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Thursday, 23 April 2015

POET OF THE MONTH #27: Adam Zagajewski



Night is a cistern.  Owls sing.  Refugees tread meadow roads
with the loud rustling of endless grief.
Who are you, walking in this worried crowd.
And who will you become, who will you be
when day returns, and ordinary things circle round.

Night is a cistern.  The last pairs dance at a country ball.
High waves cry from the sea, the wind rocks pines.
An unknown hand draws the dawn's first stroke.
Lamps fade, a motor chokes.
Before us, life's path, and instants of astronomy.

2006 (?)

Translated by CLARE CAVANAGH

The Poet:  Adam Zagajewski was born in what was then the eastern Polish city of Lwów (known as 'Lviv' in Ukrainian) on 21 June 1945.  He spent very little time here, however, as the conquering Soviets soon annexed the region to the USSR and deported its Polish-speaking inhabitants to cities in what became the newly established Soviet-bloc country of Poland.  Zagajewski spent his childhood in the Silesian town of Gliwice and attended Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where he obtained degrees in psychology and philosophy before working briefly at the same institution as a teaching assistant.  It was during his time at university that his first poems were published in the student literary magazines he helped to found and edit.

Zagajewski first rose to prominence as a member of the Kraków Nowa Fala [New Wave], a pioneering group of young Polish poets otherwise known as 'the '68 Generation' whose work dealt with the everyday realities of living in a Communist regime and directly engaged with the numerous political, economic and social upheavals of their time.  His first collection of poems, Komunikat [Communiqué], was published in Kraków in 1972 and was followed by the collections Sklepy mięsne [Meat Shops, 1975] and Wiersze [Work, 1976].  During this period he also published his first novel, Ciepło, zimno [Warm and Cold, 1975], a coming of age tale about a young intellectual torn between political activism and conformity as he struggles to meet the challenges of ordinary adult life.  These works and Zagajewski's outspoken support for new protest movements like Solidarity brought him into conflict with the Polish authorities and in the early 1980s he relocated to Berlin, ultimately going on to settle in Paris in 1982.  

His decision to leave Poland made it impossible for him to have his work published in that country, obliging him to distribute it secretly in samizdat form - small runs of mimeographed or photocopied booklets that were passed from hand to hand so as not to alert the authorities to their existence.  Zagajewski's work did not 'officially' reappear in Poland until 2002, when the publication of Płótno [Canvas] marked his return to his native land following two decades of self-imposed political and artistic exile.

Since returning to Kraków Zagajewski has divided his time between writing and teaching, spending part of each year in the United States at the University of Chicago and then as a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Houston.  In addition to being nominated for the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, he's also been the recipient of numerous other honours and awards including the Berliner Kunstlerprogramm, the Kurt Tucholsky Prize, a Prix de la Liberté and a Guggenheim Fellowship.  In addition to writing and teaching, he currently co-edits the Polish literary magazine Zeszyty literackie (Literary Review).

Click HERE to read more poetry by ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI at The Poetry Foundation website.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #3: Wislawa Szymborska
POET OF THE MONTH #9: Julian Tuwim
POET OF THE MONTH #20: Anna Swirszczynska 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

'STRIKE ME LUCKY!' Remembering Roy Rene

ROY RENE as 'MO', c. 1946

Mo had no sense of humour.
  He had a sense of fun and a superb sense of comedy that put him on top of the comedy pile in Australia for nearly fifty years, and on stage he was one of the funniest men in the world.  He could get a laugh by a leer, a raised eyebrow or a sideways glance, and he could do practically anything he liked with an audience.  He could make them laugh and he could make them cry.  He loved to make them cry, because that exploited his gift for pathos, of which he was so proud.  Referring to rival comics, he'd say, 'The other mugs can't do that, can they, pal?  They haven't got my lovely pathos.'
  But his sense of humour was practically non-existent.

A Man Called Mo (1973)

He had haunted brown eyes, a large beaked nose, thick rubbery lips and always wore a painted-on black beard.  His stage attire was that of the traditional British music hall or American vaudeville comedian - a checkered suit, clunky oversized boots, a battered hat and even a flouncy woman's dress if the sketch he was appearing in required him to wear one.  But it was his voice that was his most characteristic feature and, many agreed, his greatest natural asset as a performer.  'It was high-pitched,' according to his friend, long-time scriptwriter and biographer Fred Parsons, 'with a lisp that would develop into a liquid splutter.  It was a voice that would make the most banal line sound funny.'

It was also a voice that nearly every Australian man, woman and child instantly recognized and unreservedly adored between July 1916, when the new comedy team known as 'Stiffy and Mo' made their stage debut at Sydney's Princess Theatre, and 22 November 1954 when its owner - Roy Rene, better known as 'Mo McCackie' or just plain 'Mo' - finally succumbed to heart disease at home in his bed in the Sydney suburb of Kensington.  For nearly forty years Rene (pronounced 'Reen' to rhyme with 'bean') had been the nation's favourite clown, an iconic figure in Australian showbusiness whose decidedly working class language and pugnacious demeanour made him the darling of those he affectionately, if not always respectfully, referred to as 'his mob.' 

ROY RENE, 1915
The great irony of Rene's success was that he was the son of a Jewish immigrant ('a New Australian' as they would patronizingly be known in the post-World War Two era), a Dutch-born cigar maker named Hyam van der Sluys whose most fervent wish was that the fourth of his seven children would one day take over the family business.  But young Harry, born in Adelaide on 15 February 1891 and legally known as 'Harry Sluice' for the rest of his life, had other ideas.  At the age of ten, without bothering to inform either of his parents that he was doing it, he entered a local singing contest and won it.  (Offered the choice of ten shillings or a duck as his prize, the boy chose the duck, later selling it for twelve shillings and earning himself a two shilling profit.)  He turned professional shortly afterwards, performing a duet with the female star of the pantomime Sinbad the Sailor at Adelaide's Theatre Royal under the name 'Boy Roy, the Singing Soprano.'  This led to further engagements in charity concerts and, by the time he was thirteen, to another professional singing job, this time wearing blackface make-up in the then-popular minstrel style, at the Adelaide Tivoli.  His father's decision to move the family east to Melbourne shortly afterwards did nothing to dampen the boy's enthusiasm for the stage.  After working for a few weeks as an apprentice jockey - fostering an interest in horse racing he'd retain all his life courtesy of his brothers, both of whom went on to become successful bookmakers - he was once again treading the boards, singing at the Bijou Theatre for Rickards Circuit manager Frank M Clark for the tidy sum (in 1904) of ₤3 per week.

It was Mother Nature, in the unpredictable form of puberty, which transformed Harry Sluice from featured boy vocalist into a fledgling knockabout comic.  At sixteen his voice broke, ending overnight the promising if not exactly glittering career of 'The Singing Soprano.'  Having had ample opportunity to study the work of the many internationally famous and less well-known local comedians who passed through The Bijou and other Melbourne theatres each week he decided that he too could 'do that' and set about reinventing himself as a comic.  

In 1910 he came to the attention of Melbourne impresario James Brennan, who liked his act enough to book him for his National Amphitheatre in Sydney as 'Roy Rene,' his newly-chosen stage name.  (Rene was the name of a famous French clown whose act he'd seen and admired as a boy.)  He had no trouble finding steady work with the National and other variety circuits - this was the pre-television, pre-radio, pre-cinema era, when every neighbourhood in every Australian city was home to at least one theatre providing live entertainment to the masses twice a day with prices starting at sixpence - and was soon performing regularly in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide throughout 1911 and 1912, diversifying by occasional accepting minor roles in 'straight' theatrical plays.  In 1912 he came to the attention of Benjamin and John Fuller, owners of the Fuller Circuit of theatres, due to his popular (and allegedly unplanned) impersonation of famed American 'Hebrew' comedian Julian Rose.  The Fullers liked him enough to send him 'across the pond' to New Zealand, where he worked in its four major cities for most of that year.  After returning to Australia he finally succeeded in meeting influential booker Harry Clay, for whom he worked in various parts of the country, both urban and rural, until the end of 1914 when the Fullers re-hired him for a touring company being formed by brother and sister 'musical comedians' Albert and Maud Bletsoe. 

