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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England
I first walked along the Euston Road, London NW1, in September 1973, on the way to King’s Cross St Pancras, one hundred years after Arthur Rimbaud had lived in and around the area. Here he wrote most of those extraordinary prose poems, Illuminations that transform and allow the reader to see anew. They are filled with bridges, arches and railway lines, as the area is today. It is a fascinating place, layered with literary ghosts. W.B. Yeats lived and wrote at Woburn Walk, from February 1896 to June 1918, and was also involved in an alchemy of the past and future. There is a sense of magnetic attraction to this area that goes back to before William Blake’s Jerusalem (1804-20) mapped a landscape pointing to St Pancras Old Church and the fields north of the Euston Road as pivotal.
The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood
Were builded over pillars of gold
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood
Here Little-ones ran on the fields,
The Lamb of God among them seen,
And fair Jerusalem his Bride
Among the little meadows green.
The area and church is named after the Roman boy-martyr executed by Emperor Diocletian in 304 AD. Pancras became a favourite saint in England. Indeed we have a Saxon village here in Dorset named Alton Pancras and its nearby Church Hill. Founded in 314 AD, the Old Church is regarded as one of the oldest in Europe and, with Glastonbury Abbey, the oldest in England. It was built on Caesar’s encampment at Pancras called the Brill. This conjecture by the Chief Druid and Antiquarian, Dr. William Stukeley, from his digging in 1750, would have been known to Blake, and was later confirmed by the discovery of Roman bones in 1863 by the Midland Railway Company. This emphasis on field archaeology and the discovery of ancient materials certainly fuelled the late Victorian fascination with the occult and lay behind some of Rimbaud and Yeats’ work. Fieldwork has subsequently inspired such poets as Seamus Heaney (Field Work 1979) and Peter Riley (Alstonefield 2003, Excavations 2004) in more diverse ways. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘field-work’ is derived from the ‘field-work’ of 1767, which related to surveying, and that of 1777 when it was first used in connection with agricultural fieldwork. Literary references to ‘Pangrace’ as it was known, include the satirists George Wither, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, where it is cited as a place of great sanctity, and the contemporary satirist, Iain Sinclair, who championed Aidan Andrew Dun’s epic poem, Vale Royal (1995), on the subject.
In 1865 Thomas Hardy, working as an apprentice architect, supervised the disinterment and removal of coffins to make way for the Midland Railway cutting. These included those of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, who were removed to lie with their daughter, Mary Shelley, at St Peter’s in Bournemouth. During June 1814 Percy Bysshe Shelley had secretly courted Mary Godwin, reading sections of his poem, Queen Mab (1813), by her mother’s grave, and her stepsister Jane ‘Claire’ Claremont. This was the place where Mary had gone since early childhood to escape from her stepmother and where allegedly the boy-poet, Thomas Chatterton, had fallen in an open grave a few days before his death in 1770. Whilst the Old Church was home to radical Dissenters, such as Mary’s parents, it was also the place of worship for Catholic émigrés escaping the French Revolution. Church records show a great many members of the extended Blake family using the church but no reference to William, who was involved in the New Jerusalem Church of Swedenborgians elsewhere.
Hardy was imbued by the place, reading Queen Mab and writing several poems about his experiences at St Pancras Old Church, including ‘Neutral Tones’ and ‘The Levelled Churchyard’. The Hardy Tree growing within the old gravestones still exists. The Old Church remains a peaceful place.
In September 1973 I was going to King’s Cross St. Pancras to meet a woman. Now whenever I am in the area I think of the Venus of Euston Road and I want to tell some of her story and her literary connections as they impinge upon English poetry.
She was part of a generation of upper middle class bohemian women writers and artists that included Mary Wesley, Lorna Wishart, Barbara Skelton, Caroline Blackwood, Anne Dunn, Joan Wyndham, Elizabeth Smart, Theodora Constantine
and Kathleen Raine.
Sonia Brownell was the reluctant muse and eventual lover of members of the Euston Road School of Art and Drawing.
From a Colonial background, she was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent, Roehampton, the infamous school described by former pupil, Antonia White in Frost in May (1933). Sonia’s friend and contemporary was the actress, Vivien Leigh. The school left Sonia poorly educated, angry and self-willed. She appeared as a Renoir beauty; insecure, eager to find her place in a man’s world.
Her first affair was with the painter, Adrian Stokes, who became an art critic, linking psychoanalysis and painting, and a poet. Stokes is currently being rediscovered. Mallarmé fascinated both. It is noticeable that Sonia stays in contact with many former lovers. She was the first networker. She had an affair with Victor Pasmore, one of the Euston School founders, and eventually took over his rooms at 18 Percy Street, a short walk from the Euston Road. She lived here on and off for the next thirty years. This is next to the Eiffel Tower restaurant where The Poet’s Club, of T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound, met in 1909 and Wyndham Lewis launched Blast in July 1914. Sonia also briefly met one of the students, Lucian Freud, who later became a life-long friend. Freud was another moving onwards and upwards. Her main lover during this time was another founder, William Coldstream, whose wife, Nancy, was having an affair with the poet, Louis MacNeice. Sonia soon knew most of the young painters of the Euston Road and beyond.
