Harold J Wilson
 

 

LIFE STORIES PROJECT                     H.J.WILSON

The Child as Father of the Man

The Scots run strongly to schoolteachers, drinkers, and engineers, the Irish to story-tellers, drinkers, poets, and priests. My ancestry is, in the main, Scots and Irish, and I am, as it happens, a story-teller, drinker, schoolteacher, poet, and, somehow, also a priest. How all these bits and pieces got collected in me is the burden of the few following pages which give a tad of significant detail about it all. You must keep in mind the saying that God and the Devil are both in the details.

As a child of the Episcopalian parsonage in North America, I grew up surrounded by my father’s and grandfather’s books, church people, and, very fortunately, the great outdoors, which always called to me, whether from our mountain valley in Montana or the green highlands of West Virginia, at boarding school in the Berkshire Hills of Connecticut or on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. My university schooling was first at Williams in its lovely setting under the shadow of the Berkshires and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Those hills and perspectives live in my memory now that I am somewhat more limited to the view of the sky from my bungalow garden in dozy north Oxford, UK.

My mother, Sally Bess Kinsella (Sarah Elizabeth), was a very sociable and attractive woman from Dallas, Texas; she had met my father as a girl at the Episcopal Cathedral where they both worshipped and she went on to university nearby while he attended Columbia in New York City where his mother had studied for an MA in English around 1900. After his ordination to the priesthood and their marriage, my father was seen as an early ‘comer’ in the New York diocese and was obviously expected to become the vicar of a large and influential parish. Independent as always, however, he hared off instead in 1936, to the missionary diocese of Montana, which comprised perhaps a few hundred Episcopalian ranchers spread out across many thousands of square miles, none of them turning much of a profit in the depths of the Great Depression.

Because of the uncertain times, Dad, who had several small missions to attend to, some of them a hundred miles apart, was often paid in potatoes and firewood during our three years out there and we eventually moved back east in 1939. But it was grand country and unforgettable, though we had only two heated rooms in the winter and neither one was the loo. Dad once owned a Stanley Steamer and his cars, built for wear, managed to carry him throughout that mountainous country. I still remember, at the age of two, taking the train from Dallas, Texas to Montana and the drive from the railhead at Three Forks across a high pass to the Madison Valley. The winds blowing were at over a hundred miles an hour and there were a number of cars laagered up at the top of the pass. My parents put me along with the other children into the heaviest car and only after the winds had abated were we able to drive down into the valley.

The Madison Range reached about eleven or twelve thousand feet and the valley was at least five thousand feet above sea level. It was a magical place to me though bitterly cold for much of the year and not exactly a smart career move for my father, though not the last of his miscalculations. We had a Swiss German rancher friend with a music degree from the University of Berlin who played the organ for my father’s services – although he was an avowed atheist. His children, Volcker, Alarich and Irmengard were my childhood playmates. Gene Saar owned a ranch a few miles south of Ennis, Montana, and on a visit back to Schweiz he had met a girl named Toni who indicated an interest in coming to America. “Why don’t you do that,” said Gene. When Toni arrived, she told him that she had decided to accept his offer of marriage. Gene was a little astonished but did the honorable thing. She bore him three children, and the boys were nationally ranked skiers but she had no understanding of music – and did not like our family much.

Montana was to live on as a dream place in my mind which I return to sometimes as a threshold of wilderness in my sleep. My dream of it is as an area of mountains, caves, canyons, perhaps some old temples – a place set apart. In sleep I return to its borders, or visit nearby with friends or family, but I can always feel its life reaching out to me. At one dream-point, I heard a voice saying, “This is not just for you.” And though this strange magnetic presence lives there, it is not only from Montana but also from Pennsylvania and New England that I feel the lost magic quality of the physiognomic landscape. As it happens, the Madison Range literally does have Wilderness areas.

I went back in my seventeenth summer to a ranch, The Jumping Horse, fifty thousand acres of prime benchland in the Madison Valley, run at a slight loss for tax purposes by a millionaire family. I was there for a season of working hay and was sleeping in the bunkhouse along with the other ranch hands and my uncle Jim Kinsella. The first morning, I had a dream of my uncle driving me to the ranch in a jeep as actually had happened, but then as I awoke, I felt paralyzed. I could see Uncle Jim across the room but there was this horrible laughing evil presence pressing down upon me.

That was when I first met the family ghost. We don’t know, really, who he is, but I have always identified him as Diarmuid Macmurchada, the Irish king of Leinster, who was a very troubling personage in his own historical life, back in the twelfth century. My mother’s people were Kinsellas, the descendants of that old Wexford line. The strange thing was that when my uncle awoke in response to my strange noises, the presence departed and I could move. But it was to return in many dreams and I had no power to avoid or defeat it, although I tried. Eventually I came to a kind of more neutral accommodation with its dream-presence as perhaps this bit of poetry indicates.

Diarmuid

Ageless, twisted, and no longer human,
Diarmuid sat waiting in the darkened room
When I awoke to dream his energy,
His tearing laughter and the tuneless tune
That wound itself about the core of me.
At twelve I heard its echo and began
To travel in my mind away from men
Some space that promised distance, never welcome.
I was seventeen before I met him,
Sitting in the dark behind my head
In the Montana bunkhouse,
Rocking me in his mind’s grip, his
Hand about my breathing till my uncle
Shook me, staring, from the living dead.

My eyes filled when I thought of how he came
That time and once again, at school, to tell me
That he was more than my imaginings,
Diarmuid remembering his lost kingdom,
Amused at my new innocence. So many
Were given hostage to his enemies
From his own line of blood, a debt
He paid with lives to gain a little time.
And every oath he ever made he broke,
No matter if his children’s children died.
He lived a lie that death could not contain,
Marrying his own country to the northmen.

“Sometimes each generation, they take one,”
The doctor, an old Scotsman, told me,
It’s probably from the Irish side,
Something dark around you, hovering.”

Diarmuid, in dreams I often tried to kill you,
But I had no power against your shadow’s weight,
The coldness and the distance were too great.
And yet I loose me from your tune; each day
Diminishes what you can make of me.
Your feasting in my veins is nearly done,
Whose son will you choose now among your kin?


Harold Wilson was called to the university parish in Morgantown, W.Va., up on the Monongahela River, a setting of bluffs and ravines and high-angled streets which featured a large number of operating coke ovens at one end of town and just across the river a DuPont chemical plant making munitions for the Second World War. The combination of thick carbon dust and ammonia in the atmosphere could probably, under appropriate weather conditions, have blown the whole town away, but as it was, the paint peeled off the houses every few years and your washing out on the line, was often flecked with black from the sooty air while it was drying. My younger sisters, Julie and Betsy, were afflicted with sinus infections. It was not a good place to breathe.

Dad was paid a miniscule salary by the shopkeepers and minor professionals who made up his parish leaders. It would be some years before he could warm them up a little and bring in more university faculty as leadership. But Morgantown and indeed West Virginia overall became like a deepening trap for my mother, far away from any family or childhood friends, and she grew even more depressed after she lost her favorite brother Bobby in the war and had a sort of breakdown not long after my sister Julie was born.

The account we had been given of my parents’ marriage was based on a charming story. It seems that after years of being engaged, my father was still swanning about the church world of Manhattan until finally Sallie Bess wrote and told him that she had had a few other offers and if he still wanted to marry her he had better get busy and do it. I have read the newspaper account of their wedding and I know that she wore a scarlet dress trimmed with black fur. That at least is true. But there was an old washstand left by my parents and parked in a corner of Sister Julie’s apartment in Palo Alto. I went through its drawers one summer morning, entirely by chance, while I was staying with Julie, and I found a most interesting letter or two from my father to my mother. In one of them which she must have saved, he tells her that he has been thinking seriously of going to study abroad but if she is still keen on marriage to him maybe they had better do it now. She was the one who had been ‘swanning’ about socially back in Dallas. I thought that the other ‘official’ version he gave us was rather a gallant lie.

My father had also written to my mother from Ennis in 1939 while she was in Helena, Montana, in the hospital, just after bearing my sister Betsy. I was five and had been farmed out for a week to a neighbor, Rose Matzic, who had three teenage daughters, and I spent most of my time over there. But as dad commented, “Jay looks in every day or so to see if I’m still alright.” As it happened, I was gazing full time at the three female Matzic teenagers, hoping I would catch a glimpse of something choice. Unfortunately, they detected my interest and showed me nothing. But as dearly as I loved my parents, depended upon them – and miss them still – I did not require their constant attention, even as a young child when I was happy playing in the fields and caught fish with bits of string from the irrigation ditches or crawled under barbed wire on my stomach to steal Farmer Strang’s strawberries when I was four. I still bear the scars on my arm from the barbed wire, but I never told my parents about it.

Harold Wilson was a keen and affectionate man who would talk with anyone he met and who had rare gifts as a storyteller, as a pastor and as a friend. Other men, and many women, remembered him with unforced admiration; but he was brought down by diabetes at the age of 41, after which he became clinically depressed for many of his remaining thirty-five years.  Recognizing how things were going at home, I made the best of my school life and eventually gained scholarships which paid for my further education. My relationship with my father was not helped much by his constant depression which made me even more annoying to him. Given my own character and the fact that he had been brought up by authoritarian parents, this was perhaps inevitable, but somehow we both managed to forgive each other. I grieved him for a long time while he was yet alive.

Because I was a highly verbal and largely intuitive little boy, I learned quickly but rather haphazardly at school and was mistrusted by classmates because of my vocabulary and readiness to make snide comments. This sometimes got me in trouble as when I attended the main public school in Morgantown for two miserable years. One day in fourth grade the class began to sing the well-known American patriotic hymn, ‘My Country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of  liberty’ which happens to have the same tune as ‘God Save the Queen.’ Everyone in class stood up out of respect for the flag except me. When asked why I was sitting, I replied, “Why should I stand up for the British national anthem?” I was eight and what I had asserted had actually just occurred to me. But it didn’t help me to win friends. Consequently, I was forced to learn early on how to get home after school via the middle of the block, over fences and through alleys, since there were often hostile parties waiting for me along the main avenues. Nowadays, as a loyal subject of the Queen (and still a US citizen as well) I am happy to stand for the British National anthem.

When I was moved to the University Elementary Laboratory School I found it much more stimulating since I had faculty brats in my classes there as well as the usual coal miners’ sons like most of my early playmates. But this lot of schoolchildren definitely cast a cool eye on me as a new boy, particularly after I got the lead in the school musical, ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ opposite the winsome little blond Patty Sanders. I was nine. Winter came and I walked down to school one day. We had a large playground around our small brick building and just below us ran the railroad and then the Monongahela River with its sidewheeler steam boats pushing coal barges northward toward the Pittsburgh steel mills.

I found a snowball fight in progress as I entered the schoolyard that day and joined one side. Pretty soon I began to notice that the other members of ‘my’ group were all defecting to the enemy. However, before long, it became clear who exactly the real enemy was. It was me. The entire school body was soon arrayed in a large circle around me, some seventy boys and girls, with the girls packing the snowballs and the boys throwing them at me. And this actually happened a second time, a few weeks later, when I was so inconsiderate as to think that they surely wouldn’t do that to me again.

One boy, Gene Warner, particularly enjoyed hitting me in the face up close with hard snowballs. Then Gene looked around and realized what the position was – everyone against one - and he didn’t like it. So he joined me and after that people got bored with the game.  The isolation hurt more than the snowballs did of course. Gene and I became friends thereafter but this experience gave me some idea of what to expect from school life and from other boys.

I was always very keen on sports though not terribly good at them. In play groups I had always been the leader who improvised the rules and served as umpire. So in sports I could put a team together myself, but when someone else chose up sides I was usually the next-to-last pick. When I was ten I used to meet with a group of other boys at the high school football field on Saturday morning and our two leaders, perhaps 13 years old, Harlan Selby and Red McCrory, would choose up sides and play against each other. Harlan was a dark-featured kid, wiry and intense, Red a typical bluff freckled extrovert. They always carried the ball and were hard to tackle. I had no vast admiration for either of them, but still it was something to do with other kids on weekends.

One morning we encountered a group of small black children at the field. Most of us had never had any contact with blacks but since they were keen to compete we put together two full elevens and played against each other. Astonishingly, these little guys gang-tackled fiercely and neither Harlan nor Red could seem to find much running room. I wondered how our fearless leaders would meet with this challenge, but I did not have to wait long in order to find out. After the next play, emerging from a pile of small black  bodies, I noticed that Harlan and Red were now playing for the other team. Drawing conclusions from this basic lesson in the ethics of leadership, I became further disinclined thereafter to becoming anyone’s totally faithful follower.

I read about persistent bullying practices in British schools, and am, of course, troubled at how some children are driven to desperation and even suicide by organized campaigns of harassment. Teachers used to be better at spotting this sort of thing and scotching it, though now there seems to be a ‘heads-down’ policy among them much of the time.

What I needed to do when I switched back to seventh grade at my dear old public (state) school was to find tough kids who would tolerate me, maybe after some initial minor fisticuffs (I was always on the losing end). My parents had had to make their own way in life despite social adversities and it became rapidly clear that they expected me to do the same, even in a rough environment. You are going to have to take care of some of your own business in life anyway. So you had better train for it, even at eleven years.

Perhaps, to be honest about it, I was always a little scared as I became aware of my increasing social isolation. But I remember two rather rough types in my seventh grade class, David Eisenkopf and Cecil Watson. David was a tough blond Kraut of some kind and Cecil his ratty-looking junior partner. I was home with a cold from school one day in the spring, but in the afternoon, feeling better, my mother let me walk over to the nearby university campus to watch a baseball game. There I was spotted and hailed by ‘Ceese’ and Dave who fondly imagined that I was hookying school just as they were. This made me seem a much more acceptable person to them and they congratulated me on finally seeing it their way.  After that we kept in touch a little from time to time and efforts by a few other students to intimidate me halted as they took note of my new associates. I was to follow this same strategy successfully later on in boarding school.

My career as a poet began this same year, when I was eleven, with satire or parody rather than lyricism. There was a local judge in Morgantown named Minter L. Wilson who had published his own book of patriotic poetry entitled War Eagle during the Second World War. Because of our common last name, he had kindly sent my father a copy of his book of poems. But even a casual glance at this volume persuaded me that the man was remarkably silly; you couldn’t keep from giggling while perusing his immortal struggles with verse. Judge Wilson was a very popular speaker for the July 4th Independence Day proceedings each summer because there was such a good chance that he would (yet again) have gotten so drunk beforehand that he would fall off the speaker’s platform down at the Courthouse. This prospect used to bring out quite an audience.

So what I did one day while bored with watching the pigeons pursuing their romances outside the classroom window, was to begin to write a bad imitation of old Minter’s turgid verse. I penned something that ended,

“The fliers soar up high with their spirits in the sky/ But below them in the goddam bloody muck/ The infantry are fighting, but together they stand/ Saluting our flag in the dying sunset.”

It was a parody and meant in a mocking spirit, even to the use of profanity. However, I left my notebook in the English class which was in my last period. Then I was out sick for a day and when I came back, I discovered that the teacher had found, read, and declaimed my poem to the class- totally straight. This was 1945. My feelings were indescribable. She kept asking me if I had written anything more, and I would just look at her, bemused but knowing it was useless to try to explain. At the same time, of course, I was proud of my Uncle Bobby who had died in the war and did not mean any irreverence to those who had given their lives on the battlefield.

In the course of my erratic homeward journeys after school, I had found another likely refuge from my pursuers, the Morgantown Public Library, only a few blocks away on a side street in the basement of the firehouse and just underneath the city jail. Miss Burnside, the librarian, was the silent figure who presided over this quiet little municipal retreat. She was a slim dark-blonde woman who became accustomed to seeing me parked in a chair facing the door and reading quickly through a novel.

After I had read my way through the children’s literature, perhaps twice, mostly the same classical children’s books which were then available to American as to British children, I went on to the Western shelf and Zane Grey and other authors of adventure stories which I found more exciting actually than the fairly dull scripts of the Hollywood Westerns (Hopalong Cassidy?) at the local cinema on Saturdays.

