This poem and Bernard Spencer’s journal are a fine discovery. The journals have the haunting brilliance of his best poems. He was born in 1909 and spent much of his life working for the British Council, mostly in Mediterranean countries, where many of his poems are set. The poems catch the atmosphere of places he loved in Greece and Spain and France, through delicately observed detail caught on rhythms that run like light breezes through the verse. Underlying them is almost always the poet’s own mood – a tang of happiness, and a faint sense of loss.
One of his best love poems begins:
Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care…
nothing was lacking.
But ‘time both flowed and stayed’ as they sat there, he says – and the word order is significant in this particularly happy poem. Spencer cannot even now forget the ‘flowing’ of time – but for this perfect moment the ‘staying’ of time was what mattered.
The journals have the same qualities. There is the alertly observed detail and the casually dropped, imaginative description of it – the sky like ‘a hairdresser’s experiments as he tries to invent a new coiffure’, the swifts like ‘black flashes’ across his terrace. ‘Somehow flattering to me to run a swift’s hostel’, he adds. The pleasure the writer takes in the sights and sounds of Madrid is palpable. But I think one can detect that apprehension of loss not only in such episodes as that of the heavy drinking party, but also in the dying tone of so many of the sentences.
Spencer brought out two volumes of poetry, Aegean Islands (1946) and With Luck Lasting (1963 – the year of his death). He was as scrupulous about publishing as he was about writing. The former editor of The London Magazine, Alan Ross, as a book publisher, included some other poems in the Collected Poems that he brought out in 1965. Some of these had already appeared in The London Magazine.
I met Spencer in Vienna, where he was still working for the British Council, in the spring of 1963. I had to visit someone in the Council offices, and I noticed a man reading in the library. We spoke, and somehow instantly had a feeling of friendship towards each other.
He was languorous and amusing, with an easy, spontaneous charm. He had a new wife and a baby son, to both of whom he had written some touching poems. He invited my girlfriend and me out to dinner with his wife and him that night.
I can still remember the Hungarian goulash we had. But Spencer himself hardly touched his food, just drank glass after glass of wine. He was very good company, but at once one could sense in him the sign of that lightly stressed melancholy that drifts through so many of his poems.
We never saw him again. In the autumn one night, suffering from a high fever, he was hit by a train in the suburbs of Vienna, and killed. The exact circumstances of his death have never been clearly established.
Derwent May, November 2010
The girl in the black mantilla with the ink splash eyes …
The girl in the black mantilla with the ink splash eyes
is leaning and singing some warm and throaty tune
about two lovers (slant of the guitars)
and ‘the rays of the moon.’
Dusty from the same door extends the plain
centuries of poverty and war have torn
and the great road with never a turning
to the iron cold of the jagged mountains, the real
the quieter moon hacked clear through the sky and the Spanish stars
like shaken knives or distant bonfires burning.
They are going to sack the traditional Madrid dustmen. Anyhow, they are going to install dust-cars, big shiny vehicles with trodden-down backs, to replace the donkey-carts and mule-carts of the ‘traperos’ [rag-and-bone men] or ‘basureros’ [dustmen]. And I don’t imagine the same people will operate the new cars as did the carts. As you came back at five or six after a night’s drinking you would meet them, sometimes walking by their donkey’s head or sometimes riding on the baskets of rubbish; some of the girls very handsome, dressed in faded reds or pinks, their heads tied in a scarf and riding proudly, a slight and not unbecoming pallor of dust on their skin. This to the sound of the harness bells, exhortations to their animals and now and then the creaking, windy love call as one donkey came in sight of another. I sometimes hear one dustman who walks past my house and speaks to his mule in deep, dignified Spanish tones, addressing it, personally, as ‘mula’!
So well known is this morning dust-army, that I have known someone say to his friend, ‘I know I have had a real party when I see donkeys,’ a remark which in other parts of the world would be interpreted differently.
One of these warm, windless nights. Over a beer at ‘La Concha’ he told me about the excavations at Paestum. Since I have never seen them I countered too quickly with those at Delos. Stupid. I might have found either an informed archaeologist or a fellow-spirit, someone to whom dugup towns give the same mysterious, romantic, ignorant excitement as they do to me. The long, empty, roofless boulevards of Delos, with the wind blowing, a few pillars standing; nobody.
He had been in Naples for a couple of years. Confessed quietly to having made fifty or sixty visits to Pompeii. Yes, he said, he had travelled a good deal; Madrid was a very noisy town. No comment. In careful English he observed that his French and German were as good as his Spanish, but he wanted to improve his English and Russian. In England he had been asked in Lancashire if he came from Cheshire. Looking at his mild, brown appearance, I said that he might easily be taken for an Englishman. ‘No, you are saying that to flatter me.’ Damn, I didn’t mean when he spoke. Back away, get out of that one.
He is a dealer in antiques. When he went to America and was asked the object of his visit, he said it was ‘to look at the antics there’. ‘So they were distressed,’ he added ‘by my wrong stress; and so was I.’
He was fond of the Liverpool area, where by the way the best Victorian antiques are to be found. He would like to go back to Liverpool. Liverpool! In his determined Spanish way he paid the bill, leaving me protesting, and wandered off among the shadows under the acacia trees.