Back in Sydney after appearing with the Bletsoe troupe in Brisbane, and working again at the Fuller-owned National Theatre on Castlereagh Street, Rene suddenly found himself in the employ of a new manager named Nat Phillips - a writer, director, singer, acrobat and fellow clown who had been summoned east from Adelaide by the Fullers to take over the Bletsoe 'revusical' (a combination of revue and musical) after Albert and Maud departed in order to pursue 'new opportunities.'  Phillips immediately formed a new troupe composed almost entirely of performers who were already under contract to the Fuller brothers, retaining only two from the now-disbanded Bletsoe troupe.  

One of these retained performers was the twenty-five year old Roy Rene.  It was Philips - ten years his senior and, unlike him, a performer who had found success both in Britain and on the Continent - who decided that he and Roy should team up to form a double act.  Dissatisfied with the name 'Phillips and Rene,' they were still struggling to find a better alternative when the doorman of the Sydney Tivoli suggested that they might like to give the names 'Stiffy and Mo' a try.  They performed together as these characters in what was billed as 'Nat Phillips' Tabloid Musical Comedy Company,' a name that soon changed to 'Nat Phillips' Stiffy and Mo Revue Company' and then to simply 'Stiffy and Mo.'    

Theatre poster, 1921
Phillips and Rene were a sensation and their success as a team was instantaneous.  As historian Clay Djubal noted in his 2006 PhD dissertation:  'Much of the popularity accorded Stiffy and Mo was due not only to the comic situations they found themselves embroiled in but also because audiences recognized in them the traits of an Australian character type that both typified and celebrated the nationalistic ideals being infused into the wartime Australian identity - namely mateship, loyalty, egalitarianism, larrikin attitudes (including practical jokes on mates) and an outright refusal to bow to authority figures.  As the first truly urban Australian characters to be developed on the variety stage Stiffy and Mo not only captured the Australian popular culture's imagination but also played a significant role in boosting the popularity of the new Australian revusical genre which had begun to emerge around 1914/1915.  Much of the duo's success, too, can be put down to the rapport which allowed them to work off each other in both written and improvised scenes.'  The outbreak of World War One also played a crucial role in consolidating the team's popularity, with Australians looking more and more to homegrown talent to fill the gap created by the enforced absence of imported British and American artists.

But the partnership, successful though it was, was not without its tensions.  Phillips was more or less the brains behind the operation, writing its sketches and developing, in the character of Stiffy, what was the first recognizably Australian comic figure to appear on an Australian stage.  (He wore a South Sydney football jersey as part of his costume, an addition which no doubt endeared him to his urban working class audience, many of whom lived in this socially-deprived area and supported the mighty Rabbitohs.)  Unusually for the time, he and Rene did not work as 'straight man' and 'comic,' but as equals, provoking and sharing the laughs jointly between them.  Although they remained partners until 1928 - with a two year hiatus between 1925-1927 caused by what was alleged to be a misunderstanding about money which saw Rene resume his solo career and even accept a 'legit' part as a factory foreman in the play Give and Take, a role he by all accounts excelled in - it was his performance as the obviously Jewish and linguistically-challenged Mo which began to attract the lion's share of attention from audiences and critics.  His final split with Phillips, when it came in 1928, was less the result of personal acrimony than their shared belief that the partnership had begun to grow stale and the time had come to go their separate ways.  Although plans were later made for the pair to reunite for one last tour, these were abruptly curtailed by Phillips' death in June 1932.

Click HERE to listen to The Sailors, the one and only gramophone recording made by STIFFY AND MO in 1927.  (This clip is part of the online collection of THE NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE.)

Rene found himself leading his own company by the middle of 1928, appearing in a show called Mo's Merry Monarch's at the same Fuller Circuit theatre on Castlereagh Street in Sydney in which Stiffy and Mo had first captured the hearts  of Australian audiences more than a decade earlier.  One of the featured vocalists in the show was a 'sloe-eyed, dainty brunette' named Sadie Gale who, like him, had been performing professionally since childhood.  Their paths had originally crossed in 1913, but it wasn't until Ms Gale was hired to join the touring company of the 1927 Stiffy and Mo 'comeback' tour that Rene found himself falling head over heels in love with her.  The problem, according to Fred Parsons, was that 'she couldn't stand a bar of him...How he managed to change her mind has never been clearly explained, except that he enlisted the support of her mother - 'Mumma' to him.'  

Naturally, Rene wanted to marry his darling Sadie, but there was a hitch - he already had a wife, an actress named Dot Davis whom he'd impulsively married in March 1917 and had been working with in the Stiffy and Mo revue ever since.  Once a well-publicized divorce had been obtained from Ms Davis, he was free to make Sadie the second Mrs Harry Sluice, which he did on 3 July 1929 in a ceremony held in her flat at 11pm, immediately after the curtain had fallen on that day's final performance.  Theirs was to be a happy marriage which, in a few years, would produce a son named Sam and a daughter named Mylo.  Sadie also became her husband's preferred if infrequent performing partner, appearing with him in many of the 'vulgar' sketches for which he was now becoming increasingly famous all around the country.  Their happiness threatened to be short-lived, however, when Rene became seriously ill with peritonitis while he and Sadie were touring in north Queensland, forcing him to undergo an emergency operation in Melbourne three months after they opened there in a new 'straight' play titled Clowns in Clover.  While the operation saved his life, it also kept him off the stage for six months and left him with a badly scarred stomach that forced him, from then on, to wear a specially-designed medical corset.  'He was inordinately proud of this scarified stomach,' Parsons remembered, 'and would show it to anyone interested at the drop of a corset.'

But dropping corsets was not the primary topic of discussion for anyone in Australia or, indeed, in the rest of the world in 1930.  Along with every other Australian business, the entertainment business found itself severely affected by the Depression, with audience numbers diminishing to the point where it was impossible for Rene's comeback show - a revue called Pot Luck which again opened in Melbourne in June - to earn enough for its producers to make a profit on it or come close to recouping their original investment.  Financial necessity saw Rene and Sadie undertake a tour of Hoyts' suburban picture theatres (a big comedown for two such seasoned stage performers, with 'movies' definitely being seen as the inferior and, as most of them believed at the time, transitory form of entertainment) and a brief tour of New Zealand in order to keep themselves employed.  By 1931 they were back in Sydney, opening together in a new show at that city's New Haymarket Theatre which aimed to attract audiences by keeping ticket prices low and changing its program daily instead of weekly.  

The gamble worked, with the show's manager Mike Connors soon taking over the nearby Sydney Opera House (no, not the famous one on the harbour built in the 1970s, but the original one on George Street built in the nineteenth century) and renaming it the Sydney Tivoli.  Rene performed here and then returned to Melbourne to appear in yet another revue called Brighter Days at his old stamping ground The Bijou.  'To those who could afford to see it,' Fred Parsons recalled, 'it offered two-and-a-half hours of comedy, music and pretty girls.  It - and similar shows - played their part in making the unemployed forget how miserable they were.  On the stage, they saw a seedy character called Mo who was obviously as broke as they were.  They saw him apply for a job, and then lose it because he back-chatted the boss.  They saw him order drinks that he had no hope of paying for, and they laughed when he suffered the consequences...And in those times a good laugh could help you forget that you had no job to go to the next morning.'

It was the 1930s that saw Rene come into his own as both a comedian and a national icon, perfecting a unique, very broad style of irreverent working-class humour which mischievously thumbed its nose at everything that was polite, authoritarian and 'posh' and seemed tailormade for those enduring the worst effects of the Depression.  (The wowsers deemed Rene's act to be 'vulgar' and even 'dirty' on occasion, earning him an undeserved reputation as a purveyor of smut that proved virtually impossible to shake off in later years as fact increasingly gave way to hearsay and unsubstantiated rumour.)  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rene worked steadily throughout the Depression, appearing in one show after another as either its principal comedian or as an ever-popular 'featured act.'  In 1934 he also starred in Strike Me Lucky! - the title was one of his most popular catchphrases - his first and only film directed by pioneering Australian director Ken G Hall.  He was persuaded to grow a real beard for his Cinesound debut but the film, while entertaining and occasionally threatening to become even more than that, failed to capture the essence of what made him such a gifted and memorable vaudevillian (although it did provide him with a few Chaplinesque scenes in which he was given free rein to display his 'lovely pathos').  Film was not his medium.  His comedy was fed by the reaction of his 'mob' and without them much of what made him so funny and so beloved by his audience was lost.

