Creative Myths of Cambridge

A talk delivered to the Rupert Brooke Society, August 19th, 2012

© William Pryor

In a letter to my grandfather not long before his death in 1925 from multiple sclerosis, Virginia Woolf wrote: Is your art as chaotic as ours? I feel that for us writers the only chance now is to go out into the desert & peer about, like devoted scapegoats, for some sign of a path. I expect you got through your discoveries sometime earlier.

But he wasn’t a writer; he had told her he was writing an autobiography which was enough for her to generously include him in the clan of authors, of devoted scapegoats. Rupert Brooke, my grandmother Gwen Raverat, my cousin Frances Cornford and my friend Syd Barrett all went out into the desert, peering about for some sign of a path. They all found their own creative path. They all went through the minefields of mental mutability to get there. They all held Cambridge as the crucible of their creativity. They all meddled in myth.

For those of you for whom the popular culture of the last 50 years has been so much froth on the pond of time, Syd Barrett was the singer with the psychedelic rock n roll band, Pink Floyd. They are almost an industry in their own right: their lead guitarist David Gilmour is reputed to be worth in excess of £85m.

But before I go any further I should say that, as you may already have detected,  what I am laying before you today is not in any sense an academic treatise, nor even a cogent essay, but more a prose poem ambling towards its own kind of scapegoat myth.

Virginia Woolf, a friend of Rupert, Gwen and to a lesser extent Frances, also knew the dark recesses of what was probably a bipolar disorder. Virginia wrote: As an experience, madness is terrific… and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about.

We don’t think of Rupert, Gwen, Frances, Virginia or even Syd as mad people, but as artists. They found their art or rather their attitude, their vision of their art, in the lava, the fluorescence of their experience of breakdown, madness, depression – call it what you will. I don’t mean to overstate the importance of their mental condition (though it drove one of them to suicide, one to spend years in “homes”, another to live 40 years in virtual isolation, and my grandmother to produce more incisive wood engravings) just to note that it was there.  And the myth of the creative genius doesn’t work without a reasonable dose of sociopathic aberration.

Frances Cornford’s famous lines about Rupert Brooke are very helpful to my ramblings here:

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

The long littleness of life is precisely what Rupert, Gwen, Frances and Syd were digging worm holes through.  They became myths precisely because each of them showed us transcendence in the littleness, the quotidian of life.

Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths, said Joseph Campbell. Myths are not untruths; rather they are stories that explain the inexplicable; they are truths, but mysterious ones. Jean Cocteau said: Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. We create myths and romance to escape the humdrum, to know a deeper truth about ourselves. Rupert, Gwen, Frances and Syd all have their mythologies; they take us to a better past, golden days of first loves, skinny dipping, poems, beauty, songs, creativity and transcendence.

To fulfil the function of a myth so that one is built around you, it is necessary to act it out, to become a god with a smallest ‘g’. Rupert and Syd ticked all the boxes: they were beautiful, passionate and creative gods who were struck down in their primes. In a very short time, they shot from local celebrity to breaking hearts on a national, even international, scale.

My grandmother’s story was different, but mythic none the less. With her it was always her wood engravings and then Period Piece that took the stage, not her. As were poems for Frances. But the art of all four shared one trait: nostalgia for a past that might have existed, but probably didn’t; a past where loves were complicated but intense, landscapes always romantic and well-kept and childhoods always playful.

The Industrialisation of Myth

And Grantchester has become mythic simply because it occupies a corner of so many imaginations that will always be England, poetry and pubs called The Rupert Brooke. The pub’s website has this: Where better than overlooking the outstanding beauty of Grantchester meadows, to have a truly English vintage cream tea. Our cream teas are available between Ten to 3 & 6 everyday, as well as to all weddings, functions and corporate events. The eclectic mix and match style of crockery will add a refreshing touch of vintage charm to any occasion.

The industrialisation of myth; corporate events from ten to three; myths not only explaining the inexplicable but selling some cream teas on the way!  The penetrating power of what Rupert, Gwen, Frances and Syd did lies in how they present that quintessentially English nostalgia, how they transmitted it. With none of them was it ever commercial, cloying, clichéd or cluttered with sentiment. Rupert’s was shot through with anger; Gwen’s with incisive observation and a mastery of detail; Frances’s with melancholy and a deceptive simplicity; Syd’s with an originality of whimsy and musical rule-breaking. None of them were avant-garde; all of them were consummate practitioners of their crafts.

My grandmother’s cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams, 13 years her senior, composed music that shared many of the same qualities as Rupert and Frances’s poems, Gwen’s art (and even, oddly, Syd’s songs): quintessentially English, lyrical, angry, tragic, startling, grand, mythic. In The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd writes: If that Englishness in [his] music can be encapsulated in words at all, those words would probably be: ostensibly familiar and commonplace, yet deep and mystical as well as lyrical, melodic, melancholic, and nostalgic, yet timeless.

Rupert, Gwen, Frances and Syd needed to overthrow their family backgrounds so they could absorb all that was true in their heritage. As George Bernard Shaw said: If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. The black sheep danced, realizing that most of the rest of the flock had been piebald, if not black, all along.  After all Dodie Smith described the family as ‘that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor in our innermost hearts never quite wish to’. Rupert had to escape the Ranee; Gwen had to persuade her father George Darwin to let her become one of the first women to study art at the Slade; Frances had to battle through her depression, which was almost certainly a learned Darwin response to the littleness of life; Syd had to transcend the middle-class stodginess of his academic Cambridge family.

It didn’t matter how liberal and indeed enlightened their families were, there was still the need for revolution. Gwen would hold the Darwin clan up for mild but deeply fond ridicule in her description of a picnic held to celebrate her cousin Frances’s marriage to Francis Cornford: It was a grey, cold, gusty day in June.  The aunts sat huddled in furs in the boats, their heavy hats flapping in the wind. The uncles, in coats and cloaks and mufflers, were wretchedly uncomfortable on the hard, cramped seats, and they hardly even tried to pretend that they were not catching their deaths of cold. But it was still worse when they had to sit down to have tea on the damp, thistly grass near Grantchester Mill.  There were so many miseries which we young ones had never noticed at all: nettles, ants, cow-pats. . .  besides that all-penetrating wind.  The tea had been put into bottles wrapped in flannels (there were no Thermos flasks then);  and the climax came when it was found that it had all been sugared beforehand. This was an inexpressible calamity.  They all hated sugar in their tea. Besides it was Immoral. Uncle Frank said, with extreme bitterness: ‘It’s not the sugar I mind, but the Folly of it.’  This was half a joke; but at his words the hopelessness and the hollowness of a world where everything goes wrong, came flooding over us; and we cut our losses and made all possible haste to get them home to a good fire.

The art of all my subjects was made on a ground of family circumstance, a bed of dysfunctionality. Mostly they could not talk about their art, they had simply to do it. Jean Cocteau said: An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture. But he can talk about the circumstances, the milieu, the hothouse in which his art happens. It is not clear precisely when, but probably in the late 1920s, my grandmother thought she might try her hand as a novelist, encouraged, no doubt by the early success of her friend Virginia Woolf. Though it needed work, her first unnamed attempt captured the romance of the group of young romantics Virginia had labelled the Neo-Pagans:

We met, we found we had many ideas in common; we found that we could talk. And so we talked from morning to night and from night till morning, and for the first two years we did practically nothing else. We had been shy and diffident; we had wondered if anyone had ever had such ideas as ours before; we had wondered if they could possibly be true ideas; if there was the remotest chance that we could be worth anything. Now, when we came together many of our doubts disappeared; we were passionately convinced of the truth and splendour of our thoughts; we felt that we were quite different from our fathers; all our ways of thinking and our opinions seemed bold and new. And though each of us alone might still doubt his own powers, we each thought that never before had there met together a group of such fine and intelligent young men. I think that we each thought ourselves singularly happy in having such wonderful friends.

From the beginning it was from Rupert that we expected great things; it was Rupert we all watched and loved. Perhaps the most obvious thing about him was his beauty. He was not so beautiful as many another man has been, and yet there was something in his appearance, which it was impossible to forget. It was no good laughing at him; calling him pink and white, or chubby; saying his eyes were too small or his legs too short. There was a nobility about the carriage of his head and the shape of it, a radiance in his fair hair and shining face, a sweetness and a secrecy in his deep set eyes, a straight strength in his limbs, which remained for ever in the minds of those who once had seen him; which penetrated and coloured every thought of him.

I remember those first two years as long days and nights of talk; talk, lying in the cow parsley under the great elms; talk in lazy punts on the river; talk round the fire in Rupert’s room; talk which seemed always to get nearer and nearer to the heart of things. It was best of all in the evenings in Rupert’s room. He used to lie in his great armchair, his legs stretched right across the floor, his fingers twisted in his hair; while Jacques sat smoking by the fire, continually poking it; his face was round and pale; his hair was dark. We smoked and ate muffins or sweets and talked and talked while the firelight danced on the ceiling, and all the possibilities of the world seemed open to us.

For a time we were very decadent. We used to loll in armchairs and talk wearily about Art and Suicide and the Sex Problem. We used to discuss the ridiculous superstitions about God and Religion; the absurd prejudices of patriotism and decency; the grotesque encumbrances called parents. We were very, very old and we knew all about everything; but we often forgot our age and omniscience and played the fool like anyone else.

The extraordinary thing about this passage is how vividly she also conjures up the best bits of my youth, let alone hers and Rupert’s. Gwen gave us grandchildren a wooden Canadian canoe which was kept in the boathouse under the gallery at The Old Granary, now part of Darwin College. My Norwegian fellow grandson, Christian Hambro, and I would paddle down to the Backs and capsize it on purpose just to alarm the tourists. I would venture on day-long treks to the source of the Cam at Haslingfield. We would loll in punts and talk and talk. The Sex Problem had disappeared, this being the sixties.

Syd Barrett was the Rupert of our circle. Syd would join us to punt up to Grantchester, strumming his guitar, singing his whimsical songs influenced by Hillaire Belloc, Edward Lear, Tolkein and even, perhaps, Frances and Rupert. We too were decadent. We too were in the business of the overthrowing of parents. We had so much to reject: war, atom bombs, privilege.

From the beginning it was from Syd we expected great things; it was Syd we all watched and loved. Perhaps the most obvious thing about him was his beauty. And his impenetrable creative certainty. A very short time later he joined the band that became Pink Floyd as its lyricist leader and burst into worldwide fame for just 18 months. As his behaviour got more and more unacceptable, even for a rock star, in 1968 the band indecorously pushed him aside. He walked back to Cambridge and retired to a life as a painter recluse, living with his mother, wanting nothing to do with the legend he had once been. He died 38 years later aged 60 in 2006.

Both Rupert and Syd struck down in their youth like James Dean. Both Rebels without a clear Cause; both making art that takes us back to a past that never really existed. We just feel it ought to have.

Pink Floyd needed a mythology of Syd to expiate guilt and romance their origins and so wrote and performed songs about him (Wish You Were Here and Shine On You Crazy Diamond) which then made Syd a global myth. I mean myth in the sense of a story that explains the inexplicable, a story of gods and goddesses; not in the sense of an untruth.

So did my grandmother, my great uncle Geoffrey Keynes, Frances and most of the neo-pagans need a mythology of Rupert. They made a beautiful edition of his poems to which Gwen contributed two lyrical wood engravings. An Apollo who died so young and so absurdly had to be a god of the romantic ideal. They forgot all the exasperating complexity of his unrequited loves.

There may be those who would dismiss any parallel between a band of rock n rollers and Rupert’s neo-pagan and Bloomsbury high-flyers. They would be wrong. In Grantchester Meadows, Pink Floyd’s bass player, Roger Waters, who grew up in Cambridge, captured the nostalgie de la jeunesse that Rupert initiated with his poem – the parallels are striking:

Icy wind of night be gone
This is not your domain
In the sky a bird was heard to cry
Misty morning whisperings
And gentle stirring sounds
Belied the deathly silence
That lay all around.

 

Hear the lark and harken
to the barking of the dog fox
gone to ground
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water
And a river of green is sliding
Unseen beneath the trees
Laughing as it passes
Through the endless summer
Making for the sea

In the lazy water meadow
I lay me down.
All around me golden sunflakes
Settle on the ground.
Basking in the sunshine
Of a bygone afternoon
Bringing sounds of yesterday
Into this city room

Hear the lark and harken
To the barking of the dog fox
Gone to ground
See the splashing
Of the kingfisher flashing to the water
And a river of green is sliding
Unseen beneath the trees
Laughing as it passes
Through the endless summer
Making for the sea

In the lazy water meadow
I lay me down
All around me golden sunflakes
Covering the ground
Basking in the sunshine
Of a bygone afternoon
Bringing sounds of yesterday
Into my city room.

Hear the lark and harken
To the barking of the dog fox
Gone to ground
See the splashing
Of the kingfisher flashing to the water
And a river of green is sliding
Unseen beneath the trees
Laughing as it passes
Through the endless summer
Making for the sea

Romantic, but effective nostalgia through and through. Indeed Roger’s words can be read as a direct descendant of lines like:
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . .

Nothing too abstract, surreal or whimsical in either of these, unlike Syd’s lyrics for Bike:
I’ve got a bike
You can ride it if you like
It’s got a basket
A bell that rings
And things to make it look good
I’d give it to you if I could
But I borrowed it
You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world
I’ll give you anything
Everything if you want things

 I’ve got a cloak
It’s a bit of a joke
There’s a tear up the front
It’s red and black
I’ve had it for months
If you think it could look good
Then I guess it should

the last few lines are telling:
I know a room full of musical tunes
Some rhyme
Some ching
Most of them are clockwork
Let’s go into the other room and make them work.

Compare Rupert’s nostalgia for Grantchester with Frances Cornford’s in the last two stanzas of her Cambridge Autumn, written some 22 years and a world war after Rupert wrote his ode to Grantchester:

O, I must raise myself and go, for now
The sun sinks down, and that old labourer,
that simple vision by the cottage door
Which morning brought, returns; who soon must fare
Alone into the dark of death, no more,
Like this unconquered planet, to emerge
On crystal April light, with daffodils.

His strange, eternal spring shall be elsewhere,
Only the dead can tell how clear, and fair,
And certain as the look their faces bear
After the storm and ravage. Yet it seems
Though all creation shares the departing light –
Red cows and robins, and rooks in flight,
And the great barns – that most of all to those
Old, patient eyes no temporal spring shall bless,
This vast, warm, earthly autumn tenderness
Is come to say Amen, before they close.