She frequented the Wheatsheaf pub, close to her Percy Street flat, which between 1936 and 1937 had been one of the main meeting-places of English Surrealist poets. Rayner Heppenstall, Humphrey Jennings, Dylan Thomas, Roger Roughton and David Gascoyne were all busy translating, discussing and forging ahead within Surrealism. It was, with Zwemmers Bookshop, in Charing Cross Road, where the poet and Blake scholar, Ruthven Todd, worked, a conduit for contemporary French art and poetry. These were the places to go to find out what was happening in Paris and London. At twenty, Sonia soon knew all the players and was part of the social exchange between Paris and London bohemians.
This was an extraordinary time and place for a young woman. Sonia was able to educate herself to an extraordinary level by living here. Poets and painters worked and socialised together in this small area south of the Euston Road known as Fitzrovia. It was conveniently close to Bloomsbury, London’s poetry publishing centre, and the West End with its theatres, galleries and museums. This was a time when poets and painters were extraordinarily close and Sonia played a significant role in getting people together. She had been won over by the example of Paris and magazine’s such as Verve, (which ran from 1937 to 1960) with contributors, such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, originally writing on French cuisine, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and so on.
The Second World War did not stop this desire to link art and literature, although Paris was out of bounds. Sonia stayed in Percy Street as the bombs fell. For most young artists it was a time of excitement. As Joan Wyndham, wrote in her wartime diary, Love Lessons (1985), ‘What a life,’ I said, ‘never knowing if you’re going to be bombed or seduced from one moment to the next!’ …
‘The bombs are lovely, I think it is thrilling. Nevertheless, as the opposite of death is life, I think I shall get seduced by Rupert tomorrow.’ And so it was.
Sonia worked at the Ministry of War Transport and helped out at Horizon magazine, edited by Peter Watson and Cyril Connolly, with the help of unpaid female labour. Horizon was with John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing, (where Sonia was poached to work for a while) and Tambimuttu’s Poetry London, one of the leading literary magazines of the Forties. They succeeded Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse as the most important poetry magazines and were distinguished by an eclectic mix of art and poetry. Through Watson, Sonia met more painters, including Lucian Freud’s friend, Johnny Craxton, Rodrigo Moynihan, Anne Dunn, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon, who became life-long friends. Graham Sutherland, for example, would provide the striking cover and illustrations for David Gascoyne’s Poems 1937-1942, published by Poetry London editions. Through Connolly, she gained a literary education and from 1945 became Horizon’s driving force as managing editor. Her internationalism, fondness for French and American literature, upset lots of male traditionalists. She read all the submissions, argued for her recommendations, made discoveries, such as Angus Wilson, so well that her voice became the dominant one. Socially she found herself at the centre of London literary life, hosting parties at Horizon, Wheeler’s and the Gargoyle Club, with its Matisse decorated glass ceiling, to celebrate the likes of W.H. Auden, Louis Aragon, Edmund Wilson and T.S. Eliot.
Sonia, through her role at Horizon and growing number of contacts, became immediately after the War for a short period a conduit of French literature’s entry into London. She fell in love with her opposite number on Les Temps modernes, Jean-Paul Sartre’s great friend the philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the world of Juliette Greco and Simone de Beauvoir. She befriended a generation of writer and thinkers including Raymond Queneau, Jacques Lacan, Marguerite Duras, Roland Barthes, George Bataille and Michel Leiris. Her mistake with the French and Merleau-Ponty, in particular, was that she did not appreciate the distinction between wife and mistress. She was distraught when the love of her life would not leave his wife for her. She did not understand why he had started and ended the affair and where their love had gone.
That generation of French writers and critics behind existentialism and structuralism did not really fully reach London and England in full translation until the late Sixties or in some cases the early Eighties. There was effectively a blockade in the Fifties through the insularity of the Movement poets and publishers. Horizon, Penguin New Writing and the Gray Walls Press that fostered an interest in new French and American poetry closed and were replaced by editors and publishers that had no interest in internationalism. An interest in modern and new French and American poetry became very much an underground activity during the early Cold War. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945) was not translated into English until 1962 and more readily available until 1976. His Prose of the World, an intriguing study concerning literary language written in 1952, was not translated until 1973. Merleau-Ponty thus had a posthumous influence on English poetry, most notably in the work of Denise Riley, John James and Jeremy Prynne, where there is testimony that the individual defines the self and the world and is imbued, and or constrained, by conflicting bodies of knowledge. Merleau-Ponty’s thinking relates to painting in many ways. It is here that Sonia, with her substantial knowledge of painting since Cezanne, might well have had some impact upon his thinking.
