Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Mosaic

Delmore Schwartz Part Two

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 29 2014.


Last week, I gave an introduction to the life and literary reputation of the American poet, short story writer and, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). This week, I will attempt a close analysis of a single poem by Schwartz.


Schwartz on Seurat



My favourite poem by Delmore Schwartz is “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine”, written in 1959, in which the poet examines Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting. The painting is usually referred to as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting was also the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The painting shows members of all social classes mingling in the sun and participating in various Sunday afternoon leisure activities. It took Seurat two years to complete this ten foot-wide painting, much of which time he spent in the park sketching in preparation for the work (there are about 60 studies). It is now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago – which explains Schwartz’s reference in his poem to:


Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine has gone away,

Has gone to Chicago: near Lake Michigan,

All of his flowers shine in monumental stillness fulfilled.

And yet it abides elsewhere and everywhere where images

Delight the eye and heart, and become the desirable, the admirable,

the willed

Icons of purified consciousness.


Schwartz dedicates the poem to Meyer and Lillian Schapiro. Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) was an American art historian known for forging dynamic new art historical methodologies that incorporated an interdisciplinary approach, engaging other scholars, philosophers, and artists, to the study of works of art. Although an active Marxist, Schapiro was an expert on early Christian art. Schapiro was interested in the social, political, and the material construction of art works. He spent his entire career at Columbia, where he knew Schwartz.


The full text of the poem can be read online:



Sunday is traditionally a day for Christians to do their worship. Perhaps it can also be a day for non-Christians and atheists to celebrate something. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Sunday Morning”, stripped away Christian delusions in shimmering, flamboyant, rococo language.



What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?


Those whom Schwartz sees in Seurat’s painting are enjoying “The comforts of the sun” and enjoying the freedom, albeit temporary, of a day off from quotidian cares.


They are looking at hope itself, under the sun, free from the teething

anxiety, the gnawing nervousness

Which wastes so many days and years of consciousness.


Schwartz seems to be asking: Is there a higher power, though? Is there a deus outside the frame of this picture?



The one who beholds them, beholding the gold and green

Of summer’s Sunday is himself unseen. This is because he is

Dedicated radiance, supreme concentration, fanatically threading

The beads, needles and eyes -at once- of vividness and permanence.

He is a saint of Sunday in the open air, a fanatic disciplined

By passion, courage, passion, skill, compassion, love: the love of life

and the love of light as one, under the sun, with the love of life.


There is permanence in the stasis caught in the frame, a permanence that defies the anicca we actually experience in real life outside the picture.


A little girl holds to her mother’s arm

As if it were a permanent genuine certainty:

Her broad-brimmed hat is blue and white, blue like the river, like the

sailboats white,

And her face and her look have all the bland innocence,

Open and far from fear as cherubims playing harpsichords.


This is the celebration of contemplation,

This is the conversion of experience to pure attention,

Here is the holiness of all the little things

Offered to us, discovered for us, transformed into the vividest con-


Schwartz refers to “supreme concentration”. Is there a hint there of a supreme being? WH Auden and Iris Murdoch both referred to the act of concentration, of paying attention, as being akin to prayer. Buddhism explores the concept of “mindfulness”. Concentrating on writing a poem can seem like praying. Reading a poem in an analytical way can be like praying. Schwartz examines Seurat’s picture in a prayer-like manner and suspects prayer-like qualities in the demeanour of the people in the painting.



If you look long enough at anything

It will become extremely interesting;

If you look very long at anything

It will become rich, manifold, fascinating:

If you can look at anything for long enough,

You will rejoice in the miracle of love,

You will possess and be blessed by the marvellous blinding radiance

of love, you will be radiance.

A prayer, a pledge of grace or gratitude

A devout offering to the god of summer, Sunday and plenitude.

The Sunday people are looking at hope itself.


Is the deus Seurat himself, the artist, the artificer?



An infinite variety within a simple frame:

Countless variations upon a single theme!


Schwartz uses internal rhymes and repetitions to create a mantra-like chant. Seurat is at once painter, poet, architect, and alchemist:



The alchemist points his magical wand to describe and hold the Sun-

day’s gold,

Mixing his small alloys for long and long

Because he wants to hold the warm leisure and pleasure of the holiday

Within the fiery blaze and passionate patience of his gaze and mind

Now and forever: O happy, happy throng,

It is forever Sunday, summer, free: you are forever warm

Within his little seeds, his small black grains,

He builds and holds the power and the luxury

With which the summer Sunday serenely reigns.


Seurat’s technique was to use tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-coloured paint allow the viewer’s eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colours physically blended on the canvas. Meyer Schapiro had written about the painting and had described Seurat’s technique as being like an alchemist’s. An alchemist transmutes the mundane into the wonderful; an artist uses gross material or plain words to create the numinous.


Although God or the painter threaded permanence into the picture in the frame, the painter himself did not enjoy permanence; Seurat died at the age of 31. The cause of his death is uncertain, variously attributed to a form of meningitis, pneumonia, infectious angina, and diphtheria. His son died two weeks later.


the painter who at twenty-five

Hardly suspects that in six years he will no longer be alive!

-His marvellous little marbles, beads, or molecules

Begin as points which the alchemy’s magic transforms

Into diamonds of blossoming radiance, possessing and blessing the


For look how the sun shines anew and newly, transfixed

By his passionate obsession with serenity

As he transforms the sunlight into the substance of pewter, glittering,

poised and grave, vivid as butter,

In glowing solidity, changeless, a gift, lifted to immortality.


Perhaps the painter does live on, despite his early death, in the beauty he created in his work. To quote Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” again: “Death is the mother of beauty”.


This is the nervous reality of time and time’s fire which turns

Whatever is into another thing, continually altering and changing all

identity, as time’s great fire burns (aspiring, flying and dying),

So that all things arise and fall, living, leaping and fading, falling, like

flames aspiring, flowering, flying and dying-

Within the uncontrollable blaze of time and of history:

Hence Seurat seeks within the cave of his gaze and mind to find

A permanent monument to Sunday’s simple delight; seeks deathless

joy through the eye’s immortality;

Strives patiently and passionately to surpass the fickle erratic quality

of living reality.

In emulation of the fullness of Nature maturing and enduring and

toiling with the chaos of actuality.


At the end of the poem, Schwartz acknowledges the sense of escapism that art allows, and also the poignancy of the fact that it is impossible really to enter the world of the painting. This is the final line of the poem:


They all stretch out their hands to me: but they are too far away!


Next week, I will analyse some more of Schwartz’s poetry and discuss themes that run through his work.

Delmore Schwartz Part 1



On the fly-leaf of my dog-eared copy of Summer Knowledge: Selected Poems of Delmore Schwartz, I have noted “Oxford, December 1968”. That means that I bought the book just two years after the poet’s sad death. In that same year, I would have become familiar with the first album by the Velvet Underground on which Lou Reed pays tribute to his friend and mentor in the song “European Son of Delmore Schwartz”.

summer knowledge

Early Life

Delmore Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 8, 1913. His parents, Harry and Rose, were immigrants from Romania, part of the first great wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe. Delmore grew up in a drab apartment in Washington Heights, which he shared with his mother and his younger brother. His father was only reliable in the pursuit of his own pleasure, although he managed to accumulate a good deal of wealth from his dealings in the real estate business. When Delmore was only six, his parents woke him one night with the demand that he choose between them. They divorced. Delmore’s mother was hysterically self-dramatizing, and more than a little mad. Rose Schwartz threatened to kill herself when Delmore “abandoned” her in order to marry Gertrude Buckman; she also told her younger son that he would have been better off in Buchenwald than married to his non-Jewish wife. When Harry died at the age of 49 in 1930, Delmore only inherited a small amount of his money because of the shady dealings of the executor of the estate.

