Beatlemania in the early 1960s.

Throughout the three decades I knew her in, Inge would often put on some music at unexpected moments and propel herself into bursts of energetic dancing, from the wildest free-form or balletic jitterbugging to precisely measured waltzes with a broomstick, which is how she had initially taught herself as a teenager at home.

She went from school to trainee employment with a travel agency called Seeland Reisebüro, which proceeded to send her all over Europe by train on her own to scout for suitable package holiday resorts. Her appetite for exploring the world outside Germany stayed with her for the rest of her days. She often subsequently revisited the pleasure she had taken trekking round Spain and other mediterranean countries in her late teens.

In 1962 she came to London, partly with a view to brushing up her English. She began earning her keep as a model for portrait painting classes at the Richmond Institute. The professional brass musician Michael Laird’s mother Barbara was a member of the class, and introduced Inge to her son in January 1963. Michael and Inge married early in 1964, and their only child Nicola was born in the autumn of that year. When two grandchildren, Benita and Max Laird-Hopkins, emerged in 1992 and ’95, Inge was delighted and instantly warmed to the role of devoted and much loved grandmother to them.

In the late 1960s she enjoyed working in the Richmond bookshop of a holocaust survivor, Dr Houben, who added quantum leaps to the considerable literary and socio-historical awareness she had already developed for herself. After this Inge worked as a ticket agent for the Lufthansa airline in Piccadilly, where she got on famously with staff and customers, on and off, for the following 20 years (she particularly relished the amount and extent of freeish air travel worldwide which this job facilitated). She continued to travel a lot via her subsequent main source of income, first modelling and then translating, interpreting, and conducting coiffure seminars for Vidal Sassoon’s burgeoning hair care empire.

From the early 1980s on she wrote highly original and perceptive book reviews for the Jewish Chronicle, New Democrat and Financial Times, where some of her mind-stilling minimalist verse and lyrical prose was also first published. “Time” is fairly typical of her earliest poetry:

“Boiling eggs takes
5 minutes
cutting bread takes less
putting butter and
salt on the table
still less
the coffee is ready
it is time
to sit
and as we listen
to the news
it becomes quite clear
we have no time at all.”

From 1982 when she and I first met to 2001, Inge co-edited various New Departures publications, including the POW! (Poetry Olympics Weekend) and POP! (Poetry Olympics Party) Anthologies – and co-organised many Poetry Olympics festivals and Jazz Poetry SuperJams, mainly at London venues ranging from Westminster Abbey and the Astoria, Ronnie Scott’s and 100 Clubs to the Stratford East, Young Vic and Queen’s Theatres, the South Bank Centre and Royal Albert Hall.

Her cosmopolitan fluency was instrumental in our making contact with and foregathering the likes of Wolf Biermann, Gunter Grass, Kazuko Shiraishi, Miroslav Holub, Patti Smith, the ebullient Slovenian poet Ifigenija Simonovic and many other non-Brits including the blind multimedic bard Moondog. We persuaded this charismatic recluse to come out of obscurity near Cologne and give his last performance, aged 80, alongside Andrei Voznesensky, Carol Ann Duffy, Ray Davies, Damon Albarn, Kylie Minogue, Nick Cave, Adrian Mitchell, et al, at our weekend-long Poetry Olympics Marathon in July 1996.

Inge’s own compelling stage presence and intimately cadenced voicings gradually attracted a cult following for her performances in English and German across the UK and also in Germany, Italy, North America and Japan. In 2001 Maja Prausnitz’s Elephant Press published an elegant booklet, Poems, and in the following year Inge released a CD recording of her renditions of the same selection (both still available via gretchen@blackspringpress.co.uk). She evolved a mesmerising rapport with several distinguished musical accompanists including the young violinist Ruth Vaughn, with whom she serenaded the Royal Festival Hall in 2000, and the Kuwaiti Oud player Hassan Al Hassani (Namiq Hamoodi), whose plangent interplay with her vocal variations can be heard on the CD.

