Session 11

[Denton Welch: Self-portrait]

Lecture 11
Denton Welch:
The Journals (1942-48 / 1952)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Denton Welch (1915-1948): from The Journals (1952 / 1984)
  • Denton Welch: from A Voice through a Cloud (1950)
  • Michael De-la-Noy: from Denton Welch: The Making of a Writer (1984)

[2 December, 1942]:

Today I found, or think I found, three pure white hairs. They seemed to be shining like silver, but as there is gold in my hair they were difficult to track down and I am still not absolutely certain.

When I had them all plucked out and in the palm of my hand a curious thrill of horror and pleasure ran through me. I had a resurgence of my longing for death which obsessed me so four years ago. Then I was twenty-three, now I am twenty-seven, and it comes back vividly how I longed and prayed to die before I was twenty-four.

I remember that terrible afternoon when Francis took me to the thirty-year-old religious film in the parish hall. The flickering and the spitting and the starring of the reel gave the picture an unbearable nostalgia and depression. The camels, the robes, the city gates and the hats of the parishioners and the smell of their clothes hemmed one in and stifled me. I was seized in the panic of not being able to breathe or escape.

Roughly, I pushed past the others, disarranging the row of van-wood chairs. Francis said, "Where are you going?"

I did not answer but ran out into the air.

I wandered in the street; the light was failing.

I passed down the High Street and climbed the hill inevitably to ]. E.'s house. I spied through the hedge but could see nothing; the curtains were tightly drawn. Then I slunk into the garden and flattened my face against the pane of the living room window. The warm lamp was shining, and through a crack in the living room curtains I could see the corner of a bookshelf and the cream paint of the wainscot. Once the little black Aberdeen ran across my line of vision, then there was nothing.

I took my face away in despair and utter hopelessness. It was then that I had the idea to kill myself. "These things are cumulative," I remembered reading. "If you go on trying, you'll one day succeed."

Alertly, and with more vigour, I threaded my way back through the town.

I knew now that there was something I could try. When I got back to the flat Francis was waiting for me, wanting to know why I had run away. Supper was nearly ready too. I could smell the soup.

I was in a sort of drunken state with the hard stone in my heart and stomach. I went into my bedroom "to change my shoes", as I told Francis. I sat down on the bed and looked out the little black-and-white box of Prontosil tablets. I looked at them long, nestling in the puce lining of the box. I counted them. There were sixteen. I had been ordered three or four a day and was always asked rather anxiously if they made me feel depressed. I thought from this that they must be poisonous.

Sixteen, I felt, would be decisive, or at least enough to make me extremely ill.

Getting some water in a glass, I sat with the water and tablets before me; then I began systematically to swallow the tablets until they were all gone.

I stood up desperate and happy, wondering when I should feel the effects.

I ran back into the other room where the soup was already steaming in two bowls. I felt that I must enjoy my last moments to the full. I laughed and shouted.

"Have some soup, Francis, some lovely, steaming, soothing soup."

I caught hold of the sherry bottle and poured out two glasses. I drank mine quickly, taking some more. I poured sherry into the soup and spread my toast with butter.

"I must die happy and contented," I thought.

Suddenly I burst out with what I had done. I became terrified and ecstatic because I felt a creeping tingling and swimming in my head.

"I've just swallowed sixteen Prontosil tablets," I shrieked.

At first Francis did not believe me, then he jumped to his feet nervously. "Are you all right?" he asked. "Why did you do that?"

I tried to calm him.

"Don't be so stupid. Don't be so stupid. I only feel a little queer."

I seized the sherry bottle again and poured more out, slopping it on the tray and feeling sorry at the mess and the waste. I suddenly realized that it would not matter how much I spoilt and degraded the things I loved, for I was going to die. I almost knew it, yet I could not quite believe it. When I said, "These are your last moments; look long, bore down with those eyes which will soon never be able to see anything again", when 1 said, "Taste this last bowl of soup which will never pass those lips," I wanted to cry and laugh and smack myself and wake up to find that I was still a small boy of nine or ten whose mother loved him and had a warm place by the library fire at night where his father would sit reading some old, leathery, upholstered, comforting fustian. Something about Maria who lived in Genoa which was the great and wicked rival of Venice where the winged lion, so wonderful and fierce, swam against the sky in the square of St Mark's.

I opened my eyes again to see Francis still sitting there awkwardly, feverishly fiddling with his cigarette, and giving me short, sharp furtive glances. He was clearly about to jump up and leave me.

"Those nicotined fingers," I thought, "and those dirty nails; those unspeakable teeth and your agile diverting mind, you are a wreck at thirty-four. You're craven and you'll one day be a lunatic."

I stretched out my hands and said, "Don't go." I had a sudden horror of being left to die alone.

"You can't go and leave me. Look at the state I'm in." He lurched to his feet like a frightened bullock.

"You go to bed," he urged. "Or get the doctor."

The drumming was rising to a crescendo in my ears. I could not tell now whether I was drunk or whether it was the Prontosil in action.

As he pushed his way clumsily to the front door I followed, snatching up a stick in the hall. We walked rapidly in the direction of his house.

My legs were getting curiously heavy but I was still able to move them. I laughed and sang, cracking stupid jokes and saying how disgusting it was to leave someone who was dying. When we got to the fork at the Star and Garter I shouted again: "You can't go. You can't go. What's going to happen to me? I can't be abandoned like this. It is shameful, you're a monster. "

Anyone seeing us would think we were acting. It was midnight, the lights were still burning in the silence. Nothing moved.