Death haunts her hymn to the great barns of Cambridgeshire; it is almost a mourning for a lost Cambridge. For Gwen, Frances, Rupert and Syd, Cambridge and Grantchester inspired a bursting creativity that could not be held back and acted as a magnet. A creativity that is a matter of life or death to all these myths of creativity.

Gwen wrote in 1924 to her cousin Nora Barlow: [It is] a matter of life and death to keep going at [my painting and drawing] as much as I can and not lose hold. I feel I’ve got something in me of which I only get a millionth part, partly from lack of time and leisure of mind (by my own unregretted choice in marrying and having children), partly from things in one’s own self getting in the way and in between…

Stressed with looking after two small girls (my mother and aunt) and a dying husband, she still feels it is a matter of life and death to not lose hold of her creative process. Syd and Rupert sacrificed themselves on this same altar. It is the myth of the hero transcending the ordinary. Gwen said of wood engraving it was “hard, tight, definite” with “no possible room for vagueness”. Maybe she means that it is the looking, the seeing that matters. William Carlos Williams, when explaining his poetics, said that there are no ideas but in things.

Gwen wrote: All good painting is religious in that it is done in the religious spirit: that the painter feels it is the most important thing in the world: a thing worth doing for itself, even if no one were ever to see it. In this sense art is religion. But it is not the subject of a picture which matters, it is the feeling with which the subject is approached.

The nostalgia Rupert, Gwen, Frances and Syd express is the weltschmerz of being alive; a keening Frances evinced so clearly in her poem, After the Eumenides, in the collection Mountains and Molehills that Gwen illustrated in 1934:

Long ago, in stony Greece,
The human heart knew no peace.
In its darkness it was torn,
And cursed, as now, the fate of being born;
And tried to heal its agony with song.
O Lord, how long?

A poem I wrote that plays a key part in my screenplay COOL (which finally looks like it might get realised before I die) is my attempt to express the same melancholia of youth, youngness, that concerned Rupert, Frances and Syd and which Gwen somehow transcended:

Long Burgeons
Long burgeons the last cello
swells with cut enthusiasms
where bud the swollen flowers
of being young
this grave
mistaken incursion
this death
into life.
long purposes frolicking in the surf
short of the shore, the beach
between life and death.

The beach between life and death is where the artist tries to heal his agony with a song while his ambitions, his purposes frolic in the surf. After all, it is death that gives meaning to life, death that powers myths. Where would Syd and Rupert be if they hadn’t burned out so young?

Marcel Duchamp (of urinal fame) said: To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.  Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.

Syd and Rupert have been consecrated; Gwen and Frances less so, largely because they worked in smaller arenas. Syd & Rupert have become icons, myths, gods of youth, innocence and idiosyncrasy.  Forever reconsecrated when David Gilmour sings Shine On:
Remember when you were young,
You shone like the sun.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Now there’s a look in your eyes,
Like black holes in the sky.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
You were caught on the crossfire
Of childhood and stardom,
Blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!

You reached for the secret too soon,
You cried for the moon.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Threatened by shadows at night,
And exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Well you wore out your welcome
With random precision,
Rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions,
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!

Just two years in the limelight, but here we are, forty years later, still talking about him.  We were the first teenagers, back then – previously people went straight from childhood to young adulthood in their bowler hats or pinnies – and Syd, authentic, beautiful, witty, musical and idiosyncratic Syd was much more than most teenagers knew how to be.  Both he and Rupert embodied what we could all be.  Syd got paid to be himself, or the leprechaun he constructed.

The essence of Syd was his creativity; the gift that Pink Floyd were to turn into a commodity worth many millions.  A gift that flows all the time for all of us, could we but know it, grasp it, ride it.

We project our intricately woven fabric of self and for some of us this projecting is art.  It is public.  People buy into it.  It is performance.  We then buy into this our own projection ourselves, just as we bought into the fabric from which it was woven.  As Syd sang in Jugband Blues: It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here; and I’m much obliged to you for making it clear – that I’m not here.

The projecting, the loving of talent, the glimpses of godhood – all this is addictive – we want more, even though we know it is bad for us, for the central stability of the self.  Syd’s fame gave him permission to transgress, to explore beyond sanity.  He had the authority of one who was making the gift of creativity live in front of our eyes and ears.

Gwen wrote so simply in Time & Tide in 1934:  Painting is the product of the thing seen (whether with the inner eye or the outer eye makes no matter) and the passion felt about it. Representational art is on the whole greater than abstract art, partly because it is difficult to have so primitive and passionate a feeling about a cube as about a cow; but also because the eye turned outwards constantly replenishes and enlarges the symbolic imagery of the mind; while the abstractist, his eye turned inwards, allows his images to grow poorer and fewer by inbreeding.

But it does depend how you see. Gwen describes her perception as a young woman thus:  Of course, there were things to worship everywhere. I can remember feeling quite desperate with love for the blisters in the dark red paint on the nursery window-sills at Cambridge, but at Down there were more things to worship than anywhere else in the world.

LSD may not have been the source of Syd’s creativity, but he came to rely on it and, all too soon, he was outcaste, scapegoated by it, by the very visions that had at first inspired him.

Antonin Artaud, the Theatre of Cruelty guy, had this to say about creativity: No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modelled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.

The power, insistence and poetry of the art of Rupert, Gwen, Frances and Syd was probably no different; for Gwen and Frances it arose from their struggle to acknowledge and absorb their inner demons, while Syd’s short-lived blossoming seemed like revelation visited from a sugar cube, making it hard for him to own it.  Maybe the difference might not be so important – they would all find their uninspired states unbearable.  They had to create to escape hell, as Antonin Artaud well understood, and when they couldn’t escape, Virginia Woolf drowned herself, Gwen and Frances became clinically depressed and Syd retreated into chemical martyrdom.

The myths of Rupert, Gwen, Frances and Syd are stories of the god of creativity made human and the prices that must be paid. I have been in love with improvisational music making ever since I would dabble on my mother’s Steinway in our home in Chaucer Road, not more than a couple of miles from here. Even though it is not really a spectator sport, completely free improvisation is the shortest cut to the nirvana of creativity and the poem I wrote about it in 1981 is an attempt – in my Black Mountain minimalist style – to open that window a tad:
improvisation – music
not ‘made up’ as you go
not ‘found’ pre-existing
but extension.  Mind
extended to include & release.

immanence.

cat’s leap for the window
is the thought of it. 

as blind men know through sticks
what surrounds them
we sound what we do
through instruments
& how is the interaction
tasting  – an exchange
in    formation
as talk is express
is connect is
partsong
partlisten

Sylvia Plath wrote: And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

And Charles Mingus said: Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.

But how do we make the complicated simple?  The only enemy to creativity is self-doubt.  The Gift is showering down all the time, kept from us by self-doubt and consequent lack of discrimination. The act of creativity is the act of a god, but the ever-hovering self-doubt wants for it to be consecrated by posterity, for others to applaud, to pay money.  It wants to overcome its scapegoat status by the consecration of fans, critics and customers, by commoditising the Gift of creativity.  But in so doing the artist becomes even more of a scapegoat, taking on both the aspirations and the fears of his audience, literally loaded with their troubles and sacrificed ‘beyond the pale’ of the community.

Gwen and Virginia sum up Rupert

In March, 1925, just two weeks after Jacques died in Vence from MS, Virginia wrote a long letter to Gwen. In it she summed up Rupert rather well: I feel that Jacques was thinking a great deal of Rupert at the end. Rupert was a little mythical to me when he died. He was very rude to Nessa once; & Leonard, I think, rather disliked him; in fact Bloomsbury was against him, & he against them. Meanwhile, I had a private version of him which I stuck to when they all cried him down, & still preserve somewhere infinitely far away – but how these feelings last, how they come over one, oddly, at unexpected moments – based on my week at Grantchester [in 1911], when he was all that could be kind & interesting & substantial & downhearted (I choose these words without thinking whether they correspond to what he was to you or anybody). He was, I thought, the ablest of all the young men; I did not then think much of his poetry, which he read aloud on the lawn; but I thought he would be Prime Minister, because he had such a gift with people, & such sanity, & force; I remember a weakly pair of lovers, meandering in one day, just engaged, & very floppy (A.Y. Campbell & his bride who now writes on Shelley). You know how intense & silly & offhand in a self-conscious kind of way the Cambridge young then were about their loves – Rupert simplified them, & broadened them, – humanised them – And then he rode off on a bicycle about a railway strike. Jacques says he thinks Rupert’s poetry was poetry. I must read it again. I had come to think it mere barrel organ music, but this refers to the patriotic poems, & perhaps is unfair: but the early ones were all adjectives & contortions, weren’t they? My idea was that he was to be member of Parliament, & edit the classics: a very powerful, ambitious man, but not a poet. Still all this is no doubt wholly & completely wrong.

On the 22nd of April 1925, Gwen replied to Virginia. The letter has this: You’ve missed one point about Rupert: that he didn’t really care about life. He was ambitious but he didn’t love things for themselves. All that about bathing and food and bodies was a pose. He didn’t care – not like Jacques. And when a fly bit him, he just died out of carelessness. And so I wouldn’t call him substantial, as you do, unless you mean the schoolmaster side of him – the responsible practical fatherly man. He was a schoolmaster. For instance, he tried so hard to prevent all the friends whom he considered young and innocent from being enticed into your bawdy houses at Bloomsbury. Of course Bloomsbury disliked him; how could they help it, when he thought them so infinitely corrupt and sinister that no one (except himself) could be trusted to enter their purlieus and come out unsmirched. I don’t quite know why he thought Bloomsbury so devilishly poisonous, but he did – (and was it perhaps true that they weren’t very good for the-not-very- strong-in-the-head such as Margery Olivier? or the vain and credulous and cotton wool-stuffed such as Ka? What do you think? Oughtn’t women like that to go to church and be kept at their father’s coat tails until they are married and safe? Or doesn’t it matter either way?)

But Jacques wouldn’t have gone and died like Rupert. He, more than anyone I’ve ever known, did care about things and about living. Right up to the very end – to within a week of his death, he didn’t really want to die: though he said he did; or really quite believe that he was going to die, in spite of all the horrors he went through. It’s that that makes it seem so incredible that he’s dead. He lay there planning our journeys – journeys for me to go – journeys for Marchand – places I was to take Elisabeth to – dinners to eat (when the thought of food made him feel sick). No one but he could have lived so long in that state. And though he had lost nearly all possible physical pleasures, yet he could somehow taste the memory of them in his impotence with more force than Rupert ever could their reality in all his youth.

And yet, somehow life has seemed duller ever since Rupert died. And now it’s much duller still. I don’t mean the substance of things isn’t as strange as ever; only there’s no one to talk to about it. I suppose because I find it hard to get things into Language. You, a writer can talk to me, and (I think) I understand – but can I talk to you; do you understand? the things I care about are so dumb.

A talk given at Darwin College, Cambridge, by William Pryor on June 7th, 2009

On April 2nd 1911, the night of the  census, ten people were recorded as living in this, the house that George Howard Darwin had bought from the coal and grain merchant Patrick Beales and named Newnham Grange.  Charles Darwin’s 5th child, George, was 65 on that night and had been married to his 49 yr old American wife, Martha Haskins du Puy, known as Maud, for 26 years.  George would die of cancer the very next year.  Their two daughters, Gwendolen Mary, 25, and Margaret Elizabeth, 21, were in the house with one Jacques Pierre Raverat, 26. Their brothers, Billy and Charles, were away. The family had five women servants: a cook, a parlour maid, a housemaid, an under-housemaid and a kitchen maid.  Margaret would marry Geoffrey Keynes, Blake aficionado, surgeon and brother of Maynard.  Charles would become a physicist, managing the British end of the Manhattan Project that developed the nuclear bomb.  He would allow me, aged 5, to run up his capacious belly.

Eight weeks and two days after the 1911 census, on 31st May, a strange fancy-dress party took place in the garden here. “The handsomest young man in England,” as Yeats described the poet Rupert Brooke, several members of the Keynes family and Lytton Strachey, dressed as a bishop, romped in improper jubilation. With its overtones of Alice in Wonderland, this celebration of what Virginia Woolf rather patronisingly called “Neo-Pagan” values, involved a gold loving cup, some dancing on the grass and a lot of Chinese lanterns, though it was actually a nuptial festivity for Gwen, about to marry Jacques.

Gwendolen Mary Darwin, was born August 26th, 1885, just 3½ years after the death of her grandfather, Charles Darwin and his presence in all our histories has loomed; loomed like an enormous, bearded badge of honour as well as an undue shadow of expectation.  Are we more than Darwins? As he has become more and more THE god of science, the religion de nos jours, so being the descendants of a god has its effects.  As Gwen wrote in Period Piece: Of course, we always felt embarrassed if our grandfather were mentioned, just as we did if God were spoken of.  In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas. Only, with our grandfather, we also felt, modestly, that we ought to disclaim any virtue in having produced him. Of course it was very much to our credit, really, to own such a grandfather; but one mustn’t be proud, or show off about it; so we blushed and were embarrassed and changed the subject…

I cannot hope to give you more than a memetic glimpse of my grandmother’s full and creative life, an impression, a sketch of how she has affected and inspired me and thus maybe some understanding as to what it is, and was for her, to be a Darwin.  This sketch must also be informed by the myth, the fiction, the romance that my imagination has woven around her in adapting a fictional screenplay from my memoir, The Survival of the Coolest.  The film is now called simply Cool and lives on in the half-light of Development Hell.

If you want the proper biography you must read Frances Spalding’s sympathetic, fastidious and beautifully produced biography or indeed Virginia Woolf and the Raverats, the collection of letters between Gwen, Jacques and Virginia that I edited and published in 2003.

The headlines of Gwen’s life are, as I see them, these:

  • One of the first women to insist on and achieve professional training as an artist;
  • Friend of Rupert Brooke, Stanley Spencer, her cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams, André Gide, Eric Gill, Paul Valéry, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf;
  • After some dallying on his part in the direction of Ka Cox, she married Jacques Raverat, son of a vegetarian silk merchant from Le Havre;
  • Their friendship with Rupert Brooke had them labelled “neo-pagans” by Virginia Woolf;
  • Jacques was diagnosed with “disseminated sclerosis” or MS in 1913;
  • They moved to Vence for his health in 1920;
  • Where they strike up rich correspondence with Virginia Woolf;
  • Jacques died in 1925 when Sophie, my mother was 5yrs old;
  • Gwen soon moved back to England and reinvented herself first as art critic, professional wood engraver and book illustrator;
  • In 1929 she designed the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing for Vaughan Williams and Geoffrey Keynes;
  • She moved back to Cambridge before the war;
  • She drew maps for the Admiralty as her War Effort;
  • She moved into the Old Granary part of Newnham Grange in 1946 and started writing Period Piece in 1949;
  • She died in 1957, having become a Cambridge institution.