This was the emotional manure from which grew a young man of startling good looks who had read Blake, Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, and Hart Crane by his mid-teens and all the philosophers by the time he was twenty. Teachers who read Schwartz’s early writing encouraged him to develop his talents. As a teenager, he began to identify with the European avant-garde.

He made his parents’ disastrous marriage the subject of his most famous short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (a quotation from his hero WB Yeats), which was published in 1937 in the first issue of Partisan Review. Dwight McDonald believed that “It is as good as a story can be, I’d say after reading it again for the fifth or sixth time, comparable with Kafka, Babel, or Through the Looking Glass.”


Boundless Ambition at Mosaic

While at New York University, Schwartz and a group of fellow students founded Mosaic, a literary magazine devoted to Marxist aesthetics. Norman Macleod, R.P. Blackmur, and William Carlos Williams were among the prominent poets and critics who had their work published in Mosaic. As editor, Schwartz used the publication as a vehicle to air his own critical opinions. His essays earned the attention of the New York literary community. William Barrett, whom he met in 1933, when they were both twenty, remembered him as “the most magical human being I have ever known”. Philip Rahv, of Partisan Review, described the “boundless ambition that was part of the precocity that never left him,” of “his singular personal charm and the slight stutter that served only to draw attention to his frequently extravagant speech”. The New York literary world was eager to welcome this “newly fledged eaglet,” as Dwight Macdonald later called him. Schwartz won the extravagant praise not only of the New York intelligentsia but also of such commanding voices of the day as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Mark Van Doren and Wallace Stevens. His precocious early poems prefigured the flowering of the powerful generation of poets who came to the fore in the ’40s—Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman – of whom I will write in future weeks.

Robert Lowell

One of the earliest tributes to Schwartz came from Schwartz’s friend, another mad poet, Robert Lowell, who published the poem “To Delmore Schwartz” in 1959.

Lowell, reminisced in his poetry collection, Life Studies, about the time that the two poets lived together in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1946, writing that they were “underseas fellows, nobly mad,/ we talked away our friends.”

John Berryman

In 1968, Schwartz’s friend and peer, fellow poet, John Berryman, dedicated his book His Toy, His Dream, His Rest “to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz,” including 12 elegiac poems about Schwartz in the book. In “Dream Song #149,” Berryman wrote of Schwartz:

In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual

blazing with insight, warm with gossip

thro’ all our Harvard years

when both of us were just becoming known

I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref

and grief too astray for tears.


(Tref — is the Yiddish word for food that does not conform with the Jewish dietary laws)


Lou Reed

lou reed

Schwartz, who was then a professor at the University of Syracuse, taught Lou Reed in the early 1960s. Reed remembered Schwartz reading from Finnegans Wake and sayingthere “were few things better than to devote one’s life to Joyce.” Lou Reed’s 1982 album The Blue Mask included a Schwartz homage with the song “My House”. In the June 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, Lou Reed published a short prose tribute to Schwartz entitled “O Delmore How I Miss You.” In the piece, Reed quotes and references a number of Schwartz’s short stories and poems including “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” “The World is a Wedding,” and “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me.” “O Delmore How I Miss You” was re-published as the preface to the New Directions 2012 reissue of Schwartz’s posthumously published story collection In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.

Reed wrote:


My friend and teacher occupies a spare room

He’s dead, at peace at last the wandering Jew

Other friends had put stones on his grave

He was the first great man that I had ever met

Sylvia and I got out our Ouija Board

To dial a spirit, across the room it soared

We were happy and amazed at what we saw

Blazing stood the proud and regal name Delmore

Delmore, I missed all your funny ways

I missed your jokes and the brilliant things you said

My Dedalus to your Bloom, was such a perfect wit

And to find you in my house makes things perfect


“Reading Yeats and the bell had rung but the poem was not over you hadn’t finished reading—liquid rivulets sprang from your nose but still you would not stop reading. I was transfixed. I cried”.

Historical Precursor

Schwartz occupied an important slot as an intellectual, a modernist, and a Jew. He was historically important as a precursor, as a man whose work provided a tantalizing hint of the rich material, which other Jewish writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow worked so effectively. The protagonist of Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975) was based on Schwartz and revived interest in his career and provided further evidence of his insight into the conflicts associated with Jewish-American identity.

David Lehman: “It is hard not to see Schwartz as an emblematic figure, capable of stirring us in his ravings no less than in his brilliant and original literary creations, meant to reproach and admonish us with the purity and grandeur of his aspirations as well as with the unbanished image of his demise.”

Photographs show that Schwartz was a handsome man but he went into a sad decline. He descended into madness and alcohol and became dishevelled and embarrassing. He drank frequently at the White Horse Tavern, and spent his time sitting in parks. His friends deserted him. In the summer of 1966, a penniless Schwartz checked into the Times Square hotel, perhaps to focus on his writing.

In the pages of this Mosaic, Wimal Dissanayake has expertly guided us through the thought and works of Friedrich Hölderlin. Delmore Schwartz wrote a poem called Hölderlin:

Now as before do you not hear their voices

Serene in the midst of their rejoicing

Chanting to those who have hopes and make choices

Clear as the birds in the thick summer foliage:

It is! It is!

We are! We are!

Clearly, as if they were us, and not us,

Hidden like the future, distant as the stars,

Having no more meaning than the fullness of music,

Chanting from the pure peaks where success,

Effort and desire are meaningless,

Surpassed at last in the joy of joy,

Chanting at last the blue’s last view:

It is! It is!

This is eternity! Eternity is now!


My favourite Delmore poem is Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine, which is a poetic evocation and reflection upon Seurat’s pointillist painting.

Next week I will analyse that poem and look at Delmore Schwartz’s poetry and themes in more detail.

Lucia Joyce

This article was published in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 15 2014.


On June 16 every year, aficionados of James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrate Bloomsday, named for Leopold Bloom, the main character, reliving the events of the novel, which is set on 16 June 1904. That was the date of Joyce’s first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle (Joyce’s father said, “Well, she’ll stick to him, anyway”).

I made my own preparations for Bloomsday by re-reading To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss, a biography of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. Lucia was the light giver, the “wonder wild,” Joyce wrote. She was the “Rainbow girl” in Finnegans Wake, Issy the temptress, who magically breaks up into the colours of the rainbow. Lucia had a mind “as clear and as unsparing as the lightning,” Joyce once wrote in a letter. “She is a fantastic being.”


Lucia studied dance with Isadora Duncan’s brother, Raymond, and did lively impressions of Charlie Chaplin. In 1927, she had a part in Jean Renoir’s film The Little Match Girl. She danced with Les Six (a name given to a group of French composers – Auric, Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Tailleferre and Durey). A French journalist wrote in 1928, “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.” In 1929, Lucia Joyce was one of six finalists in the first international festival of dance in Paris. She wore the costume shown on the cover of the book – a slithery-scaled mermaid costume of blue, green and silver that she designed and made. The audience booed when first prize was awarded to a Frenchwoman, and demanded it be given to “the Irish girl.”


Today, Lucia Joyce, if she thought of at all, is regarded as the mad daughter of a famous father. She spent the last 45 years of her life in institutions, incarcerated and medicated, until she died in 1982, at the age of 75. Was she mad? What was the nature of her illness? How did it manifest itself? When did it start? What caused it?

Joyce 1924 J,N,L,G

It seems that Lucia’s relationship with her famous father might have been a big factor. Being treated by another famous man, Carl Gustav Jung, did not help. “To think that such a big, fat materialistic Swiss man should try to get hold of my soul,” she said. Jung thought her so bound up with her father’s psychic system, that analysis could not be successful. Jung himself seemed to be obsessed with his own loathing of Joyce.


