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)

Tag Archives: Anthony Cronin

Men in tights: Christopher Logue and the sense of History

Sometimes, bits you happen to read slide into each other and coalesce as a question. In this case, if it doesn’t sound too pompous, the question is of poetry, history, reality and “commitment”, the focus being the early work of Christopher Logue, a figure met so far in these posts only as a drinking companion to Burns Singer.

Devil, Maggot & Son

Devil, Maggot & Son

Plenty of copies survive of Logue’s first collection, Wand & Quadrant (1953), but none at sane prices, so on that I can’t comment. But reading his second, Devil, Maggot and Son (1956, though all written in 1953), I was taken aback by the pure medievalism of his poetic theatre – all kings, queens, beggars and towers, and at first glance a world away from his subsequent, plainly spoken, bad-boy-politics register. To be fair, Logue’s playing card world is often darkened by bitterness, just as his Yeatsey lyricism is sometimes “modernised” by an intrusive knobbliness, but even so …

I’ll give a couple of examples below in case you’re interested. Early Logue is an acquired taste, but it can be acquired.

So what’s going on here? This is not the Poundian collocation of historical episodes, nor the sacramental antiquarianism of David Jones, nor Geoffrey Hill’s splicing of centuries. Did Logue, in the afterglow of ‘forties neo-romanticism, simply assume the medieval as the default fancy dress for  an aspiring poet? Or was his vision of turrets and gallows intended for a mirror held to his and our times, in the same way that Henry Treece’s “warrior bards”, by his own account, stand for the very modern victims of the “God of Profit Production”? When Logue writes of “My Saxon tribe” does he mean the working class and assume that we understand that? Does he just expect us to get it?

X, Volume One

X, Volume One

In a merciless review of Logue’s Songs (1959) in X magazine (excerpt below), Anthony Cronin picks up on the problematic medievalism, among much else. In the same issue, Brian Higgins’s poems include a laconically caustic “letter” to Logue (also below), slyly questioning the nature of his social commitment; here Higgins refers to the establishment, in Logue-speak, as “the Normans”. (Higgins, who died in 1965 aged just 35, is a poet worth attention, whose voice arrives in unexpected ways. In Michael Hamburger’s words: “He is wholly original, writing as though he were the first poet ever, just beginning to discover the world and language.”)

Pound embraced Mussolini, Treece turned Tory romantic, Hill was accused of nursing a Victorian nationalism … It all suggests that a committed leftist voice might do well to avoid entanglement in historical other-worlds, lest they turn into national myths, which are by definition conservative. A more fundamental danger of (con)fusing the present and the past must be the leap of implication that, since it was ever thus and still is, it always will be; if nothing has changed, everything changes nothing.

Medieval monarchs and ramparts slip easily enough into those of ancient Greece, which might trigger related questions about Logue’s life’s work, his acclaimed version of Homer’s Iliad, modern anachronisms and all. But that’s another discussion. Interesting though, that Logue was pushed to start the Homer by radio producer D S Carne-Ross, formerly co-editor of Peter Russell’s reactionary review Nine, for whose shenanigans over Homer and popularism see this post.

Poems and excerpts follow.

 

Christopher Logue in youth

Christopher Logue in youth

From “Amateur Horoscope”

In the middle
of the four yellow candles
let the old King
lie in the halflight
dead.

In the middle
of four wetnurses
let the swaddling King
suck the udders of his kind;
for he is ignorant,
with hell before
or heaven behind,
according to the colour of your eyes,
or perhaps your back’s old rage.

Abel and Cain, here is the parable
to be ruled by a King or a Chairman?
Do both answers beg your question
Or is the question itself a beggar?

The King will learn to count,
but not his daily bread. And
they said of the old dead King,
‘He had a lazy heart.’
‘She had out of him
only coins and a bastard.’
‘The orchard he tended
had a gibbet in every sap.’
And the King heard all and wept
My son, son, from the tower
of his hangman’s mind.

