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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.

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.

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.

I play music out of an overwhelming need to play; to make the rains come; to abolish wars. The ultimate human sacrifice is to me, life, not death.
(Archie Shepp, liner note to his 1966 album, Mama too Tight)

1)

At about 3am in the morning of Tuesday 30th July (I cannot be more precise because the shock stopped us looking at clocks) my wife and I were woken by the man who lives in the top, third-floor flat shouting loudly through his open window. He is a big man with a muscular voice. As he threw a widescreen digital TV, a Hi Fi CD player, an iron candelabra and much else through his window to smash on our stone-paved terrace four floors below, he bellowed a litany that religion was not the answer.

By the time I got out of our back door, he was still shouting. I asked him what was going on. He told me to fuck off. I was frightened. I called the police. Twenty minutes later six policemen and one policewoman arrived, but, not surprisingly, got no answer from his doorbell. The armoured policepersons said they were not authorised to break the door down.

At about 9.30am our hero appeared at his window again, naked except for his dark glasses, shouting incoherent protests at America and the moon. At 10am another neighbour, a spinster, out taking her large cat for its daily constitutional on a lead, saw him on the lawn at the front of the house, stark naked. He quickly got dressed in the clothes he had brought with him and scurried indoors.

That evening I rang the police to see whether they had followed up as they had promised. They had, but indirectly and by accident. Our cantankerous neighbour had gone down to the local shops for some fags (that’s what his ex-girlfriend said later, but I suspect it was booze) and had taken all his clothes off in the street. A shopkeeper sent for the police. He was arrested and kept in a cell with no clothes for 24 hours while they tried to find him a hospital he could be committed to.

There were no beds available locally, so he was driven to London in a police van, handcuffed and wearing nothing but the paper jump suit they give suspects to wear when their clothes are being investigated. The police knew he had once been ‘in the job’, a policeman. To ‘ensure he caused no trouble’ there were six policemen in the van all the way to London. Humiliation.

The pain that creeps beneath the veneer: his mania exploding through pustules of addicted drinking. Drinking to avoid the torture of knowing he is prone to mania.

He will be released soon to a shambles of neglect called ‘care in the community’: a weekly one-hour visit from a Community Psychiatric Nurse.

2)

A phone conversation. Out of the blue, I am asked:

“What are you so frightened of?”

“I wasn’t aware… Did I say anything about being frightened?”

“No, you didn’t have to.”

“So, do you think you can get this deal financed?”

“There, you see, frightened. It’s your ego. All over the place.”

“Aren’t you ever frightened?”

“No, I don’t have an ego. Did I tell you about the time I was with…” A megastar is mentioned and a long anecdote told.

This money-and-power addict makes an art of understanding and controlling people through their weaknesses. He protects his possessions and lack of ego in a walled garden with steel gates.

3)

The questions: What is the irrational, self-harming compulsion that is addiction? Why are so many addicted? What is it about the human condition?

4)

My life has been shaped by addiction, though it is 27 years since I took anything psychotropic, since I have been exploring the state of being unhooked. Like Archie Shepp, my life is my human sacrifice. I mean: at my best moments my art is my life and vice versa, and both require an understanding of the power and ubiquity of addiction. Forty years ago, in 1963, when Archie was blowing with John Tchcai in New York, I was venturing into what was the safety and therefore expansion of heroin. The dopamine and nordrenaline thus released in my brain thrilled to the visceral of black jazz being revolutionary.

This text is a narrative of addiction: how and why lives get stuck and lost in tracks around the psychotropic. In India ‘BA Cantab, Failed’ counts for something on your business card. Addicts have ‘Communicator of Pain, Failed’ on theirs, but it counts for nothing but rejection. As a writer I am a communicator of communication in and of itself, singing the thesaurus: transmission, imparting, conveying, reporting, presenting, passing on, handing on, divulgence, disclosure. It’s about contact and connection, commerce and traffic.

5)

The setting: a double-glazed, insulated garden gazebo-shed. One of its two windows overlooks the Avon Valley from the heights of our terrace, the other the forty-five degree garden careering into the valley below. Up here, the herons fly past below you. You can watch the tourist coaches, across the valley, as they queue on the new roundabout to join the traffic jams of Bath. Over there, the coloured shirts dance to the shouts of the Bath Rugby Club practice ballet. The tourist boats pass up and down the dark green but shiny river Avon, giving Japanese and Americans a view of the English countryside. Deer, foxes, greater-spotted woodpeckers and badgers are sometimes to be seen in the field below, even in the garden.

All adding to the value of our property. But how can a view be owned? Intellectual copyright?

My gazebo is where my fetishes with technology and music happen as I distract myself from concentrating. This is the setting for a recurring meeting with myself, day after day, now I am launched into the choppy seas of crystallising outlooks, of being a writer, full time to the exclusion of any other security. The setting for what I now call work: having views.

6)

Twenty-seven years ago my road to liberation from psychotropics started with two months at Broadway Lodge, Europe’s first 12-step treatment centre. I emerged like a traumatised gnu into the dazzling headlights of Alcoholics Anonymous; learning that I had better believe I could live without chemicals to change how I felt. Learning that I had been wrong for my entire adult life (I was 32): wrong about my torment, my emotions, my purpose and my place in the scheme of things. Learning to live in clichés: I was sick of being sick, down here at my rock bottom, so I got with the programme and worked the steps.

7)

Though the history of drug taking goes back at least five thousand years, that of addiction and prohibition is very short: 180 years at most. Since my history with psychotropics started in 1959, I have been involved in at least a fifth of it.

8)

A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.
(Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind)

Yes, people got dependent on drugs before 1820, but the language-game of addiction, the myth, was not born until De Quincey romanticised his relationship with opium, until the Victorian bourgeoisie started to demonise the habitual user as addict. The myth was not sufficiently encrusted with its own spurious truth to create a stereotype ‘addict’ until the early twentieth century when the new puritans of the USA started to flex their righteous muscles and prohibit things.

A myth is not a lie, an untruth, a fairy story, but a way of understanding difficult things that becomes more the truth than the truth. Before long a myth starts to dictate the behaviour of its protagonists. The discourse of the drug myth goes like this: there are these things called habit-forming drugs. Everybody knows – the newspapers keep telling us – they are evil. They cause addiction. They come and get you. They relieve addicts of any morals they might have had. Their evil is contagious: it makes users evil. They cause withdrawal symptoms, one of the most severe forms of suffering known to man (see how they are portrayed in Hollywood movies).

The myth has its repercussions, its subsidiary mythettes: the existence of addicts enables the rest of us to cover up our own ordinary addictions behind the smiling face of civilisation. We have to prohibit drugs everywhere on the planet to protect our women and children (they are ‘habit-forming’ after all), while we ignore the algebra of death all around us: legal and taxed alcohol and tobacco kill ten times as many people as all illegal drugs. On the scale of evil, only paedophiles are worse than addicts. And the only way to deal with such an evil is to declare war on it: the War on Drugs.