At her father’s 50th birthday, on February 2 1932, she threw a chair at her mother, Nora. The immediate reason for the tantrum was that her parents had invited Samuel Beckett to the party. Lucia and Beckett had been lovers. Beckett worked as a secretary for Joyce and had many friends in his circle. It would have been odd not to invite Beckett but Lucia saw it as a personal betrayal. Her brother, Giorgio, took her to a medical clinic and checked her in.


Lucia started to show signs of mental illness in 1930, around the time she began her relationship with Beckett. Beckett told her that he was more interested in James Joyce than in her.Around the same time, three other men rejected her.

0 R

The artist Alexander Calder, bedded her, but soon went back to his fiancée; and another artist, Albert Hubbell, had an affair with her and also went back to his wife. In 1932, she was contemplating marriage to Alec Ponisovsky, who gave Joyce Russian lessons. Ponisovsky was in love with another woman and Lucia still pined for Beckett. She collapsed, lying for days in a catatonic state.


It was difficult to treat her because no one could decide what was wrong with her. Psychiatry may not inspire much confidence even in 2014, but in the 1930s, it was scrabbling around to make its mind up. One doctor said she was “hebephrenic,” a word used to describe patients who showed antic behavior. Another said she was “not lunatic but markedly neurotic.” A third thought the problem was “cyclothymia,” akin to manic-depressive illness. Others guessed at a range of possibilities from schizophrenia to syphilis to barbiturate addiction to simple moodiness. Her treatments included injections with seawater and animal serum, barbiturates and solitary confinement.

In 1933, when friends called Joyce to congratulate him on winning his obscenity trial in the United States, enabling the publication of Ulysses, Lucia cut the phone wire, saying, “I am the artist!” In 1935, she visited some cousins in Bray, near Dublin. She started a fire in the living room, and when her cousins’ boyfriends came to call, she tried to unbutton their trousers. She sent telegrams to dead people. She also, night after night, turned on the gas tap. Then she disappeared to Dublin, where she tramped the streets for six days, sleeping in doorways.

Lucia did not have a normal childhood. She was born in 1907 in a Trieste pauper’s ward, after her father had exiled himself from Dublin. By the age of seven, she had lived at five different addresses. Their parents often left Lucia and her brother Giorgio home alone. ”You are locking us up like pigs in a sty,” the children shouted to their departing parents. By the age of thirteen, she had lived in three different countries. She shared her parents’ bedroom until well into her teens, and was expected to observe outdated social codes that shocked her friends.

The First World War forced the family to move to Zurich; after the war, they settled in Paris. Stuart Gilbert was a friend of Joyce for many years. He published James Joyce’s Ulysses: a Study in 1930, and published a collection of Joyce’s letters in 1957. He did not much like Lucia and described her, in her twenties, as “illiterate in three languages.” She knew four languages: German, French, English, and Triestine Italian. The last was the language that her family used at home, not just in Trieste but forever after. It was not, however, what people spoke in most of the places where she lived. This held her back in her education. Joyce saw no call to educate her – “He said it was enough if a woman could write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully.”


The Joyces’ civil marriage in 1931, 26 years after they started living together, was a traumatic shock to Lucia. ”If I am a bastard,” Lucia screamed at Nora in one of their rows, ”who made me one?” Lucia’s relationship with her mother was fraught and there is little doubt that Nora favoured Giorgio, who was two years older than his sister. Lucia inherited strabismus from her mother but it was more noticeable in the daughter. The father seemed besotted with the daughter, but spoiled her and sang to her only when he could find the time. He worked all day and got blind drunk most evenings.

Joyce persuaded Lucia to take up book illustration—she drew lettrines, ornamental capitals—and he secretly gave publishers the money to pay her for illustrating his book, Pomes Pennyeach. The publishers lost her work. Joyce thought his daughter was special—“a fantastic being”. He grieved over her incessantly, but he was in the middle of writing Finnegans Wake, and he was going blind. He was desperate to keep her at home but Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia and who was the target of her fury—insisted that she be put away. When Lucia was twenty-eight, the Joyces put her in an asylum in Ivry, outside Paris and she never lived on the outside again. She changed hospitals a few times, but her condition remained the same. She was quiet for the most part, though periodically she would break windows and attack people.

In 1935, three-quarters of Joyce’s income was going to Lucia’s care. When the Germans invaded France, in 1940, and the family had to flee to Switzerland, Joyce made a vain effort to arrange for Lucia to go with them. A month after the family arrived in Zurich, he died of a perforated ulcer. After Joyce’s death, Nora and Giorgio abandoned Lucia, and Harriet Weaver, Joyce’s patron, became her guardian. In 1951, after Nora’s death, Lucia was moved for the last time, to St. Andrew’s, in Northampton, England. In the 1950s, drugs replaced the straitjacket and she was calm and tractable. She might have lived outside an institution, had there been anywhere for her to go. She died in 1982.


Hermione Lee described Shloss’s prose style as “fervid glop”. Sean O’Hagan wrote in the London Observer that Shloss’s claims for Lucia were “ambitious and at times extravagantly overreaching”. In The Independent, Brian Dillon wrote: “Lucia sometimes fails to bear the strain of this athletic academicism”.

There is some justice in the criticism. There is a daunting amount of speculation, surmise and unconvincingly supported supposition in the book. Shloss can overwrite in her attempt to prove that Lucia was an artist of high calibre and a muse who contributed to her father’s work. Nonetheless, I found the book moving for the picture it paints of a pretty, talented woman succumbing to a life of incarceration. Shloss gives us a sympathetic new angle on James Joyce – the great writer who subordinated everyone around him to the service of his art was also a desperate, doting father who died trying to save the daughter he would never admit was insane.



Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part Four

A version of this article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday 8 June 20014.

“Last night I wrote to Dr Vaughan Williams to get me Death, for this I cannot endure. Rescue me to something. For Death I long for.”


Ivor Gurney  went to live with his brother Ronald and his wife at their home in Worcester Street, Gloucester. Ivor was not an easy tenant. He shut himself up in the front room and shouted at Ronald and his wife to keep away. He complained that ‘electrical tricks’ were being played on him and sat with a cushion on his head to prevent the electric waves from the radio getting into his brain. Ivor made several suicide attempts and was certified insane by Dr. Soutar and Dr. Terry on 28 September 1922. He was committed to a private mental hospital on the outskirts of Gloucester called Barnwood House.


Barnwood House

I believe that I have been in that room in Worcester Street. I think that I have been in the house from which Ivor Gurney was committed. I have also been in the place to which he was committed.


WorcesterStreetI used to go to children’s Christmas parties at Barnwood House, when I was around four or five years old, and my mother worked as an orderly there. I remember seeing movies like Charlie Chaplin in City Lights and getting a copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales as a present. As people do, my mother brought home gossip from work. I learnt that Miss French was a martinet and that Miss Butler (who bore, I thought, a resemblance to the comedian Tommy Cooper) was kindly soul. There was a contingent of young women from Iceland working there and I got stamps from that country for my collection – I was puzzled that they bore the legend ‘Island’. I was also puzzled that the high walls of Barnwood House had broken glass embedded in the top. Barnwood House was a private mental hospital, generally for patients from affluent families. I recall that a relative of the Conservative minister Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller (known to his many enemies as Reggie Bullying-Manner) was a patient at Barnwood House when my mother worked there.



Ronald Gurney

When I was a teenager in the last century, tight trousers were de rigeur. Whenever I bought a new pair, I took them to a tailor near Kingsholm rugby football stadium, to be narrowed. The house was a large three storied one rather sparsely furnished and grubby. The address was Worcester Street.


