John Horder: A Sense Of Being

I discovered a gem of a short poetry book while roaming through Syracuse University’s Bird Library in search of a Nick Hornby novel (which I was unable to find).

The book, A Sense of Being by John Horder, was published in 1968 as part of the Phoenix Living Poet Series. The book runs 40 pages and I was able to read the entire work during my lunch hour.

A Sense of Being by John Horder.

A Sense of Being by John Horder.

I couldn’t find any biographical information about Horder online, but I consider his spare, philosophical poems very moving. They made me stop and reflect on my own life and ponder the points Horder raised in his text. And that to me seems like the purpose of good poetry—to remind the reader that time is passing and our existence is fleeting.

Here are a few of my favorite selections from the book.

A Sense of Being

There is nothing in me to assure me of my being.
That is why I so often think
About my heart beating.
Nothing to do with the fear of it stopping.
It’s just it’s so hard to imagine it – beating –
Just as it’s so hard to imagine that I derive from something
That actually works. Something that lives and breathes.
Something that has a sense of its own being.
Oh, it’s so very hard to imagine these things,
And I’ve always been told I was imaginative by nature.

Imagine: a tree has roots: it knows where it springs from.
We have parents. But the orphan and the murderer have one
thing in common.
Something vital in each of them has been wiped out.
It’s hard to explain exactly what. It’s something
A word or a glance from a parent may have set in motion
Or not. It’s not that this gives a child a sense of itself
Just like that. Nothing as simple as that.
But it can be the basis. Something to start from, something
that grows
And will eventually determine who and what he’s to be
Or not to be, as the case may be. Whether he is, or is not.


In A Time When I Was Nothing

In a time when I was nothing
I was strangely surprised to see
My name in The Times Literary Supplement.

In a time when I was nothing
There was an emptiness both inside and outside of me
And I felt no thing substantially.

In a time when I was nothing
It was most difficult to separate past from present
And the present moment held no sway.

In a time when I was nothing
There seemed no end to this state of non-being
The bottom had been kicked away from everything.

After a long time being nothing
There came at long last a dim realization
That one day I might eventually become something.

In the time when I was no one
There was simply nothing left to give anyone
And I found myself cut off from everyone.

In the time when I was no one
I knew no man, no woman
And that was when my sense of self began.


Everyman’s Vietnam

Our whole lives are designed as a means of escape
From the psychic forces that are deep down within.
We do anything rather than reckon with them.

Rather naively, we make call after call
Upon the telephone, in order to try exorcise them.
These forces which if submerged, first malinger, spit out
then wear our selves thin.

We cram our lives full to the brim with work.
We come home late, too tired even to speak to our wives.
We get drunk, which only makes our ulcers more peptic,

And still these forces won’t leave us alone.
Still they will never allow us a moment of rest.
Still we give them no real means of expression.

We don’t reckon with these forces.
They are demons.
They will run us to the grave

Unless we turn them to the good.
We underestimate their power.
Most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that
they’re there.

More fool us.


Not Far Of

Eternity is not far off:
On a clear day
I feel it to be
Just out of sight.

The folly of men
Is there purposefully ignoring
What is so painfully obvious
On a clear day.

Horder, John. A Sense of Being. Phoenix Living Poet Series. London: Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1968. Print.


17 thoughts on “John Horder: A Sense Of Being

  1. Hello Francis,

    I enjoyed a brief friendship with John Horder that spanned the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. We first met on Hampstead Heath in North London. At the time I was in my early-mid 20s. He would have been in his mid-late 60s.

    I was attempting to navigate from one side of the Heath to the other (picture an uphill stretch of rugged common land, roughly half the size of Central Park but less linear). To this end I was using a map in a guidebook of London walks. The book had an olive green back cover. John had been reading a novel (I think it was by Ian McEwan) which also had an olive green back cover. He called me over to the bench where he was sitting, thinking that we were reading the same novel and wanting to discuss it with me.

    In his youth John had interviewed many famous English poets – Hughes, Auden etc. He asked me what writers I enjoyed and I reeled off a list. One of the names was a fellow called Jeremy Reed. John said: “Oh, I know him, he lives nearby.’

    That evening I visited John at his flat, which was in West Hampstead, above a dry cleaners. We chatted some more and struck up a friendship.

    John was a complicated man. Very intelligent, incredibly well-read, but also deeply sensitive and somewhat demanding. He was a proponent of non-sexual hugging, and the most damning insult he could level at a person was to describe them as ‘hugless’, meaning that they were emotionally shut down.

    I gather that he had a traumatic childhood that was dominated by the early loss of his mother and compounded by his emotionally distant father. He suffered from depression and I feel that this probably hobbled what could have been a promising career as a writer or a journalist. When he was able to motivate himself he certainly wasn’t short of talent.

