30 March 2012


A guy I know is writing his PhD thesis on the poetry of Ian Hamilton. Every time I see him a bit of Hamilton talk understandably seeps in. However, it is another poet that always ends up gushing through the floodgates of our chat. Well, ever since I read the poem 'Goodbye' at any rate, which I sought out after the PhD-writing chap ardently urged me, gently quoting a couple of choice lines. It is so gut-wrenchingly tender it kills me. My mother's reaction to it was 'I can't do this, it's too perfect and I'm distraught'. Quite.

So now (obviously) I am obsessed with Alun Lewis. He was a young Welsh supply teacher who fought in the Second World War. He was also a writer of short stories and a rather extraordinary poet. One morning in Burma, 1944, after washing and breakfasting, he tripped on his way to the latrines. The fall caused his revolver to go off. The bullet hit him in the head, killing him six hours later. Officially an accident. Unofficially suicide.

I read his collected poems, but it was a collection of his letters that got me then broke me. A Cypress Walk is a record of all Alun's letters to Freda Ayckroyd. She was wife to Wallace Ayckroyd, and lived in Coonoor, southern India. Alun stayed with the couple when on sick leave in 1943. He fell in love with Freda, who safety-pinned his khaki trousers and felt warm flesh beneath his shirt. I need not say she fell for him too... Alun burnt all of her letters to him in case his wife Gweno, in Wales, found them. Gweno who he also loved. Gweno for whom he wrote 'Goodbye'. And, of course, 'Post-Script: for Gweno', in which he writes 'A singing rib within my dreaming side;/You always stay'.

But these letters are to his Frieda. He inserted an 'i' into her name, having never seen it written down. He inserted his 'I'. Himself in her name. He had written a short story years earlier entitled 'Attitude', in which the main character, a female version of himself, was named Frieda. Prophetic.

I have pages and pages of lines from his letters and poems copied down in my notebook. 'I think of you all the bloody time. Do you mind?' That line has become a kind of mantra, an incantation, a rhythm I walk to. That line is the letters. He asks her questions, continually, unrelentingly, like conversations in his mind and on the page when away from her. 'This isn't an answer or a letter - it's only a cup of coffee after lunch...'

They are full of idiosyncracies, lovely little odd things. The quotidien mingles with his thoughts of her: 'A soccer match, a disjointed conversation at dinner, a visit. To the reading room to see how things go: Oh and a longing beyond words'. He calls her Frieda Buttery. 'I'm as happy & crazy and serious as God the Father God the Son and God the buttered toast. I love & I love & I love, so damn you both. Do you know? How I love? What ways? What pretty ways? sometimes? Sometimes I love very badly, Frieda Buttercups.'

He asks her to send him books, mostly poetry. If one is in love with a woman who has access to poetry books, one may as well make use of this romantic and practical fact. 'Will you dance with me? Swim with me? Loll on the balcony over the shipping with me? Will you please bring Rilke with you, please please please bring Rilke with you to read in the night and perhaps one pellucid morning?' He also sends her books in return: 'There's a poem in that little Lawrence I sent you, written over a Bavarian river. Read it for what I mean, will you?'

One of the most charming things about these letters is how Alun signs off following the lengthy flayings of his heart. It's always different, with various arrangements of kisses and darlings and dears and how much he loves. 'xxxx your xxxx lover xx Alun'.

And then he died. But everyone should read A Cypress Walk. It doesn't take very long if you become obsessed. A whole war-time love affair in a slim book.

I discovered that somebody who had previously studied on the same poetry MA course that I took last year actually met Freda not long before she died in 2005. Apparently she made incredibly strong G&Ts, serving them well before noon. A woman worthy of love-letters.

21 March 2012

And she arrived in a whirl of fur and lipstick...

About a month ago I was sent an email requesting me to pick a date out of a handful in March, and to keep this evening entirely clear from around 6.30 onwards. A black and white image of a flapper girl - feathered, sequined, and sultry - was attached to the email. So the 1920s was my only clue. I recorded it in my diary as 'Mystery and Intrigue'. The fellow who sent me the email recorded it in his as 'The Secret Thing'. I rather hoped it wasn't a secret to him... Especially when, at the specified time on the evening of mystery and intrigue, he led me down an east-end alleyway to loiter under a bridge, him all slick in braces and brogues, me in a tasselled black backless dress and fur coat.

Under this bridge, it was Prohibition-era America. There was a hobo playing a harmonica, gangsters in sharp suits and fedoras, girls with feathers fanning out from curls, and loud Chicago drawls shouting into the night with that nasal whine. Hey, you headed for Fat Sam's? My companion was frisked by a policeman up against a brick wall, while molls in t-bar heels chatted away to the forming queue nineteen-to-the-dozen. We were led round the back of the art deco cinema, up some stairs, along a corridor and into a bookshop. The bookseller looked us up and down, opened a hatch in a bookshelf, then swung the whole bookcase open. We climbed through and entered the heart of the Troxy. Or rather Fat Sam's Grand Slam.