The very grass her neo-pagan nuptial party danced on, now the Darwin College croquet lawn, is next to the Old Granary that would be Gwen’s home in the last 11 years of her life.  It was under the gallery on one side of the lawn that the Canadian canoe Gwen gave her grandchildren was kept, the canoe in which I would go on long explorations up to the very origins of the Cam, way beyond Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester, in the great search for the honey of youth.

I only know that you may lie

Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,

And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,

Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,

Until the centuries blend and blur

In Grantchester, in Grantchester.…

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? … Oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

(from Rupert Brooke’s The Old Vicarage, Grantchester)

Compare and contrast with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters’ lyrics, Grantchester Meadows:

Hear the lark and harken
To the barking of the dog fox
Gone to ground
See the splashing
Of the kingfisher flashing to the water
And a river of green is sliding
Unseen beneath the trees
Laughing as it passes
Through the endless summer
Making for the sea

Gwen’s early life was a confluence of several important torrents of change: the emancipation of women, particularly in the intellectual life of turn-of-the-century Cambridge, the transformation of the arts, notably through the efforts of the Neo-Pagans – “exuberant, untrammelled, [delighting] in physical existence and in nature” – and the perseverance of that Darwinian pursuit of understanding into the arts.  It is interesting that Ralph Vaughan Williams was Gwen’s second cousin – his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood III was married to Charles Darwin’s sister Caroline.  From inside the portals of the British upper middle classes both Gwen and VW produced art of a transcendent, rebellious and elegiac quality.

The meme of privilege and authority peculiar to many Darwins pushed Gwen into an almost bohemian life that upset her mother.  The same was true for me: let me illustrate with story from my youth. I was once commuting between Cambridge and London to do my A Levels and would ride my bike across the Cambridge shunting yards to get to the station.  One day a British Rail employee stopped me.

“Ere, you, you can’t ride across here,” he said from beneath his PVC cap.

“That’s quite alright my man,” I replied, “I’m a member of the British Empire.”

“Oh, sorry sir, didn’t realise.” He replied, tipping his forelock as he waved me on my way.

Or earlier, when being frog-marched through the Bible by my unbelieving parents so I could pass the Divinity paper of the Common Entrance exam for Eton, I discovered a glaring misprint.  On one page this chap was called Saul, but on the next Paul. I proceeded to make helpful corrections with my biro.

We cannot escape; the dear octopus has us by the genes.  Gwen’s father, George, had it in genefulls. Frances Spalding records its manifestation: He was infuriated by the non-delivery of a telegram addressed ‘Darwin, Cambridge’, as a result of which Maud had missed seeing one of her sisters before her return to America. When the post office explained that he was not the only person named Darwin residing in Cambridge, and the lack of forename or initial had made it impossible to know for whom it was intended, George was so incensed he wrote a letter of complaint to The Times. Emma Darwin sympathised with him and wrote to Maud:  ‘How vexatious it was about the telegram . . . If Darwins are not known at Cambridge where are they to be heard of?’

This same meme was strong enough that Gwen dared – indeed being a Darwin encouraged her to dare – to become a serious woman artist, studying at the Slade with Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg. It was through Stanley Spencer that Gwen was to meet Jacques Raverat and Rupert Brooke.  Her persistence paid off: Gwen became an accomplished wood engraver with an international reputation. Rupert Brooke got her in one as the “square-headed woman who cuts wood”.

She would go on to become one of the founders of the Society of Wood Engravers.  As it says on their website: The Society was founded in 1920 by a group of artists that included Philip Hagreen, Robert Gibbings, Lucien Pissaro, Gwen Raverat and Eric Gill. They held an annual exhibition that attracted work from other notable artists such as David Jones, John and Paul Nash, Paul Gauguin and Clare Leighton.

In an age when women could not vote, had just been admitted to the university and were generally expected to prepare themselves for a life of familial and domestic routine, hers was the kind of independent-minded behaviour for which the Darwins were celebrated. So serious was her rebellion in insisting on doing serious, full-time art at the Slade that, while there, Gwen did not talk to her parents for two years.

But it was not just the Darwin genes that gave her entry to Bloomsbury. Gwen’s father was a close friend of Leslie Stephen, the one-time Anglican priest, mountaineer, journalist and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, so it was natural that Gwen should know his daughter Virginia Woolf, as she would become.  One of their first contacts was in February 1909 when 27-yr-old Virginia visited Newnham Grange.  She wrote in her journal:

The Darwins’ house is a roomy house, built in the 18th century I suppose, overlooking a piece of green. The first things I saw, stepping in from the snow, were a wide hall, with a fire in the middle of it. It is altogether comfortable, and homely. The ornaments, of course, are of the kind that one associates with Dons, and university culture. In the drawing room, the parents’ room, there are prints from Holbein drawings, bad portraits of children, indiscriminate rugs, chairs, Venetian glass, Japanese embroideries: the effect is of subdued colour, and incoherence; there is no regular scheme. In short the room is dull.

After demolishing George and Maud with faint praise, Virginia casts her imperious eye over Gwen and Margaret: The children’s room revolts against the parents’: they like white walls, modern posters, photographs from the old masters. If they could do away with the tradition, I imagine that they would have bare walls, and a stout table; with both ideals I find myself in opposition.

The children are naturally more interesting. For at their ages, 19 and 24, they are beginning to test their surroundings. They are anxious to get rid of Darwin traditional culture and have a notion that there is a free Bohemian world in London, where exciting people live. This is all to their credit; and indeed they have a certain spirit which one admires. Somehow, however, it applies itself to the wrong things. They aim at beauty, and that requires the surest touch. Gwen tends (this is constructive criticism) to admire vigorous, able, sincere works, which are not beautiful; she attacks the problems of life in the same spirit; and will end in 10 years time by being a strong and sensible woman, plainly clothed; with the works of deserving minor artists in her house. Margaret has not the charm which makes Gwen better than my account of her; a charm arising from the sweetness and competency of her character. She is the eldest of the family Margaret is much less formed; but has the same determination to find out the truth for herself, and the same lack of any fine power of discrimination. They enjoy things very much, and fancy that this is due to their superior taste; fancy that in riding about the streets of Cambridge they are building up a theory of life. I think I find them content with what seems to me rather obvious; I distrust such violent discontent, and the easy remedies. But I admire much also: only find the Darwin temperament altogether too definite, burly, and industrious. They exhibit the English family life at its best; its humour, tolerance, heartiness, and sound affection.

For all its biting accuracy, Virginia cannot quite get what it was to be part of the Darwin clan. Gwen does it much better.  Take this account from Period Piece which could so easily be describing scenes from my youth 60 years later:  It was a grey, cold, gusty day in June.  The aunts sat huddled in furs in the boats, their heavy hats flapping in the wind. The uncles, in coats and cloaks and mufflers, were wretchedly uncomfortable on the hard, cramped seats, and they hardly even tried to pretend that they were not catching their deaths of cold. But it was still worse when they had to sit down to have tea on the damp, thistly grass near Grantchester Mill.  There were so many miseries which we young ones had never noticed at all: nettles, ants, cow-pats. . .  besides that all-penetrating wind.  The tea had been put into bottles wrapped in flannels (there were no Thermos flasks then);  and the climax came when it was found that it had all been sugared beforehand. This was an inexpressible calamity.  They all hated sugar in their tea. Besides it was Immoral. Uncle Frank said, with extreme bitterness: ‘It’s not the sugar I mind, but the Folly of it.’  This was half a joke; but at his words the hopelessness and the hollowness of a world where everything goes wrong, came flooding over us;  and we cut our losses and made all possible haste to get them home to a good fire.

It was soon after Virginia’s visit to Newnham Grange, when Gwen moved to London to attend the Slade, that her somewhat diffident friendship with Virginia Woolf began, what with Gwen joining the Stephen sisters’ Friday Club, the beginnings of the Bloomsbury Group, of which Gwen soon became secretary.

There was a moment, no doubt under the spell of the Stephen sisters, that Gwen thought she might just be a writer.  She started a novel.  It wasn’t very good, but does convey that bohemian spirit, nay meme, that has also driven much of my life.  She could be writing of my teenage years of intense, dope-filled boho-ism (Hubert is clearly Rupert and George, Jacques):

We met, we found we had many ideas in common; we found that we could talk. And so we talked from morning to night and from night till morning, and for the first two years we did practically nothing else. We had been shy and diffident; we had wondered if anyone had ever had such ideas as ours before; we had wondered if they could possibly be true ideas; if there was the remotest chance that we could be worth anything. Now, when we came together many of our doubts disappeared; we were passionately convinced of the truth and splendour of our thoughts; we felt that we were quite different from our fathers; all our ways of thinking and our opinions seemed bold and new. And though each of us alone might still doubt his own powers, we each thought that never before had there met together a group of such fine and intelligent young men. I think that we each thought ourselves singularly happy in having such wonderful friends.

From the beginning it was from Hubert that we expected great things; it was Hubert we all watched and loved. Perhaps the most obvious thing about him was his beauty. He was not so beautiful as many another man has been, and yet there was something in his appearance, which it was impossible to forget. It was no good laughing at him; calling him pink and white, or chubby; saying his eyes were too small or his legs too short. There was a nobility about the carriage of his head and the shape of it, a radiance in his fair hair and shining face, a sweetness and a secrecy in his deep set eyes, a straight strength in his limbs, which remained forever in the minds of those who once had seen him; which penetrated and coloured every thought of him.

I remember those first two years as long days and nights of talk; talk, lying in the cow parsley under the great elms; talk in lazy punts on the river; talk round the fire in Hubert’s room; talk which seemed always to get nearer and nearer to the heart of things. It was best of all in the evenings in Hubert’s room. He used to lie in his great armchair, his legs stretched right across the floor, his fingers twisted in his hair; while George sat smoking by the fire, continually poking it; his face was round and pale; his hair was dark. We smoked and ate muffins or sweets and talked and talked while the firelight danced on the ceiling, and all the possibilities of the world seemed open to us.

For a time we were very decadent. We used to loll in armchairs and talk wearily about Art and Suicide and the Sex Problem. We used to discuss the ridiculous superstitions about God and Religion; the absurd prejudices of patriotism and decency; the grotesque encumbrances called parents. We were very, very old and we knew all about everything; but we often forgot our age and omniscience and played the fool like anyone else.

This is my inheritance, my blueprint.  Virginia Woolf encapsulated this fervour to create with devastating accuracy and poignancy when she wrote to Jacques: I feel that for us writers the only chance now is to go out into the desert & peer about, like devoted scapegoats, for some sign of a path.

As a Darwin, Gwen Raverat was a member of a fascinating cat’s cradle of relationships centred around the dissemination of Darwinian thought by his surviving children and their families. The Cambridge Darwins, especially, were noted for their directness and their radical reconsideration of tired clichés of thinking, what Woolf called a “hearty, direct, stodgy manner”.

The Edwardian Cambridge in which Gwen grew up was an extraordinary place, teeming with innovation and dominated by the complex, homoerotic and tragic figure of Rupert Brooke. For a while, young Gwen and her French fiancé were under Brooke’s spell and, but for the Great War, might never have broken free. The war, of course, killed Brooke with a mosquito bite and scattered the charmed circle of Neo-Pagans. The salad days of fancy dress and Chinese lanterns darkened still further when Jacques Raverat was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an affliction then barely understood.

In 1920, Gwen and Jacques moved to Vence a few miles north of Nice for his health.  A couple of miles from St Paul de Vence, the home of Matisse, Soutine, Chagall, Renoir, Signac, Modigliani, Dufy and the writers Gide, Giono, Cocteau and Prévert, Vence has creativity in the air.  Jacques’ last years were a productive though tragic time: not only had my mother just been born, but the Mediterranean air, the food and the beauty of their new home got them both painting as never before and Gwen producing some of her finest wood engravings. This all in parallel with the burgeoning of the Bloomsbury Group that was at the febrile height of the intrigue-filled and gossipy dominance it then held over British creativity.  One of Virginia’s letters to Jacques at the time illustrates the atmosphere:

Clive has taken to high society. I assure you, he’s a raging success, & his bon mots are quoted by lovely but incredibly silly ladies. Really they give parties to meet Clive Bell. Maynard of course scarcely belongs to private life any more, save that he has fallen in love with Lydia Lopokhova, which is, to me, endearing. Nessa & Duncan potter along in extreme obscurity. That is all I can think of at the moment, & I am afraid that it may sound vague & dismal in your ears. The truth is you must write me a proper letter, & expose yourself as I hereby expose myself.

I feel that in the great age of the world, before this present puling generation had come along, you & I & that remarkable figure Gwen Darwin, were all congenial spirits. By the way you’ll have to give up calling Woolf, Woolf: Leonard, that is his name. I assure you, I couldn’t have married anyone else – But when Ka praises Will the sound is unpleasant in my ears. So I refrain. I have nothing whatever to say against Ka & Will. At first sight he is a mere sandhopper; but later I think he has some sort of spine – indeed, he’s a muscular little man, considering his size. Ka, of course, keeps a medicine chest & doses the village, & gets into a blue dress trimmed with fur for tea, when county motor cars arrive, & she is much in her element. Is this malicious? Slightly, perhaps, but you will understand.

On the 9th Feb, 1925, Jacques was very near the end.  He wrote a note to Gwen: “My dearest, I know I love you and I think you love me. Anyhow your love has been the best thing in my life. I send you this for you to keep and remember if you get morbid. I love you, Jacques. Keep well and remember to varnish my pictures.” In the end, Darwinian logic took over and, as Frances Spalding tactfully puts it, she “seized a pillow and terminated his sufferings”.

Soon afterwards Virginia wrote to Gwen: Your & Jacques’ letter came yesterday, & I go about thinking of you both, in starts, & almost constantly underneath everything, & I don’t know what to say. One thing that comes over & over is the strange wish I have to go on telling Jacques things. This is for Jacques, I say to myself; I want to write to him about happiness, & about Rupert, & love. It had become to me a sort of private life, & I believe I told him more than anyone, except Leonard: I become mystical as I grow older & feel an alliance with you & Jacques which is eternal, not interrupted, or hurt by never meeting. Then, of course, I have now for you – how can I put it? – I mean the feeling that one must reverence? – is that the word – feel shy of, so tremendous an experience; for I cannot conceive what you have suffered. It seems to me that if we met, one would have to chatter about every sort of little trifle, because there is nothing to be said.

