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Stories from my Press

Some years ago I was contacted by Jesús Isaías Gómez López, a professor of English literature at a Spanish university. He introduced himself as Jesuias and thus began a long conversation about Aldous Huxley, a particular favorite of his at the time, and many other authors, including Roy Campbell. Naturally he wondered how it happened that I came to publish a number of Roy's works. I told him and eventually he prevailed on me to provide a “Prologue” for a selection of the poems he was editing and translating. The book came to be called Poemas escogidos, Edicion Bilingue and was published by the University of Almería in 2010. It has Roy's original poems in English with Jesuias' translations into Spanish on the facing pages. Here is my Prologue, somewhat expanded and revised.

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The story of how I came to publish Roy Campbell was, like so many others, complicated. And it involved, with the serendipity that sometimes happens, another writer who became very important to me. It all began back in the 1970s. I had been researching the life and work of a 15th Century printer, Erhard Ratdolt, and wanted to see which of his books might be held in the rare book collection at the Houghton Library of Harvard University. There, in the main reading room as I searched through the card index files, I found one card describing a number of letters written by Richard Aldington during the First World War. I asked to see them and was struck by how poignant they were. I felt sure they would be a most interesting project to print, so I asked if I could speak to the Librarian about them. He invited me to his office and after searching for a bit came up with the address—Maison Sallé, 18300 Sury-en-Vaux, France—of Aldington's literary executor, Alister Kershaw. I wrote to him and soon heard back giving me permission. In due course I printed the book as The Dearest Friend, A Selection from the Letters of Richard Aldington to John Cournos (1978). In this way I came to know Alister, and it marked the beginning of a long working friendship with him which included a voluminous correspondence and many visits to see him in France.

But the first time we met it was not at his bucolic address in the country. He had written from his pied-à-terre, 15 rue Molière, Paris 1, although even that proved to be not where he was living. He was in fact then staying with a friend in a large apartment overlooking the Cluny. A day or two later, however, we walked over to the rue Molière. It was a small room up about four flights. There was no lift, and the stairs were no longer possible for him after a life-time of heavy smoking and drinking, and an avoidance of exercise. We went mainly to feed Charles (Baudelaire), a stray cat that had been found on the street of that name and then taken in. Charles, who was the deepest black with the soul, Alister intimated, of the devil himself, did not like being cooped up and with no other way to vent his energy had attacked the curtains which were torn to shreds. Alister, who was not about to be intimidated by dark spirits, picked Charles up and held him tightly. The cat did not struggle; instead it bared its claws and sank them deeply into Alister's arm bringing up gouts of blood. There was no cry of pain, just a concentrated control of himself. It was quite something to witness.

Alister KershawOn that trip to Europe I had stopped first in London where I visited some of the bookshops. In one I found the first edition of P. G. Wodehouse's first novel, The Pothunters, which I bought for an avid collector. Normally, I would have asked the dealer to post it to me in the U.S., but since the book was so valuable I could not let it out of my sight. So I had it with me in Paris and soon told Alister about it. He was delighted because Wodehouse had made a great impact on him, particularly as a literary stylist. I handed the book to him and at that moment brought up my camera and took this picture.

Some years later Alister “retired” from his work at UNESCO which he hated. The idea of retiring was a droll one for someone as urbane as himself. Yet it presented a dilemma: where would he settle down? The room on the rue Molière was not an option. But there was another. In the mid-1950s he had bought a small house in a tiny village called Maison Sallé, near Sancerre, about two hours south-east of Paris. It became the last home of Richard Aldington, whose reputation, income and health were in decline following a scandal over the publication of a biography of Lawrence of Arabia. Richard lived there for about two years and died on the doorstep in 1962. Afterwards the house was used occasionally by Alister, his friends, and his two children and their friends. But now it was empty, and it beckoned. Everyone thought he would wilt there, in that village surrounded by vineyards and a world away from the seductions of Paris. But it turned out to be a heavenly place for him. As time went by, he improved the property. A splendid verandah was added. The wall between the kitchen and sitting room was knocked out and replaced with a bar. The garage was turned into a bindery for his wife, Jelka. The garden flourished, especially with her attention. Some grape vines were planted along one wall and trained by the expert neighbors to grow over a trellis that sheltered a patio. A large library ran throughout. I can attest to all this because I went to the house just after our first meeting, finding it nearly as Aldington knew it, and then later on, many visits over the years, seeing the changes as they were made.

