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: Cambridge

A rose extinction: the poetry of Gervase Stewart

In issue two (1944) of Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece’s New Apocalyptic review Transformation (For Treece, see here) appears a prefaced “In Memoriam” to four poets killed on service: Sidney Keyes, R Brian Scott, Gervase Stewart and Alun Lewis. Though the dedicatory poem by Richard Church doesn’t quite hit the spot – “Out of the tumbled plane, the dead boy … there flutters again the phoenix of death, whose song surprises” – its sentiment is honourable enough.

IMG_0003Of the four enfants perdus, the dead boy out of a tumbled plane who is not so well remembered as Keyes and Lewis is Gervase Stewart, killed in August 1941. Beyond contributions scattered among small magazines his only poetic legacy is a slim selection put together hastily by Treece and published by The Fortune Press in 1942. For title, Treece chose No Weed Death, culled from Stewart’s “Obituary notice for the Squire”:

He craved no weed death but a rose extinction …

If the choice of title was a happy one, Treece’s judgement in the selection of poems was maybe less secure. Even so, there’s enough quality in these three dozen small pages to show that Stewart was a poet of real ability who deserves our attention, even if his output had not yet achieved the volume and confidence of Keyes, Keith Douglas or Drummond Allison, the obvious comparisons. (For Allison, see here and here.) “Had he lived,” wrote Treece with maybe not too much exaggeration, “there is little doubt that he would have become one of the most eminent poets of his generation.”

Trevor Tolley noted approvingly Stewart’s “Audenesque stylishness,” and identified his strength in “an urbane blend of imaginative fantasy and a sensitive awareness of the everyday world that was characteristic of the poetry of the thirties.” On the whole, the influences of Auden and Eliot served Stewart well. He is at his best in a sort of Audenish, floating, hawk’s eye commentary that picks out among the minutiae of daily life the signifiers of the anxieties of the age: nostalgia for the pre-war peace, fear of what is to come, the relentless betrayal of ordinary people.

Have we not watched the terror of the night
Receding and winging up and down the stairs
And a floor board stretching in the heat
Has spoken death to us. You too have been alone
With the table lamp, standing as a lady stands
On Brighton beach in summer with her hands
Clasped ecstatically behind her head …

Or –

Day goes with sun as golden lift girls go
slipping to basement down the shaft of night.
Sea makes its soft shape comfortable, assumes
an easy shade, as from their broken rooms
in tribes the chosen people make for tubes,
take escalator down
to dream of bricks and straw and wait for dawn
at Earls Court, Leicester Square and Camden Town …

He is at his less best in lyrical, self-torturing  teenage boy mode, but then he was a teenage boy when most of his work was written. Some pieces give the impression of being unfinished, and there is a tendency to wander off or to unravel towards the end, plus an occasional but persistent weakness for rhymes ending in “-ation”. But there are also many pieces to admire, and I’ve transcribed my own selection of sixteen – a personal choice, not representative – on a new Gervase Stewart page – go here or find the tab up above. I hope you’ll read them.

wikiThere is no comprehensive point of reference, but the life of Gervase Leslie Stewart can be picked out from various sources. (Thanks to Bill Bennett for his input on this.) He was born in March 1920 in Monkseaton, a pleasant village near Whitley Bay in Tyneside. He followed his father to Tynemouth School (later renamed King’s), a local and aspirational public school. In a poem not in my selection, Stewart voices himself as “essentially one of the rank and file … persuaded our suburb was rather elite” who has “attended a school of exorbitant fees”. But it clearly suited him, and his fingerprints are all over the school magazine of the time, in the cricket and rugby teams, the boxing club, composing a “rugger song,” in the library and the debating society, in amateur dramatics and musical theatre, and then as house captain and head boy. The magazine reports that as a boxer Stewart “is keen, and has an admirable physique … quite stylish and a heavy hitter. His footwork must develop from the hopping shuffle which it is at present.” As a cricketer, he was no batsman, but his fielding is said to be “particularly stylish” and, later, “singularly spectacular.”

Henry Treece was at the time a popular young teacher at the school, organising boxing and drama and supervising the magazine. He came to know Stewart as a confident and vital young man with “an enthusiasm for life which may best be described as Elizabethan … kind though candid, sincere though subtle,” good humoured, versatile, with a strong faith in God and in essential human goodness. On the other hand, many of the poems indicate that behind this “handsome presence” lay a full portion of doubts, anxieties and melancholy.