After the Westerns, I went for the Detective novels and soon figured out how to skim through the descriptive passages on to the action bits. By now I would sometimes finish three novels in the course of an afternoon and part of an evening. When I was eleven, I had read through these shelves and began eyeing the adult novels shelf which I finally persuaded Miss Burnside to let me read from. This became rather a small imaginative watershed in my life once  I had discovered a yet further meaning for ‘Adult.’

Reading
I learnt the smell of books at home
And later on in libraries
They quickened my small feet to roam
Through vanished lands, unsounded seas.

I scaled the children’s shelves at first,
A curious and a gawky elf,
Until at length my climbing thirst
Impelled me to the novels’ shelf.

That day I fell, how far, how fast,
I cannot say, the dreaming joy
Of eros claimed me and I passed
From boyhood while yet still a boy.
Since when I compass as I can
Such heights and depths as novels scan.

West Virginia is a beautiful wooded hill state, the unglaciated backbone of the Appalachian mountain revolution. It has an abundance of limestone caves and great rock chimneys, hillsides full of rhododendron where wild game is plentiful and there are bears, many kinds of snakes, and even the occasional wildcat. I was a Boy Scout for seven years but never took any merit badges and always remained at the Tenderfoot level since what I was interested in was playing table tennis and going on overnight camping trips out in the state and national parks. I was, in fact, not very serious about ‘scouting’ and never even considered dressing up (we couldn’t afford one anyway) in a silly Scout uniform.

When I was seven and eight, my mother would pack me lunch of a baloney sandwich and an apple on Saturday morning and send me off to walk three miles out to Suncrest where our church friends, the Martens family, lived. There I would go and wander about with their younger son in the local woods, eat a nice family dinner and then be sent home on the bus. When I got older, say from ten to twelve, I would often hitch-hike eight miles out of town with my friend Pete Areford on weekends to his family place on the Cheat River where it had been dammed up to form a lake. We would swim in the lake by ourselves and I would stay the night. The beds were always warm at their place, since his uncles and step-father worked different shifts in the coal mines and slept in whatever bed was free when they came off shift.

I  remember the weekend Pete Areford took me along on a trip to his  family homestead up in the hills –  a typical old time subsistence farm with a couple of cows and some chickens and a garden and a few dogs. There, one of his aunts poured me a wonderful creamy glass of fresh milk, totally unpasteurized, warm, and tasting strongly of what the cows had been grazing recently – wild onions. Somehow I kept my stomach, a straight face, and managed to drink down the warm wild-onion-milk 

This was the beginning of a lesson that I would be taught more forcefully later on while minding a small country mission down near White Sulphur Springs during the summer of ’56 after graduation from college.   This was in the Southeastern part of the state, quite close to the Virginia line,  and I was laid on to take Sunday Morning Prayer services at a little country chapel which was a satellite of the Episcopal church in the nearby town.

There were three families which worshipped at this little chapel, the Corrons, a family of talented Irish woodcarvers and artisans whose menfolk were (all three) hopeless alcoholics whose daughters became pregnant, as if by magic, at the age of fourteen. Then there was a French Canadian family of poor white labourers, the Casteaux, and a blond Saxon farming family named Alderman who sent their children to university. After observing my attempts to deal socially with these folks, Chuck Draper the local vicar told me, “Jay, when you shake hands with people you kind of wince and step back. With country people, you’ve got to smile and step up.” Chuck told me always to accept some form of hospitality from them and to compliment people upon their homes, no matter what they looked like, or how shy I might feel.

Chuck I had known since I was a child in Morgantown, he was the son of one of West Virginia University’s best real teachers of Shakespeare and English Lit, the famed Dr. Draper. His father, however, was a petty autocrat at home, so Chuck had been honed against a grainy edge. He taught me how to serve at the altar and later he went on to my dad’s seminary in New York City. When they rusticated him for a year for being ‘too rigid’ about his ritual practices (he changed what he didn’t like), he spent the ensuing year working in the coal mines in southern West Virginia. He didn’t look like a lot but the man was a born survivor.

I played Bridge that summer for the last time in my life when Chuck had a group of parishioners over to play with his father, a fanatical Bridge devotee. I won the prize for most points(a box of chocolates)out of sheer dumb luck that evening after being someone’s dummy hand all night and still remember Dr. Draper regarding me disapprovingly over the end of his sharp nose. The Drapers in England had been friends with John Wesley and still possessed his pewter mug with the dents in the bottom where he had used a hot poker to mull his ale after a cold night of preaching out in the open. I somehow doubt the American Methodists would want that mug for their sacred memorabilia.

However, a small digression at this point will allow me to tell the story of how Chuck dealt with the attempts of the only wealthy people in his congregation to replace him with a young and attractive clergyman from Virginia. The Rev. Douglas Pitt from a small parish near Charlottesville used to visit in White Sulphur Springs every summer with his friend Mr. Cox who had a parish up in the affluent horse country at Middleburg, VA. Mrs. Percy Ginevre was besotted with young Dougie as was her husband, while her sister, the amply moustachioed Charlotte, was equally fond of them as was her husband, Leman Stoat, a grinning little leech whose twin passions were gambling and lechery, paid for by withdrawals on various pretexts from his wife’s bank account.

But when this clergy couple were about, Pitt and Cox, they did a splendid job of distracting Charlotte from her husband’s antics. Their duo was profiled in the local weekly paper as ‘The Little Ministers’ and they bunked together in a cabin on the Stoats’ property. I well remember first meeting Douglas Pitt one summer day while I was digging a pit for an ‘outhouse’ privy out behind our little mission church in the country. I was down in the hole pitching up dirt from my spade when he and Mr. Cox drove by and Chuck introduced us. Dougie even leapt into the excavation and threw his arm around my bare shoulders in a nice brotherly gesture. I was at the Stoats’ only one time socially with Chuck at a party when I first heard someone use the colloquial southern political term, ‘Jew-Commie-Preverts.’ “Nice bunch of people, aren’t they ?,” said Chuck.

Of course Dougie would need a real rectory to live in, not just the one-room attic over the choir room where they had stuck Chuck and Jeannie –where the only door opened right onto the toilet.  Then Chuck told the congregation one Sunday from the pulpit that he was planning to move on shortly but that he would dearly love to leave a rectory behind for his successor and his missus to live in. The Ginevres and Stoats perked up their ears at this. Before long, Dougie and Mr. Cox had drawn up a pretty good architect’s plan for a small two-story brick rectory. This was then paid for and built by the two sisters.

Chuck thanked them effusively from the pulpit for their wonderful gift to the parish.  He had been so impressed by their generosity, he told them, that he was planning to stay on for a number of years and he and Jeannie were so looking forward to living in the new building. They did actually move on before too long, but the Ginevres and Stoats never, to my knowledge, did get their own ‘little minister.’ Doug Pitt ended up in the Diocese of Maryland where he proved excellent at raising funds for various church improvements.

Boarding School Days        

 
My father had a seminary friend who had become a school head, so away I went to Kent School in Connecticut at the age of thirteen to re-do my eighth grade year at a much higher educational level. My mother could see trouble looming with my father and thought, as she later told me, that sending me away to school might deflect this inevitable conflict,. This it somewhat did but my father always found me a little heedless and independent and when my mother had a sort of nervous breakdown just after WWII, he found life a little more pressured and lack of cooperation did not always sit well. The men in our family tend to have an almost ungovernable temper as well which does not always help much.

Once my father told me – I was about ten, I think – not to target shoot any glass bottles on the public footpaths behind our church with my little air rifle. I nodded and, next day, went out around the neighbourhood collecting a number of empty booze bottles from the WVU fraternity house trash bins. I then assembled them in a sort of tableaux just behind our church building and proceeded to shoot them all into a thousand or so bits of shattered glass. Which I just left there. Dad was apoplectic. He hurled my air rifle down from the top of the garden steps like a spear and its barrel buckled against a flagstone. A number of new-cut pear tree switches were mounted over the buffet table in the dining room as a reminder for me and I was given a memorable taste of them on my legs as well.

After this debacle, as always, I retreated upstairs to my bedroom in tears until my father presently came up, also in tears, and put his arms around me. We come from a family where tears and anger and love all have much acquaintance with each other. I never quite understood why I was the way I was, but my mother reckoned that maybe going to school away somewhere might ease things at home a bit. Well, it did and it didn’t.

Anyway, dad and mama drove me up to Kent School in Connecticut for my first semester, but what I always remember more is arriving at Penn Station in New York City on my way home for Christmas vacation and dragging my bag down to the infamous Sloane Street YMCA. Eating at the H&H Automat and walking around the area, I noticed a number of young men staring at me, and when I showered that night in the open bathroom area, I mentioned to the light-skinned black man there that I had observed some rather peculiar folks that day. He remarked to me, more or less offhandedly, that I could make maybe a thousand dollars a week keeping my door open at night. What a peculiar suggestion.

Though beautifully situated beside the Housatonic River in wooded northwestern Connecticut, Kent school was operated by a bullying clergyman headmaster, William Scott Chalmers, who worked himself into public rages over small infringements of regulations. He ruled with his chosen claque of prefects who quite naturally seemed to pick on boys who were a little unfortunate, were fat or who wet their beds. I could see them at night from the window of my room, being dragged physically in their pajamas across the campus by two burly prefects for their confrontation with the headmaster and eventual paddling on their bare bottoms with cricket bats.

I disliked the prefects intensely for this, the headmaster I considered a hysterical ass, and the student body mainly a bunch of egregious nobodies. So I made no friends. In fact, I decided to spend most of the year in the library and to speak to others only when I could not avoid it. I did locate the Appalachian Trail on the ridgetop above the school and spent some happy days, off and on, prowling through the woods up there. I enjoyed ancient history as always and remember how I once began giving a class report on Julius Caesar by saying, “ Far be it from me to improve on the language of the Cambridge Ancient History…” when ‘Armpit’ Armstrong, the instructor, broke in, “ That’s exactly what you would try to do, Wilson, you idiot.” I always liked Armstrong. It’s a Scots border name. Some of my Irvine ancestors married with Armstrongs and Eliots .

After a year at Kent, which even at rock- bottom tuition rates my father could ill afford, I was sent in my fourteenth year to St. Andrew’s School on Sewanee Mountain in southern Tennessee. St. Andrews was run by the Order of the Holy Cross, a well-respected Anglican male monastic order whose members knew little about boys and even less about schools, which is why they had eventually lost control of Kent School which they had also founded. We had only 108 pupils at St. A’s, including, Eighth Graders, and the student body was comprised of some country or ‘mountain’ boys, for whose benefit St. Andrew’s had been originally designed, a number of orphans and foster children from cities like Memphis or Nashville, as well as a selection of middle class boys, mainly from Atlanta, whose repeated delinquencies had caused them to be sent away from that city; lastly, there was a small remnant of children of clergy or other professional men, like me, who were there because of  sheer parental  miscalculation about its educational benefits.

St. Andrews cost  my family practically nothing but it was so badly funded that they could only afford  to feed us damaged canned food, mainly beans, which was bought at auction, along with government butter, and bits of ‘mystery meat’ which I would rather not try to describe. Our teachers, given the level of their stipend, were largely gay men or alcoholics, or both, who had been disgraced in some way at other schools. I reckon that perhaps half the student body had police records, and indeed some few of us did go on, in later years, to become permanent guests of the government. But if St. Andrews posed a new set of survival challenges to me, at least now, after Kent School, I was better equipped to meet them.

After my parents had gone, my new dorm prefect  carried my trunk to my room and introduced me to my roommates;  someone found a can of grapefruit segments for me to eat  and poured in a little port wine for good measure. I was then sat down in the prefect’s room where I was told by him, “Nice to have you here, Wilson, but now you are either going to shine our shoes for us, boy, or we are going to beat the shit out of you.” I took this in good part as I understood what was going on. I had seen the welcome side and now I was getting an instruction in local authority. I shined the Prefect’s shoes, but only once.

I reverted at St. Andrews to my former strategy of finding tough boys to associate with. Fortunately, in the first year I had two roommates who were seniors. In the second year, my roommate, Robert Matheny from Florida was a fifth former, large and physically strong. He let it be known that I was not available for the periodic ‘initiations’ to which younger third formers were sometimes subject. People were made to eat cigarettes and swallow water until they got sick. Worms would be allowed to crawl around in your mouth till you were forced to chew and swallow them, or they might take off the top bunk and the bottom mattress and put you on the springs while everyone leapt on top of you until the springs (and you in them) banged off the floor beneath. This was called playing ‘Lucky Pierre’. No one ever got very hurt at it that I know of, but it was frightening to be singled out in this way, which was the main idea of course.

I understood that people had and would dislike me and consider me a snotty, superior, sarcastic son-of-a-bitch who thought he was smarter than everyone else. This was true enough to a degree, but I also understood that everyone had some kind of intelligence and that I did not have the only valuable kind – and that I needed others to help and defend me. There were also other very bright young men in our student body, some of them my friends.

None of the really bad stuff ever happened to me, partly because I was very cautious and also because of Bob Matheny. On the football field I also picked out the toughest kid in our class, one ‘Buckeye’, and lined up opposite him for every contact drill. I ate a lot of his dust but he respected me and later protected me against other boys who quite naturally disliked me, in particular his own older brother. I also went out for boxing since I had never been much of a fighter and found that violent level of personal confrontation upsetting.

Boxing was a very useful discipline. I only had a left jab to begin with and not much stamina but I improved as I got my muscular growth and could then manage to throw a few combinations of punches. It also put people on notice that I was not a likely victim for just anyone who was bigger or older than me. In fact, I helped teach so many younger kids the fundamentals of boxing that eventually I was elected alternate or sub-Captain of the team, after Mack Carroll, the Captain, who was a much better fighter.

The fellow who got me interested in boxing was a West Virginian friend of my father’s named Bill Mucklow. Bill was a builder of Irish American descent who had a great sense of humour. He also had a ‘secret punch’ which he passed on to me. This punch was guaranteed to knock down your opponent, though not to knock him out. I once tried it on the Marine recruiter at college who used to spar with me occasionally. He was also the coach of the Marine Boxing Team. After I successfully knocked him down, he got back up and gave me rather a good beating. So much for secret punches.

In much later years, I phoned my son Laurence at Penn State just before his first boxing match against a more experienced black opponent and conveyed to him the lore of how to throw the secret punch. “But don’t throw it too often,” I said, “or he’ll figure it out and block it.” Amazingly, Laurence won the match after absorbing, as he told me, something of a beating in the first round. It seems the guy was too tired in the subsequent two rounds to see the ‘secret punch’ coming. “I hit him with it about seventeen times,” Laurence told me. Somehow it didn’t work as well against the next guy however and Laurence made the mistake of beating him up in the first round and being too tired thereafter. When he told me about it he knew I would appreciate the irony!

I was also for one semester at St. Andrews in charge of cleaning a loo. It needed to be mopped everyday, dosed with disinfectant of some kind, drains unclogged, floods reduced, and it was dirty work. None of this posed a major challenge to me. I had other things to worry about, but I instance it as an example of what all there is that you live through and from when you are young. Fortunately for me, I got to work in the laundry for the next semester.

St. Andrews was not scholastically promising. It was just, in those days, run pretty much on the margins of financial possibility. But a process of personal growth is possible anywhere just so long as you fulfill certain basic requirements of food, shelter, and safety. So I did a lot of reading: C.S. Lewis, mythology, ancient history. Perhaps that’s when I first began to be an intuitive NeoPlatonist, as that brought my dreams or visions into some kind of harmony. At the same time, I was personally a little fastidious and modest and did not enjoy the experience of bathing and defecating in full view of others. The beach or the woods is something else entirely. I am sure that in Japan I wouldn’t mind public bathing at all. But a boarding school’s deprivation of your personal privacy is always a little wounding.  And of course others can threaten to take away what margin you personally have of any of these necessary conditions, because safety and privacy are so often part of the same thing. So I became a sort of athlete.

In football, St. Andrew’s was always scheduled to play a number of large southern military academies, some of which were retaining post-graduate seniors for another year before sending them on to the prestigious Southeastern Conference universities.  Frequently, they had more people on the football team than we did in our school.  

