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The Years that the Locusts have Eaten

Christopher Wordsworth was a literary reviewer and sports writer for over thirty years, having entered the world of journalism when almost fifty. His son Saul Wordsworth traces his lost years of bohemia and personal tragedy in north Wales and examines the life of a man saved by literature but shackled by writer’s block.

In 1960 Philip Toynbee, novelist and principal reviewer at the Observer, placed an advertisement in a number of national and Sunday newspapers in which he appealed for ‘underdog confessions’, to be compiled as a collection of social grievances. The book, Underdogs: Eighteen Victims of Society, was published the following year. In amongst tales of the pederast, the orphan and the wife of an impotent husband lay my father’s essay, ‘The Self-Inflicted Wound’, written as ‘AN Other’. He was 46 at the time and the outlook was bleak: disaster-prone and with a talent for self-destruction, he was living in a dilapidated gamekeeper’s cottage with no electricity, in the austere moorlands of Snowdonia, divorced and bereft, with no means of income, relying on his expertise with fishing rod or knife for sustenance, and with little human contact. A man very much on the periphery of society.

Up here, there is a sword-sheen on the windblown rushes, and the young river wells out of the bog, dark and bubbling like a sudden staunchless wound. My world is not peopled by men and women. My realities are the weather, the possession or lack of a bottle of paraffin, the impending demise of a shirt, the level of the stream, the direction of the wind, the existence of a leak in my fishing-waders.

My assets are briefly enumerated: the knack of catching trout in small troubled waters; a handful of friends and enemies on whom I inflict a rasping tongue and a marshmallow heart. A brain stuffed hugger-mugger with literature. A skull full of rubble and a pen full of tropes.

This is the story of how my father came to find himself in such peril and how, in committing to paper the sum of his personal failings, found salvation in the details of a very particular crie de coeur.

Born in Calcutta on Boxing Day 1914, Christopher William Vaughan Wordsworth was one of five children, the son of a senior civil servant who went on to become editor of the Calcutta Statesman. At four he was shipped back to Britain to be educated at a dame school in Aberystwyth run by his godmother, whom he had to address as Sir. From Aberystwyth to prep school in St. John’s Wood, around the corner from Lord’s cricket ground, then Rugby where he won the Rupert Brooke prize for poetry. Oxford beckoned and with it the tutelage of C.S. Lewis, who recommended him for the prestigious Newdigate Prize for English verse in 1933. Yet within a year he and University College had parted ‘on mutual terms’, hastened by an unfortunate incident involving a car driven at a set of locked college gates. The institutional life never suited him and when a legacy came his way he left, somewhat impetuously and with little hesitation, ostensibly to pursue a literary career. Instead, the fatal amalgam of youth and money did little to keep him on the narrowed track. Involvement with a woman ‘who was not quite respectable’ and much squandering filled the remainder of the decade, though he continued to read omnivorously, stocking his mind with stories and legends. In 1938 he met and married Joan Darlington, with whom he had two children. His inheritance, however, had slipped effortlessly through his fingers.

I cannot deal with money except to disburse it. All the false trails in a paper-chase of banknotes indicate that I cannot understand it.

War beckoned and my father volunteered in 1939, seeing service with an Indian regiment in Iraq, India and Malaya. His own crippling self-consciousness showed itself in an oft-repeated tale of his being court-marshalled on account of refusing to recite a poem for the visiting Vera Lynn. More poignantly, he decided that to write to his young wife would only upset her, a misjudgement he would rue for the rest of his life.

People are fascinated by certain questions. How does the pole-squatter dispose of faeces? What precisely do Lesbians do? Do the lonely talk to themselves? In my case, the answer to the last query is in the negative. I occasionally address the sheep: ‘I want three volunteers, ewe, ewe and ewe.’ Or to the gravel-voiced autochthonous grouse: ‘Wotcher cock!’ But to myself, no. I have said it all long ago in a clearing in Malaya, the nearest European fifty miles away, the pineapple brandy depositing a lead precipitate on my entrails, and the knowledge that I had murdered my marriage spreading like a stain on the night, while the gibbons ululated and rattan slats creaked. Almost like Sapper. Almost like hell.

In the aftermath of a war that had cost him six years of freedom and a wife, Christopher found himself washed up on the Welsh borders. With the boast of a novel in his head, he was put in touch with Jeremy Brooks. Brooks was a novelist himself, as well as script adapter for the Royal Shakespeare Company and a close friend of Peter Hall. ‘If it’s somewhere quiet and peaceful that you want to write this book’ remarked Brooks’ brother, ‘I’m sure Jeremy would be happy to let you go and stay there.’ And so it was that in 1950 my father moved in with the Brooks family, to Gellau, a cottage owned by the visionary architect and creator of Portmerion, Clough Williams-Ellis, near the village of Llanfrothen in Snowdonia. It was his first introduction to the shifting circle of writers and artists in north-west Wales.

