Fergus Allen was born in London in 1921, of an Anglo-Irish father and an English mother. After childhood and Quaker schools in Ireland, he read engineering at Trinity College, Dublin, where he wrote light verse for the college magazine; he later regarded this as useful training in the nuts and bolts of his craft. During the second world war, he moved to England to work as a civil engineer, eventually as Director of the Hydraulics Research Station, before his transfer into the Cabinet Office as a Whitehall civil servant. He ended his professional career as First Civil Service Commissioner.

After retirement from the Civil Service he published four collections: The Brown Parrots of Providencia (Faber 1993), Who goes there? (Faber 1996), Mrs Power looks over the Bay (Faber 1999) and Gas, Light and Coke ( Dedalus 2006).

Fergus Allen described himself as a gloomy poet (“I wouldn’t be a proper poet if I wasn’t gloomy”) but the severity of some of his work masks a glinting and glittering humour. In ‘Flies and Nettles’, his vision of the brevity of mankind’s existence before the earth is taken over by flies and nettles is, in his reading, like an uncle terrifying the children with a horror story for bedtime. In The Lives of the Cousins, influenced like so much of his work by life in Ireland, he imagines the splendid world of his wealthy cousins as hinted at in black and white photographs. Then he mildly settles down to the reality of small-town Ireland and the solicitor’s pink-cheeked secretary’s reassuringly thick legs. This is not autobiographical or confessional- none of his work is so simple-but it does reflect his own wry and self-deprecating outlook on life, perfectly captured in his tone of voice as he reads the poem.

He adopts many masks; several of his poems are about living life as an outsider looking in. In ‘Parental Guidance’ the outsiderness is that of a child who was never prepared for the mystery of Mr Ganly (“genial over the porridge and haddock”) having had noisy sex with Mrs Ganly the night before – audible through the child’s bedroom wall. As the poem continues, this comedy of embarrassment turns into a chilling vision of himself watching life from a sterile room, hands enclosed in rubber gloves, drafting “a protocol of separation”.

Beyond his memories of growing up in Ireland, his not-suffering-fools verbal precision, his delight in the ways words can work, Fergus Allen gives a truthful and compelling account of a long life lived with eyes open, musing on the oddity of things. His voice in these recordings is precise, almost schoolmasterly, with a touch of Irish blarney; he invites the listener to sit up straight and pay attention but not necessarily always to take him too seriously.

Fergus Allen’s Favourite Poetry Saying:

“The rule is that some eat figs while others watch” – Jos? Saramago

This recording was made on the 24th March, 2009 at the Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

Poems by Fergus Allen

Flies and Nettles - Fergus Allen
The Lives of the Cousins - Fergus Allen
Parental Guidance - Fergus Allen
Fergus Allen in the Poetry Store

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Books by Fergus Allen