Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: May 2013

A neglected modernist masterpiece: Terence White’s ‘Irene’

Squashed in among the largely amateurish outpourings of sincerity that bulk out Tambimuttu’s Poetry London X (1944) sit six pages of stand-out writing: an episodic prose poem, surreal, satiric and punctuated by feverish sonnets, that builds into a rolling onslaught of Joycean wordplay. This neglected modernist masterpiece is billed as Terence White’s “Extracts from ‘Irene’”.

This is not the Terence Hanbury White of The Sword in the Stone etc. Nor Terence de Vere White, the Irish novelist. But Terence White (1913-68), aka Terence d’Olbert White, aka Terence White Gervais – musician, composer, music scholar, Associate of the Royal College of Music, logician, film theorist, psychoanalyst, poet in five languages, playwright, translator, artist, Theosophist and flagellant, described by a contemporary as a “small red-faced man with crazy eyes.”

This is the Terence White whose suite for flute and string quartet, performed at the Wigmore Hall in 1956, drew the comment from a Times reviewer that “one movement after another ended with raised eyebrows.”

The Terence White who reportedly declared: “You know I am feminine in my nature and I have always wanted to experience pregnancy myself. I would love to give birth – just a small animal would be enough to be my salute to the universe!”

The Terence White whose Chastisement across the Ages (1956), penned under the suitably dominating name of Gervas d’Olbert, claims to be a “scientific” survey of corporal punishment (“’comprehensive’ might be a more appropriate word than ‘scientific’”, notes one reviewer) and begins thus:

“Amid a world torn and bruised by dissension and misunderstanding of every type, it is a relief to record one human activity which knows no frontiers of race, religion, dialect or epoch. Chastisement is universal …”

And, sadly, the same Terence White who by the mid-‘fifties was obliged to bed down, destitute, in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

But what of his organ concerto, of his piano sonatas, of Piscarille, his prose satire in French, of his “large-scale work” After Leonardo: Quality and Quantity for a New Civilisation, of his play about Sappho, or of his long poem in terza rima, “Sylvia Pregnant”, said to have been admired by James Joyce? None of them published, and all apparently lost forever.

But his poems do survive. And thanks to Tambi’s foresight, we do still have “Extracts from ‘Irene’”, though this is clearly excerpted from a longer original work. In case anyone imagines Terence White Gervais to be some sort of invention of mine, I have posted the full text of “Irene” on a page here (or use the tab above), together with a few notes and three related pieces that seem also to have been part of the full work.

There is much to be done before even the basic facts of White’s life and work can be sketched out here. A photo of the man would be a good start! Meanwhile, my thanks to Bill Bennett for sharing the labour of Googling down what we do know. Much more to come, hopefully …

Watching the Megalopolopolis

Pushing into the slanting drizzle that raked the bleak cultural plazas of central Birmingham today, I found my way to Metropolis: reflections on the modern city, on show at the Gas Hall till late June. Here Birmingham and Walsall Galleries show off the “nationally significant Metropolis collection” of “visions of the modern global city by some of the world’s most exciting artists” on which, nudged along by Ikon Gallery, they have splashed their share of the £1 million Art Fund loot.

“The world’s most exciting artists” may be over-egging it a bit, but the dosh has not been entirely wasted. Largely photos and videos, but at least those media have the sheer capacity required to reflect the complexities of an unending urbanism.

I was strangely soothed by Grazia Toderi’s double video projection Orbite Rosse (2009), in which the multi-layered lights of the distant megalopolopolis twinkle and shift benignly; initially pleased by Nicholas Provost’s Storyteller (2011), though on second thoughts merely flipping vertically the moving panoramas of Las Vegas to give a quick impression of intricacy is a bit cheap, to be honest; but fascinated by the slo-mo telephoto multitudes in Beat Streuli’s 2001 video Pallasades. Filming people unguarded at a distance seems to be Struli’s only trick, but at least it’s a good trick. (Though I read recently that the British poet Drummond Allison, killed in 1943, came up around 1941 with the idea of erecting a static camera in the street to film whatever passed, way before Warhol.)

