Richard Warren

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

Nostalgia for no known face: the poems of Cameron Cathie

In among my stacks of unread or under-read books (theyve peaked exponentially under lockdowns) is a slimbeige volume of verseNostalgia for No Known Place by Cameron Cathie, published in 1938 by Roger Ingram. (I know nothing about this publisher except that by the ‘forties their output had shifted to reprints of classics.This modest collection of some two dozen poems comes in a numbered edition of 250, the front jacket flap bearing a tepid endorsement by no less than Richard Church – ‘I have found much in your work to interest me … Good fortune to your first book’ – which doesn’t bode well. However, an inside note reveals that some of the poems had previously been published in Comment, the busy little mag edited from 1935 to 1937 by Sheila MacLeod and Victor Neuberg, whose contributors (according to Miller and Price’s invaluable British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000) included Dylan Thomas, Ruthven Todd, G S Fraser etc, which is more like it.

So who was Cameron Cathie? I can’t say I’ve found that much. Born in Finchley in 1910 to parents who were both musicians, he changed his name by deed poll in 1942 to Dermot Cathie, but seems to have been known in full as Dermot (or Diarmid) Cameron Cathie. Early in the war he served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, so I’m assuming that he was a pacifist and conscientious objector. His life’s work was in acting. He first trod the boards in 1932, became a stalwart of the BBC rep company, and produced a stage version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1942.

The regretful homesickness of the title of Cathie’s little book is at one remove, the ‘no known place’ being an Ireland that London-born Cathie cannot truly reclaim. In the title poem an Irish voice imagines that lost landscape while mooching round Kensington Gardens and indulging in angsty theatrical metaphors for time, love etc.

There are faults, of course. His musings, sometimes a bit indisciplined, can veer off into the inconsequential, and the significances of what are clearly intended as significant moments are not necessarily felt by the reader. Cathie’s occasional habit of bathetically juxtaposing the archaic and the banal, like this –

O Love, Love, how cold thou canst be
at four a.m., on deck or in the saloon!

– is not as witty as he thinks, and can come across as showy, annoying. His style is sometimes sometimes sunk by appended lyrical platitudes such as:

But love / is in no need of gesture

or

Count not the daffodils / Till they bloom

Quite. Elsewhere, in contrast, it’s too jerky, with a few awkward elisions that could even be typo’s for all I can tell.

But despite the patchiness of the poems, I invested my humble fiver in his book because I like his voice, which is wry, cynical, with a slightly offbeat, young man’s weariness. To be fair, Cathie is at least a half decent poet, and at times it all works quite well, as here from ‘Rose and Crown’:

I read his fate
in a tankard
tanging and heady
with iridescent gas …

… penultimate as last orders
certain as time gentlemen please
there offered a moment
untouchable behind him behind

glass doors that swing no more
and he’s alone at three
in windshining autumnal
verisimilitude of streets.

Those were the days, when the pubs closed after lunch. Let’s finish with more than an excerpt, the full two stanzas of The Gentle Wind Doth Move Silently, Invisibly (title borrowed from William Blake’s ‘Love’s Secret):

My loins girded with nervous tension,
temples and hair with fillet of steel;
spirit plashing unconscious shallows;
I come between fragments of speech from afar.

Your eyes trace the slow bewildering trajectory
till I look on the words’ source, moving me, gleaming anew:
stares from your eyes, stares ecstasy back on me,
come between fragments of speech from afar.

I rather like this, despite the arbitrary punctuation. (Does ‘I come’ mean here what it seems to mean? Maybe. Sex is happily present among these poems.)

Classy special effect from ‘They Came from Beyond Space’

Post-war, Dermot Cathie moved via stage and radio to film, with a string of smallish roles. His chief Google fame is now the distinctly minor part of Peterson in They Came from Beyond Space, Freddie Francis’s laughable (read ‘cult’) Twickenham horror film of 1967. (So far down the cast list is Peterson that I can’t pick out Cathie in the online stills.) A brief cv, in Radio Who’s Who for 1947, concludes with this:Having neither hobby nor club, he says he anticipates an early death’. Happily, he did not die until 1993, aged 82. His cv, sadly, has no publicity mugshot with it.

Theres too much poor and mediocre poetry littering this world (I include my own attempts). But if Cameron/Dermot Cathie’s poems are clearly less than perfect, they’re a long way short of piffle. His endeavours in poetry and short story writing may have petered out by the start of the War, but it would be a shame if they were now to shuffle off into complete oblivion. Hence this post. I haven’t yet been able to put a face to him – ironic, for an actor – but I’d like to imagine that I can remember one.

5 responses to “Nostalgia for no known face: the poems of Cameron Cathie

  1. David Hackbridge Johnson November 10, 2020 at 8:06 pm

    A good rooting out of a very obscure poet! I’ll keep a lookout.

  2. John Sims November 10, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    He also appeared in two made-for-television movies:- The Dinner Was Deadly (1946) and And so To Bed, a comedy based on Pepys’s diaries. (Ref IMDb)

  3. Jim Keery November 10, 2020 at 9:59 pm

    Really enjoyed this one! Both the poetry and the intriguing biographical details. I have a 1937 Comment Treasury, which features – alongside Dylan Thomas, Symons, Todd, Mallalieu and goodness knows who else – ‘Noctambule’ by the same Cameron Cathie – ‘we have no scale of values now! … In common death men bear with them/ nought but their own inimitable style … They bequeath merely so much matter … This is not gold of alchemy/ which will perchance tarnish … the golden dream of silken amazing texture/ which is her hair whom I have loved!’ Agree that despite too many noughts and perchances, there’s some real if not ‘inimitable style’ – I mean in your quotations, not so much mine!

    Best wishes,
    Jim

    • richardawarren November 11, 2020 at 9:47 am

      Thanks, Jim. I’m working on the assumption that ‘Nostalgia …’ was his only published book of verse, and that other poems not selected for the book might be tucked away in ‘Comment’. Maybe he had second thoughts about the perchances and gave that one a miss. But many thanks for digging it out.

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