Sonia knew all the English writers that contributed to Horizon, Poetry London and Penguin New Writing and they thought they knew her. She was the acknowledged model or basis for a number of fictional characters such as the shrewd and efficient Ada in Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish A Room (1967), the bossy Elvira in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956), the cynical and enigmatic Diana in Marguerite Duras’ Les Petits Chevaux de Taquinie / Little Horses of Tarquinia (1953) and Julia in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).
‘The girl from the Fiction Department … was looking at him… She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life… She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated… All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead.’
Orwell saw through her beauty and hard drinking to someone who would fight for the freedom of expression and look after his literary affairs. She had already rejected his proposal of marriage three years earlier. In 1949, on the rebound from Merleau-Ponty, she agreed to marry the ailing man. Three months later, Orwell was dead. Sonia kept his name until her own death in 1980. She looked after the Orwell estate, whilst only drawing a small annual payment from the subsequent massive royalties, co-editing the four volume Collected Letters, Journalism and Essays (1968), with Ian Angus. It was her drive and methodical tracking down of all Orwell’s writing that paved the way for the twenty volume Complete Works (1998) and ensured that Orwell remains one of the twentieth century’s dominant literary figures. In many ways this is her lasting achievement. It is in the Essays that we find Orwell’s best work. In ‘Politics and the English Language’, first published in Horizon, April 1946, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ and ‘Why I Write’ we have some of the most effective English essays written since William Hazlitt. Take, for example, the remark that ‘Saints must always be adjudged guilty until absolutely proven innocent’. The essays continue to be relevant and persuasive to a wide spectrum of thinkers and writers. There is a degree of Anglo-Saxon plain speaking about Orwell that continues to appeal to English readers increasingly despondent with bureaucrats and businessmen that are ‘economical with the truth’ and the failure of politicians. Reading ‘Politics and the English Language’ reminds us to be continually vigilant against jargon and the sloppy use of English. In recent times, words and phrases, such as, ‘political correctness’, ‘celebrity’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘global village’, have lost their meaning through misuse and have become redundant. One of the worst places for jargon has been in English Studies where some critics manage to swallow a dictionary of jargon to enable them to say very little.
Orwell successfully placed a number of new words and phrases, such as ‘doublethink’, ‘down and out’, ‘Room 101’, ‘Big Brother’, ‘Newspeak’ into the English language and Sonia gave us ‘Orwellian’.
Sonia’s later years were not particularly spectacular. She worked for the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, from 1951, overseeing the publication of Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer. Indeed this was a link going back to Orwell, who was the London correspondent of Partisan Review magazine. Through this connection Sonia met Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, Maya Angelou and so on.
Jacques Lacan pursued her in London in an attempt to woo her back to Paris for good.
Strangely, Sonia fell in love with Michael Pitt-Rivers, great-grandson of the anthropologist and archaeologist, General Augustus Pitt-Rivers and son of the notorious Captain George Pitt-Rivers, a local fascist that owned most of Dorset, including where I grew up. Indeed, during my childhood, I heard many stories about this eugenicist, Nazi sympathiser.
Michael was a convicted homosexual and I suppose that a woman who had been hampered in her professional life might be sympathetic to a minority whose activities were against the law. There is also the fact that a great many in Sonia’s circle were bisexual. At any rate, it would appear to be a strategic alliance giving Sonia financial security and status. It must have been a rare spectacle for the local gentry, farmers and farm workers to be introduced to visiting American poets, French Surrealists, Oxford philosophers and wacky artists in deepest north Dorset. The Captain couldn’t hack it and more than once got out his horsewhip to shoo Sonia’s guests off his land. When Sonia realised that she had made a big mistake she took a drug overdose and divorced Michael in 1961. I can say that unlike other members of this landowning family I have never heard a bad word said about Sonia. She seems to have been accepted as ‘one of those’ and that was that.
Sonia returned to editing in Paris producing the magazine, Art and Literature, with John Ashbery, Rodrigo Moynihan and Anne Dunn, from 1964-1968. I have the first issue in my hands. It is sub-titled ‘An international Review’ and contains work by David Jones, Gaston Bachelard, Genet, Connolly on ‘Fifty Years of Little Magazines’, where he acknowledges John Lehmann as the best magazine editor, Adrian Stokes, Kenneth Koch, Tony Towle, the first published poems by David Shapiro, aged 17, and the first publication of an extract from Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It is a wonderful mix of English, French and American and once again, Sonia’s selections were successful.
She also translated Duras’ plays ‘Days In The Trees’ and ‘The Square’ for the Royal Shakespeare Company and subsequent performance in New York. Mostly, she drank and raged against the world. She campaigned to raise funds for impoverished elderly writer friends, such as Jean Rhys and Ivy Compton-Burnett, and wrestled with George Orwell Productions chief financial adviser to regain control of the royalties and investments that belonged to her and Orwell’s son. The money arrived too late. She died of a brain tumour in 1980, penniless in rented accommodation and Francis Bacon paid for her funeral and outstanding debts.