The tailor’s name was Gurney. Ivor Gurney’s father, David, was a tailor. David died long before my time but this man in Worcester Street could have been carrying on the family craft. I think it could have been Ronald. After all these years I have a clear mental picture of him – tall, stooped, wispy grey hair, greasy complexion with yellow spots around the nostrils, rather scruffily dressed and wearing carpet slippers. I think this may have been Ivor Gurney’s brother Ronald.


The author wearing Ronald’s work


Ronald has got a bad press and in his letters he comes across sometimes as peevish and resentful. History has been unkind to him as the man who threatened to destroy Ivor Gurney’s papers. Joy Finzi, wife of the composer Gerald Finzi, is seen as a heroine for standing up to Ronald and persuading him to donate the papers to Gloucester Public Library.

finziGerald Finzi

Ronald was not a cruel man. He may have resented the attention Ivor had always got and felt there was a kind of zero-sum game, which meant he, Ronald, was left with insufficient attention. Ivor was born in 1890, Ronald in 1894. Their father had let the tailoring business slide and Ronald, after getting a compassionate discharge from the Welsh Guards reluctantly became head of the family. He had dreamed of being a doctor, but he had joined the family tailoring business because what little money there was to spare had gone on Ivor’s education.

Ronald’s letters reflect this resentment and irritation at the interference of Ivor’s famous and arty friends whom he felt did not understand the family situation and made Ivor’s condition worse by indulging him. “Never again will I permit kind but lenient and letting him have more or less his own way kind of people… I shall be glad if you will refrain from giving him anything but simple thoughts to think about. He thinks far too much about things that are far too deep for everlasting pondering upon. He thinks and thinks about such ungodly things, that his head is in a huge unwieldy mess.”

Ronald was an exasperated and disappointed man and perhaps a frightened one. In his anger, he also empathised: “I understand better than anyone else in the world the inner state of his mind – for the simple reason that I have exactly the same nervous system and temperament. As a matter of fact I have travelled a long way down the same road that he has gone. I am convinced that nothing on earth will do Ivor much good till by Iron discipline he has had his natural obstinacy and stubbornness broken down.”


Ivor’s Illness and Treatment

Barnwood House was the first institution in Britain to practise electro-convulsive therapy and leucotomy. Ivor Gurney was a patient too early to benefit from these “most modern methods of treatment” that Barnwood House later advertised. He was never subjected to ECT because it had not been invented. The electrical invasions he complained of were not related to ECT. Indeed, Barnwood House had a good reputation in Gurney’s time. I recall it as a rather forbidding redbrick building from the outside, the inside with long echoing corridors tiled in hygienic shiny white. It was popular with the military and clergy and once counted an Archbishop amongst its patients. Even the sewerage system was a model of good asylum practice. After the First World War, servicemen were treated with a regime of psychotherapy and recreations such as cricket.

Gurney was not happy at Barnwood House. On 9 November 1922, Arthur Townsend, the superintendent, wrote to Gurney’s friend, Marion Scott: “I am sorry to say that Mr Gurney managed to escape last night, at 9 o’clock he suddenly took hold of a large clock, hurled it through the window and hurled himself after it.”

On one occasion, in 1923, he escaped and went to Vaughan Williams’s house in Cheyne Walk. He wrote to Marion Scott: “Save me, I pray you. Get Dr Steen to release, I pray. There is no reason I should not be released from this confinement- these rules.”

Many have found it easy to assume that his later mental problems were a result of his experiences during the First World War. Pamela Blevins, who has written much about Gurney, wrote to me in a personal note: “Gurney’s 1918 breakdown was triggered by the failure of his relationship with a nurse, Annie Nelson Drummond and not by his war experience as is so often assumed”.


Philip Lancaster believes that Gurney and Margaret Hunt were in love with each other. Margaret was one of two sisters, who lived in Wellington Street, near the Gurney shop. Emily played the piano and Margaret the violin and had been professional music teachers in South Africa before the Boer War. Margaret is the dedicatee of numerous works by Gurney. Pamela Blevins does not deny their closeness but thinks the 16-year age difference prohibitive. She accepts that Gurney sought women whom he could love but who would also take care of him and provide everything he needed in order to follow his dreams,


Even as a youth, he displayed some eccentricity that might have been a harbinger of his later problems. He showed signs of suffering from some kind of eating disorder which could have caused protein and vitamin deficiency. He was often reluctant to sit down at a table and eat a normal meal and went for long periods without eating anything. He would then consume vast quantities of apples or buns. Herbert Howells recalls being with him in Brotherway’s restaurant on Eastgate Street when Gurney voraciously consumed a dozen fancy cakes. Even in other people’s houses, he would sneak into the pantry and wolf down a half-pound of butter and a melange of leftovers.These odd eating habits caused him digestive problems throughout his life. What he labelled “the trail of the dyspeptic serpent” was frequently wrapped around him.

He would go for long walks, sometimes staying out all night, sleeping under the stars or in a barn. He would walk by night and had been, he once wrote, “a night-walker from age sixteen”. A friend, William Bubb, reminisced in 1963: “It was useless to interfere. The truth was, he did not seem to belong to us… he simply called on us briefly, and left again without a word.”

This kind of behaviour might indicate a wandering fugue state. Ian Hacking has described Automatisme Ambulatoire,a pathological syndrome appearing in the form of intermittent attacks during which the patient, carried away by an irresistible impulse, leaves his home and makes an excursion or journey justified by no reasonable motive. The attack ended, the subject unexpectedly finds himself on an unknown road or in a strange town.

gurney scottBlevins

Pamela Blevins believes that Gurney suffered from manic depression rather than paranoid schizophrenia. According to Blevins, one of the key questions contemporary psychiatrists ask when distinguishing between manic-depressive and schizophrenic patients is: “Does the patient like people?” “Gurney did not withdraw from the world voluntarily in 1922.  He did not choose to be imprisoned in an asylum or to be cut off from society.  He was committed because his younger brother Ronald believed that’s where Gurney belonged despite Ivor’s episodes of sanity amid the cyclic chaos of his mind.  Ivor knew he was troubled, but he also believed he was not mad.  He begged for help, but it was not forthcoming. ‘Rescue me while I am sane,’ he pleaded in a letter to Marion Scott written shortly after he was first admitted to an asylum in Gloucester.”

Perhaps incarceration made his condition worse. Blevins wrote: “He retreated deeper and deeper into himself in the asylum.  He had nothing in common with his fellow inmates and wanted nothing to do with them.  By separating himself from other patients, he was trying to protect himself as best he could from the negative atmosphere and influences in the asylum, a place in which he knew he did not belong. Unfortunately, between 1922 and 1937, when Gurney was in the asylum, modern drugs and sophisticated psycho-analytical treatment were not available.”


Helen Thomas, the widow of the poet Edward Thomas, who had died in the war, visited Gurney in hospital at Dartford from  1932. In 1960, she recalled those visits. On one visit, she took Edward’s ordinance survey maps of Gloucestershire and traced their fingers over the routes Edward had walked and Ivor loved so well. “He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity. For he had Edward as his companion in this strange perambulation; and he was utterly happy, and without being over-excited.”
Helen Thomas wrote: “Ivor Gurney longed more than anything else to go back to his beloved Gloucestershire, but this was not allowed for fear he should try to take his own life. I said ‘But surely it would be more humane to let him go there even if it meant no more than one hour of happiness before he killed himself.’ But the authorities could not look at it in that way.”



In 1937, Ivor Gurney died of a bi-lateral pulmonary thrombosis while a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital shortly before dawn on 26 December 1937, aged 47.. He was buried at Twigworth in Gloucestershire. Alfred Cheesman took the service, with Herbert Howells playing the organ.