9)

Rowing laconically down the river with the girlfriend on the back seat holding the rudder ropes, past the couple sunbathing on a rug in the field by the blasted willow tree – these people cannot be addicts. Slinking in a slow summer Sunday afternoon, how can there be the urgency of addiction in these people?

One of the defining requisites of addiction is its private nature. I do not want to show you my enslavement in case you might set me free. Freedom is feared.

Take work addiction. You are hooked to work when it makes you happy above anything else, cycling between procrastination, work binges and exhaustion, worrying obsessively about it, with your sense of self-worth dependent on others’ approval, using the adrenaline of overwhelming work pressure as a focusing device, clicking your nails on table tops, twiddling your thumbs in meetings.

The addiction is hidden, because that is its nature: to hide. Workaholics are praised far more than they are pitied. There are ways, many ways, in which addiction is admirable: workaholics are heroes of capitalism.

10)

Unlike the myth of heresy, which kept a subservient bend of the head amongst the faithful, the myth of addiction hasn’t done a very good job, either as truth or myth. The War on Drugs has failed: prohibition as a way of dealing with the drug ‘problem’ is a complete failure. The more drug taking becomes ‘normal’ (a survey in April 2002 showed that over 50% of Britons under 24 have taken an illegal drug), the more the myth is made ridiculous. The bishops of the myth – politicians – are beginning to wish they had a new model and the hems of their dogma are beginning to fray. Possession of any drugs for your own consumption is no longer a crime in Portugal, Italy and Switzerland, though, paradoxically, dealing still is.

What is required, and, some believe, what is already happening, is radical myth surgery, a myth transplant. We need to found our morality on inner truths not outer chimera. The prohibition of drugs causes far more harm – to addicts, victims of drug-related crime, economies, governments and moralities – than do the drugs themselves.

11)

A rational society would legalise and licence the supply of every psychotropic substance.

12)

There are punts visible between the trees down there on the ponderous Avon, being slowly propelled up the river, their dreaming occupants trailing their hands in the cooling water. How did punts get to Somerset? They were once an integral part of the East Anglian fenland economy. Fishermen, fowlers and reed-cutters valued punts for their combination of manoeuvrability and stability. When the good burghers of Cambridge built sewers for the city at the tail end of the 19th century, the River Cam ceased to stink to high heaven, and several things happened, coincidentally. My great grandfather, George Darwin, son of Charles, was able to buy Newnham Grange and the Old Granary in Silver Street, right on the river, without fear of malodorous vapours overcoming the household. The grain merchant who had built them used to get barges up the river from Kings Lyn, but the coming of the railway did for his trade, leaving the Granary to become Old. Meanwhile the professions of fenland fisherman, fowler and reed-cutter started to wane. Thus the genesis of the punt as pleasure vehicle. But how it got to Somerset…

13)

The shifting sands play language in new ways. Addiction was once an entirely positive word: something you liked to do and would persuade your friends to try, and it is still used this way: we describe our favourite food, drink or music as being ‘wonderfully addictive’. In 1529 to say ‘I am addict to my employer’ meant I was assigned to him, and was its only meaning. Not long afterwards Shakespeare used the phrase ‘addicted to a melancholy’ in Twelfth Night. In 1909, the word was first used to describe habitual and harmful use of a drug. Since the advent of self-improvement, group therapy and the relentless medicalisation of the intimate details of our lives (thanks, in part, to Alcoholics Anonymous) we now regard the compulsive over-indulgence in anything as addiction. When used this way, the word carries the aura of illness. But the ambiguity is ever-present: depending on context, something ‘addictive’ is either hellish or pleasurable. Pleasure and hell have always been bedfellows, well, room mates.

14)

Addiction is a view: desolation row. The addict has been abandoned. She is an orphan. The object of her fixation is her last hope. No person counts for anything, but for the fulfilment of the habit. The world is barren of the nourishment of love. The pain that drives the addict demands expression in the drama of her daily business: withdrawal, scoring, fixing. The worldview of addiction requires the support of its own myth. Social deprivation as breeding ground for mythic addiction raises its head here – makes good, hard edged doom reality fiction and movies.

15)

Love ceases to be a pleasure, when it ceases to be a secret.
(Aphra Benn, The Lover’s Watch, 1686)

The punt is a pleasure vehicle, used to make journeys of leisure, trips with no other point, along rivers.

The things you get hooked on, the objects of addiction are pleasure vehicles that punt you down rivers of ennui, only to be swept over cataracts of dependency. Pleasure and prosperity cannot last; they decline into their opposites: regret, hangover, poverty.

Secrecy is the key to the love affair of addiction. As the lines under your eyes become more pronounced, more visible to the world, so the love ceases to be pleasure and the pleasure ceases to be lovable.

16)

Our democratic, self-steering, juggernaut of unhappy individuality has a flaw: it craves definition, to know it is real, and is liable to get hooked on the sensations and things that offer it the definitions its history of wretchedness demands. We long to be someone, something, a contender – usually someone other than what fate has made us.

We carry scars, our histories of wretchedness, from the psychic trauma we endure. We are compelled to be how we are, to seek meaning and definition, by forces that are hidden from us. That they are hidden makes addiction look like an illness. You get ill from catching invisible germs and viruses: you get hooked from catching addiction.

“Who are you?” you ask, and I give you my name, tell you of my job and perhaps about my immediate family – my immediate definitions. But you want more. I tell you about my tastes and friends, my skills and weaknesses. I let you see me. But still this is not enough for you. Soon I run out of definitions. There is nothing left. Beyond these conscious definitions my conscious self does not exist. It would seem to be an empty shell, though it is in fact full to the brim with stuff I can’t see, stuff I have no control over, my unconscious, which just happens.

But my conscious self wants to exist and to know that it exists. So I cling to those defining experiences that seem to make me real. When that clinging is obsessive I am addicted. Before long the clung-to definitions cease to work, to define – the pariah status of addict has taken over. I shop, therefore I am. I am what I shop. But if I cling to this definition and shop compulsively, I cease to be what I shop. I become a shopaholic. This is true whatever the activity or substance: whether it be drinking, gambling, working, having sex, doing dope, smoking heroin or overeating, or any combination of psychotropic acts. So overwhelmed are we by the myth of self that it is hard to exist without some degree of addiction. We are all, without exception, flitting up and down a continuum of dependence that has tea-drinking and telly watching at one end and crack cocaine and slashing yourself with razor blades at the other.

17)

So here I am, a fifty-seven year old, brought face to face, interface, with the myth, not fairy story, that I am a writer, which now meets the story of the gaping, a lament of lack, abiding in me, that has sometimes carried the word ‘addiction’.

Jean Luc Godard would include shots of the film being made in the film he was making, his communication. Like showing a bit of creative petticoat?

Addiction is not other, but integral to life, a part of the fabric, even the weft. Fundamentally, I am addicted to surviving. So I write. To bring these stories together I must now let my mind run with the exigencies of other people’s addictions. To that end I have been revisiting Broadway Lodge where I got straight at 27 years ago. Elementally, we are all addicted to surviving, to not dieing.