Words are what I have, I have lived with them too long; we torture one another and practice small perversions to salt the darkness, partners in a marriage gone stale. But I feel I have a kind of dulled belief that I am being battered into the shape of a writer…

Progress was slow. By 1951, struggling with the application necessary to bear literary fruit and eager to pay his way with the Brooks’, he decided to combine his writing ambitions with an attempt to replenish his now-vanished fortunes by rejuvenating the Porthmadog mussel industry with a former Colditz prisoner of war, a scheme which foundered. He also managed the café at Portmeirion. There he met Sue Amberley, daughter of the American poet Vachel Lindsey and wife of The Right Honourable John Russell, son of philosopher Bertrand Russell. Her first words to him were, “I am a poet’s daughter, you have a poet’s name save me from these effete aristocrats.” She too had literary aspirations. They quickly fell in love and in 1954 moved in together to a small cottage called Tyddyn Heulen, on the edge of Portmeirion, overlooking the estuary.

It is early morning in 1983 and my ten-year-old self is taking a cup of tea to my father’s study at the back of our house in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. He has been up for two whole days and nights, working on his latest review piece for The Guardian. He is 69 and suffered a heart attack the year before. I knock and enter. The air hangs heavy with tobacco. The right hand side of his face is tan with nicotine from the perpetual corkscrew of smoke emanating from the cigarette that sits characteristically on his lips but remains forever uninhailed. His shirt is stained and singed on the plateau where his hefty stomach catches, invariably, a full three inches of ash. I brush the ash from his belly and onto a floor thick with crumpled drafts. Soon the house is filled with the distinctive sound of two-finger typing. When eventually he is done and the taxi has left to courier his copy to Fleet Street, he slumps downstairs, exhausted. He turns to me:

“This isn’t proper writing you know, old son?”

Weeks into their cohabitation, Sue inherits over £8,000 from her father’s estate in America. With the urge to write slipping quietly onto the back burner, the two of them embark upon a vast and extensive spending spree that lasts for the majority of their five years together: day trips to Liverpool, decided on a whim, are undertaken by taxi; most nights the cream of local bohemia is lavishly entertained. When it is finally time to clear the cottage, a lorry is hired to remove the empty bottles.

Yet the sheen of high living masked a more sinister truth. Ray Monk, in his biography Bertrand Russell, 1921-1970: The Ghost of Madness, comments that, “Susan’s mental state was deteriorating, she became increasingly angry, violent and unpredictable. Sometimes she would wander off into the Welsh hills and not return home for days; on other occasions she would attack her lover with bottles, wines glasses or whatever else she could find.”

The last and loveliest with whom I shared my life left me eighteen months ago, accompanied by what is technically known as the Duly Authorized Officer. It lasted five years, and those who had known for years that she was a paranoid schizophrenic but had not thought to mention it, did not concede it a chance to endure six months. I shall not write of her here. She is dowered as few can hope to be, and flawed beyond despair. When love seemed a relevant word, we lived a life of hermetic seclusion. When I woke to the truth of her condition, I had the fatuity to believe that I could oppose myself to it and succeed. There are no witnesses To be the paramour of one held to be a maniac is not precisely to live in society, more especially if she is related to illustrious men. At best it fascinates morbidly those who can fancy themselves pitying the plumage, yet walk wide of the dying bird. But live on. There will not be a time when I shall not remember you.

My father never saw her again. She eventually moved into a council house in Betws-y-Coed, North Wales, where she died in 1990, aged 64, never having truly regained her mind.

Distraught after his lover had been physically removed from him, and with it his financial security, he was once more alone, and homeless. After spending much of 1959 moving from friend to friend, Brooks and two others, their belief in him unstinting, rented him a cottage in the Migneint, a huge, undulating area of moorland east of Blaenau Ffestiniog, where he could live and write. The cottage, Ty Keeper, was some 600 metres above sea level. As his friend, Ifor Nottingham, recently explained to me:

“The cottage? It was in the middle of nowhere. Really in the middle of nowhere…”

Conversation with a friend:
‘You imagine I just sit up there and brood endlessly and unprofitably about Life. Shall I tell you what in point of fact I do?’
‘By all means.’
‘I just sit up there and brood endlessly and unprofitably about Life.’
Perhaps sitting and thinking is the penultimate stage merely. The end is just sitting.