On one of the trips, in May 1983, I was not there long before I was offering to help move books to fill some new shelves that had been built. As Alister and I were doing this, one of the books in particular caught my attention. It was a modest-looking paperback with yellow covers. The title was Hommage à Roy Campbell. I flipped through it and saw that it was entirely in French. He noticed and said, “Take it as a gift.”

“Thank you Alister, but as it is all in French I won't be able to read it.”

“Keep it anyway. It's the only edition.”

The only edition. We both saw immediately what had to be done: a version in English which I must print. Here, before going any further, I should explain that I am a private press printer. Since the mid-1970s I had been hand-setting lead type, one at a time, in the most laborious way imaginable and printing books on an antique Chandler & Price treadle platen press. By 1983 I had already published the Aldington letters I mentioned, plus a tribute to Aldington. But now I was about to take on several projects which over the years have given me special satisfaction.

Before going on I should say a little about the remarkable man who made such an impact on me, as he did to so many other people, although in my case he was to lead me to Roy Campbell and therefore I owe him perhaps more than anyone else. Alister Kershaw was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1921. One of the stories he loved to tell about his youth was being in a Melbourne bookshop where he noticed a volume of poetry called Adamastor by Roy Campbell which somehow looked different from the others. He picked it up and read it cover to cover, utterly engrossed. But who was Roy Campbell? He had never heard of him, even though he had read widely in modern English poetry. From the poems themselves he deduced that Roy was from South Africa, that he had lived in Provence and Spain, that he had led an active outdoor life, that he was a supporter of General Franco, and that he was not impressed by the critics or by the current trends in modern poetry. Clearly Roy Campbell was his own man.

Soon Alister had read everything he could find by Roy, including The Georgiad. Inspired, he attempted a lampoon on the Australian literary establishment in the same vein, calling it The Denuniciad, which set tongues wagging. He must have been best pleased with himself because he mailed a copy to Campbell. There was no reply.

Australia was excessively bourgeois, conformist and prosaic, an arid place for a young man of Alister's abilities, so he, like many others, set out to Europe. It was 1947. In those days travellers of modest means went by ship. For him it was a former troop transport where he was consigned below water level with the other riff-raff under rules which were enforced with iron discipline. He admitted later having doubts about submitting himself to this ordeal, especially as he had no return ticket and knew few people in Europe. However he managed to survive the six weeks at sea, with a few stops at such swinging places as Aden where the passengers were allowed a few hours of shore leave. Yet, I've always imagined he kept his fellow sufferers entertained the entire time.

When he reached England he went to Oxford to stay with friends who had themselves made much the same journey, Geoffrey and Ninette Dutton. Almost immediately the subject of Roy Campbell came up. Roy had recently lectured at Oxford and Dutton was there. Afterward he approached and introduced himself. When it came out that he was from Australia, Roy asked if he happened to know someone called Kershaw who had sent him a poem which he had failed to acknowledge. With some pleasure Dutton announced that the same Kershaw was due to arrive at any moment. Roy insisted that they both come to London and meet for a drink.

Roy's favorite pub in those days was The George in Mortimer Street close to the BBC where he was a talks producer. It should be borne in mind that this was just after the War at a time of austerity, shortages, and gloom. On the train into London Alister gazed with dismay at the depressing suburbs. When he got to the pub his first reaction was one of disappointment, for the place struck him as being very dreary. But then he spotted Roy standing at the bar and the impression changed instantly. Roy was then aged about 45. He had put on weight and had a pronounced limp from an old wound. He was wearing a Spanish sombrero and carried what appeared to be a Zulu club. He radiated an extraordinary vitality, what Alister called “a joyous meridonal radiance.” He also was genuinely friendly: “Roy's affability, his total lack of self-importance, his ready laughter, put me at ease in no time at all.” So it no longer much mattered what the suburbs or pub interior looked like.

