Family find Queen’s Crescent librarian’s secret poems
Relatives publish poems found while sorting out John Halpenny's belongings
05 April, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
John Halpenny in the 1960s
THEY represent a lifetime of writing – decades of fascination with how emotion can be expressed through poetry.
But the thoughtful words of John Halpenny, a former librarian in Queen’s Crescent, were never shared with others during his lifetime.
Now, two years after his death at the age of 86, his work has hit the bookshelves after being discovered by his three sons, Sam, Liam and Tom.
They had no idea that their father had written thousands of poems in his spare time and only realised what he had been doing when they came to sort out his belongings.
Mr Halpenny’s son Sam with some of the poems found after his father’s death
Mr Halpenny, originally from Canada, had typed them all up into manuscripts in the hope of one day being published – but his work remained unseen, stored under a bed in his Dartmouth Park home.
Sam said: “I had to clear out our family home in Tudor Mansions, Chetwynd Road. He had a little, secret room at the back of the flat, absolutely full of books, and under the bed there were bags and bags and bags packed full of hand-written poetry. It was astonishing, all very carefully written and presented, but what we all find most bizarre is how he never told us about it.”
Sam added: “He was very modest and rather private. When he got more and more infirm – he was diagnosed with Alzheimers – he mentioned to us his poetry, but we had no idea to what extent.”
Now, the family have published Mr Halpenny’s work in The Vase and Other Poems, and copies are available at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town.
He was born in 1931 in Ontario, Canada and moved to Europe in 1958, working his passage on a ship. He spent time in Holland and Scandinavia, and then moved to Paris for a year.
A fan of modern Jazz, he soon became part of the Beatnik scene, hanging out with trendy Left Bank characters.
Mr Halpenny had also visited New York in the 1950s and was further inspired by his aunt Isabel Sinclair, a spinster who was a Latin-speaking, poetry-writing English teacher who greatly encouraged him to write – but quite how much did not become clear to his family until after his death. Sam said: “He was very close to his aunt and she was his culture muse.”
Mr Halpenny settled in London in the late 1950s. He found work with Islington Council’s mobile library, and it was here that he met his future wife, Kath.
They married in 1962 and Kath encouraged Mr Halpenny to train as a full-time librarian – a job he did for the rest of his working life.
He eventually became a children’s librarian at the Athlone Street and then the Queen’s Crescent library, where he would host story sessions for children and became a valued staff member until his retirement in the 1990s.
Sam added: “On the face of it, he had given up his youthful ambition to be a writer and radio broadcaster – but that was far from the truth. We knew he liked poetry, literature – he had so, so many books – and we would receive funny poems in birthday cards. But we had no idea at all of his output.”
Among the neatly handwritten and typed works, placed into folders, were tape recordings of Mr Halpenny reading his poems and also heartbreaking letters of rejection from publishers. There were further examples of his creativity in his mother’s home in Canada, which Mr Halpenny visited for the summer months.
Sam added: “My father would go back to Canada each summer to see his mother. And it seems he shuffled his unpublished poetry backwards and forwards from Canada to London.”