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: Charles Causley

Cedra Osborne, the Roberts and Burns Singer

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher's mugshot for 'Living Silver', 1958.

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher’s mugshot for ‘Living Silver’, 1958.

A source on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, apparently not used by Roger Bristow in his 2010 biography of the dynamic duo, is the reminiscence by Cedra Osborne (later Cedra Castellain) published in the April/May 1993 London Magazine. (Though Bristow does cite personal conversations with her.) Selected excerpts (along with bits about them by Anthony Cronin and Julian Maclaren-Ross) will appear on the Colquhoun and MacBryde page here in due course, but meanwhile here is a moment when poet Jimmy Burns Singer (who has two pages on this site) comes very close to planting one on MacBryde:

Sometimes during 1955 [the Roberts] lived in a room above my own [in Chalk Farm], where Colquhoun did some drawings. They brought people with bottles back from Soho, and there were parties in my room, which had the piano. James ‘Burns’ Singer, a poet, brought his agreeable black wife to one of them. She was a child-analyst who, at a previous party, had offered to analyze Colquhoun, saying she was sure she could straighten him out. He was very polite about it. MacBryde used to play the piano for us. His limited repertoire unfortunately included ‘Way Down upon the Swanee River’. When he reached it, Jimmy leapt to his feet, crying: ‘I’d have you know my wife is black!’ He made for the piano, but was overcome by weight of numbers. MacBryde retired into the large cupboard (once a larder) off my room, and was heard sobbing. ‘Robert!’ shouted Colquhoun, ‘stop snivelling and come out of there.’ ‘Och, Robert’ came reproachfully from behind the door, ‘you know I like a good cry.’

Singer knew the Roberts well and counted them as friends, so his outrage must have been heartfelt. His later contributions to the TLS show that he became a forceful advocate for black literature and the civil rights movement. Marie Singer’s analysis of Colquhoun would have been worth a listen-in, had he taken up the offer. I assume that “straighten” is not used here in any homophobic sense.

osborne and roberts

Cedra Osborne and the Roberts with Barker children at Tilty Mill

Cedra Osborne, who died in 2006, is an interesting figure in her own right; she also appears in the photo here of the Roberts, George Barker and W S Graham at Tilty Mill – on the right, next to Paul Potts. She took a step up from bohemia in 1955 on becoming secretary to posh portrait painter Pietro Annigoni, but for a while was a bit of a poet herself, judging by the following piece by her from Nimbus 2, Spring 1952 – an early issue of this slim review with contributions by others of the Barker circle, including Cashenden (Betty) Cass.

Ace of Spades

Esther saw me lying dead
In a bitter cold and windy place,
With greasy cobbles underhead
And a knife stuck in my face.

I know the place, a fishing town
Once prosperous but now decayed,
With a small river bringing down
The sewage near the esplanade.

The breakwater courageously
Still stands against the battering shock
Of monstrous seas, and tenderly
Cradles the wrecks with arms of rock.

And there on the deserted quay
At dead of night I deadly lie,
My hair spread out in disarray
And a short knife in my right eye.

What dreadful passions here ran rife!
Who snared me in this fearful skein?
Oh whose the hand that drove the knife?
Oh Esther, read the cards again.

nimbusI like this.  It’s not the deepest poetry ever written, but it has a macabre, balladey smack to it that reminds me of Charles Causley’s “Dying Gunner”: “Oh mother my mouth is full of stars / As cartridges in the tray …”  True, the first verse is the strongest, but even so the poem seems well worth rescuing here. I haven’t come across any other published poems by Cedra Osborne.

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Dreaming to a questionable purpose: Colin Wilson’s hazy day with Burns Singer

As an impressionable teenager I was quite impressed by Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Since those distant days, of course, Wilson has slid from existentialism to murder mysteries to the mystical-wystical; in support of his busy publishing schedule he hasn’t, it seems, allowed either a degree of repetition or the uncertainties of memory to hinder a good story.

The Outsider had a mixed reception at the time. One prominent review, in the Times Literary Supplement, was written by the poet Burns Singer (subject of my last but one post and of the “Transparent Prisoner” page above). Singer was clearly troubled by impostor syndrome all his life, and would have had a ready interest in anything claiming to deal with outsidership. The TLS had published only a few poems by him, and this was his first chance as its reviewer, courtesy of G S Fraser. Shortly before The Outsider appeared, Wilson happened to run into Singer; his brief report of this encounter appeared in 1997 in issue 4 of Rain Taxi review:

“I was at a party and met a young Scotsman who said he’d read The Outsider and thought it was a wonderful book; I said, how did you manage to read it, and he said he’d got hold of a proof. His name was James Burns Singer and he was a poet, and he invited me the next day to go with him when he went down to the magazine Encounter to pick up a check, which he then cashed, and he went out on a binge taking me with him. It was the first time I’d seen the Scots’ capacity for consuming alcohol. He was a brilliant poet but died a few years later.”

