Monday, September 04, 2017

More Travels In the U.K: Some Misfits Along the Way

At grave of Dylan Thomas, Laugharne, Wales

The day after returning home in late July, I had my regular lunch an old friend.  He is a bit conventional in his view of the way things should be.  The fact that things were never actually like that in reality is besides the point.  I was talking about poetry in general and made the observation that so many poets seemed to be tortured souls, whether it be by alcohol, sex, or substance abuse, and this tension in their lives fueled their poetic impulses.  My friend was unwilling to grant the point, and I countered that I thought very little poetry emanated from the easy chairs of suburbia.  He was still having none of it, so I herded the conversation on to more well-nibbled pastures.

But I believe my point to be defensible, and not only for poets, but for authors and artists as well.  Many were misfits who made a royal mess of things.  But these souls interest me far more than the Great Figures of History.  While I don’t want to leave the impression that I spent all of my time over there poking around graveyards, I did seek out the final resting places of some interesting sorts, who may not have operated on the same plane as the likes of Chesterton and Tolkien from my previous post.
Dylan Thomas statue, Laugharne

I’ll start off with Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet, monumental drunk and colossal screw-up.  At this point, I am more familiar with his biography than I am his actual poetry, but a favorite is the short Death Shall Have No Dominion.  For the last few years of his life, the Thomases lived at Laugharne, a coastal village in the south of Wales.  Dylan Thomas’ physique didn’t quite lend itself to statuary, but there’s one of him anyway, down by the harbor.  The Boathouse, his workshop in Laugharne, is open to tourists, but that would’ve necessitated a parking fee and a lengthy hike from the town center.  I had already walked nearly 7 miles that day, so I decided to give it a pass.  I did, however, visit his and Caitlin’s common grave in the new cemetery adjacent to St. Martin’s churchyard.  The marker is very humble, a white painted wooden cross with both their names and dates on it.  

Before the Thomases lived in Laugharne, they lived in New Quay, on the west coast of Wales.  As would be expected, the poet became a regular at the New Inn pub (now closed, sadly), where he made the acquaintance of an already established regular, a distinguished looking, slightly older gentleman by the name of Alistair Graham.  

Who was this man?  The short answer is that he was Sebastian Flyte, the character created by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited.  I first read of Graham in a passing reference (but extensive footnote) in the new biography of Steven Runciman.  The two met in Athens in the mid 1930s, both in low-level diplomatic positions:  Runciman in early phase of a long and varied career, and Graham in the only real job he ever tackled.  They had some trysts but Runciman was too discreet for someone like Graham.  The footnote in the Runciman biography led me to Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear:  A Memoir for Misfits, one of the most weirdly satisfying books I have ever read.  He devotes a chapter to Graham.
Evelyn Waugh
Alistair Graham

Here, I must double back to Evelyn Waugh to properly tell of Alistair Graham.  I like Waugh well enough, having read The Loved One, Decline and Fall, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust, Scoop, The Sword of Honour Trilogy, and of course, Brideshead Revisited.  He is most noted for the latter, but it is not really my favorite.  Black Mischief is particularly funny, and the Sword of Honour Trilogy stayed with me.  But on the whole, I prefer Powell.  

Waugh gained a reputation in later life as a crusty and ill-tempered traditionalist Catholic convert.  But as a younger man at Oxford, he was something altogether different.  Here he moved freely among the “bright young people” and the noted aesthetes of the 1920s.  He and Graham were quickly drawn to each other, and Waugh was a frequent visitor to the Graham place in Northamptonshire.  In fact, for the better part of three years, the two were commonly known to be couple.  They eventually separated, and Waugh moved on; marrying, divorcing, converting, and then marrying again, as his reputation as a writer grew.  

