From The Hard and Soft Landing Chronicle
‘Alas! Poor Yorick. I knew him.’ Shakespeare, Hamlet
‘Strip away the layers/ The eye of the storm is closed.’
A. Rudolf, ‘Onions’.
When I lived in Hampstead Garden Suburbs in the early 1980s my friend
Tony asked me to keep an eye on Becky, a singer, while he was away on a
trip. He liked to keep his ‘old flames’ burning, though low, and they flickered
up from time to time. Becky, he said, was house-sitting a cottage around
the corner from me, and she might need a man in an emergency.
One night in the middle of a storm she rang me. The rose bower had
detached itself from the house front. Half asleep I ambled over. A thorny
mass was choking up the crazy pavement. Becky was hanging out a window
with a ball of string and attempting to pull a bough shaped like giant’s
arm back into place. She looked like Alice in the 'drink-me' cottage, with
her fingers in the air and abundant hair straightening out by the wind.
She shushed down to me. I was not to come in or say a word. There was
someone inside. I could hear a piano. Chopin or Liszt. The same phrase
played over and over. A Liszt transcription of Chopin. Together — she from
inside and me in the garden — we re-attached the bower to the house and
secured it with green twine, doubled over. The Liszt Chopin gave the knots
an extra tug.
Becky closed the window and I returned home. The storm continued through
the night. Next day passing the house I saw the rose façade was
still in place.
Who is the mystery pianist whose precious hands did not permit him to
help Becky at midnight in a storm? It was a rhetorical question. I thought
better not to ask. But it dwelt on my mind for twenty years. Until Tony
told me Becky was back in town, and I asked him for her phone number.
A beautiful voice on the end of a line said ‘Yes I remember our night
together in the storm’. Becky told me the man she was protecting was André
Tchaikowsky, the Polish pianist, who died at forty six a year after the
storm and left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company. It now regularly
appears at Straford-on-Avon as the mortal remains of poor Yorick in Hamlet.
He left his hands to posterity.
The Origins of Lord Byron
“Strange but true for truth is always strange”
Don Juan, George Gordon Noel (Lord) Byron
‘The joys of parents are secrets and so are their
griefs and fears’.
The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare
Byron’s mother bartered her body to keep Newstead Abbey in the family
when ‘Mad Jack’ Byron lost it in a gaming house. A year later George Gordon
Noel was born. Tom Moore burned the evidence on the infamous bonfire in
Murray’s office. The family guided Tom’s hand to the coals to save a mother’s
‘A woman is never at a loss.’ (Byron to Moore). ‘The devil always sticks
by them.’ Did Moore think of hell’s fire and the purification of women
as he torched the manuscript? Or enjoy the blaze, knowing he had already
sold the rights to John Murray?
Money and women haunted Byron, perpetually stalked by creditors and
predatory females. Even when poetry made him rich, Hobhouse and his banker
friends could not appease his fear of penury. Nor did the undemanding love
of Augusta Leigh obliterate the lust-hunting Lady Caroline Lambs.
Women and money, money and women — they were inseparable. In his letters
complaints about bills are inevitably followed by groans over the billets-doux
of admirers. Money and women, mother and debts. It does not take a Freud.
As cavaliere servente to Teresa, Countess Guicciolli, Venice gave him
a secure home. His maternal mistress granted him a happy return to a womb
festooned with good credit and independent women. He basked in the escape
from mother and shame until the pay off, Missolonghi and death by dysentery
‘Mad Jack’ gets no mention in Byron’s writings, though enough improvident
fathers appear in Don Juan to mortgage ten Newsteads (‘The debt
unsunk, yet sinks all it receives’). He was holding it all back for the
In Aubrey’s Eating Jack (1696) Jack is a euphemism for excrement.
‘Mad Jack’ was no euphemism, even though Byron grew tolerant to gamblers
and rakes with exposure to Scrope Davies. This incorrigible gamester slips
in and out of the letters and journals like a crap shooter from Runyon,
pursued by his own tail. In Detached Thoughts — written when working
on his Memoirs — Byron recalls a night on the town when he was twenty.
Scrope drags Hobhouse and Byron into a den in Brighthelmstone. Roulette
and grog culminates in the loss of twenty guineas. After this they swim
naked in the sea for half an hour, then drink champagne and hock in their
dressing gowns till dawn. As the sun came up Byron wakes to a Hogarthian
scene — Scrope gripping Hobhouse’s throat with one hand and a bottle with
the other. The future Tory Whip stabs his attacker’s shoulder. Scrope and
bottle fall into a pool of wine and blood.
Byron himself was a foolish father — committing his only child into
a Catholic convent in Romagna to save her from the Shelleys and green fruit.
‘It will be like a hospital to the child.’ It was. Unresponsive to the
nun’s treatment, little Allegra died, seven years of age. Byron quoted
Shakespeare’s ‘The joys of parents are secrets and so are their griefs
and fears’. Did he mean to include Jack?
‘Mad Jack’ lost everything to Reginald Byng at four-hand cribbage. Reginald,
the aging heir to a private bank, had crippling gout and an entourage of
young men. He had pity too, offering to exchange the pledged estate for
The entourage were a motley of youngest sons and foreign students. Byng’s
current favourite was Franscisco Bartolomeo, a seminarian, rumoured to
be the bastard son of the last of the Medicis. Since the 7th Grand Duke
died in the arms of his cadamite fifty years before, the attribution was
unlikely. But he was well connected, living with the family of Bartolossi,
engravers to King George.