Despite his humble origins, Gurney’s musical and literary talent enabled him to mingle with the likes of, in the musical world, Ivor Novello, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Charles Stanford, Herbert Howells, Sir Arthur Bliss, Sir Hubert Parry, Arthur Benjamin. In the literary world, he knew WE Henley, Lascelles Abercrombie, AE Housman, Charles Scott-Moncrieff (translator of Proust), JC Squire, Edward Thomas and Walter de la Mare. After his death fellow poets Edmund Blunden and PJ Kavanagh championed his poetry and Gerald Finzi and Vaughan Williams promoted his music.


Composer Gerald Finzi was at the funeral. He described the scene. “The press has given him in his death more attention in a week than they gave his life in 47 years…people are discovering that they had manuscripts of his; that they knew him quite well ‘and were always amazed at his genius’; that they visited him regularly when he was in the asylum; that they were his best friends, etc. etc….”



Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part Three

This article was published in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 1 2014.




This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. The BBC will be marking the centenary with four years of programmes covering the war. Among these programmes will be one presented by Tim Kendall, Professor of English at Exeter University, entitled The Poet who Loved the War: Ivor Gurney, 1914–1918. Gurney does not fit easily into the category of “war poet” and it would be wrong to conclude that Gurney’s war experiences caused his mental problems. His work is not like that of Graves, Owen, Sassoon or Rosenberg. Readers who want a full critical analysis of the poetry should read the blogs of Kendall and Philip Lancaster.

In 1915, Ivor Gurney joined the Fifth Gloucester Reserve Battalion and saw active service on the Western Front between June 1916 and September 1917. On Gurney’s departure for the Somme, Herbert Howells dedicated his Piano Quartet in A minor: ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. Chosen Hill in Gloucestershire had been a favourite walking place for the two men.  I used to walk from my home to the top of Chosen Hill and look at the city spread below me or sit in quiet contemplation in the church at top of the hill. Today one cannot take the same route because motorways, bypasses, and industrial estates dominate the landscape.


Gurney with Herbert Howells

In the trenches, he began writing poetry prolifically. On April 6, 1917, he was shot in the upper arm.



Pain, pain continual: pain unending:

Hard even to the roughest, but to those

Hungry for beauty…Not the wisest knows,

Nor most pitiful-hearted, what the wending

Of one hour’s way meant. Grey monotony lending

Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes

An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows

Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending.

Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,

Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,

Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.

Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun-

Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,

The amazed heart cries angrily out on God.


Wartime Songs

He managed to write five songs in the trenches and get them published. The songs were about a longing for peace and security and a concern with the nature of death. “By a Bierside” was a setting of a poem by John Masefield; “In Flanders” is a setting of a poem by his friend FW Harvey (Sung by Michael Lampard, baritone on


“Severn Meadows” is a setting of one of Gurney’s own poems:

Only the wanderer

Knows England’s graces,

Or can anew see clear

Familiar faces.


And who loves joy as he

That dwells in shadows?

Do not forget me quite,

O Severn meadows.


Listening to the rendition by Christopher Maltman, baritone and Roger Vignoles, piano will bring tears to the eyes.

“Even such is Time” was a setting of the poem that Sir Walter Raleigh wrote on the night before his execution. The fifth song was a setting of “The Fiddler of Dooney” by WB Yeats.

Life in the Trenches

Gurney seemed, to some extent, to enjoy the camaraderie of the trenches. “The life is as grey as it sounds, but one manages to hang on to life by watching the absolute unquenchability of the cheerier spirits – wonderful people some of them; after all, it is better to be depressed with reason than without. When confronted with a difficult proposition the British soldier emits (rather like the cuttle fish) a black appalling cloud of profanity; then does the job.”

According to Michael Hurd, Gurney was able to write calm letters home because he had found a kind of inner peace through being part of the war. Being an ordinary private meant he was a disposable item whose path was marked out for him without him having to make decisions. “Caught up in a loving comradeship wherein all suffered equally and endured, he felt perhaps for the first time in his life a sense of security – a sense that he was no longer the odd man out, and that he had found the family he had always been looking for.”


He did witness horrors. “The front line trenches of both sides were very close to one another in places, so close in fact that a bomb could easily be thrown from one to the other, and No Man’s Land was littered with the dead bodies of men who had been scythed down by machine-gun fire in the last attack… The cemetery at Richebourg was an eerie spot; it had been completely churned up by shell fire: tombs torn open to reveal skeletons that had lain there for years. The crucifix, as was so often the case, remained standing.”

“Why does this war of spirit take on such dread forms of ugliness, and why should a high triumph be signified by a body shattered, black, stinking: avoided by day, stumbled over by night, an offence to the hardest? No doubt there is consolation in the fact that men contemplate such things, such possible endings, and are yet undismayed, yet persistent; do not lose laughter nor the common kindness that makes life sweet – and yet seem such boys. Yet what consolation can be given me as I look on an endure it?”

severn somme

During the Passchendaele offensive of 1917, he was gassed and invalided home. He returned to Barton Street, Gloucester and worked in a munitions factory until Armistice Day (a week after Wilfred Owen was killed).In 1919, he returned to the Royal College of Music and was taught composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He took a post as organist at Christ Church, High Wycombe and began to move in London literary circles.


Vaughn Williams on the left

He suffered a severe breakdown in 1918. He claimed to have spoken to the spirit of Beethoven. By 1921, his life had become unsettled. He had songs and preludes published but formally left the Royal College of Music and went to live with his aunt in Longford and did farm work. He went back and forth from Gloucester to London and spent a week as a cinema pianist in Cornwall. In 1922, his third collection of poems was rejected. He lost three farm jobs in a month and got a job at Gloucester tax office, which lasted only 12 weeks because he proved incapable of performing even the most menial tasks.

Ivor’s brother, Ronald, had recently got married and Ivor went to live with them at their home in Worcester Street, Gloucester. Ivor was not an easy tenant. He shut himself up in the front room and shouted at Ronald and his wife to keep away. He complained that ‘electrical tricks’ were being played on him and sat with a cushion on his head to prevent the electric waves from the radio getting into his brain.

Ivor made several suicide attempts and was certified insane by Dr. Soutar and Dr. Terry on 28 September, 1922. He was committed to a private mental hospital called Barnwood House. He was moved to Stone House hospital at Dartford, Kent. Marion Scott visited him frequently and took him on outings with an attendant. She took him to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Vic. She also worked hard to get his poems and songs published. He produced a prolific output of poems but the songs came less readily. His mental condition continued to deteriorate. By 1926, he was severely deluded believing himself to be Beethoven, Haydn, Shakespeare and Hillaire Belloc among others. He became physically hostile to staff and patients.

Between 1913 and 1926, Ivor Gurney wrote about 900 poems. At a conservative estimate, despite his mental illness and incarceration, 300 of these were viable works, many of the highest quality. Hundreds of Gurney’s poems remain unpublished. Tim Kendall of Exeter University, together with Gurney expert, baritone Philip Lancaster, is preparing a three volume variorum edition of Gurney’s complete poetry, for Oxford University Press. As well as writing powerful poems about the war and about the natural landscape, his work has a quality of modernity through unsentimental observation transmuted into poetry by force of concentration. As George Walter writes: “His perception of the landscape, both urban and rural, is coloured by historical survival, and history is for Gurney a human experience: the ploughing up of a Roman coin makes him think not of empires or dynasties but of ‘some hurt centurion’ who lived in the land of the past.”

