Sunday, March 29, 2015

Black, dead, inhuman

‘I have been ill now and in bed for over two weeks. That is why I have written nothing. And the new doctor gave me M. & B. tablets which, I suppose, made me feel even worse - black, dead, inhuman as a boulder - telescoped into myself till nothing could come forward.’ This is from the diary of Denton Welch, a British artist and writer born 100 years ago today. He struggled to keep on writing, despite severe health problems, but died tragically young.

Welch was born in Shanghai, China, on 29 March 1915, into a rich privileged family, but his mother (an American by birth) died when he was only 11. In his teens, he was educated at Repton, but he so hated the school he tried running away once. On deciding to become a painter, he enrolled at the Goldsmith School of Art, London. In 1935, when riding his bike, he was involved in a traffic accident. His spine was fractured, and he remained paralysed for several months. During his convalescence, he shook off the Christian Science religion that had been a feature of his childhood; and, eventually, he learned to walk again.

Welch never fully recovered his health, and he suffered repeated infections and headaches, but he continued to paint and draw. In 1941, Leicester Galleries, London, exhibited some of his paintings. Also, some of his poems were well received; and then his autobiographical, Maiden Voyage, for which Dame Edith Sitwell wrote a foreword, sold out. For the next few years, Welch moved home several times, first in south London, then to near Tonbridge, and finally to the village of Crouch near Sevenoaks. In late 1943, he had met Eric Oliver who moved in with Welch, becoming his lover and, increasingly, his carer.

Despite his failing health, these years with Oliver proved fruitful for Welch: most of his published works, such as In Youth Is Pleasure and the autobiographical A Voice Through a Cloud, date from this time. Welch died in December 1948. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, or from James Methuen-Campbell’s biography, Denton Welch: Writer and Artist. Web pages with further details on A Voice Through a Cloud (Wikipedia and The Paris Review) also have more details on Welch. Alan Bennett’s article on Welch for The Guardian is also informative.

Between 1942 and his death, Welch wrote a personal diary, in thin paper-covered school exercise books; he left behind 19 of these. They were first edited by Jocelyn Brooke, and then published by Hamish Hamilton in 1952 as The Denton Welch Journals. In his introduction, Brooke explains that Welch’s handwriting was ‘scrawling and rather school boyish’, that he wrote at great speed with little regard for punctuation, and that his spelling was not very good. The published book contains only about half the original manuscript material, Brooke adds, partly because of concerns at the time about libel, partly because he edited out passages where Welch interrupted his diary to embark on a short story, and partly to avoid repetition.

Here are a few extracts from the Journals.

11 February 1944
‘This evening I bicycled to Penshurst. I climbed up the hill easily because I was with a man who worked at the railway and he talked all the time about the last war.

At the top, he said good-bye and I went on, on, down the hill past a soldier and the old neurotic home, ‘Swaylands’, which is now a military hospital. Two idle loosely hanging soldiers stood at the lodge waiting for something to be brought to them. They looked at me lazily and curiously as I sped past . . .

Nothing can make up for the fact that my very early youth was so clouded with illness and unhappiness. I feel cheated as if I never had that fiercely thrilling time when the fears of childhood have left one and no other thing has swamped one. The cheek is plump and smooth, the eye and the teeth are bright and one feels that one would lie down and die if these first essentials were ever taken away . . .

When I passed the ‘Fleur de Lys’ at Leigh, again I thought of Eric, for he told me that he used often to get tight there.

Curious to think that all this time while Eric worked on the farm, hated it, was utterly lonely, got tight as often as possible just for something to do, I was only a few minutes away in Tonbridge, walking the streets in my restlessness, trying to make myself iller and iller by any foolishness, wanting to die.

And we never met and all the years in between, seven, eight, we knew nothing of each other, they all melted away and wasted.’

21 April 1944
‘This morning I had a book, Planet and Glow-worm, from Edith Sitwell and a letter with her love. Then I went out in the sun and, feeling so much better, I lay on the top of a haystack and sunned myself and ate and actually fell asleep, and I forgot unhappiness and trouble and only felt in a daze with hot sun and cool wind on my face.

Edith mentioned my Horizon story which appeared on Wednesday. Cyril Connolly sent me fourteen guineas and said Hamish Hamilton wanted to know if I had a book of them in mind, because if so he’d like to publish it.

Lately I have a poem in the Spectator and two in Life and Letters and a story in New Writing and one in English Story.

Also I have sold two little pictures to a Mrs. Serocold

It is happiness to have things liked, but when I’m ill as I was on Wednesday and other days lately everything pales to nothing and I want to die more than anything on earth.

I think all I can do is to keep my work going as long as I can. And if I can no longer, then I will die . . .’

8 May 1944
‘When you long with all your heart for someone to love you, a madness grows there that shakes all sense from the trees and the water and the earth. And nothing lives for you, except the long deep bitter want. And this is what everyone feels from birth to death.’

9 April 1945
‘I have said nothing about In Youth is Pleasure, and it has been out since February 22nd (I think). So far everything is so much better than I thought it might be - good reviews, except for Kate O’Brien in the Spectator, and quite long ones and lots. It was all sold out before publication, so now they are bringing it out again.’

30 May 1945
‘When I read about William Blake, I know what I am for. I must never be afraid of my foolishness, or of any pretension. And whatever I have I must use, painting, poetry, prose - not proudly thinking it is not good enough and so lock it inside for fear or laughing, sneering.’

26 August 1945
‘I have been ill now and in bed for over two weeks. That is why I have written nothing. And the new doctor gave me M. & B. tablets which, I suppose, made me feel even worse - black, dead, inhuman as a boulder - telescoped into myself till nothing could come forward. Now I am better, and so the other state seems unbelievable, but it is waiting for me again.’

29 January 1947
‘There were frost flowers thick all over the panes this morning and the milk was frozen. The pipes were frozen too, and the snow thicker than ever. I have not got out of bed, and will not till I hear the pipes thawing. I have been writing here, then eating chocolate as a reward. The panes are all dripping and splashing in the sunshine now. Eric has gone for a walk in the snow, and I wish I could go too. It is the most snow I think I have known in England.’

The Diary Junction

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