 

A Suite for Jewels IV

I, diamond, brighter the new-day
on a thicket of drawn knives
newer than I, lie quiet in the dawn
a magnet to the flights of sun.
Plain, I split on my prism’s edge
white to incarnadine and again white
as the moonlight on Death’s finger.
Within my grasp the acorn and the forest
are chastised on a carbon anvil.
Flesh is my shame. A serf to gold
how often am I worn to idolise
making delight where there is no darling?
yet I in light outmatch my owner’s lust
my craftsman’s sight; my kingdom crowns
whatever King may be. I, illuminate,
only a ton can snuff my beam
or the hungry paws of a beggarmaid.

 

prince-charmingFrom Christopher Logue, Prince Charming: A Memoir, 1999

I assumed that Devil, Maggot and Son had died with Stols. Then a parcel arrived from Amsterdam containing twenty copies of the published book … Creamy paper, the text set in elegant Romulus. As I read them my heart sank. They were so arty. Who on earth could be interested in such stuff? They raised a recurring wish: that my head might somehow be attached to my neck by a sort of bayonet fixture, easily removable for a thorough clean and a good polish before being put back on …

… I said [to Peter Russell] my book no longer pleased me. In future my work would be politically committed. Those who did not work did not deserve to eat.

 

From Anthony Cronin, “The Notion of Commitment: An Aesthetic Inquiry,” in X 1:1, 1959

This resolute self-regard is the principal impression left by Mr Logue’s propagandist poems. They are glumly insistent that Mr Logue is the only one who cares:

Men of the future think of me
Living at a time when one by one
Our kings give way to businessmen,
Our poets wrote to make men bother less,
Our wisemen, fat with caution, spoke of death,
And most died twice from individuality,
In this time on earth given by men to me.

Apart from egotism, the passage displays only the threadbare nature of Mr Logue’s social thinking – the romantic cliché, worthy of Noel Coward, about kings giving way to businessmen, and the communist jargon about people dying twice from individuality – truer to say they are dead from mass-production …

… Many of the sentiments expressed in Mr Logue’s poems are undoubtedly admirable, if unoriginal; what is wearisome is the constant claiming of so much credit for possessing them. The language is a mixture of turgidity and old Georgian frivolity about kings and princesses with a few words like ‘turd’ and ‘shit’ thrown in, apparently in the hope of achieving an uncompromising modernity. The real modern world never appears; for all the indication the (mostly literary) imagery of the poems gives we might as well be living in the Middle Ages. We learn nothing from the poems about Mr Logue’s attitude to any of the difficult relations in life … The vivid lyrical gift which is supposed to provide the jam on the pill, the separable poetry, when not a fearsome misuse of Yeats (and some other very odd influences, including Dame Edith Sitwell), turns out to be a compound of all the sweepings of the Georgian anthologies. Here is Mr Logue in lyrical vein and the manner of Rupert Brooke:

For God’s sweet sake give me back part of that
I gave. Part of a part? One loving jot?
Child I am no Elizabethan hack
Spicing his dalliance in a sonnet’s pot …

… This remote moonshine, far removed from the sane speech of men ever or anywhere, presumably represents Mr Logue’s attempts to come to grips with what the apostles of commitment call, in a noticeable tone of self-congratulation, ‘reality’. Complacent, trivial and boring, it reflects nothing but an ultimate unconcern with life. Poetry as an expression of adult matters which involve other people is not Mr Logue’s concern.

 

Brian Higgins, “A Letter to Christopher Logue,” in X 1:1, 1959

‘More days than sausages’, you said.
Well, one day I had four
And some thousands of words;
Mainly advice on Theft.

Brian Higgins by Patrick Swift

Brian Higgins by Patrick Swift

Thank you, Christopher Logue
(You well known classical translator)
Because of you I have moved towards action
Which is robbing banks.

Each day something drops –
From posters, from our pockets and ourselves.
Those who care for such serious matters
Will replace the posters.
As for our pockets – in time we may be lucky,
And God, or whoever arranges such things,
Will replace us when we die.