18)

Freddie’s upturned-U mouth mumbled. (I think I saw a pink bottom gum with no teeth.)

“The missiz phoned yesterday.” He started a story about how she was already getting orders for Christmas. (This was July.) How he would soon have to start grafting and earning, those were the words. He didn’t know anything else. He had to keep his wife and children in victuals.

The counsellor interrupted him as if in a university debate: “Perhaps we should make the language you are using clear to the group? What do you think, Freddie? Just what you mean by ‘grafting’ and ‘earning’. It sounds like you run some kind of mail order catalogue. What do you mean by those words, grafting and earning?”

Freddie’s tattoos rippled in protest. Wasn’t it obvious what he meant?

“Thieving, yeah, thieving. People phone the missiz with their orders for Christmas about now and we get em for em. Know what I mean?”

He had been inside four times already. Thieving was the only craft he knew. Part and parcel of using heroin. The tough guys in the group moralised at him for some time about how he could change, get on the programme, work the steps and about the danger that he would be doing a ten stretch if he carried on. They were concerned that he couldn’t see a connection between thieving and using junk. Freddie didn’t know, so the counsellor helped him understand how he felt.

Freddie was an old-school cockney heart-of-gold, luvs-his-mum, villain. His lack of teeth made his speech sound stoned, heightening the 21st century Dickensian, gor luv a duck stereotype, acting out society’s expectations. His tracks around addiction deeply entrenched in the myth of the no-hope, socially deprived addict.

Earlier, before the group, I had been floating ideas with three residents who rolled and smoked cigarettes one after the other. It’s not an illness, I had said. You don’t catch it like an illness, for a start. This in response to their talk of ‘this illness’ as if it had a presence in the room and they didn’t like to point. ‘This illness,’ objectifying it, taking it out of themselves and spreading it around the room.

After Frank had had his say about the counsellor being out of order moving him to a different room, completely out of order; after Liz had declared that she was leaving the next day: she couldn’t connect, and had been attacked for spending 45 minutes on the phone last night; after all the everyday business of the emotions of addicts making a break under the wire of the myth, Freddie spoke.

19)

Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations)

The language of punting:

Although normally rowed or paddled, the Breydon fowlers sometimes rigged their punts with a small mast and a leg-o’-mutton sail to enable them to get to and from Burgh Flats more rapidly. These punts had no keel, centreboard or rudder, being steered with an oar through a quarter rowlock. They were flat-bottomed and wall-sided, but fleet, narrow and long; by no means a safe type of craft in rough weather on Breydon Water, quite a number of fowlers being drowned when out in them.

Similar punts were later used on Hickling Broad but, being quanted, because of the shallow water and hard bottom – instead of rowed, they were made safer by giving them a wider floor particularly aft where the quanter stood, flaring sides, a slight round to the bottom and a little spring to the floor. The purpose of the latter was to help the punt over shallow reed beds, where otherwise she would have stubbed a sharp forefoot into them. Both bow and stern were likewise gently rounded for ease of ‘shoving’ in very shallow water. Broadsmen who used them as workboats claimed that a traditional Hickling Gun Punt could float wherever there had been a heavy dew.
(G. Sambrooke Sturgess, The Norfolk Punt Association website)

A quant is a punt pole; a quanter is one who punts.

20)

Punts = Cambridge = unearthed myths and memories of the revolution of Happening = Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret being the Piper at the Gates of the Dawning of a sixties creative insistence that included me. In my head and heart, that is.

For me Cambridge also means George Darwin’s daughter, my grandmother, Gwen Raverat, who lived in the Old Granary, overlooking the Anchor and the Mill Pond, by Silver Street Bridge. She broke free from the stifling Darwin family ambience, whose tentacles were everywhere, to be an artist. Before the First World War, her peers, later to be called the Neo-Pagans by Virginia Woolf, included Rubert Brooke. There are striking parallels with what we got up to in Cambridge fifty years later. My breaking free was into the slavery of drug addiction, hers into an established bohemianism.

After the war, Gwen started writing a novel about her experiences in 1909 (the year the Oxford English Dictionary records for the first use of the word addict in the drug sense) (I have changed the names she used back to those of the real people she was clearly writing about):

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 [Raverat, later to become Gwen’s husband] 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.

21)

I had stubbed my sharp forefoot as I quanted through the group, the dew not heavy enough. Frank was a taught, articulate, good-looking guy, keen to voice other members of the group’s difficulties and denials, but not so good at his own. He made sure we understood he was an actor, though the last audition was fifteen years ago. The issue we dealt with was his being swept away by his anger. In the end the group heard his contrition. And he intoned twelve truisms in penance.

But Freddie couldn’t connect with the programme. He’d gone through treatment four or so times before, addicted to addiction and relapse and the whole nine yards of the myth, the construct of addiction, the worldview of the twelve step programme.

Liz was interrogated about her phone calls and how she really didn’t think the programme was for her and then, just as people started to eye the clock more often, Freddie said there was something he would like to say to me, William.

(I should say that, though my chair was fully part of the circular seating arrangement, I was a silent observer. I wasn’t part of the group, not part of their verity, under instructions to keep my gob shut.)

“Yeah, William,” he turned to me, “this morning, you said it ain’t an illness,” he said with confidence. “What d’you mean? Cos that is.” With this he generated a frisson like that of Jean Luc Goddard filming himself filming.

“Yeah,” chimed Frank, “that is. An illness. That is an illness. Yeah. I reckon you need to do your first and second steps again.” Hands reaching out through the orthodoxies, trying to pull me back to theirs. The counsellor explained that I was free to have whatever views I liked. (I didn’t quite believe he meant it. I was clearly a heretic.) We stood to mumble the Serenity Prayer: “…and the wisdom to know the difference.”

22)

Only connect!…Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.
(E.M. Forster, Howards End)

(I am talking to myself here:) To connect, I must write, not to survive, but to tell the story. It must be told. I am in search of this-ness, haecceity, in the desert of Monday mornings, the particular ordinariness of the Rugby Club practice over there, across the valley, and an ambulance eye-oring up to the roundabout to convey someone’s suffering. Rising above the vapid in the silence of the self; the drab, everyday, flat passage of time where gossip and the banal are king: it’s here the addict seeks exaltation. ‘Only connecting’ carries me through the insecurity of a writer’s imagined poverty. Survival is another department.

Addiction is the wrong answer to lack, insecurity and unease. It does not fill the hole that starts it.

23)

An astonishing number of those that have once been addicts work in the addiction industry in one way or another. And I know that writing this can be regarded as working in the addiction industry.

Imagine: many thousands of people get an illness from giving the wrong answer to the problem of human existence. A proportion of these victims of life get well, though they continue to believe they have an incurable disease. In recovery, the only job they want is helping other such victims get well. Out of the millions who have given the wrong answer to life, some are in recovery and devote themselves to giving those still giving the wrong answer help to give the right answer.

