11 December 2015

A visit to John Cowper Powys - by Clifford Tolchard

John Cowper Powys (1872-1963)

Clifford Tolchard (1908-1980) was Hilary Reynolds' maternal uncle, who emigrated to Australia in November 1962.

It was on a Saturday in the late autumn that I paid my first visit to John Cowper Powys at his home in Corwen, where he then lived. It was six-fifteen in the morning when I left Birmingham and still dark.
Most of the passengers on that early train were anglers going out into the country for a day's fishing. They carried bundles of rods and large square wicker-work baskets which served the double purpose of 'holdalls' and seats. After brief greetings they snuggled down in the corners of compartment and endeavoured to resume their interrupted slumbers. I was to excited to sleep and as it got lighter I amused myself by trying to pronounce and memorise the names of Welsh stations as we passed through them.
I had an hour to wait at Ruabon for the branch line train that would take me to Corwen. It was bitterly cold; far colder in the higher altitudes of Wales than it had been in Birmingham. Several other travellers waiting for connections walked up and down the platform stamping their feet or stood in corners in vain efforts to keep out of the icy wind.
I went and sat in the waiting room. There was of course no fire there but the cold was less rigorous than on the open platform. A porter was cleaning the windows there and we talked together as I ate two of my sandwiches. Later he accepted a mouthful of burgundy from my plastic cup: ''Just to try it, man,'' he said.

After a while I joined the other travellers in trying to keep warm by violent walking along the platform. The movement also helped to allay some of the nervousness I felt at meeting for the first time this author who, to me stood out above his contemporaries like a Triton among minnows.
Corwen Station in 1961
A friend of mine, a librarian, had suggested that perhaps it was not quite wise to risk visiting a writer for whom I had so great an admiration. Writers are so often a disappointment when you meet them, she said. They don't talk or act a bit like their books. But I was not worried about that. My main concern was that in my nervousness I should not say too many foolish things.
There were still two hours to go before the time of my appointment when I got out of the train at Corwen. My visit had been arranged for ''anytime after twelve o'clock,'' by which time Mr Powys would have returned from his customary morning walk. This walk is something of a ritual and nothing is allowed to interfere with it's accomplishment; it takes exactly two hours and is undertaken regardless of the state of the weather.

As I strolled around the little town I had the impression of being in a foreign country--I suppose a Welsh Nationalist would say that I was. All about me I could hear the Welsh language being spoken. Somehow I had not been prepared for that; my journey here had been entirely by land therefore it seemed natural to expect the people to be speaking in my own tongue. But there it was, and I felt foolishly surprised. I went into one shop to buy cigarettes and into another to purchase a handkerchief, an article I had forgotten to bring with me. The shopkeepers and their customers were gossiping in Welsh and when I appeared and proffered my requests in English they became silent, momentarily nonplussed and adverted to English with an effort, like a driver performing a difficult gear change on a car. I felt like an interloper, an alien. And I suspected that they meant me to feel like that.


John Cowper Powys with Clifford
Tolchard at Corwen in 1952
At ten minutes past twelve I turned into Cae Coed, the cul-de-sac where Mr Powys lived. No.7, like the others in the road is quite a small house, ''Jerry built, but very comfortably Jerry built'', is how he refered to it, and as I came level with it I was able to see from where I stood in the road clear into the front room. I could see Mr Powys, his hands clasped behind his head half lying on the couch he habitually uses in preference to a chair. Of course I had known for years what he looked like; nobody could mistake that 'cat head' and cropped skull; the head and features of 'Dud No-man', 'Jobber Skald', and 'John Crow', and Mr Powys knew me from photographs I had sent him. I saw him jump up and hurry from the room to open the door to me. Within seconds the door was flung open and I was enveloped in an almost overwhelming embrace and kissed on the cheek. And in those first brief moments I was made aware of his terrific vitality and nervous energy. It was I realized later the intensity of that super abundant energy that had provided the power and stamina necessary to produce that veritable masterpiece, 'A Glastonbury Romance'. And with more than eighty years behind him Mr Powys's exuberance remains unabated.
''My dear, Tolchard!'' he exclaimed, beaming and rubbing his hands as though welcoming and old friend. ''My dear, Tolchard, how good of you to come all this way''. And with his arms still round my shoulders he almost dragged me into the hall.
''But how smart you look,'' he said. I was wearing a new jacket and I remember being surprised that of all people should have noticed it or have bothered to comment on it. It is well known that Mr Powys has no regard for sartorial niceties.

There was a friend, a neighbour in the room into which he ushered me.  I was introduced and accommodated in an armchair. Mr Powys threw himself on his couch, jumped up, flung himself down again, his limbs never still, his features animated while all the time words poured from him in an exuberance torrent; he talks as he writes with a volubility, a flow that will not, cannot be checked.
Cowper Powys on his couch
I took from my bag and gave him a book that I had brought as a gift. It was a new Welsh dictionary that had just been published. It was a happy choice as at that time Mr Powys was going deeper into his study of the Welsh language. He seized the parcel from my hands and fumbled excitedly with the wrappings like an eager boy opening an birthday present. And when he saw what the book was he leapt off his couch and grasped both my hands: ''Oh, my dear, Tolchard, you are an angel! You really are,'' he exclaimed. And I thought how good it was in this sophisticated age to be capable of such enthusiasms at eighty years of age and to be able to vent them so unselfconsciously. But that is how Mr Powys is; completely unselfconscious and retaining as an octogenarian that gusto for life which has characterised each member of his family with the exception of his brother, Theodore Francis.
And then he decided that I too must have a book; a present from him. ''We will go upstairs directly and find something for you,'' he said. ''I have a book on Black Magic you might like. I hate it. I want to get it out of the house. I don't like having it here.'' And he laughed as though at his own squeamishness.