We never won against such teams and sometimes lost by astronomical scores like 81-0.  I remember our losing 32 – 7 against Riverside Academy onetime but being gleeful because we had injured over half of their starting eleven. I accounted for one of them myself. He had been spearing me in the face with his fist, but when he moved over to work on my roommate, Buzzy Knox, at tackle, I kindly stomped on his ankle as I ran by.

Actually I tied for high scorer our senior year since I made one touchdown and my sub, Bill Yarbrough made one after I called the play to Coach Towles up at Riverside. Bill had to do it because I had ruined my own ankle stepping on the big dude who had been punching me in the face.  But our backfield averaged 150 pounds per man and our line only 145.  We had a very bright and capable quarterback in our class president Murray Robinson, but he didn’t have a lot to work with up front considering that he was facing future college players on the other side of the ball.

Imagine matching us against people who were going on to play in national bowl games. Even against country high schools we lost. One time we trailed back to our hotel up in Erwin, Tennessee after losing to the local high school 53-0, and we found an older man sitting in the lobby who told us, “I lost sixty dollars on you boys tonight.” Naively, I asked him, “Did you bet on us, sir?” “Well,” he said, “I took you and fifty points.” But we were a merry lot despite it all. The humour of competing way out of our league did not wholly escape us.

I remember, on the way to that Riverside game, driving down through northern Georgia, Coach Towles decided to turn us out for a bit of exercise, running laps around a small pond which extended from a roadside park. We were all in our best, and perhaps only, set of good clothes and did not appreciate this demand a whole lot as it was a warm day already. Taking my cue from the situation, I began to parody a spastic as we followed old Lean Gene Towles loping around the little lake. Soon everyone was competing to see who could look more ridiculous in their spastic movements as we staggered on with flapping limbs and grotesque facial expressions; I told the gaping passers-by that we were a group of children from an institution for the disabled. They gazed at us in wonder.

I ran in 34 track meets at St.A’s as well as doing boxing and football and this made me accustomed to athletic performance which elicited more courage and some increased presence of mind to draw on when needed. I eventually became a dorm prefect myself and past experience of the prevalent physical bullying came in very handy since part of my job as prefect included maintaining some sort of order and authority by dealing out immediate retaliation for disrespect. When the task in hand seemed a little difficult, like trying to physically intimidate four rousy Texas sixteen-year-olds late at night, I could always turn to my roommates, Streety and Buzzy, who would obediently roll out of bed and go down the hall to the offending parties’ room in order to thump flesh with their fists on various muscles, until the point was sufficiently taken so that we could all stand down and go back to sleep.

good arm. I had to hit him nineteen times before he stopped laughing at me. This was all taken in good part and he would have despised me had I not reacted to his jibes in this way. Then there was a previous prefect, Lloyd Baker, who used to give ten strokes with the belt to the last kid down for evening prayers with the Head,  and the last kid up from prayers as well. And who had his own boy concubine. Lloyd has spent some years, I understand, as a guest of the government.

Boys far away from their families are often homesick. I had not been acutely afflicted in this respect since I was eight, but sugar is perhaps the main substitute for family love when you are away at school for years, and I got only one dollar a week spending money, half of which went to the film on Saturday in the little nearby university town of Sewanee. That didn’t leave much for a daily ration of ice cream and soft drinks. Fortunately for me, my third year roommate was a senior named Marvin Jordan who also ran the school store. 

Marvin saw to it that I never ran out of a daily ice cream and soda by the simple expedient of giving me back about the same change that I had paid with, but I can tell you, I was grateful for just that much. Marvin also knew how to explore caves and the woods around the school and would sign up boys for overnight camping trips. Only half the boys signed up would actually go, so we always had eggs and bread and butter left over which we would cache in the winter woods and cook over our own fire later on.
Marvin made dandelion wine and kept it at Fr. Flye’s house; he made corn beer in the dorm pipe tunnels which we later distilled in the woods through some copper tubing. It tasted pretty awful, I must admit. But I remember how Marvin once reached for a cigarette in his breast pocket one evening, and then snatched his hand out and held it to his mouth. He had forgotten that he had put a small cave bat in his pocket earlier in the day and it bit him when he stuck his fingers in.

I ran into Marvin at my fiftieth class reunion at St. A’s and asked what he had done for a career. He told me he had been the chief supply officer at a big naval depot. I should have known. He and I also used to make a little side money, in the old days, from our annual expedition to collect toads and frogs from the local sand quarry for dissection in the Biology Class. I  continued to do this after he graduated, but in the spring of my senior year I saved  about twenty of them back which I released just before the final Sixth Form Sacred Studies class in the Prior’s study . Fr. Spencer was very near-sighted and it took him quite a while to identify the source of the various ‘plops’ and ‘oogahs’ as the frogs and toads hopped busily about the room. The other students were, of course, rendered totally helpless. The class was excused early. Old Bonnell just couldn’t deal with it.

That was not very politic of me since Fr. Spencer knew my father and had given me the Church History prize the preceding year. I was probably the first and only student he had ever had who was remotely interested in Church History! He was also engaged in trying to get me a scholarship to Williams College in Massachusetts, his own college. But he forgave me and as it happened, his fiftieth class reunion occurred at the end of my first year at Williams and I was able to view him sauntering about in a blazer and boater hat instead of his usual long white monk’s habit. I am still very grateful to Bonny Spencer.

Actually, we were lucky at St. A’s in those days because Father Spencer was the best scholar in the Order and Father Turkington was an excellent headmaster. The Order lost its Father Superior at about the time I graduated because when he went on his annual visitation to their missions in Nigeria, he had to solve a problem with one of the English nuns who was giving out pharmaceuticals to the natives like they were candy – perhaps through some excessive post-colonial conscience.

Well, when gloomy, depressive Father Leopold Kroll got finished straightening out this nun, they sailed for England together – much to the amazement and eventual relief of the other Holy Cross monks, and the Order took a new lease on life! His new wife, Oona Kroll, will long be remembered as one of the more flamboyant British church feminists, sporting the usual slogans on her well-filled but bra-less T-shirt. Father Leo did not long outlive his marriage to her, sadly, but the order happily survived his defection. No doubt her well-filled shirt satisfied some infantile longings left over from his own dreadful mother who was our school infirmarian. Even when ill, we would do anything to avoid Mrs. Kroll’s untender ministrations.

My best Marvin story is about the time he organized ten people to sign up for an overnight hike to Sandcut, the local quarry up towards Monteagle. Only five of us went in the end but when we arrived at the quarry, a few miles from school, we fell in with Bill Hampton and a group of slightly older students who had signed out too late to draw food. So we traded them half of our supplies for a pint of moonshine. Streety and I were fifteen then. The older guys sloped off elsewhere but our group, consisting of me, Tommy Churchman, Streety, Marvin, and little Tyndall, the Cherokee from North Carolina, set up camp at the edge of the quarry where we readily drank up the bottle of sacristy wine which Marvin had liberated from the school chapel .

Then, after eating a few simple sandwiches and all lying about the campfire, we began to sip a bit of the moonshine, even though it burned our throats. Streety and I lay there on our blankets passing a china cup full of bootleg whiskey back and forth. It bit our tongues and we were a little afraid to swallow it but ashamed not to.  Still we must have drunk some because, before long, all of us became very hyperactive, running madly about the sand dunes and attempting to shove each other into the water of the quarry. Then, predictably, we all became very hungry. This was now about midnight.

Marvin and Tommy Churchman agreed that with any luck we ought to be able to steal a chicken at this hour from some neighboring farm. This was, of course, madness, since farmers always keep dogs to warn them of strangers. But we staggered off into the dark and somehow managed to do the deed. Tommy broke open a small window pane and inserted his arm which shortly emerged holding a strangled pullet. Where the dogs were I cannot imagine but we hauled out of that farmyard rapidly, half-carrying little Tyndall whose Native American blood lacked the proper enzymes to deal with alcohol . We boiled the pullet in an empty coffee can after plucking it, and my best recollection is that it tasted vaguely chickenish but chewed like raw rubber.

Next morning we were back at school for breakfast, and when any of our group entered the kitchen, getting more toast or bringing back trays of used dishes, the kitchen staff, drawn from the local poor whites, carefully regarded our shoe soles for any telltale sign of chicken feathers. There were none. As I remember, we kind of hoped they would blame it on the other group of guys. But even before dawn, the nearby small farmers had already phoned each other over the mystery of who had taken the missing pullet.

Because I had taken a first year of Latin with old ‘Humpo’ Humphreys at Kent School, I was a little ahead of the First Year students at St.A’s and Mr. Mann, the Assistant Principal, used to leave me in charge of the class when he had to be absent. I also did some homework for the rest of the class which helped a bit with my own studies and certainly no one else did any to speak of. Since Mr. Mann couldn’t figure out how to use the key to the grading code on the annual standard exam which he was sent, I was also paid five dollars for the next four years for grading the final Latin exams, including my own. Buck Buchanan, my classmate and fellow track runner, once wrote me that although he had become a highly respected judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California and the Supreme Court of Nevada as well, he just could never understand how he had ever passed Latin at St. Andrew’s. When I said, “Buck, let me tell you how you passed Latin,” he was none too pleased and our new-found correspondence ceased from that moment!

Arthur Howard Mann ended his professional days as a ‘Dean of Men’ at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and I am sorry that I never looked him up while I was living in Philadelphia. However, I used to tease him in Latin class when I was fourteen by pretending to be sleepy or totally inattentive – as indeed the rest of the class habitually was – and he would pounce on me with the unexpected question,” How would you answer that, Wilson?” I was, however, just waiting on him and was quite prepared to answer. I had learned it all from Humpo Humphreys back at Kent School.

Then, finally, in Fifth Form English, Mr. Mann (a rather inappropriate name, given his obvious orientation) tried one final time to attach an unpleasant soubriquet to me. He had been successful in tagging poor Philip Morgan as ‘Mousey’, but by calling me ‘Supercilious’, he was only successful in making me temporarily a little more popular, and I was even elected Class Secretary after the Robinson twins who were always shoo-ins as Class Prez and VP. Toward him, of course, I was indeed slightly ‘supercilious’ which is probably one reason why I gave it a miss when it came to looking him up later.

Of the Muse and Manhood

At the point in my late adolescence when I was eighteen, the muse was beginning to work her magic upon me. I had begun reading some poetry at St. Andrews although we had no real English class for my final two years since we were lacking a qualified teacher and usually Fr. Steele would just send those of us who already knew what nouns and verbs were to the library while he labored on in the vineyard with other guys who were just waiting out their time to become riflemen in Korea. I also listened every day to the BBC short wave broadcasts on my old radio which often featured lieder and song settings of British poems. I found the lieder entrancing since I had heard my mother sing Schubert at home, but the English poem settings seemed dreadful. They were inappropriately loud and orchestral sometimes, or sung in an effeminate sort of rich whimper, and tonally they were imitative and uninteresting. But ‘What did I know?’ I kept telling myself. Still, the arrangements sounded dreadfully affected, although I loved the poems by Kipling, Housman, Hardy, and Rupert Brooke.

Fortunately I had recently discovered Yeats, and also grand opera on record, thanks partly to a musically literate classmate, Jack, who had borrowed and played for me a recording of Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Apart from occasional blind dates with girls from St. Mary’s On-the-Mountain who were as absent of  humour and conversation as I was shy and needy of affection, there were no females in our near neighborhood, and I remember gazing with baffled lust upon the form of Miss Brown, our  fat and middle aged math teacher, dreaming that she was actually ‘sweet Miss Georgia Brown’, just as my eleven-year-old self had gazed dreamily at poor little mousey-blonde Miss Burnside from across the periodical table in the public library in Morgantown.

But every June, after taking the train home from Tennessee to West Virginia, I would get to spend two weeks at our Episcopal conference center on the South Potomac River near Romney, W.Va. The girls at this teenage church conference were physically quite ultra attractive and gorgeous, but, alas, also desperately gum-chewing and gauche.

Our beau ideal of really ‘with it’ and ‘cool’ adolescent lovers at this conference was focused on Johnny and Genie, he darkly handsome and of French descent, and she, blond, laughing and utterly well-endowed. John was also a priest’s son and attended the prestigious Hill School in Pennsylvania. Genie’s dad had been an officer in the army and she hailed from somewhere in Ohio. I palled around with Johnny a little but he obviously had no interest in being ‘friends’ as he later demonstrated when he visited Williams College and only had time for his old buddies from Hill. Actually, he and Genie obviously considered the rest of us there at the conference as country rubes, but the lovely setting provided a convenient place for them to get together for twelve days.

One day at St. Andrew’s I was describing this couple to one of my roommates, Mickey Morgan, and he responded by saying, “Yeah, I knew Genie in high school on Guam. She was hot stuff and some of the older guys used to take her up on Mt. Lam Lam at night in the car.” I was shocked. “Mousie, you’re crazy, there must be lots of Genie Andersons in the world.” He just smiled.

Then at Christmastime, Junior year, I traveled home on the old L & N Railroad from Nashville to Cincinnati and picked up a slow B & O ‘milk train’ up the Ohio River to West Virginia. But then who should get onto my coach but a prim looking blond young lady in a blue dress who looked a lot like Genie Anderson. Hmm. After a half-hour of indecision I got up and approached her, “Genie, is that you?” “Oh, hi, Jay.” “Genie,” I asked a bit later, “didn’t you once tell me that you had lived outside of the US at one point?” (she had never told me any such thing) “Well yes, Jay,” she said, “I went to high school on Guam for a few years when my father was stationed out there.” Score  points for Mousie Morgan. Now I knew more than I needed to.

In 1951 however, at this same church conference, I encountered a really rare-plumaged creature there in rural Romney, one Bertie Perkins from Bluefield way down on the Virginia border. Bertie’s real name was Pauline Roberta Diane Herrick, plus her adoptive father’s surname, Perkins. Her deceased blood father was an English descendant and namesake of the poet Robert Herrick. Her mother, Aida, was from Italy. Bertie had a wonderful sense of the absurd and could tell stories well, and she was also a young concert harpist who knew lots of classical music. She had read poetry and would occasionally correct my misquotations. She was also tall and darkly blonde with great almond eyes. After our two week’s acquaintance in June of 1951, I longed to see her again and when we met at the same conference in 1952, we recognized each other as kindred spirits and began to grow much closer.

I visited Bertie down in Bluefield that summer and she came north to us at Christmas in Morgantown. After she first arrived, at dinner, she hornswoggled my poor father. He was playing the Missa Papae Marcelli on his improvised LP player in the living room during dinner, and Bertie turned to him innocently and said, “You know, all those old Italian songs have the same words.” Dad gulped incredulously and managed to get out, “Uh, it’s a mass.” Nobody else ever did that to my father and I must say that he grinned at the humour of it when I explained it to him. I was totally gobsmacked by Bertie but cognizant that this was something from way beyond me which I had no control over whatsoever.

I spent the summer of 1952 working construction and living at home whilst my family was away on vacation in Maine. After work I began to compose sonnets, not very good ones, but improving, which I then sent south to Bertie via post. By the time that I went off to college, I was writing such things as:        

Seize lightly, caress with an open hand;
Mark how the locusts’ cry
Mocks the flowers as they die;
The same blight falls on them,
The hidden voices of the summer land.

This was almost a prediction , since another summer was never to happen for us. Bertie died quite unexpectedly in the late afternoon of March 23, 1953, of a blood infection. She was seventeen. I had just got home on Easter break and called on the phone a few minutes later. Her five year old brother answered, still in shock from finding his sister hemorrhaging in the bathtub. After the funeral I went back to Williams. But Bertie was so real to me that her death seemed, though personally unfortunate, more a matter of destiny than of tragedy..  I thought she had lived more completely than the vast majority of human beings do, and I did not wish to sentimentalize her going or to create an artificial mental memory-garden about her. She was for me the supremely important muse/woman I had been so very gifted just to know. I wept a lot that spring, even in class, but my grades improved. And I managed to write a sort of prayer for her:

Help Bertie, Lord, for there may be
As much pride in her as there is death
Though her slender bones blow fearfully
As milkweed in the currents of thy breath.

