Val Wilmer remembers the cloaked coffee bar performer who took a new approach to poetry reading inspired by skiffle, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and the blues
Iris Orton, who has died aged 93, was a pioneer in the jazz and poetry movement, and a poet who predicted the dominance of the oral over the written tradition.
In 1959 she published a manifesto entitled With Music In Mind: Motive And Method, which outlined a new approach to poetry reading. She sought to escape the staid atmosphere of such gatherings, and was inspired by listening to skiffle, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and the blues. Her methodology differed from that of Christopher Logue, her near-contemporary, whose Red Bird Dancing On Ivory, performed with the jazz group of drummer Tony Kinsey, received more attention at the time.
In 1956, as many young people took up the guitar to play in the London coffee houses of Soho, Iris was introduced to the blues. Soon afterwards she began to evolve her own method of performance, initially with guitarist Marian Gray, then with Wally Whyton of The Vipers skiffle group.
She saw poetry as an art to be performed, and sought instrumentalists to play between poems as an equal performer, rather than in the accompanist’s role. She read at coffee bars such as Nucleus, The Partisan and The House Of Sam Widges, with co-conspirators including trumpeter Chris Bateson, saxophonist Paul Simpson and guitarists Long John Baldry and Davey Graham.
Born in 1925 in Sutton-on-Sea, Lincolnshire, she moved to London in 1950. She settled initially in Fitzrovia where her landlady was Madame Sheba, a black South African whose tenants included other people of colour, and where visitors included the activists Sylvia Pankhurst and Amy Garvey, first wife of Marcus.
With a circle comprising a cross-section of bohemia, from Quentin Crisp, Bernard Kops, Iron Foot Jack and James Kirkup, to actors, street buskers and musicians, Iris became a well-known figure at cafes like Toni’s, The Alexandria and The French, instantly recognisable for the cloak she wore in all weathers and her habit of striding purposefully through the rackety streets. She worked at the British Council by day, and contributed poetry to a number of magazines. Two collections were published, The Dream And The Sheaves (1955) and A Man Singing (1962), before she moved to Sweden in 1962.
I met Iris in 1959 while listening to New Orleans bluesman Champion Jack Dupree at the 100 Club. Dupree was the first of a series of blues pianists to play at that venerable London establishment, and his risqué lyrics were a revelation. As he stomped on down at the keyboard, Iris stood in front of the stage, eyes closed and hands clasped together in supplication. She was a daunting sight for a teenager unaccustomed to such open displays of emotion, but guaranteed unforgettable. And so years later, when the Swedish film maker Kasper Collin (My Name Is Albert Ayler, I Call Him Morgan) asked me if I knew her, memories of that night when we both worshipped at the shrine of the authentic came flooding back.
Linking Iris and Kasper was a friendship with Bengt Nordström, the Swedish saxophonist who produced Albert Ayler’s first recordings in Stockholm in 1962. Nordström was an eccentric and that sat well with Iris, who enjoyed originality and took people as she found them. When he died in 2000, she designed the headstone for his grave, selecting the special black stone and providing the text.
Given the early connections, it occurred to me that Iris might shed light on aspects of black life in Soho, a subject habitually overlooked by chroniclers. I was right. She responded immediately, remembering me and my mother, who was with me that night we heard Jack Dupree. A rewarding friendship ensued, her letters and phone calls providing information of unique character and value.
Iris adopted the name Bearhope in Sweden, to avoid confusion with the (unrelated) playwright Joe Orton. I was able to reconnect her with old friends such as man-about-jazz John Jack, but as she aged, her failing eyesight meant she was unable to complete the memoir she’d planned. She continued to write poems for her church members and friends and to raise money for projects in Kenya, supported by her companion Birgitta Magnusson. She died on 16 February 2019 in Stockholm.