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: W H Auden

Satan meets Cinderella: two anarchist dramas of the ‘forties

Satan disguised as an engineer, a madman in the attic, an army of radioactive Welsh miners, plus Cinderella … Yes, it’s British anarchist drama of the ‘forties! This post will be a little longer than usual, I’m afraid, so be patient. First, a quick recap on the origins of all this in the poetic dramas of the previous decade.

The new poetic theatre

dance-of-deathPlenty has been written elsewhere about the ‘thirties heydays of the “new poetic theatre,” and in particular the plays, more or less political and Brechtian, of W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood, staged by Rupert Doone and the Group Theatre with the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, the sets of Robert Medley, and Faber to publish the scripts – quite a back-up! The first of these, The Dance of Death (1931), an Auden solo effort, is somewhat clunky but finishes splendidly with a brief guest appearance by Karl Marx:

Announcer. He’s dead.

[Noise without]

Quick under the table, it’s the ‘tecs and their narks,
O no, salute – it’s Mr Karl Marx.

[Enter Karl Marx with two young communists]

KM. The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated.

[Exeunt to a Dead March]

THE END

img_0001Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) is my favourite of the series; their fascist-infected English rural idyll of Pressan Ambo, closely related to the nightmare delusions of Edward Upward’s extraordinary 1938 novel Journey to the Border, blends banality with menace, and is a fine satiric invention.  In comparison The Ascent of F6 (1936) and On the Frontier (1938) seem to lose a little sparkle.

Not surprisingly, other McSpaunday personnel get in on the act: Louis MacNeice’s witty Out of the Picture (1937) or Stephen Spender’s execrable “tragic statement” Trial of a Judge (1938), both also realised by Doone and Faber. Somehow Spender manages to write an anti-fascist play in which the fascists are the only interesting characters. One can almost forgive them for locking up opponents who go on like this:

TWO RED PRISONERS.
Your days in dark, our dark that wakes,
Across the centuries and the waves
Will join to break our chains and break
Into the nobler day which saves.

And so on. And on. John Piper’s scenery was wasted on it.

The coming of war and the dissipation of that particular political-poetical consensus might appear to mark the end of these theatrical experiments. So it’s interesting, a decade on, to come across their minor progeny under the colours of anarchism, which in more or less individualist or philosophical shades had become the ideological flavour of ‘forties neo-romanticism. Here are two examples.

The Last Refuge

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

The more slight, but no less interesting, is Wrey Gardiner’s The Last Refuge, a single act affair that pops up in the 1945 edition of New Road, an annual neo-rom anthology published by Gardiner’s own Grey Walls Press, and edited at the time by Fred Murnau. Charles Wrey Gardiner was most active as a poet and autobiographer, but is better remembered for Grey Walls and for his sustained editorship of Poetry Quarterly. Whatever the strength of his sympathies, The Last Refuge seems to be an unusual instance of his nailing his black flag overtly to the mast.

The play must have been written a few years before it saw the light in 1945. Despite some minimal stage directions it’s maybe better considered as unperformable, a drama on the page in the manner of Gervase Stewart’s The Two Septembers, or Robert Herring’s “pantomime” of the Blitz Harlequin Mercutio, to give two others from the same period and sampled on this blog. Virtually the entire script is versified. The action (or conversation, mostly) is set in a bombed-out house deserted by its owners, emblematic of Blitzed England, and squatted by a selection of archetypes: an Old Woman, her earth-daughter Cinderella, a Lunatic (her traumatised son in the attic), and an Anarchist who ascends from the cellar. A Voice in the Air from a wireless interjects occasional propaganda and inane dance music. Visitors comprise a Poet, in love (inevitably) with Cinderella, and an Inspector, the embodiment of authority, come to arrest the squatters on a charge of “living dangerously.”