The stereotyping of “the Scots” is bit casual, but the final sentence is generous enough: Singer is “a brilliant poet”, and his early death is presented as a regrettable fact. (No mention of the review, oddly.) But when this anecdote is re-run (shortly after?) in issue 13 of Abraxas (the Wilson mouthpiece magazine), not only has the “wonderful” Outsider become “a masterpiece” in Burns’ eyes, but, more worryingly, Wilson conflates Singer’s early death with the payday binge to come up with the creative assertion that the poet “was to die of alcoholism”.

By the time we reach “A day with Burns Singer” in chapter 8 of Wilson’s 2004 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, the story is well fleshed out:

“Two weeks before publication day, I went to another party … and there met a young, good-looking Scot named James Burns Singer, whose fine blond hair and delicate features gave him a girlish appearance. To my surprise, he had read The Outsider in proof, and told me had had reviewed it for The Times Literary Supplement. He mentioned that he had written an article about the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and intended to collect his fee from the Encounter office the next day. He invited me to join him and have a drink afterwards.

I met him at eleven, and we went to the office of Encounter in Panton Street, where he got an open cheque for £40, then went to a bank around the corner and cashed it. And as it was nearly midday, he dragged me into the nearest pub, and there proceeded to drink the money. This carried on through most of the afternoon, although I took care to drink less than he did, and to eat sandwiches to soak up the whisky.

Although a poet, Burns Singer claimed he was able to make a great deal of money from his work. The secret, he said, was simply to write enough. He explained he had just sold a sequence of a hundred sonnets to a literary magazine called Bottega Oscura [sic], edited by an Italian millionairess, and after his fourth whisky, he proceed to recite some of them. (I was to note in the coming years that this is a habit that seems to be common to Scottish poets.)

That evening I had been invited to the flat of Maurice Cowling … John Wain … was to be there. And since Burns Singer wanted to meet Wain, he came too. But by that time he could scarcely speak, and before Wain arrived, he had fallen asleep on the settee, and only grunted when our host tried to wake him.

… I left Burns Singer asleep on the settee – he was quite unwakable … (In due course, Burns Singer would drink himself to death – he was found dead in bed in September 1964.)”

Shelley lookalike Burns Singer

Wilson carefully tells us that he meets Singer not at ten thirty or ten forty-five, but at eleven. (I’m disappointed he doesn’t tell us what was in the sandwiches with which he soaked up the alcohol.) This level of clarity might encourage us to trust his statement that Singer “drank himself to death”. Clearly, anyone who (a) drinks and (b) dies in bed should be suspect in that regard.

Singer’s “Sonnets for a Dying Man” contained fifty poems, not a hundred. Was Marguerite Caetani a millionairess? Didn’t the magazine fold partly for financial reasons? Singer had an income from reviewing, but “a great deal of money” from poetry? The Scots (poets specifically this time) are generalised again. The phrase “girlish appearance” strikes a bizarre note too; is Wilson implying that Singer was gay? (He wasn’t.)

But the pub crawl continues. Staggering on to The Angry Years: A Literary Chronicle of 2007, we find our host settled back in the full confidence of rehearsal, and get the whole story again with additional dramatic detail. Wilson is now “astonished” to learn that Singer has read a proof of his book, Singer consumes “an incredible amount” of whisky, recites “all his own poetry” by heart as well as “most of Hugh M’Diarmid and W S Graham”, is not only taciturn by evening but “hardly able to stand”, and is finished off by yet another “large” whisky provided at the flat.

John Wain turns out to be “aggressive … prickly, possibly with a touch of paranoia”, and looks “contemptuously” at Singer – not surprising, given that he is said to “detest drunken Scots”. The poet sleeps on, “looking rather like Shelley with his long blond hair and girlish features”.

Elsewhere in The Angry Years Wilson mentions again the periodical “Botteghe Obscura [sic], which paid top rates (and to which Burns Singer also contributed).” Botteghe Oscure was not an especially obscure literary periodical, but neither Wilson nor his proof readers seem to have found it necessary to check the spelling of the Italian.

