The angel in the bracken – an appreciation of David Cobb

A quarter of a century ago, as a geology student, I spent the best part of my summer mapping Ordovician volcanics on a mountain in the Snowdonia National Park.

With only the local wildlife and the occasional sheep farmer for company, and with the sun slowly blistering its way through the sky, I’d enjoyed the solitude and the opportunity to work through the tuffs and rhyolites at my own pace. So long as I made it to a remote car park at the end of the day to pick up my lift, I was my own boss.

Late one afternoon, desperate to re-join civilisation, and with food and pub opening times beckoning, I finished my day by spending a couple of hours clambering gingerly down the rocky terraces to a path I’d found on the map where the ground flattened out.

This proved to be a hair-raising experience. As I wound my way down, trying to find the best route I could, I contended with teetering boulders the size of small cars wobbling under my weight and, while mid-air, dropping from one level to another, an adder bolting for cover.

When I eventually reached the bottom, nerves a little frayed, I came to the awful realisation that the final jump of five or six feet into the impenetrable bracken beneath could actually be anything up to ten feet.

The risk was, of course, that I could break an ankle or worse by falling onto hidden rocks. Unable to move and obscured from view by encompassing fronds, only the circling red kites would hear my cries for help amid a bleating chorus of sheep. With this nightmarish vision in mind, I spent a few minutes considering the sobering alternative which was to climb back up the mountain and find a more sensible route, snakes and all.

While pondering my dilemma, a man who must have been in his sixties, wearing apparently nothing but walking boots, shorts and a backpack, breezily waded through the bracken a hundred metres or so from where I was perched. This was the first human I’d seen on the mountain for days and it gave me the impetus to jump. At least I’d be able to shout if I hurt myself, I thought.

I made the leap and survived unscathed.

The mystery hiker carried on, oblivious to the fact that he’d acted as my guardian angel that day.

During my transition into editor of Blithe Spirit, the journal of the British Haiku Society, my mind spun with the possibilities of what it might entail; how I might approach the job; what features I could introduce and what articles and reviews I could commission. Would I be able to fill the 80 pages? Would I be able to build on the work of my predecessors? And, perhaps most importantly, would the readership approve of the end product?

Editing my first issue had commenced with the dribs and drabs of a few early-birds. Poets whose names I’d eventually recognise as those who ignored official submission dates. Approving and editing their work seemed to come fairly easily and fitted nicely with my ideals of what I thought might make an interesting issue in terms of poetry. Despite this, the nascent journal lacked substance. I needed something with a bit more weight to bulk it up and get my teeth into.

And then came David Cobb.

Early in my settling in, he submitted a cold war themed haibun and asked for my opinions on it. I was surprised to find that these opinions existed – there were definitely areas I felt could be improved and it incorporated a sequence of haiku where I thought a few tweaks could be made, so I sent an email in response with my humble opinions.

As a newbie editor, I hit the send button, not without some trepidation: who was I? A mere mortal offering my suggestions to this behemoth of British haiku; one of the founding fathers of the society whose journal I was now at the helm of?

As it turned out he seemed to value my opinion, making some of the changes I’d suggested, and we bounced a few more ideas around regarding the same piece. A few email exchanges later and it was honed into something we were both happy with. I was enormously pleased to include it in Blithe Spirit. One page down, seventy-nine to go.

The ice had now been broken, and with submissions from others starting to gain momentum, I began to feel comfortable in the editor’s chair. I was starting to worry, though, about how I might obtain articles – would they arrive for approval in the same way as the poetry, or would I have to actively seek and commission them? I didn’t know where to begin. I later discovered that the editor’s role could at times be quite an awkward one. I often felt cheeky asking for and chasing up content. It felt to me as though I was putting people out; people who had volunteered their time and intellectual property. In the early days, I didn’t really have an idea of what the next issue was going to turn out like, let alone be in a position to plan a couple of issues ahead. Until I could do this, the pressure of finding the more substantial content – articles and reviews – weighed heavily.

David then submitted a review of a book of First World War poetry by Julien Vocance. I had been wondering about a loose theme that would knit my first edition together and with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War still in recent memory, I wondered if he might know of anyone I could approach who might be willing to pull together an article about war haiku.

It was obviously a subject that captured his attention as he generously volunteered his own services. Within a matter of a week or two, he’d provided me with my first article and it didn’t take long before we’d drummed it into shape. I could breathe a huge sigh of relief.

I’d also heard of a lecture that Judy Kendall had delivered on the war poet Edward Thomas, so brimming with confidence I asked if she’d like to write it up and submit it. To my pleasant surprise, she agreed, and once it was in place my first issue hung together quite nicely. Eventually the deadline day approached and everything fell into place: artwork, printers, everything. Now I had a journal I could be proud of under my belt and I could sit back and start thinking about the next one.

Future issues were peppered with the occasional Cobb haiku or review and he was always happy to offer an opinion, give advice or send material through the post that he thought I might find interesting. In a later edition, I reproduced a lecture he’d given to a symposium of the Haiku International Association, but apart from that, the most substantial amount of work he’d submitted had been for that first issue.

I often wondered afterwards if David had been testing the water with me. Had he made it his mission to settle me into the role? Had he tested me out with an imperfect haibun that needed polishing? Was all this his way of introducing himself and sealing his approval?

I think the reality of the situation is that David is a man who acted generously towards anyone with the wellbeing of the form, the society and the journal at heart. Without his input, putting together my first issue would have been like struggling up a scree slope peppered with wobbly boulders, and wouldn’t have set the standard for the following editions to live up to.

In my early days as a proto-editor, David Cobb had been my angel in the bracken, walking away having given me the impetus to jump.

After my tenure of Blithe Spirit was over he sent me a lovely letter which I now keep in the folds of my copy of British Museum Haiku – an anthology he edited. In the letter he explained in typically self-deprecating humour that one possible translation of his name into Japanese (kobu) might mean ‘old turnip’.

Today I was saddened to learn of his death at the age of 94 and I will be thinking of him and the generosity he showed not only to me but to the many others sharing their memories today on social media. Farewell Old Turnip and thank you for all the help and imparted wisdom. The haiku world will be poorer for your loss.

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