Yet thy streams are dawn-sprung, of the light begotten,
Lord, rising from early ground,
In the midst of the morning thy gentle might
May by the young things best be found.

A dawn breeze thou and may her vague youth,
Caught and tumbling in the strange force,
O God be all overborne with thy truth
That the tall child never grow to worse.

A year  later, I was sitting in the college library reading room one night when I heard a voice say, “Jay” and concluded that I had heard it in my head, internally. Then I heard it again. I got up and walked out into the main desk area and listened, but there was nothing more. The next day I realized that it had been the first anniversary of her death.  Ten years on in southeastern England where I now had a job as a parish curate, I greeted my first English spring with another Bertie poem which, with the guitar, I soon turned into a love song.  
Quiet upon the windy edge of May,
The summer slumbers into being born
Like a child who sings his sleep away,
Strange in the sudden shadows of the morning.

Each summer is the child of our desire,
It sings itself awake and then asleep;
Stranger alike to us, to ice and fire,
Its eyes not open long enough to weep.

What lives from our desiring knows no pain,
But every year the green and golden light,
Young in the apple orchards and the grain,
Calm as the deep breath of the summer night.

And nothing of this summer fails or dies,
What could not live beyond us lives between;
The birds wing northward yearly and their cries
Awake our loving in the land again.

 

I had always had a sense of a mysterious dark-haired Madonna in my mind, perhaps based on the first impulse of affection toward a woman other than my mother. When I was four I once reached up and kissed my beautiful Aunt Julia. She was a remarkable and loving presence who stayed around until the age of 94. I correspond still with her daughters who were always fond of my mother. So perhaps my impressions of Bertie are built upon some earlier intimations of the muse. But it is also true that she, and my sharing with her, have been a kind of background audience and influence on my poetry over the many intervening years since we first began to know each other.

College Life


Williams College was very kind to me in spite of the fact that I showed up wearing a blue zoot suit which had been bought off the rack at a department  store in Morgantown, with padded shoulders, one button at the base of wide lapels, and pegged pants cuffs. Neither my father nor I had really noticed how it looked when we bought it. I also had somehow obtained a new white flannel suit, but my only striped tie was a plastic one on which the stripes ran up and down vertically.  My other neckties were hand-painted relicts from a deceased uncle in California. None of the above could be worn at Williams – or at any other college in New England – without making you look like some recent immigrant.

Williams social life centered about the fraternity houses in those days and since I was without funds and felt no need for new ‘brothers’, I joined the nonaffiliated group which included the few black kids, a number of Jewish boys, and others, none of whom were considered great social prizes. All this was fine by me. Our lot was far more interesting as individuals and most of us did well in school and in later life. Somehow, thanks to Clay and Giff, the twin stars of the English faculty, I received the Freshman English Prize in spite of my lack of scholastic background, and between delivering papers every morning and waiting table three times a day, I managed to pay for my meals and to earn a little bit of spending money ($5.00/week). I think my father paid for my room which was only about $150 a semester in those days. I was surviving, though at a subsistence level.

I was not helped a whole lot by the fact that the Director of Financial Aid, Hank Flynt, was a Congregationalist who was prejudiced against me as an Episcopalian. Because of this, he tried, every semester, to halve or substantially reduce my working hours and I used to have to go, hat in hand as it were, and explain to him that my father was seriously underpaid and that I had no further financial resources. I always considered Hank a petty tyrant and minor twit who could find no meaningful employment other than being a lifelong little bureaucrat at his old college. I gather that he is now enshrined in local memory as a minor philanthropist. Well, you could have surprised me about that.

At Williams I acted in a few plays, worked backstage in others, and eventually became editor of the literary magazine  which I personally had to raise all the money to publish by selling unneeded advertising to unwilling local shopkeepers. I also organized athletic participation for the nonaffiliates in the college intramural leagues. Since we nonaffils were described by the rest of the college as ‘the turkeys,’ I always entered us as the ‘Turks.’ Reg Plesner got a Bennington girl to draw a cartoon turkey for us and he cut it out in purple and made a splendid gold banner with our symbol in its midst. We flew this from Greylock dorm at house party times and I gather that it was somewhat embarrassing to members of the college fraternities.

I also ran track in the spring. I was never in great condition but in those far- off times we had a very peculiar third-of-a-mile track with a right angle to the left side where it ran into the baseball grandstand. Because of this, the starts were staggered and the runners in the 220 sprint or the 220 hurdles headed rapidly into a 90 degree turn to the left. The faster runners from other colleges would often fall off the track at this point but since I was so slow I always finished and frequently took a third place in the hurdles after we had lost the leading contenders to centrifugal force. I did some high jumping and the long jump as well, but essentially I earned my varsity letter in track by running slowly.

That first year I was scouted by Clay Hunt and Don Gifford of the English Department and I never thought of any other major. Through studying with a female friend I had somehow managed to improve my grades enormously, but by my final year, I had just plumb run out of steam. Working thirty to forty hours a week and doing some sports as well as scholastics tended to wear me down over the course of the year. My hormones were distracting me greatly too and there was just not anything much to be done about that since young ladies were a great deal more chary of granting their favours in those far-off days. I had friends at home and at college who found young willing teenage girls but I turned up my nose at that sort of thing.  Perhaps it was personal pride rather more than morality, but after Bertie I certainly wanted something besides glandular relief.

I nearly won a Rhodes Scholarship at the end of my third year, but after three hours of deadlock the judges finally decided on two other guys, due partly to a comment by one of my professors to the effect that  “Of course Wilson hasn’t done much work this term.” It was Jack O’Neill, one of my English profs who had booby-trapped his reference.  I guess I hadn’t recognized the fact of his ‘partnership’ with Clay Hunt, and his evident jealousy, but it apparently cost me the scholarship. Bruce Forbes, the Headmaster of Lawrenceville School, told me about this a few years later when I visited there to conduct a faculty funeral. He was a Williams graduate and had been a member of my Rhodes Board. It somehow had never occurred to me that Jack and Clay were ‘partners.’

I regarded this failure indifferently. I had indeed not been working much, that was true; and neither in Oxford would I perhaps have worked hard, most likely not.  I realized even then that had I won the scholarship, I would probably have taken orders in England, married an Englishwoman, and had English children. But I have always been most happy with my own two sons whose lives have provided so much joy and sheer entertainment to me over the years and I continued to be fond of their mother. After all, I moved her in a rental van six times after we were divorced, and then trained my lads to do it.

The thought that I might have been someone else, living in some other country never appealed greatly. I have made enough mistakes in this life as it is and even though my first marriage ended in divorce, I cannot regret it. I am still a little annoyed at Jack O’Neill but he is long gone from us. I did win the Glasscock Invitational poetry prize at Mt. Holyoke College before I graduated - the year after Sylvia Plath won. And I would much rather have lost the prize to her, I can tell you, just to be able to dine out on it.

Religion has always been an intuitive and poetic thing for me. Because of my father’s priestly simplicity and dignity, I understood the eucharist as a kind of symbolic mantra. My own religious feelings were never interfered with by my parents and I always knew that ‘god-words’ pointed to a transcendent reality which went well beyond our traditional theological formulations. I had a definite sense that although I was something of a sceptic about most things, religious faith was ‘in me’ as an imaginative current of life. After Bertie died I decided that I probably would take orders in the priesthood. This meant that I would be able to celebrate the eucharist and that I would be paid some kind of salary.

But since I come from a long line of teachers on my father’s side, this did not mean that I would not teach as well, since teaching is also something that is ‘in me.’ I did not say much about my career intentions at college since I did not want to be associated with the rather pious looking ‘preministerial’ group. I have never inclined to the Magical View of religious vocations – although I am a firm believer in religious magic. Everyone has their reasons, some of which they may even know about. The Church uses whom she will.

At Williams I used to drive for the President of the college, James Phinney Baxter, occasionally when he needed a ride to the airport at Albany or to be met flying back in. Reg Plesner who also drove for him must have got me this job. Having learned to drive on the twisting hill roads of West Virginia, I negotiated the sixty miles or so to the Albany airport in rather quicker time than James Phinney Baxter was used to. When it was snowing he particularly regretted that it was me driving him. I had learnt to drive on snow a bit and, as always, I thought I knew exactly what I was doing. He was such a gent, Old Phinney, that he never said a word to me about it, but of course I knew.

Gunther, another college friend, used to baby-sit up in Pownall, Vermont, in the country, for a faculty family he was close to. Sometimes he would take me along. I could see from the faces of the couple and from their exchanges that they were terminally tired of each other. They did have two darling little girls, however, whom they both loved.

One night, at this faculty home, after I had got ready for bed, I sat there in the moonlight, feeling vaguely horny, as I frequently did in those days, when Sally, my hostess, walked in, wearing her nightgown, and sat down on the bed next to me. She then put her hand on my thigh and whispered in a husky mock-Scottish accent, “Ah’m afraid ah’ve got no great plans for ye, laddie.”  And indeed she didn’t. However, we were acting together at the time in a Chekhov play and after one thing led to another, I’m afraid we ended up in bed two or three times. Well, I was totally inexperienced and, frankly, she was not exactly in the prime of her sweet youth. I was aware that she had other friends and we didn’t take all this too seriously. But on reflection, I deeply regretted abusing her husband’s hospitality.

Some years later I saw Tom at college at one of the minor alumni reunions and he made a few rather pointed comments to me which I found puzzling. He had long been divorced and remarried by this time. But what was it …did he remember something against me from those days? A year or so later, having managed to reconnect with my old friend Gunther from Dusseldorf, I wrote him and asked, “What should I do, Gunnoo, should I write Tom and tell him that I still feel bad about this?” He answered, “In the first place, Jay, Tom is dead. Secondly, he also was seeing another woman back then. When you ran into him at Williams, he was just being his own sweet snarky self. And finally, I could have written you the same letter.”

I once said to myself at the age of eighteen that probably some of the most exciting sexual exchanges with women I would ever have would be standing up with my clothes on, talking to some really bright and funny lady. I have never disbelieved in the truth of that but at St. Andrew’s the other point of view was expressed as “Anything hot and holler from a stove pipe to a horse collar.” I am afraid that neither viewpoint, by itself, was wholly satisfying to a young man like myself, just tasting his brain power but in the full flood of testosterone.

So after graduation I became engaged to Janet R. Jacobs from Philadelphia whom I had met during a summer job on Cape Cod in ’55. She was a lovely, dark-haired young lady with a sharp and inquiring wit but almost no experience in emotional relationships with men as I had almost none with young women. I am afraid that we presented a rather sharp learning curve for each other. I left that summer job late in August of ’55 and called Clay Hunt and Jack O’Neill at their summer place in Wellfleet. They invited me to come out for a night and I duly hitched there the next day. Clay’s two spinster aunts from Kentucky were also visiting.

Clay was famous for making bawdy and colorful remarks in his Renaissance Lit class. Guys used to bring their weekend dates to class Saturday morning just to get a taste of his southern saltiness. But after a couple of fairly heady G&T’s at their house in Wellfleet, I began to tell a joke about a wee Jewish man who is intimidated by a huge German sailor in a bar. The German tells him that “You haf a child’s hand, dis is a real hand,” and so on, until finally the wee man says, “Ja, ok, you haf a real hand, arm, drink, head, etc., but haf you ever seen..” at which point he unzips his fly- and I did the same - and pulls out his shirt tail saying, “material like this for two dollars a yard.?” Well, I never had the nerve to tell that one again in company, but on this occasion poor old Clay’s florid Irish complexion turned quite pale as I unzipped myself while his two spinster aunts fell about with laughter – mainly at him. Of course no undergraduate like me even dreamt that he was basically gay!

During my four years at Williams we were fortunate enough to attract three teachers who came to us from Harvard’s Graduate Department of English: George Steiner, Alain Renoir, and Don Young. I spent a good deal of time with Don who fed me tea and occasional cakes and told me stories about Princeton and World War II in which he was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Alain Renoir had emigrated from France after the German invasion and served as an artillery observer in the South Pacific. He taught me one semester of Sophomore English and also in Creative Writing where he was instant in urging students to stop being so uptight and to use more ‘creative’ (foul) language. I had more or less graduated from that sort of language myself, after my southern education but I was very fond of Alain and was glad to see him go on to become head of Comp Lit at Berkeley. The third of these Harvard émigrés was George Steiner who taught me during the second semester of Sophomore year and was also our faculty advisor on the student literary magazine.

I always remember writing a blue book on Shakespeare’s Othello and then coming into class a bit late one day to hear Steiner reading my paper to the class as an example of what they ‘might have done.’ At one point he said publicly that Bob Savadove and I were his only two ‘real students’ in the class. Steiner alienated most of the Williams faculty by his habit of pretending to be a superior authority in their own fields of expertise. We used to joke about him pausing at a rail stop in, say, Andorra, getting out, looking around, and then getting back onto the train and writing an authoritative article about the place.

Don Young was a friend to me and we even, during Junior year, went on a couple of double-dates together at Smith College where his female faculty friend was a little taken aback by the fact that I was a mere undergraduate. However, I made the signal mistake of rushing over to see him after a weekend date with a lovely Polish girl from Boston who had been very relaxed about sleeping with me, and rejoicing in the fact that I had, for once, actually got laid. Don never really liked or respected me after that. Since he had no obvious religious strictures, this confused me a little. I tried to understand but I was so needy in that particular respect that I had to conclude that he had idealized me in some inappropriate way. Questions occurred but then he had never put a foot (or hand) wrong.

The Nesting Impulse had struck Janet Jacobs and I managed to catch the fever. Despite my parents’ warnings and those of my bishop, I determined to marry at the age of 23. Janet herself was half-Jewish but, as my parents told me, I was the one they had questions about. They also told me that no matter what happened between Janet and me she would always remain a part of our family. And that certainly continued to be the case long after their deaths – and our divorce.. My mother died in ’71 and my father in ’82, eleven years later to the day, March 24, the day after Bertie’s death. I continue to miss them deeply, as I do Janet who died of cancer in 2008.

Marriage is a major study in itself.  It is not just a form of ‘friendship’ which is a far more forgiving relationship; it is a business partnership, an investment company, a school for children, a place of hospitality and respite for others, a resource for sharing and caring. It generates enormous demand and provides some of the energy to meet that demand. It includes important elements of intimacy and hopeful friendship; but no one, I am happy to say, is a total success at it. Nor, by any manner of means, was I.

Janet was a tough, highly defended, person, but by no means unlovable; And after my fashion, for the ensuing years of our lives – and largely from the distance of our divorce after seventeen of them– I did continue to love her. Not that this pleased, helped, or did her a lot of good. Or that I got much credit for it. But she was a fine mother and after her fashion, a good friend to me and Susie.

Bliss


Marriage is a form of busyness
Scarcely comprehensible to those
Who have not yet entered upon it.
It is like the drone of a million flies,
Or an orchestra perpetually tuning up;
There are bills, budgets, food items, trips
To the cleaners, rugs, storage, winter clothes
To be unpacked and readied, lists upon lists
Of  lists.
Oh list, it runs on money,
And like a forest fire devours the air
Before it in its headlong flight
Toward the silence of each passing space of debt.
But only a little sunlight wakens it.
It is a ceaseless interrogation about
What has or has not been done, what is
Needed, intended, what experts are to be
Consulted, who invited, what served.
Yesterday commingles with tomorrow
In this search for a joint totality.

And if you are ready for marriage,
You are ready for anything – hospitals,
Children, urban warfare, house-to-
House fighting. I remember
What it was once like to rise alone
And investigate the wonder of each day.
And of my discontent I now do much repent.

Janet was tough and very bright, more practical than I was, and professionally engaged, as she had long been, in editorial work, a technical but very important responsibility for the integrity of published texts. She was always extremely good at this, a vanishing breed alas. She usually ended up doing half or more of the copy editing for anyone she worked for because she couldn’t stand the sloppy jobs that the other people did. Adopted at birth, she still retained some shyness and emotional defensiveness which prevented her from showing her feelings though, in fact, she was quite full of them. I loved her then as I did later, but, I fear, inadequately and only from the distance which my own needs began to impose upon me.