And then, being, as you know, so fundamentally an optimist, I want to make you enjoy life. Forgive me, for writing what comes into my head. I think I feel that I would give a great deal to share with you the daily happinesses. But you know that if there is anything I could ever give you, I would give it, but perhaps the only thing to give is to be oneself with people. One could say anything to Jacques. And that will always be the same with you & me. But oh, dearest Gwen, to think of you is making me cry – Why should you & Jacques have had to go through this? As I told him, it is your love that has forever been love to me – all those years ago, when you used to come to Fitzroy Square, & I was so angry: & you were so furious, & Jacques wrote me a sensible manly letter, which I answered, sitting at my table in the window. Perhaps I was frightfully jealous of you both, being at war with the whole world at the moment. Still, the vision has become to me a source of wonder – the vision of your face; which, if I were painting, I should cover with flames & put you on a hill top. Then, I don’t think you would believe how it moves me that you & Jacques should have been reading Mrs Dalloway, & liking it. I’m awfully vain I know; & I was on pins & needles about sending it to Jacques; & now I feel exquisitely relieved; not flattered; but one does want that side of one to be acceptable – I was going to have written to Jacques about his children, & about my having none – I mean, these efforts of mine to communicate with people are partly childlessness, & the horror that sometimes overcomes me.

There’s very little use in writing this. One feels so ignorant, so trivial, & like a child, just teasing you. But it is only that one keeps thinking of you, with a sort of reverence, & of that adorable man, whom I loved.

Yrs  V. W.

Gwen had once confessed that she felt “so lonely and strange… I don’t know about people – they don’t know about me”. Now a widow, she was truly alone in the world, with the added responsibility of two young children. Once again, her awkward, disconcerting courage came to her rescue and, though Virginia Woolf could brilliantly characterise her as “frozen, like an old log dried out of all sensation”, she poured her instinctive and formidable powers of observation into her work as an engraver, becoming one of the foremost miniaturists of her generation, a far greater artist than many in the overhyped Bloomsbury set she had grown up with.

The magazine Time and Tide, based on the same format as the New Statesman, promoted an independence of thought, was concerned with all the major issues of the day, and had been owned and managed entirely by women since its launch in 1920.  Virginia Woolf introduced Gwen to its founder-editor, Lady Rhondda in 1927. She had for many years been a spokesperson for militant suffrage and equality and had fought for the full enfranchisement of women in 1928.  In offering her wood-engraving and pen-and-ink illustration services to this magazine, Gwen joined forces with some of the most radical women writers of the day, among them Rebecca West, Vera Brittain, Rose Macaulay and Naomi Mitchison, for the review was openly feminist and sometimes sharply critical of the establishment.  Gwen came to be regarded as the magazine’s resident artist and in 1929 she began writing art criticism and book reviews for the journal.

Now we come to an episode in Gwen’s life that resonates deep in my boho, proto-mystic soul, or rather the music that resulted does.  In 1929, when Gwen had established a home with my mother and aunt in the old vicarage at Harlton, a village some ten miles from Cambridge, she was commissioned by her brother-in-law Geoffrey Keynes to create the sets and costume designs for Job: A Masque for Dancing, a new ballet.  Keynes’s interest in Blake began when he discovered two engravings from Blake’s The Book of Job in a Cambridge shop window in 1907. The ballet was another of his passions, and his fondness for the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, whom his brother Maynard married in 1925, despite opposition from Bloomsbury, did much to improve relations between the two brothers who had until then never been close.

Geoffrey wondered if the Job engravings, which he regarded as one of Blake’s masterpieces, could be put in motion: translated from the page on to the stage, in time for the centenary of Blake’s death in 1927. He turned to Gwen for help and together they extracted a feasible scenario from Blake’s images.  They tried to get Diaghilev involved, but to no avail.  Gwen had made designs for backdrops and miniature figures in cardboard to inhabit each scene.These were shown to her cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams who was intrigued by the project and agreed to compose the music.

Keynes felt that Vaughan Williams was rather pleased when the Ballets Russes rejection came through. He immediately began turning the music he had composed into a concert suite for a large orchestra, incorporating suggestions from Gustav Holst.  Gwen and Geoffrey attended its first performance at the Norwich Festival on 23 October 1930. The actual ballet was saved by Gwen’s cardboard theatre. Keynes invited Lilian Baylis and the 32-year-old Ninette de Valois from the Vic-Wells Ballet to come and see it. He and Gwen moved the figures around and talked them through each scene. In the end it was the newly founded Camargo Society that produced Job, choreographed by Ninette de Valois with financial assistance from Maynard and Geoffrey Keynes and Sir Thomas Dunhill.

But the point for me is the sublime music Vaughan Williams wrote – it has that raw and mystic passion that both Gwen and Vaughan Williams were able to express in their art, if not their lives.  It transports and speaks of a timeless romanticism and yearning that also comes through in so many of Gwen’s elegiac wood engravings.  Especially of swans – the symbolism of which she was to play with in several beautiful wood engravings. Was Gwen the quintessential Ugly Duckling? Swans are often a symbol of love or fidelity because of their long-lasting monogamous relationships. Swans feature strongly in mythology and high art. Take Leda and the Swan, Lohengrin and Parsifal.

Swans are revered in many religions and cultures, especially Hinduism. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and it is the vehicle of many deities like the goddess Saraswati. It is mentioned several times in the Vedic literature, and persons who have attained great spiritual capabilities are sometimes called Paramhamsa (“Great Swan”) on account of their spiritual grace and ability to travel between various spiritual worlds.

For all her association with France, her landscapes, as Spalding puts it, are “quintessentially English”, with echoes of Blake and Samuel Palmer.

In old age, she was back in Cambridge, returning to her Darwinian origins. Her grandfather had been a botanist of genius, a god, no the god of science, who was also a master of English prose.  In 1947, Gwen’s mother died and she had to clear out the Grange, parts of which had not been disturbed for 62 years. Gwen came across a box of letters covering the years of her mother’s courtship and marriage and continued reading until she reached a description of her own birth. “it makes a queer picture of an age,” she wrote to her cousin Eily, “all demure flirtations and gaieties.” She had inadvertently stumbled upon the material for the first chapter of Period Piece, the memoir she was soon to start work on that captured the imagination of a new generation who knew little of her work as a wood engraver.

In October 1949 she wrote to Richard de la Mare (Walter’s son) at Faber & Faber: I have long been playing with the idea of writing a sort of autobiography as a peg to hang illustrations on; and I am now taking the liberty of sending you a scrap out of it (not the beginning nor yet the end) to see if you would think it would do to publish some day, with lots of pictures. I simply hate writing, and I can’t be bothered to write it, unless it’s good enough to publish. I am afraid that what I have written may be too flippant and rather odious, and I would like to know what some outside Literary Person feels about it. The idea of the book is not a continuous autobiography, but a series of separate chapters called Sport, Religion, Art, Relations, etc. etc….

De La Mare’s response was immediate and positive: he and his wife had much enjoyed her “preliminary skirmish with propriety” and were entranced by the idea of the autobiography. And Geoffrey Faber shared their opinion.

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, written when she was in her late sixties, became one of the surprise literary hits of the Fifties and is still in print.  It’s a book that powerfully brings back those eminent Edwardians racing to and fro up Sidgwick Avenue on that forgotten summer evening long ago.

Whether Period Piece was a minor literary masterpiece or wood engraving is an ‘irredeemably minor medium’, as one reviewer of Frances Spalding’s biography would have it, is not the question. No, what matters about Gwen Raverat is that she transcended her pedigree of being the grand-daughter of the god of science in so many ways.  Her truth was her art, whether wood engraving, painting or writing, and that truth has always a stark, elegiac but affectionate story to tell about the human condition and its evolution.

Gwen wrote so simply and with no need for pomposity. Take this from Time & Tide in 1934: Painting is the product of the thing seen (whether with the inner eye or the outer eye makes no matter) and the passion felt about it. Representational art is on the whole greater than abstract art, partly because it is difficult to have so primitive and passionate a feeling about a cube as about a cow; but also because the eye turned outwards constantly replenishes and enlarges the symbolic imagery of the mind; while the abstractist, his eye turned inwards, allows his images to grow poorer and fewer by inbreeding.

But it does depend how you see. Gwen describes her perception as a young woman thus:  Of course, there were things to worship everywhere. I can remember feeling quite desperate with love for the blisters in the dark red paint on the nursery window-sills at Cambridge, but at Down there were more things to worship than anywhere else in the world.

I think she would have agreed with James Baldwin when he said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers”. Gwen certainly laid the questions bare.

Oscar Wilde said that most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Gwen was Gwen. If many of her opinions were those of the Darwin mind set, her passions were nothing if not hers.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has this from Period Piece:  Ladies were ladies in those days; they did not do things themselves.  And that is the point: Gwen most definitely did do things for herself.

In 1951 Gwen suffered a stroke and became confined to a wheelchair. Unsentimental to the last, in 1957 she terminated her own life with the words: “This seems the simplest plan for everyone.” However, before she died, she had the satisfaction of knowing that her “strangeness” had found an audience.

a neo-pagan Darwin

a talk I gave at the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute

self portrait

self portrait

My grandmother Gwen Raverat, nee Gwendolen Mary Darwin, was born August 26th, 1895, just 3½ years after the death of her grandfather, Charles Darwin.  I was born on January 29th, 1945, just 12 years before Gwen’s death.  I knew her as a child as she nearly knew him.

On the night of the 1911 census, April 2nd, 10 people were recorded as living in the house next to the River Cam in Cambridge that George Howard Darwin had named Newnham Grange.  Charles Darwin’s 5th child (though one died aged 10 and the other in childbirth), he was 65 and had been married to his 49 yr old American wife, Maud du Puy, for 26 years.  He would die of cancer the very next year.  Their two daughters, Gwendolen Mary, 25, and Margaret Elizabeth, 21 were in the house with one Jacques Pierre Raverat, 26. Their sons, Billy and Charles, were away. The family had five women servants: cook, parlour maid, housemaid, under-housemaid and kitchen maid.  Margaret would marry Geoffrey Keynes, Blake aficionado, surgeon and brother of Maynard.  Charles would become a physicist, managing the British end of the Manhattan Project that developed the nuclear bomb. In retirement he championed the pseudo-science his uncle Leonard lauded as chairman and then president of the British Eugenics Society.  He would also allow me, aged 5, to run up his capacious belly.

Eight weeks and two days after the census, on 31st May, a strange fancy-dress party took place in the garden of Newnham Grange. “The handsomest young man in England,” as Yeats described the poet Rupert Brooke, three members of the Keynes family and Lytton Strachey, dressed as a bishop, romped in improper jubilation. With its overtones of Alice in Wonderland, this celebration of what Virginia Woolf rather patronisingly called “Neo-Pagan” values, involved a gold loving cup, some dancing on the grass and a lot of Chinese lanterns, though it was actually a nuptial festivity for Gwen, about to marry Jacques.

Gwen aged 12

Gwen aged 12

Darwin has been the “elephant in the room” in my life as it was, differently, in Gwen’s. His presence in our histories has loomed; loomed like an enormous, bearded badge of honour as well as an undue shadow of expectation.  Are we more than Darwins? As he has become more and more THE god of science, the religion de nos jours, so being the descendants of a god has its effects.  As Gwen wrote in Period Piece: Of course, we always felt embarrassed if our grandfather were mentioned, just as we did if God were spoken of.  In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas. Only, with our grandfather, we also felt, modestly, that we ought to disclaim any virtue in having produced him. Of course it was very much to our credit, really, to own such a grandfather; but one mustn’t be proud, or show off about it; so we blushed and were embarrassed and changed the subject…

I cannot hope to give you more than a memetic glimpse of my grandmother’s full and creative life, an impression, a sketch of how she affected and inspired me and thus maybe some clue as to what it is, and was, to be a Darwin.  This sketch must also include the myth, the fiction, the romance that she constructed of her childhood and I have modelled of how I might have known her had she lived longer than my 11th year.  If you want the biography you must read Frances Spalding’s sympathetic, fastidious and beautifully produced biography or indeed Virginia Woolf and the Raverats, the collection of letters between Gwen, Jacques and Virginia that I edited and published in 2003.

The headlines of Gwen’s life can be summarised thus:

  • Born 1895, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin;
  • One of the first women to insist on and achieve professional training as an artist;
  • Friend of Rupert Brooke, Stanley Spencer, her cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams, André Gide, Eric Gill, Paul Valéry Vanessa and Virginia Stephen (soon to be Bell and Woolf);
  • Married French painter Jacques Raverat, son of a vegetarian silk merchant from Le Havre;
  • Jacques diagnosed with “disseminated sclerosis” or MS in 1913;
  • They moved to Vence for his health in 1920;
  • They strike up rich correspondence with Virginia Woolf;
  • Jacques died in 1925 when my mother was 5yrs old (she’s now 89);
  • Gwen moved back to England and reinvents herself first as art critic and professional wood engraver and book illustrator;
  • In 1929 designed the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing for Vaughan Williams and Geoffrey Keynes;
  • Moved back to Cambridge before the war;
  • Draws maps for the Admiralty as her War Effort;
  • Moved into the Old Granary part of Newnham Grange in 1946 and wrote Period Piece in 1949;
  • Died in 1957, a Cambridge institution.
  • The very grass the neo-pagan nuptial party danced on, now the Darwin College croquet lawn, was in a sort of courtyard at Newnham Grange, contained by, on one side, a high wall bordering Silver St and the Backs, on another the Grange itself, on the third the Old Granary that would be Gwen’s home in the last 11 years of her life and on the fourth side an open-air gallery bordering the Cam on the other. It was under this gallery that the Canadian canoe Gwen gave me was kept, the canoe in which I would go on long explorations up to the very origins of the Cam way beyond Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester to find if there was honey still for tea.

Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke

I only know that you may lie

Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,

And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,

Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,

Until the centuries blend and blur

In Grantchester, in Grantchester….

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? … Oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

(from Rupert Brooke’s The Old Vicarage, Grantchester)

Early Life

Gwen’s early life was a confluence of several important torrents of change: the emancipation of women, particularly in the intellectual life of turn-of-the-century Cambridge, the transformation of the arts, notably through the efforts of the Neo-Pagans – “exuberant, untrammelled, [delighting] in physical existence and in nature” – and the perseverance of that Darwinian pursuit of understanding into the arts.  It is no co-incidence that Ralph Vaughan Williams was Gwen’s second cousin – his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood III was married to Charles Darwin’s sister Caroline.  From inside the portals of the British upper middle classes they both produced art of a transcendent, rebellious and elegiac quality.

