Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Maurice Bowra: A Larger-than-Life Benefactor

images[1]A friend showed me an article in a recent Oxford Gazette about Maurice Bowra, the legendary Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. I was lucky enough to be a student there when he was head of the College (I started there in 1966) and it brought back memories that seemed worth recording.

I remember him as a stocky man, not very tall, always in a smart grey suit. He had a broad chest and a thick neck, so his head seemed to join his body without transition – the outline recalled a sea lion. The slightest remark made in his deep, resonant voice would rumble around the quad like a brief clap of thunder. And he often was in the quad, because his home – the Warden’s Lodgings – was in the corner on your left as you entered the College.

Always interested in undergraduates, he would invite all new students to dinner in small groups of four or five. It wasn’t an easy evening: most of us were tongue-tied and petrified with nerves in the great man’s presence, so unless one of the guests was exceptionally precocious even by Oxford undergraduate standards, the Warden had to keep the conversation going almost single-handed (which he was well able to do). I don’t recall a single thing about my first-year dinner with him, except that I was paralysed with shyness throughout. In retrospect, I feel it was a little sad. Bowra genuinely wanted to know the students, but his personal charisma actually put a barrier in the way. He was dauntingly impressive, and – I now guess – just a little shy himself.

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On further acquaintance, he turned out to be exceptionally kind and generous. He would encourage students in financial or academic difficulties; he supported student writing and drama keenly; he would bend the system as necessary for anyone who had been ill or notably unlucky. And – unlike many impressive university grandees – he was notably liberal – even left-wing.

He had long advocated co-educational colleges, and lobbied energetically to see that Wadham was the very first men’s college to admit women (just he had previously seen to it that the College went out of its way to admit talented grammar school boys when others were still focusing on the independent schools). Of course it was self-interest too: he was making sure that the College stayed ahead. But that was part of his genius – to find ways of combining generosity with his task of nurturing the College.

And in the wider world he did his best to support decent people and politics against tyrants. Once I saw him at an undergraduate play about Savonarola, which featured graphic on-stage scenes of torture. Bowra stayed until the interval, then slipped away. I heard him muttering ‘No, no. Don’t like torture.’ He didn’t come back. Too many of his friends, in the 1930s and since, had suffered or died at the hands of despots.

Not that he was a rigid egalitarian. Once when I won a University prize, I got a note of congratulation from the Warden, adding ‘To him who hath, shall be given’ and telling me that I’d find £100 to my credit at Parker’s bookshop, to spend as I chose. (I still have several of the books I bought.) Again, he was encouraging what he thought was good for the College and its status.

Once you overcame your nervousness enough to appreciate it, he was a memorable, aphoristic talker. His favourable judgment on an undergraduate was ‘That man’s not just clever. He’s intelligent!’ And his comment on desiccated literary theory, years before it wrought havoc in English schools, was prescient: ‘Books about books? All well and good. But beware of books about books about books!’

When we had our celebratory dinner with him, undergraduates en masse, after our final exams (‘Schools’), conversation turned to famous people he’d known. We began throwing names at him. Mao Tse Tung? T.S. Eliot? Chamberlain? EM. Forster? It seemed he’d met everybody. The climax came when someone asked ‘What about Lawrence?’ Bowra barked back, ‘D.H. or T.E.? Knew them both!’

When he prepared to retire and move to smaller lodgings (it must have been in 1969 or so, just before I left for Wolfson College) he gave most of his books away to students. I’ve still got Henry Vaughan’s Poems, the bulky and excellent volume he gave me. He died not long afterwards.

And of course there are the stories. Like Swift and Charles Lamb, like Wilde and Socrates, he was a magnet for anecdotes. No doubt many of those that gathered to his name were centuries old, the common adornment of many previous ‘characters’. It was generally assumed, in my time at least, that he was gay. But he was said to have been engaged, once; when someone commented on his fiancée’s homely looks, the reply had been ‘Buggers can’t be choosers!’ Apocryphal? Perhaps.

Then there was the story of how he and a group of friends had been surprised drying themselves at Parsons’ Pleasure, the male skinny-dipping pool on the river, by a misdirected boat full of ladies. His naked companions hastily wrapped towels around their waists. Bowra put his towel over his head. When the boat had departed, his explanation was ‘Don’t know about you chaps, but around here I’m generally known by my face.’

And of course there was the tale of the undergraduate, climbing into college one night long after hours (colleges were locked at 11 pm in those days and lateness cost a fine or worse) who, slipping in the darkness along a side-passage beside the Master’s lodgings, heard footsteps approaching. He dived through a convenient doorway to find himself in a lamplit sitting-room. But – horrors! Other steps were approaching, this time from inside the lodgings. Our hero duly took refuge behind a sofa. In came an insomniac Bowra, clad in pyjamas and dressing-gown. He sat down at a desk on the other side of the room and spent several hours reading and writing, whilst the fugitive tried not to breathe too loudly, and to be stoical about the effects of beer on an overtaxed bladder. At length the ordeal drew to a close: Bowra stood up from the desk and padded to the door. The fugitive, it seemed, had escaped detection. Then, in the doorway, the Warden paused; and the familiar voice growled: ‘Would you mind turning the light out when you leave?’