A dog asleep on the pavement, smiling.
Shapes of Spanish clouds. This evening it is windy and the sky from my terrace looks like a hairdresser’s experiments as he tries to invent a new coiffure, some brushed up, some curled round an imaginary cheek or neck.
On other days there are cigar shaped clouds, perhaps one drove the other, as regular as cigars or cheroots in a box. Or fish-clouds; some like swordfish.
Then a corner of the intense blue sky is striped with clouds, as though a piece of striped material had been dropped there, or in an empty sky there is one small cloud shaped like a star. Unpleasant reflection; the burst of an anti-aircraft shell, but white.
The distracting lusciousness of the girl in my class this morning who has only turned up four times in two months. ‘Are you Sita Solez Lopez?’ ‘No, I am Sylvia.’ She was not attending to the lesson, but kept on pulling down the low neck of her jersey still further and sleepily scratching the upper slope of her breast. What is it all for, this terrifying biological engine of Spanish girls’ sex appeal? Couldn’t the necessary ends of Nature be attained less prodigally? It is as if trees should need to become greener or flowers to have a stronger scent, or glow worms to shine like head-lamps.
Half the people who drank with me in my flat last night were strangers and probably will stay so. Who was the quiet, serious woman in black on the divan? Who was the other one with the silver pattern round the neck of her dress? I imagine a sort of statistical parade of my drinks lined up on a table before I start one of these evenings. This time I happen to remember what they were: six gin-fizzes, something like a bottle of wine at the restaurant with dinner, two anis (one on the house) and four brandy and sodas. And since they were Spanish drinks, a good inch of gin or brandy in the tumbler each time. By the drinks, on my imaginary table, is a packet or more of cigarettes to be smoked before dawn. Is it the same in every capital city?
How strange the foreign wish for hot food appears to the Spanish! It comes – and so does the coffee – just as it comes, cold or lukewarm. The plates are cold, and evermore shall be so. We open a tin of my precious English kippers brought from Gibraltar. My maid has a passion for them. ‘What is this fish, señor?’ ‘Smoked herring.’ ‘Then it is a large sardine.’ ‘No, it is not, it is a fish called a herring.’ Then tonight: ‘Maria Cristina, I have helped myself, won’t you come and take your half before it gets cold?’ Presently she re-appears; ‘Señor, do you like that fish hot?’ ‘Yes, in England we always eat it hot.’ ‘I find it so much better cold. I make a sandwich of it with bread, the bread soaks up the grease, and in that way it is very rich.’
This is the season of swifts. They are making black flashes across my terrace every morning and evening. I have just discovered that some of them are nesting in my roof, in the holes in the walls where at one time there must have been supports fixed for an awning over the terrace. Somehow flattering me to run a swift’s hostel. A swoop at full tilt, a fluttering sound, a blink of wings and they are in. (Question: can they turn round inside, or must they come out, tail first, at the same speed?)
My best taxi story: We were coming fast round the corner into El Barco and nearly carried away a rag-and-bone man, who, with the traditional sack over his shoulder, was just stepping off the pavement. My driver had been making pungent comments on everyone and everything throughout the journey. Here was a target for his scorn. He began in the formal Spanish manner, ‘Rag-and-bone man, what were you thinking about?’ The answer that snapped back, whatever it was, for I couldn’t hear it, shook my driver visibly, but he recovered himself, and, as he accelerated, leaned through the window to retort, ‘That is what I married for!’ (!por eso me case!)
Memo: Frances’ story of the taxi-man who proposed to her after taking her across the town. ‘I have never seen a woman whom I liked better than you, señorita. You need have no doubts about me; I am a serious man. Will you give me six months in which to court you?’
Hammering; one of the typical noises of Madrid. At the bottom of my seven flights of stairs there are two workmen beating away; in the narrow space the noise is nearly unendurable. They are making a cut in the upper part of the wall with chisels. The blonde on the fifth floor wants to put in an electric oven and they are installing the cables. Pieces of plaster fly all over the stairs and the hall, though sometimes the men notice you and stop to let you pass. Why are they always hammering here, whereas in other countries things can often be done by screws, wrenches and twisting? I wonder why Madrid is not lower than it is, in the process of being hammered into the ground.
I wake up and it is a wonderful morning, already heavy with the heat of the day to come. Some smoke hangs in the air, in the direction of the mountains too lazy to go up to the sky. The snow on the mountains is nearly melted. On the road to Toledo, at midday, half-a-dozen labourers are sitting in a field having lunch in the shade of black umbrellas, as sheep in hot weather stoop their heads together to keep cool. Miles and miles of Castille without any trees at all, and the crops coming up thick. Peasants in the fields with floppy Van Gogh straw hats. A tractor in brilliant red and blue, and two hoopoes with black-barred wings flying up. In the village, when we arrive we ask the way of a shepherd who is carrying a sheep round his neck, held by front and back legs and kicking like clockwork. Instead of the normal sheepdog, there is a greyhound following him. A storm of swifts round the old church. A plaster Virgin over the entrance of the house where we are to have lunch. During lunch an unidentified insect rolls its egg across my knee. When menaced, it flies with it to the table.