Although Alister was 26 when he met Roy, he had already done some broadcasting, having joined the staff of the ABC, the Australian version of the BBC, in 1940. His mellifluous voice soon got him in front of a microphone as an announcer, first on the home service, then on short wave for listeners overseas. Whether Roy knew this I do not know, but he surely recognized in the younger man a great intelligence and ability, and further it must have been clear that Alister needed financial help at that point, so he told him to prepare a talk. “All right, man. As I told you, I'm a Talks Producer. You'd better write a talk and I'll produce it. You'll get some money and I'll get a free drink. You see, the BBC turns on the grog for bastards like you who yap over the microphone, and if I'm your producer I'll be allowed to sneak a glass or two myself.” When Alister demurred, he continued: “Now, look, I told you I'd get your talk across and see you got paid for it. Don't expect me to write the bloody thing for you as well.” Alister duly came up with something. The broadcast went well and when he had finished, Roy walked into the studio and said, “Man, you read like an angel.”

Alister thought it called for a celebration in a way that I was to experience too, much later. Roy recommended a Spanish restaurant, so there they went. It turned out to be a memorable evening. Roy entertained Alister in English and the waiters in Spanish with story after story, keeping everyone in fits of laughter. All the while a store of wine was downed. By now the friendship between the two was firmly established. It was to last until Roy's death ten years later.

What happened is well known. Roy was returning home to Portugal with his wife Mary from visits to Seville and Toledo. She was driving as she usually did. A worn tire on the right front side gave way and the car crashed into a tree near Setubal, south of Lisbon. Both Roy and Mary were knocked unconscious. A passing motorist stopped and tried to get Roy to a hospital, but he died on the way after murmuring some words and giving two deep sighs. It was the 23rd of April, 1957, the birth anniversary, and according to tradition also the death day, of William Shakespeare. Roy was buried at the cemetery of Sao Pedro in Sintra. Mary survived, although badly injured.

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Roy's death came as a great shock to everyone. One of his friends, Jacques Temple, decided to gather a collection of reminiscences which was published as the book I spotted at Alister's. The English-speaking contributors were Rob Lyle, Richard Aldington, Lawrence Durrell, Alan Paton, Edith Sitwell, Alister Kershaw, Uys Krige, Wyndham Lewis, and Catherine Aldington. The French-speaking contributors were Maurice Ohana, Cilette Ofaire, Armand Guibert, Henri Chabrol, Charles de Richter, Frédéric Mistral, and F. de Féminville. All the essays were printed in French. It had 148 pages, paper covers, five plates of illustrations, and there were about 700 copies. The editor and translator was Armand Guibert. Included were twelve of Roy's poems in French translation.

In the twenty-five years that followed, Roy had not been neglected. David Wright had written about him in 1961 (Longmans, Green: London) and Peter Alexander produced his excellent Roy Campbell, A Critical Biography, in 1982. But Alister and I were sure that what became our Salute to Roy Campbell would be a worthy addition. Alister took over the main work of contacting the contributors—although I helped as well—and translating into English when necessary. In some cases the writers had passed away, but we were able to get in touch with their agents or heirs. Some of the people offered entirely new essays, for instance Roy's daughter, Anna. William Plomer gave us a previously published essay; Laurie Lee suggested a chapter from his autobiography, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. The only disappointment was when I contacted the agents for Edith Sitwell. They requested a fee that was too high and so her original essay, which of course had been written in English, had to be left out.

I hand-set the type in Bembo and Chochin and printed 220 copies. 200 of them I bound myself in a red cloth from the Dutch firm, Van Heek, and 20 copies, numbered I to XX, were splendidly bound in half morocco by Jelka Kozmus, who was later to become Alister's wife. There were 128 pages with a frontispiece and five plates. The paper was from Linweave with a laid finish and deckle edge. Over the years most of the copies have been sold. It was one of my few “best sellers,” although I concede that 220 copies probably may not have made much of an impact. The most important thing was that it was done. I believe Alister felt the same too.