After I spent a year on fellowship at North Carolina University in Chapel Hill, Janet and I were married in Philadelphia in the late spring of 1957. I had to wait for a year from marriage until entering seminary, so after four months on the docks in Philly as a ship cleaner, I graduated to teaching Science and Boys’ Sports at Grace Church School in Manhattan on lower Broadway at about Ninth Street (K through 8th). This was my ‘Mr.Chips’ year as a teacher – right at the beginning of the career when you can perhaps foresee that it’s not always going to be quite this good..

I worked for a gruff old Canadian Scot, Al Grant, who was an excellent school head. Al had a broad brow with a thinning crop of hair and a bristly moustache. He would gaze at some unfortunate child like an enraged bull walrus while he tried to sense the major weakness of the quivering prey. Otherwise he seemed a kindly and pleasant man with normal social responses. The second time Al hired me, in 1965, he began to think of me as a possible successor. I was in charge of Sports, the Dining Room, etc. and could teach various courses. But I was smart enough to realize that the Head had to spend too much time politicking and fund-raising to actually teach.

I remember Al’s interview with Paul, an adopted Jewish child in Seventh Grade. Paul was a kind of tough street type who would challenge any teacher, but he was, if a little thick, a good kid. Al called him in for the umpteenth time and sat him down and said, in a low interpersonal voice, “Paul, I know your teacher doesn’t understand you. It’s hard for teachers to understand you, Paul, because you’re so unusual. Yes, Paul, you are one of the most sensitive children I have ever met.”  At this point twelve-year-old Paul is recoiling in horror at the sight of his only real authority figure dissolving into psychosis right in front of him. Then Al takes him gently by the hand and walks him to the door and says, “You’re so wonderful, Paul, but you know what ?  I CAN GET TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING,” as he propels young Paulo rapidly out into the hallway.

I had taken Geology at Williams and ‘History and Method of Science’, a course for non-science types, but otherwise, my Science was all from Coach Towles back at St. Andrew’s School. Gene Towles was an old DuPont chemist who had been blown up somewhere and lost an eye. If you got hit on the football field, you could just lie there forever without him seeing you. He did know something about Science however. But I remember Old Gene, tall and military, standing in the front of the lab and fixing his gaze suspiciously on a back table at which I was sitting. “Who is that with his head on the table?” asks Gene. “That’s the plastic fur collar on my coat, sir,” I replied. Or the time that Streety put a pair of pantyhose over his head so that he looked like a small vicious black ape. We found Coach in his lab around eight pm and Streety lurched in at him roaring fiercely in some unknown tongue. Coach took a firm defensive stance, looked Streety in the eye and said, “Git out of here, boy.”

At my final Physics oral, Coach once gave me points for answering a younger student’s Biology question. I could also mention the overnight football trip to Erwin, Tenn. When we all loaded up in the bus after leaving the cheap Marysville hotel, Coach turned to us and said “Ah’m sorry to say this but one of you boys seems to have taken a towel from his hotel room. Now Ah don’t want to know who did it. Ah’m just going to turn mah head and Ah want that boy to pass the towel forward to me.” Coach turned his head away and we hit him with about twenty-four towels thrown forward with great accuracy and much joy.

My Science Lab at Grace Church School was a very modern mobile metal desk/cabinet which had various gas etc. attachments so you could light little fires and release Hydrogen which you could then set a match to, starting with fright from the small explosion which followed while you chucked the glass vial onto the floor. The kids were entranced to see this and wondered eagerly what experiment I would screw up next week. But I found a high school text for my seventh graders, in fact a double 9th/10th Grade  pair of texts which introduced chemistry and physics and I taught them one each semester and graded in what would now be described as a ‘holistic’ way. You could get one to three points for your short written answer to a variety of questions which covered the course material. We are dealing now with the children of successful professional parents in lower Manhattan in 1957, of varied backgrounds, a number of them Jewish.

Carter Wiseman took the top grade hands-down in December. He got an 85. All of the really brighter kids were way down the curve somewhere. Carter worked hard and used everything he had. He went on to be editor of the paper at Phillips Exeter. After the next semester and the next high school text, Carter also got an 85!  But as I remember, Jo Ivey, got 135, and others had caught up conceptually. Jo went on to become president of the N.Y.City hospital corporation. But these kids were twelve-year-olds in 1957.

I was always considered a little subversive by the authorities and my seminary days were no different. I still did some playground minding and sports at Grace, but I moved up from the Village to the seminary apartments on West 20th Street, right across the street from Chelsea Square. My father had gone to seminary here and had amassed 27 A’s in his courses and been retained as a tutor along with Cuthbert Simpson who later became Dean of Christchurch, Oxford. Dad had intensely annoyed Dean Fosbroke by defending a few students against the Dean’s anti-gay stereotyping, particularly in regard to his own tutee Edward West who was later my Liturgics teacher and the Canon Sacristan of St. John the Divine up on Morningside Heights. As a result of Fosbroke’s pointed comments at table about certain students’ choice of colors and decoration, my dad replied, “But surely that’s a matter of taste, Mr. Dean ?” Ed West graduated and was ordained, but my father left the seminary to become Senior Curate at St. Luke’s Chapel of Trinity Parish. There I was born, and there I later returned to worship while I resided in Manhattan.

The story is told, and I believe it true, that on one of his trips back to North America, Dr. Simpson preached at the Cathedral in New York City and Canon West was much in evidence, marching about looking like a Chief Magus in his conical hat with his long white wand. At one point during the mass, Dr. Simpson called him over and was overheard to say in a low earnest voice, “Eddie, if you point that thing at me again, I’m going to shove it up your ass!”

At seminary I proved myself a great deal different from my father, gradewise and otherwise. I regarded most of the lecturers as total bores, though I received an A in Old Testament the first year. And then we got into History which I was good at, so I did win the History Prize. Janet and I lived over in the seminary apartments, but since they were very warm inside during the height of the NY summers, I used sometimes to go up on the roof with a sixpack of cold beer and observe nighttime Manhattan from that vantage point. Behind us was the back of an entire block of Puerto Rican apartments, like another world, with its ritualized quarrelling courtships dramatically displayed for everyone to hear and see, until the Final Act with all the shades drawn down.

I had a seminary friend who was a superb dilettante. A musician with excellent taste in literature and the arts who turned me on to a number of singers and poets and we did a bit of translation together, he was also primarily gay. He told me some years later that I had helped him enormously in empathizing with the female body by taking him up on the roof one night when, as I had hoped, the lovely redhead on the top floor, Jean Ellen from North Carolina, would be relaxing in her bath. The bottom half of the window was frosted and impossible to see through, but the top half was entirely transparent to her display of prime quality southern female nudity, elegantly trimmed with orange fur. Looking down from the roof watching Jean Ellen play hide-the-soap did a lot for my friend and he got married a bit later; though not, I think, to a redhead, but to a fairly tight-lipped British admiral’s daughter.  I did meet a friend of Jean Ellen’s in NYC some few years back and sent this story on to her. She was, according to his report, much delighted. .

In the spring of 1960, Janet and I decided to do a European tour before children started coming. We spent some of her savings on a freighter ticket from NYC to Liverpool and were amazed when the freighter docked at the foot of our street (West 20th) so that I could see its masts and superstructure whenever I crossed over to the seminary. This did not help me concentrate on my studies but somehow I did rather better than previously.

There were six passengers on the US Gunner, but I only remember Nora Burns, a Roman Catholic spinster schoolteacher from Boston. She was so thin that she had once been whirled across a main intersection in the City of Boston by a gust of wind, just like Mary Poppins. The captain was a wee Scot who had resettled in Florida. I related that I had been on his ship once before since I had swept out the lower hold one afternoon in 1957 as a ship cleaner in Philadelphia harbour. Though the ship docked in Dublin, he told us he had never visited there since the morning in 1916 when a British cruiser had sailed up the Liffey and dropped a few shells into the post office in O’Connell St. where the Irish rebels were holed up. He was, as he told us, the Gunner’s mate, and he had laid the gun.

In Liverpool we disembarked and enjoyed sitting on St. George’s Quai and listening to an old Lancashire street preacher recite an endless doggerel poem against smoking. The lunchtime crowd stared at him impassively, smoke trailing from their nostrils.

Janet and I traveled out to Holyhead on the train and caught the overnight ferry to Dublin. We were a little green and clumsy as travelers and couldn’t work the phones or the currency very well. But after a couple of days in Dublin, we took the train across to Galway and wondered at a little boy sitting atop the seat-divider with his feet on a man’s hat (the man was wearing it at the time). “Ian, don’t stand on the man,” called his mother unconcernedly. Outside of Limerick we got a ride toward Killarney on the back of a horse and then by car just before the season opened, and after a day there hitched to Cork with some Germans. We took the ferry back from Waterford to Fishgard in Wales along with a large group of Irish returning to work in Birmingham. One old man was singing in a quavering tenor,” Erin’s sons would never roam, All the boys would stay at home, If we only had old Ireland over here.”  Some of my Kinsella grandfather’s family used to travel from Dublin to Birmingham to find work. 

After this Irish diversion, Janet and I hitched to Warwick and then Stratford and Oxford, thence to London briefly and onward by train to Dover and the channel ferry to France. In Paris we were considerably more confused and my French was awful. Janet however looked quite native and with two blond children, people deferred to us and sometimes asked her for directions. We went onward via train through Lyons to the Riviera and Italy, to spend a week in Venice.

As usual we had not reserved, but on the vaporetto canal boat just traveling in, we encountered a spare greying figure who introduced himself as “Robin Gordon, the Laird of Abergeldie.” Robin sold us tickets to a concert in the Ducal Palace and then he rented us a room in his residence, the Palazzo Calzavara, just across the Academia Bridge on the Dorsoduro, at a dollar per night each. This gentleman was an art critic of the Rudolf Steiner Theosophical School and spent his days touting tickets and museum tours to tourists. His wife was a spiritualist medium and they had several small longhaired moppets of indeterminate sex who could be glimpsed jumping off tables or otherwise tearing about the place. Robin described himself as a ‘distant collateral kinsman’ of George Gordon, Lord Byron. The Gordons were deadly enemies of my ancestors but Robin was a real find.

Because the Palazzo was apparently haunted, the Gordons were particularly interested in it. Our room there had damask walls and a ceiling by the ‘School of Tiepolo.’ There was also a sizable garden with decaying statuary. One day Robin took us for $8.00 on a gondola trip through the back canals of the Dorsoduro. We regarded the regular gondola tourist fleet dawdling out in the Grand Canal with undisguised snobbery as  they sat there listening to a fat soprano sing ‘Chiribiribin’ while we cruised through the uncharted waters of the little canals watching real Italian television  through people’s back windows while our gondolier sang Italian songs in a sardonic Scots baritone..

Janet and I did not travel too well together, largely because I was very insecure about the languages and the money. This made me defensive and a little tetchy much of the time. However, in Rome when we went to the French Tourist Office near the Spanish Steps and inquired about booking a room in San Tropez, they stonewalled us. We got the idea fairly quickly that Americans were welcome in Paris in August, but the rest of the country was reserved for the annual French migration to the pays or the seaside. So it became a point of honor for us to go to San Tropez anyway and be damned to them. At the bus station there, I left Janet with the bags and went off to chase down a room. I made up a little rhyme, “ Je suis un pauvre etudiant, Je n’ai  pas beaucoup d’argent,”(‘I am a poor student, I don’t have much money.’)  which I kept repeating to the  large and voluble French lady whose answering speech was as totally incomprehensible to me as the sound of birds passing overhead. But it seemed to work for she knocked something off the price in the end and rented us a room for $3.50 a night.

I found it difficult to study my New Testament at the local beach in San Tropez since, in those pre-topless pre-bikini days, it was full of French ladies who had all slightly outgrown their old bathing suits. The amount of wriggling and twitching going on was very distracting, much more so than I fancy a nude beach would be. Then on we went to Spain. In Barcelona, we found a cheap place in the Ramblas where the cockroaches were so plentiful that it made us homesick for New York City. Then we took the ferry to Palma where we stayed at a Danish pension across from a sort of British pub.

This particular pub was full of slightly older folk who appeared to me to be what used to be called ‘remittance men’ (and ladies), which is to say, people whose public behaviour had so irritated their siblings and kin that money had been found to keep them safely out of Great Britain. Passing bad checks, fraudulent fund-raising schemes, and addiction to drink all had taken their toll on family ties, resulting in a kind of paid exile to the lovely Island of Majorca. They were excellent story tellers, as you might expect, and very entertaining company. I felt a stirring of sympathy mingled with envy for this lot and we stayed in Palma a week before resuming our journey.

After some days in Madrid and a visit to Toledo we found ourselves in Granada staying at a German place this time, Pension Matamoros, right under the walls of the Alhambra Palace. It had formerly been a rest house for German officers and there was plenty of Nazi literature still around. As we left, I managed to nick ‘A Prayerbook For Hitler’s Soldiers’ ( Ein Gebetsbuch fur Hitler’s Soldaten) and another slim volume as well, both of which are long lost from me. But Pension Matamoros was run by a German lady in steel-rimmed spectacles and her clientele featured an English lass with her Moroccan toy-boy, two large German teenagers in lederhosen, an East German businessman traveling with a small Arab child described as his ‘son;’ and finally, a Norwegian lady whose diplomat husband had been killed by the Communists during the Spanish Civil War. She had plenty of pointed comments to make about the other guests, especially about the little Arab boy.

Eventually we found our way to Gibraltar and then to Tangiers which in those days was a favorite haunt of American writers, especially the gay coterie of Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Paul Bowles, William Burrows et al. But we weren’t acquainted with such and spent our time being a little bemused by ten-year-old kids hustling gay tourists, Moroccan girls in full black Islamic kit coming down to the beach and taking off all except for a red bikini, and fighting with huge mosquitoes in our hotel room via a deadly wet towel. After a week in Tangier, we shifted by train to Casablanca before boarding our old Yugoslav Line Liberty Ship which had been sunk during the Second World War and then raised and outfitted again.

Since the ship had been running Czech guns to Algeria we had to wait a week for it to sneak through the French naval patrols, but it carried sixty passengers including some of the first Yugoslav students whom Tito had allowed to go study in the west. They introduced me to the plum brandy of their country known as Slivovitza.  The Yugoslavian women on the ship also elected me by poll as ‘the most attractive man aboard’. I was smart enough to recognize that this was simply their revenge against the Yugo men who had all discarded their wedding rings as they came aboard ship.

Ten days later, when we sailed into New York Harbour, the Yugos were notably unimpressed until they saw the parking lot back of the rickety ancient pier where we docked in Brooklyn. “Whom do all those cars belong to?” one of the students demanded of me. I just looked at him and said quietly, “To the dockers.” And then they knew.

SCHOOL FIFTIETH

As I look back on a recent visit to my old boarding school on Sewanee Mountain in southern Tennessee for the fiftieth year reunion of my graduating class, I realize that I came there asking a small number of real but largely implicit questions: Who was I in 1952 ? How did you see me in those days? What can you tell me that wakens any sense of that time?  The answers were few to none, but Buzzy Knox said, “I’m disappointed you didn’t come with your wife. I’d love to meet the only woman who could stand to live with you.” And Streety commented at one point, “I’ve been taken apart by an expert.” To which I replied, “Well, I wish I could remember how to put you back together again.” Murray Robinson, our old Quarterback, observed drily, “I see nothing has changed.”

But I was profoundly struck at that reunion by another child of the parsonage, Harvey Simmons, the son of a former mission priest, Fr. Simmons, who taught at St. Andrews in our day. Harvey was about five or six years younger than the rest of us, but I knew that He had taken care of our beloved teacher, Fr. Flye, in his later helpless years in NYC. I didn’t know that he had also been a Roman Cistercian monk for many years. Apparently, Fr. Flye had driven him up to Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky on one school vacation for a retreat and the experience took. As it turned out, Bonny Spencer had got him into Williams also, five years or so after me, and he had majored in English, known Clay and Giff et al. He also had spent some time in Oxford. Harvey was a lay Cistercian and then finally took orders. He is a remarkable person, at one point acting head of his order, and full of a rare and benevolent mischief.

