No. 8-9


Augustus Young   

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 honour. 

‘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 at thirty-six.

‘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 Memoirs. 

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 Jack’s wife. 

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 the same. 

Like father like son?  

Pebble’s Shakespeare 
(from Conversations with Welsh)

‘Meanwhile Barnum Wood stalks towards Dunsinane’, says Welsh, who is Scottish.  
‘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, neatly.’  

 ‘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 him.

‘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’.

(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 her suicide. 
She lives on, on the tip of the tongue of the L-a-n-g-u-a-g-e poets.  




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