Graham left briefly for the aforementioned diplomatic posting in Athens.  He returned to London and was soon in hot water with the authorities there.  In that era, one might think it had something to do with his sexual proclivities, but apparently that was not the case at all, and it is not at all clear exactly why he had to leave the city.  But leave he did.  He bought a comfortable, roomy estate about a mile out of remote New Quay, Wales.  And here he settled into 45 years of anonymity.  No one questioned his antecedents, and he was at home in his regular spot at the New Inn.  Of course there would be talk from time to time about the goings-on at his house.  Once, Caitlin Thomas supposedly danced naked atop his coffee table.  The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were said to be occasional guests, and from time to time a Catholic priest would slip in for a visit, for through it all, Graham remained a Catholic.
Waugh graves, outside the churchyard, Combe Florey

Waugh is best known for Brideshead Revisited, basing Lord Sebastian Flyte on Alistair Graham and Lady Marchmain on Graham’s formidable mother.  This did not cause any problems for Graham, for it is a safe bet that no one in New Quay had read the book, or if by chance they had, no one could connect it with him.  But then in 1981 came the highly successful television mini-series with Jeremy Irons portraying Sebastian Flyte.  This changed everything.  Interest in the series led to investigations into Waugh’s sources for the characters.  Soon, reporters were snooping around New Quay.  Graham panicked and went into a recluse mood, refusing to answer any questions, and slamming the door in the face of intrepid interviewers.  And, as always happens, the money began to run out.  Graham sold the house in the country and moved into New Quay, purchasing a modest row cottage on Rock Street, facing the ocean. (Gentrification has even found New Quay, where little houses on this street now fetch $500,000.) Graham died in 1984, I believe, and his ashes were buried at sea.

While history and celebrity bypassed Graham, Evelyn Waugh, in contrast, was never far out of the public limelight.  Revenue from his writings and wealthy in-laws allowed him to purchase a Georgian manor house in Combe Florey, complete with expansive park and imposing gatehouse.  I imagine that the advertising for the offer could have easily said:  Be an English Lord of the Manor; the Complete Package.  It is that kind of place.  But while he purchased the social accoutrements to the life to which he aspired, he was ill-fitted for the role; in short, a misfit.  And Waugh would probably admitted as much.  Nothing illustrates his outsider status better than his grave.  The back side of the park is hard up against the Sts. Peter and Paul churchyard.  But Waugh, his wife and daughter are not buried in the graveyard, as such, but just over the cemetery wall into the field.  One has to step over a wall and onto the private property to view it. The English gravestones do not seem to age well, and his is already almost unreadable.  In time, the estate became too expensive to maintain and Waugh’s grandchildren were forced to dump it.  Vanity of vanities.


Leaving 20th century figures behind for a bit, I also visited the graves of a 15th-century couple, "Black" Vaughan and his wife, Ellen "the Terrible." Subsequent generations attributed the "Black" moniker to the evil character of Sir Thomas Vaughan, though it may have originally been nothing more than a reference to his black hair. Ellen's reputation is a little easier to pin down. A Welsh lady, she shot an arrow through the heart of her brother's assassin, evening the score with her own hands. Vaughan is my wife's maiden name. It would be fun if there were a family connection, but I know that genealogy does not work that way.

Tomb of "Black" Vaughan and Ellen "the Terrible"
Vaughan supported the Yorkists in the War of the Roses, and was captured and beheaded in 1469. According to the legend, his faithful dog brought his skull back to Hergest Court in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border. The effigies of the couple are close by in St. Mary's Church, Knighton. Interestingly, the dog is also in effigy, at Vaughan's feet. Local lore claims that Vaughan's spirit haunted the town until an exorcism trapped the evil spirit into a small box, which was then sunk in Hergest Pool.

The hauntings continued, however, though this time through manifestations of the dog. The Vaughans remained at Hergest Court for hundreds of years after Black Vaughan's beheading. The ghost of the hound would make itself known from time to time, always foretelling the immanent death of a family member. Townspeople would not travel down the road to Hergest Court at night.
Effigy of the Vaughan dog, what's left of it

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should be. Arthur Conan Doyle used this as the basis for his story, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." The monuments in the church are beautiful to behold and worth seeing, even without the legends. We do not have to believe everything of this nature, but we also do not have to automatically dismiss the inexplicable. A wholly rational world, swept clean of any mystery would be dull indeed.


Some other interesting characters whose locales I visited were the quirky “Fr. Ignatius” and the Rev. Francis Kilvert, and I suppose I should also include Digby Mackworth Dolben in this group. The former was a Church of England ritualist who attempted to establish Anglican monasticism in the last half of the nineteenth century.  As one can imagine, this had to be something of a tough sell, and he failed spectacularly.  To the end of his days, Fr. Ignatius remained a controversial figure, something of a gadfly to the church hierarchy.

