He was a Tamil from Colombo in what was then called Ceylon when, in 1938, he left it to live in London at the age of 22. Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu came from a family of aristocratic scholars based in the town of Atchuveli in the Northern Province of what has since become Sri Lanka. Raised as a Roman Catholic and educated at the selective-entry St Joseph’s College Roman Catholic school followed by university, he had already self-published three volumes of his own poetry before moving to the UK capital and making a distinctive mark both on its literary scene and its geographical nomenclature.
Tambi, as he was known to his friends, is written into London’s cultural history as a man of influence, glamour, incorrigibility, astute artistic judgment and extreme financial fecklessness. Ensconced in the neighbourhood nestling just south of Euston Road and west of Tottenham Court Road round where the Post Office Tower – now the BT Tower – would later sprout, he launched a magazine, Poetry London, the year following that of his arrival – also the year of Blitz. This “bi-monthly of modern verse and criticism” would in its time attract contributions by Dylan Thomas, Kathleen Raine, Stephen Spender, Jack Kerouac, WH Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Durrell and more.
In his riveting countercultural history London Calling, Barry Miles describes Tambi as “an attractive, romantic figure with long silky black hair that required constant jerks of his head to keep it from his eyes” and “a literary hustler of exceptional ability” who “encouraged a rumour to develop that he never actually read the manuscripts he was sent, relying instead on instinct and the feel and quality of the paper”. Miles describes Tambi entering a bookshop he ran and, after gossiping about mutual friends, offering to publish Miles’s poems. This took Miles by surprise: he’d never met Tambi before and he didn’t write poems.
Such eccentricities aside, Tambi was regarded as a very fine editor. He was also, in Miles’s words, “untrustworthy and dishonest, he borrowed money constantly and did not repay it, he was sloppy and disorganised and lost manuscripts entrusted to his care”. He also, it seems, used a chamber pot as a filing cabinet: Miles records that the sole copy of a new work by Thomas was once discovered in it. He was also a pub-crawler who never changed his clothes until the staff of Poetry London complained that they could stand the smell no more.
Tambi lived at 45 Howland Street, 2 Fitzroy Street and 114 Whitfield Street. But was it he who coined the name of that neighbourhood? Miles unambiguously attributes the coinage of “Fitzrovia” to him, but the Fitzrovia Wikipedia entry says it was “coined in the late 1930s by Tom Driberg“, then the man behind the Daily Express “William Hickey” column and later a Labour MP and suspected Soviet spy. However, Wikipedia also records that Julian MacLaren-Ross, another London bohemian of the period, would say in his memoirs that Tambi had claimed to have come up with the name.
We shall never know. What we do know is that all the houses Tambi lived in have been knocked down and that the man himself edited Poetry London until 1951, set up the book publishing house Editions Poetry London, returned to Ceylon in 1949 and worked in New York from 1952 until 1968, when he came back to London and founded the Lyrebird Press. He died here too, in 1983. However, “his spirit lives,” writes Miles and quotes a Tambi line: “It was only an attitude of mind that comes to each generation in every country, and in different ways, but for me it happened in lovely Fitzrovia.”
One of the larger collections of Tambimuttu’s correspondence and papers can be found at the British Library. There is a photo of him from around 1970 at the National Portrait Gallery, taken by Edward Lucie-Smith. Follow John Vane on Twitter.
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