The few moments when Gardiner tries a satirical touch are uncomfortably clumsy: “Silvery Sid and his Sauntering Saps” is not a great mickey-take name for a radio dance band, and Cinderella’s unsophistication at times has a cor-luv-a-duck touch – “Did ever anyone have such funny men as come my way?” The writing is far happier when Gardiner goes with his usual (and rather likeable) overstrained earnestness. The central tension here is between the writer’s twin, dialectical self-projections, the Poet and the Anarchist, the Poet being apt to rhapsodise in gloomy symbols, provoking the Anarchist’s denunciation:

Your song is vague and indecisive, Poet.
What the poor people need is freedom,
Not the undying words of a dyspeptic dream
But a bitter marching song that none can stem,
A rising tide, a rousing fire,
An anthem for the world’s despised.

Where the poet sees the traumatised son as “a caged animal” the Anarchist hails his insanity as a liberation:

He has had that little jolt
That brings a man to know
His own will’s the source and fountain
Of his own world.
The second bomb would give him the full knowledge
Of one who walks and lies down at will,
Accepts and refuses the snags of fate,
Free in a world where mass suggestion has no power.

The Anarchist brings proceedings to a sort of conclusion when, in a moment of Stirnerite resistance, he grabs the poker from the fireplace and brains the Inspector, leaving the Lunatic to pontificate –

All you poor crackbrained fools who disdain desire
Are but the slaves of a crawling cesspool
Some call sanity.

– the Poet to ruminate –

Truth is still stranger than we know,
Like light falling in a chaotic dream
In the twisted corridors, suddenly upon the wall,
Haunting the mad, the suffering, the chosen few.

– and Cinderella to round it all off with a nice bit of bathos:

Love as a woman’s tear will always fall
Sure as the gentle rain upon us all.

It’s all agreeably heady, and very much of its moment.

Cities of the Plain

cities-of-the-plainIf the class solidarity of “the world’s despised” is only alluded to in The Last Refuge, it’s up front, with marching boots on, in our second contribution, Alex Comfort’s “Democratic Melodrama” Cities of the Plain, published by – who else? – Grey Walls Press in 1943. As poet, novelist, literary critic, anarchist theoretician and conscientious objector, Comfort was remarkably busy during the ‘forties, with a literary reputation later eclipsed by his Joy of Sex fame. (Cities had been preceded in 1942 by Comfort’s “mystery play” Into Egypt; as this is currently unobtainable, I can’t say anything about it.)

If Last Refuge was not designed for performance, Cities most certainly was. A slightly pompous permissions note states that the author “wishes to repudiate in advance all the ideological constructions, of whatever complexion … placed upon this play. Ideological theatres will apply unsuccessfully.” Whether any theatre, ideological or not, applied successfully to stage it, is an open question. Directions insist that it is to be acted “with the maximum of gusto.”

A remarkably schoolboyish Alex Comfort faces up to the shadows of the mid-forties

The play, closer to its Auden-Isherwood predecessors, is set in a parallel society. The title references the Sodom and Gomorrah of Genesis, but the narrative involves a single unnamed city in thrall to a ruthless capitalist corporation that mines the neighbouring mountain. (For some reason best known to Comfort, the miners have Welsh names: Iorwerth, Dai etc.) Facing imminent bankruptcy, the directors sell out to a proposal by two mysterious and unscrupulous “Engineers” to mine the mountain for radium; though many miners will die from radioactivity, this is presented to them as a noble and necessary sacrifice. Dissent is encouraged by the principled doctor, Manson (man’s son, presumably), who leads back from the mountain an army of scorched, ulcerated and mutated miners who tramp off into the future, members of the audience joining them, to lead the revolution.

While the majority of characters are believable to degrees, the two Engineers operate on a different level. The Black Engineer, so called for the colour of his clothing – black shirt, velvet dungarees and biretta – is revealed as something beyond human when he encounters the sherry quaffing Bishop of Sodom and Gomorrah (a “pillar of Conservative-Churchmanship”), who recoils in horror, crying: “I don’t believe in you! I’m not a Manichee! You’re a heresy!”

This odd disjunction is a deliberate dramatic contrivance. In a discussion on Shelley’s The Cenci in “The Critical Significance of Romanticism,” later collected in his 1946 Art and Social Responsibility, Comfort notes that in that play, as in those of Ford and Webster:

img_0002The human players pass through a tragic conflict, but their opponents are not persons – they are naked, animated symbols. The impulses and powers of evil and of infatuation which in tragedy operate through imperfect living people are here made external and come to occupy whole persons, elevated to the same status of identity and reality as the protagonists … [Cenci] is a mask, as if the Devil had inspired a dummy or a suit of armour and made it walk.