Significantly, Wilson has by now dropped the unfortunate statement that Singer boozed himself into an early grave, though the Shelley imagery subtly provides a compensatory hint of premature and tragic demise for a doomed and “girlish” poet. (Was Wilson also thinking loosely of Henry Wallis’ painting of the Death of Chatterton?) It’s by no means self-evident that drinking contributed to the heart disease that killed Singer. But there are other missing elephants in the room.

We have it on good authority (Dr Eric Corner, Singer’s colleague at Plymouth, cited by Walter Keir) that in the last year of his life Singer visited several other writers in the South West, including the Cornish poet Charles Causley – and Colin Wilson, who had moved to Cornwall in 1957. If so, it’s strange that this second meeting is not mentioned.

Young Colin plays it safe with a mug of tea

Singer’s review of The Outsider, under the title “Chosen Few”, appeared on June 8 1956, but Wilson doesn’t say another word about it. A prominent review in the prestigious TLS by a reviewer who said he thought The Outsider “a masterpiece”? Modesty? Oversight?

In fact, Singer’s review hit the nail firmly on the head. A bag full of nails, in fact. Loftily casting Wilson (aged 24 at the time) as “a very young man who has written … a very ambitious book,” Singer (aged 27) faintly praises The Outsider as an honest, intelligent and “very interesting” but “desperate attempt to make sense of the conflicting views of life that have been thrown at [Wilson] by an immense variety of books.” About the best he can find to say is that “the charm of the book arises from its faults,” that it is “less portentous” than what it sets out to be, and “more human”.

“Mr Wilson’s reading has not been systematic enough, does not have sufficient structure, to bear the weight of awful generalizations that he seeks to impose on it.”

“… we have only a list of personalities … There is no obvious reason why a completely different assortment of writers, thinkers and artists should not be dragged together and forced to express the same concepts about the nature of the Outsider. Poor William Blake, in particular, is reduced to the status of a ventriloquist’s doll by the repetition of such remarks as: ‘The symbolism here is plain enough,’ and ‘In other words,’ and even ‘This is obvious.’ Whatever Blake was, he was never obvious in the sense that Mr Wilson means.”

And whatever Burns Singer was, he was never obvious in the sense that Mr Wilson means, either. He may have been a long haired poet, talking incessantly one half of the time and in a drunken torpor the other, but he had The Outsider down to a tee.

The invading gospel of Jack Clemo

Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin

In the deep wood dwells a demon
Taller than any tree –
His prison bars are the sailing stars,
His jailer is the sea.

He walks the white hills of Egypt
Reading the map of clay
– And through his night there moves the light
Artillery of day.

(Charles Causley, “Homage to Jack Clemo”)

A few paragraphs in honour of the deaf (for most of his life) and blind (for much of his adulthood) Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who died in 1994. For many years Clemo lived in the same tiny cottage in the heart of the Cornish china-clay quarries – “the lunar and lunatic landscape of the moon: a weird, white world dusted over with the colour of sex,” as Cornish balladeer Charles Causley put it. (A geometric landscape also vividly shown in the paintings of Herbert Truman.) Somehow Clemo maintained a vivid awareness that sustained his writing to the end, even though in his deafness and blindness his mother, and later his wife Ruth, could communicate with him only by tracing letters by fingertip on the palm of his hand.

Though Clemo’s work is not particularly well remembered these days, Bloodaxe and others have kept him in print over recent decades, and there is a decent amount about him online, such as this informative obituary, portrait photos at the National Portrait Gallery, his diaries and manuscripts, together with books from his working library at Exeter University, a nice reminiscence by T R Hummer of a visit to the Clemo’s in Weymouth in the ‘eighties, and so on.

He was content to write simply, often in lines of varying length chopped up by persistent terminal rhymes, for he mistrusted, on religious grounds, all forms of sophistication:

I cannot speak their language; I am one
Who feels the doggerel of Heaven
Purge earth of poetry …

(“The Excavator”)

Having shunned any development of poetic form, he is celebrated now mostly for his sheer Cornishness, or for his remarkable overcoming of background poverty and physical disabilities. But to me, what is extraordinary in his work is its defining theological content; Clemo’s austere non-conformist upbringing and the transcendent austerity of his surroundings met with the demands of a sensitive and sensuous nature that had to struggle with the imprisonment of sensory deprivation, to make for a stark, uncompromising, Calvinist mysticism that mellowed only in his later years. Reading Clemo is a direct challenge to anyone’s warm and fuzzy Christian certainties. His God, if not silent or obstructive –

There squats amidst these pyramids
The Sphinx-mood of a Deity …

(“Clay-Land Moods”)

You would not hear my voice
And how could I hear Yours
When you were slamming, slamming all my doors?

