Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: May 2018

Memorial and no memorial

There’s a fair bit already on this site about waspish blond poet James Burns Singer, mostly via the “Transparent Prisoner” tabs above. Here’s a bit more.

From the late ‘fifties Burns Singer was based in Cambridge, where he married pioneering black psychologist, child psychotherapist and Fellow of Clare Hall, Marie Battle. In his intro to Singer’s 1970 Collected, W A S Keir notes that after the poet’s too early death in 1964 aged 36, his ashes were scattered at sea, but that “on 24th July 1966, a memorial stone was dedicated to his memory in Little St Mary’s Churchyard, Cambridge.” Anne Cluysenaar also mentions it in her intro to the 1977 Selected.

So where and what exactly is this memorial? On my first visit it avoided me, and I wondered if it had actually existed, or had been removed, though to be fair I was struggling to stay conscious in the teeth of a howling winter’s gale in March, which shortened my time shivering and poking about in the churchyard. When I asked afterwards, none of the kind people at St Mary’s (thank you, Christine Tipple) had any knowledge of it, but on my latest visit it finally revealed itself. In case anyone else wants to take a look, the memorial is on the left among the ranks of small stones set into the ground at the street end, which at first I’d assumed marked only burials of ashes. It’s worn and mottled, but it still reads:

TO THE MEMORY OF
JAMES BURNS SINGER
POET AND MARINE BIOLOGIST
1928 – 1964
AND HIS WIFE
MARIE BATTLE SINGER
PSYCHOANALYST
1910 – 1985

That’s a fine inscription. I’m not sure whether this is the original 1966 stone with an added bit, or a 1985 replacement, though I imagine the first. Who re-dedicated it to Marie Battle Singer, I wouldn’t know. My pics (click to enlarge) show the memorial and its location, and I’ll throw in an awkward selfie-with-stone for good measure. (Tricky angle.)

 

I should dedicate this post, not that it’s anywhere near worthy of him, to another Cambridge poet, my friend Bill Bennett, who died, very sadly, three weeks ago.  Though he had edited the earliest editions of Perfect Bound, the influential ‘seventies “Cambridge school” poetry magazine, he was himself published surprisingly rarely. Nevertheless, he saw as a poet, wrote as a poet, and lived as a poet – and as much more too. An entirely remarkable man. No stone for him, just woodland, as it should be.

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Us and Mr Jones: the Roberts meet David

It’s a small world, and once it was even smaller. In Thomas Dilworth’s new biography of David Jones (scrupulously detailed and documented and full of interesting moments) I was surprised to find this:

[Robert] Buhler sent ‘quite a number’ of younger painters to see [David Jones], including Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, known as ‘the Roberts’. They were Glasgow Scots nationalists, openly homosexual, interesting talkers, fine storytellers, warm and charming, but usually too drunk, Jones found, to converse with properly. Liking his pictures and finding in them encouragement for their own
non-abstract work, ‘they were’, Buhler said, ‘mad about him’.

(There’s more on both Jones and the Two Roberts elsewhere on this site; use the tags – down on the right – and/or the two “Colquhoun and MacBryde” page tabs – up the top.)

This was in 1943, and is referenced to Dilworth’s interviews with the painter Robert Buhler in the ‘eighties. I was surprised because neither Jones nor Buhler show up at all in Roger Bristow’s fine book on the Roberts, The Last Bohemians, nor in the ‘forties chapter (by Patrick Elliott and Adrian Clark) in the National Galleries Scotland picture book of the Roberts’ 2014 show.

 

But this meeting does make sense, at least to the extent that Jones and the Roberts can be seen to share certain concerns: a folkloric sensibility, forms of Celtic heritage, the supreme value of the drawn line. In other important respects – colour, texture – they seem poles apart, but the heavy post-Picasso angularity of the Roberts’ work from about 1945 onwards was yet to come, and at this time it still employed a certain Palmerish fluidity of which Jones would have approved.

