Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu (19151983), by Edward Lucie-Smith
Tambimuttu, Meary James Thurairajah (19151983), writer and journal editor, was born on 15 August 1915 at Atchuveli in the Jaffna peninsula of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), second child of the five sons and one daughter of Henry Tambithurai Tambimuttu (18871971), of the Government Printing Press, Colombo, and his first wife, Mary Ponnammah Santiapillai. The scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy was his uncle and he claimed descent from the kings of Jaffna. Mary James, as he was originally named, attended St Mary's Convent and the Catholic St Joseph's College, Trincomalee, where he was educated in English. After further schooling at St Joseph's College, Colombo, he won an exhibition in botany to Ceylon University College but left before completing his degree, taking up employment in the Ratnapura Kachcheri and public works department, Colombo. By the time he left Ceylon, Tambimuttu's literary ambitions were clear: he had issued three volumes of poetrythe first set and printed by himselfcomposed several songs, and produced a jazz musical.
Tambimuttu arrived in England in January 1938, known only for a popular record sold in Woolworths. His confidence, generosity, strikingly handsome appearance, and literary intuition gained him immediate entry to London's bohemian set. Following a discussion with Dylan Thomas and Keidrych Rhys, he and Anthony Dickins, a young musician and writer, issued a prospectus offering subscription to Poetry, a magazine whose first number appeared in February 1939. After the second number Dickins's close involvement ceased, the title became Poetry (London), and Tambi, as he was always known, asserted his chaotic yet inspired style of editorship.
Poetry (London), whose first number declared that every man has poetry within him, introduced many important new writers, while gaining the support of established figures. George Barker, Louis MacNeice, Lawrence Durrell, and Dylan Thomas, among the first published, became regular contributors. Editorial roles given to Tambimuttu by T. S. Eliot for Poetry in Wartime (1942) and Reginald Moore for Selected Writing One (1942) encouraged the publisher Nicholson and Watson to sponsor Poetry (London) and an additional series of books, Editions Poetry London, which promoted both authors and artists. Paired collaborations for the series included Kathleen Raine and Barbara Hepworth; David Gascoyne and Graham Sutherland; and Nicholas Moore and Lucian Freud, while Henry Moore's acclaimed Shelter Sketch Book appeared in 1945. Tambimuttu's encouragement of Keith Douglas led to the publication of Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), and, eventually, to a posthumous edition of his collected poems. In 1947 Richard March became Tambimuttu's principal financial backer and early in 1949, after an acrimonious dispute, assumed control of an operation which had issued some fourteen numbers of Poetry (London), six pamphlets, and over fifty books.
Tambimuttu's devotion to poetry was matched by his passion for the area in London he named Fitzrovia. His extraordinary dynamism beguiled those whom he led from pub to pub through London's nocturnal streets (spending money borrowed for more strictly literary purposes). Hard living eventually took its toll on happiness, security, and companionship; a marriage on 2 March 1940 to Jacqueline Stanley lasted little more than a year before the couple separated (an annulment being granted in 1947). Tambimuttu sailed for Ceylon, arriving back on 7 December 1949. After a year of writing and broadcasting (a skill learned with the BBC in London) he travelled to Bombay, where he met Safia Tyabjee, whom he married on 15 July 1951. They embarked for New York in 1952, arriving in November with $600 and no return ticket.
The stories which Tambimuttu contributed to the New Yorker and The Reporter were tenderly written and more accessible than the long poems he had published in London: Out of this War (1941) and Natarajah (1949). His small income was supplemented by lectures given at institutions such as the Poetry Center and New York University. In 1956, backed by a wealthy patron, he started Poetry London (New York), awarding himself $80 a week. Despite initial success, only four numbers appeared, the last in 1960. Times again became difficult, and Safia returned to India in May 1958, a prelude to divorce. Another marriage, in 1961, to Esta Smith (b. 25 Oct 1937), resulted in the birth in 1962 of his only daughter, Shakuntala. After the collapse of this marriage, Tambimuttu joined Timothy Leary at his League for Spiritual Discovery until 1968. His failure in that year to obtain a post running the Poetry Room at Harvard resulted in a period of restlessness, during part of which he stayed at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris.
Tambimuttu finally settled in London, where moments of success and vision punctuated an otherwise precarious existence. The Lyrebird Press was launched on 21 June 1972, with Katharine Falley Bennett, while other ventures included a limited edition of Indian love poems illustrated by John Piper (1977), two issues of Poetry London/Apple Magazine (1979 and 1983), originally to have been backed by the Beatles, and a handmade anthology delivered to Buckingham Palace as a wedding gift for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. In 1982 he visited India and Sri Lanka, meeting Indira Gandhi, who supported his foundation of the Indian Arts Council in London, and J. R. Jayawardene, with whom he discussed publishing a library of Sri Lankan classics (as part of the programme of the Sri Lankan Arts Council for which he had made initial plans).
On 22 June 1983 Tambimuttu died of heart failure in University College Hospital, London, where he had been taken after a serious fall in his office in Bloomsbury's October Gallery. He was cremated on 30 June and his remains sent to his childhood home. A memorial concert at the Bhavan Centre in London was held on 17 March 1984. A portrait by Augustus John is reproduced in Out of this War.
J. Williams, ed., Tambimuttu: bridge between two worlds (1989) · P. Poologasingham, Poet Tambimuttu: a profile (1993) · S. J. Rajah, A life-sketch of Mr S. Tambimuttu Pillay, trans. A. L. V. Victoria (1988) · A. Dickins, Tambimuttu and Poetry London, London Magazine, a Monthly Review of Literature, new ser., 5/9 (1965), 537 · G. Ewart, Tambi the Great, London Magazine, a Monthly Review of Literature, new ser., 5/9 (1965), 5760 · A. T. Tolley, The poetry of the forties (1985) · The Times (24 June 1983) · New York Times (24 June 1983) · New magazine in Manhattan, Time Magazine (14 May 1956) · BL, Reginald Moore MSS · M. J. Tambimuttu, Fitzrovia, Harpers and Queen (Feb 1975) · D. Nadkarni, Tambimuttu: patron of young writers, Times of India (26 April 1982) · private information (2004) · Pooter, The Times (5 July 1969)
Northwestern University, Illinois | BL, Keith Douglas MSS, Add. MSS 5377353776, 5635556360, 6058560586, 6193861939
BL, Reginald Moore MSS
F. Topolski, charcoal sketch, c.1972, repro. in Williams, ed., Tambimuttu · A. John, pencil, repro. in M. J. T. Tambimuttu, Out of this war (1941) · E. Lucie-Smith, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, repro. in Williams, ed., Tambimuttu
Wealth at death
circumstantial evidence suggests none; cremation paid for partly by Royal Literary Fund grant