By ANTHONY RUDOLF.
THE POET, TRANSLATOR, broadcaster and musician Keith Bosley has died at the age of 80. He was the organist in his local church, St Laurence’s, Upton-cum-Chalvey, one of the Chilton Hundreds, the title of his fourth book. He published a pamphlet with his plausible theory about a masterpiece of English poetry, Gray’s Elegy — namely that the churchyard was at St Laurence’s and not at Stoke Poges, a few miles away. To be the organist in what can still be called a country church is to be native to the Church of England, to be at home in its traditions and moods. The Church of England is the embodiment of religion for its professing members, but to other citizens, whether non-Christian or even differently Christian, the C of E is a cultural phenomenon up there with the BBC and the NHS, and that is a compliment to all three.
Before dinner at his house with Keith and family, some visitors would be invited to St Laurence’s next door, to listen to him practising the organ for Sunday: a kind of aperitif. Bosley was not a professional musician in terms of earning a living, but he was a real one, good enough not only to play the organ in public from the age of sixteen but also to accompany on the piano his first wife Helen Sava and his second wife Satu Salo, professional singer and harpist respectively. He arranged music for Satu and Helen, he educated amateur friends in the ways of music, and he was a fine poet and poetry translator, not least because of the importance he attached to the ear. He also composed music, some of which Satu performed. Like all of us he had two ears, but unlike most of us they were fabulously attuned to the world, as he heard it, and indeed as the world heard him.
Yes, he was attuned to the world, inner and outer. The world of this gifted man had three major dimensions : music, poetry and broadcasting. The common element to these three dimensions is the aforementioned ear, the key organ you might say. For more than thirty years, from 1961, working the shift system, Bosley had a responsible and congenial day (and night) job: reading the news on the BBC World Service at Bush House and making announcements at the beginning and end of popular programmes such as “From Our Own Correspondent”. He also wrote hundreds of scripts including several series of programmes on poetry and literature, and read them himself at the microphone. One wonders how many of these have survived on tape. “He had the knack of telling the news not reading it”, said one colleague.
Princess Margaret visited his studio on one occasion and he told her that in a few seconds’ time he would have to “speak to the world”. The poet musician had a distinctive, resonant and musical voice, much admired by his devoted followers all over the world, thanks to short-wave broadcasting. Like other announcers and presenters, he had a fan club, although for obvious reasons they have always remained unknown celebrities in their homeland.
He would ride his bicycle to Slough Station before taking the train to Waterloo or Paddington for his day or night shift at Bush House. In his heyday, he cut an imposing figure, with his bow tie and beard and eternal Kalevala-associated medallion on his chest, appearing cheerful even when he wasn’t, always on the lookout in Bush House for someone to educate about poetry or Finland. He was one of the classic Bush House “double lifers” (made possible in some cases by the shift system), including the boss himself, John Tusa, who admired Keith.
One colleague, Alex Kirby, wrote: “My abiding memory of him is his insouciant way of wandering into the newsroom a couple of minutes before the hour, giving the bulletin a cursory glance and then drifting into the studio, where he’d deliver it impeccably (unlike one or two far more assiduous colleagues). I wonder what he made of today’s gabblers, gibberers and inveterate manglers of sense?” Emily Buchanan, who knew him in her early days at the BBC, has spoken of his “panache” and that, together with “insouciance”, conveys something of the man.
Bosley used to say that poetry (including poetry translation) was his wife and music his mistress. He was rightly famous as a poetry translator, especially from the Finnish. And he is not the only poet whose translations have tended to eclipse his own poetry: other victims, if that is the right word, include his friend the late Daniel Weissbort who published him in Modern Poetry in Translation and his former teacher at Reading University, the late Michael Hamburger. Keith took on major works, including the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala and the complete poems of Mallarmé, widely regarded as the most difficult of the great French poets. Many later volumes of his poems did not find, and eventually did not seek, publishers, and consequently only about half the contents of his selected poems The Wedding-Guest, published shortly before he died by his Reading University contemporary John Lucas at Shoestring Press, were previously published in book form or at all.