    While there were days when he could be high maintenance, he was, on other occasions, a very entertaining and mischievous man. He used to fast talk himself into social gatherings and events that we hadn’t really been invited to. Once inside he would introduce me to strangers as an undertaker, or as a worker in some other quirky profession. I would play along with him and we would see how far we could take it.

    I interviewed him one evening and recorded our conversation. I haven’t listened to it in years. My recollection is that I was rather drunk and John, who was an inveterate name-dropper, spent most of it talking about other vaguely famous people that he had associated with. I keep meaning to transfer it from tape to digital format.

    The last time i saw John was in September 2002. It was at a celebration of the life of the poet Stevie Smith on the occasion of the centenary of her birth. There was an evening of readings at a church in Piccadilly, London. John, who was greatly enamored by Smith’s work, got up and waxed lyrical about her.

    Our friendship had been on a rather turbulent path but we parted that night on good terms. After that we drifted apart. There was no animosity; rather a mutual and unvoiced agreement that things had come to a natural end.

    I do not know whether John is still alive. He is a hard person to search online, on account of him sharing the name of a famous English doctor. He would be in his 80s now.

  2. benleet says:

    John Horder published a small volume of poetry, Meher Baba and the Nothingness, Menard Press, 1980. I spoke with John once on the phone while passing through London. His poems speak for him, here are three that I have enjoyed. You can only imagine what sort of character he was, or should I say is.

    Professor Pott’s Strange Views
    for Margaret Drabble

    I was informed recently on ’24 Hours’ (on BBC 1)
    By one of our leading psychiatrists
    Professor Potts, author of ‘Hugging for Novices’ —
    He’s also written for the T.E.S. on tribes in Melanesia
    As well as for ‘New Society’ on the same subject —
    That hugging should be made compulsory
    Without delay, in all our schools and universities,
    For boys and girls, throughout and after adolescence.

    The Professor pointed out to me before the rehearsal,
    Going up in the lift in the Television Centre,
    That warmth and sexuality were two distinct commodities,
    And that unless a teenager were actively encouraged to hug
    Both sexes, he or she would be unable to sustain warm friendships,
    Let alone achieve a lasting sexual relationship later on in life.
    The Professor hugged Meher Baba, who appeared in the same
    And had been in India at the same time as him,

    For over two minutes. ‘Bloody perverts’, muttered an envious


    If I cannot hug you through what I write
    I best write nothing.
    It just can’t/won’t achieve anything.

    But if I can take you into my arms
    In what I write
    (Or in the flesh

    It matters not which)
    And if you can hug me back
    Through what I write

    Or in the flesh
    Then we may yet achieve something.

    A Moment in Time
    for the John Milburns

    The moment
    Is a spinning top
    In time

    The divine impetus
    Urges it on

    We cannot question
    How and why
    You and I were born

    Let the moment of scorn (for each)
    Wither within
    In its own time

    The spinning top will only
    If we let it freely

    from John Horder’s small book of poetry, Meher Baba and the Nothingness,
    published 1980, Menard Press

  3. Peter Pegnall says:

    I met John Horder at a poetry evening in the upstairs room at The Lamb and Flag, Covent Garden. I was about seventeen, he in his late thirties, I’d guess. It was a chaotic night, presided over by the gentle, erudite Peter Porter, but there was also Sebastian Barker, Bertie Lomas, Tambimuttu and – I think – Carol Rumens. Eddie Linden also, of course.
    He invited me back to his flat in West Hampstead, ostensibly to smoke some dope, which neither of us really liked and also to fumble about with each other, which neither of us really liked. Following this, he wrote to my mum and dad, asking if I could be permitted to accompany him to Berlin as an amanuensis. They replied with my dictated information that I had been accepted as a youth player for Brentford Football Club, which was more of a tantalising fantasy to me than John’s unfee’d position.
    A complex man, certainly, but honourable and serious: his poems were raw and confessional to a fault and I don’t think he ever quite sorted out the dance of carnality. He devised some sort of ‘touch therapy’ happening and brought it to Northern Ireland, where I studied for my first degree. No takers, not even me this time.
    Having had several volumes of my own poetry published, I’d love to share crazy enthtoousiasms with him, if he’s alive.
    A hug, too, but let’s leave it at that.

  4. I first met John in 1963, when he was on the door at a poetry reading in a pub in Hampstead. A man with quite a few emotional hang-ups, primarily centred around sexuality and, an uneasy relationship with both Catholicism and his mother.

    He was a good friend to me during my few years living in London and, he arranged for me to give my first poetry reading at the London Contemporary Poetry & Music Society where my co-reader (obviously top-billed) was Charles Causley. Some time around 1965 / 66 Giles Gordon published a small pamphlet of John’s poems called “A Child Walks Around His Own Grave”.

  5. Tomed says:

    Dear Francis,

    Thank you for maintaining this page.