Since that day I’ve wondered
If four sausages were too many
To take from the Poet of Need.
Also how much you like my verses,
Wondered how long I will live,
How long my money will last.
I have several times been drunk,
Often lonely,
Written a play and songs to go with it.

I have done no mathematics
Received no money from the Government,
Bought what I need and sold nothing.

If you asked me, ‘What about the H-bomb?’
I would reply:
‘It will either burn us or bore us to death.’

If you asked me, ‘Are you for the rich or the poor?’
I would answer:
‘Those who are hungry are poorer than I am.
Let them find me, I will give them bread.
Those who are masters of employment
Know more than I do about riches.
If they pay wages they will grumble.’

I will say
‘I am for those who try to be artists,
Yet no doubt some who fail
Find compensations.
And those who succeeded,
Did they cut their throats from over-excitement
Or go mad through a joyful effulgence?’

If I became rich it would be through a literary accident,
If I stay poor – in our profession that’s no proof of failure.

Lastly, Christopher, a piece of advice
(Having read your instructions and stopped drinking milk)
Remember the English do not shoot
Satirists and attackers of the official order,
But we have yet to meet with a dangerous Laureate.
If the Normans change their policy
Be sure they will pick one they know will attack.

 

(Unnecessary bibliographical appendix: according to Logue’s memoir Prince Charming, the first edition of Devil, Maggot and Son was published by A A M Stols in the Netherlands. Subsequently Peter Russell (poet, publisher and editor of Nine magazine) prevailed on Stols to print “a small English edition” on his behalf. However, my copy of the Stols version is inscribed “Second Printing” while my otherwise identical Russell version is not. Each claims to be limited to 250 copies and each has the same numbered page to that effect dated September 1956. Not that it matters a hoot. Mind you, Logue’s memoir also has Stols dying during the production of the book, but in fact he survived until 1973. So much for memories.)

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Consolidating the Roberts

More dissident nostalgia! My big page on the Two Roberts, painters and roisterers Colquhoun and MacBryde, now has nine encounters with the twosome, including the reminiscences by Arthur Berry and Cedra Osborne from previous posts, plus three new excerpts from memoirs of the Roberts by Anthony Cronin, Julian Maclaren-Ross and John Moynihan.

Cronin by Patrick Swift

In his 1976 memoirs of bohemia, Dead as Doornails, Anthony Cronin devotes some thirty pages to the Roberts, every one worth reading. His writing is crafted, snappy, beautifully observed and frequently hilarious. In addition to the Roberts, he is excellent on Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Doornails is obtainable for the price of a small sandwich on Amazon – recommended!

Cronin’s, of course, is the primary version of the famous episode when Colquhoun, brandishing a carving knife, is said to have pursued MacBryde around the front garden of Cronin’s Wembley digs at the height of a thunder storm, both men stark naked. But he is also good on MacBryde’s declining years after the death of Colquhoun, and gives a touching account of his funeral. And unlike some Roberts-chroniclers, he clearly looked closely at their paintings. One could excerpt almost any passage with profit, but I’ve chosen some of his core descriptions of the boys.

maclaren-rossThe first time that Julian Maclaren-Ross met Robert Colquhoun the latter is reported to have said “And you call yourself a Scotsman? You look like a bloody phoney …” – a comment that Maclaren-Ross clearly felt to be uncalled for. On the other hand, if the latter had been in his customary rig – long, fawn, belted “teddy bear” coat, buttonholed carnation, dark glasses and a gold topped cane – Colquhoun’s reaction might have been understandable. When Maclaren-Ross first met MacBryde (separately), the latter, “wearing a fringe and a kilt,” exclaimed “I don’t doubt he’s as scared of me as I am of him.” First impressions, then, were not especially sympathetic. But here, excerpted from his Memoirs of the Forties, is something of what Maclaren-Ross made of C & M on more extended acquaintance. To be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps. But who was the kilted blacksmith “Shawn” who kept them company?