A round about way of being concerned with life, if a rather medicalised version, a circumambulation around the questions: what is life? and, by inference, is life art? Since most lives are rooted in addiction, we can make art out of that addicted life. The Happenings I was part of in the sixties were an attempted bridge to a kingdom where there is no difference between life and art, across a chasm of settling-down ordinariness, denial and ordinary jobs. And what self-respecting beatnik wants a one of those?

The attempted bridge from the gazebo.

24)

Ideally, love and addiction do not have anything at all to do with one another. They are polar opposites. Nothing could be further removed from genuine love — conceived as a commitment to mutual growth and fulfilment — than the desperate self-seeking dependency, which, with drugs, we call addiction. Yet in practice, we tend to get them confused. We often say ‘love’ when we really mean, and are acting out, an addiction — a sterile, ingrown dependency relationship, with another person serving as the object of our need for security. This interpersonal dependency is not like an addiction, not something analogous to addiction; it is an addiction. It is every bit as much an addiction as drug dependency.
(Stanton Peele, Love and Addiction)

An excruciatingly pretty girl holds the mystery to herself, the mystery of her power to bewitch, delighting as she enthrals. Anita was pretty, like a woman, and she thrived on enthralling me when we were seventeen in Cambridge. I was a beat poet, she a goddess of the high-healed leather boot and short skirt. There were occasions on punts, when to sit next to her, being quanted by Dave down the Backs, with my arm around her shoulders, my hand on her skin, close to her capricious breast, brushing off the envious glances, occasions when this was heaven. But the post-coital sadness would creep in, or maybe it was withdrawal symptoms? Heroin loved me more privately and more completely.

25)

Come to that, what is the addiction industry? It is constituted of straighteners of chaos, smoothers of torture and surgeons of the personality. It is divided into two broad churches: the fundamentalist (it has its dogma, its holy Big Book and its inspirational truisms), peculiarly American, Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and the looser, more European, more leftwing and liberal Chapel of Harm Reduction.

26)

Dr J Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne is a liquid medicine which assuages pain of every kind, affords a calm refreshing sleep without headache and invigorates the nervous system when exhausted.
(from Victorian advertising for the product)

Chlorodyne is a mixture of hydrochloride of morphine, chloroform, ether, prussic acid, treacle, extract of liquorice, oil of peppermint and syrup, much used in the Empire to keep its masters from the ravages of diarrhoea.

The early sixties were another universe: music came only from the Dansette gramophone or Radio Luxembourg. We were the first teenagers; previously adults suddenly plopped out of children’s bodies, wearing trilbies and perms, as if from a chrysalis, and parents had only to deal with smaller versions of themselves.

We long-haired, revolting teenagers would go to chemists who still sold patent medicines invented by the Victorians for use in the Empire. One such was Chlorodyne. Dr J Collis Browne’s brown hexagonal bottle came in a box, wrapped in a sheet of archaic advertising. One message it carried was the text of a letter, dated 1885, to the manufacturer, J T Davenport Esq, of 33 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London:

Dear Sir,
We embrace this opportunity of congratulating you upon the widespread reputation that this justly esteemed medicine has earned for itself, not only in Hindustan, but all over the East. As a remedy of general utility, we must question whether a better is imported into the country, and we shall be glad to hear of its finding a place in every Anglo-Indian house. The other brands, we are happy to say, are now relegated to the native bazaars, and, judging from their sale, we fancy their sojourn there will be evanescent…
We are sir, faithfully yours,
Symes & Co
Pharmaceutical Chemists, Medical Hall, Simla
Members of the Pharm. Society of Great Britain
His Excellency, the Viceroy’s Chemists

Did Symes and Co employ Rudyard Kipling to write their advertising copy? “We fancy their sojourn will be evanescent!” Anyway, you get the point: opium was respectable for the Victorians and continued to be, by tacit agreement, until 1965.

A bottle cost one shilling and sixpence. One afternoon when all the family were out, Pete, Andrew, Nigel and Dave came round, bringing three bottles of the stuff. We emptied them into a small battered saucepan that my mother wouldn’t miss, added some sugar and boiled. When it had stopped effervescing, we let it cool and divided it among five cups. It tasted disgusting, but we managed to get it down without vomiting. We sat round waiting. Nothing happened.

27)

Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!
(Thomas de Quincy, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1822)

A blanket of nothing happened, a fuzzy wrapping of mental cotton wool. We felt nothing, no sensation and yet a buzz, a humming, and with that, a release and disinterested amusement. Our minds could follow themselves, go where and how they wished with no emotional complication, no pain. I was no longer the shell, the tormented genius that had lost the love of his life and could not engage with his friends. Now I could BE, free from the hole in my belly. My intelligence could do what it was supposed to do.

After some marvelling at how we became nicely contained, we were stoned stones amongst the trees and bushes in the garden, simply standing, as though playing ‘statues’. It was a wonder to be so very immobile, to allow nature to grow around us, a breeze to stroke my face. The experience of permanence that only a rock would feel, to revel in just being, no more, just being, without nagging doubt, fear or conflict. Instant wholeness in a bottle.

A love affair began, a marriage of an existential metabolism and a substance, a delirium of belonging, being understood, coming home, being seen. The world was complete now I was in the arms of my beloved.

28)

Addiction is a love affair with an imaginary friend: a secret lover whom no one else can see or understand. The trouble is that as the addiction develops, your imaginary friend changes shape and disappears into the dark forest of sensory delight. The harder you look for him, the darker the forest, the more difficult it is to find him. You may see him intermittently, as he darts through the trees, but before you can stop yourself you are in the self-regarding, auto-destructive drama of living addiction.

You know it is addiction when something compels you to keep returning to an experience that seems to meet your inner pain, but in fact only compounds it. Like a black hole, the affair sucks all pain into its vortex, metamorphosing it into the very pain of addiction. And the addict’s mind says this pain is unbearable, that he must have more stuff, more drug. And the more he takes, the worse the pain. And so he enters the spiral repetition that is hell.

29)

Everything I want to write I already know. In the British tradition, I improvise, like a gentleman: I write what I discover as I discover what I will write. Film of myself making the movie is part of the movie. I am not going to find any truths outside except in the watching and must bring the longueurs of Monday mornings into the picture. But these truths must be mined inside. I need my gazebo to look out on the passing show. I also sometimes imagine I need financial security, to know there will be a buck of some sort, to make sense of what I see. The lack of panic. I am addicted to the lack of panic.

30)

A year after the stoned stone experience, I was a beatnik, a poet, a cultural revolutionary, reading – wonderful irony – Moral Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, as philosophy was then called. An American blues guitarist I had met in Greece that summer, turned up with some ‘goodies’.

“Hi William,” he said as he came in the door. “How’s it going?”

“Oh fine, fine,” I replied nervously, having no idea where we were heading. “Hey, come in and sit down, man.”

“Yeah, right man. Hey, is all this stuff yours? I mean, do you get to have two whole rooms to yourself? Is that right? That’s too much, man.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” And we flannelled on like that for some time. He offered me some of that hash and opium stuff and I rolled a joint. It had the same power that I remembered. I put on some Eric Dolphy: his bass clarinet laying down a spiky, gruff commentary. A good time of appreciating each other’s company in increasingly stoned silence.