I must confess to being owned by a Master-of-the-Universe meme peculiar to the Darwins.  Let me illustrate with story from my youth. I was once commuting between Cambridge and London to do my A Levels and would ride my bike across the Cambridge shunting yards to get to the station.  One day a British Rail employee stopped me.

“Ere, you, you can’t ride across here,” he said from beneath his PVC cap.

“That’s quite alright my man,” I replied, “I’m a member of the British Empire.” I must have shared Anne’s view of Cambridge’s pivotal role in world history.

“Oh, sorry sir, I didn’t realise.” He replied, tipping his forelock as he waved me on my way.

We cannot escape; the dear octopus has us by the genes.  Gwen’s father, George, had it in genefulls. Frances Spalding records its manifestation: He was infuriated by the non-delivery of a telegram addressed ‘Darwin, Cambridge’, as a result of which Maud had missed seeing one of her sisters before her return to America. When the post office explained that he was not the only person named Darwin residing in Cambridge, and the lack of forename or initial had made it impossible to know for whom it was intended, George was so incensed he wrote a letter of complaint to The Times. Emma Darwin sympathised with him and wrote to Maud:  ‘How vexatious it was about the telegram . . . If Darwins are not known at Cambridge where are they to be heard of?’

George Darwin (water colour, Gwen Darwin, 1908)

George Darwin (water colour, Gwen Darwin, 1908)

This same meme was strong enough that Gwen dared – indeed being a Darwin encouraged her to dare – to become a serious woman artist, studying at the Slade with Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg. It was through Stanley Spencer that Gwen was to meet Jacques Raverat and Rupert Brooke.  Her persistence paid off: Gwen became an accomplished wood engraver with an international reputation. Her friend, Rupert Brooke, got her in one as the “square-headed woman who cuts wood”.

She would go on to become one of the founders of the Society of Wood Engravers.  As it says on their website: The Society was founded in 1920 by a group of artists that included Philip Hagreen, Robert Gibbings, Lucien Pissaro, Gwen Raverat and Eric Gill. They held an annual exhibition that attracted work from other notable artists such as David Jones, John and Paul Nash, Paul Gauguin and Clare Leighton.

In an age when women could not vote, had just been admitted to the university and were generally expected to prepare themselves for a life of familial and domestic routine, hers was the kind of independent-minded behaviour for which the Darwins were celebrated. So serious was her rebellion in insisting on doing serious, full-time art at the Slade that Gwen did not talk to her parents for two years while there.

But it was not just the Darwin genes that gave her entry to Bloomsbury. Gwen’s father, George, was a close friend of Leslie Stephen, so it was natural that Gwen should know Virginia Woolf, as she would become.  One of their first contacts was in February 1909 when 27-yr-old Virginia visited Newnham Grange.  She wrote in her journal:

The Darwins’ house is a roomy house, built in the 18th century I suppose, overlooking a piece of green. The first things I saw, stepping in from the snow, were a wide hall, with a fire in the middle of it. It is altogether comfortable, and homely. The ornaments, of course, are of the kind that one associates with Dons, and university culture. In the drawing room, the parents’ room, there are prints from Holbein drawings, bad portraits of children, indiscriminate rugs, chairs, Venetian glass, Japanese embroideries: the effect is of subdued colour, and incoherence; there is no regular scheme. In short the room is dull.

After demolishing George and Maud with faint praise, Virginia casts her imperious eye over Gwen and Margaret: The children’s room revolts against the parents': they like white walls, modern posters, photographs from the old masters. If they could do away with the tradition, I imagine that they would have bare walls, and a stout table; with both ideals I find myself in opposition.

The children are naturally more interesting. For at their ages, 19 and 24, they are beginning to test their surroundings. They are anxious to get rid of Darwin traditional culture and have a notion that there is a free Bohemian world in London, where exciting people live. This is all to their credit; and indeed they have a certain spirit which one admires. Somehow, however, it applies itself to the wrong things. They aim at beauty, and that requires the surest touch. Gwen tends (this is constructive criticism) to admire vigorous, able, sincere works, which are not beautiful; she attacks the problems of life in the same spirit; and will end in 10 years time by being a strong and sensible woman, plainly clothed; with the works of deserving minor artists in her house. Margaret has not the charm which makes Gwen better than my account of her; a charm arising from the sweetness and competency of her character. She is the eldest of the family Margaret is much less formed; but has the same determination to find out the truth for herself, and the same lack of any fine power of discrimination. They enjoy things very much, and fancy that this is due to their superior taste; fancy that in riding about the streets of Cambridge they are building up a theory of life. I think I find them content with what seems to me rather obvious; I distrust such violent discontent, and the easy remedies. But I admire much also: only find the Darwin temperament altogether too definite, burly, and industrious. They exhibit the English family life at its best; its humour, tolerance, heartiness, and sound affection.

Elms by a Pond (wood engraving) Gwen Raverat 1917

Elms by a Pond (wood engraving) Gwen Raverat 1917

For all its biting accuracy, Virginia cannot quite get what it was to be part of the Darwin clan. Gwen does it much better.  Take this account from Period Piece which could so easily be describing scenes from my youth 60 years later:  It was a grey, cold, gusty day in June.  The aunts sat huddled in furs in the boats, their heavy hats flapping in the wind. The uncles, in coats and cloaks and mufflers, were wretchedly uncomfortable on the hard, cramped seats, and they hardly even tried to pretend that they were not catching their deaths of cold. But it was still worse when they had to sit down to have tea on the damp, thistly grass near Grantchester Mill.  There were so many miseries which we young ones had never noticed at all: nettles, ants, cow-pats. . .  besides that all-penetrating wind.  The tea had been put into bottles wrapped in flannels (there were no  Thermos flasks then);  and the climax came when it was found that it had all been sugared beforehand. This was an inexpressible calamity.  They all hated sugar in their tea. Besides it was Immoral. Uncle Frank said, with extreme bitterness: ‘It’s not the sugar I mind, but the Folly of it.’  This was half a joke; but at his words the hopelessness and the hollowness of a world where everything goes wrong, came flooding over us;  and we cut our losses and made all possible haste to get them home to a good fire.

As a Darwin, Gwen Raverat was a member of a fascinating cat’s cradle of relationships centred around the dissemination of Darwinian thought by his surviving children and their families. The Cambridge Darwins, especially, were noted for their directness and their openness to the radical reconsideration of outworn habits of thought, what Woolf called a “hearty, direct, stodgy manner”.

The Edwardian Cambridge in which she grew to maturity was an extraordinary place, teeming with innovation and dominated by the complex, homoerotic and tragic figure of Rupert Brooke. For a while, young Gwen and her French fiancé were under Brooke’s spell and, but for the Great War, might never have broken free. The war, of course, killed Brooke with a mosquito bite and scattered the charmed circle of Neo-Pagans. The salad days of fancy dress and Chinese lanterns darkened still further when Jacques Raverat was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an affliction barely understood in those days.

It was soon after Virginia’s visit to Newnham Grange when Gwen moved to London to attend the Slade that her somewhat diffident friendship with Virginia Woolf began, what with Gwen joining the Stephen sisters’ Friday Club, the beginnings of the Bloomsbury Group, soon becoming its secretary.

There was a moment, no doubt under the spell of the Stephen sisters, that Gwen thought she might just be a writer.  She started a novel.  It wasn’t very good, but does convey that bohemian spirit, nay meme, that has also driven much of my life.  She could be writing of my teenage years of intense, dope-filled boho-ism (Hubert is clearly Rupert and George, Jacques):

We met, we found we had many ideas in common; we found that we could talk. And so we talked from morning to night and from night till morning, and for the first two years we did practically nothing else. We had been shy and diffident; we had wondered if anyone had ever had such ideas as ours before; we had wondered if they could possibly be true ideas; if there was the remotest chance that we could be worth anything. Now, when we came together many of our doubts disappeared; we were passionately convinced of the truth and splendour of our thoughts; we felt that we were quite different from our fathers; all our ways of thinking and our opinions seemed bold and new. And though each of us alone might still doubt his own powers, we each thought that never before had there met together a group of such fine and intelligent young men. I think that we each thought ourselves singularly happy in having such wonderful friends.

098-bolshevist-agent1

The Bolshevist Agent (wood engraving, Gwen Raverat, 1922)

I remember those first two years as long days and nights of talk; talk, lying in the cow parsley under the great elms; talk in lazy punts on the river; talk round the fire in Hubert’s room; talk which seemed always to get nearer and nearer to the heart of things. It was best of all in the evenings in Hubert’s room. He used to lie in his great armchair, his legs stretched right across the floor, his fingers twisted in his hair; while George sat smoking by the fire, continually poking it; his face was round and pale; his hair was dark. We smoked and ate muffins or sweets and talked and talked while the firelight danced on the ceiling, and all the possibilities of the world seemed open to us.

For a time we were very decadent. We used to loll in armchairs and talk wearily about Art and Suicide and the Sex Problem. We used to discuss the ridiculous superstitions about God and Religion; the absurd prejudices of patriotism and decency; the grotesque encumbrances called parents. We were very, very old and we knew all about everything; but we often forgot our age and omniscience and played the fool like anyone else.

This is my inheritance, my blueprint.  Virginia Woolf encapsulated this fervour to create with devastating accuracy and poignancy when she wrote to Jacques: I feel that for us writers the only chance now is to go out into the desert & peer about, like devoted scapegoats, for some sign of a path.

In 1920, Gwen and Jacques moved to Vence a few miles north of Nice for his health.  It’s got creativity in the air being

Vence - the Square in Summer (wood engraving, Gwen Raverat, 1924)

Vence - the Square in Summer (wood engraving, Gwen Raverat, 1924)

a couple of miles from St Paul de Vence, the home of Matisse, Soutine, Chagall, Renoir, Signac, Modigliani, Dufy and the writers Gide, Giono, Cocteau and Prévert.  Jacques’ last years were a productive though tragic time: not only had my mother been born just before they set out, but the Mediterranean air, the food and the beauty of their new home got them both painting as never before and Gwen producing some of her finest wood engravings. This all in parallel with the burgeoning of the Bloomsbury Group that was at the febrile height of the intrigue-filled and gossipy dominance it then held over British creativity.  One of Virginia’s letters to Jacques at the time illustrates the atmosphere:

Clive has taken to high society. I assure you, he’s a raging success, & his bon mots are quoted by lovely but incredibly silly ladies. Really they give parties to meet Clive Bell. Maynard of course scarcely belongs to private life any more, save that he has fallen in love with Lydia Lopokhova, which is, to me, endearing. Nessa & Duncan potter along in extreme obscurity. That is all I can think of at the moment, & I am afraid that it may sound vague & dismal in your ears. The truth is you must write me a proper letter, & expose yourself as I hereby expose myself.

I feel that in the great age of the world, before this present puling generation had come along, you & I & that remarkable figure Gwen Darwin, were all congenial spirits. By the way you’ll have to give up calling Woolf, Woolf: Leonard, that is his name. I assure you, I couldn’t have married anyone else – But when Ka praises Will the sound is unpleasant in my ears. So I refrain. I have nothing whatever to say against Ka & Will. At first sight he is a mere sandhopper; but later I think he has some sort of spine – indeed, he’s a muscular little man, considering his size. Ka, of course, keeps a medicine chest & doses the village, & gets into a blue dress trimmed with fur for tea, when county motor cars arrive, & she is much in her element. Is this malicious? Slightly, perhaps, but you will understand.

On the 9th Feb, 1925, Jacques was very near the end.  He wrote a note to Gwen: “My dearest, I know I love you and I

Jacques, dying (pencil, Gwen Raverat, 1925)

Jacques, dying (pencil, Gwen Raverat, 1925)

think you love me. Anyhow your love has been the best thing in my life. I send you this for you to keep and remember if you get morbid. I love you, Jacques. Keep well and remember to varnish my pictures.” In the end, Darwinian logic took over and, as Frances Spalding tactfully puts it, she “seized a pillow and terminated his sufferings”.

Soon afterwards Virginia wrote to Gwen: Your & Jacques’ letter came yesterday, & I go about thinking of you both, in starts, & almost constantly underneath everything, & I don’t know what to say. One thing that comes over & over is the strange wish I have to go on telling Jacques things. This is for Jacques, I say to myself; I want to write to him about happiness, & about Rupert, & love. It had become to me a sort of private life, & I believe I told him more than anyone, except Leonard: I become mystical as I grow older & feel an alliance with you & Jacques which is eternal, not interrupted, or hurt by never meeting. Then, of course, I have now for you – how can I put it? – I mean the feeling that one must reverence? – is that the word – feel shy of, so tremendous an experience; for I cannot conceive what you have suffered. It seems to me that if we met, one would have to chatter about every sort of little trifle, because there is nothing to be said.

And then, being, as you know, so fundamentally an optimist, I want to make you enjoy life. Forgive me, for writing what comes into my head. I think I feel that I would give a great deal to share with you the daily happinesses. But you know that if there is anything I could ever give you, I would give it, but perhaps the only thing to give is to be oneself with people. One could say anything to Jacques. And that will always be the same with you & me. But oh, dearest Gwen, to think of you is making me cry – Why should you & Jacques have had to go through this? As I told him, it is your love that has forever been love to me – all those years ago, when you used to come to Fitzroy Square, & I was so angry: & you were so furious, & Jacques wrote me a sensible manly letter, which I answered, sitting at my table in the window. Perhaps I was frightfully jealous of you both, being at war with the whole world at the moment. Still, the vision has become to me a source of wonder – the vision of your face; which, if I were painting, I should cover with flames & put you on a hill top. Then, I don’t think you would believe how it moves me that you & Jacques should have been reading Mrs Dalloway, & liking it. I’m awfully vain I know; & I was on pins & needles about sending it to Jacques; & now I feel exquisitely relieved; not flattered; but one does want that side of one to be acceptable – I was going to have written to Jacques about his children, & about my having none – I mean, these efforts of mine to communicate with people are partly childlessness, & the horror that

Childe Rowland (colour wood engraving, Gwen Raverat)

Childe Rowland (colour wood engraving, Gwen Raverat)

sometimes overcomes me.

There’s very little use in writing this. One feels so ignorant, so trivial, & like a child, just teasing you. But it is only that one keeps thinking of you, with a sort of reverence, & of that adorable man, whom I loved.

Yrs  V. W.