Roy CampbellThe essay from Roy's daughter, Anna, was particularly welcome. She had not contributed to the original Hommage. When I wrote to her initially, it was to tell her about our project and to ask for her approval, as Roy's heir. But I also took the opportunity to request something of her own for the book. I had no idea whether she had ever written about her father or was even interested. I was frankly thrilled when she replied that I could have a chapter from her unpublished memoir. The one she chose was about the time, in 1931, when she was four years old and the Campbell family was living in a small house near Martigues [the photograph shown here is from 1930 at the Tour de Valliers, Martigue. Roy was then aged 29.]. She recalls visits by Hart Crane, Liam O'Flaherty, Aldous Huxley, and Wyndham Lewis. She also describes her father engaged as a poet in a passage which is among my own favorites from the many books I printed over the years.

When father was caught in a fit of inspiration, Tess and I missed him sadly because he worked all night and slept during the day. He seemed, as those times, to live entirely on coffee and cigarettes. Only occasionally he would wander in during a meal, stuff a few grapes into his mouth, he eyes bulging with concentration and wander out again.

Our house was so small that he worked in a sort of loft, a few stairs up from my bedroom. How many times I awoke in the night to hear him murmuring his poems to himself as he read out what he had just written. Once out of curiosity, I crept to his door and looked in. He was lying on a mattress on the floor, propped up again the wall by pillows; his pad on his bent knees and his pen scratching away. As he wrote he kept rhythm with his left hand. There were books scattered everywhere and spilt ink-bottles. On a saucer, on a chair by head, were three flickering candles.

Anna CampbellOnce Salute to Roy Campbell was published I sent copies to Anna [seen here in a photograph taken in 1945]. I took the opportunity to ask her if she would let me print the entire memoir. Despite being inconvenienced by letters which took forever—she lived in Portugal—I believed we could manage if she understood what my limitations were. In looking over the letters now I see the first sensitive issue came up when she asked me for proofs. Here is what I told her:

I am afraid I can not send proofs in the ordinary way. The fact is that I only have enough type to print one page at a time. To buy enough type to print a long book would entail an enormous investment which I can not afford, and anyway I simply don't have the room to store all that type. Nor can I proceed by sending one page for you to proof-read. The delay while it went back and forth across the Atlantic would be too much, and I am unwilling to tie up my press and type in this way.… Reading proofs is something that I take very seriously. I go to extreme lengths to print accurately—I count and tally the words and punctuation marks, and I read both forwards and backwards.

I realized right away that her MS would have to be edited. I prepared a long list of proposed changes. Among them I insisted she drop her acid remarks about some of Roy's friends who had said or done certain incautious things. Whatever had been said or done, I am sure Roy himself would have laughed them off. Alister said as much in his essay in Salute:

Every so often, Roy's friends and acquaintances would assemble at his flat, a rambling, untidy, convivial basement in Campden Hill Grove, of all places. A lion in Kensington! … Roy was proud of being equally at ease with gypsy horse-dealers and Oxford dons. He never adopted a jargon or affected an accent to suit the company. You could take him as he was, or the hell with you. … If Roy decided someone was congenial, that was that.

[Yet it was more complicated than this.] He was a mute as an oyster. Until I read his biography [by Peter Alexander], I knew nothing of his terrible dread of insanity, nothing of the fierce stresses to which his marriage had been subjected when his wife became infatuated with Vita Sackville-West, nothing of his own episodic homosexual inclinations, of his tendency to alcoholism, of his lancinating self-doubts. Now that I do know—so what? If I was never allowed to glimpse the complex and sensitive being who cohabited with the swashbuckler, the swashbuckling self was nonetheless also a part of his make-up, a loyal, brave, buoyant, generous part and it was something, it was a great deal, to have known that much of him.