Australian film poster, 1934

Click HERE to watch three short clips from Strike Me Lucky, the 1934 film starring ROY RENE and directed by pioneering Australian filmmaker KEN G HALL.  (These clips are part of the online collection of AUSTRALIAN SCREEN, which is operated by THE NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE.)

By 1936 he was back at the Tivoli, working for the great Wallace Parnell, a recent English import (and brother of Val Parnell, world-famous manager of the London Palladium) who would, over the next eight years, prove to be its most successful manager.  Joining the Tivoli company was a major turning point in Rene's career and also the making of it in many ways.  The Tivoli Circuit was the most prestigious variety circuit in Australia at that time, featuring both the best local performers and many of the top music hall and vaudeville acts imported directly (and exclusively) from Britain and the USA.  It was a style of show - fast-paced, sketch-based, filled with pretty ballet girls and well-orchestrated musical interludes - that suited both his temperament and his indecorous style of comedy, although he hit a snag in the fact that Parnell's boss, an ex-comedian named Frank Neil, bore him a longstanding grudge.  (This may have been inspired by jealousy, as Neil's own career as a comedian had not been successful.)  Neil refused to re-sign Rene when his contact expired in 1939 and Parnell, as the manager rather than the booker of the show, was powerless to stop him from letting his top star slip through his fingers.  The good news, at least for Rene, was that he had plenty of other offers waiting for him and was immediately re-signed by Parnell following Neil's death in a car accident on New Year's Eve.  Rene remained at the Tivoli until 1945, helping to fill the almost insatiable demand for entertainment created by the outbreak of World War Two and the arrival of thousands of American GIs on Australian shores.  

The end of World War Two also saw the end of what is now considered to be the Golden Age of Australian variety.  With the Pacific now free of Japanese ships and foreign talent once again easy to import, the Tivoli's new manager David N Martin reinstated its pre-1939 policy of hiring big-name acts from overseas to star in its shows.  This meant that there was less incentive to hire the local acts which had kept audiences laughing and happy throughout the war years.  (Nor did it help matters that there was no one there to champion their cause following the resignation of Wallace Parnell in 1944.)  Unbelievably, one of the first casualties of Martin's anti-Australian hiring policy was Roy Rene, whose Tivoli contract was not renewed when it expired at the end of 1945.  

Thankfully, Rene had already tested the waters in what, as the decade wore on, became its most important and popular entertainment medium - radio.  He recorded sixty short comedy spots for an independent producer during the war years which, while not particularly funny by his standards, had been popular enough to prompt the Australian Broadcasting Commission to commission two thirteen episode serials starring the Mo character.  Like his previous radio work, both The Misadventures of Mo and Sherlock Mo were written by his regular stage writer Fred Parsons, who was under no illusions as to their quality or their ability to capture the true essence of Rene's comedic genius.  Rene, unfazed by this, went back to performing his two shows a day at the Tivoli, putting the radio experience out of his mind until 1946 when his flirtation with the increasingly popular medium suddenly assumed a new significance.  Without a regular Tivoli contract to sustain him, he was faced with the choice of either going out on tour again - something he hadn't been obliged to do since the late 1920s - or accepting an offer from radio producer Ron Beck to join the cast of two radio variety programs titled, respectively, Colgate Cavalcade and Calling The Stars

In March 1946 the Sydney newspaper The Telegraph reported that audiences would not be able to see Mo on stage 'for at least a year.  He has signed a contract,' the story revealed, 'to appear exclusively for the Colgate-Palmolive Radio Unit.'  With all his material once again written exclusively for him by Parsons, it did not take Rene long to find his feet as a radio performer - a transition aided by the fact that, unlike his previous radio work, both Colgate Cavalcade and Calling The Stars were broadcast 'live' in front of a studio audience.  The enthusiastic response to his appearances on these programs gave Parsons the idea to write a regular weekly ten minute sketch for him that he decided to call McCackie Mansion.   

Debuting on Tuesday 8 July 1947, McCackie Mansion soon became the most popular segment of Calling The Stars and, within a few months, the most popular comedy program, bar none, on Australian radio - a short, sometimes surreal excursion to 'Number Thirteen Coffin Street' where Mo lived with his cheeky son Young Harry (Harry Griffiths) and was regularly visited by his greedy brother-in-law 'Orrible 'Erbie (Jack Burgess), his annoying neighbour Lasho (Don Lashwood) and a pseudo-refined, frail-voiced 'gent' known as Spencer the Garbageman (Harry Avondale).  There were no female characters in the cast and the humour was outrageously camp for its time, with Mo finding what many thought to be his perfect comic foil in the delicate, oh-so-refined Spencer (whose surname was eventually revealed to be Smellie).  The show proved so popular that it allowed Rene to make a brief return to the stage in 1949, headlining in a new revue titled McCackie Mo-ments at the King's Theatre in Melbourne.  But it was McCackie Mansion that made 'Mo McCackie' a household name to millions of Australians and introduced Rene to a new generation of fans, many of whom had not been born when he'd been packing them in at the Tivoli twice a day.  McCackie Mansion ran every Tuesday night until 1951 - when Colgate-Palmolive stopped sponsoring variety programs to focus on sponsoring the game shows most housewives had begun to prefer - and introduced many distinctive expressions to the Australian vocabulary, including the still widely-used 'Pull your head in!' and 'Cop this!'.  Other favourites included the perennial 'Strike me lucky!', 'You dirty, filthy beast!' and 'Fair suck of the saveloy!'.  But there was a social message lurking beneath the flamboyant surface of Rene's comedy, best captured in this statement made by poet (and his soon-to-be ghostwriter) Max Harris:  'There he would be, leering, spitting, expostulating, and celebrating every ugly vulgarity to be found in a society rich only in inhibitions, self-delusions and respectable hypocrisies.  You can laugh at the grotesque in front of you, he seemed to be saying, laugh at the sub-human stage Jew, but he is you.  And I’m going to prove it.  And he did.  He and his audience laughed at the worst in themselves.'

McCackie Mansion
DON LASHWOOD (Lasho); JACK BURGESS ('Orrible 'Erbie)
HARRY AVONDALE (Spencer the Garbageman)
Radio Program - Performed & recorded live c. 1948

Rene was too beloved an entertainer to remain absent from the nation's airwaves for long.  Although a proposed series for the ABC, provisionally titled McCackie Manor, failed to get the green light he was back on-air by March 1952, performing every Saturday night in The New Atlantic Show alongside actress Patricia Shay and compére Pat Hodgins.  Unfortunately, his failing health soon forced him to quit the show and, following a May 1953 heart-attack which left him re-confined to the bed he'd been so eager to leave just twelve months before, retire from showbusiness altogether.  He performed one last time on radio, returning to the Macquarie Auditorium in Sydney from which so many episodes of McCackie Mansion had been broadcast, to make a final cameo appearance on his old programIronically, he appeared not as Mo but as himself, giving a brief speech in honour of a newly-established charitable foundation known as the Elizabethan Theatre Trust.  It was 'one for the mugs' and failed to earn him a single laugh - a fact which struck Fred Parsons, who also attended the broadcast, as being more than a little sad.  'I knew that Alan Clive [an impressionist] signed off by saying "All the voices you heard tonight were supplied by me...all except the dog."  Roy was at the side, waiting,' Parsons remembered in 1973.  'As Alan said, "All except the dog," Roy shuffled on stage and said, "That was me."  The audience yelled, and I'm glad that they did, because it was the very last laugh that Roy ever got.'