“Bill, what do you feel about H, you know, heroin?” He blurted out as though he’d been working out a way to ask. And why couldn’t he use my full name? I am not Bill.

I had always said that anyone who touches that stuff must be mad. Well, I thought I had said it. It was obvious, wasn’t it, that that was real self-abuse. Anyway, I, for one, had no intention of getting hooked. He was only asking out of something to say, wasn’t he?

“I really don’t know. I mean, it must be an awful drag to get hooked, to need the stuff every day. I think that people who get hooked only have themselves to blame. Such an idiotic thing to do.”

“Don’t know so much, takes weeks to get hooked.” I should have known; he is a junky. “Yeah, you’ve got to use it everyday for weeks before it gets you hooked. Look, I’m asking, because I happen to have some here. Would you like to try a real small dose? Can’t hurt you. No way is it going to get you hooked.”

“Well…. I don’t know,” I prevaricated. The phial he’d just put on the table had his name on the pharmacist’s label. How come he’d written that he was just back from Greece, when he’d obviously been back long enough to get himself registered. Why had he lied to me? But, on the other hand, did it matter? He had it all there on my table: the tiny pills of heroin, the syringe in its box and some needles in their foil. Just one tiny dose couldn’t turn me into a raving addict, not just like that, not one minute dose. And I would know what it was like. I would be able to tell people how dangerous it was.

“Well, OK then, just as an experiment, but only a small one, a really small one.” His face took on a serious purpose as he went to the sink in the bedroom and brought back a glass of water.

“Yeah, just a really tiny one. How do you, well, go about it?” The anticipation became granular in the endings of my nerves, not unlike that before sex.

He showed me how to wrap the belt round my arm, just above the elbow, keeping it tight against my knee. My veins quickly swelled up. He took the syringe from me and pressed the sharp point of the needle, the shiny, tapered, metal point, against one of the veins and slowly pierced the skin.

At first, the vein retreated, but with an almost audible click, such was our concentration, it soon penetrated the wall of the vein. All four of our eyes were focused on the tiny spot where the metal shaft of the needle entered my arm. I held my lower lip behind my teeth, he screwed up his brow in concentration.

“That’s it. We’ve got it. Let go the belt. Wish I had veins like this.” I lifted my arm from my knee to release the belt. He pulled the plunger a short way out of the syringe. A cloud of crimson swelled up into the colourless liquid.

“Here, you do it. Much better you do it.” I pushed the plunger halfway and not more than twenty seconds later there was a flash, the taste so much in my root, my basis, my matrix that it could have been my bones that were buzzing. I played with it: pushing and pulling the plunger to watch the crimson liquid rush to mix with the heroin essence. It was a good five minutes before I’d emptied the syringe.

I was floating, suspended from the world. My body and its functions very distant. Before long I developed another symptom common to those under the effect of junk, an incessant itch just beneath the skin as though my blood were the agent, but that didn’t matter either. I was borne up from an unloving world on welcoming, fluid dreams that I could control.

31)

Addiction happens to selves: no self, no addiction. Before the reformation there were no addicts, because that’s when the autonomous self sprang into life. And it is the self that ‘has’ addiction; indeed it was invented because this new self needed some validation, as I shall explain.

The reformation told us that we could, and should, have a direct relationship with God – the Church no longer ruled every aspect of our lives; we did. We had to be good all on our own, and demonstrate our goodness. The romantics instilled this new self with heroism. Freud told us it was driven by dark unseen forces. Psychotherapy, consumerism and post-modern democracy showed us it had needs, rights and preferences.

The end result is a society populated by billions of autonomous beings driving the lives they think they own down the motorway of circumstance.

Many-wheeled juggernauts (from the Sanskrit, jagannatha, ‘lord of the world’) thundering along their circumstance highways, in control at all times, because this is to be good, and we need to be good because this is to be loved by God and your fellow juggernauts. And love is what we crave. Losing control, as in ‘my life is out of control’, is a negation of the new self’s purpose. This is bad. This is depressing. This is weakness.

The brave new world of the self says it’s a good thing to ‘unwind’, to render your self temporarily out of control with alcohol, ecstasy or other changers of consciousness. By some strange magic, this emphasises how ‘in control’ we are the rest of time. Enjoyment is out of control; business is in control. The juggernaut that knows how to keep its out-of-control interludes temporary is deemed to be a successful, and therefore a good juggernaut. The one that can’t draw that boundary, and crashes across all three lanes of the motorway is deemed unsuccessful, a bad juggernaut.

32)

My addiction had begun. I was transfixed. It was inevitable that I have another fix of heroin. In hindsight. The love affair started immediately. Heroin met my imbalance, my depth of anger and wretchedness, offering to put a warm coat round its shoulders and mop its brow. The ideas of the ‘addictive personality’ and of the ‘addiction gene’ are compelling propositions in such circumstances, but they are still cogs in the mythology machine.

The puzzlement as to why I got hooked and not my peers remains – we were exposed to exactly the same cultural, environmental and revolutionary inputs. I say it was my pain, my particular and unresolved pain, what done it – it was met by the magic of opium and then heroin. Others would say it was my addictive personality or even my addiction gene that marked me out. It is a question of style and responsibility. My pain is something that can be looked at, understood, changed. Of the mind, it is a close relation of mood, a mystical object. It is not what it presents itself as. Whereas addictive personality and addiction gene both have a gloss of science and objectivity to them, such that you have no responsibility for them and no chance of changing the fundamentals.

“Sorry guv, but I got the thieving gene. I gotta thieve at least once a week.”

“It’s not the stuff, it’s the style that stupefies,” wrote John Wisdom, my Moral Sciences professor at Cambridge.

33)

If the goodness of the good self is demonstrated in its being controlled, then the badness of the bad self manifests when it is out of control, and you can’t get more out of control than addiction. Society needs addiction and the idea of evil drugs to keep its understanding of itself intact, just as the medieval Church exorcised the devil from heretics to maintain its power. Medicine detects the symptoms of addiction and exorcises its evil, just as the priests and torturers of the Inquisition detected the symptoms of the devil in those it diagnosed as heretics.

So persuasive is this myth that it is reality that addicts comply with and act it out, just as the medieval heretic acted out his possession by the devil. They are self-fulfilling myths. Addicts become expert at being addicts: they behave and think according to the social constructs that determine what addicts are. They are scapegoats, taking on the poison of their families and communities.

34)

Despite the way we use the word ‘drug’ to mean ‘habit-forming substance’, there is not, and cannot be, any substance or activity that has addictiveness built into its marrow. What is addictive is our response to the sensations we get, the experience arising from the ingestion of substances or the participation in activities.

The problem is always us. Our private experience, inside, determines truth. When the world does not give us the experience of solace we want, we perpetuate the collective hunch we call reality by eating some of it. We get fat. We get indigestion. We cannot stop eating. The solution is always us. Not it. Not chemicals. Not money. Us. Inside. And a confusion of inner and outer.