In 1935, when Stewart was just fifteen, he was already writing poetry, and showed his efforts to Treece, who judged them “competent, but a little too commonplace and literary.” Despite his natural ebullience, his serious teenage writing seems to have been a rather guarded affair; the school magazine contains just one contribution, in 1937, a promising descriptive exercise on the topic of “Rain” which bears the stamp of Treece’s encouragement:

The boles of trees reflect a growing smudge
Of light, a soft electric lozenge squashed
On sodden, shining oaks. The miles of streets
Gold-splashed, run oil, and fish-scaled gutters see
Within their mirrors, hazed red, yellow, green …

IMG_0001Both Treece and Stewart left the school in the summer of 1938. In 1939 Stewart went to St Catharine’s, Cambridge to read theology, with the intention of ordination. (He may initially have been at Fitzwilliam House until it was disbanded and the students transferred.) In his first year he became editor of Granta and in Lent term 1940 a “chairman of debates”, the wartime equivalent of Union president, being considered “one of its wittiest speakers.” In the ‘eighties his fellow poet Nicholas Moore recalled that Stewart avoided the Cambridge literati: “He hung out with the rugger crowd, all tough, bumptious boys together.” (Despite this, contact with Moore was close enough for Moore to publish Stewart’s work in several outlets and to dedicate a poem to him.) “He was a brilliant scholar. Yet when it came to exams, he became as nervous and fluttery as a girl before her first party – a bundle of nerves, shivering and quaking like a trapped animal and chattering away nineteen to the dozen.” Derek Stanford remembered Stewart simply as “an Apollo in tweeds.”

A few of Stewart’s more effective poems have a London setting, and at some point after the outbreak of war he must have spent time there. During this period his poems appeared in Seven, edited in Cambridge by Moore, Delta, run by Lawrence Durrell, The New English Weekly, Granta and Fords and Bridges (“The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine”), also edited by Moore among others. In 1940 six of his pieces appeared in the Hogarth Press’s Poets of Tomorrow: Cambridge Poetry 1940, edited by Moore and Alex Comfort. A short story, “Gretchen,” later appeared in the Schimanski-Treece anthology of 1944, A Map of Hearts.

In 1940 Stewart abandoned his studies, joined the Fleet Air Arm and was posted as a flying instructor with 749 Squadron to HMS Goshawk, a naval air station in Trinidad. On 25 August 1941 his Walrus seaplane exploded in mid-air. Temporary sub-lieutenant Stewart RNVR was killed with both members of his crew. He was 21 years old.

IMG_0002Given that (or perhaps because) Treece chided the schoolboy poet for a preoccupation with the Divine (“He replied that God was within his experience as much as anything on earth”), there is relatively little of the overtly Christian showing in Stewart’s surviving writing, though he was clearly extremely sensitive to ordinary suffering and injustice. No specific political allegiance emerges, but at times he demonstrates an outspoken and angry radicalism. In “The Two Septembers,” an early and apparently unfinished “play” (more a declamation in rhyming couplets) later published in Treece’s Transformation, an “orator” exhorts the crowd to demolish the Whitehall Cenotaph and replace it with a huge toilet:

…   This cold white stone
Is a mockery out of the past. Let us tear it down,
And build for ourselves a luxurious lavatory,
For a public convenience will perpetuate the memory
Of unnecessary death as well as a monument will.

PEOPLE

Call the workmen and bid them tear it down.
Let us drag to the spot the mobile crane …
Out of the old we will build the new,
Out of the rotten will grow the ripe …

Down with it. Down with it. Down with it.

IMG_0004Even at his most nationalistically anthologisable, in “I burn for England,” Stewart’s patriotism is, as we now say, considerably nuanced: “Flame shall destroy whoever seeks to turn [her people’s] sacrifice to profit” in a “war for freedom” fought by those “who were never free.”

Naturally, he also wrote his share of navel-gazing soliloquies –

Will none remember that I walked upon this land
And penned one bearing note upon its song?

– and of love poems, some quite direct:

Naked at night in a golden chariot
Drive to my heart, my lover.

It’s possible to read these in the context of the seismic uncertainties thrown up by the outbreak of war, but in the main they seem to me the less successful pieces, and I’ve tended to avoid them in my own small selection, in favour of Stewart’s broader visions of social complacency and despair, parting and war – the “brightly coloured maze moving massed and individual.”

Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project

Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project

“Pick up my book,” he wrote in maudlin-mortal mode, in the early “My Vanity.” “Read but one verse, and I … will know that one, at least, remembers me.” Well, we have, and we do, but for better reasons than that particular verse. In place of the neo-romantic spectre of Death, mortality in Stewart’s poems is recurrently, and presciently, figured by clocks – the stealthy tread of clocks, the swinging heart of clocks, obsequious clocks, hammer clocks, watch ticks, semitones, persistent tappings, rhythmic pulse. There is a dreadful brevity in the easy transition from the school 1st XV to college to warfare, all tough, bumptious boys together. His short life seems little more than a countdown to that awful, unnecessary, mid-air moment when, quite literally burning for England in living flame, he was extinguished in a rose of fire.

To save retracing steps, here’s another link to the selection of his poems.

*           *           *

As a suffix, two appeals. Google threw up, then promptly lost, a snippet of a later poem involving a pint of beer and an air raid. If you have the full text of that, I’d love to see it.

Secondly, I can find no picture of Stewart. There are hints online of  a second edition of No Weed Death, possibly by Bodley Head in 1944, that contains a portrait. If that’s so and anyone can send a scan of that or of any other image of him that I can use here, I’d be very grateful.

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La nostalgie continue …

At the risk of bogging down this blog in personal recollections (not the core intention), here are a couple more poster finds from the big clear-out.

medical aid vietnam
First, a geenuwine silk screened political poster from 1969. I designed and cut the stencil, and though I say it myself, it’s not bad. This was to publicise in Cambridge a sponsored walk put on by the London Medical Aid Committee for Vietnam, an organisation that we regarded as kosher, and not a Cold War front. Which does seem, with hindsight, to have been the case. The actual walk was not as much fun for me as it should have been. The distance was over twenty miles; I’d never walked as far in my life. And one of the Cambridge organisers, from a local sixth form, had recently informed me that she could only offer me, at best, a comradely affection. Her letter was written on bright orange tissue paper.

liberal ideology
And onwards to the ‘seventies. This letterpress student rant was my response to a Sheffield School of Art working party report that had managed to come up with nothing more focused for art education than fluffy aspirations to “freedom, diversity and independence.” The poster was, of course, made under the oblique influence of Art & Language, but it has the virtue of being understandable, which is more than you can say for their stuff. (Though, to be fair, most of my work at the time was obscurantist to an extreme, revolutionary clarity having been overwhelmed by the black tide of occultism.) One tutor said he liked the poster but felt it might be unfair to those obliged to spend time in real psychiatric hospitals. Which was a good point. Anyway, at least the typesetting is nifty – a vanished skill these days. Great fonts!

I ran into some people associated with Art & Language around this time at a National Union of Students art education conference. Nobody understood their motions, so I proposed the complete abolition of assessment in Art HE, which conference, gratifyingly, voted for, making it (theoretically) official NUS policy. The conference chair and then NUS President, none other than Labour axeman Charles Clarke, didn’t seem too bothered by this storming of the barricades; NUS top brass routinely ignored conference decisions. On my return I wrote a conference report for the art school newsletter entirely in rhyming couplets. This was duly typed up by our long suffering NUS office administrator, the amiable Angela Coe, who mentioned in passing that her son Sebastian was now doing quite well with his running. Funny how history picks out a few things for the mantelpiece, but kicks all the others under the settee …

A Big Idea that didn’t quite wash: the Dialectical Experience of Robert Simpson

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of a Big Idea. Nor overestimate it, for that matter.

Big Ideas seemed pretty powerful in late ‘sixties Cambridge. The University had always patted them on the head, but now, in the rather feverish political atmosphere of the times, they had swollen mightily, were biffing above their weight and bidding fair to revolutionise the world, as we student activists dared to hope. Or if not the world, at least academia.

photo1Few can have had more faith in the power of a Big Idea than Robert Simpson, a first year architecture student one corridor below me. Quite why Robert had chosen architecture I never understood, as he was so rapidly disillusioned by the technical emphases of the discipline that he wilfully hurled away any chances of passing his first year. But no matter if architects were unfit to build a new world, for meanwhile Robert had discovered Dialectical Experience.

leafletI don’t think I have ever seen anyone so transformed by a revelation at a purely intellectual level. In fact, Robert became, for a brief while, fanatically evangelistic. Typing up his thoughts, he had them Gestetnered onto sides of quarto; a few sympathetic souls, myself included, were press ganged into shoving these leaflets under every door in the college.

As it happens, I still have a yellowing copy (probably the last surviving), which I transcribe here:

LIFE HAS A MEANINGLESS PURPOSE AND A PURPOSELESS MEANING.

Logic is total, indivisible and real. There are either things or there are not things. There are no half-things. A thing either is what it is or what it is not. If it is what it is not, it is not. What is exists, what is not, does not exist.