Maria Cristina has a friend in to help her and they are washing the blankets. Up go the wet ones, dangled plump across the terrace and my view. During lunch, the expected; the cord comes away and down they all come on the floor of the terrace. I have coffee and watch Maria Cristina and Maria Luisa putting them back, making a game of it, giggling, their ear-ringed heads bobbing about against an immaculate June sky which goes milky with haze down towards the roof tops. In the corner, against wall and sky, a bang of red geraniums.
‘Señor, Mr. Harrison will give himself tonsillitis. He keeps on drinking cold water from the refrigerator!’ ‘I will tell him so, Maria Cristina.’
My first house had a woman as porter. ‘A disaster,’ said the man I rented my flat from. She was very dirty and very drunk, and on some whim once re-directed some letters of mine, though they were clearly addressed, to Aranjuez. Sometimes, in a drunken fit, she would run screaming round the ‘patio’ complaining that she had been robbed, and all the heads of the residents would pop out of the windows and a many sided argument would go on in shrieks.
My second house had a suave, correct porter who successfully kept out beggars. My third, a porter who seldom appeared at all but lived noisily and squalidly in his room under the stairs with a large family. One day we all received letters from the landlord telling us that the porter was on a charge of stealing the equivalent of £111, collected from the tenants to pay for the central-heating. On no account were we to entrust him with any money. Some months later he was still in his job, though as a presumed thief and a notorious drunkard (for I was told he stole the money, poor chap, to pay for his continual debauches) it seemed curious that he was still considered suitable. One of my neighbours asked him why he was so cheerful, since he was due to appear on a serious charge. ‘There is only one ill that cannot be mended,’ he replied, ‘and that is death.’
My present porter: a wrinkled, kind old man, very deferential, who likes to sit outside the porch playing with children. His wife came up to the flat the other day – Maria Cristina is on very good terms with her, and they do shopping for each other. I renewed my complaint that the gas-pressure was very bad. ‘Ah,’ said the old lady, ‘It has never been right since the war. Everything is different since the war (the Civil War).’ ‘But it can’t be that there is less gas in Madrid, for the new block next door has flames from the gas stove a foot high and roaring! You must send for the gas men again!’ ‘Patience, we must have patience,’ she replied. ‘No, señora, not patience; effort, insistence, and things will get done. I hear the word “patience” too often!’ Here I ended my rant, for I observed that she and Maria Cristina were looking at the Englishman with embarrassment and pity.
A hot day at Aranjuez. Past the terrace of the ‘Frog’ restaurant the river moves sleepily, smelling of green. In the shade of the tall plane-trees we find a table and loll there drinking a cool white ‘wine of the house’. Across the road they are selling strawberries. Boats called ‘Isobel’ or ‘Paloma’ drift up and down.
Presently we ask the waiter if there is anywhere in the town where, in return for ordering some wine, we can eat our picnic lunch at a table. ‘Why not just where you are?’ says the waiter. Well, England?[from Madrid Notebook]
Standing at the window 9:30 pm ‘mist’ across the stars, still visible. Radios, the warmth, stir. Light from inside the film flat. Know who they are. Voices from the dark balcony above – girl, man? Chuckling, throaty. Girl reading with wireless below.
Opposite, the black dog which barks. Woman having dinner, speaking to someone invisible. Light on (why?) in the Colegio – desks. Cars parked along the street, some moving.
The group around the street lamp outside provision shop. Some chairs. A children’s group further down. Loungers. El Tenis.
So many windows & scenes opposite. A chair someone is going to sit on. The relief, the sociable hour.
What are they thinking? Girl with beautiful hair looking out. I have no secrets. Windows all open. A book of poetry on the sofa. A glass of wine.
Am absolutely lost. Hope for more evenings like this.
‘The girl in the black mantilla with the ink splash eyes …’ is a previously unpublished manuscript poem surviving in one pencil draft, from which Roger Bowen made a typescript for his Collected Poems (1981), though he did not subsequently include it in the volume. Both documents are in Special Collections at the University of Reading.¹ At the time of Bowen’s edition, the notebook containing his ‘Madrid Journal’ was thought to be lost. Special Collections also holds a 9 September 1992 letter from Julia Dohnal in London returning the notebook to Anne Humphreys, the poet’s widow.² The green-covered notebook contains seventeen pages of handwritten text,³ to which I have added the final two paragraphs from a ‘Madrid Notebook’.4 This consists of three pages of fragmentary notes in a Basildon Bond notepad, the first three short paragraphs being an aidemémoire of obscure incidents, some of which appear to have taken place in London. The two that I have included are clearer in character, and fit the mood of the ‘Madrid Journal’. The journal appears to date from the early 1950s and probably predates the composition of Spencer’s ‘Notes by a Foreigner’ (first published in The London Magazine [December 1955], pp.208-9), while the notebook may be later. Both of these texts appear in the forthcoming Bernard Spencer: Complete Poetry, Translations & Selected Prose (ed. Peter Robinson, pub. Bloodaxe, February 2011).
Peter Robinson, November 2010