Sunday, February 11, 2018

Laimutis Balys Svalkus

This is Laimutis Balys Svalkus, the poet I wrote about a few days ago. I found his grave by chance in Kingsthorpe Cemetery while visiting Lucia Joyce's stone, as I occasionally do ('I used to haunt graveyards when I was in Paris,' as Allen Ginsberg once said); and I was surprised because histories of Northampton, even the better ones, never mention this man's name. Information about him online seemed sketchy as well. He was clearly known, which hoists him above most poets immediately, but internet searches yielded little in Lithuanian and nothing in English.

Until, that is, this afternoon, when Northampton-based housing campaigner Norman Adams sent me a link he'd found with some biographical information about Laimutis, and images of the covers of his publications. Thanks again, Norman! The text is still in Lithuanian, but it's a start. A photograph says a great deal more about a person than his or her gravestone. And the Lithuanian Embassy hasn't even answered my enquiry, at least not yet. 

Here is the link, for anybody who wants to look at the books. If anyone can translate the text, or point me towards English translations of one or more of his poems, I would be particularly grateful. I can't pay you, but aren't we all in this game for love, not money?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Task: Newton, Cowper and the Civilisation of the West

'This morning buryed a woman slave (No 47) Know not what to say she died of for she has not been properly alive since she first came on board' -- from the diary of John Newton.
February 15th this year, I discovered yesterday, is an important anniversary. It will be 250 years since William Cowper and Mary Unwin moved into the large, imposing house that still looks down over the market square in Olney, Buckinghamshire. Today their home is the site of the Cowper and Newton Museum, a memorial not only to the life of the poet, but also his friendship with the composer of 'Amazing Grace', who as an Anglican clergyman, ministered to the spiritual needs of the parishioners in Olney. Newton had an earthly agenda as well as a heavenly one. He wanted to rid his society of slavery, which he himself had practised before entering into the priesthood; and Cowper, as his friendship with Newton grew, would prove to be a more than capable initiate into the work, testifying against slavery in a series of poems that warned his readers of the inhumanity of a system still accepted as a perfect profession for a gentleman.

But ah! what wish can prosper, or what prayer,
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair,
Who drive a loathsome traffic, gauge, and span,
And buy the muscles and the bones of man?
The tender ties of father, husband, friend,
All bonds of nature in that moment end;
And each endures, while yet he draws his breath,
A stroke as fatal as the scythe of death.
The sable warrior, frantic with regret
Of her he loves, and never can forget,
Loses in tears the far-receding shore,
But not the thought that they must meet no more;
Deprived of her and freedom at a blow,
What has he left that he can yet forego?
William Cowper ‘Charity’ (1782)

It was an unpopular message in a country profiting so handsomely from slavery, and initially, despite his fervent belief in its wickedness, Cowper resisted putting pen to paper on the subject. In the British parliament, MPs laughed when they heard testimony of black bodies being thrown overboard from slave ships as useless cargo. They were among the men making vast sums from the kidnapping and inhumane transport of imprisoned Africans. Our own previous prime minister David Cameron had alleged connections to the trade. His family, many generations ago, made their millions from the murderous exploitation of human souls -- or so it was said. Cameron himself would neither confirm nor deny it.

                              design by Josiah Wedgewood

Once the requests of friends (you have to imagine Newton among them) had helped Cowper overcome his initial reluctance, he wrote several poems against slavery, describing the horrors of the slave's experience so vividly it was as if he'd lived it himself. Did his lifelong struggle with depression (Cowper's more conservative admirers speak of a tendency to melancholy) give him at least a partial insight into the catastrophic psychological impact of the slave's abduction and torture? Or perhaps it just made him more inclined to empathy? The experience of personal suffering can lead either to great kindness, or great cruelty.

John Newton had left Olney by the time 'Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce', Cowper's most famous anti-slavery poem, was written. A BBC page claims churchgoers in the town were tired of his 'hectoring' sermons. It seems just as probable that someone on an evangelical mission like Newton might have found rural Buckinghamshire a little too far away from the action. He did, after all, exchange Olney for St Mary Woolnoth in London.