Gwen had once confessed that she felt “so lonely and strange… I don’t know about people – they don’t know about me”. Now a widow, she was truly alone in the world, with the added responsibility of two young children. Once again, her awkward, disconcerting courage came to her rescue and, though Virginia Woolf could brilliantly characterise her as “frozen, like an old log dried out of all sensation”, she poured her instinctive and formidable powers of observation into her work as an engraver, becoming one of the foremost miniaturists of her generation, a far greater artist than many in the overhyped Bloomsbury set she had grown up with.

Swans (colour wood engraving, Gwen Raverat)

Swans (colour wood engraving, Gwen Raverat)

Based on the same format as the New Statesman, Time and Tide promoted an independence of thought, was concerned with all the major issues of the day, and had been owned and managed entirely by women since it began in 1920.  Virginia Woolf introduced Gwen to its founder-editor, Lady Rhondda in 1927. She had for many years been a spokesperson for militant suffrage and equality and had fought for the full enfranchisement of women in 1928.  In offering her wood-engraving and pen-and-ink illustration services to this magazine, Gwen joined forces with some of the most radical women writers of the day, among them Rebecca West, Vera Brittain, Rose Macaulay and Naomi Mitchison, for the review was openly feminist and sometimes sharply critical of the establishment.  Gwen came to be regarded as the magazine’s resident artist and in 1929 she began writing art criticism and book reviews for the journal.

Now we come to an episode in Gwen’s life that resonates deep in my boho, proto-mystic soul, or rather the music that resulted does.  In 1929, when Gwen had established a home with my mother and aunt in the old vicarage at Harlton, a village some ten miles from Cambridge, she was commissioned by her brother-in-law Geoffrey Keynes to create the sets and costume designs for Job: A Masque for Dancing, a new ballet.  Keynes’s interest in Blake began when he discovered two engravings from Blake’s The Book of Job in a Cambridge shop window in 1907. The ballet was another of his passions, and his fondness for the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, whom his brother Maynard married in 1925, despite opposition from Bloomsbury, did much to improve relations between the two brothers who had until then never been close.

Geoffrey wondered if the Job engravings, which he regarded as one of Blake’s masterpieces, could be put in motion: translated from the page on to the stage, in time for the centenary of Blake’s death in 1927. He turned to Gwen for help and together they extracted a feasible scenario from Blake’s images.  They tried to get Diaghilev involved, but to no avail.  Gwen had made designs for backdrops and miniature figures in cardboard to inhabit each scene. These were shown to her cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams who was intrigued by the project and agreed to compose the music.

Keynes felt that Vaughan Williams was rather pleased when the Ballets Russes rejection came through. He immediately began turning the music he had composed into a concert suite for a large orchestra, incorporating suggestions from Gustav Holst.  Gwen and Geoffrey attended its first performance at the Norwich Festival on 23 October 1930. But the idea for a ballet was saved by Gwen’s cardboard theatre. Keynes invited Lilian Baylis and the 32-year-old Ninette de Valois from the Vic-Wells Ballet to come and see it. He and Gwen moved the figures around and talked them through each scene. In the end it was the newly founded Camargo Society that produced Job, choreographed by Ninette de Valois with financial assistance from Maynard and Geoffrey Keynes and Sir Thomas Dunhill.

But the point for me is the sublime music Vaughan Williams wrote – it has a raw and mystic passion that both Gwen and Vaughan Williams could express in their art, if not their lives, so well.  It transports me and speaks of a timeless romanticism and yearning that also comes through so many of Gwen’s elegiac wood engravings.  Especially of swans – the symbolism of which she was to play with in several beautiful wood engravings.

So strong is this iconic version of my grandmother in my sensibility that she has become an almost bohemian wise woman in the semi-fictional screenplay I’ve adapted from my own memoir of my Cambridge childhood, The Survival of the Coolest.  Without giving anything away and without you needing to know the plot, I hope, let me read you a short scene that centers around her and featuring a fictional 10yr old boy who happens to be called William Pryor and his doppelganger Atma.

EXT. CAMBRIDGE/LAMMAS LAND

Mist lifting from the river.  Wrapped against the cold, Gwen sketching under a willow tree on the river bank opposite her home, the Old Granary.  William ENTERS on his bike, jumps off, drops it and sits next to Gwen on her rug on the grass.

GWEN

Hello old thing!  What brings you here so early?

CHILD WILLIAM

Fireworks.

GWEN

With Daddy?

Gwen takes a book from her satchel.  She hands it to William.

GWEN

William, my poem-maker, I brought you this.  My friend Rupert Brooke’s poems; look, he signed it!

She shows William the title page.

GWEN

He was a limpid, wounded romantic of a poet; and, from your eyes, William, you might be too.  The world doesn’t know that it needs artists and poets or what for, but it does.  Maybe as periscopes?

As Gwen speaks, we SEE a couple of swans swim into the edge of the frame.  As they get closer we SEE, through a VFX, that there is a child riding on the back of one of them, apparently telling his mount where to go.  The swans come close enough to the bank for the child to jump ashore.

CHILD WILLIAM

What’s a periscope?

As he approaches, we SEE that the swan child is Atma.  He stands in front of Gwen.

CHILD ATMA

Can you see me?

GWEN

Oh yes, I think we know each other well, don’t we?

Gwen signals Atma to sit.  He does, at her feet.

GWEN

A periscope lets you see things as if you were very tall.

CHILD ATMA

Like my swans’ necks.

CHILD WILLIAM

So they can see where they’re going, what’s going on around them?

GWEN

Exactly!

They stare at the swans for a few beats.

GWEN (CONTINUED)

Swans are called hansas in India, pure spirits.  They eat pearls.

CHILD WILLIAM

Must be one of those, one of those metaphor thingamejigs.

GWEN

Oh no, I prefer the possibility of real holy swans feeding on real pearls – starving without them.  Real ones.  Can’t be doing with metaphorical pearls!

CHILD ATMA

I’ll bring you some.

Gwen, Atma and William giggle conspiratorially.  They watch awestruck as the swans launch noisily and clumsily into the air and fly out of sight, soon to return low over the river, their wings making that siren sound.  Through an SFX we HEAR the swans’ wing sounds become a heavenly aural hallucination.

For all her association with France, her landscapes, as Spalding puts it, are “quintessentially English”, with echoes of Blake and Samuel Palmer. In old age, she was back in Cambridge, returning to her Darwinian origins.

Her grandfather had been a botanist of genius, a god, no the god of science, who was also a master of English prose.  In 1947, Gwen’s mother died and she had to clear out the Grange, parts of which had not been disturbed for 62 years. Gwen came across a box of letters covering the years of her mother’s courtship and marriage and continued reading until she reached a description of her own birth. “it makes a queer picture of an age,” she wrote to her cousin Eily, “all demure flirtations and gaieties.” She had inadvertently stumbled upon the material for the first chapter of  Period Piece, the memoir she was soon to start work on, that captured the imagination of a new generation who knew little of her work as a wood engraver.

In October 1949 she wrote to Richard de la Mare (Walter’s son) at Faber & Faber: I have long been playing with the idea of writing a sort of autobiography as a peg to hang illustrations on; and I am now taking the liberty of sending you a scrap out of it (not the beginning nor yet the end) to see if you would think it would do to publish some day, with lots of pictures. I simply hate writing, and I can’t be bothered to write it, unless it’s good enough to publish. I am afraid that what I have written may be too flippant and rather odious, and I would like to know what some outside Literary Person feels about it. The idea of the book is not a continuous autobiography, but a series of separate chapters called Sport, Religion, Art, Relations, etc. etc….

De La Mare’s response was immediate and positive: he and his wife had much enjoyed her “preliminary skirmish with propriety” and were entranced by the idea of the autobiography. And Geoffrey Faber shared their opinion.

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, written when she was in her late sixties, became one of the surprise literary hits of the Fifties and is still in print.  It’s a book that powerfully brings back those eminent Edwardians racing to and fro up Sidgwick Avenue on that forgotten summer evening long ago.

Whether Period Piece was a minor literary masterpiece or wood engraving is an ‘irredeemably minor medium’, as one reviewer of Frances Spalding’s biography would have it, is not the question. No, what matters about Gwen Raverat is that she transcended her pedigree of being the grand-daughter of the god of science in so many ways.  Her truth was her art, whether wood engraving, painting or writing, and that truth has always a stark, elegiac but affectionate story to tell about the human condition and its evolution.

Gwen wrote so simply and with no need for pomposity. Take this from Time & Tide in 1934: Painting is the product of the thing seen (whether with the inner eye or the outer eye makes no matter) and the passion felt about it. Representational art is on the whole greater than abstract art, partly because it is difficult to have so primitive and passionate a feeling about a cube as about a cow; but also because the eye turned outwards constantly replenishes and enlarges the symbolic imagery of the mind; while the abstractist, his eye turned inwards, allows his images to grow poorer and fewer by inbreeding.

But it does depend how you see. Gwen describes her perception as a young woman thus:  Of course, there were things to worship everywhere. I can remember feeling quite desperate with love for the blisters in the dark red paint on the nursery window-sills at Cambridge, but at Down there were more things to worship than anywhere else in the world.

I think she would have agreed with Frank Zappa when he said that art is making something out of nothing and selling it. More or less without wishing it, the older she got, the more commercial success she got.

Oscar Wilde said that most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Gwen was Gwen. If many of her opinions were those of the Darwin mind set, her passions were nothing if not hers.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has this from Period Piece:  Ladies were ladies in those days; they did not do things themselves.  And that is the point: Gwen most definitely did do things for herself.

In 1951 Gwen suffered a stroke and  became confined to a wheelchair. Unsentimental to the last, in 1957 she terminated her own life with the words: “This seems the simplest plan for everyone.” However, before she died, she had the satisfaction of knowing that her “strangeness” had found an audience.

Why Syd Barrett Came Off His Bike

A talk by William Pryor at Borders, November 2008

Remember when you were young,
You shone like the sun.

My name is William.  I was once an addict.  In 1963 I became addicere (from the Latin ad= “for” and dicere = “speak”) thus “delivered, yielded, devoted or spoken for”  by first opium, then NHS heroin and cocaine, [here] in Cambridge while Syd Barrett was charming songs out of the weeping willow trees. We knew each other well enough to travel to Grantchester in guitar-strumming punts, to drink cappuccinos together from pyrex cups in El Patio, to revel in our very youth, as Wordsworth had it: “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!

The Survival of the Coolest, my memoir and the screenplay I’ve adapted from it: The Survival of Cool (currently emerging from Development Hell) tell the emotional, psychofugal truths of that addiction in that Cambridge at that time: the same compost in which Syd briefly blossomed.  Psychofugal is my word: meaning “spinning out from the psyche”.  Psychofugal creativity spins out, into the world, seeking consecration from that world, from its audience; a projection seeking reality.  Psychopetal creativity spins towards and around the centre; it knows itself.

Antonin Artaud, the Theatre of Cruelty guy, had this to say about creativity: No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modelled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell. Why would creativity do that, get you out of hell?  Maybe because it gives shape and purpose to the being here, the nub of existence.  A form that can be shown to the world, put up for applauding.  Was Syd in need of an escape ladder from some hell we know little of?

But first let me be clear: it is not my purpose today to moralise about the use of drugs.  I may have abstained from everything but coffee since 1975, but that has been an entirely pragmatic measure.  Changing how I feel about the world and myself by chemical means always became an end in and of itself, a self-defeating Serpent Oroboros eating its own tail, the “outside” act of taking the stuff becoming the inside misery.  An addict is not a human, but a living myth, an acting out of a ritual of pain and its resolution, which leads to more pain and less resolution, and more…

What leads people to say taking drugs is “bad”?  Or that it’s worse than taking alcohol or tobacco?  The strange history of drug and alcohol taking, nothing else.  Suffice it to say that as little as a hundred years ago you could pop down to the corner shop for two penn’orth of Laudanum if the baby was crying or Granma had the gout.  The War on Drugs is an extraordinary political manipulation of a powerful mythology, one that has 80% of the economic activity of the un-nation of Afghanistan produce 75% of the heroin for the world’s un-people addicts.

No, it’s not a moral question, but a pragmatic one.  If we are to be human, not mere stories or myths.  And so it is with psychosomatic, psychofugal creativity.   To appease the dreadful god of creativity, one must always take more.

Addiction is a mysterious, mythical thing, closely related to creativity, which in itself is an addictive state of being.  In 2005 I established the Unhooked Thinking Conference on the simple premise that no one really knows what addiction is.  Academics, doctors, prison and addiction workers from far and wide came and riffed from this raga: because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones? Except perhaps that it IS a story, a myth, an explanation of misery; not an illness.  And its close relation with creativity and inspiration is crucial:  altered states in pursuit of some nirvana, some not here, some other.  Give me some bliss man!

Antonin Artaud: It is not opium which makes me work but its absence, and in order for me to feel its absence it must from time to time be present.

Addiction is I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t stop myself, I am compelled, because once it was so good; I am compelled by something that isn’t me.  Creativity is as elusive, compulsive and temperamental as that first high.  Addicts and artists are gods, for a moment or two – especially musicians like Syd, standing on the stage to have his talents loved.   He couldn’t stop.  His fame was something that wasn’t him.

Shine on you crazy diamond.
Now there’s a look in your eyes,
Like black holes in the sky.

Marcel Duchamp (of urinal fame): To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.  Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.

Syd has been consecrated; he has become an icon, a myth, a god of youth, innocence and idiosyncrasy.  Forever reconsecrated when David Gilmour sings Shine On.  Just two years in the limelight, but here we are, forty years later, still talking about him.  We were the first teenagers, back then – previously people went straight from childhood to young adulthood in their bowler hats or pinnies – and Syd, authentic, beautiful, witty, musical and idiosyncratic Syd was much more than most teenagers knew how to be.   He embodied what we could all be.  He got paid to be himself, or the leprechaun  he constructed.

The essence of Syd was his creativity. The Gift that the Pink Floyd were to turn into a commodity worth millions.  A gift that flows all the time for all of us, could we but know it, grasp it, ride it.  A gift we lose when it becomes psychofugal, not psychopetal.

Alone in the clouds all blue
Lying on an eiderdown.
Yippee! You can’t see me
But I can you.

We project our intricately woven fabric of self and for some of us this projecting is art.  It is public.  People buy into it.  It is performance.  We then buy into this our own projection ourselves, just as we bought into the fabric from which it was woven. As Syd sang in Jugband Blues: It’s awfully considerate of you to think of me here; and I’m much obliged to you for making it clear – that I’m not here.