Dialectical logic is logic orientated by the “unity of all things,” and as such has no premises, nor can the experience be intellectualized or known. It denies critism[sic] and can only be accepted. There is no dialectical theory, all dialectical statements are self-evident truths, and as such are balanced procreating systems.

Logic is real, thus it can be used instrumentally by the dialectical experience; and logic is energised by thought; and thought is generated by the need to survive.

Polemical logic is logic orientated by a dual concept of the universe, in which man defines things through this conceptualization. He conceptualizes by the differentiation and the polarization of entities. The type-form is conceived as a standard against which all experiences are classified. The type-form is a fabrication. As polemics can therefore only describe things in terms of what they are not, or in terms of an unreal, conceptualized standard, it can never answer a question demanding to know what a thing is and/or why a thing is. So, to “answer” those questions and prevent paralysis of thought and, therefore, total self-destruction, polemical logic polarizes man and the universe in order to have individual authority in a controlling ego (“I think, therefore, I am.”)

The dialectical experience sees that this identification separates an inseparable and, therefore, it cannot be real. So, the ego (societal and individual) cannot exist. Only the single entity exists; thus man is the universe (“I am, therefore, I am.”)

The classifier cannot classify himself!
The instrument cannot be instrumental upon itself!
What am I and why am I? These questions compel the ego to destroy itself and, so, liberate the “mind-body” from freedom!

“Life is not in the getting; life is in the doing” ………

think ………..

Put like that, one can hardly disagree. On the other hand, once one has thunk, it’s not entirely clear what happens next. But Robert was gleeful. The leafleting, he explained, was to be done at the dead of night. That way, nothing could pre-empt the collective revelation to be enjoyed by pyjama’d breakfasters poring over their discovery. All we had to do was to sit back and wait for the popping sound of hundreds of polemically orientated egos imploding across lawn and quadrangle. He was, I think, quite serious and sincere in his belief that the college would never be the same again.

I know what you’re thinking, so let me say that, to my knowledge, no type of hallucinogen or similar had ever passed Robert’s lips. Our dialectician was stone cold straight. But who or what had led him to this point? Perhaps not Hegel; the term “synthesis” appears nowhere here, and Robert’s conception of the dialectical seems particularly static. But I’m reminded by one who was there at the time that he had been reading Norman O Brown. And in its urge to totalise, this text is very close to the Zen-ish spirit of Brown’s monism.

Needless to say, the apocalypse failed to happen, and the nation’s future great and good remained oddly untouched by their brush with the philosopher’s stone. (Including, across the corridor to me, a young Rowan Williams. Had the future Archbishop of Canterbury been attracted by Robert’s leaflet towards a Brownian, more Dionysian, form of Christianity, might the path of the Anglican Communion have proved a little less orthodox?)

Undaunted, Robert himself moved on towards a more orthodox faith, quickly developing an equal, if not greater, enthusiasm for certain French Catholic philosopher-theologians. He rather lost us at this point, so I can’t remember which, though I suppose it could have been Jesuit Thomists such as Maréchal or Rousselot, whose Platonism might have appealed to him. At about this time he also discovered plastic toy dinosaurs, which were scattered in quantities over his furniture. “Look at them!” he would say, picking them up and making them eat each other. “Aren’t they fantastic?” He was certainly liable to overwhelming enthusiasms, and you can’t help but admire that.

I think that for a while, after he crashed out of his first year, he stayed in the area, somewhere out along the Ely road. He acquired a vehicle, possibly a Land-Rover, which he drove dangerously. And then he was gone. I recall a letter from Israel, maybe from a kibbutz. And after that? Wherever he is, I hope he’ s still tilting at windmills.

For many years I clung stubbornly to a huge architectural drawing from his course work that he was throwing out and which I begged from him. The brief had been on bathroom design, and the drawing showed a super-smooth modernist bathroom suite, across which in huge but perfect capitals he had written “TO WASH OR NOT TO WASH? THAT IS THE QUESTION”. This protest piece certainly contributed to his exit. Unfortunately, it seems to have perished in one of my many house moves.

photo2But I still have a photo booth image of Robert, probably ripped from his NAS card and now yellowed by old sellotape . Why do I have it? No idea. Though his hair grew longer with studenthood, here it is still grammar school neat. But the eyes peer out from the geeky glasses as if already they perceive the fabrication of the type-form, as if they foresee the liberation of the mind-body.

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of a Big Idea. If not power to change the world, then certainly power to re-route radically one’ s passage through life.