    I knew John Horder in the early 1990s, when he lived above a shop on West End Lane and frequented the West Hampstead public library. I was a schoolboy of 15 and he approached me in the library. Under the pretext of helping me with my English (I was a recent immigrant into the country), he invited me to visit his flat. I was lonely, troubled and friendless and I accepted.

    Over the period of some months, he groomed me to perticipate in his massage therapy, which evantually lead to sexual assault on my person. My family became aware of him after he popped around to pick up a book he had loaned me (Families and how to survive them), as it was a library book from a different borough he had on loan himself. I never confided the details of what went on in his sparsely furnished (he had a sort of sleeping bag mattress arrangement with no bed base) first floor flat.

    He offered me alcohol (cheap whiskey flat bottle he kept in a cupboard) and gave me the odd fiver for the ‘massage sessions’, which started out innocuous enough, but turned into sexual assault.

    After that last incident, I refused to see him again and avoided him, when I came across him some 10 years later in the Swiss Cottage Library.

    I am speaking out after many years’ silence, and after John Horder’s passing this July. While it seems wrong to speak ill of the dead, i don’t think one’s passing erases the hurt they have caused to the survivors of their actions, nor does it absolve them of their guilt.

    I wonder if there are any other people who were teenagers when they encountered him in his late 50s and if they had a similar experience. I know he mentioned having contact with another older boy from my school, although I never knew his name.

    You may choose to delete this post. I have not so far gone beyond this blog, but perhaps these things need to be said elsewhere.

    • Dear Tomed,

      I am very sorry for what you endured in your youth. It takes courage to tell your story and I will not delete your post. I wish you comfort and strength as your wrestle with these difficult memories. All the best, Francis.

    • Anonymous says:

      Dear Tomed,
      In about 1967 I went to a poetry reading at The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, a great pub, with a distinguished literary heritage. Dryden drank there and, I think, fought there. Nothing so macho for me: as a young, nervous poet I must have been choice pickings for John Horder. Having been featured on the BBC2 programme they shot there, I was drunk with the notion of fame, as well as drunk on three pints of Director’s. Mr. Horder promised to guide my career., but was clearly more interested in guiding his hand towards my penis. His line was that I would need to surrender to the rhythms of life in order to consummate my poetic gift. Fat chance.
      At seventeen, I was less vulnerable than you and felt ashamed and dirty, but not, i think scarred. It wasn’t usual to talk about those things then, but i did so later, experimented a little with gay sex and then settled into the more or less balanced heterosexual I am now.
      This is not to say that he wasn’t predatory and repulsive and, I’m sure, deeply disturbed. His poems show a divided self, to say the least. They are also atrociously cliched.
      I hope you do not in any sense feel responsible or tainted by the old fool. Some things about the sixties are best consigned to the haze. A mania for power drove the march for liberation and Horder was a small player in the game. Let him pass in the obscurity he deserves.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Very sad to hear that John died in July. We shared time as part of a men’s group in the 1990’s, supporting each other with songs, music, stories, poems and HUGS!! I can hear his voice so clearly as I write this and send him and his family all my love. Please let me know when his celebration is.. Blessings to all

  7. ejkimber says:

    Hello Francis: I too knew John Horder, whom my mother befriended while we were resident in Hampstead in the early-to-mid-70s. And I also have little respect for his rather pathetic yet abusive sexual proclivities, which IMO he used his ‘philosophy of hugging’ and his obsession with Meher Baba to justify and facilitate. I am torn between not speaking ill of the proverbial dead and yet speaking the truth about John: at his best he was a lovely, gentle, charming character and an original and memorable poet, at his worst he was just a typical abused person turned abuser. Which outweighs which? Perhaps I should finish by quoting the Graves-Shah translation of ‘The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam’, for which I retain much more respect than the literary establishment that sought to rubbish it despite its self-evident poetic qualities: –

    When I fall dead, wash my poor corpse in wine;
    Read it into the grave with drinking-songs.
    On judgment-day, should you have need of me,
    Delve in the soil beneath the tavern-door.

    Perhaps this is just another way of saying ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’.

  8. Mark Chapman says:

    So in 1976 after finishing a play at the Derby Playhouse I was invited by John Horder to move to a bed sit where he also had storm on Havetstock hill to form a theatre company. The Actors Refuelling Company practised the Alexander technique and mainly performed poetry.we worked on poems with Margret Drabble and Sur William Empdon and also read Meyer Baber poems at Pete Townsend ‘s centre In Richmond….also we performed William Blake’s Songs of innocence….,we fell out when he suggested I should take all my clothes off and wear a sheet as part of an exercise…when he tried to suggest mutual mastabation I declined and walked out….he was a very troubled person.Ge did write two plays that were performed at the Kings Head…but by then I had declined association with him . I was 20yesrs old at the time.

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