MINISTRY

I spent two years in Princeton as a parish curate, having successfully escaped the Diocese of West Virginia and Bishop William Camrock Campbell, a very unpredictable gent. My father had been the counselor of his wife which made the bishop notably nervous and ambivalent about him. His ambivalences were directed towards me as well and he must have been glad to see me safely away to another diocese.

My first son, Anthony, was born in NYC while we were at seminary and Laurence, his brother while I was a curate in Princeton. In 1963 we embarked for England and the north Kentish coast at Whitstable Parish Church. Here I endured for two years our demotion from a parish car, warm flat, paid pension, to the cold comfort of an English local curacy. Did me good after  posh Princeton, but like Pakistan many years later, it was an instruction in reality which hurt a little; also there were no funds, not much heat, the kids had colds a lot of the time. Janet went back five months ahead of me.

Whitstable is so boring that it is almost Zen-like, and when we moved into Tankerton up along the rocky ‘beach’ area in 1963 there was still visible toilet paper in the water every day from the tons of effluent washing out to sea from forty million London breakfasts. It was like swimming in a sewer. Nowadays the water is much cleaner and the town has been somewhat gentrified by the DFL (Down From London) population, but all the pubs serve only Shepherd Neame ale except for a German one named The Boat ( ‘Das Boot’) which has a huge German submarine poster on the wall and  is full of characters.

I was senior curate at All Saints Parish Church where I made some good friends and managed the Youth Club (Beatles music and table tennis) as well as undertaking the usual parish duties. I also hung out at Joan Cavender’s bookshop on the High Street as well as at the Two Brewer’s pub where my official name, Harold Wilson, was a matter of some embarrassment since all of the patrons voted Conservative. It was, however, also a source of free pints for me, an impoverished curate, since they pitied me my name.

My first ever opportunity of officiating at a wedding was a wonderful experience for all concerned since I had stayed for an extra pint of Dutch courage at the Two Brewers before biking back up the hill to the church. Then, as the service began, I somehow skipped a line in the introductory prayer and  proclaimed that “Marriage is a holy sacrament, instituted by Christ himself and therefore not by any to be taken lightly, inadvisedly, or .. soberly.” At about this point the bridegroom took my advice insofar as to pass out. I think his nourishment had perhaps been too liquid on the day, and now he stood helpless there before me, bent over with his hands dangling above his boot tops, supported on the one hand by his best man and on the other by his annoyed but unblushing bride.

At the conclusion of this ceremony, while the bridegroom could be heard loudly throwing up in the sacristy, I bestowed the nuptial blessing upon the congregation for want of any better idea. The other curate, just coming out from bell-ringing in the tower, beheld me standing there minus any bridal couple and wondered what on earth was going on.

My friends, the Gardners, used to loan me their one and only car on my Mondays off, so that I could pop down into southwestern Kent, armed with my Betjeman’s original black book of English Churches and prospect for old sites and monuments throughout the Kentish Weald and into East Sussex. I dearly loved those outings though I know it cost my friends some uneasy moments over the safety of their only vehicle.

The other outings which were invaluable to Janet and me were up to London, as we were an hour and a half away from Victoria Station. We went to plays and concerts and saw Nureyev and Fonteyn dance Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden. We used to catch the last train back to Whitstable from London, together or on our own, but this also meant that the streetlights in Whitstable-Tankerton went off a few minutes after the last train came in, and you would have to walk home in the dark.

Janet was attacked one night on the dark way home by some amateur fantasist but her whoop of terror probably scared the bloke out of a year or two of life. She was mighty glad to get back though. I used to worry, when on my own, about sleeping past my stop and usually, at Victoria, I would bolt down the platform, find a vacant compartment (the old fashioned kind) and throw down the window, turn off the heat, and arrange myself upon one of the facing seats like a manic drunkard, mussing my hair and putting on a grossly unpleasant facial expression. Usually I would hear footsteps approaching, a hand laid to the door, and then a pause – and then the steps going on to another compartment. Sometimes, however, the person would just barge in, throw up the window, turn on the heat and I would have to worry about oversleeping my stop and maybe walking back to Tankerton from Herne Bay.

I often spent time downtown at the bookstore where Joan Cavender, a wonderful matriarch, presided over four strongly independent daughters and a dissenter’s conscience. She worked as a volunteer for years for Mgr. Bruce Standish of the anti-war people and for Amnesty in its early days. And she hated, of all the totalitarian nations, most the United States, but she was very kind to me. The daughters were amazing and daring young women and no doubt still are, though perhaps less young these days.

With no job to return to, I fortunately ran into Al Grant, my former boss from Grace Church School, on the ship returning to the States from Southampton and was rehired on the spot.  So back I went for another ‘Mr. Chips’ year at Grace Church School. Janet and I managed to find a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights on Joralemon St. for $250 per month! And I continued to grade papers at McSorley’s Alehouse, the oldest pub in NYC, where women were not, as yet, allowed. I was there the night of the ‘65 power outtage when they just lit up their old oil lamps and went on serving. I walked home in the dark that night with thousands of other people down Broadway and across the Brooklyn Bridge. There was an old rummy directing traffic at Houston Street  and a businessman with a martini in one hand  doing the same  at City Hall. Nuns in habits were directing traffic over in Brooklyn Heights.

UNIVERSITY CHAPLAINCY

In the spring of 1966 I was hired by John Scott, senior chaplain and rector of the University parish at the U. of Penn in Philadelphia to be his second man. We had offices in the Christian Association on campus but also operated out of a small parish. I soon instituted a weeknight guitar mass, found a woodworker to make us altar rails around a crossing altar, and we gradually shifted from using the missal to more modern liturgies.

Although I spent time with undergraduates and some graduates and faculty, I also soon branched out into helping a local black ghetto organization develop sports leagues. I recruited university types who could help The Young Greats Society raise money for salaries and supplies. They were an engaging group of rascals headed by a charming and charismatic local leader, Herman Wrice, who was fearless in breaking up gang fights. I have seen Herman throwing kids in all directions with a big grin on his face. He was also astute enough to recognize the futility of the ‘War on Poverty’ which, as he put it, would ‘blow out local black leadership’ by putting everyone on some patronage payroll. That was not the last time Herman was dead right.

We also worked with anti-war groups, drug groups, and gay groups. When my boss decided to allow gay dances in our parish hall, he naturally put me in charge of telling the police about what was going to happen and also chaperoning the dances themselves. At the time, Sister Jeannine Gramick of the School Sisters of Notre Dame was renting a room on my third floor in West Philly and she came along to one of these dances and sold cokes. After this she developed a vocation to minister to nuns and other women in the Roman Catholic Church who had this orientation. She used actually to advertise on church bulletin boards, Retreat for Lesbian Nuns. This did not endear her to diocesan authorities in Baltimore, but she persisted in what she considered an essential ministry to try to help sisters, as she put it, ‘to understand themselves better and to keep their vows.’ Jeannine was finally silenced, after many years, by this present pope, but she has never changed her heart, being a beautiful woman with real courage .

My one major contribution to the life of the Diocese of Pennsylvania has long been forgotten, but it consisted of formulating a plan for creating a diocesan youth  organization which would bridge racial and class gaps, including young people from the inner city and suburbs along with others from the black parishes. At the time, we were fortunate in having been left a wonderful estate in the mainline suburb of Radnor called ‘Denbigh’ which had a swimming pool and a large central building with ample grounds.

What I needed was a Youth Leader, someone who could appeal to and call upon the various groups from very different parishes. I found this person amongst the U. of Penn undergraduates. She was Molly Rawle from, I think, the suburb of Devon, a young woman with very red hair, violet eyes, and a dynamic personality. After I talked to her about what we needed to do, she got the concept and ran with it. Before long, Molly had put a network of local youth leaders together which could appeal to parish groups and communicate to them something of the liberal attrait of our Bishop, Bob Dewitt. Pretty soon we had all kinds of folks swimming and socializing together out at Denbigh.

The next step was for Bob to find other priests who could shepherd these young folk and help them form some ‘inclusive’ Christian attitudes. Cotton Fite and Chris Koch were attractive priests a little younger than me and they did this job splendidly on site.

Another item on my agenda was having the new ‘Youth Caucus’ meet at the same time as diocesan convention when a number of the old time cardinal rectors were likely to run on (and on and on)about their dissatisfaction with the progressive notions of Bishop Dewitt. This was so far successful that the usual egotistic bilge somehow got stuck in the throats of these monuments of self-importance until they almost forgot, in the presence of the young people, to make public asses of themselves in their usual fashion.

At the next convention, Chris Koch’s wife died in an accident when her VW was crushed under a truck on the access ramp of a local motorway. The kids were electrified and Bob Dewitt called for a special mass to celebrate her life. We stood in a huge circle while he read the liturgy that night and it bonded him with the kids pretty strongly. But after this, somehow we lost Denbigh, which Bob had not been able to fund properly, and with that, we also lost the network of parish youth leaders. He went on to ordain the first eleven women as priests(against my advice) but in regard to the diocese, my best work was gone now, and so, perhaps too, was his.

I never joined any anti-war group but I was for a while involved with a black drug treatment center, and served on their board in the Mantua area where I had helped with the sports leagues. I also met another R.C., Dominic Bash, who was a young gay guy  training to be a barber. Dominic subsequently became our acolyte head at St. Mary’s. We had all these attractive little faculty kids who had become servers at the altar at about the same time and we always had to try to remember which ones were Jewish so as not to give them communion. Dominic was excellent with them.

Then Dominic and I and Jeannine thought up an outreach program directed mainly at younger RC gays to try to build a bridge between them and their church. Since Cardinal Kroll, a rather unpleasant right wing autocrat, was the local archbishop, the Roman priests who participated in our House Mass were running something of a risk. But for a while there, we actually had RC and Anglican priests concelebrating at house masses in Philadelphia.

It turned out as well that various clergy, RC and Episcopalian, were also prospecting for dates with younger men at these services, including one Jesuit! I found this a little disconcerting and eventually resigned from my organizing duties since our congregations were largely Catholic anyway. The house mass, however, went on to become the local diocesan chapter of Dignity, the gay Catholic organization. I took occasional masses for them still when needed, but I have always considered it a little strange to have been one of the founding fathers of such an organization.

GRADUATE ENGLISH STUDY

Another odd thing that happened to me about this time was that I got ‘terminated’ from  Graduate English studies at  Penn. This was partly due to the fact that I appeared to be headed, finally, toward a divorce from Janet. My mother was also in her final illness from cancer out on the West Coast; and I was not in the most focused mental condition ever. To be slightly more candid, I was also fully subject to all the sorts of distractions which bedevil a man facing the failure of his marriage.. I also had two incompletes in my last graduate courses and had somehow managed to insult the professor in my current course. He was a southerner and an Episcopalian like me and a fairly useful man. A member of the Graduate Committee, he saw me in the street one day and when I inquired about handing in my term paper, he said, “Well, Jay, you can if you like, but I probably won’t bother to read it as you will soon be terminated from graduate English studies for lack of progress.”

Talk about a wake-up call. I was not ready to go back to fulltime parish work and the prospect of either private or public school teaching filled me with apprehension. The first thing I did was to take the train to NYC the next weekend and work a couple of days in the library at the Performing Arts Center. I handed in my paper for Professor Weals shortly thereafter even though I knew he wouldn’t read it. Then I completed my papers for Professors Howarth and Dan Hoffman, who gave me A’s in their courses. Then I was so fortunate as to learn that Dr.Weals was going on Sabbatical. So I wrote a highly eloquent letter of self-excuse to the relevant authorities, containing a number of minor prevarications and highlighting my role in organizing ghetto sports leagues. I also alerted my more sympathetic professors to my need for reinstatement. Dr. Weals returned to find me somehow reincarnated as a current grad student.

Gerald.Weals regarded my academic survival with some amusement and I apologized to him, when next we met in the street, for my cavalier attitude towards his course and thanked him for bringing my feet back down to earth. The only glitch in my road toward the MA degree which I required desperately for college-level employment was the fact that I had managed to take a Shakespeare course from Dr. Roland Frye who was an impeccable scholar but totally impenetrable to me in my present mental condition. When asked to write a term paper on Elizabethan Landscape Gardens I somehow managed to treat mainly of what I found interesting in Mexican History. Frye’s written comment on my paper was “I am sure that there is something you can do better than the study of English Literature.” 

As it happened, the U. of Penn had recently taken Morgan State College for women in Baltimore under its wing as a kind of ‘little sister’ college and there was one young black Morgan State girl in my Shakespeare course. So when I saw that Linda had not done well on her paper either and was preparing to tackle Dr. Frye about a second chance, I jumped to get in line right behind her. Frye was not happy about letting Linda do the paper over and even less happy about me, but I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. At this point, the Graduate Chairman, Clyde Ryals, from my church, who had not yet been very helpful to me, finally saw his way clear to solving a small problem for both of us and managed to ‘forget’ my C grade in Shakespeare. I had enough other good course grades to qualify without any problem. And so, after these two near-debacles, having done very well on the MA Exam, I received my degree – and the job at CCP now seemed assured.

One major gift from my time at Penn was my inclusion in the NEA Poets in the Schools program in Pennsylvania when it started up in 1971. Dan Hoffman, my American Lit professor, was recruiting for it and he put my name down. For the next eleven years I did an average of perhaps four poetry workshops a year in the state schools, each of four days duration, ranging all the way from third grade to adult prison populations but mainly in high schools. I soon recognized the need to be able to improvise some sort of poetry at a moment’s notice on a chalkboard(blackboard)and developed this faculty in myself by keeping a journal in a rough four beat line. I had some fairly magical experiences doing this and also some relative failures when the magic just didn’t work. What it also did was to improve my teaching and my own poetry. I now paid closer attention to ‘connections’.

I had once been warned to stay away from Wallace Stevens and I soon saw why. No one could write his poetry but him. Attempts to be so widely allusive in one’s writing without Stevens’ talent ordinarily come to serious grief. I guess you could say that in poetry you have to do your own wiring so you had best beware of shortcuts and trying to be cuter than you actually are. ‘Cleverness’ has always been a besetting sin for me and it has frequently issued in glibness rather than real penetration. But what I tried to teach with varying amounts of success was what I called, “tapping the flow.”

Through the use of images, memory, and rhythm you can often get a flow of words going in your mind and then you can ‘tap’ that flow for a beginning line, and perhaps get the poem rolling under its own momentum. Then the critic-poet takes over and tries to tidy up after the ‘creative’ writer. This was not possible for everyone in the class but some children had already been doing it. I will always remember the black kid in Pittsburgh who told me, “I always thought that I was crazy until I met you, Mr. Wilson” which was a rather moving comment when you come to think about it.

I don’t think, now, that I was as well organized or canny about the workshops as I might have been. But at least I avoided the great temptation for many of our state ‘poets’ of taking Kenneth Koch’s book, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams seriously. Koch, an NYC poet, had written a totally show-and-tell approach to children’s poetry. If you could get everyone in class to think of some funny energy words like American Indian names for things or odd images which they had stumbled across, you could get them to assemble these words and images in little sentences like beads on a necklace. And call it a poem. This really pleased the host teachers because it guaranteed almost total participation and thus justified the program for you and for them. Thanks very much, just sign here.

I wasn’t exactly pleased by this boondoggle so I got some rather ambivalent teacher evaluations which said things like, “Mr. Wilson did not get the amount of participation from the students which we would have liked. However, he did produce better quality student poems from a few students than we have seen in the past.” Fair enough, I reckon.

I have a number of acute memories of these workshops. One of them concerns a weak moment in which I surrendered to the Kenneth Koch scam and appealed to some Third Graders to recall a signal moment which had impressed them. One boy asked me, “Can we use bad language?” “Well,” I answered, sometimes bad language says more than you want it to, but do as you need.” His little poem read,

“My neighbour’s dog bit me. I said ‘Fuck’ and he said ‘Bow Wow.” Thanks, Kenneth Koch.