35)

It turns out that Frank, the taught, articulate guy at Broadway Lodge, always keen to voice other members of the group’s difficulties and denials, but not so good at his own, it turns out he is not and has never been an actor. His acting was good enough to fool me, though. I’d gone back again and had been invited to ‘do a share’ to the assembled secondary care clients.

“You might want to tread carefully about not going to meetings,” the counsellor held my elbow, watching the orthodoxies, before we went in, “these guys are in a delicate state.” After introducing me to the people, he left me on my own, to share.

I was as honest as I knew how about the process of my last twenty seven years, without making too much of my AA denial. I was Francis Drake returning from his discovery of San Francisco, of where it would be, to tell his future crews how natives would say: “missing you already” when you parted company. My audience couldn’t imagine life as adults, sans comfort blankets, with friends and relationships that worked.

Frank told me his story. His first years were spent in Catholic Belfast, but when still very young his mother and stepfather moved to London, sarf Lunnun where he acquired his savvy and accent. His stepfather didn’t talk to him and would slap him about a bit. He would take him to the Irish pub so he could drink the heads of the men’s Guinnesses.

“Were you forced to do this?” I thought it sounded like a strange kind of child abuse, but no.

“Nar, I loved it. Well, not the taste, mind. But going round the glasses drinking the heads like. Loved it.”

At the age of ten, his mother decided she should take him back to Belfast. His step dad had left and the new bloke, very strict, but a good man, wanted him back where he belonged.

“It was a nuclear explosion,” said Frank. “Hated it. The way I spoke. They made fun of me. Always on the outside. Never went to school.”

He always had a pain. At fifteen he ran away back to London and developed a life of ducking and diving around Archway. There was Tracy. He first met her when he was getting into the ecstacy rave scene. She supplied him. This was it. He was good looking and could know his purpose raving forever with his Tracy. Her family had bought her a hairdressers.

So it went until he got to Broadway: a life of ducking, diving, living on the street, avoiding prison by the proverbial skin, but also knowing this was not it. There was no acting, but he had started studying ancient Greek history. He didn’t know what he was going to do, had not a clue, when he got out.

Frank was mildly surprised I had been taken in by his acting scam. Chuffed really.

36)

An entire lifetime of and in addiction is not uncommon. Maybe it’s how we all are. The only difference is that Frank has been a professional addict – it has been his entire adult life. The opposite of addiction would seem to be freedom. And that’s the problem! Fear of freedom is why we retreat into addiction, into eating the world. Dubya Bush is fond of describing his countrymen as ‘freedom loving people’. But freedom is not the paradise we imagine it to be. As Franz Kafka said, “You are free, and that is why you are lost.”

37)

A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.
(Life in an advertising slogan)

You could say the opposite of addiction is work, rest and play. You could. The business of busy-ness. But Frank had it refined. He did away with all the unnecessary trappings; pared it down to the professional, one-pointed pursuit of addiction in itself and of itself. Just enough thieving to keep him in chemicals. His pain, despair and cynicism were such. No, the opposite of addiction is mysticism: the actualisation of the purpose of life.

38)

I can fully see that the Rowe/Breggin[1] view is challenging, difficult and upsetting. [I just wrote in an email to friends who are the parents of a sufferer from manic depression.] My addiction behaviour – me doing addict things despite the very obvious folly and death of it – was a defence against owning unacceptable knowledge: that I wasn’t loved, that I didn’t therefore exist, that I could have been someone else, that I was pointless. These items of understanding were worse, more frightening than death. The ‘mania’ of a heroin high was so much better and damn the consequences, which included the rolling up of all pain into the pain of addiction, so it still couldn’t be seen.

What wouldn’t we do to avoid execution? Existential angst can be more catastrophic than execution. It must be avoided at all costs.

Psychiatry has only chemistry to offer. Chemistry has failed. As Dorothy says, lithium et al, may calm the manias, but the depression will persist until death. Just because biopsychiatry, medical science’s only offering with regard to manic depression, says that it is chemical does not mean this is how it is. Science has a history of as many wrong turnings as it has right (flat earth, phlogiston, witch hunts, lobotomy, for a small start). This modern Western society of autonomous selves needs its policemen and has appointed psychiatrists as their labellers and controllers of awkward persons.

You say: “mania is a defence mechanism against feeling terribly bad about something or some things and that the issue can be approached psychologically (albeit, Dorothy admits in the case of manic depressives, with great difficulty).” I don’t think that’s quite right: it is a defence against totally unacceptable, as they seem, facts. It’s not that I feel sad about my mother not loving me properly, but that the FACT that she did NOT love me had an explosive, corrosive and devastating power. Whether she did or not.

We all fail as parents. “They fuck you up, do your mum and dad…” We fail as children. These failures leave their scars. Some adopt radical defences (addiction, mania) against the horror of these failures; others manage to compromise, adapt and adjust (my sisters, for instance – the signs of their compromise are clear to me).

The radical defences have two possible outcomes: 1) the symptoms get treated as reality and the sufferer lives his life as one who is the symptoms: addict, alcoholic, manic depressive, or 2) the symptoms are discovered to be a) unacceptable and b) an opportunity for change.

“I don’t need to be an addict/manic. I can change. The addiction/mania/depression does not do what it is meant to do.”

Certainly it is a huge responsibility [looking after your son], the hugest. But is the pumping of chemical coshes into the situation a responsible way forward? The fear in the sufferer generates fear in all those around him. It’s meant to. That’s what mania is ‘for’. The demand is for love and attention. But the result is fear – how counterproductive! The cliché, ‘it’s all in the mind’ is true. Not the brain, but the mind. We’re scared shitless by our creations, but it is nothing other than the mind none the less. We invest these mental monsters with hyper-reality and search for traces of their existence in our genes, urine and brain scans, but they have no substance. That is not to say they don’t threaten and hurt and confuse, but the effects of these monsters can be handled by learning the basic emotional alphabet that some people learn in infancy, childhood and adolescence and others don’t. We hate our parents and we love them. We have uncontrollable anger towards them and that, we believe, is not good, or right… etc.

—————————
[1] He and I had been to visit Dorothy Rowe, the psychologist and author the day before, about a possible documentary project. An updated version of her Beyond Fear was just about to be published. Peter Breggin wrote Toxic Psychiatry about the damage caused by that profession.

© William Pryor 2003
delivered at the 2003 International Virginia Woolf Conference at Smith College, Massachusetts, USA

Let me be clear: I am not an academic, nor a Woolfian scholar. I have slunk into these proceedings as a living relic of Bloomsbury and Neo-Paganism, an aging beatnik-publisher-author and I stand before you in a blatant and shameless act of self-advertisement. I am one of 32 great-great-grandsons of Charles Darwin and one of 3 grandsons of Gwen and Jacques Raverat, who were friends of Virginia Woolf and founder members of Rupert Brooke’s Neo-Paganism. The memes of Bloomsbury, Neo Paganism, beatnikery and bohemianism have shaped my life, the tea leaves of which can maybe demonstrate my theme: that the ideas that are memes, have us, not us ideas. (The City of Cambridge, England, has begun to redress the university’s poor record apropos women by unveiling a Blue Plaque for Gwen, its first for a woman, next to the front door to her birthplace, Newnham Grange, now Darwin College.)