While in the trenches, Gurney dreamed about his beloved Gloucestershire. In the asylum, he was again deprived of it. Helen Thomas, the widow of the poet Edward Thomas, who had died in the war, visited him there. In 1960, she recalled those visits. On one visit, she took Edward’s ordinance survey maps of Gloucestershire and traced their fingers over the routes Edward had walked and Ivor loved so well. “He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity. For he had Edward as his companion in this strange perambulation; and he was utterly happy, and without being over-excited.”

Helen Thomas wrote: “Ivor Gurney longed more than anything else to go back to his beloved Gloucestershire, but this was not allowed for fear he should try to take his own life. I said ‘But surely it would be more humane to let him go there even if it meant no more than one hour of happiness before he killed himself.’ But the authorities could not look at it in that way.”

They have left me little indeed

They have left me little indeed, how shall I best keep

Memory from sliding content down to drugged sleep?

But my blood in its colour even is known fighter-

If I were hero for such things here I would make wars

As love for dead things trodden under January stars.


Or the gold trefoil itself spending in careless places

Tiny graces like music’s for its past exquisitenesses.

Why war for huge Domains of the planet’s heights or plains.

(Little they leave me.) It is a dream, hardly my heart dares

Tremble for glad leaf-drifts thundering under January’s stars.


More about Gurney’s mental condition next week.



Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part Two

Ceylon Today published this article in the Mosaic section on Sunday May 25 2014.



Royal College of Music






In Part One, I described how Ivor Gurney, coming from a modest background in Gloucester, won a place in the Cathedral Choir in 1900. In 1911, he took up an open scholarship in composition at the Royal College of Music. His examiners were a formidable team of British composers: Sir Hubert Parry (best known for his setting of Blake’s Jerusalem); Sir Charles Stanford (an Irish composer and respected teacher long resident and influential in England; Dr Walford Davies and Dr Charles Wood.



marion scott

Marion Scott

At the RCM, Gurney met his lifelong friend and supporter, Marion Scott. She was thirteen years older than he was and had trained as a violinist at the RCM. She now edited the college magazine. She described her first sighting of him when he was wearing a thick Severn pilot’s coat. “But what struck me more was the look of latent force in him, the fine head with its profusion of light brown hair (not too well brushed!) … ‘This,’ I said to myself, ‘must be the new composition scholar from Gloucester whom they call Schubert’.”



He had a great deal of charm, good looks, talent and intelligence and made many friends.   He attended concerts, socialized, even became a member of the elite Beloved Vagabonds Club, which met at Holland Park to perform music.


Sir Charles Stanford was somewhat authoritarian, preferring order to chaos and found Gurney’s manuscripts tended to the chaotic. Herbert Howells recalled an occasion when Stanford made some swift alterations in pencil and said: “There, me boy! That puts it right”. Gurney responded, “Well, Sir Charles, I see you’ve jigged the whole show”, and was thrown out. Stanford turned to Howells, chuckled, and said, “You know, I love him more each time.” Stanford, in later years, declared that of all those he taught –Vaughan Williams, Ireland, and Bliss- Gurney was, potentially, “the biggest man of them all, but he was the least teachable.”




Musical Work



His earliest compositions date from 1904, but the first songs of any consequence are dated November 1907. In 1908, the distinguished classicist and poet, AE Housman (subject of Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love – 1997) wrote to his publisher about giving permission for a Gurney setting of Housman’s poems. “Mr IB Gurney (who resides in Gloucester Cathedral along with St Peter and Almighty God) must not print the words of my poems in full on concert programmes (a course which I am sure his fellow lodgers would disapprove of) but he is quite welcome to set them to music, and to have them sung, and to print their titles on programmes when they are sung.” In 1913, he wrote settings of five Elizabethan lyrics – the “Elizas”. These can be heard on YouTube ( performed by countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim accompanied by Sachika Taniyama on piano.


Gurney started writing poetry in 1913. A collection called Severn and Somme was published in 1917. In 1919, another collection, War’s Embers was published. Those were the only two books of poetry published in his lifetime. JC Squire worked hard on his behalf and published individual poems frequently in his London Mercury.

JC Squire

JC Squire

Squire commented: “It will all come out one day, I suppose. But the best in the arts still has the old struggle”. His poems frequently appeared in anthologies and he heavy-hitters in the poetry world like Auden and Larkin praised him. Another poet, Edmund Blunden, brought out a selection of Gurney’s poems in 1954, which had little impact.




Leonard Clark edited another selection in 1973, which caused few ripples. Michael Hurd’s biography in 1978 stressed the quality of Gurney’s poetry and provided many examples.

In 1982, poet PJ Kavanagh published The Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, which showed the full range of his achievement and encouraged further re-issues. In 1996, Everyman’s Poetry was published selection edited by George Walter of Sussex University. Walter points out in his introduction that Gurney cannot easily be categorised as a war poet, a “mad” poet or even a pastoral poet. “Ultimately his poems have less to do with their ostensible subjects than with his own awareness of them as spiritual revelations.” His subjectivity allows him to avoid vague generalizations about pastoral subjects.

Gurney is fascinated by the urban and the man-made. He writes about impermanence in the natural landscape and, in poems like “Time to Come”, writes about how the development of new housing in Gloucester affects the shape of the city and the landscape in which it sits.  Google Longford, the district in Gloucester where Gurney lived with his aunt and did farm work, and all you get is information about house prices and new developments in locations with neologisms for names, names that did not exist when I was a child walking those fields. My junior school used Plock Court at Longford as a sports ground. It was a miracle that we did not get tetanus because cow shit carpeted the field.



Longford Dawns


Of course not all watchers of the dawn

See Severn mists like forced-march mist withdrawn;

London has darkness changing into light

With just one quarter-hour of any weight.

Casual and common is the wonder grown –

Time’s a duty to lift light’s curtain up and down.

But here Time is caught up clear in Eternity,
And draws as breathless life as you or me.



More about Gurney’s war experience and war poems in Part Three.


Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part One

I have an article on the front page of Mosaic, the Arts section of Ceylon Today, May 18 2014.

Here is a version with a different selection of photographs.

I have been looking into the life of the composer and poet Ivor Gurney. My research has led me into a Joycean reconstruction of the Gloucester I knew as a child and adolescent.



This year, 2014,  marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. The BBC will be marking the centenary with four years of programmes covering the war. Among these programmes will be one presented by Tim Kendall, Professor of English at Exeter University, entitled The Poet who Loved the War: Ivor Gurney, 1914–1918. Hundreds of Gurney’s poems remain unpublished. Kendall, together with Gurney expert baritone Philip Lancaster, is preparing a three volume variorum edition of Gurney’s complete poetry, for Oxford University Press. Gurney does not fit easily into the category of “war poet”. I will limit myself here to saying that his work is not like that of Graves, Owen, Sassoon or Rosenberg. Readers who want a full critical analysis of the poetry should read the blogs of Kendall and Lancaster.

Gurney was also a composer who studied under Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. Sadly, he descended into mental illness and died in hospital at the age of 47.




When I was a teenager in Gloucester in the early 1960s, it was de rigeur to have trousers eye-wateringly tight. As soon as one purchased a new pair, one would take them to a tailor to have them altered. I took mine to a Mr Gurney who lived in a tall house on Worcester Street almost opposite the home of Gloucester Rugby Football Club, Kingsholm.

In later years, I discovered the work of poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, who was born and brought up in Gloucester.
I now realise that my tailor was Ivor’s brother, Ronald.



herbert howells

 Herbert Howells
Ivor’s poems spoke strongly to me because they were about a landscape that I knew and loved. Gurney’s friend and fellow Gloucester composer, Herbert Howells, dedicated his Piano Quartet in A minor: ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. I used to walk from my home to the top of Chosen Hill and look at the city of Gloucester somnolent in the sluggish summer valley below me or sit in a St Bartholomew’s Church.



