Born in Napier, New Zealand sometime in the forties, Jocelyn Albert Bitumen and his parents moved to England while he was still wordless.
His parents had been farmers but found they had to emigrate when they lost all their sheep. Lost as in misplaced, couldn’t find them.
His mother was traumatised and gave up knitting. His father became a shaker and mover in The City and knit money for Jos’s education.
Jos was placed in a boarding school early on where he learned tantrums and sulking but very little else.
He quickly developed as one prone to ‘lurch between tearaway and recluse’. Moods almost in synchronisation with the seasons. In summer Jos would rip up the place like a tornado, yet in autumn and winter no-one would see hide nor hair of him. Even in lectures he’d sit in any shade available and don dark glasses and a silk muffler.
His first form master remembers Jos as a puzzle: “Summer, spring months Jos was a handful; literally climbing the walls. He once returned a copy of Catullus’s poetry by scaling the library wall and nipping in through the main study window, getting the book to the desk with only seconds to spare before it was overdue.”
Jos’s fair weather buddy of the time recalls the autumn and winter months: “JAB became a shadow, a phantom, drifting around noiselessly, often scaring the faint-hearted with his stealth.”
It was during these duller months that his poetic bent emerged, and it may explain the darkness in Jos’s verse. His light, summery stuff was frivolous as in his collection Gym Shorts:
Not too keen on a gymnasia slip
Grammar exercise being my fillip
No frolicking rugby, when sweat would ooze
But a leafy shade, mind on a river and a good snooze
So what, if you’ve got good gut and thighs
If, when fully dressed, one can’t philosophise.
So, the enigma of Jos Bitumen formed, rejecting, eschewing formalised physical advancement Jos went his own way, becoming an aesthetic athlete, his strength being in the service of academic maturation. He coined one of his best known axioms during one of his library periods: ‘You can timetable a student to a pommel horse, but you cannot compel him to jump’.
Jos once carried the volumes A to F of The Encyclopaedia Britannica five
miles to the library after the horse pulling his carriage had dropped down dead.
It was during his early university days that Jos formed an obsession with dominoes. He used to equate the dots to stars or a code through which aliens communicated with us. He attributed his bleak poem Another Dot to an occasion when he saw a haunting look of horror on a participant’s face at having to lay the blank/one domino, most likely before he’d wanted to. The last lines of this poem are particularly poignant:
Although her lips made my heart dart
Our goodbyes were much the best part
When we’d just almost shared six
Dorothy, when she spoke, was merely a five.
Some of his schoolmates gave him the nickname of Earnest, Jos being honest about his limitations but oh so sensitive to criticism. He would often disappear into a darkened room and lay down in a black mood for hours on end. Though Jos did pour all his energies into his poetry. He first emerged from one of these moods with one of his classics, Solar Complexus:
First time I went out
There was this solar eclipse
That seemed destined to last
For the rest of my life
This penchant for pessimism developed into a deeper psychosis when he fell in love, and he wrote Raven Mad:
I didn’t know
When my knees first trembled
That your hair matched your heart –
Even a raven looks blue beside you.
However, with the help of friends and medication, Jos wrote a poem that defines his successful passage to qualified happiness when in 1963 he penned Coal Mine At Night:
You were anybody’s at night
And not all mine in the day
I hacked away at your seams
But you never gave way
At least Jos was beginning to recognise the separation between emotional blackness and natural light of day.
However, Jos’s poems became lighter and lighter until, in his fifties, they were no longer visible on the page and so he faded from memory, until now.