DIVORCE

In 1972 Janet and I separated and in ‘74 we divorced. This was a friendly legal step as divorces go, one long contemplated by both of us, and it did not seem to cause a lot of trauma to the two boys. But my chaplaincy position had been de-funded now and I had taken a full time teaching job at Community College of Philadelphia. Dave Shore who ran the Remedial English program had hired almost all female teachers, some of whom were having trouble maintaining class discipline since most of their students were ghetto blacks. My CV told of my work with sports leagues for gang youths, MA at Penn etc., and Dave hired me right off the street. I respected my bishop Bob Dewitt greatly for calling me in and telling me what had determined his priorities in cutting my church position. He also left Janet in the West Philly house for a few years, rent-free.

Dewitt was the same bishop who presided at the ‘illegal’ ordination of the first eleven women priests in the Episcopal Church. I told him not to do it, but, as usual, he took his own way, not mine. He was a small, quite wonderful man who summered on Isle Au Haut in Penobscot Bay up in Maine where my father had owned property on another island for one year when I was seventeen. A whole bunch of us would get together maybe once a year at Bob’s place in Ambler PA and take turns singing folk ballads. This was a bunch of guys, most of whom, to my amazement had graduated from Little Three colleges, either Williams ( me and Cotton Fite), Amherst (Bob Dewitt, Jim Blackburn) or  Wesleyan ( Ralph Bayfield). So, for once, I wasn’t in the ‘out group,’ but actually a sort of ‘insider.’

Sometimes Bob would show us all to the door around midnight, and call me back in, quietly, to play me a few more of his own songs on his Martin. One song of mine he really liked was the bluesy sort of ballad, ‘I Tell You Too Much.’ This was a quote from the woman I wrote the song for, Betsy Cook, but about how I was the one who told her both too much and too little. Also, as she further told me, “Sometimes when a woman says ‘no’, there’s a lot of ‘yes’ in the ‘no.” And then she said, “And sometimes when a woman says ‘yes,’ there’s a lot of ‘no’ in the ‘yes’. You can figure that one out.

 

I tell you too much, I tell you too little,
How much do you really need to know?
Aren’t you the mystery woman with the ancient eyes
Who fed me the apple long ago,
Who fed me the apple long ago ?

You ask my songs where they come from,
Are they only spaces in my head ?
You ask questions without answers,
Better go and ask the dead,
Go and ask the serpent in the garden.

You tell a little yes, you say a little no,
You hang on my line like a radio show;
And all of these airwaves come out soft and slow;
You give me so much that I crave,
Or am I only dancin’ in my grave ?

Evenins’ you’re a little street girl,
Sometimes a kind of tired and sweet girl,
Then the devil gets hold of your mind
And you go back to your mysteries;
I never know who I will find.

 

 

REMARRIAGE and Pakistan Days

My final days in the active ministry ended in1986 when I decided that I just could not do parish work any more. I was also depressed and depleted by a long-term relationship which was increasingly going nowhere. My last two small black churches were full of good people yet I found that I couldn’t manage the energy required for parish calling and for teaching too. But then I was finally able to do what had long been contemplated and I remarried in December of 1985 in London with my dear friend Susannah Harris. Susie and I had spent a lot of time together over the years in Philadelphia, San Francisco (her home city), and in London where she owned an apartment. She was also an English teacher and had taught for some five years in Pakistan, so that is where our honeymoon was to be and our home away from home for a few years while she got her little British A Levels college going in Lahore. So we shared four cities and three continents finally as well as English Literature and our views on religion and the Anglican Church.

Susannah is half Jewish in descent and half German. She went to Mt. Holyoke and I to Williams, so we also have college in New England as a shared memory. Since my own background is almost entirely Scots, Irish, and English, we have no mismatches in temperament and find it easy to scream at each other when provoked. After the heroic stoicism of her mother and of my mother, this is a definite catharsis. Because her surgeon father died when she was only 13 however, Susannah grew up in a definitely female-headed family, as I in a male-headed one. This provides  some advantages for me since she takes care of finances etc., but some problems as well as she has a remarkably obsessive Edifice Complex and tends, with inherent right,  to regard the house and our lovely garden as physical extensions of herself.

Under Susannah’s impetus, we bought a small house in South Philly, lived there a couple of years and then traded up to a flat in West Mt. Airy. Five years later, coming back from Pakistan, we were able to trade again to a little two-up-and-two-down in Chestnut Hill, that lovely community with its trees and flowering shrubs on the ridge nine miles north of central Philly. We improved the house, added on a back bedroom over the kitchen, and lived there quite happily until my retirement from CCP in ‘99. She was the moving spirit in all of this trading up and house furnishing and selling. I can never thank her enough for that as for many other gifts to our life together.

At this point, I ought to say something about our final sojourn in Pakistan. I only lived in-country full-time from ’89 to ’91, but I was in and out of there every year from ’85 till ’90  when I usually had short-term jobs or was staying in the compounds of people we had known for a while. I think we spent seven Christmases in a row in Lahore. This was partly because it was taking a while for Susie’s school project to get off the ground.

Susannah had also to become reacquainted with a far less romantic reality than she had remembered from her early days in North West Hindustan in the sixties when everyone was more polite and respectful to teachers. Living as a westerner in Asia without much funds or connection to a major government or corporate employer is not always a pleasant circumstance to be in. The locals, including your friends and old students, are not quite sure how to take you, or how to balance your being Western, educated, etc., with your relative lack of either affluence or influence. Consequently, you sometimes may even play a large role in getting people’s children into an American University or college without receiving any thanks whatever for it. For many people in the subcontinent, I am convinced, as perhaps in all the other continents, gratitude is a virtue which is exercised very selectively.

Susie had started her school with old student/friends, all of whom had put in some money, but a great deal remained to be done to fully establish the little college as academically reputable with strong candidates and test scores. This was to happen in the succeeding four or five years while Susannah was Deputy Headmistress for some Pakistani head (as in ‘figurehead.’). But as soon as Lahore College of Arts and Sciences, or LCAS, became a going concern, Susie’s younger friends either lost interest, or, contrariwise, pursued their own agendas in hiring and controlling salaries. Basically, they used her to firmly establish the school, hire their friends, provide prestige, and then, eventually, after the other partners had lost interest, one of them went on to sell the school to an old friend ‘because it was so deeply in debt.’ In Pakistan whoever controls the accounts calls the tune – but then they always keep several different sets of books!  As it happened, the school had been completely profitable but this ‘old friend’ simply managed to hijack it by totally misrepresenting the financial situation. It was a poor repayment for all Susannah’s hard work, dedication, and investment of savings.  

I managed, over time, to cultivate my own small circle of friends in Lahore from retired colonel types or poets-writing-in-English and became socially a little independent of Susie’s female web of old-girls and teachers . Before that, I was rather in the classic ‘housewife’ position of being dependent on a spouse who had all of the friends, a job, and who owned the car. This did not vastly improve my temperament.

Our social acquaintance, however, was greatly augmented by the fact that Susannah had taught two generations of Pakistani women drawn from the educated upper crust of Lahori society. I remember going to a concert in ’91 and counting over two dozen adults whom I knew socially and by name. I myself have taught at least six students whose mothers she had as students. When we arrived in Lahore we had one set of old ‘lifetime friends’ there, mainly ex-students of Susannah’s, and then, after a number of  developments, acquired a somewhat wider and newer range of friends, both British and local, most of  whom we have kept up with during the succeeding years.

Bruce Brown was the local Lahore head of The British Council which runs a library and arranges scholarships and visits to England. They also administered the International English Test ( IELTS)which had to be passed by people seeking a student status in the UK. As the administrator of this test had departed the country, Bruce was interviewing candidates for the position, mostly English women who were teaching locally. I applied but he was slightly skeptical that I could actually do the job. The test involved written, oral, and comprehension components and the protocols were sophisticated as well as requiring adequate management skills.

None of the women applying regarded me as serious competition, but then ,as it happened, I was available for the time period required and they were not. So one of them was detailed off to be my supervisor for the First Test. A pleasant person, she did not put on much side, and was amazed at how relaxed and competent I turned out to be. We graded the tests together and I was also able to help her correct a few small errors which she had made. So it was only for a few months until I left, but I definitely got the job! What fun. Of course I was equally amazed that it had all worked out so well and never believed that it would do so again. So I immediately got my ally Eve from school to do part of the work for half of the pay. She was British but also far more competent than I.

Lahori stories:  a woman we did not know well but who was a nervously energetic person, heavy smoker, with two nearly grown adolescent children once asked Susie which of two western men she should marry. One worked for a hotel and the other in a consulate. What a question! She went on to marry the one who could provide the most favoured passport for her children. But when we spotted her a few weeks later in London, down in the Kensington area, she was with the other guy. Could she have married the consular man and gone on honeymoon with the Belgian bloke, or somehow did she get American passports for her kids and then marry the Belgian? As it happened, I spent a late evening once drinking Scotch with a prominent Lahori newspaperman who named her name and then told me a little about a lady’s afternoon group devoted to entertaining younger males. His view was that maybe all three had gone together on the honeymoon.

Or then there is the story about how Ghulam Mustafa Khar, the famous former Governor and soi-disant ‘Lion of the Punjab,’ married ten times and often described tongue in cheek as the ‘loin of the Punjab,’ discovered that Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfi, had accepted 20 million dollars in earthquake relief from his good friend Col.Muammar Ghaddafi – and pocketed the lot. As the story goes, Khar claimed 10% as a finder’s fee from Bhutto and was able, with some help from the stock market, to live on it in London for ten years. Lahore is often called,”the mother of Gossip.”

Lahore has its great mosque next door to the huge Red Fort from Mughal days, both also adjoining the Old City with its tiny winding streets full of shops, stalls, and specialty markets. It has a tree-lined mall and green parks, but it is also full of car and horse traffic, motorbikes, smoke from burning trash, the smell of dung, and millions of jostling human bodies surging and pouring through its streets. It is excessively hot from April until October and when the monsoon comes in, say, July, the heat abates to around 110 degrees Fahrenheit but it is 100% humidity at the same time. And there are power cuts so that air conditioners don’t always work unless you have a portable generator as some shops, hospitals and offices do.

In Asia you cannot exist comfortably at a middle class level without a servant. Americans are not usually at ease with the notion of servants but it is a way of life and a means of livelihood for thousands of people. Servants are used to squatting and cleaning . They shop for food, cook and wash and take messages. They bring in your breakfast in the morning on a tea trolley. You may dream of some wonderful retired army servant who can cook English style or Paki style ( ‘Angrez’ or ‘desi’), who understands everything and is reliable and honest. Rest assured, no one of that description is remotely dreaming of working for you. You will be lucky to find a fairly honest and reasonably competent person. It was reassuring to me, however, that many Pakistanis had problems similar to our own with finding reliable help. At least we didn’t make unrepayable loans of money to our cook like some Americans did.

To give just a few examples: Susie one year hired a part-time cleaner named Violet who was always nicely dressed but kept having to run next door for an hour or so where she had some other sort of part-time work. There was always a big new car in their drive when Violet was sent for. One day the penny finally dropped and we realized what else Violet did for a living. Then there was the youngish couple who wanted to work for us. They were movie star good looking and knew it. They got into everything in the pantry, even if boxes had not yet been opened, and when we missed some 500 rupee notes, they just shrugged and said not to leave money around if we wanted to keep it. We let them go but they later appeared on our doorstep selling deliveries of buffalo milk. It also turned out that they had made a deal with our Bashira who now lived in the garage and was the cook/ cleaner. She would get free milk and we would get watered milk – you have to water Buffalo milk but they watered it to extinction. They also put buffalo dung in our milk one morning but I caught them at it and then Bashira confessed.

I knew we had succeeded with Bashira when Susannah could get her spitting angry and then reduce her to tears and put her arm around her and console her. But her children, all by different fathers, were running a chop shop for stolen bicycles and had to be forbidden to visit our place by the landlord who roundly cursed them in excellent English – “You bloody little swine.” It seems someone was visiting us one day and they had stolen his bike right off the front porch.  Close friends of ours finally lost their old cook who retired back to his village. They missed him greatly but noticed that their food bills were now a full third cheaper. He must have been feeding a small army of friends and relatives. Well, the dear old boy was ‘just like a member of the family.’

Owning and operating a car in Pakistan is another problematic thing. Public transport is not available. There are the jammed and dangerous ‘killer vans’ which careen through the streets; there are ‘rickshaws’ or ancient Vespas with a double seat fitted on the back and a plastic windscreen; and there are taxis. Nobody gets much driver training in this country and people sometimes hire young men as ‘drivers’ who are expected to train on the job. Any road in the country is considered a five lane highway and the general rule is that the bigger your vehicle, the more right-of-way you have. Pakistanis love huge Land Rover type 4x4s even more than Americans do. We have known young people, students of Susie’s, who got real adventurous behind the wheel and ended up not seeing a one-horse tonga cart plodding right in front of the Bedford truck they were passing until they cut back into it. One former student was flipped way up out of his car until he came back down onto the point of a shattered wooden shaft which was sticking straight into the air.

By some generous freak of fate, Susannah had acquired for about $2000 a sixteen-year- old Honda sedan. I don’t know whom she bought it from but he must have laughed all the way to the bank. It was mud colored and rapidly rusting out, with torn plastic seat covers and a yellow stain over half of the windscreen where some plastic mat had melted in the intense sun. The frame was held together by a few strategic welds but it shimmied violently if you drove it over forty mph. Even servants and children did not like to be seen riding in it. It was a total rustbucket.

On the good side, our compound was right in front of a large garage and body shop run by Khurram, an old acquaintance from Susie’s earlier days at Kinnaird College. He cheated us, but only mildly. As I told her, “Look at it this way, hon, he’s a thief but he’s our thief.” In any event, the ‘garri’s ailments could be repaired easily if temporarily by this gentleman and when it died in the driveway, we would call and a few minutes later,  a small troop of peons in dhotis would slouch through the back gate of our compound and push the car around the block to the body shop.

When the time for us to leave was approaching, Susie sent me to old Khurram to find out what this car was worth. She thought she could sell it for what she paid for it. I disagreed totally and kept telling her that, mind you, either in the UK or in the US it would have been illegal to drive it anywhere.

As it happened, a couple of new-rich young lads in chinos and ranch boots had just driven their big Patrol SUV in, so Khurram broke off our introductory discussion in his office to go attend to them. Then he came back and asked for the keys to the car. When their ride was over, he told me they were ‘somewhat interested’ which I took to mean that actually he was. He offered me 35,000 Rupees for it. I feigned happiness. “Really,” I told him. “That sounds excellent, but, you know, since it’s Susie’s car I will have to check with her. I’ll ring you. Yes, yes, very good.”

I went home and told Susannah, “If he offered 35,000, then he must think he can sell it for 50,000. I’ll be damned.” In the final event she did manage to flog it for exactly 50,000 rupees($2,000 in those days) which was just about what she had paid for it. There was one hitch - the lights and power shorted out a day before the sale date. ‘Koy batne’ ( No Problem), old Khurram came through splendidly and got the electric running for her. Home free. But usually when a Pakistani says ‘No problem,’ you had better be thinking creatively about what could possibly go wrong.

We were fortunate enough to know friends who travelled to interesting places and so I managed to see some areas of the country which were a little off the beaten track and not over-touristed as yet. The Himalayas end just in the borders of Pakistan and the Hindu Kush runs above Peshawar on the Afghan frontier while up on the China/Tibetan border the Karakoram Range rises to near record heights - K2 is 28,000 feet above sea level.

One January I rode with Shahid Ataullah on a trip from Lahore up through the Indus Gorge to Gilgit and Hunza. From the fork to Gilgit we got out of the car and looked back on 26,000 feet of Nanga Parbat snows with a band of cloud below and a great full moon above it. The Killer Mountain. An hour’s drive north of here, Shahid’s father used to come each year and play polo against the Mir of Hunza and his riders up in that deep-forked valley beneath the ice-swirl of Rakaposhi, ‘the Veiled One’, also at 26,000 feet. Shahid was a superb driver and he clearly neither needed nor expected me to assist. This area is northwest of Tibet, next door to Central Asia. But the scale of the land is huge. We drove a few miles short of the Hunjurab Pass over into the Chinese road to Kashgar.

