Issue nine: Rosemary Tonks
In the later years of her life, the writer Rosemary Tonks was rumoured to visit lending libraries, check out copies of her books, and destroy them. This wasn’t auto-destructive art. She wasn’t protesting or playing Bartleby. Tonks had completely disowned her younger self—she had been a noted poet, novelist, critic—and was living under the name Mrs Rosemary Lightband in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. She had become an evangelical Christian. The only book that mattered to her was the Bible.
Her 1968 novel The Bloater was reissued in the US last week by New Directions, after having been out of print for more than 50 years. It’s sobering, sad, fascinating, to imagine that Rosemary Lightband, who believed that Satan used her writing as a conduit for his corrupting evil, was the same person who dreamt up Min, the narrator of The Bloater. Min is savage, funny, self-absorbed and tormented by love and gout. “Madamoiselle Min, grande horizontale of the gout culture,” she calls herself, with “a toe as red as a red hot poker.” Min is married to George, a librarian at the British Museum who is so dull she once turned the lights out on him without noticing he was still in the room. George “pays the bills, is genuinely fond of me, and, I suspect, leads two or three lives once away from the house.” Resigned to this arrangement, Min decides to take on a lover but she is torn between Billy, a charming musicologist, and Carlos—The Bloater—a celebrated opera singer who irritates and repulses Min so much so that, as with a ripe and mephitic cheese, her disgust has become desire. The problem with Billy is that he is too nice. The Bloater’s issue is that he is irresistibly revolting.
Min’s vacillations are aided by Claudi, an older male friend who lives for gossip, and Jenny, a colleague from the experimental music studio at which Min works. (The studio in The Bloater is based on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Jenny is a dead-ringer for the composer Delia Derbyshire.) There they are setting a poem by Orestes to electronic sound. They know that “fifty ‘experts’ (people who acquire theoretical knowledge without using it) will pour cold water on the result,” and then ten years later “refer to it incessantly to intimidate future electronic composers.” Min and Jenny like to mock their co-worker Fred, who trots out platitudes about taste and the avant-garde. Occasionally the women escape the studio to the pub where they eat cheese sandwiches, drink stingos, talk about the Kama Sutra, and whether Jenny should pursue a handsome guitarist who had once laid suggestively across her foot. Unfortunately, the guitarist had also failed to cook Jenny potatoes for dinner when she had asked him to. “She doesn’t know whether to go to bed with a man, because he attracts her too much and doesn’t give her any potatoes.”
Only a gentle essence of plot can be sniffed in The Bloater. Scenes drift in and out. A couple of dinner conversations, teasing Fred in the studio, a romantic walk across Hampstead Heath, an excruciating date at the opera. In that sense it is a realist novel, since little of note happens in most given weeks of a life. And it hardly matters, because Min, with her swollen toe, musique concrete, and acerbic wit, is such entertaining company. Talking about The Bloater on the Backlisted podcast, writer and editor Jennifer Hodgson said that reading the book made her “feel like the most sincere and earnest person in the world—and awful for it.” You know that Min would find you as charismatic as wet cabbage if you met her, but that she would not spare herself a withering put-down if it was both funny and also excused her from expressing what she really felt.
The Bloater was Tonks’ third novel, following Opium Fogs in 1963, and Emir in ’64, and two collections of poetry: Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms, published in 1963, and Iliad of Broken Sentences in 1967. Hodgson aligns her with other visionary outliers in British literature of the time: Brigid Brophy, Christine Brooke-Rose, B.S. Johnson, and Ann Quin. Echoes of Muriel Spark can be heard, and the pungent disdain of Wyndham Lewis wafts around her writing too. Tonks primarily regarded herself as a poet, and a serious poet of the city at that. She was a romantic who wanted to cast 1960s London into the same heady, symbolic space of language that Baudelaire had done with Paris. In his indispensable biographical introduction to Bedouin of the London Evening—the 2014 Bloodaxe Books reissue of Tonks’ poetry—Neil Astley observes that “in sharp contrast with the traditional, well-behaved, dry, self-deprecating verse being published at that time by most of her English contemporaries, her poetry was declamatory, bold, spirited, extravagant and exuberantly sensuous.” Tonks had ambitions to push the form. She was among a group of poets who set their writing to electronic music for Sono-Montage, made with the Sound Stage Library in 1965, a project revisited the following year with Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. (Bedouin of the London Evening includes a good photo of Tonks stood in front of a bank of reel-to-reel tape machines with Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi.)