Young Moynihan at the typewriter

The late (and legendary) football writer John Moynihan’s Restless Lives, 2002, is a gossipy, though sometimes painful, chronicle of the earlier careers of his parents, the painters Rodrigo and Elinor Moynihan (Elinor Bellingham-Smith). It includes a strangely distant and waspish portrait of the Roberts, mainly Colquhoun, with some salacious detail on the hetero side of his sexuality. (Apparently Colquhoun “much admired” the Cockney singer Georgia Brown, later to find fame as Nancy in Oliver!) More sympathetic towards the unhappy figure of John Minton, Moynihan seems to have regarded the Roberts mostly as feral gate-crashers. But then, the Moynihans were at the Chelsea end of the Soho-Chelsea axis, where bohemia interfaced with the establishment. Here are one or two of the few more interesting bits. (It’s doubtful, by the way, that W S Graham was alone in using speed, as reported by Moynihan. The benzedrine he is said to have “snorted” would have been in inhaler form. And might account for some of the volubility of his earlier work … But stealing bedroom ornaments?)

(My pieces on various painters influenced by the Roberts, and their mentor Jankel Adler, are now on a separate ‘Followers’ page, here, updated by the addition of my earlier post on Louis le Brocquy. Portraits of C & M, including self-portraits, remain on the ‘Encounters’ page. After all this gossip, it might make sense to take a look at aspects of the Roberts’ own work in due course …)

Creating a poor impression

It is possible to have one’s better judgement coshed into submission by an appeal to heroic recklessness. Recounting a doomed and penniless jaunt across Europe in the late 1940’s in the company of Brendan Behan, Anthony Cronin noted that at moments of crisis, Behan would propose a solution that, in any sane view, could only compound disaster, but then get his own way by casting himself as “man-of-action-thwarted-by-inadequate-lieutenant”. This brings to mind a far lesser expedition taken one shameful day in late 1977 by myself and my friend, the artist and experimental film maker Peter Hatton, on which my better judgement was left behind, wailing. At a distance of 35 years, confession begins to look something close to appropriate.

Memorably described by Philip Norman in the Sunday Times as “a bony, spasmodic boy, with hair like a mass of bubbles,” Pete was a charismatic, Rimbaud-ish mass of tics with a talent for unexpected and absolute enthusiasms; the fingers of his left hand were rigid from some teenage crisis where he had punched through the glass of a phone box. But his commitment to his art was absolute. Our artistic careers then being a tad in the doldrums, he had hit on the sudden strategy of an unannounced, in-person appeal to Impressions Gallery, the pioneering and well regarded photography venue in York. They had already very decently shown odd bits of our work (photograms, photocollages and so on) alongside Moholy Nagy and Dr Harold Edgerton, no less.  So they were, by Pete’s calculation, certain to be grateful for the opportunity to give us a headline two man show.

The virtue of this plan lay exclusively in its audacity. Since we had not thought to prepare the ground for our proposal in any way whatsoever, Pete judged that the required forceful spontaneity would be entirely to our advantage. Our naked vulnerability would be the guarantee of our authenticity, to the point where, as he explained, our benefactors would hardly consider wounding us by a refusal. I had some doubts, but sat on them, not wishing to appear the inadequate lieutenant or anything short of authentic.

Peter Hatton, collage, 1979, from the ‘Hostility’ series

The day, in my recollection, was flat and overcast. I have an image of rain, but maybe it wasn’t so. A car being well beyond our pockets, public transport was our only means, and so we set out on what should have been a relatively straightforward train journey from Wakefield to Leeds. Having lined our optimism with a stiff pre-expedition drink, we strode off for Kirkgate station.

In those days, most substantial railway platforms hosted a sturdy café that thoughtfully offered tins of beer to lighten the humdrum journey. Having welcomed this offer with open arms, we contrived to dash onto the wrong platform for our change of train at Leeds, realising much later that we were travelling at speed away from York, passing Batley and Dewsbury and heading rapidly for Huddersfield and Manchester.