Nimrod Theatre poster by MARTIN SHARP, 1978
The passing of Roy Rene on 22 November 1954 closed the book on what had arguably been the most innovative era of Australian comedy until its university/television-inspired resurgence in the early 1980s.  Unfortunately, Rene is largely a forgotten figure these days despite the fact that the nation's most prestigious (if least publicized) live performance award was named 'the Mo Award' in his honour in 1976.  Remarkably little of his film and radio work survives and what little does survive remains commercially unavailable - a situation all too indicative of Australia's reluctance to preserve, celebrate or even acknowledge the contribution made to our cultural heritage by men like him and his fellow 'star' comedians (and closest rivals) George Wallace and Jim Gerald.  Few people below the age of seventy realize who these performers were or how crucial their work was to the formation of what is now considered to be 'the Australian sense of humour.'  Rene's influence, while far from being a visible or pervasive one, can still be detected in the irreverent comedy of performers as different from him (and from each other) as Barry Humphries, Graham Kennedy, Paul Hogan, Wendy Harmer and Paul Fenech.  But perhaps the finest tribute of all came from actor Garry McDonald - best known for his hilarious Norman Gunston character and for his work in the prize-winning 1980s sitcom Mother and Son - who impersonated him (with fellow actor John Gaden playing the role of Stiffy) in a brilliant theatre piece titled Mo which premiered at Sydney's Nimrod Theatre in 1978A bronze statue of Rene was recently unveiled in Adelaide, the city of his birth, but it's another irony that it was perhaps the one city in the country where his popularity never reached the heights it did in the nation's eastern capitals.

It's tempting to speculate what might have happened to Rene had he taken the advice of many of those he worked with and tried his luck on the US vaudeville circuit or in the British music halls.  He certainly had his fans in these countries, with American comic legend Jack Benny and the notable English actress Dame Sybil Thorndike both declaring, after seeing his act at the Tivoli in the 1940s, that he was among the very greatest stage comedians they had ever seen anywhere.  Benny went so far as to state that, in his opinion, Roy Rene belonged in the same class as Chaplin - the only one of his fellow clowns, incidentally, that the famously egotistical Rene was ever heard to praise.  According to Fred Parsons, he was never eager to try his luck overseas.  When one of his sisters, who lived in the US and reminded him how much a successful comedian could earn over there, pressed him to take the plunge and book himself a ticket to Los Angeles Rene allegedly shook his head and said, 'Turn it up, love.  Look what happened to Les Darcy and Phar Lap.  They might make it a treble.'  He died, of course, two years before television reached Australia, but it's not hard to agree with Parsons's statement that 'television wasn't made for Roy, nor he for it...In a way I'm glad he didn't live to try it.  He knew very few failures, and the majority of these were in his days as a battler.  He was fortunate that he went when still a big name, still an idol...Luckily for Roy, no one ever referred to him as a has-been.  I don't think he could have stood that.'   The sad thing is that he's now in danger of becoming exactly that - a man who's remembered, if he is at all, as a minor relic of a bygone era rather than as the major, incredibly gifted performer who stretched the boundaries of Australian comedy even as he helped to create and define it.

As stated, very little of the work of ROY RENE has been preserved and what little of it has been preserved remains, for now at least, commercially unavailable.  THE NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE is currently the only available source for his work, excepting the seven minute YouTube clip of McCackie Mansion featured above.

William Heinemann Australia Pty Ltd, 1973
The life of ROY RENE has been documented twice.  Mo's Memoirs - an allegedly self-penned illustrated autobiography 'edited' by poets MAX HARRIS and ELISABETH LAMBERT - was published by the Melbourne firm of Reed & Harris in 1945.  (Most historians now believe that LAMBERT and HARRIS, who earned a different sort of notoriety as the principal victim of the infamous 'Ern Malley' hoax which shook Australian literature to its core in that same year, ghostwrote the book for him.)  This memoir remained the sole source of biographical information about RENE until the publication of FRED PARSONS' A Man Called Mo by William Heinemann Australia Pty Ltd in 1973.  While neither book can be considered 'definitively reliable' in terms of the information it provides or its historical accuracy, each offers an entertaining glimpse into what is a long-vanished, never-to-be-repeated era of Australian showbusiness and, for that reason alone, remains a valuable cultural document in its own right.  Secondhand copies of both books can be found on the Amazon-owned ABE Books website by clicking HERE and HERE.

The best source of information about the early career of ROY RENE, including a well-researched examination of his 'Stiffy and Mo' partnership with NAT PHILLIPS, can be found at THE AUSTRALIAN VARIETY THEATRE ARCHIVE, which can be visited by clicking HERE.  Another useful source of corroborating (if sometimes conflicting) biographical information is the ROY RENE page at the AustLit website, which can be visited by clicking HERE.

The 'MO' Award, 2010
The MO AWARDS continue to be presented each May in recognition of outstanding achievement in Australian live performance.  There are currently twenty-four categories, including a 'Mo Comedy Act of the Year,' and winners are presented with a statuette modelled after the ceremony's namesake.  Those interested in learning more about the MO AWARDS can do so by clicking HERE.  

FRED PARSONS went on to have a highly successful career in television throughout the 1960s and 1970s, writing many episodes of the popular crime dramas Homicide and Division 4 in addition to serving as principal gag writer for Australian comedy legend GRAHAM KENNEDY during the comedian's long tenure as host of the controversial (and sometimes scandalous) late night variety show In Melbourne Tonight.  (KENNEDY repaid him by contributing a short but heartfelt foreword to A Man Called Mo.)  Every year the AUSTRALIAN WRITERS' GUILD presents a special prize known as THE FRED PARSONS AWARD to an Australian screen or television writer deemed to have made an 'Outstanding Contribution to Australian Comedy.'  The recipient of the 2014 Award was ANDREW DENTON.

I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can provide additional information about the life and career of ROY RENE (and especially from anyone with copies of McCackie Mansion and Strike Me Lucky they might be willing to share with me).  I would also be grateful to hear from anyone with information to provide about the life and career of GEORGE WALLACE and the other forgotten stars of Australian variety and pre-1950s cinema.  Please see my FAQ page above to find out how to contact me.

'Don't be such an nwarp.'

'An nwarp?  What's that?'

'That's a prawn spelled backwards!'

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MADELEINE ST JOHN The Women in Black (1993)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

THINK ABOUT IT #3: Phyllis Rose

More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it’s just a bookshelf.  Make a stab in the dark.  Read off the beaten path.  Your attention is precious.  Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it.  Confront your own values.  Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it.  Perform connoisseurship.  We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.

The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (2014)


Click HERE to read a review of The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (2014) on the fascinating 'forgotten literature' site The Neglected Books Page.


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THINK ABOUT IT #1: Rollo May

Thursday, 2 April 2015

FORD MADOX FORD A Call: The Tale of Two Passions (1910)

Carcanet Press Limited UK, 1984

She came near, and stood over him, looking down.  'Robert,' she said gravely, 'who is of our day and our class?  Are you?  Or am I?  Why are your hands shaking like that, or why did I just now call you "my dear"?  We've got to face the fact that I called you "my dear".  Then, don't you see, you can't be of our day and our class.  And as for me, wasn't it really because Dudley wasn't faithful to me that I've let myself slide near you?  I haven't made a scandal or any outcry about Dudley Leicester.  That's our day and that's our class.  But look at all the difference it's made in our personal relations!  Look at the misery of it all!  That's it.  We can make a day and a class and rules for them, but we can't keep any of the rules except just the gross ones like not making scandals.'

The Book:  In his 1972 biography of English novelist, poet, essayist and editor Ford Madox Ford, US critic Arthur Mizener opens his discussion of this 1910 novel - the author's eleventh, published nearly a decade before he legally changed his surname from 'Hueffer' to 'Ford' - with the following statement:  'A Call is at once a tribute to Henry James and a declaration of independence from him, the first of Ford's novels that is explicitly "An Affair" with Ford's typical progression d'effet, the slowly accelerated revelation of motive and meaning in a series of carefully dramatic scenes.'  The key words in this statement, as they are in almost every discussion of this writer's work, are 'motive' and 'meaning.'  As is the case with what are now generally considered to be his masterpieces - The Good Soldier (1915) and the four novel sequence collectively known as Parade's End (1924-1928) - neither motive nor meaning are clear to the protagonists as the story opens and only become so as it progresses and their beliefs about themselves and the society whose rules they strive but ultimately fail to live by are revealed to be the hypocritical and self-destructive illusions they are.