This paper is a shameless act of self-advertisement in that it revolves around the first two books published by what is my homage to Hogarth Press, Clear Books. They are: The Survival of the Coolest, a memoir of my sixties neo-dadaist, beatnik, addiction madness, and Virginia Woolf and the Raverats, a portrait of the friendship between Jacques & Gwen Raverat and Virginia Woolf in their letters, diary entries, other writings, paintings, photographs and wood engravings.

Back to memes – I owe you an explanation: it is a word that the Oxford Dictionary has only recently welcomed onto its hallowed divans, defining it as: an element of a culture or system of behaviour that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation. They’re like viruses, you catch them. I caught Bloomsbury and Neo Paganism from my grandmother – she made her wood engravings, her art was her life and I was infected. I didn’t understand the memes, you don’t have to, but I had the illness. Because memes are dangerous – they got me addicted, and here in the United States of Ascendancy, though my great-great-grandfather’s star may be bright, the evolutionary meme has had people arrested.

Like genes, memes are selfish. Daniel Dennett has an interesting way of looking at them: “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.” A human being is a meme’s way of making more memes. I could add: Virgina Woolf is Nicole Kidman’s nose’s way of making another film. If you weren’t infected by the meme meme when I started, you should be by now and there’s nothing you can do about it. We are doomed to do what our memes determine. Any success we may claim lies solely in the grace and elegance we bring to the memetic dance; not in the contents of the memes, which are not us, though they determine how we are.

Since we cannot shape our lives, it is up to us to find our art in exquisite and articulate expressions of our memes. They would speak – it is us who gives them voice. As Virginia 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. (Letters of Virginia Woolf Vol 2, Letter 1330) This paper is me peering about – as a scapegoat I am certainly devoted.

Memes need hosts in which they can work out their evolutionary purpose. If those hosts also bear genetic determinants of outré behaviour then the effects of Neo Pagan memes are doubly strong. Not only was my grandfather, Jacques Raverat, a close friend of Rupert Brooke and therefore a Neo Pagan, but he was deeply infected by the Bloomsbury memeplex through his and Gwen’s friendship with Virginia Woolf. Which allows my favourite self-reference meme to have an outing  the Bloomsbury memeplex needs to reject itself so that it can be the truly revolutionary meme that it is.

“We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence,” wrote Charles Darwin in The Origin of the Species. Only here it is the struggle for the existence of meaning, of purpose, of clarity as against madness (what is called ‘insanity’ does seem to be an ingredient of the bohemian meme pudding), the struggle for the overthrow of encrusted order and academic enstranglement – sorry, we were told to avoid long words, let me rephrase: the struggle for the existence of creativity, which is bohemianism. It is my contention that Bloomsbury and Neo-Paganism were simply two species of a meme for Bohemianism, as were its later variants: beatnikery and hippiedom.

By “simply” I in no way impugn their importance, but merely stress the inevitability of the process of becoming bohemian. I couldn’t help be a beatnik myself, so how could I impugn that holy state. As Kerouac said: It’s a kind of furtiveness… Like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge… a kind of beatness… and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world.

The followers of the church of meme (founded by Richard Dawkins, that devout disciple of Mr Darwin) would have us believe that we don’t have ideas (or memes); rather, ideas have us. We are mere vehicles in which ideas, memes, can work out their evolutionary destiny. However wrong the theory may be – and no one is too sure yet (nor will ever be) – the meme meme is attractive. It is our memes that are clever, brilliant, not us. Attractive because it hints at a spiritual reality, the hegemony of interior authenticity (what a phrase! – it would have made a great title for a paper at such an august gathering), above and beyond the vast memeplex that is the mind and also thus helps develop more radical views of madness – two conditions that are not wholly disconnected. As Ginsberg wrote: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

Virginia Woolf was a most successful meme generator – if volumes published, films made and conferences organised are any measure. Not quite as successful as my great-great-grandfather’s Darwin meme which has gone as far as getting his face on the British ten-pound note. We are marinaded in the mimsy of such memetic marvels, swimming in a Darwinian and Woolfian meme-pool.

What is it like to be a reliquary of such memes and genes, you might ask. My grandmother wrote: 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. (1952; Period Piece, p.153)

In my memoir, The Survival of the Coolest, I wrote: The Darwin genes for observation and enquiry were to be put to the one-pointed service of my addiction. In March 1792, Charles’ grandfather Erasmus Darwin wrote in a letter: A fool…is a man who never tried an experiment in his life.

Charles Darwin was ours after all; we were of him. But Darwinian dogmas do not encourage any challenges being made to the dysfunction endemic in his own family. Everything must fit their ideology, which has little to say about the joys and pains of being evolved or of the illuminations of art… Ah! That lack of a family myth, of intimacy! We had no religion but Darwin and Bloomsbury, the gods of science and art, no structure of the heart.

When sitting in the bath, with the steam around my ears, I would debate with myself why I, William, was not someone else. What on earth (or in heaven) determined that I should be ‘I’? It was so lonely being William. Why wasn’t I someone else? (2003; The Survival of the Coolest, p10)

My Bloomsbury memes were developing that particular sixties, Camus-esque alienation in me such that I would become fertile ground for the counter-culture, beatnik, dadaist memes that were to have their wicked way with me. Also a strong Woolfian meme this: how can we know who we are? You’ll have to read my book to find out who I was, but am no more.
In 1916, my grandmother Gwen Raverat, no doubt influenced by Virginia’s success as a writer, began a novel of her own that drew on her experiences as a Neo Pagan. I use this excerpt to set the scene in Virginia Woolf and the Raverats. The hero, Hubert, is clearly Rupert Brooke, while George is modeled on Jacques. She writes: 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.
(2004, Virginia Woolf and the Raverats)

In 1909 this was, no doubt, shocking stuff, the direct equivalent of my smoking a joint at the age of 15 in 1960 with Syd Barrett who was later to start that epitome of hippie entrepreneurship, The Pink Floyd. In The Survival of the Coolest I wrote: The Darwinian authority I had inherited, peering through an upper middle class desert of assumptions and muddled priorities, got me, at a very early age, questioning the mores of the Darwin-Bloomsbury nexus itself. They seemed such hypocrites. So much didn’t make sense. I was, unconsciously, applying the principles they held most precious: question everything.

All male Pryors since gentry were gentry had been to Eton and Trinity Cambridge. To break the tradition would be to tempt the wrath of the gods and to suggest we didn’t have domain over a reasonable chunk of the empire. To get into Eton you had to take the common entrance exam (common, you understand, only in that all public schools used it). A key paper in the exam was Divinity: you had to demonstrate a fundamental understanding of the Bible to enter the ruling elite.