But Anna was clearly a partisan and felt the slights against her father personally. Payback may have been sweet; yet I could not be drawn into that. I explained my reasoning this way:

I can add that it is possible to attack the veracity of … without saying [so] directly.… The ways to do this are several and they depend on the nature of the accusation. I do not know the facts so I can not advise. But the two most obvious ways are to run through the facts and allow [them to trip him up] or use satire. However before you can pull off this sort of thing, you must absolutely have the sympathy of the reader. But by simply asserting that…is a liar you will have lost that precious sympathy. In fact saying he is a liar tells much more about you that it ever does about him.

As I should have guessed, we nearly faltered at the first hurdle. It might have ended the project. But Alister, who had known her in London, intervened and she accepted my view. Nobody was libelled. We gained yet another view of him.

I did rather a lot of editing actually. I remember in particular the last chapter about her Mother's final years and death. Most regretfully, I was obliged to abridge it to fit just two pages because I found myself running out of paper. Nevertheless it remains most effecting, for it describes Mary's good works for the poor, her friendships, her devotion to the Church and her three meetings with Pope Paul VI, her love of Mozart, and the joy her three grandchildren had in visiting her. She died in the arms of her daughter Tess on the 27th of February 1979 and was buried beside her beloved Roy.

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There is one other story. Naturally it also involved Alister Kershaw. This time he was in Paris staying briefly in the apartment of a friend while she was away. The place was rather grand, on the ground floor with a garden on the Boulevard Raspail, only a few dozen steps from the Boulevard du Montparnasse. It turned out that I was also planning to be in Paris at the same time, and as there was an extra bedroom I got to stay there as well.

One afternoon, after having spent the entire morning doing what I particularly liked, wandering around the city, I returned to find Alister with a number of unfamiliar people chatting in the living room. I was introduced and immediately felt drawn to one of the company, a young Australian, Christopher Connolly, the son of Alister's producer at the ABC. He was a composer and musician who had married and settled in France. To Alister, with both of us there together, he had a flash of inspiration: Chris should set to music, and I must print, one of Roy Campbell's loveliest poems, “Mass at Dawn.” He then proceeded dramatically to recite it from memory:

I dropped my sail and dried my dripping seines
Where the white quay is chequered by cool planes
In whose great branches, always out of sight,
The nightingales are singing day and night.
Though all was grey beneath the moon's grey beam,
My boat in her new paint shone like a bride,
And silver in my basked shone the bream:
My arms were tired and I was heavy-eyed,
But when with food and drink, at morning-light,
The children met me at the water-side,
Never was wine so red or bread so white.

I spoke to Christopher and asked if I might visit him. A day or two later I did. He and his wife, Dominique, were living in a tiny apartment just a stone's throw away from the famous Château at Versailles. Dominique was not there that day, but Christopher and I had a most amiable chat. He played some of his compositions on the piano. When I returned home, I wrote to him immediately:

I am more than usually superstitious about these fortuitous encounters and feel I ought to take advantage of them whenever they arise. That is why I have scarcely gotten settled back into my regular routine here that I am reminding you of that highly interesting idea of Alister's, a musical setting of Roy Campbell's poem, “Mass at Dawn.” Won't you think about it [further] and let me know for sure you will go ahead with it?

I also sent him a booklet I had printed which included a brief musical setting, to show that I could so such things. He replied favorably. I mentioned this to Anna. She asked to see it when it was finished. But Christopher surprised me by preparing a tape of himself singing and playing on the piano his song which I sent to her. In due course his hand-written musical score arrived. The score itself went to an engraver who made plates suitable for letterpress. I set the poem into type and printed 80 copies. There were 16 pages sewn into overlapping wrappers with a titling label on the front cover. The text paper was from Linweave, while the covers were Fabriano Artistico with a grey hand-made India Office from J. Barcham Green over that. I sent the colophon sheets to Christopher who signed and returned them. The dedication reads: “Dedicated with affectionate regards to Alister Kershaw, who prompted this song.” That was in 1984. All the copies were soon gone. In 1991 we decided to re-issue the work with a revised score and a different format and binding. This time there were 75 copies with the text paper Mohawk Superfine and the covers Canson Mi-Teintes.

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