A Call is ostensibly the story of Robert Grimshaw, a man who, with the notable exception of 'his engagement to Katya Lascarides and its rupture,' appears to be the model of the refined, honourable and unflappable English gentleman.  Of mixed Greek and English heritage, he lives a privileged if lonely and rather spartan life in London, where he fills his days attending to his various business interests and doting on his pet dachshund and his evenings dining out at the homes of his friends - a group that includes his cousin Ellida Langham, sister of Katya, and a newly-married couple, Dudley and Pauline Leicester, whom he was instrumental in bringing together. 

Grimshaw's relationship with Katya, his Greek-born cousin by marriage, has been in emotional deadlock since she inexplicably chose to break off their engagement - a break that occurred not because they ceased to love each other but because the strong-willed Katya preferred to follow the example of her adored and recently deceased mother who, for what are rightly described as 'obscure' reasons, chose to live in sin with her father rather than become his wife.  Katya will 'belong' to Grimshaw, and do so gladly, but not if 'belonging' to him means she's also forced to marry him.  Nor does she need to become his wife for financial reasons.  Following a nervous breakdown triggered by her mother's death - a traumatic event closely followed by the death of her father, the man responsible for bringing up Grimshaw as well following the deaths of his parents when he was a boy - she has become a practicing psychotherapist whose reputation has recently seen her invited to the United States to assist in the treatment of patients confined to a Philadelphia sanitarium.  Faced with the choice of conforming for appearances' sake or obeying the dictates of his own lonely heart, Grimshaw has chosen the former course of action, as determined to bring Katya round to his conventional way of thinking as she is to defy him.

Their unresolved relationship also explains Grimshaw's interest in Pauline Lucas, the young woman who has recently become the wife of his former Oxford classmate and somewhat feckless protégé Dudley Leicester.  The daughter of a sailor turned unsuccessful businessman, Pauline was working as a governess when Grimshaw originally met her, barely earning enough to keep herself and her sick mother from being packed off to the poorhouse.  Grimshaw immediately appointed himself the girl's protector, untangling her father's complicated financial affairs and, in time, introducing her to Leicester - a wealthy landowner who, while likeable, has no idea how to manage his estate or, indeed, how to run his own life.  Their marriage has served three purposes.  It has provided Pauline with a husband whose personality she can 'shape' and 'improve,' Leicester with the stability and companionship required to transform him into the man his wealth and social position demand he should become and Grimshaw, who had found himself increasingly attracted to the girl despite being informally engaged to his cousin, with a reason to remain 'free' to marry Katya if and when she ever returns to England.

But Grimshaw failed to take into account what the sudden reappearance of a woman named Etta Hudson in Leicester's life would have upon his friend.  Etta, now Lady Hudson, had been Leicester's 'first and very ardent passion,' a wilful and acquisitive girl whom everyone in their circle had expected him to marry until her flirtatious nature led him to abruptly terminate their relationship.  Meeting her again by a chance at a dinner party - a social engagement not attended by Pauline, who is away caring for her soon-to-be dead mother - Leicester finds himself escorting her home through London's empty moonlit streets, happy to be arguing with her again about certain letters they exchanged and the pet name he used to call her by.  Conscious of the fact that her power over him remains undiminished - and allegedly enjoying an 'open' marriage with her own absent husband - Etta easily lures the weak-willed Leicester into her house by offering to show him one of the letters he sent her back when they were sweethearts.  

But as soon as they set foot inside the house they find themselves confronted by the incessant ringing of that newfangled gadget (as it still very much was in the England of 1910) the telephone.  Afraid her servants will hear the ringing and discover she's brought a male visitor home, Etta orders Leicester to answer it by pretending to be her footman.  'A peremptory "Are you 4259 Mayfair?" made him suddenly afraid, as if a schoolmaster had detected him in some crime.  Hitherto he had no feeling of crime.  It was as if he had merely existed in the tide of his senses.  An equally peremptory "Don't go away" was succeeded by the words: "Get down', and then: "Is that Sir William Hudson's?'  When Leicester admits that it is - not forgetting to omit the word 'sir' to make himself sound more like a servant - the crackly and indistinct voice at the other end of the line enquires if 'that isn't Dudley Leicester speaking?'.  Guilty and panic-stricken, Leicester confirms that it is and quickly hangs up, unaware of the profound impact his words will eventually have on the lives of himself, Pauline, Grimshaw and, in time, Katya Lascarides.

Leicester becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out exactly who rang '4259 Mayfair' that night.  He begins to suspect everyone - his butler, even those he meets casually at parties - of having made the call, a call he becomes increasingly certain was made for the sole purpose of catching him in the act of being unfaithful (a 'sin,' technically speaking, he did not actually commit).  He becomes an isolated and pathetic figure, his obsession soon driving him into a state of paranoia-fuelled madness, the seriousness of which makes it necessary to call in a famous specialist whose blustering manner and outdated treatment methods prove unequal to the task of curing him.  In the meantime, Grimshaw is called away to Athens on business, meaning he's not in London when Katya returns from Philadelphia as the travelling companion of one of her wealthy and exceedingly grateful American patients. 

Katya of course contacts Grimshaw following his own return to London, only to inform him that her attitude to the idea of becoming his wife remains unaltered.  The idea of trust, she explains when they are at last reunited, is far more important than any vow they might make to each other in the presence of a priest or a registrar.  'To trust, to trust!' she tells him.  'Isn't that the perfect relationship?'  She also succeeds in curing Kitty, her six year old niece, of her self-imposed vow of silence, born of the same proud stubbornness which continues to prevent her from accepting Grimshaw's proposal despite the fact she loves him and has done so since they were children together.  Grimshaw has no choice but to accept Katya's decision, admitting that her unwavering refusal to marry him has only reinforced his desire to have her on his own terms or not at all. 

In the meantime, Leicester's condition has gone from bad to worse, forcing a distressed Pauline to beg Grimshaw to help her find a doctor who might possess the skill required to cure him.  Having heard that Katya is back from Philadelphia, she begs Grimshaw to bring Katya to see her husband, hoping this will induce the famous psychotherapist to accept him as a patient.  Shortly after this has been arranged Grimshaw runs into Etta Hudson, who wastes no time enlightening him as to her true relationship with Leicester and what really happened - or, more significantly, what did not happen - when he escorted her back to Mayfair that night.  'You're upset,' she accuses him at one point, 'because you suspected Dudley of being a mean hound.  I know you, Robert Grimshaw.  You were jealous of him; you were madly jealous of him.  You married him to that little pink paroquet and then you got jealous of him.  You wanted to believe that he was mean and deceitful...You wanted to believe it so that you could take your Pauline off his hands again...You knew in your heart that he was honest and simple and pure, but your jealousy turned you mad.'  As a consequence of this revelation, Grimshaw is forced to admit that it was not Etta - who, in the end, did not seduce Dudley and never seriously planned to - but 'the meddling fool at the other end of the telephone' who is truly responsible for driving his friend mad.  What Grimshaw cannot bring himself to admit to his accuser, or to Pauline for the moment, is that he was the one who telephoned '4259 Mayfair' that night, his suspicions aroused after nearly being knocked down by Etta and Leicester as they emerged from their cab, obliging him to swiftly turn away and take a different route home so as to avoid being identified.

Etta's accusation forces Grimshaw to question, closely and for what proves to be the first time, his previously sacrosanct personal values and beliefs.  Unable to deny that it's Pauline, not Katya, whom he loves, he finds it equally impossible to deny that 'the traditions - traditions that are so infectious - of his English public school training, of his all-smooth and suppressed contacts in English social life, all the easy amenities and all the facile sense of honour that is adapted only to the life of no strain, of no passions' have betrayed him and, by extension, everyone he cares about.  In repressing his true feelings about Pauline he's done no more than play the role expected of him by a society obsessed with maintaining appearances rather than allowing individuals to act as their hearts and minds would truly have them act - a role, it appears, in which he's been no more successful at deceiving Pauline than he has been at deceiving the clear-eyed, sharp-tongued Etta Hudson.