Here is the Black Engineer’s offer to the Directors, in return for the mountain:

I offer you the price of your living, to drink the wine of this plain and to sit at this table – to sleep with your wives and to keep your names out of the papers; to make the sun and the moon stand still in the sky, and to sanctify the status quo. I offer you a new grip on the reins, a new leg for your broken chair. You shall not become bankrupt but be rich, and you shall die and lie in gold coffins …

It’s remarkable that the atheist Comfort, in order to personify and animate corporate evil, is obliged to fall back on this Faustian religious supernaturalism.

Like Auden and Isherwood, Comfort keeps his verse passages for key moments and uses far more vernacular conversation than Gardiner, though this can be a bit overdrawn and heavy handed at times. With the possible exception of the miners’ songs, which have a passing touch of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs (“With a will, ho!”), the verse is effective. Comfort was, in fact, a pretty decent poet. Here’s some of Manson’s big speech at the end of Scene II, pleading for the healing of the sick earth:

Now in the night, when continents
like tables cool and creak, and each tap’s timbrel
flickers invisible, constellations rise
westward on Europe moving carefully.
Out of Orion’s cockpit with no noise
the white aseptic stars watch blind earth tossing,
clawing the mask, going under; see the rivers’
reflexes quietly fade, the body grow quiet.
Between the hems of night the inflamed cities
throb in the flank; the finger in wise pity
probes the soft coils – as the stars’ gloved hands
draw up the wounded countries with small stitches.
You of the lancets, Sirius, Betelgueuse,
scanning the festered cities, plotting the fever,
cut to the permanent bone. This sickness is mortal.
Incise the will. Restore the healthy granite.

As a bit of a contrast, here’s the feverish, apocalyptic dance of the revelling shareholders, sung as the miners march to their fate, with a touch of Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”:

The hills are tumbling round our ears,
The stars crash down from the night;
But the bonds are good and the wheels go round
And there’s wind in the bagpipe yet.

Seven red madmen dance to the moon,
Seven pale horses rode,
But spades are trumps and the sun stands still,
And there’s wealth on the turn of the card!

Their wheels are broke and their bones are dry –
Their hammers bang for the coffin;
But all we see is a five-pound note
And a Union seat in the offing.

And grey death hides behind the door
With a rattle of shot in his throat,
But the wheels go round and the people roar
To keep the bastard out.

Can you hear the crash of the steeples, boys,
And the guns go crack in the trees?
The world shall burn to warm our hands –
It makes a lovely blaze!

There is more of value in this play, and much more could be said about it. But I will return at some point in these posts to Comfort’s poetry. He wrote two further plays. The first act alone of The Besieged appeared in Life and Letters Today for April 1944, but it was never published entire. Gengulphus is also listed as unpublished; some sources give a date of 1948, suggesting a possible publication, though I can find no trace of that.

The quick fade to these experiments in anarcho-drama is probably attributable to the same factors that saw off neo-romanticism in general. The verse speeches, the heightened, symbolic characters, the open calls to political action, the almost expressionist intensity – these are worlds away from the kitchen sink social realism of ‘fifties theatre.

It would be interesting to know if either of Comfort’s two published plays was ever staged. My ex-library copy of Cities (Croydon Public Libraries) sports a fully clean borrowing label; clearly Croydon Rep didn’t jump at the chance to put on this “Democratic Melodrama.” Which is rather a pity.

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.

The canary that ate the cats

The best parody I can recall was one I heard in Battersea circa 1970, when a very small boy walked past me, singing to himself:

“Strangers in the night, exchanging panties …”

No further lines. That was all, and that was enough. With a wonderful economy of means – “panties” is very close in sound to “glances” – this opens up the very human realities behind the portentous lyrics of the song, as the strangers emerge from their fifteen minute fumble in the wrong underwear. Bert Kaempfert and Frank Sinatra get what they deserve, in six words.