The projecting, the loving of talent, the glimpses of godhood – all this is addictive – we want more, even though we know it is bad for us, for the central stability of the self.  Syd’s fame gave him permission to transgress, to explore beyond sanity.  He had the authority of one who was making the Gift live in front of our eyes and ears.

Shine on you crazy diamond.
You were caught on the crossfire
Of childhood and stardom,
Blown on the steel breeze.
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine!

LSD may not have been the source of Syd’s creativity, but he came to rely on it and, all too soon, he was outcaste, scapegoated by it, by the very visions that had at first inspired him.

As an experience, madness is terrific… and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about (Virginia Woolf).

It may be significant that the lava of Virginia Woolf’s madness and the fluorescence of Syd’s LSD experience, arrived by different routes. Virginia Woolf’s bipolar condition was incipient in her, arose from her history, her genes, from whatever it was she could not bear, while Syd’s outsider art was the result of ingesting a chemical, whether it triggered an instability that was already there or was the only cause of his unbalanced state.

The power, insistence and poetry of both was probably no different, but Woolf’s art arose, in part, from her struggle to acknowledge and absorb her madness as part of herself, while Syd’s short-lived blossoming seemed like revelation visited from a sugar cube, making it hard for him to own it.  Maybe the difference might not be so important – they would both find their uninspired states unbearable.  They had to create to escape hell, as Artaud well understood, and when they couldn’t escape, Virginia Woolf drowned herself and Syd retreated into chemical martyrdom.

My first dalliance with hallucinogens was in 1962.  It was addictive.  It lead to what hindsight shows me clearly to be madness. I didn’t play the guitar. I wasn’t part of a rock band.  So I had nowhere to go but down.  If you’ll indulge me, I’ll read the bit from my book.  There I was in Paris in the Beat Hotel on Rue Git le Couer on the Left Bank. I was an explorer of the bohemian frontiers, a beatnik.

Bruce had heard that the seeds of Morning Glory, a strain of convolvulus, contained LSD 6, a crude form of the LSD 25 that Timothy Leary was just beginning to unleash. Three quarters of the contents of the kind of packet you could then buy from seed merchants was about the right dose. The trouble was that you had to chew the oily seeds, about twice the size of a grape pip, into a pulp for the active ingredients to be released in the stomach. This produced powerful waves of nausea that you had to fight your way through before the trip proper could begin.

Bruce had decided that the best way to ameliorate the nausea, which could last up to half an hour, was to launch out into the metro where the multiplicity of sensory inputs would drown out the urge to puke. We chewed our seeds at nine one evening. The night, with its emptiness, was better for tripping. As soon as we could bear to walk, we set off down the street. Colours. The pavement.

Itself, the pavement, but also the cracks.

Or rather the joins between the textures of solidity, and the foot clomps over it, smashes down. The air, dusky-air, feel it on your exposed eyeballs, the colours; look

at that man, he’s walking, he doesn’t know through or on what.

density.

Into the earth, his earth, nowhere to lay his head, man to travel

his city, into the earth, down

the steps into the metro, the descent is so decorated, the

wrought-iron balustrade

to the underskirts of the city.

The climb down; the climbdown.

“Listen to the Seven,” says Bruce. “The seven clicks, the seven dots. The secret is in how you listen, whether you hear, whether you are taken up.”

Automatic the barrier. The way to pass is closed when a train. The trick. The trick, says Bruce, is to wait till you hear the rumble, wait the wrong side, then at the first whoosh of air, rush. It’s being in tune with machines.

Training to Montmartre, to sex. The left hand path, by indulgence, the senses. Incoherent knowledge that this is magic, or Magick as Crowley had travelled. To be part of earth, to partake in earth, to eat earth, to be lost. To believe the illusion completely, oh Maya.

The Seven: metro motor clicking over. Doors shut, train starts. Click, click and Bruce says, “there, you hear it: Number One.” The motor, the electric motor speeds, switching gear clicks. We get to Number Four and I hear it. What? The elevation in the listening for the Seven. I don’t hear the elevation, but the elevation is in the hearing. More colours, I hear them.

and faces, skulls, blues and reds, skulls, atavistic.

Parisians on their way to or from and I see their skulls. They are no more people, they are their history.

Libido now realisable, or is it the name, the language that excites.

Anticipation anyway. With it, we climb up out up from and into the bowels of the night, into the fire, the neon, the market of bodies, the dealing in mythologies and arousals.

We go to a really French strip show: the art of signs and given conventions. We pay to get in.

RED

PLUSH

VELVET

is what pours in through the holes in the front of our eyeballs. Stunned, I mean, man, pulverised by redness, passion. You sit at a table, little round table, order a drink, a coke, can’t manage alcohol as well. Music starts. Sur le Pont d’Avignon jazzed-up spreads into the velvet fittings. The curtains spread back and there.

And there a blonde woman? No, a blonde lady? A girl, well: seductress and yet she won’t, is unreachable we must be passive in our seats. SHE, anyway, SHE wears a very short dress with little petticoats, the like little girls (don’t) wear at parties, pink and white gingham, bows in her hair, sucks her thumb, holds a doll and dances, hip-bumps, coquettishly. But she is woman, her breasts, her legs, her high heels, the signs to which we pavlov. The doll is not a little girl’s doll, but a man-ikin. She fondles it, plays it, sucks it, rubs it on her frills. Then the image, the little-girl-woman starts to take off, to strip her sign-clothes with stroking, self-caressing as though you, we, the men, as though we could do it that well.

‘This is the pleasure you like to think you can give to the woman you like to think you can have': the signs she talks with in her language of make-you-believe, or, anyway make-you-forget this is all a sham, a fake, but, but, but we are aroused. Her breasts she fondles, she does it for us. Curtain. Daze. We already have the idea, the force towards completion. What would it be like, when you’ve paid for it?

We stagger back to the open night to put the question to the test. Forty Francs, a grubby hotel and I discover. We have reached a state so high (so low) that all sensory experience is orgasm, therefore no orgasm possible. I warn Bruce before he wastes any money.

“D’you see how it’s all about being amused? Distracted? So that we can avoid the larger questions, the pain.”

“Yes,” replies Bruce, “but isn’t the larger question just that: a way of avoiding what is not a question. We may realise that amusements, what is called ‘entertainment’ and ‘pleasure’, are a way of avoiding the pain of the big question. But isn’t that pain the result of the mind thinking it can solve everything, in other words, of there being a ‘question’ at all?”

“You have it.” I had just crossed five paving stones in three strides. “All we can do is count the number of different ways we can suck the limited number of stones we have to suck.”

“Yes,” says Bruce with great emphasis. “We suck our mind’s stones to give us comfort, but if we can stop being I, stop having a specific identity that needs comfort, then the sky is literally the limit. D’you read me?” This time my left foot landed right on a crack between two paving stones.

“But,” I grabbed his arm. We both agreed with what had not been said. “But, if we can understand each other without saying anything, like we just did then,” I pointed to the position of my left foot, “well, we must, to some degree, have interchangeable identities: I, you and me, or, you, I and you.”

Now late in the night, not a soul as we approach the dawn grey that is expressed with a bowl of onion soup in Les Halles as the vegetable market finishes its night’s work. It is a slow progress. We stop every two yards or so to share the latest revelation. Bleary, but envisioned eyes, colours breaking down to grey, people unaware of the seething whirlpools of light and texture they walk through and on, go to work, fulfil their part in what is called the daily round and round and round.

Mid-morning I get back to my mattress, exhausted, but not able to sleep, the light now disturbs me, the ancient sculptor is hacking away at his bas-reliefs next door, what hope have I, have we? I envy Bruce his warm bed with Leila. At lunch time I go to Sheena’s room and ask her to drop whatever she’s doing and come back with me to give me warmth, both inside and out. She does, she is interested in the trip, she lies on the mattress with me. But…

How to describe, to convey the depths of insight to someone who hasn’t been there. She is compliant, pliant and has affection, even respect for me, but what good is it, she is so tied to the trappings of her identity. I thought. Trappings, I thought.

“Don’t you see, you’ve got to be able to rise above what you are, what makes you Sheena, to be able to see how it really is? We saw it last night, Bruce and I. We rose above what makes us Bruce and William and were able to see.”

“That’s fantastic,” I turned away, “No, I mean it, it really does sound as though the two of you did have some amazing insights. Why on earth don’t you write about it? You keep on about being a writer, but I haven’t seen you write anything.”

“Interesting insights, indeed! It was far more than that; far, far more. But yes, I will write something. Why don’t you go and sit over there.” She went, and after much hesitation I started what was to be the natural successor to the novels of Samuel Beckett. So I thought, I thought. The trappings, anyway.

Her ego at it again and for what gain, thinks she, she wants to put that first gem of back-going sense or nonsense back to the old way of the can where all is smelly or rosy (you can’t have both)

I said I loved her tra la la soon that got left behind cos now I am simply watching her like some offensive acquaintance or something

thinks she love means to be forgiven…this flow of words from inside the evil old spirit that goes on and on talking to the wind.

So it ran for another three pages.

I took it with me when I went that evening to meet up with Bruce. He found it a revelation, the new writing, as I did what he had to show me. We confirmed each other in our sense of being at the edge, the furthest reach of the mind. Everything else became subservient to the lucidity of our shared madness, our vision. If those around us could not understand what we were so excited about, it was their fault, not ours.

We fell into the habit of chewing Morning Glory seeds every four or five days. We could maintain our visionary drive without having to bother with the painful task of relating what we knew and saw with the lumpen, so-called everyday, world.

The lucidity of our shared madness was born of protest, kindled by anger, and kept fresh by fear. For it was madness. We could not communicate the urgency of our visions. But it was also not madness. We were in full control of our actions, however strange they were. We coped with normality.

The next day I had made up my mind. I must go back to Cambridge as soon as possible. I had a duty to tell my friends and parents of my recent discoveries. They really ought to know that their friend and son was a genius.

I managed to get my soaring mind home to Cambridge via train and ferry, clutching my precious writings, my proof. My poor parents; my patient friends!

The extreme limit of wisdom, that’s what the public calls madness. (Jean Cocteau)

My mother damned my vision with faint acknowledgement, saying, “yes dear, I’m sure you’re a genius,” and my father, having read my few pages, said he didn’t understand it, but was sure it was interesting. They were incapable: they could not rise to the challenge that a deranged son posed. If we don’t talk about it, it will go away.

After a few days, my father said he had something for me and took me into his study. There on the desk was a brand new portable typewriter.

“Present for you,” was all he said, and no more was needed. A brave and generous way of telling me to go off and prove it? Or gesture parenting? A few days later I returned to Paris, so that I could get down to the real thing: being a genius with my Olympia portable typewriter in its zip-up carry case.

But Paris had changed. My previous visionary state had evaporated and, what was far worse, Sheena would have nothing to do with me. At her pension, her girlfriend said she was out and wouldn’t be back till the next day. I went on my way to the Café Americaine unsuspecting. A seething sea of unknowing fear and need, I sat at one of the pavement tables to have a coffee with an Austrian acquaintance.

That was a strange creativity, a madness that came from hallucinogenic visions of knowing how it is.  And this confident, but very fragile certainty is one of the underlying features of creativity.  An ability to step outside your circumstances, your locality, your particularity, and find the universal in the detail, the mundane. Creativity has been studied from the perspectives of behavioural psychology, social psychology, psychometrics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, philosophy, history, economics, design research, business, and management, among others. The studies have covered everyday creativity, exceptional creativity and even artificial creativity. Unlike many phenomena in science, there is no single, authoritative perspective or definition of creativity. And unlike many phenomena in psychology, there is no standardized measurement technique.

Creativity has been attributed variously to divine intervention, cognitive processes, the social environment, personality traits, and chance (“accident”, “serendipity”). It has been associated with genius, mental illness and humour. Some say it is a trait we are born with; others say it can be taught with the application of simple techniques.

I say creativity, the state of being creative, is like that induced by psychosomatic substances, in that it is an altered and enhanced state of consciousness.  A place you want to return to, a precious gift, a flowing and a confidant certainty.  If you are lucky enough to find that flow in your late teens, as was Syd, it is very heaven to be young!  His creativity was a freedom to be playful, beautiful, charming and lovable.  But also to be doubting, cynical, lost and eventually destroyed like a scapegoat.

As Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to my grandfather: Is your art as chaotic as ours? I feel that for us writers the only chance now is to go out into the desert & peer about, like devoted scapegoats, for some sign of a path. I expect you got through your discoveries sometime earlier.

If psychofugal is the dissipation of the psyche OUT into the world, then psychopetal is the focus and concentration that lies behind (and in front of) what we might call sustainable creativity, creativity that knows, if not where it’s going, then how it’s getting there.  Psychofugal creativity goes out into the desert.  Syd was there, a devoted scapegoat, peering about, in vain it turned out, for some sign of a path.

Sylvia Plath: And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

Charles Mingus said: Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.

But how do we make the complicated simple?  The only enemy to creativity is self-doubt.  The Gift is showering down all the time, kept from us by self-doubt and consequent lack of discrimination. The act of creativity is the act of a god, but the ever-hovering self-doubt wants for it to be consecrated by posterity, for others to applaud, to pay money.  It wants to overcome its scapegoat status by the consecration of fans, critics and customers, by commoditising the Gift of creativity.  But in so doing the artist becomes even more of a scapegoat, taking on both the aspirations and the fears of his audience, literally loaded with their troubles and sacrificed ‘beyond the pale’ of the community.

You reached for the secret too soon,

You cried for the moon.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

The surrealists consulted their dreams for inspiration, Virginia Woolf her Moments of Being, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi and Jean Cocteau their opiate reveries while Syd‘s acid let him be “alone in the clouds all blue, lying on an eiderdown. Yippee! You can’t see me; but I can you.

On the surface, not only did William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi never publicly regret or in any way apologise for their addiction, indeed they both aggressively championed their use of heroin and cocaine as a necessary tool to their particular melding of life and art.  You could say their drug use was an attempt to do away with the need for inspiration – so unpredictable, erratic and unfathomable – to enter a state of creativity at the pierce of a needle.  You could also say Syd’s persistent messing with his brain chemistry by his ingestion of LSD was the same thing – an attempt to enter that nirvana on a sugar cube.

Threatened by shadows at night,
And exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond.

As Burroughs wrote: Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.’ Creative viewing.” Is this a riposte against those who might wish to judge his writing as mere junky scribling, by linking the junk and his work so closely we can put it at a safe distance.  So with Syd, we can perhaps judge his songs as mere psychedelic ramblings.  But neither works.  Burroughs (maybe not Trocchi) and Syd’s reputations go way beyond such links.