Only after Katya, who after much persuasion has agreed to accept Leicester as a patient, has left the room to examine him does Pauline admit to her benefactor that she has been aware of his long-denied passion for her all along.  'We haven't learned wisdom: we've only learned how to behave,' she tells him.  'We cannot avoid tragedies...You do not love Katya Lascarides: you are as cold to her as a stone.  You love me, and you have ruined all our lives.'  They decide their only option is to continue playing the roles society expects them to play, perpetuate the charades their lives have become in order to avoid the scandal that would ruin them and also shatter the lives of Leicester and the apparently unsuspecting Katya.  Pauline is married to Leicester and she tells Grimshaw that he too must do the decent thing and honour his promise to Katya if he can find a way to overcome her objections to the idea of becoming his wife.  This conversation, the most painful and soul-destroying of Grimshaw's life, concludes with him admitting to Pauline that it was he who made the telephone call that has ruined her husband's health and robbed him of his peace of mind. 

A minute later Katya reenters the room, having decided, following her preliminary examination of Leicester, that he can only be cured by learning the identity of the man who made the fateful telephone call to Etta Hudson's home that night.  Having learned from a chastened Grimshaw that it was he who in fact made the call, Katya leads him next door to where his friend is waiting to ask what, since that night, has become his incessantly repeated question: 'Did you call 4259 Mayfair?'.  Grimshaw is so shaken, and so grateful to Katya for everything she's done to help Leicester and Pauline, that he finds himself agreeing to her long-resisted demand that they should live together without becoming man and wife.  But Katya's reply is not, this time, the anticipated one.  'Oh well, my dear,' she confides to him, 'it's obvious to me that you're more than touched by this little Pauline of ours.  I don't say that I resent it.  I don't suggest that it makes you care for me any less than you should or did, but I'm sure...that she cares extremely for you...I think, my dear, as a precaution, I think you cannot have me on those terms:  I think you had better...marry me.'

Forgotten Books [Print on Demand], 2012
A Call is by no means Ford's greatest or even most artfully conceived novel.  Its plot is unnecessarily complicated and many of its most crucial incidents - Katya's capricious decision to reject Grimshaw on what are alleged to be 'religious grounds,' the fact that he's nearly knocked down by Etta and Leicester as they emerge from their cab without being recognized by either of them - strike the modern reader as being slightly ludicrous if not wildly implausible to say the least.  Ford's fellow novelist Arnold Bennett, reviewing the book in 1910, called it 'profoundly and hopelessly untrue to life,' before adding the important caveat that if it was regarded less as a novel than as 'an original kind of fairy is about perfect.'  This is a significant distinction.  Ford was never as concerned with creating 'believable' plots and offering his readers objective depictions of reality than he was in offering them his entirely subjective, frequently shifting impressions of what might best be described as the 'inner reality' of his characters' lives and experiences.  (Ford, in partnership with his friend and collaborator Joseph Conrad, virtually invented the concept of 'Impressionism' as it applies to English literature.)  What happens to people is less important, in the Fordian scheme of things, than their individual perceptions of what happens to and around them and their actively and continuously evolving responses to these events and the various hypocrisies they in turn create or sometimes merely emphasize.  It was a technique he had all but mastered by the time he came to write The Good Soldier (1915) and had fully perfected by the time Some Do Not...(1924), the first volume of his Parade's End tetralogy, appeared nine years later.  It is also what makes him one of the most profoundly gifted and influential novelists of the first half of the twentieth century.

A Call can be seen as a kind of 'dry run' for Ford's later masterpieces, his first conscious attempt to expose the hypocrisy of a society where emotions like love, passion and happiness were held to be of minimal importance in relation to maintaining illusions that, far from supporting and sustaining it, only undermined, weakened and, in time, destroyed it.  This dichotomy is reflected in Grimshaw's frequently repeated personal motto: 'Do what you want and take what you get for it.'  The irony of this statement, given what occurs between himself, Katya, the Leicesters and Etta Hudson, is that by doing what he wants - subconsciously confessing his love for Pauline by attempting to catch her husband in the act of adultery - he loses her forever, submitting himself to the greater if harsher power that is Katya as a form of penance for having questioned the appearance of things and ruined all their lives.  It is, as Arthur Mizener suggests, as though Ford has taken what some might regard as a typically 'Jamesian' situation and pulled it firmly and irretrievably into the twentieth century - a world symbolized, not only by the cars that prowl London's streets beside its soon to be redundant horse-drawn hansom cabs, but by that thoroughly 'modern' contraption the telephone.  What is a telephone, after all, but a machine that allows people who are otherwise unable to do so to communicate privately and intimately with each other over long or, as it is in Grimshaw's case, short distances?  Either strive to communicate freely and honestly, Ford seems to be warning us in A Call, or accept the consequences of what it means to live a repressed unhappy life in which you'll forced to sacrifice and abandon forever what it is you really want.  

While it would take the cataclysm of World War One to begin to alter society's attitudes to issues like divorce and women's rights, it was writers like Ford who helped to pave the way for these sweeping social and psychological changes by revealing and openly questioning the lies most people chose to endorse in the name of 'keeping a stiff upper lip' and 'doing one's duty as a lady or a gentleman' - an idea, like so many the Edwardians inherited from their repressed Victorian forebears, that would die a slow painful death alongside millions of soldiers in the trenches of Ypres, Verdun and the Somme.    

The Author (1873-1919):  'Ford's emotional volatility at the end of 1908 and the beginning of 1909 was both a cause and effect of a furious burst of creative as well as editorial activity,' Max Saunders notes in A Dual Life, his 1996 two volume biography of Ford.  'In the midst of establishing the review [The English Review], editing it, writing articles for it, and entertaining its contributors, he wrote his best novel yet, A Call.  It was produced under intense emotional pressure, and at great speed even by his own astounding standards of fluency and rapidity.'  

The 'emotional pressure' referred to by Saunders found its origins in the collapse of Ford's marriage to Elsie, his wife of sixteen years, the affair he's believed to have had with her elder sister Mary in 1903 and the new romantic relationship he began in 1909 with his fellow writer Violet Hunt - a woman eleven years his senior whom he had known slightly as a boy.  These women, and the tempestuous emotional conflicts they inspired, all found their literary parallels in the pages of A Call.  While Saunders goes on to suggest that the events depicted in the book bear 'little relation to his actual experience,' it does not seem foolish to infer that the act of writing it was a cathartic exercise for Ford, an attempt to confront and perhaps understand what was happening in his own complicated and frequently very unhappy personal life.

Ford, as he did with many of his male characters, shared many of the key personality traits of Robert Grimshaw as well as Dudley Leicester.  Like Grimshaw, he was somebody who believed himself to be the quintessential English gentleman despite the fact that he was half-German and therefore, in the eyes of many people, little more than an 'upstart foreigner.'  Like Leicester, he was (in Saunders' words) 'tall, blond, phlegmatic' and suffered from paralyzing episodes of depression (or 'neurasthenia' as it was known in the Edwardian era).  He had a self-defeating habit of falling in love with women who were either unattainable, temperamentally unsuited to him or, very often, both.  His actions caused pain to others which he sincerely and lastingly regretted, yet he did what he wanted and never complained about paying what was generally a very high price for it in psychological, financial and career terms.

Ford was born 'Ford Hermann Hueffer' on 17 December 1873, the eldest child of German-born music critic Francis Hueffer and his English wife Catherine Madox Brown, daughter of the eminent Victorian painter Ford Madox Brown.  (Ford's grandfather is frequently referred to as a 'Pre-Raphaelite' but he never formally joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood despite enjoying close friendships with many of its leading members including Gabriel Dante Rossetti.)  It was Ford's grandfather, rather than his father (who wrote the music column for The Times and frequently referred to Ford, the eldest of his three children, as 'a patient but very stupid donkey'), who would be the defining influence on his character and, in many ways, on his conduct as an adult.  Madox Brown was a well-known and well-respected member of Victorian London's thriving artistic community, enabling him to count among his friends not only his fellow artists but also many notable literary and intellectual figures of the day.  