On the other hand, anthologies of parodies seem to promise more than they deliver. Why are so many parodies written by the deservedly obscure and overly clever, seeking mistakenly to sink their targets by a piling on of baroque exaggerations? This seems true of many jabs at Eliot and Pound. (Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow” excepted. The Pound of the Cantos is maybe beyond parody, being, in his lurching obscurantism, already in a state of self-parody.)

canaryThe long unpublished (until 1977) comedy thriller The Death of the King’s Canary, by Dylan Thomas and John Davenport, involves the assassination of a Poet Laureate, and in the process takes a swipe at a good handful of British poets current in the late ‘forties, when it was written. (John Davenport is one of those highly interesting Fitzrovian characters who pop up around every corner, and my thanks go to Bill Bennett for pointing him out.)

Among the many prospective and parodied laureates surveyed by a bored prime minister at the novel’s opening are George Barker (“Albert Ponting, born Balham, 1910. Did Chemistry course at Polytechnic. Must read, but unsuitable”):

I, I, my own gauze phantom am,
My head frothing under my arm,
The buttocks of Venus for my huge davenport.
I orgillous turn, burn, churn,
As his rubbery bosom curds my perspiring arm –
The gust of my ghost, I mean …

W H Auden in ballad mode as a leftist Kipling (“Wyndham Nils Snowden. Very popular with the younger men. But a bit of a red.”):

Look, dead man, at this Empire, at this Eastscape of suffering,
Monocled glaucoma over India’s coral strand.
They can hear in twilight Ealing
The forts fall in Darjeeling
As the last White Hope is snuffed out in that dark-skinned No-Man’s-Land.

And of course T S Eliot (“John Lowell Atkins. Naturalized 1917. Very sound, but I don’t think quite right for the job.”):

Everything is the same. It only differs
in the subjective mind which is the same
being or not-being, born, unborn,
a wind among leaves deciduous or dead.
It does not matter where
it does not matter.
Windfall or wordfall or a linnet’s feather
in rank orchards where perpetual turns the worm.
It is not different …

After reading Atkins’s “West Abelard” the Prime Minister feels “queerly depressed” and reaches for the brandy. “That was a lugubrious poem; and the trouble was that it was true. Everything was the same. Dull, too. But it would never do to tell them so.” “West Abelard” is the more effective for being so worryingly close to the real thing.

But there is another side to Atkins; equally sharp are “the opening lines of a new light poem … another jingle for his latest dog-book,” discovered subsequently in the poet’s overcoat pocket:

Bubble and Bow-wow and Viscount Squeak,
The chow, the bullpup, and the peke,
Bound all day on a barkable lark,
Towsering round the peagreen park.

This very quick nod to Eliot’s Pekes and Pollicles, Pugs and Poms is affectionate in its clever way, but also more than enough to lay bare the soft underbelly of his modernism.

cats

‘Cats’: is it just me?

It’s just not done to dislike Old Possum, is it? No one is quite ready to be pointed at as a hater of small furry animals. I’ve owned cats (and a dog) in my day, and was fond enough of them as individuals, but I find myself very much revolted by the psychic weakness of our tyrannous English cat-and-dog culture, of which Lloyd Webber’s bizarre leg-warmer musical seems a horribly inevitable extension. Call me a snob, but the problem with Old Possum is that it’s exactly the kind of verse that J Alfred Prufrock would have approved of, between the toast and the tea.

Proem to nothing: the poetry of Arthur Llewellyn Basham

The Sunday Referee may not be Britain’s best remembered weekly, but for a while in the ‘thirties it ran a “Poet’s Corner” hosted by the eccentrically ‘nineties figure of Victor Neuberg, perhaps himself best remembered as an early magickal collaborator with Aleister Crowley. Six monthly the Referee sponsored a first collection. First winner was Pamela Hansford Johnson, girlfriend of Dylan Thomas, later a novelist and academic and to marry C P Snow. The second recipient was young Dylan himself, his 18 Poems (Parton Press) quickly a sell-out, followed in 1935 by Proem (Unicorn Press) by Arthur Llewellyn Basham. Arthur who?

