Pitt-Kethley, (Helen) Fiona

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PITT-KETHLEY, (Helen) Fiona

Nationality: British. Born: Edgware, Middlesex, 21 November 1954. Education: Haberdashers' Aske's Girls' School, 1960–71; Chelsea School of Art, London, 1972–76, B.A. (honors). Agent: Giles Gordon, Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF. Address: 11 Edward Road, St. Leonards, East Sussex TN37 6ES, England.



London. Privately printed, 1984.

Rome. Bath, Mammon Press, 1985.

The Tower of Glass. Glasgow, Mariscat Press, 1985.

Sky Ray Lolly. London, Chatto and Windus, 1986.

Gesta. London, Turret, 1986.

Private Parts. London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

The Perfect Man. London, Abacus, 1989.

Dogs. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993.

Double Act. London, Arcadia Books, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour Editions, 1996.


The Misfortunes of Nigel. London, Peter Owen, 1991.

The Maiden's Progress. London, Turret, 1992.


Journeys to the Underworld. London, Chatto and Windus, 1988.

Too Hot to Handle. London, Peter Owen, 1992.

The Pan Principle. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.

Editor, The Literary Companion to Sex. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992; New York, Random House, 1994.

Editor, The Literary Companion to Low Life: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.


Critical Studies: In the London Review of Books, 17(9), and 17(14), 1995.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley comments:

I am a satirist. My satire is aimed chiefly at contemporary hypocrisies. A lot of these are centered around sexuality. I think my work differs from all past satire in one respect. In order not to seem self-righteous, I satirize myself at the same time as criticizing others, using incidents from my own life to illustrate the points I am making.

(1995) I am one of the most versatile and hardworking authors on the poetic scene. Apart from poetry, my main vocation, I have produced travel books, novels, anthologies, and a massive amount of journalism. I am currently a critic for the Times and have worked for most of the quality newspapers. I have also traveled extensively, as I am writing a book of essays on the world's red-light districts. I have performed my poems around the country and for radio and TV. I have, to date, been considered too controversial for any major grants or awards but hope that this situation will change.

*  *  *

Readers of the London Review of Books have come to half expect, when scanning the classifieds, to light upon the statement "Fiona Pitt-Kethley is available." The demands of publicity are disconcerted by such compliance—whosoever compelleth her to go a mile, she goeth with him twain—and even the innuendo is astringently straightforward. She is "available" to give readings from her own poetry, whose effect is doubtless doubled, but perhaps also skewed, by the memorable name thus promoted, with its suggestion that the Roedean Rake Is Coming Clean.

For actually—an important distinction—it was the Chelsea School of Art. She has a good poem, "The Hidden Persuaders," that shows her ignoring a sixth-form book list for the Oxbridge bound ("all modern, serious but popular"):

I gave the lot up and went in for Art.
I'll wash my own brains, thank you very much.

Fair enough, but in the poems she brings to market she washes other people's dirty linen and comments with the traditional freedom of washerwomen. The subject of her satire is often that heavy inheritance of nervous hypocrisy, incompetence, and miscalculation that thwarts and inflames appetite in the sons of Adam. The pitiful instances are real, and the voice that speaks the poems, being unambiguously her own, seems in turn wide-eyed, explosively amusing, and more than a touch caddish.

Occasionally, for instance, we get a whiff of l'esprit (or la revanche) d'escalier, as she placards her victim by name:

Ken Roberts
Ken Roberts rings me up to ask if I
like going to the cinema alone—
and, like a fool, I stop to talk to him.
He says he bets that he could turn me on.
(I bet he cant.) I say this, but it's hard
to put his kind of bubbly pervert down.

Hard? Maybe—but that last phrase does it. The voice of female experience has him formulated, sprawling on a pin, and it is memorably funny. Sometimes, though, her tactics are truly deplorable. An earlier version of one of her better poems included a name whose owner begged her to remove it. She could have justifiably refused, but she complied, only to spell out the whole story in a footnote that effectively revealed her correspondent's identity and left the sour taste of spite mixed in with the clean one of indignation.

She can, however, write marvelously without either:

We smelt the baby oil from the back row.
The "Senior Mr. Hastings" was judged first.
The oldest held a world above his head
(invisible) to music of the spheres.

These almost Dickensian escapes from the predictable are accomplished with such ease that one puzzles at her relapses. Of these the most important occur in the seventy-line poem, central to her work as a whole, called "Prostitution." It is one of those poems ("Gents Only," the splendid "Phone Call," and, of course, her London Review of Books small ad are others) in which the exploitative hypocrisies of sex are linked to those of the book trade. Some lines can take your head off-

Chatto's my pimp. My cut is five percent
(well in arrears)

—or, more winsomely—

What should I do, what chances do I have?
Arvon-the poet's pools? (Yes we all try.)

Surely here she has found her major subject. And what possibilities! The ghosts of Pope and Gissing, of Pound and Aphra Behn hover near the midnight belfry. Will the iron tongue of satire sound again? Or will we hear naught but obsession, beating its leathery wings?

The under-thirties Gregory Awards?
(Twenty to women out of 144.)
I was turned down for one of those six times.
Anthony Thwaite seems guilty on that score.

What a disappointment! What thin and bitter gruel!

Of course, the Arts Council does grants...just three.
But '87 was Caribbean Year,
so every applicant had to be black.

The female Casanova is changing before our eyes into the mad victim. The bloody buggers in suits are going to get off again.

The truth is that, as with most of us, Pitt-Kethley's sense of justice is too self-centered to appeal convincingly to others. Therefore, her anecdotes (and her poems are mostly anecdotal) do not always escape the monotonies of parti pris, and, as a result, their principled hedonism and frankness seem weirdly ungenerous. She is at her best when a burst of verbal inventiveness and humor wins us into complicity. And that happens either at her most delicate ("Mr. Hastings") or at her most indelicate:

Large cocks are good for narcissism, not sex.
Their owners have this tendency to stand
as if they're waiting for a prize at Cruft's.
'What a big boy! Aren't I the lucky girl?'
we're meant to say. They're Ozymandias-like
about their things.

—Hugh Buckingham