Thursday 11, 2010
By DAN CARRIER
SPREADING ideas through the arts was a cornerstone of John Rety’s philosophy. John, who passed away last week aged 79, ran the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town from 1982 along with his partner Susan Johns, lending his intellect and drive to progressive causes throughout his life.
The range of people who have appeared at the Meeting House is too vast to adequately catalogue. Stephen Spender vowed his appearance there a couple of years before he died would be his last ever public reading, while Dannie Abse, Adrian Mitchell and John Hegley have been regulars.
But more importantly it has provided a platform for hundreds of people to express themselves through writing and sharing thoughts with others. It has always been a democratic place and this mirrors John’s philosophy of every person having something to say.
He was born in Budapest in 1930, and his political views were shaped by his childhood experiences. His grandmother escaped a pogrom in Serbia by swimming across a river with her children strapped to her back, while following the outbreak of war, John’s family knew life as Jewish people was going to become extremely tough.
His father Istvan was interned on an island in the Danube – it held sporting events and John, aged 12, was able to get to the island on the pretext of watching a football match. Instead, he spoke to his father through camp fences, and pleaded with him to escape. Istvan did get out and he and his wife Ilona spent the war in hiding.
John’s grandmother had been responsible for his care but she was imprisoned. Tragedy struck on the day the war ended. She approached a guard and said he could now put down his rifle and take off the fascist armband he was wearing. He murdered her. It was a devastating tragedy that convinced John his future was away from Hungary.
Aged 16, he wrote a play about war and how adults had a lot to answer for – a theme John spoke about last year in a radio interview, saying: “War is devastating, first and foremost, for children. They do not understand why their parents have gone berserk.”
The play was performed on the steps of the Budapest parliament – a dangerous thing to do. He arrived in London in 1946 as an apprentice for a publishing house. He published a novel aged 21 called Super Sozzled Nights and hung out with Soho bohemians. It led him into the magazine trade, and he edited literary tomes The Cheshire Cat, The Intimate Review and Fortnightly. John would hawk them on weekend evenings to cinema queues.
John met his partner Susan Johns in 1958. They moved into Robert Street, Regent’s Park and scraped a living by putting on a jazz night at a Soho basement bar, and then ran a second-hand furniture store in Camden High Street.
John was a member of the radical anti-nuclear group the Committee of 100, and his politics were anarchist – although he said it was his own form of anarchism, as he found tracts on anarchist theory so badly written he could not make head nor tail of what they were going on about.
In the Sixties, he took on the editorship of anarchist magazine Freedom, and also became involved with the Chalk Farm squatters’ movement. At the end of the 1970s, John worked for the Student Community Housing (SCH) as a roofer. This was cut short when he fell and fractured his arm. But the accident prompted him to enrol in a City and Guilds art course.
When Camden Council offered a semi-derelict building in Torriano Avenue to the SCH, the keys were handed over to the place that so many people associate with John. It was in too poor a state of repair for the SCH to take on, but John and Susan liked it and moved in. They were squatting as they had no contract. It is impossible to articulate the depth and range of events that have been held at the Meeting House, and the causes that have found a hospitable base there.
John’s legacy is also hard to encapsulate. He has touched the lives of so many people, given his time selflessly to so many causes, and provided inspiration to all those who met him.
The New Journal has been inundated with letters expressing shock at John’s sudden death last week. Here is a selection of those we have received – see our website for further tributes.
Poet Jehane Markham
“He ran the only truly democratic poetry reading venue, where anyone was allowed to get up and read one poem before a guest reader. It was a great place to learn the trade of speaking poetry and the atmosphere was unique. John was sometimes moody, he hated pretentiousness and petty mindedness but he had an ear for poetry and was always gallant.”
Poet John Gutkind
“For over 20 years he and Sue Johns ran the Torriano Meeting House with a generosity and openness seldom seen in the poetry world or anywhere else. His publishing house Hearing Eye Press gave a first foot-up into being published to many people who may not have found another outlet. Many people also relied on the place for good warm company, it was vital to many people’s lives, and it was John’s kooky, wise, tireless and benign spirit that made that so.”
Artist Linda Black
“I met John when I was running Apollo Etching Studio around the corner from Torriano. John being a believer in community and in artists supporting each other, offered us Torriano for a group exhibition. I will always be grateful to John for supporting and believing in me.”
“He was welcoming, enthusiastic, encouraging. He gave me confidence.”
Poet Alan Brownjohn
“So many people feel a deep gratitude towards John and how he got Torriano together.”
Poet Dinah Livingstone
“John’s energy also led to many poetry readings apart from Torriano. He would sally forth with a few other poets to read at all kinds of venues, such as the Land is Ours occupation of the Guinness site in Wandsworth, and the Camley Street Nature Reserve. He was active in all sorts of political campaigns, seen on countless marches. It was a tremendous shock to hear that John had died so suddenly. He was working hard to his very last day and, as quite a few people remarked, he seemed immortal, a part of the London landscape one couldn’t imagine it being without. It will be very hard indeed to get used to his absence.”
Poet John Horder
“John and Susan established the Torriano on Sunday evenings not for the literary equivalent of Knees Up Mother Brown but as a haven of eccentricity, and a kind of geriatric humanity.”