As is usually the case, I backed into this character.  I enjoy the writings of the 20th-century English historian Christopher Dawson, who was Welsh on his mother's side, born at Hay Castle.  This is less grand than it sounds, his grandfather was the Archdeacon in Hay-on-Wye and the Castle was simply the ecclesiastical residence (now a burned-out hulk looming over the town center.) Reading Dawson's biography led me to Rev. Kilvert and his diaries.
Rev. Francis Kilvert

He tragically died just after his marriage, at age 39, but lived a full life, however, and left an impact on his region. Rev. Kilvert was much more at home with the unfortunates, and the vagabonds he met along the road, than he was in ecclesiastical circles. He was a naturalist, in several senses of the word, being a strong advocate of walking, and of nude swimming. Kilvert kept a journal, which after his death was cleaned-up a little by his heirs, published, and becoming something of a cult classic. There is even a Kilvert Society to keep his memory alive.  

He had a knack for listening to people's stories, whether it was the crippled old veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, or the old woman who remembered seeing the fairies dancing on the floor of the mill, or the man who proudly showed off an old jug--a family heirloom from that day in the 1640s when the fugitive Charles I came by their house and asked for a drink.
At Capel-y-ffin, the chapel house in background where the Rev. Kilvert saw the young washwoman with the "lusty arms"

And the man could walk. On 5 April 1870, he set out after breakfast from Clyru and made his way to Hay, where he paid his respects to the Archdeacon, wife and daughters (one would eventually be the mother of Christopher Dawson), then walked on south and up to the Gospel Pass, then followed the Honddu River down into the Vale of Ewyas until he reached Capel-y-ffin. Here, he admired the small squatty church amid the ancient yews, and chatted up a young woman across the road at the chapel house, whom he described as "a buxom comely wholesome girl with fair hair rosy face blue eyes and fair clean skin [who] stood washing at a tub in the sunshine, up to the elbows of her round white lusty arms in soapsuds." Here, he cut up the hill in an effort to visit with "Fr. Ignatius," who happened to be away in London (Kilvert would meet him, however, on subsequent visits.) He talked with the stone-masons constructing the monastery and acknowledged the two dour "monks" trudging away in their garden. Overall he was more impressed with the stonemasons and the girl washing clothes--people whom he thought were "living naturally in their world and taking their share of its work, care and pleasures"--than these wannabe monks. He rejoined the road and continued on down until he reached the abbey ruins at Llanthony. Here, he paid a leisurely visit with the caretaker, swapping stories and enjoying a meal together. And then he retraced his steps home, arriving about 6:00 pm. His diary noted, "We were rather tired with our 25 miles walk, but not extraordinarily so."
The poet Digby Mackworth Dolben

I also learned of Fr. Ignatius from the biography of Digby Mackworth Dolben, a young poet who drowned at age 19 in 1867.  Dolben was a different sort; there seemed to be an almost ethereal aspect to him which attracted attention wherever he went.  He once entered the Church of St. Alban in Birmingham during their Sunday service, walking down the aisle in nothing more than a simple black habit, belted by a knotted rope, and barefoot. He was an early acolyte of Fr. Ignatius, and planned to go even further. He was not interested in any Anglican monasticism, but planned to convert to Catholicism. Dolben's father made him promise not convert until after graduating from Oxford, in order to avoid the "scandal." The noted poet and Catholic convert Gerard Manly Hopkins fell madly in love with Dolben prior to his taking own taking of vows.  Dolben never had a strong constitution, but loved to swim. He was teaching the son of a friend how to swim when he lost consciousness and sank into the river. The young poet would have slipped through the cracks of history if not for his cousin and later poet laureate of Great Britain who published his biography and poems in 1911.
Grave of Rev. Francis Kilvert, Bredwardine

