‘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.


[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.

Just a footnote?

(Gerrit Dou, Maid at the Window: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

So – yes and no. America’s made a decisive start on the crucial task of cleaning house but there are some stubborn stains and a deal of anxiety about just how much of the building is structurally sound. Will even this dark period not be an historical footnote eventually?

On that matter of footnotes – I was reading Denton Welch’s journal for January 1944, when Welch and Eric Oliver, the intimate companion of his last years, took refuge from the rain in a pub called the Chequers in the Kent village of Crouch. ‘It was not imitation at all, very home-made, unperiod, just itself. All round the walls were narrow benches. There was a daddlums board and darts board, nothing else except a table and two chairs.’[1]

There was a what board? ‘Daddlums’? My Chambers and Concise Oxford dictionaries merely shrugged when consulted; downstairs, my Shorter Oxford was heaved off the shelf with no better result. Wandering online confirmed a not unreasonable guess that it referred to a version of table skittles.

The Journals do carry a good many footnotes by their very efficient editor but these tend to be of that specific factual kind: explaining who people were, correcting or adding to an assertion that Welch has made, references to his published stories in which various people appear under different names, explanations of some abbreviation or phrase current at the time of Welch’s writing, much of it during the war and all of it during the 1940s – the journal covers the years from 1942 to 1948, when Welch died at the age of thirty-three. No ‘daddlums’, at any rate.

Ironically, perhaps, Welch himself writes a little later: ‘Is it in Montaigne that I have just read that the way to know what to write about is to think of all the things you wish writers in the past had mentioned? I wish that people should mention the tiny things in their lives that give them pleasure or fear or wonder. I would like to hear the bits of family or intimate history they knew’ (Journals 175). Yes, we tend not to mention the details of our lives which are so familiar that we barely notice them, and these are often the precise materials that future historians will be crying out for.

Personally, I’m a fan of footnotes and acknowledge the meatiness of the remark by Chick, Saul Bellow’s narrator: ‘I have always had a weakness for footnotes. For me a clever or a wicked footnote has redeemed many a text.’[2] They can  be a means of smuggling in an editor’s obsessive interests—which the text itself may not warrant mention of—and can ease other feelings too. Alethea Hayter writes of historical painter Benjamin Haydon’s son: ‘Frank Haydon suffered miseries of embarrassment from his father’s dogmatism and showing off, and years later he revenged himself by writing vicious footnotes to the more pious and pompous sentences in his father’s diary.’[3]

In context, there’s something undeniably pleasing about that ‘vicious footnotes’.

Of his 1941 book on W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice wrote: ‘The book is nearly all quotations (I am beginning to think the ideal lit. critic would only speak in person in footnotes)’,[4] while Hugh Kenner, leaving Santa Barbara for Baltimore, explained the nature of his concerns in a letter to Guy Davenport (21 November 1972): ‘The principle is not desertion of a leaky ship, nor sight of pastures greene, but simply need for a massive change if I am to avoid becoming a writer of footnotes and sequels to my previous work. I have finished what I set out to do 20 years ago, and need to get started on something else of some magnitude.’[5]

Should I quote Robert Phelps once again? Absolutely: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’[6] Sylvia Townsend Warner, having created a new story about her elfin, faery world, wrote to her friends Marchette  & Joy Chute: ‘It is rather beautiful and has a great deal of information about Elfhame unknown till now as I have just invented it. Oh, how I long to give it learned footnotes, and references. There is such heartless happiness in scholarship.’[7]

Happy but not heartless, Bertie Wooster breaks off partway through The Mating Season to observe: ‘But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.’[8]

Still, questions inevitably arise. What to put in a footnote – or, very often, does this need a footnote at all? Or, occasionally, would a footnote here end up being longer than the page, chapter, volume, it is intended to explicate?

I recall editorial discussions over whether or not to footnote an anti-Semitic remark voiced by a character in Ford’s Parade’s End (we decided not to). As readers, we notice it, but should we, as editors, draw attention to it, to say, in effect, this is worthy of your scrutiny? What might that note say? That such racist slurs were commonplace in English society at that time in all classes? In a sense, that would militate against a text which renders a world, a time, a social context in which such remarks were, precisely, barely noticed or refuted or queried. And ‘at that time’? I recall a history of anti-Semitism by Léon Poliakov from the University of Pennsylvania Press: its four volumes ran from the time of Christ up to the rise of Hitler. Had there ever not been a time?

(George Orwell)

Some relevant phrases that had long stuck in my head I later tracked down to an essay by George Orwell, ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’, published in Contemporary Jewish Record in April 1945. Early on he writes: ‘it is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it.’[9] This is pretty dismaying, given the late stage of the war at which Orwell is writing, although the full horror of the concentration camps was only then just emerging into public knowledge, Auschwitz liberated as Orwell was writing the essay and others, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen among them, during April, as the essay was published.

Orwell points out almost immediately how ‘anti-Semitism is an irrational thing’ and that the ‘accusations’ of which he has given examples, remarks made to him over the past year or two, ‘merely rationalize some deep-rooted prejudice.’ He adds that, ‘To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless, and may sometimes be worse than useless’ (65), which has its own uneasy resonance for us, given the past four and a half years, to reach no further back. He concluded that he didn’t believe anti-Semitism could be ‘definitively cured without curing the larger disease of nationalism’ (70).

So yes, hardly helpful simply to point out that anti-Semitic remarks were common in the 1920s since they were still flourishing twenty years later in wartime Britain (and can hardly be said to have vanished now). And there is always the temptation in any case, which some commentators seem unable to resist, to ascribe fictional characters’ views and prejudices to their author, as Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin: ‘It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’[10]

Probably no footnote is necessary for ‘a confessional age’.


[1] Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 121.

[2] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (London: Viking, 2000), 2.

[3] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 70.

[4] Louis MacNeice, Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 369.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1424.

[6] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.

[7] Letter of 8 April 1973, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 265.

[8] P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season (1949; in The Jeeves Omnibus: 3, London: Hutchinson, 1991), 177.

[9] Quotations from George Orwell, I Belong to the Left: 1945, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), 64-70. The essay is cited approvingly in the opening pages of Brian Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English literature and society: Racial representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1-2.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 96.