John Davenport by Robert Buhler

The odd man out here is the third Robert, Robert Buhler, of whom I’d not heard before. The link is Prudence Pelham, one of the great unrequited loves of Jones’ life, who became Buhler’s partner (and changed her name to his by deed poll) in 1943. Four years later Buhler became an RA; Jones later declined the offer of his own nomination, declaring that to be accepted by the RA would be ‘an absolutely disgusting betrayal of everything I ever believed in’. Buhler seems to have combined a Bohemian lifestyle with a rather safe approach to painting that must have proved popular. His Art UK page shows a large number of perfectly competent but unexciting landscapes that fall somewhere between Impressionism and the Euston Road School, plus some very brown portraits of notables, from which the sitters (Spender and Auden among them) struggle to emerge alive. An exception is a rather more animated image of the ubiquitous John Davenport, ghost writer for Augustus John, partner in parody with Dylan Thomas, and much else of
considerable interest.

 

Sea, sun and fascism

Having just tried it, I’m not sure I’d wholeheartedly recommend a cruise holiday. (Unless, of course, you like the idea of being imprisoned in a floating holiday camp with a couple of thousand Daily Mail readers.) But at least it took us to Athens, Crete and Rhodes, including the remarkable Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes aka of St John, aka Hospitallers. In the thirties under the Italian occupation, the palace was heavily repaired; the resulting mediaeval-deco “restoration” came across to me as highly staged – vast, uninterrupted, checked stone walls, baroque angels looted out of their context and isolated in bare niches, huge Japanese vases (gifts from an Axis ally), all punctuated by wrought iron chandeliers that only emphasised the empty hardness of the surfaces. With its gratuitously surplus uninhabited spaces, its alien aesthetic of impersonal, almost anti-human, tastefulness and order – anti-human both in scale and in texture – the whole interior felt still drenched in fascism, as if we were wandering through a set for some lost scene from Bertolucci’s Il Conformista.

 

Had the Greeks not seen fit to deconstruct and reclaim all this? How was the fascist period of the Italian occupation regarded now? We’d just been to the monastery at Filerimos, built likewise in the thirties with its Italian Way of the Cross, but also home to an ancient, inexpressibly dolorous and affecting icon of Mary; so how far had the occupation tolerated the Greek Orthodox church? I asked our tour guide.

 

I couldn’t actually make out her eyes behind her sunglasses, but I could tell that they hardened instantly. Her previously modulated voice became intense and emotional. It had been horrible for the people of Rhodes. Horrible. In 1922 they had replaced the old governor with a fascist. Most of the churches had been closed. Children had been forced to learn Italian in school. All opposition had been eliminated. Her mother, as a child, had seen people executed in the street. It had been a dreadful time for Rhodes. She gestured behind her to a large plaque in Italian, still prominent on an outside wall, crediting the palace restoration to Il Duce. My fellow Brits appeared bemused or indifferent.

 

High on one vast checked wall inside we saw carved between roses “Fert”, the motto of the House of Savoy. No one translated; looking it up now, I see that various unlikely acronyms have been suggested, but in simple Latin it can be read as “S/he suffers”. That seems appropriate enough. The next day we found ourselves at Arkadi monastery in Crete, besieged by the Ottoman army in the Cretan revolt of 1866, where a few hundred women and children, barricaded into the powder room, had blown themselves to pulp rather than be taken alive. The attached museum displayed a long hank of human hair, retrieved later from a roof top.

Back on the boat, having finished W G Sebald’s excellent but distressing Rings of Saturn (more journeys, more atrocities), I found myself in need of fresh reading material; the only half decent book on offer in the little shop turned out to be Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, a fascinatingly repellent account of the forged Hitler diaries scandal of 1983. Following the revelation that Goering’s yacht was appropriated by the British royal family and rechristened the Prince Charles, I read that Hitler’s paintings are technically so poor as to be a doddle for the amateur forger, and so boring that in the final analysis no collector of them really cares whether what they have is faked or real. That evening the ship’s tannoy announced a poolside Last Night of the Proms-themed singalong, to “celebrate all that makes Britain great”. The holiday was not turning out quite as I’d expected.

There are plenty of images of the Grand Master’s Palace online but those above are mine. Click for enlarged slides. I haven’t linked to any image of the icon at Filerimos, as no reproduction or copy really looks like what we saw, nor gives any sense of the experience of being in its physical presence. For the first time, I’m prepared to credit an icon as being an effective and transmitting thing-in-itself. As being in some sense “alive”.

Set that against the deadening art of fascism!