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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

am enjoying your postings.such abusy and interesting cultural lif!!!.ROBIN