In London Newton met again an idealistic young MP, William Wilberforce; he had known him when the latter was a child. Wilberforce took up the abolitionist cause with such a fervour, it came to dominate his life, affect his relationships and take a toll on his health. He was supported in the herculean task of ending slavery by Newton, who became his spiritual and moral guide. But there were many others working for the abolitionist movement. Poet Hannah More was one. Olaudah Equiano was another. The latter wrote 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano', which, with its graphic account of the slave trade from an African perspective, was a key text for the movement. The veracity of the text, or at least a part of it, has been debated since, but the power of the narrative can't be argued.

Slavery was abolished, technically, by an Act of Parliament in 1807, once again in February, and Newton lived to see its abolition, despite being almost blind and at the point of death. It continued in the British Empire until the 1830s, at which point all slaves still held were emancipated. Among those compensated by the British government for the loss of income that emancipation represented was the Anglican Church Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which owned sugar plantations. It seems Newton's very fine example was lost on some senior members of his own church, who, I would add, are not cut from the same ideological/ moral cloth as the people who administer Anglicanism today. If they were, you have to hope, they would be driven off the land like thieves.


Cowper never lived to see the fruition of his own work against slavery. He died in 1800 at 61, after the death of his wife Mary left him 'a mental and physical invalid' ('Romanticism' ed. Duncan Wu). Newton died in 1807. He was buried in St Mary Woolnoth; but his mortal remains were disinterred subsequently and returned to Olney, where he now lies in a corner of the graveyard of the church of St Peter and St Paul. His bones rest beneath an impressive monument 'erected by public prescription', his vast contribution to the effort of civilising the Western world finally appreciated by a significant minority, even if the job itself, as Newton would agree, is still woefully unfinished.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Poets and Prisoners: Back Among the Dead in Northampton

I've written about Kingsthorpe Cemetery in Northampton before. It's the graveyard in which James Joyce's daughter Lucia is buried. Near to Lucia is the grave of her friend Violet Gibson, infamous in her lifetime for attempting to assassinate Mussolini in 1926. Lucia and Violet were incarcerated in St. Andrew's Hospital in the town; whether either woman would have been diagnosed with acute mental illness in a less misogynistic age is debatable, but they both died never recovering their liberty.

I walked in the cemetery today, having a little time to spare, and while looking for Lucia's grave I found this:

Laimutis Balys Svalkus. A Lithuanian poet. Who was he, I wondered? The book-like design of the grave and the way his trade as poet is inscribed so prominently into the marble suggest he was more than a hobbyist. That also appears to be a fragment of verse on the right side of the stone. I presume Svalkus is the author, but I don't know. The fact that there is no attribution might tell us the lines would be immediately recognisable to someone informed about Lithuanian poetry.

I did some online research about Svalkus when I got home and couldn't find anything about him written in English. Only what appears to be a list of Svalkus' published books, with their Lithuanian titles, on a very old Lithuanian web page. Amazon has none of his books either. If Suffolk Punch readers are unable to provide more information about Svalkus I'll write to the Lithuanian embassy in London. Someone will know.

Lucia Joyce's grave is a melancholy sight. She is the daughter of the world's most famous twentieth century novelist, but the inscription on her headstone records nothing except the place and year of her birth, and the place and year of her death. There is no awkward verse, no 'she fell asleep on...' and definitely no mention of her family. People passing by the grave might think she had none. 

I don't know what the reason for that is. As Tolstoy wrote, 'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' But Lucia has not been forgotten. Some images of her have become iconic, and Alan Moore has called her 'the dancing heart of Northampton', meaning that her 'madness', her free bohemian spirit, far from being destroyed by her decades of imprisonment in St Andrew's, has imbued the town with its magic; Northampton is more creatively liberated, less staid and conservative, because she has been here -- albeit involuntarily.

