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This report is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

Chimes at Midnight Peter Scupham
For Ann and Anthony Thwaite

Mr Gudgeon, the elderly bookshop assistant in Brian Aldiss’s first novel, The Brightfount Diaries, is given to sardonic aphorisms: ‘A miscellaneous collection of objects is man’s only defence against time,’ is one I particularly like. Navigating the steps and curlicues of The Mill House at Low Tharston, the Thwaites’ home for some fifty years, moving into the long low living room lit with a chequered light from the riverside windows, is to move into a room which is a metaphor for lives lived as travellers in space and time. A Roman bust shares its gaze with the staring eyes and flowing beards of Bellarmines, those stoneware drinking jugs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (We only wish we could have introduced him to his admired Robin Hildyard, of the Victoria and Albert, whose Exhibition Catalogue of stoneware was delightfully called Browne Muggs. Robin had also mentioned Anthony in an academic article, which delighted him.) Books, of course, are everywhere, shelved and nid-nodding to each other, heaped in piles; drawers open to reveal fragments of pottery: ‘Sherds, Peter, sherds, not shards.’ This a world of suggestions, shadows of lost knowledge; it exemplifies Anthony’s favourite book of Geoffrey Grigson’s, Looking and Finding, ostensibly for young collectors. We came from a collecting generation of schoolboys: mine were seashells, military badges, wildflowers... Ever since, as a boy, Anthony was given a silver denarius, he had been a looker and finder, alert for the secret signs which lie buried all around us. Both of us shared the National Service experience, jesting that Anthony’s acting rank as an Educational Corps sergeant was flimsier than mine, as a substantive corporal, my stripes inalienable, removeable only by a court-martial. But Anthony had refused a commission, so that he could be posted to Libya as a sergeant, where Leptis Magna and civilisation lay baulked and buried in sand. Such rooms as the one Margaret and I are now sitting in, if only in imagination, drinking Red Bush tea and nibbling teacakes, seem to me evocative of the 1950s and a house I knew where pre-Columbian pottery, garage-bills, African textiles and children’s drawings all lived in hugger-mugger. In such houses, there was and still is, no sense of display, no angled lighting saying ‘Look at me, I’m valuable’, just stuff, loved and used and wonderful.

How difficult it is to remember the conversations, so lively at the time, until they all flew off into the air and the light. Though Anthony’s literary antennae were alert to the who’s in, who’s out, the court news, that was never the staple of our talk. We were more likely to be sharing our interests in minor poets, James Reeves, Clere Parsons, Norman Nicholson... or remembered episodes such as Anthony’s return from Virginia by Aircraft Carrier on D. Day. Margaret, who had dramatised The House in Paris for the BBC, could be chatting to Ann about Elizabeth Bowen, the book illustrations of Harold Jones – Ann had an original hanging in a shady corner – or the children’s books of M.E. Atkinson. Ann, had, of course used the house as a children’s lending library well before we knew her, and was having fun recently over a re-issue of her biography of A.A. Milne to coincide with the film. Both Ann and Anthony had a deep sympathy with the Victorian world – Victorian Voices is one of Anthony’s books I have a special fondness for, and he had published a selection of Longfellow, not quite so quixotic a choice as my friend Patric Dickinson’s selection of Newbolt, but hardly a cutting-edge choice of poet. And any stray mention of a name would send Anthony upstairs to reappear triumphantly with the author in question, however minor. I managed to delight him by finding him a set of Miles’s Poets and Poetry of The Century, that huge conspectus of Victorian poetry, and also for Ann the Moxon Tennyson, with its pre-Raphaelite wood engravings. One of my first thoughts when I think of The Mill House, is of Ann and Anthony’s generosity of spirit; the two biographies of Ann’s I most admire are her studies of Emily Tennyson, rescuing her from her image as a sickly shadow in Tennyson’s life, and Philip Gosse, rescuing him from the bad press he was given in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Books? Once, the back staircase was the back bookcase, books shelved on the treaders, their backs to the risers...

Time to go into the garden. The Mill House has a river frontage onto that meandering waterway, the Tas, and an Oxford punt, pretending it is about be filled with undergraduates in boaters and girls in dirndls is moored just by the house. I will take Anthony’s word for it that he never fell in while punting, his response to a silly drawing I made of him clinging to the pole while his four daughters gazed at him from the sliding-away punt. I never saw Anthony punt, but Ann, however, was wielding a nifty pole in her eighties. The Thwaites had planted many trees themselves, and their meadow was embellished by a gypsy caravan which had seen better days and a table-tennis table, though I shall have to give Ann the glory of being the better player. Here Ann and Anthony held their summer jamborees for East Anglian Writers, here their children and grandchildren camped and made merry, here wood was collected for Anthony, as Keeper of the Flame, to build into lovely living room fires over what seemed centuries of ash.

Two of our most vivid memories of Anthony outside his much-loved habitat are dramatic. Well, sort of. Every year Margaret and I have celebrated the end of summer with a Poetry Picnic, which involves feasting, brief readings by a dozen or so poets and various stalls. Last year Anthony, John Mole and I did a rehearsed reading of the wonderful Silence, Shallow and Falstaff scene from Henry IV. Our combined age was, I think, 256. We had all heard those chimes at midnight, from different towers and belfries; there wasn’t a dry eye in the garden! And at eighty-three, Anthony took to the boards in our local church, when Margaret directed a semi-staged reading of Murder in the Cathedral. The incumbent was demoted to one of those scuttling priests, I played Fourth Tempter, Ann Thwaite was in the Chorus and Anthony, as Reginald de Morville, was, at eighty-three, the oldest knight to have ever killed an archbishop.

Anthony was a charmer, elegant in black with startlingly vivid socks knitted by our mutual friend, Leonie Woolhouse, gardener and painter; conscious of his looks he once murmured that, with Yeats he ‘had pretty plumage once’ though when I was one of the judges, who, years and years ago gave Hugo Williams the Faber prize for being the best young poet under forty, said: ‘Don’t you mean the most handsome young poet under forty?’ ‘Both,’ I answered. But I would also like to remember the serious, steady Anthony, the committed Anglican who made no parade of his beliefs but tried to live them. I think of us entertaining Kevin Gardner, a great admirer of Anthony’s work, who came over from Baylor to launch his anthology Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches (2016), when all four of us and Kevin did some Norfolk church-crawling and pubbing – and Anthony and I had a childish mock competition to see which of us had the more poems in the book. Of course, like most old poets, Anthony could feel washed up by the remorseless tide of new writers, and neglected. That comes with the territory; the only poet of advanced years I have known who did not feel neglected was William Wordsworth, who avoided the sensation by making sure he never neglected himself. And I am sure Anthony’s last book, Going Out (2015) is his best: humane, wry, questioning and kindly. True chimes at midnight.

This report is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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