Did Wordsworth’s Daughter Have Down’s Syndrome?

Catherine Wordsworth

With the recent news that M&S have chosen Seb White, a little boy with Down’s Syndrome, as a model for their children’s clothes, it seemed a good time to draw attention to the likelihood that William Wordsworth probably wrote one of his finest poems about a Down’s Syndrome child.

His beautiful sonnet ‘Surprised by Joy’ was written after he had lost two children, but its most likely subject is Catherine Wordsworth, who was especially dear to her father and used to delight him by playing in his study as he wrote. Here’s the poem:

SURPRISED by joy–impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport–Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind–
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss?–That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, 10
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Sadly, Catherine (1808-12) had died at less than four years old and the poem records a painful moment when Wordsworth instinctively turns to the child and then realises, a split second later, that she is no longer there – something anyone who has suffered a bereavement will be able to identify with.

But how do we know that Catherine had Down’s Syndrome? It’s not certain but it is extremely likely. I noticed the evidence when I was researching the life of the essayist Thomas De Quincey, and a couple of years ago pointed it out to Muriel Strachan, who is writing a book on the Wordsworth children, and suggested she examine the evidence systematically. She did so and the case seems very clear.

Catherine was born when the poet and his wife were both 38. A loveable and delightful child, she was said by Dorothy Wordsworth to have ‘not…the least atom of beauty’, but a wonderful sense of humour and ‘something irresistibly comic in her face and movements’. Wordsworth used to call her ‘my little Chinese maiden’ – probably relating to the epicanthic fold of skin which gives some Down’s children an unusual shape to the eye. She seems to have had heart problems and suffered from convulsions and some problem with swallowing. All these symptoms point very strongly to Down’s Syndrome.

The whole Wordsworth Circle was fond of her, and Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, loved her especially: so much so that when she died he was heart-broken, and claims to have slept out on her grave in Grasmere churchyard for six summer weeks in passionate grief. It was probably depression following her death that tipped him into full-blown opium additicion, for his addiction took hold soon after she died.
Wordsworth wrote two poems about Catherine: the other, lesser-known poem is ‘Characteristics of a Child Three Years Old:

LOVING she is, and tractable, though wild;
And Innocence hath privilege in her
To dignify arch looks and laughing eyes;
And feats of cunning; and the pretty round
Of trespasses, affected to provoke
Mock-chastisement and partnership in play.
And, as a faggot sparkles on the hearth,
Not less if unattended and alone
Than when both young and old sit gathered round
And take delight in its activity; 10
Even so this happy Creature of herself
Is all-sufficient, solitude to her
Is blithe society, who fills the air
With gladness and involuntary songs.
Light are her sallies as the tripping fawn’s
Forth-startled from the fern where she lay couched;
Unthought-of, unexpected, as the stir
Of the soft breeze ruffling the meadow-flowers,
Or from before it chasing wantonly
The many-coloured images imprest 20
Upon the bosom of a placid lake.

Muriel Strachan presented an outline of her findings at the Wordsworth Museum last autumn. For full details we shall have to wait for her book on the Wordsworth children. Meanwhile, in the new edition of my book The Opium-Eater: A Life of THomas De Quincey (Crux Publishing, forthcoming) I’ve been able to point to the likelihood that Catherine was a Down’s baby, and to explore the part she played in De Quincey’s life.

To pre-order this e-book (likely price £6.99, tbc), or for more information, please email Crux Publishing at [email protected]

Down’s Syndrome was not identified as a medical condition until John Langdon Down described it in 1866, so the Wordsworths and their friends simply saw Catherine as a lovely and somewhat unusual child.

Papers and Questions at the Rylands Library

It feels slightly weird sometimes to be part of an archive. Are you still alive if bits of your past are boxed up in climate-controlled conditions with books and records going back to pre-Christian times?

I found myself wondering about it when I met Laura Outterside, a researcher who is writing a dissertation on poets and other artists who have already given parts of their personal papers to archives for preservation.

Laura Outterside: Asking Questions about Archives


Laura, a delightful and friendly person who is as lively and funny as she is analytical and inquiring, wanted to know how I first came to deposit papers (letters, research notes, poetry mansucripts and other things) in Manchester’s John Rylands Library, and also whether it changed the way I felt about my own notebooks, letters and emails, and how I felt about other people possibly using them in future.