Despite their advocates’ strong defences of the differences in their drugs, all of them, whether narcotic, stimulant or hallucinogenic, offer an escape ladder from ordinary consciousness, from the usual turmoil of existence in time and space.  As did Virginia Woolf’s bipolar condition.  It is on the rungs of those ladders that some of the more reckless artists, film makers, musicians and writers find their creativity; for on those steps to heaven, concentration is found and the will to create is loosened from the constraints of emotion and circumstance; a psychofugal creativity that throws these drug and madness induced visions out into the world.

Well you wore out your welcome
With random precision,
Rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions,
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!

George Bernard Shaw said: “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”  Everyone seeks to make the world bearable.  If creating art does it for you and you find your creativity by putting some psychosomatic substance in your body, then you are sorely tempted to choose that as your preferred “reality”.  Syd Barrett seems to have made that choice.  He never came back.

“I want the concentration and the romance, and the worlds all glued together, fused, glowing,” said Virginia Woolf.  This concentration, this romance is the real key.  We need psychopetal creativity, not psychofugal; a true, integrated originality that comes from focus, not intoxication.

It is impossible to make moral judgements about the use of this or that substance to generate inspiration, to open the gates of creativity.  There cannot be anything “bad” in putting a chemical in your bloodstream.  The end result of any such moralising is the War on Drugs, the prohibition that causes far more damage to individuals and society than the substances so banned ever do.  But that is not my subject today.

But I am in the grip of a paradox.  While wanting all drugs to be legalised, I also believe that the bliss of creativity is more likely to be sustainable, authentic and loved if reached without chemical assistance.

Consciousness is at the heart of our existence, so it is odd that we find it hard to talk about it without specialist language creeping into the room – whether it be Darwinian, mystical, metaphysical, philosophical, psychological or any other. We non-academics can talk about our health, our gardens, our emotions or our planet and be understood without a single opaque phrase passing our lips, so it is puzzling that we find it difficult to talk about our consciousness in ordinary language. After all it is closer to us than anything else, indeed it is us!

The apparent reason is obvious, but no less confounding: we must be conscious, use our consciousness, to talk about consciousness. It is all inclusive. Talk about consciousness is a manifestation of what it is to be conscious, so to talk about consciousness as a thing, as part of the physical universe, it must somehow get out of itself to point at itself. That said, there may be some useful things we can say when trying to understand just what it is.

More or Less

I am more conscious when I type this than when I am asleep. It is something – a quality? – I can have more or less of; something I can concentrate. But that doesn’t tell us what it actually is. Mystics say that consciousness is life; it is ‘being’ as opposed to non-being; it is the Gnostic knowledge of existence. Human beings have the unique facility to be able to practice simply being, to know it, by concentrating or focussing their attention or consciousness.

The Death of Consciousness

When I die, physically, my consciousness will, somehow or other, have ceased. The slice of consciousness that uses ‘me’ to talk about itself will no longer have a body or a brain through which to see itself in the mirror. So we can say that consciousness is life and total absence of consciousness is death. Mystics talk about death; they say physical death is not an end, but a change. An individual may die, but that is like a particular wave on the sea reaching the shore. The ocean doesn’t cease to exist or to have waves.

Memories of Self

My ability to finish a sentence, let alone a paragraph, has to be a result of qualities of my consciousness like memory and persistence in time. My sense of having a self is entrenched in memories of having a past and an awareness that the self that answers to my name persists in time. But it could be that these qualities are elaborate constructions of my consciousness – another dead end! All mystics tell us consciousness transcends time and space. It is not of the physical of this world, though it is in it. There is the anecdote of the adept sitting to meditate. As he lowers his body he knocks a vase off the shelf now above him. He focuses his consciousness and enjoys the bliss to be found in that concentration. When he has had his fill, he brings his attention out into the world again and catches the vase. Consciousness is inclusional of everything else. In a very important sense it IS everything else and, when working through a human, its self-awareness can be focused.

My ability to recognise your voice on the phone is just one of many sophisticated functions that my brain performs through its consciousness (but it does so unconsciously), and yet both of us would struggle to explain what ‘you’ and ‘I’ are. We can wonder at the cleverness of the mind that operates in our brains while not even beginning to understand the consciousness that powers it. Yes, it is amazing that we can recognise someone by just hearing their voice for a second and that some of us can devise the most unlikely quantum mechanical theories as to the nature of matter, but these things do not make us what we are: human. The capacity to focus our attention is what distinguishes us from chimpanzees, not cleverness. Our consciousness enables us to step into eternity.

Who Knows?

My consciousness knows things ranging from where objects are through the rules of arithmetic to the difference between depression and contentment. My mouse is where I left it when I last used it – I know this on a physical level, such that I don’t have to look for it with my eyes, but simply put my hand straight on it. I know that if I add another mouse I will have ‘two’ mice. When depressed my consciousness knows its environment as a flat place, drained of qualities, but it also forgets there are other ways of seeing the world. When contented my consciousness easily forgets about the deep, dark woods of depression and dances out of itself into the wonders of the created world.

But once again this doesn’t help – all this knowledge is fleeting and does nothing to tell me who I really am or what’s the point of being human. On the other, mystical hand, we do know, in an irreducible God-like way, that peace is only to be found in the centre of our beings, in the practice of being here now. We may not know how, but we know the truth when we see/hear/experience it, and the more we are able to be in the centre of our beings, the more we will be content with simply knowing. ‘Sat’ is a Sanskrit word that means both truth and reality – the truth that pre-exists and out-exists the impermanence of space and time, doesn’t need us to perceive it. With the right practice, we can know it, have gnosis of it, for the intrinsic reality it is.

Telling the Difference

Consciousness has an ability to discriminate, to tell the difference. We have notions of good and bad that we try to apply as we paddle through the sea that consciousness finds itself floating in. We try to do that which we think ‘good’ and not to do ‘bad’ things. (How we know what good and bad are is another matter.) However it does it, consciousness determines how we make our way through the physical. This raises a question at the heart of spirituality: how does something immaterial, unseen, unknown and mysterious act upon the physical in the way it clearly does? Whilst our consciousness is more or less embedded in the material, we have no choice but to try to discriminate, to choose between actions, people, thoughts and everything else, so we can steer our way across the ocean. And we find this choosing so difficult, so frightening, when all we have to go on is our ignorant peering through a glass darkly, pulled this way and that by our appetites for, and love affairs with, the material. When our consciousness is concentrated, when it knows itself, then it is utterly clear that what is good does no harm and what is bad keeps us away from the truth, from reality, where we yearn to be. With that focus there is only the dharma, the right action.

The Ghost in the Machine

Consciousness acts in space and time, it knows where ‘here’ and when ‘now’ are, and yet it is somehow beyond them. There is no kind of microscope that will enable you to see consciousness, but it acts here and now. Without it, houses would not be built, people would not be murdered, babies with their new consciousness would not be created – whatever your view of free will. The busy-ness of all the individual consciousnesses in the world tricks us into thinking we are the doers of our reality. Something that cannot be seen, even with the most powerful microscopes, is running the physical show. How, we haven’t a clue. Mystics remind us that all is one, that we are no more than drops of an ocean’s water, operating under the illusion that our separation from each other and from our surroundings is real. They urge us drops to merge back into the ocean from which we have sprung. What is more, they tell us how to do it.

It Hurts!

Just through looking at you, I know if you are conscious or not, but I can’t be sure if you are in pain, even if you tell me you are. I once heard a story (which I believe to be historically true) of a man who had meditated all his life. In his old age he fell and broke his hip. He was taken to hospital for an essential operation, but absolutely refused to accept any kind of pain relief or anaesthetics because such drugs would dull the bliss he experienced. He persuaded the surgeons to operate without any drugs – he was able to focus his consciousness to such a degree that he could transcend the physiological experience we would normally call ‘pain’. He felt none. No, that’s probably wrong: for him feeling pain, however extreme, was no more noticeable than any other physical experience. He made a full recovery.

Pain is not what it might seem to be. As we grow up, we learn that being separate hurts. There is the physical and emotional pain we encounter as pawns in the pinball machine of life, as we are batted hither and thither. But there is another, a deeper disquiet that is an inescapable condition of imagining ourselves separate. It has many names and shapes: the blues, ennui, weltschmerz, bireh, frustration, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, despondency and on and on, but whatever we call it, we all seek to avoid it, to find comfort. Pain has a purpose: to get us to stop doing what causes the hurt in the first place, whether it is putting our hands in the fire or looking for fulfilment, clarity and love in the business of the world. The blues are a signal that we should look inside our own consciousness for the answer to our isolation. Then it becomes the blessing of solitude.

Creating Reality

Without straying into the opacity of academic philosophy, we can say some interesting things about the relationship between consciousness and the ‘real’ world. If I am made unconscious with an anaesthetic or a blow on the head, the ‘real’ world ceases to exist. You might want me to add “for me” at the end of that last sentence, but that would be redundant. Okay the ‘real’ world would still exist for you, as long as you are conscious, but there is a well-trodden argument (and many convincing psychological experiments) that says ‘reality’ is a creation of our consciousness. Nothing is as it seems to be, or, perhaps, everything can seem to be all sorts of things. Mystics, so-called because they hold the answer to the mysteries, tell us that higher, greater, more concentrated (language starts to fail here) levels of consciousness are more real than the level at which we operate our daily lives. Obvious really! But the felt reality of our worldly lives is so compelling we find it very hard to let it go so we can experience something deeper, more lasting. They call the reality of the world an illusion because it is no more than an impermanent mask. They don’t mean that it is not substantial or that we don’t have to navigate our way through it. They do mean that once we know the deeper reality of consciousness, we will know that our purpose lies within not out there.

Who’s Doing What

Notions that there is some kind of executive, a ‘doer’, at the heart of your or my consciousness seem to be a necessary condition of our existence. What else is it that dies when our bodies stop functioning? How else can we transact with each other? What is it that falls in love with other such doers? But these are notions fraught with difficulty. Any enquiry into what, where or how this executive operates soon come to a crashing halt in dark cul de sacs that no science seems able to convert into motorways. The idea of the self as doer has been changing in shape and importance over the centuries. The Latin term ego is used in English to translate Freud’s German term “das ich”, which literally means “the I”, first coined by him in the 19th Century. But this was only the latest iteration of a concept that had flowered with the Reformation. The 21st Century version has the self as Consumer (and destroyer of planets), trying to make itself real through what it owns and achieves. Mystics tell us this is an illusory recipe that leads only to continued addiction to the world. The practice they teach whereby we can focus our consciousness demands the surrender of this consumer self on the way to a realisation, a becoming real, of a true self. This is still an agency, a doer, but one that is one with the one love that does all the doing, a selfless self.

Maybe the things we can say about consciousness are not that useful! Maybe we can’t talk about it with the language of the everyday! Maybe consciousness is, literally, beyond the intellect. Consciousness cannot be known through the intellect, only in the silent stillness of the practice of being. It being silent, there is nothing that can be said.

I am writing a screenplay, Survival of the Coolest. I have been writing drafts of this strange creature for three years. It achieved something, some state of grace, over a year ago when it started to attract some serious talent as collaborators.

“What about your artistic integrity?” my painter sister asked when I told her how I bend to the winds of the “notes” I get from these far more experienced film-makers. But one of the many strange things about writing a screenplay is that it is essentially a collaborative venture made real by the solitary writer – he is the reed pipe for a group. Well, in my case he is.

The strangeness is compounded in this case by the fact that, though a “complete fiction”, my protagonist shares my name and much of my history and ancestry – it is fictional autobiography or autobiographical fiction. As long as I can maintain sufficient distance from fictional William, I’ll be OK, and the opportunities for auto-reflexive play are enormous. Are we not our own best works of art? A story we tell ourselves about the story we’re going to tell?

I have often found myself blind to the weaknesses, inconsistencies and lacks of the screenplay – I just can’t see how it could play better until one of my collaborators gives me a note. It’s not just that thing you get with other forms of writing – put it in the drawer for a week or so and you can come back and read it in much the way a stranger might and immediately spot its clumsinesses. No, because the screenplay is not a work of art in and of itself, but a manual for making one, it is much harder to “read”. It is hard to imagine the finished cinematic experience for which the script is a set of instructions. This is compounded by the frequent challenge to avoid exposition – the “telling” of the story – in favour of “showing” it.

And yet, and yet. How much do the mood, circumstance or experience of the note-givers inform their opinons? After all the movie industry is, according to William Goldman, one where no one knows anything. One has to learn to balance their wisdom against the remote possibility that there might be an agenda behind what they say. The very complexity and uncertainty of the marriage of commerce and creativity that is movie-making spawns a plethora of dogma and doctrine from film schools and self-appointed book-writing gurus. In case of doubt fall back on a nice bit of dogma.

And triple yet. My collaborators have much more experience of the process than I do and these particular guys are not given to dogma. Rarely does the expression “character arc” escape their lips. The blindness of the long distance scriptwriter is actually a kind UNconsciousness. When one of them points out a flaw, one I recognise as soon as they point it out, I often realise that I had seen it myself and subconsciously chosen to ignore the finger wagging at the back of my mind. I am beginning to see that a kind of consciousness, a screenwriting focus, is possible that doesn’t let such worries pass by.

The notes, the really good ones, are not criticisms, but creative ideas, prompts and suggestions. My collaborators are just that, co-creators, not mere whittlers away of the dross. The creative sight of this particular long distance scriptwriter will only be fully restored when the director, actors, designers, producers and all the others from best boy to dolly grip work together to make this blueprint into a living, breathing movie.

Pryor is a sad case, constantly harping on about his famous forbears; almost as though he can’t exist on his own, by and for himself. (Joe Alterego, in his Review of the Life of William Pryor). But what can I do? It is of some significance, positive and negative, to me and to you, my being born into this empire of the mind.

To quote from my own book The Survival of the Coolest:

[My mother’s] parents were Jacques and Gwen Raverat. Jacques was a French painter who died aged just 40 from MS. Gwen was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin and a woodcut artist of some repute. They were on the edge of the Bloomsbury phenomenon, counting Eric Gill, Rupert Brooke, Stanley Spencer, Virginia Woolf, cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams, as well as Andre Gide, among their friends. Towards the end of her life, long after Jacques’ death, Gwen wrote a memoir of her Cambridge childhood, Period Piece, first published in 1951 and still in print. Her grandfather, Charles Darwin, was already akin to a god: Of course, we always felt embarrassed if our grandfather were mentioned, just as we did if God were spoken of. In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas.

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