At one of my first enforced readings of the New Testament – I was eleven – I noticed that on one page this guy they were wittering on about was called Saul and on the next he was Paul. Obviously a misprint! I took my biro and corrected all the ‘Paul’s, to ‘Saul’s. If a Darwin can’t know how to edit the Bible, what can he know? (2003; The Survival of the Coolest, p13)

Nothing was sacred, not even the memetic gospel according to Saint Darwin. Bohemianism is about overthrow and rejection of the past. Virginia Woolf re-invented the novel, we beatniks adopted bebop and performed happenings. As Tristan Tzara said in his Dadaist Manifesto, we were new men: rough, bouncing, riding on hiccups. Behind them a crippled world and literary quacks with a mania for improvement. I say unto you: there is no beginning and we do not tremble, we are not sentimental. (1924; Seven Dada Manifestos)

The evidence of the existence and power of the Bloomsbury meme in my life is not just my part in the first British poetry and jazz performances and the largest British poetry reading ever: Wholly Communion at the Albert Hall, when 7,000 people paid to share the beat poesy muse. No, it is that I am now starting a publishing venture, Clear Press, whose avowed aim is to create a direct, Internet-developed relationship with a new audience, memetically empowered by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press.

Without Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins would not have been able to develop the concept of the meme. Without Darwin’s granddaughter, Gwen Raverat, and her connections with Neo-Paganism and the Woolfs, I would not have been infected by the Bloomsbury memeplex.

A subject we have no time for: the relationship between the memes of bohemianism and maturity, or, what happens to old rebellion? In 1925, just before Jacques’ death, Gwen Raverat wrote about NeoPaganism to Virginia: Anyhow it’s all over long ago; it died in 1914 I should think, though it was sick before — Neo Pagans, where are they? Here’s Jacques & me very old in Vence, & Ka so pathetic & lost in Cornwall; & do the Oliviers exist or not? Frances [Cornford] I believe carries on the tradition in the fields of Cambridge — at least as far as neo-paganism can be combined with evangelical christianity, (which I think any one but Frances would find difficult.) And all the others are dead or have quarrelled or gone mad or are making a lot of money in business. It doesn’t seem to have been a really successful religion, though it was very good fun while it lasted. And what about Bloomsburyism? From here the front looks still firm; but is it solid behind? Is it only a front, concealing earthquakes & chasms? You must tell me. (2004; Virginia Woolf and the Raverats)

From the heights of my old age I would say bohemianism in the 21st century is far from solid behind, but is riddled with earthquakes and chasms. There’s a sense that the memes of art as business and as academic endeavour have devoured the beatnik counter-culture memeplex. Look at Brit Art!

Virginia wrote back to Gwen: 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. (Collected Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol 3, Letter 1541)

I will be holding memetic counseling sessions straight after this.

Works Cited
Pryor, William. The Survival of the Coolest. Bath: Clear Press, 2003
Pryor, William (editor). Virginia Woolf and the Raverats. Bath: Clear Press, 2004
Raverat, Gwen. Period Piece (new Hardback). Bath: Clear Press, 2003.
Tzara, Tristan. Sept Manifestes Dada. Geneva. 1924.
Woolf, Virginia (Edited by Nigel Nicolson & Joanne Trautmann). Collected Letters Volumes 2 and 3. London: Chatto & Windus, 1977

I do actually do some work in my double-glazed log cabin. As well as the writing (see below) I am kept busy by a few other projects:

  • Unhooked Thinking, an annual conference about the nature of addiction to be held in Bath’s Guildhall May 9 to 11, 2007.
  • MediaStores, an e-commerce business set to revolutionise how media products are sold online – a veritable Long Tail, Web 2.0 business. The real deal, Version 2, launches in May, 2007, but you can look at the Version One Beta that only does books here.
  • 1904555136survivaltn.JPGThe Survival of the Coolest the memoir I wrote of the love-affair I had with chemicals – in particular heroin – that changed how I lived in my skin, starting in the sixties.
  • Survival of the Coolest, the movie. I am Associate Producer of the project, developing a film from the screenplay I wrote (with great help from Adele Simmons) based on my book of the same name. It has become a magical-realist fiction that is gathering the kind of interest it needs to get made into an actual movie: Gillies MacKinnon as Director, Carl Schoenfeld as Producer, Robert Carlyle and Natalie Press attached in two key roles.
  • Virginia Woolf and the Raverats 1904555020vwtrade.JPGI compiled and edited the complete correspondence between Virginia Woolf and my maternal grandparents, the Raverats, illustrated with my grandfather’s paintings and my grandmother’s wood engravings.

wpchristiansm.JPGI was born in 1945 in Farnborough, Hampshire, England, where my father was inventing a new glue to stick Mosquito aeroplanes together. Once Oppenheimer had perfected his atomic bomb, we moved back to Cambridge, to the bosom of the Darwin-Bloomsbury nexus. (My grandmother, Gwen Raverat was a friend of that paragon of Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf.)

Being the only boy-child with three sisters, I had to succeed and join the ruling class and was packed off to Eton. By my 16th birthday I had escaped and was hanging out with beats, GI’s, Jamaicans, jazz musicians and those that would be the Pink Floyd: the now mythic Syd Barrett with his architectural student friends, as I studied for my A levels at a crammer.

wpheadswedensm.JPGOne day I packed up my belongings in a spotted suitcase and went to seek my fortune as a beatnik in Paris. I chewed and retched morning glory seeds for their crude LSD. I hung out with Daevid Allen of Gong, American Beat poets and assorted bohemians.

My visions of myself grew to such an extent that I rushed back to Cambridge to tell family and friends that I was a genius, next to Samuel Beckett. “How interesting!” they said.

I was depressed. I didn’t know that’s what the persistent knot in my belly was called, but it stopped me being fully, fully being. When I drank a whole bottle of Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, the opium and chloroform it contained answered my lack of definition. The love affair, the intoxication that manifested as poet and ’pataphysician had begun. All my pain was soon subsumed into the pain of being a junky.

But I still managed to pretend to be a student getting into Trinity, Cambridge, to read Moral Sciences, as philosophy was strangely called.

After many cultural and other adventures and happenings (read a free chapter of the book), where I forged my own whirlwind through the more extreme edges of the sixties cultural revolution, I found myself floundering along the sewer of addiction. A sewer used to drain away society’s and my family’s denials, rejections and embarrassments.

greencataloguecover.jpgHere I skip lightly over the years and the detail of my addictions. Suffice it to say that circumstance supplanted drugs with alcohol for the last few years, but you really will have to read The Survival of the Coolest to discover how far down I went and how I eventually skidded to a low from which change was the only answer. The addiction was no longer useful.

Since that rebirth, I have spent a good deal of time exploring the mythologies of business and busy-hatsmaller.JPGness. I started what became Airlift Book Company, the Green Catalogue, Bath.co.uk and a pioneer Internet music business, Floot.com, but 9/11 put paid to that.

And now, when not out on MediaStores, Unhooked or Survival of the Coolest Movie business I sit in my log cabin on the edges of Bath, having views, writing, improvising cadenzas to the concerto of the living.