Another Hatton collage

Confused back tracking followed, with hangings about after lost connections on wind scoured stations whose monotony was alleviated only by further supplies of beer. Once we were back on board, the grey, scratched, hard-done-by landscape of South Yorkshire limped painfully by. It was as if we had entered a metaphysical funnel where time snoozed. Emerging (some real hours later) under darkening clouds, we rolled unsteadily off the vast platform at York and, as directly as we could manage, headed for Colliergate.

With a degree of triumphant hurrahing, and imagining ourselves more sober than we really were, we finally burst through the doors of the gallery, to find ourselves, to our complete amazement, confronted by a crowd of unfamiliar people, largely in formal dress, most of whom who turned to stare at us in silence. After what seemed like (but may not have been) a very long pause, we must have said something lame and drunken about why we were there. We may even have asked to see Andrew Sproxton, the much respected founder and co-director of Impressions. After another awkward pause, someone explained quietly but very firmly that his funeral had taken place that afternoon and that we had interrupted his wake. With some sort of mumbled apology, we backed out.

Andrew had died at the age of 28. So rigorous had been our disdain of any form of reconnaissance that even this piece of tragedy had avoided our attention.

I don’t much recall the conversation on our return journey. I was probably too drunk by then to notice. I think we might have reassured ourselves with the notion that this comprehensive disaster had in some way sealed the purity of our approach, reckoning our refusal to compromise with reality as a kind of moral high ground. We were, after all, poètes maudits, and comprehensive disaster was our pride and our club badge. Though I dare say both of us, in the privacy of our own hearts, felt rather differently about what we had just done. On the rare occasions when I have since managed to bring myself to think about this incident, I have tried to construct a scenario in which we might have got things more comprehensively and tactlessly wrong, but have never succeeded.

We had other moments, but not quite up to that standard. Not the night when, after an epic bus journey across the West Riding on some futile art-related errand, we found ourselves marooned without taxi fare in a gay bar in Bradford. Nor the post-performance pub session at Butler’s Wharf in London where Pete simply disappeared overnight (later claiming to have been abducted by a predatory witch), leaving me with the suitcases. Not even the climactic occasion in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields when, with Robert Worby and Jez Welsh, fellow members of the Aerschot Performance Division, we delivered a piece of performance art of such heroic and alienating ferocity as to hack off every man jack and woman jill of the watching Arts Council panel authorised to offer us a generous grant. The performance was essentially unplanned; the sheer intolerable volume of electronic white noise rammed through our speakers brought clergy down to complain and sent Adrian Henri scurrying for the exit.

Pete went on to work with distinction at Fieldhead Special School in Wakefield, caring for children with severe learning difficulties and physical disabilities. The use of moving coloured lights as a sensory stimulation for children with special needs has now been mainstream for many years, but he had pioneered this in the late ‘seventies as a natural development of his art practice, and I believe he should be credited with the original idea. When he died in 1998, he was only in his mid-forties. Later that year, Wakefield Art Gallery gave him a posthumous show, his first and last real solo exhibition.

Following an earlier visit by Pete to my Sheffield bedroom (I’ll skip the details except to say that they involved a drop of what was alleged to be opium oil, considerable vomiting and some alarming auditory hallucinations), I had experienced for a short while the strange sense of being propelled forward a couple of decades, to live through some momentous, troubling but unidentifiable future event. Many years later it occurred to me that I had foreseen his death.

Perhaps, as Cronin observed, “it is almost impossible for sensitive, intelligent, over-imaginative people not to make a hames of their development.” Or had we just mistaken a reckless lifestyle for some rich vein of creativity? In the end, Pete remained loyal to his instinct for self-destruction. Whereas these days my Imp of the Perverse, God forgive him, can manage only a little wilful neglect of relationships or of necessary tasks; at one time, in the absence of any grander gesture, he would have contemplated rolling up everything and flinging it at the wall.