Franscisco was palely handsome in an earth-sweeping soutane. A long
fluting throat released his small, highly finished head, crinkling with
curls, from a coiled body. He haunted drawing rooms, theatres, pleasure
gardens, taverns, gaming pits and other doubtful places with more grace
than they deserved. He spoke rarely but his utterances reverberated like
quotations. What are you studying? ‘Reclaiming Boccaccio from the thefts
of Chaucer.’ This explained for some his penchant for lowlife London. He
lacked the small talk for polite society.
Hell raisers were drawn to Byng’s boudoir, an open house without rules.
Boccaccio meets Chaucer and knocks him down. ‘Damn your Canterburys. I
say, Decameron.’ Franscisco’s patron, on the other hand, adored his contrasting
presence, cool clarity and unshockability. But Byng tempted providence
when he called in Jack’s debt.
Night falls and a masked lady of aristocratic bearing is ushered
into Byng’s boudoir — disorderly opulence disguised by demure lighting.
In the corner by the window a young priest sits writing with a creaking
quill. He does not turn to look at the apparition of fussy terror that
stands before him ready to sacrifice everything for everything…...
What happened that night is a secret Byron’s mother disclosed only once.
Her son buried it in his private hell and unburdened himself only in his
Memoirs, a few years before his death. Thanks to Tom Moore’s bonfire we
can only speculate.
Franscisco’s researches in London ended that night. Chaucer’s theft
revenged? He never published the findings. Back in Rome, he flourished
and was consecrated Archbishop in 1816. The same year that Byron abandoned
England for good.
Amongst his papers Franscisco left a manuscript about the wives of the
Brahmans in East India. He describes their bejewelled purdah, hair bound
up on top of their heads like turkeys, the umbrellas of palm-leaves held
before their faces. But when a man crosses their path, they turn round
swiftly to observe his retreating form with a wistful look. Fra notes this
as proof that in every country on the globe the daughters of Eve are all
Like father like son?
(from Conversations with Welsh)
‘Meanwhile Barnum Wood stalks towards Dunsinane’, says Welsh, who is
‘I’ve never been convinced that Lady Macbeth, the supreme gamestress,
could go mad because of a spot of bother When things went wrong she
would have screwed her courage to the sticking place and married Macduff
or whoever was there at the final flourish.’
‘Spot on, Augustus. Lady Macbeth was shamefully misrepresented by that
Sassanach Shakespeare. She was an early feminist and introduced the
bru into Scotland’.
‘So she invented Iron Bru’, I said, thinking of the least soft of soft
drinks in the world. ‘That should have been enough to dispatch King Duncan,
‘No. I mean social security payments’.
‘Where did you read all that?’
‘Pebbles. I’ll loan it to you.’
‘Ah! the AJ Cronin of Scottish historians.’ But there is no stopping
‘Shakespeare, the Saxon dog, did the dirty on Richard theThird too.
One of his own, but not any good on the playing fields. Richard was a just
king much maligned, and less handicapped than Laurence Olivier. The children
were murdered by someone else’.
‘Shakespeare had a play to write. It was only a job. As it was for Homer,
the people’s singer. He made Helen the reason for the Trojan War, an afterthought.
Blame the beautiful woman. It never fails. Homer knew that men like to
make up the rules of the game as they go along, winning it by killing it.
Though it’s not a game, but a charade masquerading as one. Today General
Hamid Gul, ex-Director of Pakistan Intelligence says, about the War on
Terror ‘the game America is playing will sink themselves and take the Western
world with them. Their shot on the foot ricochets everywhere as the target
does not exists’. Homer was not blind to the truth, but he wanted to be
heard out. If Shakespeare wrote his plays to achieve historical accuracy
he wouldn’t have had a bed to sleep in, let alone a second one to leave
to Anne, his wife. The audience at the Globe would have gone home to beat
theirs. He might have well written a sonnet and put it in a bottle’.
NINETEEN CAMBRIDGE POETS AND A VERONICA
(from Chronicling Myself)
Twenty Cambridge poets debate poetics in Tony’s house. They agree to
‘anti-discursivity’ on principle, but once pitted against each other the
bull gets out of hand. The tape recorder is stopped until the horns withdraw.
Posterity deprived of some pretty passes.
The most insistent voice is Veronica, just back from Paris. She shrills
and soars in the realm of ‘signifiers’, ‘naturalisation’ and ‘the grammar
of breathing’. Nineteen Cambridge poets are silenced.
‘Meaning relates to the poet’s varying of received conventions rather
than communicating content. The creative artifice matters more than utterance.’
I am shocked by the relegation of poetry into commentary but restrain
my heckles, never having heard ‘artifice’ pronounced with a trill before,
and rhyming with ‘paradise’.
I drive her to Belsize Park. The pubs of Hampstead overspill with football
fans. As I leave her off, I notice the socks fallen around the ankles,
and ask her what football team she supports. She offers me money.
Her paradis artificiels were cut short two years later. At ‘Poems for
Shakespeare’ in Southwark Cathedral I stood at the back, breathing the
air coming up off the river. On the Tube home, Eddie Linden told Tony and
myself that he saw Veronica in one of the cloisters, but she had disappeared
before her turn came to deconstruct Shakespeare. That was the night of
She lives on, on the tip of the tongue of the L-a-n-g-u-a-g-e poets.