It stands on a man-made mound 511 feet above sea-level, within the enclosing banks of an Iron Age Camp. The present church is Norman in foundation and Roger du Pont L’Eveque, Archbishop of York, is thought to have been the builder in about 1175 AD. The same church was often visited by Wendy Craig in the TV series Butterflies. Motorways and industrial parks obliterated my route to Chosen. Gurney wrote about impermanence in the natural landscape and in poems like “Time to Come” described how the development of new housing in Gloucester affected the shape of the city and the mind-set of its inhabitants.

Time to Come


They will walk there, the sons of our great grandsons and
Will know no reason for the old love of the land.
There will be no tiny bent-browed houses in the
Twilight to watch, nor small shops of multi-miscellany.
The respectable and red-brick will rule all,
With green-paint railings outside the front door wall;
And children will not play skip-games in the gutter,
Nor dust fly furious in hot valour of footer;
Queerness and untidiness will be smoothed out.




Gurney long ago mourned the loss of old Gloucestershire. What would he think now to see Gloucester homogenized into a standard provincial conurbation and his beloved Cotswolds blighted by the second homes of investment banksters and media whores who have priced local people out of the market?

Early Life
Ivor Gurney was born in Queens Street, Gloucester in 1890 and his family later moved to Barton Street (where our family doctor was based opposite the furniture shop of England cricketer Tom Goddard). In the early fifties of my childhood the area was populated by large numbers of West Indians, today there are many mosques and Bangladeshi restaurants.

Gurney came from a modest background. His father, David, came from a family of builders in Maisemore, but was himself in business as a tailor. Ivor Gurney’s biographer, Michael Hurd, like me a native of Gloucester (he attended Crypt School and I attended the rival Sir Thomas Rich’s Bluecoat School), expressed it thus: “By the standards of the time they could be considered to have gained a tenuous foothold on the ladder of comfort and middle-class respectability.” How many people these days have slipped and fallen on that kind of tenuous foothold?

Gurney’s elder sister, Winifred, painted an unflattering portrait of their mother, Florence, describing life with her as “something akin to a bed of stinging nettles”. Winifred claimed that Florence Gurney “did not seem to enjoy her children, and so far as I could see she did not win their love”. Gurney’s brother, Ronald, remembered a “terrible streak in mother — not mad but certainly bad with a touch of…evil about her” and called her “a menace”. The Gurney children favored their father, recalling him as “the more home-loving, affectionate parent” who “was not allowed to give us as much love as he had for us.”




Florence resented David’s Saturday afternoon visits to Kingsholm to watch Rugby football, but was more displeased when he changed his habits and went drinking at the Conservative Club instead.
Ivor’s friend Marion Scott liked his father, describing him as “gentle and slightly puzzled by life in general and his eldest son in particular”. Scott thought Ivor from his mother “inherited his strange power of placing ideas in unusual juxtapositions,” but with a great difference between mother and son. “With him it was genius, and with her it was almost foolishness.”

In 1896, Ivor started Sunday School (the Sunday School movement had been founded in Gloucester by Robert Raikes) at All Saints School on Barton Street, (All Saints Church was described by Michael Hurd as “one of Sir Gilbert Scott’s less ambitious flights”) where the Reverend Alfred Cheesman, immediately recognised his musical talent and put him in the choir. Cheesman also encouraged the boy’s interest in literature and local history by allowing him free use of his library.

Later he attended the National School, on London Road (I was a mixed infant at St Peter’s Catholic School on London Road). Gurney’s walk from home to school was not long but perhaps far for a small boy. He would have passed what is now the ugly 1960s bus station, but was then, I remember it as such, Gloucester cattle market, which was right in the centre of the city next to a ballroom. It gave off an awful stench on market days and was populated by red-faced men in muddy leather spats.

The Old City — Gloucester
Who says ‘Gloucester’ sees a tall
Fair fashioned shape of stone arise,
That changes with the changing skies
From joy to gloom funereal,
Then quick again to joy…





Cheesman encouraged Ivor to compete for a place in the Cathedral Choir, which he won in 1900. This also meant a place at King’s School, the school, founded by Henry VIII, attached to the Cathedral. Gurney’s musical education was also helped by his visits to two sisters, Emily and Margaret Hunt, who lived in Wellington Street, (not far from where, in later years, Fred and Rose West committed their murders) near the Gurney shop. Emily played the piano and Margaret the violin and they had been professional music teachers in South Africa before the Boer War.

On leaving the Gloucester Cathedral Choir in 1906, Gurney took lessons in harmony and counterpoint with a Dr Brewer and helped to pay the fees by working as an organist at several churches around Gloucestershire. Another of Brewer’s pupils at the time was the songwriter, actor and matinee idol, Ivor Novello (star of Hitchcock’s The Lodger, composer of “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and lover of Siegfried Sassoon). Gurney struck up a friendship with another of Brewer’s pupils, Herbert Howells, later a notable composer.

Gurney did not always manage to hold his jobs for long. Cheesman said, “I am afraid that he was rather wanting in tact, and gave offence by being rather outspoken – sometimes even to the Vicars’ wives!”


He was happier at the Mariners’ Chapel in Gloucester’s dockland. Although on a map, Gloucester looks to be a long way inland it has long been a thriving port because of the Sharpness Canal and drew the attention of the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. I have often been in that tiny Mariners’ Chapel and imagined Gurney playing the organ. Sometimes he stood in for Brewer and played the organ in Gloucester Cathedral.


In 1911, Gurney took up an open scholarship in composition at the Royal College of Music.

More about that next week.



Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot


hulot poster

I was a ‘cinephile’ from a very early age.

My Auntie Evelyn was the youngest sibling in my mother’s large family and my mother was the eldest. Evelyn said she was an ‘afterthought’ or a ‘mistake’. When I was an infant, Evelyn was carried away with teenage enthusiasms for pop music and films. With her sister, Auntie Rose, she took me the length and breadth of the land to see such pop idols of the day as Ruby Murray and David Whitfield. I saw Dusty Springfield twice, once when she was a member of the Lana Sisters, and once when she was part of a pop folk trio called The Springfields.

Evelyn took me often to the cinema, or rather ‘the pictures’. In those days, Gloucester had the Picturedrome (later to become the Ritz), the Plaza (later to become the Odeon) and the Regal (later to become the ABC). There was also the Empire but that only showed old films. I would love that today but the cinema became a chapel of the Elim church.

One found out from the Gloucester Citizen what was showing but did not bother about what time the film started. You just went along when you were ready and were shown to a seat in the dark by an usherette with a torch. You stumbled to a seat, tripping over the feet of people who were already in the middle of watching a film. You would pick up the thread of the story from somewhere in the middle. When it was over you would then have an ice cream, watch the ads, Pathé or Movietone News and the B feature before starting the main feature from the beginning. When you got to the point at which you had arrived you would get up and trod on people as you stumbled out in the dark. Hence the expression, ‘this is where I came in’.

When I was around five or six, I saw Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, A Star is Born (the Judy Garland and James Mason one) and countless Esther Williams musicals. With my father, I saw war films like Reach for the Sky, The Colditz Story, Above us the Waves and the Dam Busters or westerns like The Man from Laramie.

When I graduated to going to the pictures with my contemporaries, it was Abbot and Costello and Norman Wisdom or the Boulting Brothers. At one time we all had a crush on Hayley Mills. (There is a special place in my heart for a B movie actress called Gloria Talbot).

In pre-teen years, I was a member of the ABC Minors, a Saturday morning cinema club which featured ancient Flash Gordon (including the villain Ming the Merciless) and Buck Rogers serials starring Buster Crabbe. I recall winning a competition and getting a free ticket to see Forbidden Planet (based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest) starring a young Leslie Nielsen.

