‘No mouse or man after a hundred years’: a note on Denton Welch


On 27 February 1948, the novelist, short story writer, artist and autobiographer, Denton Welch wrote: ‘In Gide’s Journal I have just read again how he does not wish to write its pages slowly as he would the pages of a novel. He wants to train himself to rapid writing in it. It is just what I have always felt about this journal of mine. Don’t ponder, don’t grope – just plunge something down, and perhaps more clearness and quickness will come with practice.’[1]

It was, I think, back in October 2020, when my reading took in Elena Ferrante, Alan Garner, Seamus Heaney and Paraic O’Donnell, that I came across this journal entry for that month in 1945:

‘Connie met us in the garden, and because I had grown a beard while in bed, she knelt down on the grass in front of me and murmured something about Christ. Then she got up, looking very old and knowing and monkified, and passed close to Eric, saying nonchalantly, as she brushed his fly buttons with her hand, “Would you like these undone?” Her voice was so light, so almost social sneering, that I could not feel that there was any real sexuality in her, only the ghost of frivolous excitation. Then she began to talk to me about dukes, the Dukes of Cumberland and Cambridge, I think. She always gets on to dukes with me. I wonder why?’

It’s an account of Welch and his close friend Eric Oliver going for tea with Cecilia Carpmael, a wealthy friend of Welch’s mother, a painter with a studio in Cheyne Walk and a house in Kent – ‘and her mad sister, Connie’. If not before, I think it would have caught and held me at those last two sentences.

I don’t know Welch’s writing style well enough to guess at the likelihood of wordplay (probably none whatsoever) in that ‘dukes’—slang for ‘fists’—or, closely following ‘sexuality’ and ‘excitation’, whether there’s a hint of ‘dykes’ (which Eric Partridge suggests was only adopted in the 1930s), but, having only previously read his novel In Youth Is Pleasure, and that more than a dozen years ago, I began reading the Journals properly. Somehow, mysteriously, in the way of these things, I also acquired and read both his last, not quite finished, novel A Voice Through a Cloud and the fine biography, Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer, by the editor of the Journals, Michael De-la-Noy.[2]


Partway—I’m reminded that, years ago, reluctant to accept this one-word version of what he must have thought should be hyphenated or separate words, the poet Charles Tomlinson, who was supervising my thesis, wrote in the margin of a draft chapter: ‘Perhaps you meant “Parkway”?’ (a Bristol railway station)—yes, even when only partway through all three books, one of my strongest and most immediate impressions is that Welch was—as Dylan Thomas remarked of Rilke to Vernon Watkins—‘a very odd boy indeed’.[3]

Welch died in December 1948, at the age of thirty-three. At the age of twenty, he had been involved in an appalling road accident: when cycling he was struck by a car and left with such serious injuries, including a fractured spine, that he was subject to periods of intense pain for the rest of his life, often bedridden with prolonged violent headaches, haemorrhages and fevers. But he also had respites during which he produced stories, poems and essays, drew and painted, wrote many letters, learned to drive a car, to cycle again and go out pretty often, to poke around in antique shops, explore old houses, picnic with Eric Oliver, pay visits to friends or, more often, receive them.

The passage about Gide’s journal practice, which Welch seemed to wish to emulate, is quoted by Michael De-la-Noy at the beginning of his edition of the Journals, when he states that he believes they deserve to be published in their entirety ‘not because they pretend to represent a polished example’ of his ‘neatest literary style or most cleverly condensed subject matter’ but because ‘they stand as a testament to his astonishingly rapid maturity as an author’, as ‘an invaluable record of a tragic and often heroic life’ (Journals xii).

De-la-Noy states in his introduction that Welch never revised the Journals, but much of the writing is extraordinary and would be even had it been extensively revised. As I’ve no doubt quoted before in another connection, ‘the quotabilities swarm’.[4] Some readers may find a few of his concerns ‘precious’: his prolonged and detailed interest in the renovation of his doll’s house, the architectural features of churches, a Georgian jug, the panelling in an old house, a silver teaspoon – but he has an astonishing recall of material details and, not surprisingly, a constant awareness of death and curiosity about how the present might be seen from the future, and sometimes of an audience in that future.