I flew up to Chitral once also, with two Englishmen, Bruce Brown and Jeremy Goad, both inveterate travelers. Chitral is an isolated valley sometimes because of the mountain passes being closed. I learned this when we were wandering around the old fort there and ran into the local prince – the Mulk (malik) of Chitral – an alert little man in his late thirties who worked in  the  Pakistan Foreign Service..“ Do I live here? My dear fellow, I have children to educate; this place is snowed in for four months out of the year.” He showed us the collection of family portraits of his princely ancestors, all sallowly staring down out of their opium haze from the salon walls. The wonderfully tall craggy Pathan servant served us tea as we gazed off to the majesty of Tirich Mir at the head of the valley, its great face stretching skyward to 25,000 feet.

We also got to see something of the local Kalash reservations, thanks to Maureen Lines, the British travel writer, who served as our guide. At one point we inquired as to the possible availability of their local tribal wine and were told that yes, they would sell us a bottle. After some half hour of waiting someone fetched us the longed-for exotic drink and after inspecting the rotted out cork we were finally able to hoist together a glass of pure vinegar! We also discovered that our driver and other hotel servants had grouped us into a triad known locally as ‘Fat one’ (me), ‘Thin one’(Jeremy, and ‘The Boss.’

But on our departure day, the monsoon had moved to the top of the ridgeline enclosing the valley and all flights were cancelled indefinitely. Bruce however had a hire vehicle waiting to take us on our way while the small mob of tourists milled about anxiously at the airport. After thirteen hours of jolting jeep ride back over Lowery Pass to our Peshawar motel, Bruce informed us,”Ten minutes for a loo stop and we drive to the new Sheraton for cheeseburgers and milkshakes.” What a wonderfully welcome message to hear from an Englishman in Hindustan.

There are so many memories of that far land, visited by me many years and a couple of winters ago. Susannah returns periodically but then her roots are deeper there and my contacts, other than joint ones, are fast fading, although I renewed a number of them last visit. Apart from learning how to negotiate the endless scams, half-truths, and  private agendas which are a settled feature of relationships, jobs, and government in that country, I think I learnt something of just how fragile and partial our Western sense of the ‘Enlightenment self’ is when you have to translate it into everyday living in Asia. Since information is valuable, everyone holds back something and not even your friends tell you all of the bits you need to know - and should have learnt already.

I used to write an occasional column for Lahore’s The Friday Times under the ridiculous heading, Our Man in Washington. On one occasion, in 1991, I wrote that the U.S. should on no account invade Iraq. Iraq is not really a country, its people resent each other and will not respond well to an American invasion. Finally, despite the despotic cruelty of its ruler, Iraq is a major obstacle to Iran’s long ambition to possess the southern shores of the Persian Gulf. I don’t think any of this fairly obvious wisdom ever penetrated to the upper levels of the Bush Jr. US administration. Bush Sr. took the Saudis’ advice and stayed out of Iraq. Saddam was arguably a moral monster but he posed no threat to our country. And no doubt those who support the mythic Al Qaeda hated him as a muslim apostate nearly as much as they do us.

When I came to Pakistan I was feeling some burn-out from too many years at CCP and also I was tired from a spinal operation. The long hours at Lahore American School exhausted me further and my second year there, we had trouble with a clique of boys who  organized cheating and were targeting different teachers, including me, with acts of vandalism. Everyone knew who they were but nothing could be done because of the weak stance of the school authorities.

This added to my depression. By the time we left, however, Susie and I had shared some very good and some very bad times in yet another country which helped to bring us closer together and toughened me up until I was ready to tackle my last eight years at Community College in Philly. The final two years in-country over there did a lot for me. Unfortunately, given the nature of the case, there is no one much to feel grateful toward except for a few of our British and  Pakistani friends who shared their lives and helped us in moments of need, and with whom we are still in touch.

As it happens, my view of Pakistan as expressed is almost entirely a male one. The splendiferous panoply of smells, sights, sound, colours, bridal gatherings, and all their attendant energy is left out of my account: and this also along with the ten thousand tonal gradations of female inter-communication. But this too is beautiful and ‘shahbash,’ simply splendid. I fed from it whenever I didn’t sense it as just feeding from me!

Last Years At Work

When I came back to my college in ’91 I found that a couple of alert colleagues had been busy getting the Federal Government’s National Endowment of the Humanities, to fund two successive summer seminars in order to prepare us to teach Humanities Courses. This was interesting in one way because it ran against the prevailing academic trend toward the ‘Multicultural’ emphasis which was then in process of demonstrating – to anyone who really noticed -what a huge politically correct fraud it had always been. To be sure, we included in our curricula an emphasis on cultures other than the western ones, so you could teach some African or Asian texts and history in your courses. My own principal interest was in ancient history and religion so this recent development sort of put my old seminary library back in business.  The lectures enabled me to participate with some of my favorite colleagues in a learning experience which called on all of us for input and eventually the creation of some kind of meaningful syllabus. After all those years of remedial English, I was finally able to disguise ancient history as ‘Multiculti’!

Susannah had also joined our faculty as a part-timer and was soon to be offered the opportunity of awakening the long-dormant drama courses toward the possibility of yearly play productions. The ladies in charge of these courses had presented one production some years ago with two characters in the play. After that there had been nothing for eight or nine years. We were told ahead of time that our students could not memorize lines, that there was no shop for the creation of scenery, and that the Audio-Visual people would go on strike if asked to help with a live production. None of this was true and we did three full productions, one each year, with twenty-plus actors in each. All were enormously well-received and the Audio-Visual people were delighted to help.

Although the humanities faculty enjoyed the plays and congratulated Susannah on them, somehow they became the excuse for a ferocious assault upon the department head where other former heads were recruited to attack him for a variety of liberties which he was accused of having taken. Susannah has always been an ‘agent of change’ and I am afraid that in this case she had unknowingly been used to precipitate a partisan attack upon the chap who had enlisted her in what was an excellent cause. When it came to standing up for what Susie had done, however, other teachers said nothing in public but then continued to congratulate her on her work! The department head survived, but barely.

Between learning too much, over the years, about my colleagues’ private agendas and being forced, finally, to think about my own exit strategy, I took a last sabbatical semester, occurring just fourteen years since the previous one, and after selling the house in Chestnut Hill, we escaped to the UK. Susie and I had to face the fact that she has always been a lightning rod. She readily takes on assignments and proposes changes which rankle grievously in the breasts of entrenched faculty types who have lived for years without any challenge to their inertia. Still, it had been great fun for me to adapt Gorky’s ‘Government Inspector’ to an American setting and rewrite it as happening in Westmoreland County, PA (settled by my ancestors!) and to see a large cast build and improvise upon my adaptation until we had a quite wonderful production going. It was also ‘multicultural’ since most of our actors were American blacks. Everyone loved it.

Susannah had bought, betimes, a little bungalow in North Oxford, UK, which we have quite happily lived in since those early days at the beginning of 2000. Leaving America was not a great adjustment for me since we had lived elsewhere off and on anyway and I had always wanted to move back to England myself.  We had lost perhaps ten close relatives between us in California over the last eight years which distanced us from that part of America for a bit.. Susie had lived twelve years of her previous life in the UK and most of her serious friends were here while my sons had multiple aunts and grandmothers for their children in America and I didn’t feel constrained to stay there as a grandfather-of-record. The time was ripe for us to go and so were we. That was ten years past.

In My End Is My Beginning

Retirement is one of those words that can mean anything. I remember my father, shortly after his own retirement, writing a wonderful article for The Living Church, our Episcopalian national weekly. In it, he talked about how this time was so open for creative activity. Then after writing the article, he relapsed into a ten years depression until his death. In my case I looked forward to shedding some of the accumulated stress of teaching and finding more time for writing and thinking – and for meeting interesting people in a major British university town.

Perhaps a small digression here may be in order to address questions of ‘feeling’ and meaning. I was always a slightly ‘high strung’ child as they used to say. I was empathetic like my father, full of feelings, quick to sympathize. But as a Taurus child I was stubborn and protective of my own inwardness, such as it was. When my mother tried to teach me how to write my name at four, my response was to try to teach her how to write her name. As a consequence I now have a dreadful scrawl much like my father’s.

Because I was the oldest child, I bore more of the pressure and emotional projection of my parents than my sisters did. Although this was often expressed indirectly and with considerable kindness, my parents seemed to have X-ray eyes that could read my excuses and equivocations like a book. I was a trifle thoughtless and also curious and even if I defended my inner imaginative life I also felt guilty at being a superficial and insincere little person. I remember weeping by myself for an hour in my bedroom at Aunt Julia’s house near Fresno one summer when I was twelve. I just couldn’t/wouldn’t ever live up to what people wanted and needed from me. No event had touched this off, I just had to grieve it. 

I have always done this, though not so much of recent years. ‘Grieving myself’ is a way of digesting experience cathartically for me. Experience is painful. Life is painful and even joy can be painful as well. Love? Love demands so much of you. But this inner psychic pain is a useful thing for growth and also for poetry. The problem with writing from feelings, of course, is that there is a tendency to fake the feeling and also to exploit it. I think I was always concerned about losing my soul that way although perhaps I wouldn’t have quite called it that, but I mean losing the capacity to feel deeply one’s own reality as well as that of other people. During the troubles of my forties I ran some risk of this and was worried about how ‘burnt out’ and emotionally shallow I was becoming.

And I had always been aware of the pain of my parents. My mother’s dad had died just as he was about to recapitalize and overcome his business reverses, and her family sort of drifted apart. My father, an only child, had had to institutionalize his own mother in a mental hospital some few years after his father’s death. Both of them bore the scars of their losses, though they bore them inwardly and gracefully most of the time. I was aware of my uncles’ pain as well. Like most clergy children I knew that many people never fully become adults. This made me feel that I was already an adult and I had to learn the hard way that this was not the case. Maturity does not entirely depend upon bearing your own or others’emotional pain, but bearing it intentionally. And I did not welcome pain.

Still, I have never made the mistake of thinking that feelings were discrete and separate from each other. The therapeutic question,” But what are you feeling right now?” always seemed absurd to me. Shakespeare had it right about ‘mirth in dolor’ and the rest of it. The feeling world is a land of mixed delight and sorrow.

Pakistan was strengthening to me and so was my second marriage. Leaving America  made daily life far more relaxing. One is able to travel in Europe much more easily from Oxford, and Susie and I have taken considerable advantage of this, spending some time in France and Italy in particular since we had friends who owned places there. My old college friend Regnar has a little place on Symi, just off the SW tip of Turkey and I have visited there several times. The British ask me why I migrated here and I have no real answer for them. I suppose I could say, like Susie, that English literature is part of my religion (or that my French is bad).We go to Madeira for a bit in the winters now. It is sublimely lovely and boring there, but scenic and pleasant and better for my lungs than the endless English winter damp.

During my first three years in Oxford I managed to write some thirty-odd decent poems which I printed in a small booklet. I also began to memorize some of my old favorite ‘Georgian’ poems from when I was an adolescent. Then, remembering my amusement at the affected style of the overblown British song settings I heard on BBC as a young man, the thought occurred to me, ‘Why not try setting them to your own guitar tunes?’ So I began doing this some three years ago and am still at it. Thus far I have set seven Housman songs, six Yeats, four Hardy, two Rupert Brooke, two by Sir Thomas Wyatt, three from Donne, and one each of Auden, Dylan Thomas, Donne, and Dowson. There are two more from Dante Alighieri, and fifteen short Rilke lyrics. I have included one of my own which is a fairly bouncy Jacobean song! The total is about forty-five song settings. Some are simple ballads, others more like art songs. The longer Dante aria is taken directly from Francesca da Rimini’s confession in the Fifth Canto of the Inferno.

Each of these songs has become a little world for me. Singing them draws you further into the poem. In Housman’s case, I found that With Rue My Heart Is Laden had only two verses, so I added two more of my own – the alternative ones - which seem to suit nicely. After what has been done to his verse by major composers somehow I don’t think Housman minds my reverent additions of the second and fourth verses.

With Rue my Heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipped maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

Sweet are the songs of summer,
Sweeter the notes of May
To the memories of Autumn
Ere the Winter bear all away.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid,
The rose-lipped girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

Their breath too soft for sighing,
Now all their songs are sung,
And the laughter round them crying
Lies still beneath the tongue.

I also edited one Hardy ballad which had some terrible rhymes in it but now shows much improvement . I have  recorded one CD of my own songs, one of the English poets’ songs, and one mainly of the Rilke. My guitar and voice seem to have improved with much practice, but I don’t know how long I will have a voice that can do this properly after the age of 75 so I have some sense of urgency about it, which is no bad thing either.

I am aware that my own songs are far more immediate and convincing to hearers than the poem-settings which I have been working on. But then they are the tested and tried prayers of my earlier life which I now must go beyond.  It has occasionally bothered me slightly that people’s response to my poetry and to these songs has always seemed so restrained.  It’s hard for me to get much spontaneous ‘feedback.’ That may be because friends don’t want to seem obtuse or because the songs don’t fit what they are used to, or because they, like Susannah, need to hear them more often before they can really respond. She says things like, “That’s a really nice melody. Is it something new?” To which my usual response is, “I’ve been playing it for weeks but now you’ve finally ‘heard’ it.” Go figure. But the tunes are like little prayers for me all the same and I love them.

Many of the songs are consciously done in pairs like the Wyatt and the Dante and some of the Rilke because they speak to each other or have some common reference. The Wyatt songs are for Ann Boleyn, Dante’s two are both on the subject of love and contrast strongly. The Rilke songs would make a good teaching tool and I have written them up along with some commentary with that in mind. It’s so nice finally to have a decent guitar too!

In looking back over these pages, I see that I have left out a number of important things. I haven’t talked about friendships, my sisters and sons, colleagues and allies, all of whom have been very important in my life. My father was a loving and caring person but he just didn’t write letters. I haven’t done that much either, but email makes things easier for people like me and I am trying to keep up with friends and kinfolk much more nowadays via that medium. I do miss my sons a great deal and when I am with them or with my sisters I can feel an increase in my vitality and well-being.

I have also not talked about my Theology or what I have learned from reading Neo-Jungians like James Hillman. Nor have I considered my political stance as a violent moderate or extreme centrist. The extremes to either side of me I tend to denominate, in the US anyway, as ‘faux-Marxist’ and ‘pseudo-Conservative.’ In the UK there is the same left-liberal mindset which considers that social care from cradle to grave will produce better human beings. But it doesn’t. The Tories over here don’t have many well-articulated public policies apart from their support for fox hunting, so they kind of crawl about just under the radar. In America I am a definite Contrarian, well out of the highly polluted mainstream, but in the UK and Europe I am just another run-of-the-mill Social Democrat. So much for political labels.

A few years ago we received the honor and benefit of British Citizenship (we are still Americans as well) and after the ceremony the BBC interviewer, who had been struck by the fact that an American named Harold Wilson was becoming a British citizen, commented on the fact that I had apparently known all the words to the first verse of God Save the Queen. I told him that I was happy to be coming home to the land of my ancestors (mainly Scots and Irish) and to be singing that song to its proper words.

In actual fact, someone once drove me to my great grandfather’s agricultural village near Northampton, Ravenstone in Buckinghamshire. In the churchyard, only one of the old time cheap gravestones was yet standing while all the others were piled on top of each other or against the fence about the graveyard, just one – which said, “George and Mary Holloway, 1834”.  Magical, that this one of all the others had waited for me.

I have not mentioned my humble place on the volunteer rota of St. Mary Magdalen  in Oxford where I usually celebrate a mass or so a week, nor have I talked about the importance of dream-life and the cultivation of a friendly subconscious in which one can negotiate one’s way with some profit, nor about the way in which a sort of reverent agnosticism can reach to religious commitment. I have written and thought much about all these topics and perhaps, soon, I will put them on a web site. There is always so much yet to do.