After Fr. Ignatius’s time, his monastic experiment was occuped by the artist commune led by the controversial Eric Gill.  The troubled Welsh poet and painter David Jones lived at the commune for a while.  To bring the loose threads back together, Jones was himself a great friend of Christopher Dawson.  Today the site, on a hillside looking down upon the little church at Capel-y-ffin, is a Riding Center, not accessible to the curious traveler.  But standing down in the narrow roadway next to the church, one can make out the white building above, and the gleaming white statue of the Virgin Mary carved by Eric Gill.  Fr. Ignatius is buried close-by.
The old "monastery" of "Fr. Ignatius," Capel-y-ffin, Wales


As mentioned in a previous post, some artwork led me to the Church of St. Andrews in Mells, Somerset.  While there, I visited the graves--a few feet apart--of two friends who pursued widely differing paths, but ended up, literally and figuratively at the same place: Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, priest, author and humorist, and Siegfried Sassoon, poet and author.  

They both moved easily with British society, coming from the upper classes, so they could hardly be characterized as misfits. But they both charted independent paths. Knox was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism in 1917, at which time his father, the Bishop of Manchester, disinherited him. He became one of the chief spokesmen for English Catholicism and was even entrusted with retranslating the Vulgate Bible, in light of the Hebrew and Greek. Of an amiable temperament, Knox was known for his skillful use of humor in his writings. I picked up one of his novels--”Barchester Pilgrimage’’-which I read while traveling.  A great fan of the author, he took Trollope’s Barchester series and followed the families for another 50 to 60 years, bring them into the mid 1930s.  It is a good read, and Knox does not try to sugar-coat the story, or make any polemic points.  The famiies’ courses follow pretty much the trend of English society during that time period, and they end up about where you would expect them to be in 1935.  As a great fan of Trollope, who has read the entire canon, I found that he was faithful to the spirit of the Trollope's work.

At grave of Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon was from an colorful background, his mother one of the artsy Thornycrafts, and his father one of the Sassoons, a famous Jewish banking and commercial family, as important in Baghdad, Bombay and Beijing as the Rothschilds were in Europe.  Their wealth washed Sassoon’s great-grandfather ashore in London.  Siegfried had little contact with his wealthy relatives, however, as they disowned his father when he married a Gentile. One of the most intriguing passages from Sassoon's autobiography of his early years was his sense of being out of place at his father's Jewish funeral, amidst a host of high and mighty relatives whom he barely knew.

At grave of Msgr. Ronald Arbuthnot Knox
 Sassoon is best known as being one of the great “war poets”, although he was already making a name for himself before the Great War, and he continued to write for many years afterwards.  Sassoon was widely known to be homosexual, discreet but decidely so. As mentioned in an earlier post, he was the mentor of Wilfred Owen.  Later, he had an extended relationship with the flamboyant Stephen Tennant.  

In middle age, somewhat surprisingly, Sassoon seemed to change course. He married, and then fathered a son. While his marriage eventually ended in divorce, he was incredibly close to this only child. Still later, he became fast friends with his neighbor Msgr. Knox and become a happy convert to Catholicism. I find it fitting that they are buried so near one another.  I’ve read some of poetry, as well as his early autobiography.  I found him a sympathetic voice.

I hoped to avoid London altogether this trip, with the exception of the last full day in the U.K.  I planned to visit a couple of sites on the outskirts of London (which I did) and then that afternoon, I planned to visit the graves of Francis Thompson and Lionel Pigot Johnson in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, and the grave of Simeon Solomon in Williston Jewish Cemetery. Time permitting, there were others that interested me in the Catholic Cemetery, as well as the adjoining Kensal Green.   These three definitely fit the characterization of troubled artistic temperaments. While they all died in the early years of the 20th-century, their demons are particularly up-to-date: drugs, sex, and alcohol.
Francis Thompson

Francis Thompson was the son of middle class Catholic doctor in Birmingham.  He was supposed to carry on his father's profession, but repeated failed in his medical studies. A sickly youth, Thompson developed an addiction to laudanum, which later led to the same for opium.  He started writing poetry early on, but could not stay straight.  He ended up in London, an habitue of opium dens, bars and brothels. In recent years, his name has been added to the long list of possible Jack the Rippers, though I seriously doubt that. He earned a little change as he could, hopefully sending out poetry to various publishers. Alice Meynell, poet and suffragist, received one of them and shared it with her husband, Wilfred Meynell, owner of a Catholic publishing house. They took Thompson off the street and into their home, where he lived as a member of their family for many years. His time with the Meynells was his most productive period. The Hound of Heaven, in which Jesus Christ's unflagging pursuit of an individual soul is compared to that of a pursuing bloodhound, dates from these years. (On a personal note, this poem is one of the most transforming things that I have encountered in a lifetime of reading.) But somewhat predictably, Thompson could not stay straight, and his life and addictions had taken their toll on him. He died at age 47. While in Hay, I was able to find a set of his collected works.