(“Prisoner of God”)

– is downright persecutory. For Clemo, the Calvinist notion of predestined election became a “divine bludgeoning”, a dark working of the relentless, imprisoning will of God. (Though such individual election is not exclusive; the non-elect are not conversely damned.) In “The Excavator” this will is compared to that machine’s sadistic gouging of the violated material of the clay-pit:

The bars now hinged o’erhead and drooping form
A Cross that lacks the symmetry
Of those in churches, but is more
Like His whose stooping tore
The vitals from our world’s foul secrecy …

… Keep far from me all loveliness, O God,
And let me laud
Thy meaner moods, so long unprized;
The motions of that twisted, dark,
Deliberate crucial Will
I feel deep-grinding still
Under the dripping clay with which I am baptized.

The clay-pit speaks of Christ because it is a de-beautified and anti-natural world. Sentiment or beauty, flowers or music, are inadequate or mistaken expressions of the divine, given that Nature is merely the surface of a fallen creation:

If you were nature’s child
I could not love you, for I shun
Corrupted trees and flowers which the sun
Kindled in disobedience …

… Hell snickers in the chatter of a starling,
And fleers in each sunrise,
Because one Eastern tale
That makes creation pale
Is known to me and true.
The Christian nightmare holds me, darling –
Creatively, as I hold you.

(“The New Creation”)

Only the baptism of the believer can make a person “lovable” (in the fullest sense of that word). Love is

… full-grown Dogma’s offspring,
Election’s child,
Making the wild
Heats of our blood an offering.

(“A Calvinist in Love”)

(“Dogma” here is an entirely positive term – doctrine received on the authority of the church and scripture, rather than on the basis of experience or reason – as distinct from our casually pejorative use of “dogmatic”.) This possibility of redeemed sexual love (“creed-embedded marriage”) was a central preoccupation of Clemo’s, much explored in what he termed his “strange contacts on spiritual and emotional borderlines”. In his 1949 autobiography Confession of a Rebel he makes a remarkably powerful and accessible case for the sensual superiority of a non-ascetic and unashamed puritanism:

The Christian and the unbeliever inhabit different worlds, and nowhere is the gulf between them wider than in sex experience which seems most common to all men. The thrill of being in love is short-lived for the worldling because it is for him a process entirely inside Nature and therefore soon burnt out. The Christian, however, cannot be burnt out in his love for a woman because he has already been burnt out in the stress of conversion; the life that animates him spiritually is no longer his own but Christ’s. This divine life controls his sensuous reactions, so that the feminine glamour which is to the “natural” man irresistible is to the Christian physically repellent, while the unadorned simplicity which the worldling finds dull and unexciting is for the Christian an object of sensuous ravishment. When St Paul forbade Christian women to wear jewellery or use artificial beauty aids he was merely recognizing the existence of this law – a law which the modern critics of Paul’s attitude to sex seem never to have heard of. Christianity does not condemn the glittering fashions of sophistication because they rouse sexual desire but because for the Christian they paralyse it … I do not suggest that Christians reach this level automatically; but I do insist that this is a fundamental law of Christian experience and not a pathological peculiarity of my own.

(My emphasis. The argument is male-centrically worded, but is capable of a two-way application.) With the sermons of C H Spurgeon and the novels of D H Lawrence sat in happy adjacency on his bookshelf, Clemo could bring together – without a thought of irony – the cross of Christ, his penis and a mechanical digger in a single image:

I fondle and understand
In lonely worship this malicious tool.

No wonder that some of his churchgoing neighbours considered him, as he recalled, an “uncouth village fundamentalist with an unpleasant erotic streak”!

His insights, won at such personal cost, command respect and demand serious consideration by Christians, particularly at a time like ours when the versions of cheap grace offered by a thin teenage evangelicalism on the one hand, and an apologetic, conforming and reductive liberalism on the other, appear symmetrically unsatisfying.

Charles Causley (looking very schoolmasterly) with Clemo

A small afterthought: one puzzlement to me is why Clemo and his fellow poet W S Graham seem to have shown no awareness of each other’s work, given the extent of their shared years in Cornwall. Clemo was befriended by Charles Causley, who in turn was in touch with Graham, as the latter’s letters show. Poles apart they may have been in many ways, but what might they have made of each other?

Back from oblivion: tracking the poetry of Gordon Wharton

New page added (tab up the top, or go here), devoted to an attempt at a proper appreciation of the poetry of Gordon Wharton, whose first three small collections were published from 1954 to 1957, but who has recently made a startling comeback, fifty four years on, with an excellent new collection, Towards Oblivion. A British poet who certainly deserves to be read and recognised.