Oakes, Philip (Barlow)

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OAKES, Philip (Barlow)

Nationality: British. Born: Burslem, Staffordshire, 31 January 1928. Education: Royal School, Wolverhampton; Darwen Grammar School. Family: Married 1) Stella Fleming (dissolved 1989); 2) Gillian Hodson in 1989; one son and two daughters. Career: Reporter, Sly's Court Reporting Service, 1945–46, 1949–55; reporter and columnist ("The World I Watch"), Daily Express, London, 1955–56; columnist and literary editor, Truth, London, 1955–56; film critic, Evening Standard, London, 1956–58; television scriptwriter, Granada and BBC, London, 1958–62; film critic, Sunday Telegraph, London, 1963–65; assistant editor, Sunday Times Magazine, London, 1965–67; arts columnist, Sunday Times, London, 1965–80; columnist, Independent on Sunday, 1990. Since 1990 columnist, Guardian Weekend.Agent: Elaine Greene Ltd., 31 Newington Green, London N16 9PU, England.



Unlucky Jonah: Twenty Poems. Reading, Berkshire, University of Reading School of Art, 1954.

In the Affirmative. London, Deutsch, 1968.

Notes by the Provincial Governor. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1972.

Married/Singular. London, Deutsch, 1973.

Selected Poems. London, Deutsch, 1982.


Screenplay: The Punch and Judy Man with Tony Hancock, 1962.


Exactly What We Want. London, Joseph, 1962.

The God Botherers. London, Deutsch, 1969; as Miracles: Genuine Cases Contact Box 340, New York, Day, 1971.

Experiment at Proto. London, Deutsch, and New York, Coward McCann, 1973.

A Cast of Thousands. London, Gollancz, 1976.

Shopping for Women. London, Deutsch, 1994.


Tony Hancock. London, Woburn Press, 1975.

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties. London, Deutsch, 1980; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Dwellers All in Time and Space: A Memory of the 1940's. London, Deutsch, 1982; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1984.

At the Jazz Band Ball: A Memory of the 1950's. London, Deutsch, 1983.

Editor, The Entertainers. London, Woburn Press, 1975.

Editor, The Film Addict' s Archive. London, Elm Tree, 1977.


Manuscript Collection: State University of New York, Buffalo.

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The poetry of Philip Oakes is a personal, almost private mode of utterance whose style is reflective rather than declamatory. While rejecting the critical pigeonholing that conveniently lumps him with such poets as Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin as part of the so-called Movement, he shares with these writers a respect for the formal disciplines of the poet's craft. Oakes parts company from the unfettered improvisation of the performance poets, and his work reaffirms the harnessing of thought and feeling to metrical patterns and structures. Within this framework he expresses himself with a subtle precision, his outlook tempered by a constant awareness of his own and mankind's essential frailties.

Oakes appears to be less than convinced about the human race, regarding man as a flawed, tragic creature enmeshed by hostile natural forces. "Unlucky Jonah," the title poem of his earliest collection, presents human imperfection as personified by the unwilling prophet, whose continual impotence in the face of the universe is shown at all stages—his vain flight from the angel, imprisonment inside the whale, and eventual despair. Resigned to his own and others' shortcomings, Oakes sees his fellow creatures as victims trapped in their environments, whether the hunters frozen in the Brueghel painting or the love-starved child of "Jean's Song." Winter is presented as a manifestation of death, as a symbol of the destruction that man ultimately deserves. The sentiment is pointedly expressed in "A Country Carol," where Oakes depicts a reborn Christ child returning to pass judgment on humankind: "a mirror for our charity. / This time, for us to burn; for us to die." Related territory is explored in "Dragons," with the poet achieving his own version of a myth in which man, as the hero, slays the dragon only to find that he himself is "the dragon's heir" and is also doomed. Human cruelty to other species is shockingly visualized in "Live Baiting," with Oakes revealing his abhorrence of a practice he himself once indulged in. Political statements are rare and show a certain amount of anti-American feeling. In "Weather" Oakes attacks the global brinkmanship of the United States during the Vietnam era, and in "Miss America!" he ridicules what he sees as its crass commercialism. More subtle but equally telling is "Notes by the Provincial Governor," in which the bankruptcy of colonialist attitudes is exposed in microcosm by the stocking and eventual stagnation of a fish pond: "Their fault, theirs. / I grant them self-determination. / Now I shall found another colony." Oakes envisages a world out of sympathy with its human inhabitants. In "Facing the North," for example, the poet is forced to turn and confront the north wind, with its chilling reminder of annihilation: "Heat is consumed by the greedy sun, / No rain falls that will not reach the sea, / The elements proclaim their unity / And only man denies his true relation."

Threatened by a hostile world, Oakes seeks reassurance from its dangers in family ties, humdrum domestic chores, and the physical and spiritual forms of love. This decision is particularly marked in the collections In the Affirmative and Married/Singular, where the domestic milieu is explored in a manner that, while rigorous and free of sentiment, shows a remarkable sensitivity on the part of the writer. Oakes finds cosmic verities in routine household acts, and he draws spiritual renewal from them. Love, lust, and their related complexities are viewed clearly and honestly, without euphemism. Oakes stresses the positive aspects of sexual attraction in "In the Affirmative" and "Girl on a Bus," while "Inside" hymns the beloved as a landscape to be explored afresh by the invading lover. Pornographic fantasy is gently and amusingly brought down to earth in "Dirty Pictures," with Oakes commenting on the holey socks and bad teeth of the participants as he studies the tacky, rather than titillating, postcards. While he speaks of love as "a necessary pain," he evidently finds in domesticity a force for good, which is affirmed in the chores of making a bed, lighting a fire, and baking, all of which are memorably described in his poems. The concept is perfectly represented in the moving "Guarantee," where Oakes regards his beloved with an unflattering but loving eye: "You are not for special / occasions, but for everyday. You have / The virtues of denim, wholemeal, and worsted / … You meet all guarantees. You are as promised."

Outside the home Oakes admits to a sneaking sympathy for misfits, for those eccentric individuals whose natures place them beyond the protection of the conformist herd. Such figures are encountered in all of his collections, including Selected Poems, which unites the best of each. Whether depicting the immense, genial Daniel Lambert or the nervous Mr. Valobra, lamenting the tramp in the park who chooses to die "in his own good time," or recounting the tragicomic odysseys of demented army and naval officers in pursuit of mermaids and unicorns, Oakes blends wit and irony into a judicious balance, viewing his flawed fellow humans with a wry but genuine affection.

—Geoff Sadler