"Shall I take you to the doctor's!" he asked, half-heartedly. "Yes, if I can walk that far," I answered.

Then I saw the craven, lazy light come into his eyes again and he veered away rapidly, saying, "Good-night. Go back to bed quickly."

I screamed oaths and blasphemy after him, half in fun, then, alone, beginning to be frightened, I wondered whether to go on to the doctor's house or home.

I decided on home and dragged myself there somehow. The fire was still burning in the sitting room. I told myself that there were things that must be burnt before I lost consciousness.

I threw them on to the fire so that great flames licked out and roared up the chimney. The paint on the mantle piece blistered. I got alarmed, ran for water and E. carne in excitedly.

Gradually the blaze subsided. Then l lay down and thought that my hour was nearly come. My head was splitting. Everything in me seemed to be burning. I was in some way losing all the salt and virtue of my senses; all was dumb, muffled, distorted, terrifying.

I told E. to ring the doctor. I dreaded calling him so late, but I felt that I could not be left in ignorance like this.

I waited, wriggling and lashing about on the bed, with the dull stone heated to red heat now in my stomach or my heart.

He came and saw me on the bed. There was an unbearable moment of self-consciousness. He roughly turned me towards him and said, "What's this?" like a school prefect coldly, disdainfully.

I faltered out something about the Prontosil and more about my unhappiness. His manner suddenly changed to one of businesslike gaiety.

"I think first of all we'd better try and make you sick," he said. I smiled and laughed in spite of everything.

He went for the mustard, the hot water, the spoon.

I drank the yellow stuff in great gulps, and waited. Nothing happened. He looked at me rather anxiously.

"Nothing doing?" he asked. "I don't think so," I said.

Then, because my head seemed about to boil and crack, I added, "Can you give me anything for my head or to make me sleep?"

"It would be very much better for you if you didn't," he said. "You've taken quite enough drugs for one night."

He laughed and joked and I began to be grateful to him. He had driven away the nightmare, if only for the moment.

At last he left me. He came forward saying ceremoniously, like a schoolboy again, "Let's shake hands."

I sat up in bed and held mine out. It was not silly, although it was self-conscious.

"I'll come and see you tomorrow," he said. "Try to sleep and be as calm as possible. Although you'll have a hell of a night. It's much better that you shouldn't take anything else. You've got to work all that stuff out of you."

I lay back in the dark room, thankful to him and grateful but just a little resentful about his seeming unconcern about the effects of prontosil. I'm sure it will be more serious than he makes out, I thought. If only there had been more tablets I would have swallowed them all. I am fond of him for being nice. He is young and lusty and quite different from me and those people are only nice when everything else is stripped away, and they see someone else left quite hopeless and "dished". In ordinary circumstances they are bound up and encased in all their funny little fetishes and taboos.

Towards early morning I fell into a short sleep, and on waking, the fantastic memories of the night seemed to hover above my head, out of reach; then they came down like a shirt enveloping me, lapping me round, submerging me.

The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-La-Noy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984): 26-30.

[Agatha Christie: The Mousetrap]

The Significance of the Country House in English Fiction

[Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers etc. -- but also Forster's Howards End (1910) and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945)]

What is the significance of the country house in British fiction? Obviously it's a good vehicle for examining themes of class, of course (peasants, servants, guests, and Aristocrats / Middle-Class Social climbers at home). It pits nostalgia and conservatism against the encroachments of modernity -- and that's as true in detective fiction as it is in more considered "state-of-England" novels such as Howards End or Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989).

In chapter six of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001) the young heroine Briony Tallis's mother Emily's migraine provides a pretext for an almost Fall-of-the-House-of-Usher like self-identification with the fabric of her own estate. She is forced to conclude, though, that:

She could send her tendrils into every room of the house, but she could not send them into the future. She also knew that, ultimately, it was her own peace of mind she strove for; self-interest and kindness were best not separated. (71)

The country-house is, finally - from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited - a symbol for well-meaning selfishness.

Lady Marchmain, General Tilney and Emily Tallis, then, might be seen as birds of a feather. "Self-interest and kindness were best not separated" - an oxymoron if ever I heard one.

[Denton Welch: Mythological Landscape]

Workshop 11
A Voice through a Cloud

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days flow through my eyes
But the days still seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what
they're going through
- David Bowie, Changes

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 11:

Graham Greene’s advice was to write autobiographically but always change one thing. This is one way to make the transition from auto¬biographical to fictional writing.

  • Think of something that changed your life. It could be something as superficially trivial as a new haircut. It could be a chance meeting or moving house. Make some rough notes, trying to locate the precise moment of change, and to relive what it felt like from the inside.
  • Now make your change. Alter a setting, or switch characters, while keeping to a first person narrative.
  • You are now on the road to fiction. One alteration may well lead to another. Don’t specify the changes you’ve made during initial feedback from the workshop. Later on, a general discussion will be helpful. What difference did your change make to the story? How did it affect the rest of the material? Could the members of the workshop tell what you had invented? And does it really matter any more?

NB: This exercise was adapted from The Creative Writing Handbook: Techniques for New Writers, edited by John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (London: Macmillan, 1996): 90-91.

Next week:

Exercise 12: Tracing the Line of Desire and Any remaining seminars due (by arrangement with your lecturer).

[Kurt Cobain]

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