One of Ford's earliest memories was of giving up his seat to the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, who paid an impromptu visit to his grandfather's house one afternoon along with his English translator.  Ford's autobiographical writings are filled with such reminiscences - some no doubt apocryphal, given his lifelong habit of exaggerating and 're-imagining' the truth - but the fact remains that great things were expected of him by the grandfather whose home he, his mother and his brother Oliver shared following his father's death in January 1889.  (His sister Juliet was sent to stay with their Rossetti cousins, who lived a few houses down the street.)  It was also Madox Brown who imparted to him what would become the single most important piece of advice he would arguably ever receive from anybody:  'Beggar yourself rather than refuse assistance to any one whose genius you think shows promise of being greater than your own.' 

Ford, a voracious reader from an early age, also displayed a gift for composition that eventually saw him apply for a place at the Royal College of Music - an institution he was denied entry to thanks to Francis Hueffer's alleged 'domineering over it' in the pages of The Times.  His formal schooling was meagre but, by all accounts, more than adequate for his needs, ending for good at the age of seventeen when he decided to leave the University College School in London.  After being forbidden by his grandfather to enter the army, the Civil Service or to take up any kind of wage-earning profession - 'I will turn you straight out of my house if you go in for any kind of commercial life!' was what Madox Brown supposedly told him - he found himself increasingly attracted to the idea of writing for a living.  In 1891 he wrote a fairy tale titled The Brown Owl - a work originally conceived for the amusement of his younger sister Juliet, for whom he had already created several other fairy tales - that his grandfather thought showed enough creative promise for him to offer to provide two illustrations for it, thereby persuading the English firm of T Fisher Unwin to go ahead and publish it.  Ford's first book sold well - 'many thousands more copies than any other book I ever wrote,' he later remembered - and was soon followed by two more fairy tales, The Feather (1891) and The Queen Who Flew (1894) and a novel, The Shifting of the Fire (1892), which featured a distinctively Fordian protagonist who was the first of what would become an impressive gallery of thinly-disguised self-portraits 

In 1891 Ford began courting Elizabeth 'Elsie' Martindale, a girl three years his junior whom he had met while both had been pupils of the 'advanced' Praetorius School in London.  The following year he sent Elsie a ring for her sixteenth birthday - a gift that displeased her parents, both of whom were opposed to the match.  Although the Martindales personally liked Ford, they felt as threatened by his newly-adopted Catholicism (he had converted during a recent trip to Paris) as they did by his progressivist ideas (especially about sex) and began to fear that he might be pursuing Elsie solely for her money.  (Elsie's father Dr William Martindale was the Mayor of Winchelsea and a successful analytical chemist who had done quite well for himself in the booming pharmaceutical trade.)  Her parents' disapproval only increased Ford's ardour and his determination that, right or wrong, he and Elsie would marry some day.  Unfortunately, the situation was not aided by the death, in October 1893, of his beloved grandfather and the breaking up of the Madox Brown home and the loss of most of the artist's estate. 

Despite a passionate exchange of letters on all sides - which saw Ford push himself to the brink of physical and emotional collapse, offering to 'renounce' Elsie for good on several occasions and even taking the melodramatic step of suggesting they form a suicide pact should their love find itself permanently thwarted - nothing was resolved, with Dr Martindale remaining adamant in his refusal to allow his under-aged daughter to tie herself to a penniless young writer who showed no sign of being able to support her.  Her father's continuing opposition to the match resulted in the hatching of a plan which saw Elsie 'slip away' from her elder sister Mary during a train journey from London to Winchelsea on 16 March 1894 and return alone to London, from where she travelled, again unaccompanied, to an 'unknown destination.'  Ford hoped that by separating Elsie from her family he would then be free to discuss matters calmly and sensibly with the Martindales, never guessing that his actions would only serve to confirm all their worst suspicions about him.  Elsie remained in hiding, living 'respectably' with the retired maid of one of Ford's cousins, while he and William Martindale fought a two month legal battle which ended with the latter having his daughter declared a Ward of Court, granting him and her mother unrestricted legal custody of her as soon as the necessary order could be issued by a judge.  Rather than wait for such an order to be issued, Ford and Elsie married on 17 May in a registry office in Gloucester, lying about their ages in an effort to forestall the asking of any awkward questions.  

Martindale was furious when he heard that Ford had married his daughter without his consent and immediately applied for a restraining order that, had it been served, would have seen the twenty year old bridegroom forcibly separated from his wife and denied the chance to see or even speak to her until she legally came of age on her twenty-first birthday.  The presiding magistrate proved lenient, however, and decided the case in Ford's favour after delivering a stern lecture on morals and correct legal procedure to all parties concerned.  The case also made the papers, helping to publicize Ford's newly published book prior to the couple's move to a rented cottage in Bonnington, a small town located in the Romney Marsh region of Kent.

It was in rural Kent, during 1895, that Ford wrote a second unpublished novel and a biography of his grandfather, a labour of love that, while mostly well-received when it appeared in 1896, hardly qualified as the great success required to convince the Martindales - who had thus far refused all attempts to reconcile with Elsie - that his impetuous marriage to their daughter had not been a terrible mistake.  Fortunately, Kent was well supplied with literary talent at this time, including Henry James (the writer Ford admiringly referred to as 'the Old Master') whom he met prior to the birth of his first daughter Christina and his inheriting, in 1897, of £3000 from a recently deceased German relative.  While the money proved a godsend it was not, in what would become typically Fordian fashion, spent on installing 'luxuries' like modern plumbing in his ramshackle country cottage.  All his life, Ford would remain someone for whom an enchanting view and a cellar filled with wine would be infinitely more desirable than owning a house filled with comfortable furniture (or sometimes any furniture at all) or having the cash on hand to pay his many creditors.  His inheritance failed to make him financially independent but it did allow him to take up golf - a game he remained fond of until his dying day and occasionally featured in his novels - and befriend local Liberal politician and future Cabinet Minister CFG Masterman, the man who would eventually serve as the model for both Edward Ashburnham in The Good Soldier and Christopher Tietjens in the Parade's End tetralogy.   

In 1898, still living in Kent, he met Joseph Conrad, a fellow 'scribbler' who was then occupying a nearby property with his wife Jessie and eight month old son Borys.  Conrad, who had been born in Poland in 1857 and had spent the first third of his life at sea as a member of the British merchant service, was the author of three published novels by the time he and Ford were introduced that autumn by the elder writer's friend and editor (and Ford's cousin) Edward Garnett.  Conrad was introduced to Ford in the hope the two might get on well enough to collaborate, enabling the notoriously slow working Conrad to 'produce copy' at a rate sufficient to support his wife and child.  English was Conrad's third language (after Polish and French) and he hoped to gain some of the younger man's facility and speed by collaborating with him.  Conrad, in his turn, became a major literary influence on Ford, helping to shape and define what, from 1900 onward, became an increasingly sophisticated writing style which saw him focus more on the composition of fiction rather than on the memoirs, histories and poetry which had been his literary bread and butter prior to the 1903 publication of Romance, their first co-authored novel.  

Ford's 1909 affair with Violet Hunt succeeded his alleged 1903 affair with his sister-in-law Mary Martindale, which took place approximately two years after he and Elsie had moved to Winchelsea to be closer to the parents she had, by then, made peace with.  (It's still regarded as an 'alleged' affair because no evidence exists to confirm that it actually took place beside the unreliable testimony of Ford's long-dead younger daughter Katherine, who was born in 1900.)  The Hueffer marriage had been under strain for several years by then, with Elsie supposedly feeling envious if not actively resentful of her husband's physically separate 'other life' as a kind of literary jack-of-all-trades who now numbered among his friends - in addition to Conrad and Henry James - the novelists HG Wells, Stephen Crane and John Galsworthy.  Ford, for his part, suffered a nervous breakdown in 1904 which may, or may not, have been at least partially triggered by the 1902 suicide of his father-in-law and whatever feelings of guilt or remorse he may have experienced as the result of having betrayed his wife with her own sister.  