BashamBasham, born in 1914, was a talented young man – an accomplished writer and pianist who later had a notable career as an orientalist, best remembered for his encyclopaedic The Wonder That Was India of 1954. He died in 1986. His brief ‘thirties flaring of poetic fame was soon extinguished; he must have decided that poetry was not his career choice. But his poems are not forgettable scrap; a few are well worth picking out of history’s dustbin for a bit of a brush down.

Neuberg’s verbally ornate introduction to Proem explains next to nothing: “unlimited versatility … marvellously extensive … epicurean tongue … has lived vitally” etc. But he does claim Basham as a modernist of sorts: “modern without eccentricity … wholly a son of his century.” Though Neuberg also implies an agricultural focus, referencing Basham’s “great love … for the soil and peasantry of his adopted Suffolk” and “new … panegyrics to old furrows”, in fact hardly any of the poems touch on soil or peasantry. A slightly limp frontispiece portrait shows Basham as a beardless and sensitive youth.

Despite Neuberg’s judgement, Proem is not whole heartedly twentieth century. There are Yeatsian and moralistic throwbacks; “Symbol”, the poem that actually won Basham the Referee Book Prize, is indeed cloyingly and annoyingly symbolist, with its wingclipped horses, dim forms rising and stars glancing in fallen oceans – all without redeeming irony. But when the healthy influence of Auden asserts itself, Basham lurches into the twentieth century with a vengeance, producing some vigorous urban writing that is not entirely derivative and that surely deserves a small corner in any ‘thirties canon.

Some of his early-Audenisms are not helpful; syntax can be baffling, and some obscurities simply don’t stand up. Few pieces are entirely right. But try the opening stanza of “Vestiges of a Pleasant Evening” (which later dips into moralising over a copulating couple):

Notice the spider hurrying,
the cigarette carton in the levelled grass.
Here as it stirs intently in the dust
conceive diminuendo of an evening,
the fatuous stars.

The Audenesque injunctives (“Notice, conceive”); the anti-romantic pairing of “fatuous stars”; the key image of the discarded cigarette packet: all these signify the modern, loudly and effectively.

Or take the heavy materialism of the rather fine first section of “The Garage”:

As yellow as the metal plates
placarding red-encircled walls,
proclaiming tyres or gasoline,
light from the silver arc-lamp falls,
where corrugated iron and tin
with inscribed globes, in a grey dusk,
pump the new year’s heart blood in
to metal arteries, that thud
and spread narcotic musk.

Yellow, red, silver, grey, iron, tin, metal, tyres, gasoline, lamp, thud, spread – all excitingly celebratory and physical, before, once again, the poem tail-ends in symbolising and judgement.

In “Holiday”, the nice young middle class poet explores, to his own cost, his ambivalent and uneasy relations with proletarian youth along a promenade “strewn with woodbine ends”. (Basham has a thing about “gaudy seaside towns”.) The poem is marginally spoiled by a friendly but unpleasant use of the term “Jewboy”, but it touches some interesting nerves along the way:

I say: “But Paolo and Francesca
vortexed in such a crowd as this.
I am one who has known Hell,
so tell me, Lever, what there is to tell
of between last week and to-morrow, when you sit
for the final time on the beach at night, or lie
unsleeping in lodgings.”

A face, pitted like corroded rock,
opens on Avernus, grey with smoke and slime:
“You’re talking poppycock!”
She winks an eye gleaming like molten lead:
“We’ve had a gorgeous time” she confesses as they pass.

 “Deep Sea” gives a surprisingly tough, sailor’s view of Manila, like an Edward Burra painting of a dockside dive:

… gramophones strike up as business starts.
Behind the hills the lightning threads and stitches.
The Filipino girls are warm as hell,
but mind your step, they’re vicious little tarts –
knife you as soon as look at you, the bitches.