Keith would be the first to agree that it is helpful to be married to a dictionary, the other wife, and one with an ear to rival his own, as we know from Satu’s concerts. He survived a sad and lonely phase between the end of his first marriage and meeting Satu. Rarely did a person use unwanted free time to better advantage, as he “ploughed on” with the voluntary labour of poetry and poetry translation. The couple first met in Maastricht when she was principal harpist of the Limburg Symphony Orchestra. They also gave poetry and music recitals together. He used quiet moments on the night shift at Bush House to work on the Mallarmé translations.
Keith Bosley was a prolific poet and as with all prolific poets the work is uneven. The Wedding Guest came out in time for him to see it, and it appeared to guests at the small party in his care home that his troubled mind got the message: his own work was valued and would survive. The best poem is the magnificent eponymous ‘Wedding Guest’: a lyrical narrative of the kind Bosley favoured, it is an account, with echoes of the Ancient Mariner, of an episode from World War II Two told to him by someone he knew. There are other beautiful and strong poems, most easily accessed from his selected poems. “Wedding Guest” itself should be included in an appropriate anthology, the surest way to ensure poetic longevity.
“Keith Bosley”, wrote his editor Owen Lowery, “is a traditionally skilled, prolific, passionate and compulsive poet, as well as being a highly adept and brilliant translator”. His work reveals “an attachment to people and places, history, Christian faith, music, art, literature (including English, French and Finnish), storytelling, railways and technology.”
Keith was a busy man, even a possessed man. He was a big kind gregarious person, erudite and teacherly in the best sense, never dogmatic. He was unmetropolitan, proudly provincial in the best way, never parochial. Everyone responded to his old-world charm and thoughtfulness. He loved to cook vast curries in an industrial cauldron and he enjoyed a glass or two. Later on he was tired as an older father on night shifts with a young family and it sometimes showed. But home life was central to his world, the fourth dimension of that world, and as important as the three already described. He loved and was loved by many.
When his children were young, Keith made an annual picnic trip with a friend and family to places of interest to grownups and children: on one occasion they visited Hell Fire Caves in West Wycombe, where he found the initials he had carved into a wall when he was a boy, half a century earlier. On another occasion they went to Adelstrop in search of the railway platform immortalized by Edward Thomas in his most famous poem, necessitating a mild trespass on a private garden.
He was a neighbourhood poet in the best and broadest sense of the word. The Chilterns, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire feature prominently in his writing. He was born in Bourne End, where his father worked as a signalman on the local railway and his mother encouraged the musical gift throughout his childhood. His poems, writes Owen Lowery, “are imbued with a sense of attachment and there is sometimes regret at the processes of modernisation and urbanisation. Bosley’s poetry frequently expresses further regret at missed opportunities, especially with regard to relationships and the complications of social class and family”.
Bosley was educated at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School (Marlow), and at the Universities of Paris, Caen, and Reading, where he majored in French. In 1978, he was awarded the Finnish State Prize for Translators and was made a Knight, First Class, of the Order of the White Rose of Finland in 1991. He also won UK translation prizes from the Goethe Society and the British Comparative Literature Association. His Finnish Folk Poetry (1977), The Kalevala (1989), The Kanteletar (1992), and Skating on the Sea 1997), remain among the most important interpretations of Finnish poetry, and continue to provide an insight into the ‘peasant wisdom’ and the magical and mythical themes that are so evident in these texts.
Keith Bosley also published individual volumes of translations from the German, French, Russian, Portuguese and Polish. His travels are reflected in his original poetry: many of his poems establish connections with France, Vietnam, Finland, Russia and so on, along with aspects of local history, culture, and tradition. “These poems”, writes Lowery, “form an interesting contrast in relation to the more domestic poems, but retain a fascination with detail and individual lives. Whether Bosley is writing about Joseph Haydn, the composer William Baines, Stanley Spencer or a member of his family, they emerge as living beings, each of whom is as distinct as the places that Bosley has visited, and that provide the inspiration for his travel poems. To concentrate on the details of individual stories and lives is indicative of his intellectual and compassionate curiosity. It is the human connection to the places about which Bosley writes that brings these locations to life, particularly given Bosley’s characteristic wit, warmth, and affection”.
Born September 16 1937, died June 24, 2018
Survived by his second wife, his three sons and his sister