He returned to Germany to seek treatment for his condition, accompanied this time only by his mother.  It was also his mother whom he continued to live with following their return to London in early 1905 - an arrangement that persisted for the next four years as he divided his time between the capital, Winchelsea and other locations, visiting his wife and daughters mostly on weekends.  It was during this period that Ford consolidated his reputation as something of a literary dynamo, writing and publishing twenty-six books - including nine novels - and befriending members of the literary avant-garde like the young DH Lawrence and the flamboyant London-based American poet Ezra Pound.  While the hectic pace of London's literary scene suited him, it did not and had never suited Elsie, who fretted about her health and worried that his numerous social engagements might be interfering with his work which, as she was no doubt painfully aware, remained their sole source of income.  By 1909 it had become obvious to both of them that the passion which had prompted them to run away together in 1894 was completely gone, paving the way for Violet Hunt - beautiful, experienced, ambitious, famously indiscreet - to enter the picture and become Ford's lover.

Ford and Hunt began their affair in June 1909 although they had known each other since Ford, according to him, had been 'in my perambulator.'  Hunt had enjoyed numerous affairs with a wide variety of men - including brief liaisons with Ford's fellow writers HG Wells and W Somerset Maugham - but had recently lost the man she described in her diaries as being the love of her life, seeing in Ford, could he somehow be 'gotten away' from Elsie, what might be her final chance to marry.  (She did not tell Ford she was infected with syphilis and had been regularly receiving treatment for the disease until they had been living together for several years.)  Their relationship - which often saw them entertain as a couple at his flat at 84 Holland Park Road or at 'South Lodge,' the house in Kensington that Hunt shared with her mother - soon became an open secret in literary London, aided by the fact that Hunt was a well-known journalist in addition to being a popular novelist and short story writer whose work appeared in many of the city's leading periodicals and newspapers.  Ford was also engrossed in a new project of his own - the compilation and editing of what became the first groundbreaking issue of The English Review.  

FORD and VIOLET HUNT, c. 1910
After initially rejecting the idea of granting her husband a divorce, Elsie suddenly agreed to it, only to reject the idea again at the last minute on the advice of her brother and Ford's German relatives, who reminded her of the harm a divorce might do to Christina and Katherine, both of whom were being raised as Catholics at their father's request.  Elsie petitioned the court for the restitution of her conjugal rights and this petition was subsequently granted, causing Ford - who had, by now, reached the end of his emotional tether - to flee to France with Hunt, where they remained for what proved to be a gloomy fortnight of soul-searching and mutual commiseration.  Unfortunately, they were intercepted - 'ambushed' might be the better term for it - by Elsie at Charing Cross Station when they returned to London in October, making what had previously been an open secret a very public one as far as their friends, colleagues and the gossip-loving English press were concerned.  

The ensuing scandal cost Ford his editorship of The English Review and placed even greater strain on his already strained friendships with Conrad, James and Galsworthy.  But worse was yet to come.  Ordered by the court to pay Elsie £3 a week in maintenance - ten shillings less than what he was already paying her each week - he refused to comply and received a ten day sentence in Brixton Gaol for his trouble.  Following his release from prison he moved into South Lodge with Hunt and her mother - a move, accomplished with the unlikely assistance of Elsie's sister Mary Martindale, that he hoped would finally persuade his wife to divorce him.  He also conceived a vague and ultimately unsuccessful scheme to attain German citizenship, which he and Hunt convinced themselves would magically 'nullify' his marriage to Elsie and allow them to become man and wife under German law.  They left for Germany in August 1910 where, after spending some time at the spa town Bad-Nauheim, they travelled on to Geissen where Ford was to remain - alone for a large part of the time, although he continued to make frequent trips to England - until the middle of 1911, fighting what proved to be a futile legal and bureaucratic battle to have himself declared a German citizen.

The Ford-Hunt-Elsie situation was in the news again in September 1911 when the Daily Mirror printed an interview with Ford in which he stated that he and Hunt had married while holidaying in Germany.  Elsie successfully sued the paper for £350 and forced it to print a retraction, yet still refused to set her husband free.  Less than a year later she sued another London newspaper, The Throne, for referring to Hunt in print as 'Mrs Ford Madox Hueffer' in a review of a novel her rival had recently published.  Elsie won the case, this time receiving £300 plus court costs, and refused to allow Ford to spend Christmas with his daughters, claiming it would 'unsettle' the girls to stay with him.  Ford and Hunt, their morale lower than ever, once again fled to the Continent to escape the ensuing scandal, not returning to England until May 1913 when Hunt unwisely began re-identifying herself to their friends as 'Mrs Hueffer.' 

Elsie did not pursue further legal action, but nor did she ever agree to divorce her husband who, in December of that year, began writing a novel he originally planned to call The Saddest Story - a wrenching tale of infidelity, selfishness, confusion and hypocrisy - that would be published in March 1915 under what was felt to be the more war appropriate title of The Good Soldier.  Ford himself entered the army that same July, becoming a Second Lieutenant in the Third Battalion of the Welch Regiment - a regiment that was sent to France in 1916 to replace troops lost during heavy fighting along the Western Front.  During the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, while serving behind the Allied lines as his unit's Transport Officer, Ford was knocked unconscious by a shell blast that plunged him into a state of total amnesia for more than a day.  Although he recovered, and requested to be allowed to lead his men into battle several times, his requests were repeatedly denied by his Commanding Officer, who no longer saw him as being an emotionally or militarily reliable subordinate.  Eventually, the combination of gas and shell-shock saw him assigned to the less taxing role of guarding German prisoners, whose culture he understood and whose language, along with French, he spoke fluently.  He continued to serve in France until March 1917, when he was repatriated to England and assigned to the Twenty-Third King's Liverpool Regiment, with whom he remained until hostilities ceased in November 1918. 

Ford's difficult and increasingly stormy relationship with Violet Hunt did not survive the war, ending for good in 1918 - after several infidelities on both sides - when he met and fell passionately in love with Stella Bowen, a young Australian war artist.  In June 1919, as if determined to forever separate his 'old' pre-war self from his 'new' post-war self, he legally changed his surname from 'Hueffer' to 'Ford.'  Two months later he moved to a small cottage in rural Sussex with Bowen who gave birth to his third child, another daughter named Julia (known as Julie), the following year.  Hunt continued to refer to herself as 'Mrs Hueffer' for the rest of her life, as did Elsie until her death in 1924.  The two daughters Ford had with Elsie, Christina and Katharine, never saw their father again after the 'farewell' lunch he treated them to prior to his 1916 departure for France, although he regularly corresponded with Katherine until the time of her mother's death, when her letters to him, according to her, simply stopped being answered - a claim disputed by at least one of his biographers and by Janice Biala, the woman he lived with from 1931 until his death, at Deauville in northern France, on 26 June 1939.  

Click HERE to download a legal eBook copy of A Call and many other works by FORD MADOX FORD - including The Good Soldier (1915) and all four volumes of the Parade's End tetralogy (1924-1928) - from the free eBook archive founded and maintained by THE UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE.

Six major biographies of FORD MADOX FORD have been published since his death:

The Last Pre-Raphaelite: A Record of the Life and Writings of Ford Madox Ford by DOUGLAS GOLDRING (London: McDonald, 1948) 

The Life and Work of Ford Madox Ford by FRANK MacSHANE (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965) 

The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford by ARTHUR MIZENER (London: The Bodley Head, 1972) 

The Life in the Fiction of Ford Madox Ford by THOMAS C MOSER (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980) 

Ford Madox Ford by ALAN JUDD (London: Collins, 1990)

Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life - Volume I, The World Before The War by MAX SAUNDERS (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) 

Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life - Volume II, The After-War World  by MAX SAUNDERS (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)

The shortest and most readable of these books is the 1990 ALAN JUDD biography, while the two volume 1996 MAX SAUNDERS biography remains the most detailed and enlightening in terms of unravelling FORD's many contradictions as man and writer and how these influenced and were subsequently 're-imagined' by him in his work.

THE FORD MADOX SOCIETY, an international organization founded in 1997 'to promote knowledge of and interest in the life and works of Ford Madox Ford,' can be visited by clicking HEREYou can also click HERE to view clips from the soon-to-be released documentary It Was The Nightingale: The Unreliable Story of Ford Madox Ford, directed by PAUL LEWIS for Subterracon Films.

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