John James obituary

Other lives: Poet and teacher of literature and film

The sensual brevity of John James’s poetry reflected his personality. John, who has died aged 79, was stylish, casual, elegant, unstudied. His Welsh-Irish origins, too, underpinned his work.

The only child of Lil (nee O’Reilly), from Cork, and Charlie James, a royal marine, John was born in Cardiff, not long before the outbreak of the second world war. To avoid the blitz on Swansea’s refineries, the family upped sticks for Portsmouth, only to be bombed there. On their return to Cardiff, John was taught by the Lasalle Brothers at Saint Illtyd’s College.

His father returned from war service in 1946, when his son was seven, to become an insurance subs collector, while Lil worked in a biscuit factory. John studied literature and philosophy at Bristol University, at night working as a dance hall bouncer.

He got a job with the Somerset water board and early poems began to emerge. He had met Ann Dorman at university; they married in 1961. With their children, Sebastian and Rebecca, they moved to Cambridge, where from 1966 John taught at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology – the “Tech”. His local pub, the Panton Arms, was a den for poets including JH Prynne, Andrew Crozier, Wendy Mulford and Tim Longville. After his marriage ended in divorce, he shared a home with Mulford, and their daughter Rhiannon was born in 1969.

John wrote poetry in response to visual art, including the pamphlet Lines for Richard Long (1988), and wrote about his friend the sculptor Barry Flanagan for the Tate. He also collaborated with Tom Phillips, on In One Side & Out the Other (1970, with Crozier), and with Bruce McLean, whose original linocuts were paired with John’s poems in On Reading JH Prynne’s Sub Songs (2016). Sarments: New and Selected Poems, was published this spring.

John and his last partner, Patricia Coyle, slogged hard to found the first communication and media studies degree programme at Anglia Ruskin University, where John taught literature and film. His translation of Kleist’s Prince of Homburg was staged at the Cottesloe theatre in London in 1982.

A former communist, a formidable trade unionist, John was an attentive listener, his instincts quick and generous. Students sought his company, and invited him to family weddings, and he retained deep friendships. He loved wines and ciders, cooking, fishing, ferrets, reading French and gardening. After Patricia’s death in 2010, he divided his time between Cambridge and the Languedoc in France. He is survived by Sebastian, Rebecca and Rhiannon, and nine grandchildren.

Nicholas Johnson

The GuardianTramp

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