Tonks held strong opinions about her craft. In a 1963 interview with Peter Orr—and on the recording Tonks speaks just as I imagine Min does, cut-glass accent and no-nonsense attitude—she says that poets “are rather a lost set, you know, here in London. They form movements.” She complains that her contemporaries are “quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions.”
“Dealing with the things which really move people. People are born, the procreate, they suffer, they are nasty to one another, they are greedy, they are terribly happy, they have changes in their fortune, and they meet other people who have effects on them, and then they die; and these thousands of dramatic things happen to them, and they happen to everybody. Everybody has to make terrible decisions or pass examinations, or fall in love, or else avoid falling in love. All these things happen and contemporary poets don’t write about them. Why not?”
Her literary frustrations spill into her second collection of poems, Iliad of Broken Sentences, some of which are tempting to read as prefiguring future events in her personal life. In ‘The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas’, Tonks writes:
—All this sitting about in cafes to calm down Simply wears me out. And their idea of literature! The idiotic cut of the stanzas; the novels, full up, gross.
I have lived it and I know too much My cafe-nerves are breaking me With black, exhausting information.
Tonks shaped her poems over long periods but claimed she wrote The Bloater in a matter of weeks, in order “to make red hot money.” Even if that were true, The Bloater’s language is distillate and concise like poetry. The novel’s acidity is softened by a vivid sense of place. A pub is filled with “tobacco-London interior light, the colour of beer itself”; outdoors there is “the white-edged weather which is a prelude to the blue crumb of frost. People who want to get rid of their souls are always rushing out into the open air.” On an afternoon date with Billy, Min worries if she is “suitably dressed for this avenue of terracotta light?” The Bloater is a meteorological evocation of the capital. It’s bottled London fog from the 1960s, the smell of damp and the dim knowledge that something in the city is swinging, but it is happening to other people.
Beginning in the late 1960s, and lasting through much of the following decade, Tonks suffered a series of personal crises, including the death of her mother, illness and the end of her marriage. She continued to write—there were to be three more novels, along with a further unpublished manuscript and collection of poetry—but she also embarked on a tortuous spiritual quest. For Tonks, the 1970s were a period of visiting healers and experimenting with a range of Eastern belief systems. In 1977, she detached both her retinas and almost went blind, which she thought was caused by her practice of Taoist eye exercises. During her convalescence she committed herself to Christianity and in 1980 visited Jerusalem in order to be baptized. She left London for Bournemouth and began going by her married name of Lightband, rejecting her literary friends and effectively killing off her younger self. She came to believe that a valuable collection of Eastern religious objects she had been given by an aunt were causing bad luck and paranormal visitations, so she destroyed them. She got rid of her possessions, completely disowned her work, and burned the manuscript of her unpublished novel because it had been written under the guidance of a spirit medium and was, in her view, corrupted. In a notebook she wrote that “Devils gain access through the mind: printed books carry, each one, an evil mind.” Tonks—or rather, Lightband—lived privately, but according to Astley “contrary to what everyone who had known her believed, Rosemary was not a recluse,” and she used her time to distribute Bibles outside churches and at London’s Hyde Park Corner, in later years attending church-related social events. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 86.
