Jasper Brandisi: the poet they tried to erase

Jasper Brandisi Blazing Fruit

Chances are, you will never have heard of the poet, Jasper Brandisi (July 17th, 1929-July 16th, 1988). That’s because his name has all but been erased from history. If I hadn’t met Jasper by chance, back in 1976, maybe I wouldn’t have heard of him either.

Let me go back to the beginning. In the pre-Internet age, Jasper Brandisi was still allowed to exist. A couple of his poetry books were available in Foyles. I know because I bought one: Blazing Fruit, published by Penguin. He was also a guest lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I know because I snuck into his lectures. His analysis of the psychedelic undertones in ‘Canterbury Tales’ skewed my view of Chaucer forever. And, as for his ideas about Milton, let’s just say “radical” doesn’t quite cover it.

I met Jasper by chance in a pub in Soho, one sweltering evening in the long, sticky summer of 1976. I was working in a solicitors’ office in Holborn at the time. Occasionally I would trawl London’s seedier pubs after work in search of excitement. When I first saw him, Jasper was enthroned in the Coach & Horses in Greek Street, lecturing the journalist and satirist Richard Ingrams about a burning issue of the day. Ingrams was well-known as a TV pundit and the editor of Private Eye magazine. I recognised him immediately.

Jasper Brindisi and Jane Asher, Carnaby Street, London, 1966
A rare shot of Jasper Brindisi captured in Carnaby Street in June 1966. The girl with him is unknown but is possibly Jane Asher (in a blonde wig), who he was reputedly seeing at the time, much to Paul McCartney’s displeasure.

Jasper Brandisi: Poet and Heavy Drinker

You might find this hard to believe but back then I was full of myself. I forced my way into the conversation and spewed forth the kind of wisdom you’d expect from a drunk 22-year old. I seem to remember that Ingrams was quite scathing: his razor-wit filleted me. But Jasper was kinder. He asked me to explain. That was obviously a mistake and I’m sure I spent too long trying to justify myself. But that embarrassing encounter kickstarted a friendship that lasted, on and off, for over a decade.

Remember, this was an age before mobile phones, Facebook and voicemail. Meetings with Jasper were infrequent and usually by chance. Invariably we’d both be four or five sheets to the wind and that made them even more interesting. At least for me. The highlight of our friendship was when Jasper took me to meet Allen Ginsberg at a mutual friend’s gothic mansion in Crouch End. I’m a bit hazy about dates, but it must have been sometime in the early 1980s.

The two poets met each other as old friends. They joked about the “even worse old days”. I felt privileged to be in the same room as these two literary giants. Munching cauliflower curry and brown rice, drinking rough French absinthe (which I recall was banned), the time passed too quickly. All too soon, we were back on the 14A bus, heading into central London.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate the risk Ginsberg was taking. Even being in the same room as Jasper Brandisi was dangerous. You see, my friend had fallen foul of powerful people. People whose influence was in the ascendency and who would soon seize the opportunity to erase Jasper Brandisi’s name from history. Anyone seen supporting him was taking a huge gamble with their career.

Why Jasper Brandisi was cast out into the Wilderness

Bob Dylan , 1969. Photo by Elliot Landy.
Bob Dylan, 1969. Photograph by Elliot Landy.

Jasper was very reticent about talking about his “blacklisting”. And there’s nothing about it online. But I have managed to piece together some of what happened back in the dim and distant 1960s.

Jasper wrote many poems during his lifetime. Indirectly, this is what led to his downfall. Snippets from some of these poems can be seen here. In the early 1960s, folk singers congregated in small clubs in London. Venues like the Troubadour, Les Cousins and Bunjies. Prominent British Folk artists of the time included Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, Al Stewart, Roy Harper, and Davey Graham. Visiting American musicians came to check out the competition and find inspiration.

Some of them went a little further. For example, Martin Carthy said he was “thunderstruck” when he heard his word-for-word, note-for-note arrangement of the traditional song ‘Scarborough Fair’ turned into a worldwide hit single by Simon & Garfunkel. The credits read, “words and music by Paul Simon”.

Who really did go to Scarborough Fair?

Bob Dylan was also busy appropriating what he’d picked up in London. He used Carthy’s version of the traditional ‘Lord Franklin’ for Bob Dylan’s Dream. And ‘Scarborough Fair’ became ‘Girl From the North Country’, as noted (and acknowledged) in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan liner notes. Martin Carthy eventually received royalties as well as kudos for this blatant “borrowing”. Jasper wasn’t so lucky.