I buried a symbolic Key of Freedom in the soil in front of Lucia's grave three years ago. Today I found that although it had worked its way up out of the soil, the key was still there. Which meant, I thought delightedly, that whoever visited the grave and took responsibility for keeping it clean might possibly understand. Somebody else had left a tiny snow globe and a miniature rainbow. A gesture of sweetness and empathy that a woman who seems to have been as mistreated as Lucia Joyce surely deserves.


Didžioji auka (1963).
Širdies nuolaužos (1966),
Dienų sūkuriuos (1968),
Gyvastis (1973),
Rudens vėjuose (1985)
Pasakų metai (1993).

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Unknown Life of Ida John


When I was born, in the 1960s, birth certificates recorded your mother's name, and your father's name and occupation. It was assumed that your mother wouldn't have a job. Her job was to raise you. (And, it could reasonably be argued, your father.)

That was in the 1960s. When Ida Nettleship was born in 1877 her mother Adaline wasn't even able to vote. Ida would never experience the nominal equality of choosing her MP either, as she died tragically young. But hers was a life as liberated from patriarchal restrictions as it was cruelly circumscribed by them. The liberation is obvious. For the circumscription you have to look a little deeper.

Ida was a painter. She had studied at the Slade, and there she met the soon-to-be-infamous Augustus John. John painted the picture at the top of this post. He was considered a genius not only for his paintings but also for his unruly and selfish behaviour. Ginsberg identified this artistic stereotype in a funny but exasperated sideswipe at Gregory Corso. It's also strongly evident in the myth of Bob Dylan. Combine talent with self-absorption and you have a legend in the making if the artist is a man.

When Ida was almost twenty-four she married John in St Pancras Registry Office in London, and soon thereafter began a pattern that would continue for the remaining six years of her life. Ida developed the conviction that her husband, being the greater artist, needed support rather than the stimulation of creative rivalry, and so she abandoned her art to establish a home environment and a marriage in which this giant spirit could work.

Her will in this regard was soon to be severely tested. Augustus, who we now know was as priapic as any egotistical semi-celebrity, fell in love with Dorelia McNeill, and Ida, in act of heroic self-sacrifice, allowed Dorelia to come and live with them. It pleased Augustus. It kept him working. And with son after son being born, it kept Ida's marriage intact, in its idiosyncratic way. Her letters also suggest, although you can never be certain, that at times Ida liked the defiance of convention inherent in the new arrangement.

The arrangement, of course, was scandalous, and Ida's family struggled to accept it. She chided them all, in her letters. But she also confessed, in less defiant moods, to the anger and resentment she felt towards Augustus. She began to realise, more and more, how selfish he was. You get the sense, as you read, that the really private part of Ida, unknown even to herself perhaps, wished things could have been a little less extraordinary.

She is, however, no victim. Two years before her early death Ida defied conventional unconvention and leaving Augustus in England, moved to Paris with their shared lover Dorelia. She wasn't ending the relationship; but she was bored and depressed in the village where 'Gus' had parked her and she needed stimulation. It's also irresistible not to read into her departure an emphatic message, the kind that you deliver when you're taking back control: You want space? How do you like a few hundred miles?

Augustus, as most men would, followed Ida (and Dorelia) to Paris, although he didn't stay there. In 1907 Ida died of puerperal fever after her son Henry was born. She was only thirty years old. Augustus wrote about the hours after her death, 'I was seized with an uncontrollable elation [...] I could have embraced any passer-by.' More self-absorption? Or grief? According to Wyndham Lewis, John was drunk for three days, so perhaps it's more kind to assume the latter.

John's reputation has been spectacularly diminished by new thinking in art and gender roles. Just knowing that he raped Caitlin Thomas, as she revealed in her memoir, is enough to make any progressive person dismiss him. Ida, however, is restored, by the publication of her letters, as an essential pioneer in the arena of rights for women and sexual identity, not to mention experimental models of social organisation. 

You can read Ida John's letters in 'The Good Bohemian', edited by Rebecca John and Michael Holroyd (Bloomsbury 2017).