“Meditation in the Park”, an extended panorama of Audenesque modern life, is perhaps Basham’s best piece in his Modern mode. It is not totally even, but many passages carry real impact:

Chimneys and masts swagger below the park.
Half-hearted statements
about the nation’s prosperous peak
flap from the factory flags.
Above, the reservoir broods among allotments
mating a single spire to bleed the sky …

… These are the flustered, the industrious weeks
when boarding house keepers burnish their apartments,
lay in new store of linen.
The spring winds, north this year, unload their soot
on cinemas and beaches of the south,
and worry matrons through their sinister nights,
distraught with sirens, and clatter of ribald bells.

The poem rounds off with an incantatory call to action, not overtly party-faithful as in Auden’s “Brothers, who when the sirens roar”, but comparably anti-capitalist and apocalyptic:

You young men on corners, salt-rusted sailors,
ribald in dockside bars,
time to quit your pintpots, your dog-eared cards.
Purseproud forces, essentials of corruption,
all the gloved powers are marshalling their jailers;
the black ensign darkens their yards …

… Girls cycling from factories, riveting mechanics,
an hour forget the power-loom, drop the mask and welder.
Remember the gas-drill, the artificial panics.
Imagine the air turn sour.

The times are in a hurry, you must do more than worry
if you want to save your skins and your houses.
Get going with that city and don’t waste time on pity,
come to grips with the critical hour.

This is good stuff, and Basham’s vision of the just city – “one candid in the sun … clean as a canine tooth” – may even anticipate that of Auden.

One Audenesque element that I have touched on already in my post on Wargaming with WHA is the uncanny anticipation of civil war or invasion:

They are surveying the coast already, sounding the defences,
the strategic importance of the cinema;
plan sandbags on the promenade,
a bombproof shelter under Woolworth’s.

“The strategic importance of the cinema”: with our hindsight neatly boxed in decades, we take such Dad’s Army touches for granted. But given that this was almost certainly written in 1934 or earlier, while the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, and the Japanese invaded China the following year, what precisely generated this fear of invasion, this undercurrent of prophetic imagery of gas drills and sweeping bombers? Just the general climate of rearmament?

Grigson seeks a candid opinion

Grigson seeks a candid opinion

Into my copy of Proem was tucked a message, on the back of an Art Trade Press Ltd slip, in the elegant handwriting of combative poetry impresario and critic Geoffrey Grigson. It’s addressed to “Dear Hugh” – perhaps the novelist Hugh Walpole:

“Thank you so much for your well chosen present. Here are some poems with my sincere wishes for Christmas & the New Year.

I should be interested to hear your candid opinion of Basham.

My warmest greetings to your family.”

Why did Grigson seek a “candid opinion”? The tone of his own work is not too far from Basham at times. Did he approve of the Audenisms, or find them ersatz? His New Verse set itself up as a scourge of the sham. Maybe a Grigson review will turn up at some point and shed some light.

In any case, Basham’s collection includes a good half dozen perfectly anthologisable “modern” pieces. They are as worthwhile as many comparable by other hands, and better than some. It’s a pity he didn’t persevere. In the event, Proem proved a preamble to nothing.

Valley of the dolls

I’m not really in the business of lifting stuff wholesale from other sites, but I can’t resist passing on some personal favourites from Uneek Doll Designs, as offered by creator Debbie Ritter of Cullman Alabama, on the Etsy shopping site. Tucked in alongside Prince Harry, Santa and the Sock Monkey is a fine range of home made poetical, literary and artistic figures, with the odd psychoanalyst thrown in …. I think Ms Kahlo would definitely have approved of Debbie’s version of The Two Fridas. Click and enjoy!

Albrecht Durer

The Two Fridas

Andy Warhol

Jackson Pollock

Sigmund Freud

Carl Jung

Edgar Allen Poe

George Orwell

Aldous Huxley

Anne Sexton

James Joyce

W H Auden

The Joyce and Auden dolls are rather wonderful, but best of all have to be Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – stunning!

Sylvia and Ted

Wargaming with W H Auden

Alternative history, like wargaming, is really rather a blokey thing. But it has a bit of a post-modern, quasi-academic tang to it, which makes it kind of OK. So no apologies for mentioning A Very British Civil War (VBCW for short), a recently developed wargames scenario largely promoted by Solway Crafts and Miniatures. In this alternative 1938, a constitutional crisis follows Edward VIII’s refusal to abdicate, and Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists is installed as prime minister, provoking a motley plethora of opposition groups into armed conflict. On this fruitful premise a splendidly Captain Mainwaring-esque parody of the Spanish Civil War has blossomed. The Solway handbooks illustrated by Pete Barfield will give the idea.