Her political engagement as both artist and activist was as effective as it was steadfastly uncompromising. Unlike some who only preach or publish, Inge made a point of wedding ideals to actions – frequently for example taking food, blankets and other supplies and back-up at expense she could ill afford to ailing, down-and-out and homeless citizens.

After I introduced her to my blood family she quickly bonded with most of my siblings and our mother, and derived a special sense of fulfilment from connecting with the Jewish traditions from whose existence her youth had been disbarred. In order to survive the war years in Nazi Germany, her parents had kept stumm about Margarete’s Hungarian-Jewish ancestors, whose identity was confided to Inge around 1950.

Whilst she befriended many other Jews, Inge also found herself studying all manner of world philosophies, and over the last three decades of her life practised Yoga, meditation, and an eclectic personal blend of pantheistic buddhism. The quality of ahimsa (meaning non-violence, respect and reverence toward all living things) had long been a major preoccupation. She came to give more and more Yoga lessons privately, and also to teach classes at venues such as the Dartington Summer School of Music, getting consistently inspired responses from her students. Her later verse and prose poems are uncannily adept at finding the right words for encapsulating these elusive metaphysical worlds: “Let go/. . . the twisting struggle/. . . sustain stillness/of mind and body/. . . the spirit/between golden rocks/whispers/Teach us to care.”

She also never lost her delicacy of phrase or her lilting continental accent which, along with her unblinking openness and capacity for interpersonal empathy meant that few who met her experienced any difficulties of communication. Just occasionally, when a particular crisis aroused her emotions, she was liable to come out with some casually lethal bonapropisms. For example, one day when the research for my would-be magnum opus A New Waste Land: Timeship Earth at Nillennium had bred an unstoppable pile-up of daily avalanche-threatening newsprint, books, audio and video recordings and other source materials for the best part of a decade, on having serious difficulty getting through the door to my flat because of this congestion, Inge exploded into an aria of uncharacteristic invective which climaxed with the words, “This is not a creation, only a milestone”. To which I defensively retorted, “Well, at least you concede it will be of some eventual significance”. “No, no”, she replied: “. . . Millstone.”

Despite increasingly unfair shares of devastating health setbacks, Inge also never lost her zest and talents for humorous takes on life’s vicissitudes and ironies. During a walk she took me on round her home turf of Wimbledon Common, she gleefully pointed out how the wording on one of the benches donated by and embossed with the names of municipal dignitaries had been altered by a local wag. This bench’s donor, called something like Brig-Gen Marmaduke Chumley-Tomkins, had chosen for epitaph the fact that he “. . . loved walking in this Common” – but the letter l of “walking” had been immaculately replaced by n!

Her grace, charm, beauty and spontaneity attracted all manner of attentions, some more welcome than others. But she was more amused than affronted by spectacles such as the bait the famed Lothario Warren Beatty got into when, at a chance encounter in Berlin, she proved amiably but unshakably impervious to his blandishments.

She loved all the arts and embodied an extraordinarily rich spectrum of cultural appreciation and scholarship. When still a schoolgirl she completed a monograph on Leonardo da Vinci, and later drafted and delivered papers and seminars on subjects including her beloved J S Bach, and the literature, arts and music of the Holocaust. Among those whose works she continually resorted to were Blake, Hölderlin, Heine, Rilke, Chagall, Louis Armstrong, Beckett, Elliott Carter, John Cage, Brecht and Kurt Weill, the Comedian Harmonists, Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Smart, Paul Celan, Kathleen Raine, Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Johnson, Pinter, Primo Levi, R B Kitaj, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, and Frances Horovitz and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, both of whom she befriended.

Another fellow spirit was the avant-garde internationalist publisher John Calder, for whose Waterloo Bookshop Theatre’s regular Thursday soirées Inge became a regular performer, especially for reading German texts and translations.

A number of her later writings were imbued with sonorous, graphic, uncomplaining and fearless intimations of mortality “. . . the feminine spirit/hears the blackbird/high above in love song/taming the wind/. . . the inconclusive skirmish ends// . . . the song will finally/take me away/like weaving rain/far and near”.

Michael Horovitz