In 1957, Jasper wrote a poem called ‘Hazy See’ which appeared in Granta in August of that year. It contains the lines:

“You can’t bank people’s promises,
said the joker to his brief…”

All Along the Watchtower‘, composed by Bob Dylan, appeared on the 1967 album, John Wesley Harding, and begins:

“‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief”

According to Jasper, he was flattered and naively hoped Dylan was making reference to ‘Hazy See’ in his song. After all, hadn’t Dylan been present when Jasper had read several of his poems aloud at an event at Bunjies, sometime in late 1962? They’d spoken briefly afterwards, and apparently, Dylan had told Jasper he was going to buy his debut volume of poetry, due to be published in March 1963, containing ‘Hazy See’ in its entirety.

Bob Dylan ate his hamster

That wasn’t all. Jasper’s poem, ‘Dreams of Cake & Claret’ first appeared in 1958 in Encounter. It contains the lines:

“I dreamt I saw Marie Antoinette,
alive with flaming breath
and I dreamt she lusted after me
and had me put to death.”

Also included on Dylan’s 1967 John Wesley Harding album is a song called ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’, which contains the lines:

“I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive with fiery breath
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death.”

You can decide if you think there’s any similarity.

Jasper certainly thought there was a connection between his poetry from the 1950s and some of Dylan’s songs written almost a decade later. He said as much on the Eamonn Andrews Show on national ITV on November 1968. This didn’t go down well with Dylan’s people, who started sending legal letters, asking him to “cease and desist his libels”.

One thing led to another and, according to what he told me, Jasper started a campaign to get official recognition for his work. What had begun as a light-hearted crack on a late-night chat show, ended up as a bitter David vs Goliath Battle to the Death. Unfortunately, David was to die, all-but erased from history. I’ll go into more detail in another post: I’m still researching what really happened.

Heard the one about the Sicilian shepherd and the Mafia don?

Jasper Trapani Brandisi was born on July 17th 1929 in Palermo, Sicily. His father was a land-owning shepherd. His mother, Livia, the youngest offspring of the Duke of Belgravia, who had moved to Italy in search of the ‘good life.’ This followed a disappointing romance with a World War I war hero. It seems Major Callaghan had returned from the Front minus his genitalia. I suppose to her, the thought of marrying a Sicilian shepherd was making a bold statement, especially in the post-WWI Roaring Twenties.

After Guiseppe Brindisi (did she deliberately misspell his name for her son’s documentation or was it a simple error?) tried to lease his exotic English bride to the head of the local Mafia, Livia decided to return home. (Details are hazy: we only have her disjointed diaries to go on). However, life in London wasn’t as comfortable as the 33-year old had hoped for, or expected.

Guiseppe Brandisi 1927
Guiseppe Brindisi (sic) [on the right] in 1927

Disowned by her family and virtually penniless, Livia and her young infant only survived after a friend of her brother’s gave her work at his literary magazine. But the Honourable David Rossetti had plans and pretty soon Livia had become his second wife and Jasper his adopted stepson. By all accounts, their marriage was bigamous, as Livia’s nuptials with Guiseppe were ignored.

Eton Riffles

Jasper schooled at Eton, followed by Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied on a scholarship, graduating with a B.A. in Mathematics in 1951. During his time in Cambridge, he edited and wrote for Granta, an influential student magazine.

Jasper’s work came to the attention of the leading British humour magazine Punch, where he was to become a contributor and later assistant editor. Considered a talented cricketer, he played for two amateur teams that were largely composed of British writers: the New Allahakbarries and the Authors XI. In 1954, he returned to Cambridge and completed a degree in English literature.

During this period Jasper published seven plays and a novel, the murder mystery The Blue House Mystery (1952). Jasper was an enthusiastic screenwriter for the nascent British film industry, writing four stories filmed between 1949 and 1956 for the company Minerva Films. These were The Rump, starring Leslie Howard; Twice Nine, featuring Gracie Fields; Ten Pound Reward starring Will Hay; and Bookworms, the final film appearance by George Formby. The first and third of these films survive in the archives of the British Film Institute. Jasper had met Formby when the performer starred in Jasper’s play, Travelling Down from Rochdale.

Which just about brings us up to date. More about Jasper Brandisi in future posts.