Walt Whitman, in ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, observed the crowds and envisaged others, fifty or a hundred years hence, seeing the islands, enjoying the sunsets and ‘the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide’.[5] Welch writes in November 1942: ‘Sometimes I think of when we shall be quaint, be ancient history – like 1840 and gas lamps in the street or like De Quincey and his Anne in Soho Square, in the doorway with the port and the spices which saved his life. When we shall be like ivories or wax figures seen against a flat background. Something after us as well as before. Our future laid out as the nearer past of the people gazing back at us’ (Journals 25).

In 1944, having received an airmail letter from an aircraftman in India, who had kept track of all Welch’s work and wanted to buy a picture from him, he wrote: ‘It made me feel, when I heard of it, as if I had been preserving myself on a top shelf for years, waiting to be discovered. As if I were dead and done with, and watching some future person ferreting me out’ (Journals 173). In 1947, a little over a year before his own death, he writes: ‘I have been thinking of my mother who died twenty years ago. In years to come, when I shall be older than she was when she died, it will be as if I were her elder brother; then, later still, her father’ (Journals 340). In the year of his death, there is this wonderful entry: ‘This afternoon, with the red sun sinking down into all its coloured cushion clouds – so cold that the people in the streets seem to be ashamed of their faces – and now here, after Russian tea and two fat chocolates sent by Pocetta, just arrived from America. Chopin pours over me from the wireless box. Nothing but this small picture will be left of the day; many years after, people may be able to read, then say, “He was cold, he watched the sunset, he ate a chocolate,” but nothing more will be left to them’ (Journal 352-353).

(Enitharmon Editions)

Sometimes it’s just the oddity, the sheer individuality of the writing, not a sense of striving for effect but rather the product of a mind increasingly reliant upon memory, the consolations of solitude, the gradual withdrawal from a world becoming inaccessible to him in any case. In April 1944: ‘Peter talked about the nice police sergeant he knew who was friendly with Somerset Maugham, E. M. Forster etc. He also talked about his crook friend who likes licking girls all over in Hyde Park and who made £900 out of the Black Market. A curious mixture’ (Journals 143). I like there the specificity of the location in which those comprehensive lickings occur. Or this, on the last day of 1944: ‘In my wall is the mouse that scratches and dances. It seems as immortal as we are, and it is all a painted lie. No mouse or man after a hundred years – no cottage in the trees – only the earth, the water, the dripping woods and the low sky for ever’ (Journals 176).

He is writing his journal largely (1942-1948) in a time of war: it does impinge, sometimes obliquely, sometimes with brutal immediacy—the explosion of a time-bomb which landed in the garden of his home in 1940 smashed all the windows, uprooted a tree and covered the surrounding area with mud and dust—but most often in connection with food. Or, at least, although his biographer comments that Welch ‘was obsessed throughout his adult life’ with food, which occurs often in the imagery in his fiction too,[6] perhaps that’s just my having always connected those years with the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining all sorts of food. In fact, he often describes quite unexceptional meals in careful detail—‘We went on to a dish of new peas, hard boiled egg, split lengthways, sardines, new potatoes with mint and butter, salad hearts and sweet dressing’ (Journals 200)—but at least a dozen times I paused to wonder: ‘Could they really get that or those in 1943 or 1946?’

Just thirty-three years in all. Born in Shanghai, where his family was—and had long been—in business, then schools in England, sometimes selected in the light of their attitude to Christian Science (Welch’s mother was an adherent), Goldsmith School of Art in New Cross. Two books published in his lifetime; the book of stories he’d prepared for the press appeared two days after his funeral; and the almost-finished A Voice Through a Cloud, two years after his death.[7] Like so much of Welch’s writing, it’s intensely autobiographical, beginning with an account of his accident—‘I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness’, the voice being a policeman’s—and going on to trace the aftermath of that profoundly life-altering event. It’s a remarkably accomplished and moving account, with acute recall of his childhood: ‘Out of doors my nostrils were always filled with the smell of humid earth and dank grass, and my heart with the pleasure-fear of seeing ghosts and apparitions.’ There is also a later spur to a memory which, in some particulars if not the primary one here, will strike a chord with many readers: ‘I was reminded of the letters I had written to my mother when she died and I was eleven years old. I used to take these letters out with me into the fields; there I would post them in rabbit-holes, under the overhanging cornices of streams, amongst the tangle of roots and stones and earth, in empty birds’ nests, in old tins and bottles and the pockets of ragged clothes on rubbish dumps, down waterfalls and millraces and a deep forgotten well in the garden of a ruined cottage.’[8]

