family


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.

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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.

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 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.