A new bequest sheds light on the life and work of Martin Bell.
Special Collections has recently acquired the papers of Christine McCausland. The collection includes manuscripts and letters of her sometime partner, Martin Bell.
Bell is often described as an unjustly neglected poet. He was a prominent member of The Group during the 1950s, and a major influence on younger writers including Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter. In his Introduction to Bell’s Complete Poems, Porter wrote that from his arrival Bell was the ‘father and tone-setter of group discussions’; a poet who was ‘older, but was also more audacious, intellectually wide-ranging and freer from prejudice.’ Bell’s poetry reached a wide audience during the 1960s through the Penguin Modern Poets series, and in 1967 he published his Collected Poems, 1937-1966. This was the only book of Bell’s poems to be published during his lifetime.
Bell accepted a Gregory Fellowship at the University of Leeds in 1967 and moved to the city, where he would stay for the rest of his life. Anthony Burgess had previously joked that Bell was ‘doomed to die of drink and be posthumously neglected’ and this would prove to be prophetic. Despite the ‘sporadic brilliance’ of his teaching at Leeds Art School, Bell’s alcoholism during these years would lead to what Peter Porter called a protracted ‘personal decline’. He died in 1978.
Bell’s literary work during this period includes the blistering unfinished sequence ‘The City of Dreadful Something’ and translations of French surrealist poetry. Poems often remained incomplete and many were unpublished during his lifetime. The manuscripts in the McCausland collection relate to much of his work at Leeds. The disorder of the documents reflects Bell’s chaotic life, but the intricacies and sharpness of his poetry are clearly evident. Files also include correspondence with luminaries such as Philip Larkin, Peter Porter, Peter Redgrove, Philip Hobsbaum and George Szirtzes.
McCausland had met Bell at the 1965 Edinburgh Festival, and later lived with him in Leeds. She moved to London in the early 1970s, but stayed in touch with Bell, and inherited his manuscripts on his death. Many of McCausland’s own papers, which make up the bulk of the collection relate in some way to Bell. They include a large series of letters from Bell to McCausland, letters about his death, and material relating to his literary estate. Manuscripts and diaries written by McCausland explore her relationship with Bell, and the shattering impact on her of his death. The collection documents her work on various collections of Bell’s poems, and her publication of his Robert Desnos translations. It also documents her life and relationships beyond Leeds and includes correspondence with friends and family, including Alan Brownjohn, Dennis Creffield and Brian Higgins.
The McCausland and Bell archive, alongside other collections of Bell’s papers at the University of Southampton and University of Tulsa will form an essential resource for any student of Bell’s work. Cataloguing is currently underway, and the archive will shortly be available for research.