Easy to quote—’a deep forgotten well’—but harder to stop quoting. Some wonderful stuff, anyway, which has won Welch a good many admirers over the years, from Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen and W. H. Auden to Alan Bennett, William Burroughs and John Waters. And—obviously—me.

Notes


[1] The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 353.

[2] Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud (1950; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983); Michael De-la-Noy, Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer (Harmondsworth: Viking, 1984).

[3] Dylan Thomas, Letters to Vernon Watkins, edited by Vernon Watkins (London: J. M. Dent and Sons and Faber and Faber, 1957), 105.

[4] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[5] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 190.

[6] De-la-Noy, Denton Welch, 35.

[7] Unfinished ‘by a dozen or so pages’: De-la-Noy, Denton Welch, 12.

[8] Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud, 10, 57, 65.

4 thoughts on “‘No mouse or man after a hundred years’: a note on Denton Welch”

  1. Just a little additional textual observation regarding Denton Welch’s “Journals”.

    I’m afraid De-la-Noy’s edition is littered with dozens of silly little transcription errors, which in some cases cause a complete change of meaning. Jocelyn Brooke’s earlier edition is no better, as both used Helen Roeder’s hastily-typed copy as a reference. Brooke at least includes the poems where De-la-Noy does not, but De-la-Noy’s is the more complete in terms of entries. Welch’s mis-dating of his entries is also masked in the De-la-Noy edition: because he deleted the days Welch entered (probably the more accurate measure of the date of writing). Welch was notoriously bad at dating things (letters exist with the wrong year, and others say things like “31st November”) so De-la-Noy disservices the reader by concealing the errors in this way. The complete, correct, unexpurgated Journals is now surely overdue.

    Really enjoying reading all the other blog entries – the world needs more Ford Madox Ford blogs!

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    1. Thanks very much for this, Steven. As you can tell, I’m no Welch expert, merely an admirer, so it’s always valuable to know how accurate (or otherwise) a text is. Accurate transcription is extremely relevant to me just now, since I’m editing a volume of Ford Madox Ford’s letters and—just occasionally—noting that ‘X wrongly transcribes this phrase’. . . I try not to sense the chill wind of posterity murmuring: ‘Ford didn’t actually write that: the editor wrongly transcribes this phrase.’ As for complete, unexpurgated Welch Journals, yes!

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      1. Oh I look forward to that Ford book! Every good wish with it. I’ve been plugging away at a collected Welch letters volume for years (I can’t think of any other verb), so you have my empathy.

        I had never really reflected on how much damage the tiniest transcription error can do until I spotted this one:
        Welch writes in one entry: “… I thought how many times I had sat in tea-shops and restaurants alone, listening to others talking, watching them, fitting into their lives, then watching them walk out of the door and away for ever.”

        In the 1984 edition, De-la-Noy omits a mere comma, and in so doing completely changes the meaning: “… watching them fitting into their lives, then watching them walk out of the door…”

        There really is no subsititute for good, old fashioned close reading, re-reading, and then re-reading. If a job’s worth doing…

        Bws, Steven

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      2. Thanks, Steven. A collected Welch letters sounds great: his letters are tremendously interesting. Your transcription error example is very striking and yes, I’ve gradually become aware of how relatively small errors can have large effects. Luckily, there’s no question of going other than very slowly and very carefully: given Ford’s handwriting much of the time—and some of the materials on which he writes and the conditions under which he does so—it’s really the only option.
        All best wishes,
        Paul

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