Future Cinema had created the perfect speakeasy. Bright white tablecloths covered large round tables. Steaming all-American pasta dishes were served in one corner - macaroni and cheese, classic lasagne - while candy-striped paper bags of popcorn and sweets, along with milkshakes, were on offer in another. Of course there was a cocktail bar. A blues band with double bass and trumpet played flawlessly on the smoky stage. All I could see were sequins, feathers, headpieces, flashing teeth and short shorts on dancing girls. Fat Sam himself naturally compered the evening, which included Leroy's boxing match in Slugger's Gym, a tapdancing bar-cleaner, piano accompaniment to a silent film, and Tallulah's sassy number. She's so sassy. I gotta get me some o' that gap-toothed slinky sass. And of course there was the odd noisy interruption when we all had to duck and lay low as Dandy Dan's men hit the joint. One of his men ran right across a row of cinema seating up top, a spotlight following his crazy stunt all the way.

Then the screen came down and the film began. If it was raining brains, Roxy Robinson wouldn't even get wet. Everyone sang along, whooped and guffawed. I love this film. We could have been anything that we wanted to be...we're the very best at being baaaaad. I would be Tallulah over Blousy any day. Then there was a pause before the final splurge showdown... We all donned ponchos and were passed paper plates loaded with foam. Anyone and everyone was sprayed all over and danced in the evaporating froth. You give a little love and it all comes back to you, la la la lalalala.

So it was a late night, getting home with pinched toes, necessitating a long Sunday lie-in. Then an afternoon of home-made scones eaten warm with cherry jam and squirty cream and watching the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. It really is 'the seventies does the twenties'. Soft focus, pastel palette, babycham glasses, water fountains, the Charlston, so much champagne, Mia's big-eyed melodrama and Robert Redford in a powder pink suit. SO HOT. And Irving Berlin's What'll I do on the gramophone by the pool. I've been humming it since. What'll I do when you are far away....

[picture from Encore Avenue]

11 March 2012

Live as well as you dare

On Thursday I received a postal invitation to an old school friend’s imminent nuptials to her beloved. I have to RSVP to her parents and buy something from a list at John Lewis. [I am also going to a baby shower in a fortnight, the invitation to which came loaded with baby-themed confetti – I made the mistake of Googling ‘baby shower etiquette’ as I don’t have a clue how one behaves at such a thing, but I was lead to lists of nauseating American sites that referred to the ‘mommy-to-be’ and allocated time to ‘ooh and ahh’ over tiny baby-gros. I laughed then I cried]. Thursday happened to be International Women’s Day. It was also the day we were sent a promo book at work entitled ‘Please God, Find Me a Husband’. I was on the cusp of repeatedly banging my head with my Women’s Lib placard and copy of ‘The Female Eunuch’ so that I would fall into a calm unconscious and therefore be a quiet and pliable woman, but then I took a closer look at the book.

It is a graphic novel by Simone Lia. The Simone Lia who is loved by my father and who wrote a very witty book called ‘Fluffy’ about a bunny rabbit in denial. This new novel follows Simone herself. She is dumped by email so asks God to find her a husband. This leads to her ‘Adventure with God’. She stays in a nunnery for a spell, goes to Australia in search of a hermit, finds a guy named Brett instead who makes her feel like Penelope Cruz, and ultimately discovers that she should stop whining about being some kind of spinster. She dances and sings with God, asks Jesus what his favourite fruit is (figs), and has a heart that wears an eye patch and has a wooden leg. So the book is actually pretty cool, despite the Bridget-Jones-does-Catholicism connotations of the title. And the woman has some kick-ass drawing skillz.

The fact that this book cropped up entirely unexpectedly was pretty weird as I went and saw Karen Armstrong give a talk just this Monday gone. The question was ‘What is Religion’. The answer…well, the answer was lots more questions. She was a clued-up and interesting speaker, but I wanted more about her. She had become a nun in her teens in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, then left her order seven years later. I read her account of all this in her autobiographical work ‘The Spiral Staircase’ many years ago, devouring it as though it were a very good novel. I’m going to re-read it, but differently this time, with a ‘mature and critical eye’. Now she’s all about the Charter for Compassion, which focuses on the commonalities in all religions, namely The Golden Rule.

A little while ago, I came across a letter. It was written in 1820 by Sydney Smith, addressed to a Lady Georgiana who was feeling out of sorts. I looked up Sydney Smith and found that he was the son of an epileptic mother, had a lively personality due to his French blood, and that he was reluctantly compelled to take holy orders. As a preacher he possessed vigour and liveliness, drawing crowds to Albermarle Street to hear him speak. He scorned enthusiasts, dreaded religious emotion, and was a great supporter of the education of women. He also had a rhyming recipe for salad dressing.

Anyway, here’s the letter:

Dear Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have—so I feel for you.

Here are my prescriptions;
1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75 or 80 degrees.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to you friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana.

Very truly yours,
Sydney Smith

Well, I agree with some of the points (amusing books and blazing fires are, of course, excellent things), but I do not agree with avoiding poetry or emotion. These are important. Especially for living ‘as well as you dare’.