There is no electricity. Although the cottage is being paid for by kindly friends, he has no money save for occasional winnings from New Statesmen competitions, plus the ten shillings a week he receives from the Labour Exchange in Llanfrothen. Eventually they tire of his description of himself as a ‘writer’. There are no ‘jobs’ for ‘writers’ in the surrounding area, he is informed. Their offer of retraining is kindly sent packing and with it his only means of real income.

My friends will not let me starve quite. Nor will I allow them to quite. Occasionally I have a windfall, such as the rabbit I picked up on the road last year, not flattened to any great degree: I remember the quizzical look it gave me after I had skinned it, the tufts of fur adhering around its awful bald brow. Happily it had not been poisoned. Once during a period when the policy was not to feed me I ate cattle-cake.

Time that was the dog at my heels is now the wolf at my throat…

It is a Saturday evening, Winter 1984, and I am at home, in front of the fire, watching television. My concentration is interrupted by the rhythmic rumblings of a taxi outside. There is a pause, then the slamming of a car door, followed by familiar words, “Good luck with the book Mr Wordsworth,” words I hear mostly when my father tumbles out of taxis. A key scratches around the lock and eventually a rough-hewn figure spills into the house, modestly lubricated via press box generosity from a rugby or cricket match that he has been covering for the Observer. The generous well wishings no doubt spring from a charitable tip, soon to be expensed.

Whilst living up in the Migneint, loneliness and hunger would drive him down from the hills and, adorned in a variety of donated garments, he would often end up staying with Ifor and his wife Bill, in Penrhyndeudraeth:

“We would receive him. Maybe have a meal and stand him two or three pints of bitter. Then when we returned he would say ‘do you mind if I sleep in this armchair?’ and Bill would say ‘no, there’s a bed upstairs, Christopher.’ It was well worth putting ourselves out for the pleasure he brought: he was educated, clever, entertaining we just liked being with him. And he was very good with the children. But as he said in Underdogs, after a few days down, someone would volunteer to run him back up.”

In the early 1960’s my father encountered Philip O’Connor, poet, novelist and, for a short period, golden boy of the literary world. In his book Living in Croesor, O’Connor attempts to pin him down:

“Christopher appears to have grown around his soul, like barnacles round a ship’s bottom; it will soon be sealed up; will he then rise again? Probably. But his wit is excellent; a most undefeated man, though he flirts with defeat. His status (social) has for long been that of ‘gentleman labourer’; his physique has a touch of Neanderthal head buried down in hunched, broad shoulders; long arms. The eyes are fairly inscrutable, something of the ram’s glazed immunity to the perception of others that so characterised the face of his ancestor, William Wordsworth. He may, one day, write a remarkable book.”

The book was threatening to write itself through sheer impatience, though by now much of my father’s time was taken up by the acts necessary to stay alive: the trout stream, some 400 yards from the cottage, kept the edge off his hunger, and when it disappointed he would poach, or reappear at a friend’s door, tail firmly between his legs. Life was colourless, motionless, and bordering on the desperate. However, it was whilst he was living here that, alerted by Brooks to the underdog request, he committed to paper the sum of his flaws, what had brought him to this point. With sharpened pen he sets about himself, laying bare his failings, denouncing his weaknesses and lashing his past. He completes his essay and submits it for Toynbee’s symposium, where it is received as a “welcome superaddition” to the collection.

Underdogs was serialised in the Observer and reviewed to great acclaim, my father’s contribution singled out for special attention. On the strength of those eighteen pages, the advance for a novel was proffered, though much of it was, I fear, splashed up again the nearest wall, or at least blown at Fortnum and Mason’s. Still, in Toynbee my father found a champion, and admirer of his “exceptional literary ability”, as Toynbee himself put it in his introduction. His talent, so obvious to so many for too long, had finally presented itself and was soon to release him from his interminable personal circumstances. There was still time for another wife, another child, another ultimatum (“Well Christopher, no work, no food”) and another divorce, but offers of journalism drew him gradually, though inexorably, south, and to a new life. Eventually he settled in Barnes, south-west London, in 1963. In 1970 he met and married my mother, Tamara Salaman, an Observer reviewer herself and twenty years his junior. Together they had one child and the three of us moved, via Bloomsbury, to Harpenden in 1975.

My father had a lifetime to prepare for his new role and his gift for phrasemaking and exploring the possibilities of turning an expression inside out made him more than equal to the task. It was he who coined the phrase ‘a legend in his own lunchtime’, of a famously soused sports editor. He was one of four lead reviewers at the Guardian. At the Observer he wrote all the headlines for the literary pages, carrying the proofs around pubs and on trains, scribbling the lines as they came to him. And every Saturday, come fair or foul, and well into his seventies, he made his way across the country by public transport (he never drove after a war-time case of double vision) to cover a rugby or cricket match, wintertime press boxes often positioned perilously close to the action, and always the chance of a gust of wind carrying his delicately-penned prose down the touchline.