Good to see the dear old C of E, in the shape of the Anglican League, arrayed against the forces of reaction, for once. Though I am surprised to see so little emphasis on the Kibbo Kift and the Social Credit Movement, which could have provided a readymade shirted paramilitary column (with its own drum corps and some fine modernist flags) to counter the BUF. Maybe it will make an appearance soon – Come On, the Green Shirts! Though with anyone free to pitch in on this scenario, there is a constant risk that creativity may tip over into the Pythonesque, as in an occult-fascist militia called the Sons of Crowley, or this unit of armed Morris dancers (fifth photo down). But I do like this image of the Inland Revenue Volunteer Rifles in action at the Battle of Ambridge. Personally, I’d imagine that the fun lies far more in embroidering the scenario than in the tedious business of actually fighting it out with dice and rulers on a table top …

But much of this parallel Britain has an oddly familiar ring. Running through the ‘thirties writings of W H Auden was his own not dissimilar version of an alternative England.  Except, of course, that he was extrapolating it at the time, not at our distance, nor with our ironic nostalgia. His vision was part psychological landscape, part political satire, part prophecy. Later, in 1942, he wrote:

The first time that I dreamed, we were in flight,
And fagged with running; there was civil war …
Farms blazed behind us …

His often obscure early poems had indeed set out a dreamlike terrain of industrial decay and rural decline, divided by invisible frontiers and passed only by unidentifiable spies preparing for some unspecified but inevitable conflict:

 … dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living.

Smokeless chimneys, damaged bridges, rotting wharves and choked canals,
Tramlines buckled, smashed trucks lying on their side across the rails …

Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?

… They ignored his wires.
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.

This conflict remains, to different degrees, imminent:

Look there! The sunk road winding
To the fortified farm.
Listen! The cock’s alarm
In the strange valley.

The horns of the dark squadron
Converging to attack …

But in Auden’s unperformed “country house charade”, Paid on Both Sides, written in 1928 and published in 1930, this desolate landscape becomes the setting for established civil war of a sort, in the shape of an endless feud, almost military in its body count, between two rural clans, the Nowers of Lintzgarth and the Shaws of Nattrass. The cause of the feud is obscure, but honour demands its perpetuation: “We cannot betray the dead … We must fight to the finish.” Stage directions require that “the two hostile parties should be marked by different coloured arm-bands”.

At first, Auden seems to have been preoccupied with civil war only as a symbolic or psychological theme, a conflict of fragmented personality, fascinating but without political significance. In 1929 he could write:

… this is our study and our interest:
The fortunes and manoeuvres of this civil war,
Man’s opposite strivings for entropic peace,
Retreat to lost homes or advance to new …

And Stephen Spender recalled him, as an Oxford student, suggesting with apparent detachment that “ ‘the poet’ would ‘enjoy’, in a civil war, lying on a roof and shooting at his best friend, who was on the other side.” Spender noted that the images of impassable frontiers and broken bridges “seem to express his feelings of personal isolation, but in impersonal guise.” Auden himself was later to talk of “psychic frontiers”. In this way he arrived at politics by way of psychology, as this stricken landscape took on contemporary social overtones. Eventually the fantasy was overtaken by the reality of the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China, both of which he witnessed at close hand.

As the actuality came closer, his tone became more satirical. Book II (“Journal of an Airman”) of The Orators (1932) was explained by its author as a critique of the revolutionary-romantic-fascist personality. The airman of the title is related to the élite and heroic airshipmen of H G Wells, but seen from a very different perspective. His fragmented and enigmatic diary builds to a surreal-satirical climax as the country topples into an absurd civil war:

As I thought, A tells me they have been in Kettlewell and most of the outlying farms. A doesn’t believe they intend to move before October, which should give us time if only B will move. We know for a fact that tanks are being built at Cockshutt Forge. Can’t B see what this means?