It was actually the Rylands that approached me first of all back in 2001, as they were interested in the material I’d collected in the process of editing the works of Thomas De Quincey, the Manchester-born essayist and Romantic-period ‘Opium Eater’. Later, my own poetry notebooks and many letters, including those to me from the poet and scholar Kathleen Raine, went into the Rylands’s Modern Literary Archive – a collection of papers from contemporary writers, then looked after by one of its founders, Stella Halkyard, and now by the wonderful and meticulous Fran Baker. Fran also has the huge task of caring for the archives of Cartcanet Press, the Manchester poetry publisher, to which they’re now adding email as well as paper. A formidable mass of material!

A glimpse of the amazing architecture of the John Rylands Library

I don’t have a lot of personal attachment to my old notebooks, incoming letters, manuscripts and so on: they feel like the dead leaves a tree has shed. I’ve moved on, or I hope I have. But if other people find them interesting or useful, that’s great. My guess is they will be used for things I can’t even imagine. Who knows what will interest people a hundred years from now? If they find my bits and pieces useful, then that’s great. But I am curious to know what Laura will come up with. What will other writers and artists say? What ideas do they have about these accidental by-products of their work? I hope Laura will let me see what she writes.

If you’d like to see what the Modern LIterary Archive has to offer, a good starting-point is here:

A Cuban Poet in Manchester: Victor Rodriguez Nuñez (and of course The Smiths)

Victor and Kate enjoy a drink at Manchester's Cuba Cafe

Spent many happy hours this week with my friends Victor and Kate. Victor Rodriguez Nuñez is a leading Cuban poet, and his wife Kate Hedeen is a gifted translator of Latin American poetry.

 

Victor was here for the Manchester International Literature festival last autumn, and liked it so much that he wanted to show Kate around. Plus, Kate is a huge fan of The Smiths, who provided the soundtrack to her early life in Portland, Oregon. So naturally we had to take the Smiths Tour of Manchester, expertly provided by Craig of Manchester Music Tours.

Kate and Craig: a visit to the Shrine!

We had a wonderful morning exploring everything from the Free Trade Hall to the Salford Lads’ Club and the famous Iron Bridge of the song. Craig was a fine, friendly guide (as well as being drummer with the renowned Inspiral Carpets) and we came away fully educated about Morrissey, the Smiths and the whole Manchester music scene.

We also enjoyed a few other quintessentially Mancunian delights – dinner at Mr Thomas’s Chop House, drinks at the Peveril of the Peak pub, and (of course) I couldn’t resist taking Victor and Kate on Friday night up to the amazing Cuba Cafe, in Port Street, Manchester’s small but glittering Cuban bar and club, where we had a couple of Cuba Libres made with real Havana Club rum and watched one of Michal’s excellent bachata classes. I must get along there and improve my bachata dancing next week.

 

The famous Iron Bridge: to think I drove past it every day and never knew...

 

Kate paid Manchester what I take to be the ultimate compliment, saying that to her it felt like a Latin American city – gritty but friendly, hugely mixed and cosmopolitan, creative and non-touristy. A thoroughly happy few days with two close friends who are also great literary artists and a link back to my beloved Cuba. They’ve gone now but they’ll definitely be back for more. I miss them already.

A Feelgood Night with Wilko Johnson

Had a great night out on Saturday – good old rock and roll with one of Britain’s legendary guitarists.

We went to see Wilko Johnson at the Manchester Academy. Wilko has a unique guitar style that blends what used to be called ‘lead’ and ‘rhythm’ – basically, he plays both at once in a percussive, economical way that owes something to Chuck Berry (and before her to Sister Rosetta Tharpe – see my post on her from way back) but is really all his own.

Wilko’s name may not mean much to you if you’re under 40 but he is still remembered as the star attraction of a sensational rhythm and blues band called Dr Feelgood back in the 1970s – just before the punk era dawned. Wilko was famous for the way he would go whizzing around the stage while he played – he never seemed to keep still and he would slide and tear around as if he was on skates, with a weird hypnotic glare on his face.

More recently the band – and Wilko above all – have been the subject of a fascinating film by Julien Temple called Oil City Confidential about the band, its history and the highly individual Wilko, who is a natural star – quoting Shakespeare and Milton fluently (he read English at Newcastle under my old friend Robert Woof, later curator of Dove Cottage – another crazy genius), demonstrating his highly personal guitar technique, and climbing onto the roof of his house in Canvey Island, Essex, where he has a high-grade astronomical telescope. In fact, he’s such an expert that there’s a Facebook group campaigning for him to take over on The Sky at Night when Patrick Moore finally has to retire!

Amanda and I had a quick chat with Wilko in the dressing room and he told us that he’s now got a solar telescope, which has darkened lenses so you can look directly at the sun, so he’s able to watch the solar flares erupting.

But mainly we listened to Wilko and his band performing a classic set of blues numbers and Dr Feelgood songs. Exciting, energising and great fun. And if you want to meet one of British rock’s great characters, or learn about a key episode in British popular culture, or just see a fine documentary film which I guarantee you’ll enjoy, do get hold of Oil City Confidential .