He enjoyed feeling valued, but retained an arms-length relationship with newspapers he was never placed on the pensionable staff, a subject that rankled. With a shyness that belied his bellowing voice and windswept exterior, he was also quick to take offence and saw himself waging a running battle with the ignorance of sub-editors and the slovenliness of copytakers or ‘coffee takers’ as I believed them to be called well into my teens. Once, when he pointed out that the two teams he had been watching would be appearing the following Saturday “in the self-same arena”, the last few words appeared in the paper as, “in the Selsey Marina”.

Regardless of any praise that came his way, and there was plenty he was regarded by many as the finest rugby writer of his generation my father did not believe that what he was doing was of any great consequence, which is why I can find more of his reviews and sports reports on the internet than in the bundles of miscellany he left behind. He saw reviewing as a lesser form, but stuck with it: remarkably, after decades of very little, he sprang to life, a spot-changing leopard, and worked flat out for thirty years to give the three of us as good a life as possible.

Yet the book lived on: the taxi conversations, the hardback jotters full of aphorisms and ideas which I foolishly tore up and used as rough books for school, the wearing down of my mother (“how can I remain in Harpenden and write?”), such that their removal to mid-Wales, in 1996, at the ripe age of 81, was to be a coming home of sorts, and a place to write. It never happened. Within twelve months my mother became ill. After years spent preparing me for his own death (“this will be my last Olympics” was his refrain, in 1984, 1988, 1992), he was broken by her cancer, but he fought on gamely, tending to her needs and nursing her back to some kind of health. He eventually died, in a room stacked high with review books, in 1998, aged 83. She lived on for another three years.

I do not mock my father’s inability to put pen to paper in the prolonged form. He was an astonishingly good writer but it seemed that for all his abilities, he suffered, quite plainly, from writer’s block to such an extent that “unless he thought it was going to be better than Tolstoy, he would not commit it to paper”, as his friend Ifor recalls. Clearly at some point in the past there was a book to be written. Increasingly, it acted as a kind of crutch, propping the door ajar through which hope could stream. “I succumb from time to time to the comforting theory of the Last Laugh” he wrote in Underdogs. What is the great unwritten novel but the threat of the Last Laugh, a comfort blanket against mediocrity, the pipe dream that sustains the dreamer?

“He knew he could produce something great,” says Ifor, “yet something stopped him from doing so. And everybody else thought he could because he was so marvellous with words. I just re-read ‘The Self-Inflicted Wound’, it was unbelievably good. But it shone through a little bit he got tired and fed up towards the end:

Suddenly I find myself sick of this, and wish to break it off. How will I end this piece, I am asked, and what do I think will be the outcome of my affairs? I will leave it open, but the prognosis is not good, it cannot be when the wax is reduced to screaming at the stylus, the forme to bickering with the hare. To endure the winter I have a project to smoke trout like bckling if I can lay my hand on some oak shaving, so it seems I plod on. Also I try to write, but the erosion of my own identity, and the slow loss of fact, may rule out fiction.

The exasperated concern of others will reach its term. The therapy of the kick up the backside will soon be tried again, though it is doubtful whether it can be effective with a person who has been kicked by a heavier boot in a more vital spot.

I have been passed from hand to hand like a calumet at a pow-pow, and also like a red-hot rivet. Friends and enemies have done their best and worst. A spring ago a person of no great fastidiousness unpacked herself for me in an idle moment, but all that I found in that community chest was a heart like a parched pea.

I have still the temerity to hope to drift along, unless I choke on a metaphor or founder in my own bile.

A particular sadness, so much of which I have passed through, has flooded me once more during the writing of this piece. I rarely took note of his words as I grew up, inevitable perhaps with young men and older fathers. Would it be possible, I enquire, to turn back the clock and have but an hour in his company? To pick those sharp brains about his stretch in the wilderness (“oh, the years that the locusts have eaten”), experience afresh his overwhelming humanity, lavish in the splendour of his hospitality, or eavesdrop the brilliance of an ever-quotable tongue? He is gone, but my world is so much richer for having been in his.

Fellow songsters, with overtones of underdog and undertones of overdog, with whom perhaps I shall be kennelled between these covers, greetings! How ashamed we shall be to be seen in each other’s company!

Saul Wordsworth, December 2005.

With thanks to Ifor Nottingham and a doffing of the cap to the late Geoffrey Nicholson*.

* to read a more personal version of this essay as it appeared in The Guardian newspaper click here