Research or Procrastination?: London Monuments, Louis MacNeice, Nancy Spender, and Person from Porlock

I've really got to find a name for when I do this: wandering about the 'net, going from one subject/website to another, and digging up random information. So I can use that phrase instead of just say "well, I've been doing it again!" (I'm using Research or Procrastination for the moment, til I think of something better.) As always - when I do this I sometimes miss out on links or using different search terms. Please do let me know if you find something that I've missed or that needs correcting!


Also if you're a writer and haven't heard of "Person from Porlock" - skip to the end to find out more - I think you'll love this reference!


This session started with London Remembers, which is an attempt to log (photographs and text) all of the various memorials around London. If that kind of thing interests you, be sure to check out their pages Lost Memorials and Puzzle Corner (I REALLY want an answer to what this plaque is, and it's one of three! I do love this kind of mystery.). From all of that you'll see why I had to bookmark this site. And so today - probably because there are other (really dull) things I need to do - I thought I'd just peek in.


Under the link This Day, I was looking down the page of images of various people from history. And I clicked Louis MacNeice, because he had an interesting face. Also he looked somewhat bored and "oh just take the photo already"-ish. The blurb about his life/death:

 "Poet. Born Belfast, Northern Ireland at 2 Brookhill Avenue. Joined the BBC in 1941 as scriptwriter and producer and it was with the BBC, checking out the sound effects down a mineshaft, that he caught the pneumonia that was the cause of his death."

Of course I had to find out more - because here was someone doing audio recording work in the 1940s, and also yet another poet/author I hadn't heard of. And also that death sounded like it might have more of a story to it. (Spoiler, didn't find anything.)


Louis MacNeice (wikipedia page) - if you'll read through the section on his life and just focus on his wives, love interests and children - that was one complicated biography for the families. Not the first artist that would have been difficult to live with (which I'm reading into the bio from those relationships). (Of course that could also be because the more dramatic lives make juicy bios, and interesting reading. That's a whole other topic.) He was also a single parent at a time when not many men had to deal with that - or at least in the scenario where his wife left him for another man (as opposed to wife dying in childbirth scenario).


Louis MacNeice - BBC page under Local Writing Legends, much better written bio than wiki (understandable) but a lot less info on wives/lovers and children. Nice link to his stone and bio at Poet's Graves.


The Dark Tower - BBC link, online audio that I've not listened to yet. Supposed to be one of his best known/admired radio works.

"...The Dark Tower is a parable play on the ancient theme of the Quest, suggested by Robert Browning's poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. It was written and produced by Louis MacNeice, with music specially composed by Benjamin Britten..."


MacNeice, the War, and the BBC, by Derek Mahon, Studies on Louis MacNeice, Open Edition Books (Many excerpts of his poetry within this.)


The Open University: Making Britain, Louis MacNeice


Comment is Free: Missing Louis MacNeice, by Christopher Harvie, Guardian, 9 Oct 2007


There may indeed be more of a story to his death, but not that I can find so far - everyone has the same information. (I'm particularly annoyed I can't find anything detailed about his audio work/BBC drama either. So far. Because what did happen to that last audio production he was working on?! Even if it was just sound effects, I'm curious.) A lot of his writing isn't available online - just excerpts here and there. Probably because much of his writing  is still under copyright (that's my guess), though a lot also seems to be out of print. His unfinished autobiography is here at Open Library, so if you want to find out more, you can try there.


Later added: Ah ha! There's a book that probably answers some of my questions, about the technical side of his job.


Book: Louis MacNeice in the BBC by Barbara Coulton, Faber, 1980

Book review: Rise and Fall of Radio features, by Marilyn Butler, London Review of Books, Vol. 2 No. 15, 7 August 1980, pages 5-7

(I have a sense you can't read the entire review at that link though. The Coulton book is $50 US, so that's library fodder for me, though probably hard to track down.)


When I read wikipedia biographies like MacNeice's I tend to always look for more information in the women involved - because I'm interested in their stories, and also because I often find that you can only find information that's related to them only as the wives or lovers, no matter how interesting their lives. It's getting better as far as googling up this kind of thing, but especially for certain periods of history, still pretty much the case.


And so I got sidetracked (from MacNeice) reading about one of MacNeice's romantic interests.


Nancy Spender (wiki page) - an artist who had an affair with McNeice in the 1930s, and illustrated some books he'd written. Her life sounds like something someone should have written a biography about already. She died recently, in 2001. She was also an ambulance driver in London during the war, and if you ever want to read stories of bravery, start with these sorts of drivers in World War II (I should have a book link here, but here's where I have a moment of the lazy. Also need to point out something more about Spender.).


Besides that wiki page, I wasn't finding much on Spender - considering the other artists and authors she knew, and for the amount of art she produced (from what little I've read) and was apparently still producing. None of her art came up in an image search, or was linked on her wiki page. AH! But there's a reason for that! It has to do with the whole "married women change their name a lot" thing and that's what happened to Spender. She was Nancy Sharp before marriage, Nancy Coldstream after her first marriage, and Nancy Spender after her second marriage. (Note how much longer both husbands' bios are and give a small sigh with me. This is a great example of where wikipedia has its info gaps. And of course, gaps in popular history as well. MacNeice is rather an obscure poet now, but compared to what's out there on Spender's history...sigh.)