In my mid teens, I would go to see a film every Sunday afternoon with my girl friend whatever film was showing. The first one was The Waltz of the Toreadors with Peter Sellers. There were many of those romantic comedies with Doris Day and Rock Hudson or James Garner.

I went to Manchester University at a time before the multiplex (or DVD or internet streaming), when every suburb had several small cinemas, many of which changed their programme every few days. Near Oxford Road station The Classic showed old Hollywood movies. My hall of residence showed a free film every Sunday evening. I remember having a migraine during The Ipcress File and joining in howls of laughter at the ludicrous pretensions of The Sandpiper. In the centre of Manchester there was The Cinephone, which showed mainly French films, where I struggled to appreciate Jean-Luc Godard. The University Film Society showed Bergman, which I liked from the start and Antonioni whom I found hard going.


There was a Manchester Film Theatre which did art house films in repertory along the lines of the British Film Institute. When that failed and it became a porn movie house, the proprietor, Dr Jackson, set up another repertory cinema called the Aaben in the urban wasteland that was Hulme.

In later years, BBC2 and Channel 4 showed excellent programmes of world cinema on a regular basis.

When I moved to London I was a regular at the National Film Theatre with particularly fond memories of a Cary Grant season and a Jean Gabin season. London also had a wealth of repertory cinema clubs.
These days we tend to watch a movie every evening up in our mountain retreat thanks to the miracle of DVD and Amazon and to the fact that one gets the very latest movies on DVD in Sri Lanka very cheap. One would never dream of visiting a cinema here because all they show are Hindi musicals and porn.

I have seen many movies in my time. I have constructed a personal pantheon that includes, Marcel Carné, Ingmar Bergman, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawkes, Billy Wilder, Cary Grant, Terry-Thomas and many others.



It would be very difficult to compile a top ten of my favorite films. However, I would have no difficulty in naming my number one favourite. That would be Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.



I first saw it before I went to university, when visiting a friend who had gone to college in London. I laughed so much. When I was at university and it was on at the Film Society I insisted that my new friends watch it. They sat through it in irritated silence and thought I was mad.



I had the film on VHS and tended to put it on when the weather or my own spirits were gloomy. After coming to Sri Lanka the VHS tape deteriorated because of climate conditions and mildew made it impossible to watch. Have no fear; I now have it on DVD along with other Tati films Jour de Fete, Mon Oncle and Playtime. Traffic, was long forgotten although a recent Criterion Collection edition includes it. None of the others quite has the charm of M Hulot’s Holiday.



jacques tati 2
Jacques Tati came from a family of exiled Russian nobles called Tatischev. He had a career as a professional rugby player before taking to show business as a mime in the 1930s. He played a few small roles in films and then made a few shorts himself including L’École Des Facteurs (The School for Postmen) which was later developed into his first feature Jour de Fete.

M Hulot’s Holiday was made in 1953. The Hulot character has an iconic appearance and has even been used in the cover art for a New York Review of Books edition of a Simenon novel, M Monde Disappears.


m monde


With his trademark raincoat, small hat, his trousers just a little bit too short, umbrella and pipe, Hulot is among the most memorable comic characters in cinema. Bosley Crowther described him as “a long-legged, slightly pop-eyed gent whose talent for caricaturing the manners of human beings is robust and intense”.


To me M Hulot’s Holiday is the ultimate ‘feel good movie’. The atmosphere is tranquil and sunny. The movie was filmed in the town of Saint-marc-sur-Mer in the Loire-Atlantique region. A bronze statue of M. Hulot was later erected overlooking the beach where the film was made. The sea breaks gently on the beach in Brittany. People stroll around doing very little. There is no dialogue, no intrusive soundtrack, just melodic jazz on a clarinet. Alain Romans wrote the score.




M Hulot is benign and ineffectual. At the beginning of the film, a flea-bitten, decrepit dog is sleeping in the middle of the road but gets up and moves when cars come along. When M Hulot comes chuggling along in his antique vehicle (a 1924 Amilcar), the dog starts to get up but when he sees M Hulot he settles back down again and Hulot has to back up and drive around him.

The Hulot character is almost invisible to other people but his politeness is unassailable. When the announcer on the hotel’s radio says ‘Good night, everybody!’’ he bows and raises his hat.


The comedy lies in the fact that his benign ineffectuality constantly causes mayhem all around him. He is usually unaware of what he has wrought. Tati conveys Hulot’s clumsiness with balletic grace. Tati began his career as a mime and Hulot never speaks except to introduce himself to people who are not really taking much notice of him: “Hulot. Hulot.”


jacking car
Hulot goes out to sea in a minuscule kayak which clearly too small for his lanky frame. It capsizes and folds up in such a way as to resemble a shark. There is a major panic on the beach, which is completely lost on Hulot who goes on his sublime way.


kayak shark
All of Tati’s movies are meticulously put together rather in the manner of Buster Keaton. This works well in a small-scale setting like M Hulot’s Holiday. Tati’s aim is to focus attention on the comical nature of humanity when interacting as a group, through carefully planned visual gags. Tati’s themes include Western society’s obsession with material goods, particularly American-style consumerism, the superficiality of contemporary relationships, and the cold and often impractical nature of space-age technology and design.



Even in M Hulot’s Holiday there is a workaholic staying at the hotel who would today have a Smartphone and an i-pad. Inanimate objects are malign. The film gently mocks the confidence of post-war Western society that work is more important than pleasure. In his epic satire on modern life, Playtime, the sheer size of the ambitious design rather overwhelms. A whole city called Tativille was constructed for that film.





Roger Ebert wrote: “Sight gags are set up with such patience that they seem to expose hidden functions in the clockwork of the universe. Consider the scene where Hulot is painting his kayak, and the tide carries the paint can out to sea and then floats it in again, perfectly timed, when his brush is ready for it again. How was this scene done? Is it a trick, or did Tati actually experiment with tides and cans until he got it right? Is it ‘funny’? No, it is miraculous. The sea is indifferent to painters, but nevertheless provides the can when it is needed, and life goes on, and the boat gets painted.”





Some people have been disappointed with Tati after seeing Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther and The Party. Although Inspector Clouseau struggles against his own lust and over-reaching ambition rather than a cruel world, Sellers borrowed much of his timing and physical business from Tati. I hope you will not be disappointed and hate me for recommending it. As I said, my university friends were not impressed. It is black and white with no dialogue, no loud music, no sex, no car chases, no special effects. Some cretinous critic who had better remain nameless wrote: “It’s not as funny as what it inspired – which would include Jerry Lewis and Mr. Bean – but it’s better than passable.”


pirate dance

This is so crass. I am all for freedom of opinion but this is taking the First Amendment too far. For all their undoubted talents, Rowan Atkinson and Jerry Lewis do not inhabit the same universe as Tati. The Lewis and Bean personas are malicious retards. Hulot is a decent man struggling against the complexities of the material world and his own incompetence and retaining through it all an indestructible optimism, civility and lovability.




Leaving that unpleasantness aside, I will let Roger Ebert have the last word.
“As well as laughter the film gives us something rarer, an amused affection for human nature–so odd, so valuable, and so particular. When has a film so subtly and yet so completely captured nostalgia for past happiness? The movie is about the simplest of human pleasures: The desire to get away for a few days, to play instead of work, to breathe in the sea air, and maybe meet someone nice. It is about the hope that underlies all vacations, and the sadness that ends them. And it is amused, too, that we go about our days so intently, while the sea and the sky go about theirs.”


beach hut
Wise words.


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On the set of One Eyed Jacks with Brando

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