Lionel Pigot Johnson

Lionel Pigot Johnson was another tortured young poet and literary critic.  He struggled with alcoholism and repressed homosexuality. It was Johnson who introduced his cousin, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, to Oscar Wilde. He moved briefly in those circles, but became estranged from Wilde after he took up with Douglas. Johnson found relief in his conversion to Catholicism in 1891. His most noted poem is Dark Angel. He died in 1902 at age 35, after supposedly falling off a bar stool in the Green Dragon Pub. I have a volume of his collected poems, as well as his critical study of Thomas Hardy.
Simeon Solomon

The Pre-Raphaelite artists interest me, and starting with Burne-Jones, I have become more and more familiar with the personalities and their works over the last couple of years. Simeon Solomon was the lone Jewish artist among the group. He was well-liked and respected, but tended towards outrageous behavior. Like Johnson, he was homosexual, but there was nothing repressed about it. Long before the Oscar Wilde scandal, Simeon Solomon made scandalous headlines in the English newspapers.  He was caught in the act with a stable-hand, prosecuted and convicted.  And then he was caught again.  In a sad reflection on late Victorian society, Solomon was subsequently shunned by most of his peers, and this brilliant artist ended his days as a derelict street artist, working for small change. He died in 1905.
Solomon's "Love in Autumn"

All three of these men were immensely talented, and yet they led tragic lives. But through their poetry, their writings, their art, they speak to us yet. And if we are wise, we will not turn away, but understand that we are no different than they.

The two factors which had dogged me my entire stay in the U.K. were in play that last day, as well; namely, English weather and English traffic. Cutting across Surrey and Sussex, I attempted and then abandoned a plan to visit a site in Crawley, stopped by the giant yew tree at Crowhurst and saw the Last Judgment wall mural uncovered at Chaldon church. This left me south of London, just inside the M25. The two cemeteries I wanted to visit are northwest from central London. What I should have done was to work my way back to the M25 and drive clockwise until I could aim towards my sites from the northwest. But I have been on the M25 when it was a parking lot as far as the eye could see. So, I decided to bust up straight through London. Big mistake.
Though much shorter in actual miles, the drive took my far longer, I believe, than using the M25. Traffic congestion was unrelenting, though I was able to see, somewhat against my wishes, a number of neighborhoods up close: Battersea, Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill, Shepherd's Bush, to name a few.

The grave of Francis Thompson

I arrived at St. Mary's Cemetery a little after 3:00 pm, about two hours later than planned and now pressed for time. The rain, which had never really stopped, was coming down harder and harder. I had done my research and knew the general area of Thompson's grave. I found it with little trouble. It is an above ground tomb, carved by Eric Gill. Pressed for space, the cemetery sold plots in what had been a walkway in front of the grave. Now someone else's tombstone was almost flush up against Thompson's, making it difficult to see Gill's carving, or even Thompson's name. On the other side of the tomb is a line from a poem to his godson, one of the Meynell children: Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven. I had planned to recite all 185 lines of The Hound of Heaven, but the rain was fast washing away my plans. I made do with the first section of the poem and the concluding verses.

I was less sure of Johnson's grave, but just before giving up, found it not 30 ft. from Thompson's. I had a copy of Dark Angel, and as it was relatively short, I read it quickly in the rain.
At the grave of Lionel Pigot Johnson

There were others I wished to visit: Alice Meynell and Pearl Craigie (the author known as John Oliver Hobbes) in St. Mary’s, and Anthony Trollope and perhaps Wilkie Collins in adjoining Kensal Green Cemetery. But time and traffic and rain had made this impractical. These sites, as well as Simeon Solomon's in the nearby Jewish cemetery will have to wait until another trip. For now, my thoughts were all about returning my rental car to the airport and preparing for my early morning flight home the next day.