Bill Griffiths (1948-2007) was a Renaissance man. He would probably have identified himself chiefly as a poet, and certainly the production of poetry and writing was the result of almost everything he did and learnt. Nevertheless, he was also an academic, a small press publisher, a local historian, a linguist and a scholar of English dialect. Griffiths was moreover a voice for the outsider in society; self-exiled in the North, he became an advocate for prisoners, an organiser against council schemes and an unearther of things on the edges of mainstream culture. His archive, housed in the Special Collections of Brunel University Library, showcases this diversity, containing hundreds of examples of his work and correspondence, along with the sources, research notes and labour behind them.
Bill Griffiths appeared on the London poetry scene in the early 70’s. He became visible through his performance work with the sound poets Bob Cobbing and Paula Claire as part of the trio Koncrete Canticle and he began publishing his articles and verse in poetry magazines. Behind him was a degree in History from UCL, and medieval history and culture continued to fascinate him throughout his career. The earliest identified work in the archive is an adaption of the Icelandic saga Gisli’s Saga written in collaboration with John Porter and published in 1974 and the last a re-issue of his Beowulf translation in 2004.
It was also at this time he had a brief flirtation with the world of biking and Hells Angels, riding occasionally with the Harrow chapter. He seemed able to easily combine his diverse interests, and he wrote verse on his experiences with the Harrow bikers while also taking on a day job in the print room of the Poetry Society, producing poetry booklets with his tattooed hands.
The skills Griffiths learnt in the print room allowed him to set up his own small press, the Pirate Press, where he wrote and hand produced hundreds of poetry booklets and chapbooks as well as publishing other poets. As a small press publisher he was able to be part of every stage of the production process. The many examples of work in the collection display his experiments with layout and design.
Perhaps it was the rebel in him that wanted to have control of his own creations, but it is also probably a reflection on the nature of the poetry he produced. It is often highly visual and playful in construction, illustrated by hand or with images made specifically for him by friends, which reflect the contents of the text. There are several instances of this in the early folders of the archives, for example the Found Sea Texts contains lines lifted from Jane Austen’s Persuasion and planted in deliberate juxtapositions on the page.
The Pirate Press was regenerated as Amra Imprint in the 80’s. While Griffiths’s production became more sophisticated in later years, and he found other publishers to work with, he never gave up on the poetry pamphlet as a quick and direct way of disseminating his work.
While some of the work produced for and by Griffiths was simple in design, maybe only a few sheets of text stapled together, many of his books have a high degree of craftsmanship and beauty, particularly his work with collaborators Tern Press and Woodcraft Press. The editions produced by these publishers are often hand bound and highly illustrated.
Griffiths often worked in close collaboration with other friends, writing introductions to their works, using their illustrations or co-writing. His many letters show a man always curious; consulting on ideas, questing for opinions, part of a community of interested minds. He was in communication with a number of other poets, academics, publishers and friends who all relied upon each other for support and recommendations for work. Within the collection are works published or given to Bill by Clive Fencott, Geraldine Monk, Eric Mottram, Jeff Nuttall, Iain Sinclair, M J Weller, Bob Clark, Barry MacSweeney, Bob Cobbing and others.
One thing indicated by the archive is a fascination with language, principally Old English, but also with Latin, Old Norse, and Welsh. Griffiths went on in the late eighties to complete a PhD in Old English at Kings College, London. Much of the source material in the collection relates to the painstaking dissection of Old English, its syntax, vocabulary, grammar in order to fully understand the several texts he translated. The poet within also inspired him to go beyond direct translations, often to offer new versions or mediate the text through glossaries, introductions and notes.
This fascination was not just with old languages, it also extended to Northern dialect. Griffiths was the author of several dictionaries and vocabulary lists for North East England vernacular. Dialect found its way into his poetry and prose too, a number of the pamphlets and verses are written in Northern patois.
One of the key relationships in Bill Griffiths’s life was with the several prisoners he wrote to. He began communicating with a number of prisoners after encountering a stall with prison literature which motivated him to write and support them. Chief amongst them was the prisoner Ray Gilbert, who served time in a series of English prisons from the sixties, while protesting his innocence for a murder sentence. There are hundreds of letters in the collection that document these exchanges, focusing on the period 1996-2004, which reveal many of the daily details of prison life. Bill Griffiths additionally campaigned to improve conditions in prisons and the appeals process. Various folders in the archive contain letters that deal with his attempts to address Gilbert’s and others situation, as well as the short tracts and essays he published on the subject.
He took this campaigning energy in other directions too. Griffiths moved up to Seaham in Durham in the late eighties and seemed to be stimulated by the local landscape and culture. Many of the items in the collection are investigations into the local history, geology and folklore of the area. He also became active in groups who were protesting against proposed council changes to the Seaham harbour area, for which he wrote several letter campaigns and published essays that can be found in the collection.
The extensive Bill Griffiths Archive covers the period 1972 – 2004 and includes hundreds of original pamphlets and booklets as well as supplementary correspondence and research. To find out more about the collection and the man go to the Special Collections webpage for our opening hours and access requirements and visit Archives Hub for a full description of the archive.