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Thursday, 30 July 2015

MY FRIEND, MARTIN PENNY, RETIRES

Martin Penny was the first, and truest, friend, I made when I arrived in London, from Paris, in 2003. Ours was an unlikely and instantly achieved connection - he was the ironic, Atheist, very English, Chelsea-supporting Oxfam manager of wry wit, indifferent to poetry (but a keen reader and collector of prose) - and I, as you may know, was the Catholic-in-waiting sincere enthusiastic poet from Canada nursing bad injuries from a car accident  - but what we shared was a love of wordplay, conversation, pushing the boundaries of taste, and lunches over coffee at a local cafĂ© (where we have had a meal together at least once a week for over ten years).

TODD SWIFT AND MARTIN PENNY AT THE POETRY LIBRARY
Martin is retiring, at the age 55, tomorrow, from being manager of the best bookshop in the Oxfam chain - at least for awhile - the Marylebone branch, recently poignantly downgraded to a clothing shop with some books in the back.  In its heyday, when I joined as poet-in-residence in 2004, the shop was making over a million pounds a year in sales, and was one of the top three in the UK - the steady decline in book sales started with the crash of 2008, and the rise of the e-reader and e-book.

Some of you may have been to the one of 60 or so readings held over the years of the Oxfam series there - crowded, long events in the cheese-scented shop with the battered floors and skylight - legendary events where many of the greatest poets of the age read for free. Martin gave me free reign to hold the events there and politely listened to all the poetry - some of it which he actually enjoyed.  He might have preferred if I had brought in comedians, but it was poets I brought in, and we raised over £20 k in the process.

Anyway, Martin was a superb manager of the shop - because like Rick in Casablanca he was a jaded, enigmatic loner, with a sharp sense of fair play and a total lack of interest in cant, with a fascinating backstory - a private man, he quit working in accounting when young to live in Malta on his own for 5 years to write; he had an interesting background - his father had worked in broadcasting, with, among others, The Goons, and he himself was a big fan of The Buzzcocks.

Oxfam shops rely on hundreds of eccentric, often damaged or unemployable volunteers coming in to work shifts, from schoolgirls to 90-year-old widowers - many love books, or helping, but some are only lonely, or half-mad - and Martin treated each of them as equals, with great respect.  Those who know me know I am prone to controversy and debate - but in the over ten years I worked there, there were only one or two occasions when I ever witnessed any conflict in the shop.  Martin had an unassailable integrity and commanded near-total respect, so no one ever stepped too far out of line. Only one insane volunteer would come in once a week, muttering to me, Oh Mr Penny, he is a bad man! (because the toilets were never very clean).

Martin was, however, truly a great Oxfam shop manager because of this curious twist - he never really held the ideals of Oxfam in overly high regard. Though he always dutifully and properly obeyed its rules and regulations, he had not "drank the cool-aid" - he saw his job as raising as much money for the charity as possible, by simply selling books and DVDs and CDs and Vinyl and posters and postcards as best he could.  His truest loyalty was to the goal, not the ideologies. At least I suspect as much.

Volunteering at the shop for 11 years has changed my life - it gave me a home in London (when I missed my family and friends back in Canada), and eventually it gave me a national identity as a poetry organiser and fund-raiser.  It gave me a solid weekly purpose, a place to be - to discover new books, old books, and mainly read and talk about and price books.  But it mostly, above all, gave me my best and truest friend over this past decade or so - a decade that nearly killed me several times, as I suffered multiple deaths in my family, other physical traumas and sorrows, failures in career, and business - in short, however bad things got (including my father dying of brain cancer), Martin was there to tease me over a coffee in Patisserie Valerie. His cruelty was superb. I have been asked almost weekly for ten years how my poetry books are selling.

Martin is a very clever man. He is also a father, and his wife (who he met at the shop) is British-Turkish, and so, he, his sons, and his wife have moved to Turkey. On Monday he will be as far away as my family in Canada. I doubt I will see him again, more than once a year, if that, from now on. I am about to turn 50, and find myself missing my key friends, my brother Jordan, Thor (my oldest friend from Montreal), and now Martin. I am not sure how to bear this absence, how to think of it.  Our effortless, utterly natural flow was never spoken of - and not it is cut short, or rather, thrown far and placed very differently.

I know our friendship will move to a different sort of place, of Skype and rare meetings. But an era has ended for me - and also, for Martin, and his shop, and the tens of thousands of customers who have grown fond of his stoical, seemingly indifferent manner. But he has a softer, kinder side, and we knew it was always there when needed. Many poets who enjoyed these many events and CDs and DVD and anthology and national competition we ran, and worked on together, from 2004-2012, should also be appreciative of an unsung poetry hero - a man who never really loved poets or poems all that much but ended up creating one of the best homes in the UK for poetry this century(and always gave me more shelf space than poetry probably warranted, given its space to sales ratio).

I am happy for him - he has got out of the London rat race, and retires young enough to enjoy the sun, the kids, his lovely wife, a new landscape, and his writing and books. But I remain, nonetheless, astonished at what a chance meeting in 2003 allowed me to enjoy for so long - one of the great friendships of my life; and I will miss him terribly.

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