You can scrouge up more info online thanks to knowing of her various names. But still it's just bits here and there. One of the best I found (aside from obits):


W. H. Auden Society Newsletter, No 10-11, Sept 1993:

"Nancy Spender's Recollections of Wystan Auden


Nancy Spender now lives in Hampstead, surrounded by portraits. Many of her paintings (exhibited under her professional name of Nancy Sharp) are of clergymen, since she takes particular delight in reproducing the black of their robes. Among these portraits is her early study of Louis MacNeice, last exhibited in London at the 1976 Writers of the Thirties exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, where it will eventually find a home. Our conversation, attended by an affectionate, long-haired, grey cat, was wide-ranging; besides dealing with Auden, its subjects included the low status accorded to women students at the Slade between the wars and the challenge of teaching in comprehensive schools.


Nancy was living with her first husband and fellow painter William Coldstream when Auden came to stay with them as a lodger in 1935. The Coldstreams lived in a ground-floor maisonette in Upper Park Road in London and both Auden and Coldstream were working at the G.P.O. Film Unit on films including Night Mail and Coal Face.


...Bill Coldstream had temporarily given up painting for his film work and Nancy had let her own career take second place while her husband became established. She had two daughters to care for-Juliet, then aged three, and the baby, Miranda. Her own work was fitted around caring for children and the home. She had no studio; her portrait in oils of MacNeice was painted, at his urging, in the attic with the sitter perched on a bed. Auden does not seem to have taken Nancy's art seriously. He did, however, believe that she needed an outlet and suggested she might find this by joining the Communist Party!"


Read the rest at the link - I was amused with her story of trying to get an autograph of Leslie Howard when she saw him having dinner with his wife in the same restaurant where she (Spender) was eating with MacNeice.


I did find Nancy Spender's artwork under Nancy Sharp:


BBC, Your Paintings: Nancy Sharp - but only 4 of them


National Portrait Gallery: Nancy Culliford Sharp - same two images already seen on the BBC Your Paintings link. Also her name here confuses the hell out of me because I hadn't come upon the Culliford before this page. (And I didn't do any further googling with it, so more may be there via that search. Am now wondering if I missed that name when reading her obits?)


From various obits (which I'm not linking because, depressing that that's all that's there) it sounds as though Spender was painting until her death, so I'm pretty sure that there's more out there (perhaps even online?) that I'm just missing. Still, my main feeling is that this woman needs some more biography. Though I suspect/hope that there may be some academic papers of her out there, somewhere. And I'm sure if I was to pick up a book on either of her husbands she'd be mentioned (and there'd be book references to pick through).


Sudden! Unexpected! Topic hop!

[Translation: I am too lazy to write a nice segue into another topic!]


While I was reading about MacNeice I noted that his wikipedia page listed, under his published plays:


Persons from Porlock [1963] and other plays for radio (1969)


With a link to Person from Porlock (another wiki page), where I then learned about this fun reference:


"The Person from Porlock was an unwelcome visitor to Samuel Taylor Coleridge during his composition of the poem Kubla Khan in 1797. Coleridge claimed to have perceived the entire course of the poem in a dream (possibly an opium-induced haze), but was interrupted by this visitor from Porlock (a village in the South West of England, near Exmoor) while in the process of writing it. Kubla Khan, only 54 lines long, was never completed. Thus "Person from Porlock", "Man from Porlock", or just "Porlock" are literary allusions to unwanted intruders who disrupt inspired creativity.


...This story is by no means universally accepted by scholars. It has been suggested by Elisabeth Schneider (in Coleridge, Opium and "Kubla Khan", University of Chicago Press, 1953) among others, that this prologue, as well as the Person from Porlock, was fictional and intended as a credible explanation of the poem's seemingly fragmentary state as published. The poet Stevie Smith also suggested this view in one of her own poems, saying "the truth I think, he was already stuck"."


Then there's a long list of references to Person from Porlock in other literature - I can never skip reading such sections!


Anyway, if you're a writer - or just someone that often finds yourself interrupted on any project that you fear leaving because you'll lose that moment of inspiration - you now have the Person from Porlock to remember and refer to yourself. (I can think of some non-human examples of the Person from Porlock too!) The odd bit to me is that I was an English major and even had some study of Coleridge, and yet never bumped into this bit of writerly jargon. (And I've read a good chunk of the Dictionary of Literary Terms! Er, that review I never really finished because I needed to quote a big chunk of the entry for porn for humor's sake, and then never got around to typing that in my packing/moving frenzy. Also I kept getting sidetracked to see what historical porn references are now online! Answer: enough to sidetrack me since I became more interested in reading that than typing quotes!)


Meanwhile I've always been afraid of being the Person from Porlock myself - some of the friends in my undergrad that I most appreciated were ones who'd let me know immediately that they couldn't stop to talk because they were busy. At times like that I'd rather have that blunt honesty than unknowingly have bothered someone - and when you're in the midst of paper writing season, you have such little time to get things done. It's actually a nice feeling to know that people are comfortable enough with you to be that honest and know you'll understand and just come back later, and not get upset. (I'm smiling now, just thinking about it. Yes, I care that much about not adding to other folk's stressloads - I deal with my own enough to respect that!)