In this show much is “reflected” and “explored” of course, and “issues” are “raised”, as they usually are. But no one’s saying much. And most of it seems so distant and passive: city as backdrop, its image a celebration of our beautiful alienation. Like Iggy Pop’s Passenger, the bus window is as close as we get. So where are the engagements, the détournements, the interventions? Without them, we seem to be stuck in a loop of the same old Ballardian narrative, drifting observers of a decaying urbanism so fixed as to resemble a state of nature …

“Unkind things”: the letters of Kingsley Amis

In a letter to me not long before his death, touching on the role played in the publication of his 1957 collection by poet and novelist John Wain, the poet Gordon Wharton came up with some harsh words for Kingsley Amis, who at that time had moved in the same circles:

“What else? Oh yes, John Wain was lecturing in English at Reading Uni when he was supervising/editing the series in which Errors of Observation appeared … Incidentally, Kingsley Amis absolutely loathed JW, and when John’s sight began to go, he wrote all manner of filthy things to Larkin and/or Conquest. If you can get hold of Amis’s collected letters, you’ll find he has some pretty unkind things to say about me, too. Never retracted, even though I was instrumental in earning him quite a lot of money on the Third Programme. I have postcards and letters from him nagging about money: how much, how soon and how often. Despite all his amusing ways and books, he was a pig!”

amis lettersSo just how unkind was Amis? Picking through The Letters of Kingsley Amis (a volume the size of a small breezeblock), we find that he would probably have been in the same room as Wharton at the January 1953 launch of G S Fraser’s Springtime anthology, in which they were both represented, but didn’t make contact for 18 months, until they met to discuss George Hartley’s Listen magazine, with which Wharton had been involved. In July 1954 Amis wrote to Philip Larkin:

“Had a good jaunt in London the other week. I met Gordon Wharton, a funny little chap with a cockney accent like mine … who looked about 14 and nice but has a wife and kid. When he wasn’t taking TWENTY MINUTES to tell me that ‘it’s a long way to tip a raree’ story in a bad Irish accent, or NEARLY STARTING FIGHTS at Leicester Sq Underground by ‘pretending to be drunk’ and lurching into negroes shouting , etc., he was telling me that LISTEN should have been out, was coming out, on 14th June, but he HASN’T HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT IT FOR WEEKS fuck and burgher. It seems that he’s turned it all over to Geo H[artley].”

Gordon (unlike Amis) didn’t have a racist bone in his body, so the suggestion that he deliberately provoked black people is unfortunate. His grandmother was Irish, and he collaborated poetically with Patrick Galvin, so the Irish accent may have been better than suggested. Amis (lower middle class) had some sensitivities with regard to social status, so for “cockney accent” read “self-educated working class intellectual”. At least they seem to have parted friends. But six months later Amis put the knife in well and truly, in his advice of January 1955 to Robert Conquest on the latter’s choice for his “Movement” anthology, New Lines:

“Your provisional list seems unexceptionable to me. About the 4 fresh people you name, my judgements (for what they’re worth) are:

Gordon Wharton: Snap judgement on what I’ve seen (not much):

P.P.P. (pretty pisspoor)

Though amiable and far from spineless”

On that casual basis Wharton was excluded from New Lines. By April 1956 this “amiable” man had become “that idiot Gordon Wharton.” In October of the same year Amis and Wharton appeared together, alongside Bernard Bergonzi and Geoffrey Warnock, on a Third Programme poetry discussion, The Moral Element. Amis was worried that he “sounded rather a ponce, but … less of a South Kensington coffee-party ponce than Wharton …”

How much of this abuse was also to the face? Or was it saved up for letters to chum Larkin? Much later, in October 1985, Amis commented to Larkin on John Wain:

“What was all that about him going blind a few years ago? Result of meths-drinking to save on drink bills? Or an excuse for his difficulties with the printed word, inability to find his way to the bar, trouble seeing what’s staring him in the face, etc. Takes me back over the years to the afternoon he read me bits of HoD [Hurry on Down] and I was filled with despair because I thought it sounded exactly like crap, which of course it couldn’t be.”

Twenty two years before he had written to Wain himself:

“I thoroughly enjoyed Hurry on Down and read it whenever I had a free moment till I’d finished it. It is very funny in parts and does succeed above all in getting across a grotesque and twisted view of life … I think a few parts are over-written: my only complaint.”

Similar treatment is dealt out to countless others in Amis’s 1200 pages of accumulating vituperation. The reader quickly grows tired of the mannered abuse, the fixed adolescent tone, the relentless “urine”, “bum”, “turdy” and so on, the sad efforts at pornography featuring 14 year old lesbians, the nudie pics enclosed to Larkin, the casual put-downs of women, blacks, Jews.

No doubt it’s been said many times before, but however much of a soft spot one retains for Lucky Jim,  it’s still immensely sad and sobering to follow the steady collapse of this overblown schoolboy with radical inclinations into the ageing, boorish (and boring) reactionary, his gratuitous offensiveness the only remaining echo of an original and authentic dissent. Sad, but somehow oh-so-British.

Or is this an instance of the problem of a particular type of literary personality, one who finds it possible to be humane only in a fictional setting? What kind of dislocated soul is it that mistakes the habit of insult for the discipline of right judgement? And what might this tell us about the urge to write and the yearning for compensation?