August 23rd, 3 p.m.
We are lost. A cart has just passed carrying the plaster eagle. The enemy are going to attack.

G.H.Q. Commands.
1. That the attack take place on Aug. 28th. First penetration of the hostile position, 7.10 a.m.
2. A feint landing by pleasure paddle-steamers near the bathing-machines on Beach V.
3. A flank attack in an E.N.-E. direction by troops carrying special golf-ball grenades, to secure the heights above the club-house and to cut the York road.
4. A Main frontal attack. Divisions to be concentrated in the Shenly brick-fields and moved forward to the battle zone in bakers’ vans, disguised as nuns.
5. G.H.Q. retains command of 2nd Guard and 26th Nuthatchers.
6. Remaining Armies to act in accordance with the operation order 6925, dated July 26th.

The “Six Odes” of Book III of The Orators are saturated by this comic-nightmare vision of internal mobilisation:

You’ve got their names to live up to and questions won’t help,
You’ve a very full programme, first aid, gunnery, tactics,
The technique to master of raids and hand-to-hand fighting;
Are you in training?
Are you taking care of yourself? Are you sure of passing
The endurance test?

Now we’re due to parade on the square in front of the Cathedral,
When the Bishop has blessed us, to file in after the choir-boys,
To stand with the wine-dark conquerors in the roped-off pews,
Shout ourselves hoarse:
‘They ran like hares; we have broken them up like firewood;
They fought against God’.

The absurdism of The Orators incorporates something of the menacing atmosphere of political violence that Auden had lived with in Berlin in 1928-9, but weaves it with a peculiarly British whimsy. The boy soldiers parade again in the final scene of The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), by far the best of the ‘thirties plays written by Auden with Christopher Isherwood. Here they satirise heavily the way that comical rural naivety can slide into menacing reactionary politics. The hero returns to the sleepy village of Pressan Ambo (where “corruption spreads its peculiar and emphatic odours”), to find it “moving with the times”, and in the grip of the Lads of Pressan, a militarised boys’ brigade founded by the vicar and a retired general:

“Miss Iris Crewe is Patroness and Mrs Hotham Honorary Colonel-in-Chief. The uniforms have been designed by the Vicar. Today, the Brigade is to have its first inspection by General and Mrs Hotham. The Vicar will preach a sermon on Bolshevism and the Devil. And Miss Iris Crewe will present the Standard, which will then be blessed by the Vicar. Later, there will be Field Communion, tea and athletic sports.”

Banners proclaim “The Lads of Pressan teach Britain a lesson” and “Pressan is having breakfast: Wake up, England!” The Lads march in to “a flourish of bugles” and fife and drum music. They are armed with dummy rifles, which will soon be exchanged for the real thing, courtesy of Miss Iris Crewe’s fiancé, the well known munitions manufacturer, Mr Rudolf Trunnion-James. After the wedding her ancestral pile, Honey-pot Hall Estate, will be presented to the Lads as barracks, parade-ground and playing-fields.

I think Auden would have felt entirely at home in the culture of A Very British Civil War. It would be good to see the Lads of Pressan having a small presence somewhere in a VBCW order of battle for the Royalist forces.

I suppose the new challenge might be to envision Audenesque conflict in the setting of post-2012, without the VBCW trappings of retro-quaintness. Mind you, some things don’t change much. The Countryside Alliance already has the right ring to its name. In my leafy corner of Shropshire it would be the Rotary and the Masons, riding shotgun in their union jacked four-by-fours, who in the event of national economic collapse would enforce our allegiance to King Charles III and Queen Camilla …

Paul Potts on ‘The World of George Barker’

Paul Potts

New page added here (or use the tab above) with the full text of a 1948 article, “The World of George Barker”, by the extraordinary Paul Potts, together with a bit of an intro. Also of interest with regard to Dylan Thomas and David Gascoyne.

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.

George Barker: the genesis of Gog and Magog

New fragment added to the George Barker page, concerning the origins of his “Gog and Magog” characters in Dialogues etc. Tab at the top or click here.