Midway through The Bloater, Min, Jenny and Fred are at the studio, working with a tape recording that Min has made of her own heartbeat. Min’s colleagues don’t think it’s realistic enough. “‘It sounds as though it’s got heart disease,’” says Jenny. “‘Yes,’ says Fred, siding with her, ‘it sounds like an old blackbird flapping a pair of rotten wings.’” Fred goes off to make a recording of his heartbeat, which he is confident will be better than Min’s. It’s a beautiful metaphor. One that could stand for act of criticism—the artist’s work was not powerful enough—or for the futile pursuit of authenticity, an artist unable to convince their audience of their intentions. It could also refer to commitment, to the idea that an artist’s heart may not have been in what they made. Countless artists disappear from sight. I don’t mean the ones who make a song-and-dance of their noble refusal, the ones who get anointed Saints of the Vanishing Act by the scholars of hindsight and eventually sneak in through the back door again, unable to stay away from the party. I mean the ones whose names evaporate from conversation, never to reappear. Artists whose lives take a different turn because of personal anguish, health issues, family, finding religion. Because they chose Billy over The Bloater, or they ran out of steam, or because life is too interesting to do just one thing for the entire run. The ones who had a change of heart. It could happen to you.
Chicago label International Anthem last week released Step on Step, a collection of home demos and recordings by composer, arranger and producer Charles Stepney, best known for his work with Minnie Riperton and Rotary Connection. You might recognize Black Gold (above), which was later turned into Rotary Connection’s epic track I Am the Black Gold of the Sun. Step on Step—which also includes recorded reminiscences by Stepney’s daughters Eibur, Charlene, and Chanté, who brought the tapes to light—is stripped back and raw. (It sounds, in places, like the DIY electronic soul music on the compilation Personal Space.) The pared-back arrangements only throw into relief what a brilliant songwriter Stepney was.
Oh what foggy, drizzly, milky tea, greasy spoon joy! The Criterion Collection’s new season of British New Wave films has all the Sixties bedsit classics: Room at the Top, A Taste of Honey, The L-Shaped Room, Darling, Billy Liar, If…, the heartbreaking Kes, and my personal favourite, Joseph Losey’s terrifying study of class and power, The Servant, which features Dirk Bogarde in one of his greatest performances, as the manipulative manservant, Barrett. Related, and also now streaming on Criterion, is Barney Platts-Mills once-lost and newly restored Bronco Bullfrog from 1969, a tender film about delinquent youth, teen romance, and hope against a hopeless world.
Speaking of grim slices of British life, the novelist Gwendoline Riley has finally been published in the US by the NYRB. Her novels First Love and My Phantoms are harrowing, sometimes comical, but mostly bleak tales of dysfunctional relationships, heavy boozing and tricky mothers. Crisp sentences, inventive imagery, a real ear for speech and not for the faint-hearted.
If you’re in New York next week, go and see Courtney Stephens’ Terre Femme at Anthology Film Archive. Absorbing and lyrical, it’s an essay film built from amateur travelogues filmed by women from the 1920s to the ‘50s, with a soundtrack by Sarah Davachi. On Thursday 15th and Sunday 18th, she’ll be narrating it live.
For about the past eight or nine months, I’ve been learning Welsh. When you tell people this, someone English will inevitably ask you how to pronounce the place name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I still have trouble with that one. But for a variety of reasons, learning Welsh has come to feel like an increasingly important personal thing for me to do. The principle reason being that Welsh is my mum’s first language. She grew up in rural North Wales, and didn’t start learning English until around the age of 10. I was raised in the southeast of England, where nobody speaks it at all. I understood a few words but I wanted to get to know it properly. Language is an inheritance, and Welsh is something I want to carry with me.
I just finished reading Richard H. King’s doorstop Brittle With Relics: A History of Wales 1962–1997. A history of modern Wales probably sounds to most of you like the nichest of niche reads. And I can report that yes, it is a niche read. It’s also a landmark work of oral history, the scope of which is far broader than its title suggests.
King structures his book using the story of the Welsh language and the movement to rescue it from the brink of extinction. But it’s an emotionally powerful narrative about the British left, about rural life, minority languages, the disasters of Aberfan and Tryweryn, the Miners Strike, education, religion, class, nationalism, anti-nationalism, the unions, conservatism, Thatcher, industrial decline, environmentalism, pop music, the counterculture, direct action, feminism, Old Labour, New Labour, devolution, despair, rage, hope, and dedication. I think the phrase is: gwybodaeth llyfr yma, but I’d need to check with my mum.
(Above, Welsh music legends Datblygu. Below, Welsh music legend Shirley Bassey.)