Some lesser known contemporary British poets Number one: Paul Lester, ‘the bar-room bum from Brum ‘


Screen Shot 2021-05-11 at 8.53.23 AMIf you search for ‘Paul Lester’ online most the results will concern Paul Lester, the prolific rock critic and biographer; but anyone interested in performance poetry over the past 45 years will hopefully ignore these references and refine their search by adding ‘ poet ‘ or ‘Birmingham’ to ‘ Paul Lester’. They could also add ‘Protean ‘. For ever since Lester published his first poetry pamphlet in 1975 he has been regularly issuing slim volumes ( some very slim) , usually under his own imprint, Protean Publications, from an address in Knowle, near Solihull, although he actually lives in Rubery, in the far south-west edge of Birmingham.


Lester was born and bred in Brum, but unlike that professional Brummie, Carl Chinn, the social historian, does not make a fetish of his origins. However, it cannot be denied that most of his poetry is about himself as a Brummie and his encounters with other Brummies, and even his most well known poem,‘ The Bar-room Bum from Brum ‘ is a thinly disguised portrait of himself as an unashamed native and celebrator of England’s second city. Having said that, his literary interests extend well beyond his home town—to Loch Ness and the cult of its monster on which he did his Ph D in the notorious Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University—to working class fiction, to the London of Sherlock Holmes — and further away still to the mythical land of Redonda, the imaginary world of the bohemian poet John Gawsworth, which has attracted so many like-minded fans of Soho and Fitzrovia.


I first met Lester in around 1989, when I attended a talk given by him in Birmingham to publicise his forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and the Midlands. I knew nothing of him and his poetry at this time, but was impressed by his appearance in a tweed coat and deerstalker. Thereafter I kept an eye out for his poetry collections as they appeared in various small bookshops and cultural venues around the city. This was the period in which’ little magazines ‘were still flourishing and when poets like Lester were managing to produce pamphlets cheaply using local printers. Titles like Down at the Greasy Spoon Caféand Pass the Sickbag Alice,were obviously designed to attract attention.

The poems themselves reflected Lester’s rather leftish libertarian persona and his disinclination to accept many of the innovations, such as computers, that were supposed to make life simpler, but produced more problems. For time he didn’t own a TV set and when he eventually got one he referred to it in facetious terms as a ‘televisual display unit’. There were also assaults on big business, petty regulations, animal cruelty and contemporary fads and celebrations of working-class culture. In such a poem as ‘Down at the Greasy-spoon Café’ two of his favourite themes feature prominently.


‘…So what if the cutlery here is less than clean ?

At least the servings are never mean

Health fiends might say it’s much like hell

But the Greasy Spoon Café suits me well


I love that tolerated tramp who sits all day

With a mug of tea for which he’ll never pay

And the bag lady whose past is all her wealth

Who spends all night here talking to herself. ‘


What made these poems different to those of most of his contemporaries was their unashamed use of rhyme or near-rhyme and an immediately accessible diction, which has facets in common with song lyrics. As essentially a narrator, Lester also found that the simple language of the ballad, as in ‘The Bar-room Bum from Brum’, best suited his purpose.


Having moved from Birmingham to Hertfordshire late in 1978, my opportunities to meet Lester on a more social level were limited to occasional visits to city favoured centre pubs, where he would hold court with his long suffering partner Hilary. These were infrequent, as Lester needed an audience of like-minded bohemians, such as John Hannon and Charlie Mitton, who later found dubious celebrity as the ‘ Ketamine Kreeps ‘in Iain’s Sinclair’s  Landor’s Tower, and such enthusiasts were not always to be found. If sufficient alcohol had been imbibed there would be a heated discussion on the merits of certain twentieth century poets, or more specifically the literary denizens of Soho and Fitzrovia. Sometimes there would be a rendition of ‘The Bar-room Bum from Brum ‘ or perhaps another of his more familiar poems. When in London Lester would always make a bee-line for The French House in the hope of spying Jeffrey Bernard and other bohemians of an earlier generation. I was with him when, while supping our French cider outside the pub the somewhat tired and emotional figure of Daniel Farson  staggered out. Pub meetings were also good opportunities to advertise our own latest books or articles. At this time I was the chief interviewer for Book and Magazine Collectorand recall in 1999 bringing Lester to my interview with Iain Sinclair at his home in Hackney.


We fell out over this interview and did not see one another for a few years. The next time I saw him was in a pub in central Birmingham where he and John Hannon succeeded in getting me drunk. I saw both he and Hilary one or two times after that, but both seemed to be less inclined to leave their home in Rubery. In recent years the poetry pamphlets appeared less frequently. However, what made up for this was the appearance of ‘ The Legend of Lester ‘, a CD of various recordings over the years featuring Lester and his band, Lester and the Festers ‘ and Lester and the Brew ‘, two reggae-inspired  and improvised jazz outfits of the late seventies and early eighties. Lester is not a singer, so the tracks essentially feature him performing a selection of his poems to music,  just as Betjeman did to the music of Jim Parker  in such albums as Betjeman’s Banana Blush. The success of the album was partly due to the influence of the legendary sound engineer, Emil Millers, who sadly died last January.


The death of Lester’s long-term partner Hilary over a year ago was a terrible blow and lately the flow of poetry pamphlets seems to have dried up. However, perhaps due to Lester’s unique persona and literary style, as well as their small editions, these thirty or more publications  continue to sell well when they appear in dealers’ catalogues.


One thought on “Some lesser known contemporary British poets Number one: Paul Lester, ‘the bar-room bum from Brum ‘

  1. Trevor Bailey

    I spent many hours with Paul prior to the Lester and the Festers.
    I was actually one of the Festers.
    I don’t know if Paul is still alive, but I know that I am.

    I would love to contact if possible.


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