We – Pat V T West, Dennis Gould, Jeff Cloves – first performed together as RiffRaff Poets in St Ives in 1970. The reading was in a pub where Pat’s performance was sexually provocative, verbally explicit, and unfazed by boozy male hostility. In short she was sensational and no one who was there that can ever forget her. So, it was with great sadness we learned of her anticipated but precipitate death in a Bristol hospice on 14 June. Our friend and companion poet at so many RiffRaff gigs has, for the first time, been silenced.
For 15 years Pat was the creator and organiser of poetry events at the Glastonbury Festival. She’d been ill for the past four years or so but continued teaching, campaigning, editing, publishing, organising and performing almost to the last and with little sign of her fiery temperament abating. In truth, despite our long friendship, we were both a little wary of her and she was famous for her ability to fall out with poets, publishers, editors and anyone else she crossed. Her talented sons, Rohan and William had different fathers – neither of whom we ever met and of whom Pat could find nothing pleasing to say – and we were never able to quite grasp the chronology of her life.
She’d once trained to be a nurse, later (we think) she trained to be a teacher and she somehow found time to get an English degree. The degree, in our opinion, had a debatable effect on her poetry but there was a bit of Pat which wanted or needed academic acceptance and she continually jibbed at real, or perceived, slights. Editors who rejected her work, anthologies which didn’t include her, residencies which didn’t come her way, these she saw as part of a conspiracy to deny her well-deserved due. Since she was a formidable and instinctive rebel ,this trait seemed to go against her natural grain.
Dennis first met Pat at an anarchist fringe festival in Bath 1965 and she insisted that he had inspired her to become a public poet herself. In fact, we both agree she was a natural performer and her height, striking black clothes and wild attractiveness ensured she could always face down an audience and win it over. In no time she was part of Hydrogen Jukebox and became actress, performer, playwright, novelist (unpublished) and a widely-acclaimed poet. At RiffRaff performances she never failed to connect with women in the audience and inevitably a group gathered around her at their close. From absolute feminist commitment, she always opened her set with what she called her ‘signature’ poem and this gave her a flying start. She was a witty as well as a passionate poet and, although we knew times when our own poems and performances fell flat, it’s hard to remember more than one occasion when hers did. She was already ill by then and overly shaken by the experience. For 37 years the three of us performed our poems and songs at marches and demos, at bomber and submarine bases, nuclear weapons factories and the like. We were drawn to peace camps, festivals, gatherings, and any other place where people came together with a shared vision of how we might live peacefully and co-operatively. Pat’s own troubled childhood, it seems, was neither peaceful nor co-operative but after her parents’ deaths she began to write about them –particularly her mother. Her last book, What she also did was…. (Rive Gauche, 2007) – which she co-edited with Jill Hague – is an outstanding anthology of poetry about the relationship between mothers and daughters. In it Pat addresses her mother – all mothers really – who, as they near the end of their lives, yearn ‘to go home’:
And we women of a certain age
Is it because you wish things could
be like they were, before?
But speaking for ourselves.
Pat fearlessly spoke for herself but it’s turned out that she also spoke – as all poetry should – for countless others.