For years Mr Powys has been a non-smoker and his diet is the dullest thing imaginable; milk, cups of strong very sweet tea and bread. He did not mind he said how stale the bread was, even the most obdurate crust did not daunt him, and by movements of his mouth he demonstrated how he chumbled them up after dipping them in his tea. So while he lay on his couch drinking milk his friend and I ate sandwiches and drank sherry.
From time to time he checked his flow of talk to refill his glass with milk from a bottle that stood on the small table beside his couch so that while we sat there he completely finished a pint bottle.
Unfortunately without the aid of a tape machine--and how he would have hated that modern invention--it would impossible to record all the things Mr Powys said and animadverted upon; his restless mind ranged over so many topics and fancies, embroidering and enlarging upon them and included miniature lecture on the origins of the Welsh race. I recall him saying: ''They are not Celtic, you know, they are Iberian.'' He was quite dogmatic about it.
Phyllis Playter and John Cowper Powys

Then, during a pause in the talk, while he was perhaps changing from one subject to another, he remarked the tie I was wearing. Like my jacket it was a new one, probably a present. ''What a pretty tie that is you have, Tolchard,'' he said. He appealed to his friend, ''Is'nt that an attractive tie he has on?''
Without further ado I took it off and offered it to him; it seemed the natural thing to do. He accepted it happily without any of those hypercritical attempts at refusal that are the rule among ordinary people. And then, as with the book it was necessary that I have one of his to replace mine. ''I'll go and get one'', he said, and hurried out of the room. It was like swapping stamps or bird's eggs at school.
A few moments later Mr Powys returned carrying a cloth covered hoop trough which were draped about two dozen ties. I was amazed at their number and variety. He had, I wondered come by them all in the same way? I had always imagined him as a man who would have only one tie at a time and make that one last for at least twelve months. This galaxy of neckwear was an eye-opener.
I was instructed to choose one. ''And if it is one you can't have I'll tell you,'' he said. I picked one at random. ''No you can't have that one,'' Mr Powys said, ''choose another.'' I wondered what the story was behind his attachment to that particular tie. I dipped again and came up with a screaming tartan; no Scotsman would have owned it. My hand must have been drawn to it by the violence of it's colours. Apparently Mr Powys had no special regard for this one and I was allowed to keep it, at least until I got home and my wife saw it.
Cliffort Tolchard  in front of his house in Australia
[photo from Hilary Reynolds' private collection]

We had finished our sherry and sandwiches and Mr Powys's milk bottle was empty. Also the time was approaching when I should have to leave. He suggested that we should go and choose a book for myself from his shelves upstairs.
It was so cold outside the warm room in which we had been sitting that Mr Powys stopped for a moment in the hall to put on an overcoat before mounting to the unheated upper rooms where most of his books were kept. I had time while he was adjusting his coat to look round the hall and I noticed his unique collection of walking sticks standing in one corner. Sticks, like many other inanimate objects have always played an important part in his life, and in his writing, too. More than one of his chief characters, John Crow in 'A Glastonbury Romance', Dud No=Man in 'Maiden Castle' and Wolf Solent had each carried one of these great misshapen cudgels with gnarled handles made smooth bu use. And had there not at one time been a favourite stick of his own, a 'magic stick' called 'sacred'?


The Powys Family (late 1890s)
Marian, Albert, Charles Francis (father), John Cowper,
Theodore,
Philippa (Katie), Littleton, Mary Cowper (mother), 

Margaret, Gertrude,Llewelyn, William, Lucy.
It was not a large room into which Mr Powys took me and it was full of personal treasures. It was a room that did not appear to be used a great deal. Besides his books and some pictures there were many photographs of his family; the whole egregious Powys clan, solus and in groups. And in the middle of a wall of photographs hung the white death mask of his brother, Llewellyn.
Swiftly, vividly, with his writer's touch he sketched brief histories of each of these relatives as we stood in front of their likenesses. And his engaging chuckle kept breaking in contagiously as he recounted some Rabelasion (sic.) anecdote of the past.
Regarding the photograph of his brother, Theodore Francis, with his tight mouth and grim visage I said that I thought that I should have been rather afraid of meeting him; he looked so forbidding and unapproachable. ''O, you would'', Mr Powys said. ''you would. He frightened Thomas Hardy. Hardy quite jumped when Theo' came into the room''. And he gave a little jump and a grunt himself to show how Hardy had been affected by the sudden appearance of his brother. ''But Mrs Hardy got on with him splendidly'', Mr Powys said. ''She quite liked him''. We chose a book, or rather four books--he insisted on my having them all--although I wondered how I was going to carry them all the way back to Birmingham. We took them downstairs for Mr Powys to inscribe them.
Cowper Powys at  Corwen

And then it was time for me to go.
With difficulty we packed the books into my small case. Around my neck I now wore the eye-filling tartan tie. Mr Powys accompanied me to the door and there embraced me and repeated his kiss on my cheek exhorting me to come again whenever I felt so inclined.
At the bottom of the road I stopped to look back before turning the corner. And there standing in the doorway of his modest house, John Cowper Powys, the author of 'Jobber Skald', 'Owen Glendower' and those two masterpieces: 'Wolf Solent' and 'A Glastonbury Romance', was smiling and waving me goodbye.


Clifford Tolchard.
165 Mansel Road. Birmingham. 10 

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