A Tale of Two Questions: St Spiv, the musical

 

Hello Ronnie, how are ya? Ronnie, I want you to say hello to my son, here, this is Jeff
– Jeff, this is Ronnie Duncan.

Until recently, one of the more puzzling artefacts in the Ronald Duncan Collection was a recording of a set of musical theatre songs identified as ‘Music for Ezra Pound’s plays’. This identification did not ring true – the greeting and introduction recorded on the tape were very clearly addressed and it seemed almost as unlikely that Duncan should be involved in discussions about music for Ezra Pound’s plays as it did that Ezra Pound would be known as ‘Ronnie’. However, aside from the songs, the only significant pieces of evidence offered by the recording as to its origin were that one of its participants was named ‘Jeff’ and that he was the son of the other speaker. Here, then, was our first question: What was this recording? Without knowing all of Duncan’s work intimately, and with seemingly little else to go on, the recording joined a number of cryptic items that we hoped to understand better as the project unfolded.

The question was answered when Caroline Walter (project archivist) found a reference to a musical production of Duncan’s novel St Spiv in a letter from Jerry Wayne. With this information and some very helpful correspondence with Jeff Wayne’s assistant, Lindsey Key, Caroline was able to confirm that the recording is a demonstration tape of a musical theatre adaptation of St Spiv by none other than Jerry Wayne and his son Jeff Wayne, the creator of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.

Ronald Duncan, proudly highbrow, seems an unlikely partner in the creation of a musical, but the collaboration came about through Eric Glass, agent to Ronald Duncan and London agent to Jerry Wayne. Glass, a recurrent figure in the collection, was himself a well-known character within literary and theatrical circles who had also worked briefly with MI5 during the Second World War in an operation to divert funding for Nazi spies in Britain away from its intended recipients. When informed that Jerry Wayne was interested in producing musicals for the London stage, Glass suggested a number of stories that might be suitable for adaptation, one of which was Duncan’s St Spiv. Arrangements were made, the script, lyrics, and music were written, and, after arriving in the UK to set things up, Jerry and Jeff went to stay with Duncan for a few days at Mead Farm, Welcombe, to work on the musical.

Jeff Wayne playing the piano at Mead Farm, c. 1966.

A farcical tale of a Cockney spiv who finds himself possessed of miraculous healing powers, St Spiv had existed in a number of formats before it came to the attention of Jerry Wayne in 1964 – as a short story (The Cockney Circus), as a play and, latterly, as a novel (first published in 1961). By mid-1965, its latest incarnation was being foreshadowed by the press and, on the 10th of June 1965, The Stage reported that Jerry Wayne was to present it in London in the September of that year, noting that the musical was based on Duncan’s novel and that ‘Mr. Wayne [had] adapted the book and [written] the lyrics to music composed by his 21-year-old son, Jeff Wayne.’ In May, a similar article from the Evening News, London, had reported that St Spiv would be presented in ‘the fall’, as well as a production of Two Cities (based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities), also adapted by Jerry and Jeff Wayne. Of these two musicals, only Two Cities was to appear before the public proper. Although it received a club performance and professional demonstration recording, St Spiv was never to make it to the open theatre. But why? This was our second question.

In a letter dating from the 10th of March (probably of 1966), Jerry Wayne asked Duncan to send him the reviews of St Spiv ‘… when it played at the new Arts Theatre’, and, in the same letter, he dealt with a number of script editions needed before setting a date for the show to appear. The tone of the letter was a positive one, and Wayne ended it by writing ‘I therefore feel it is absolutely imperative that no further time is lost in accomplishing this rewrite.’ Artistic differences, then, seem not to have been the cause of the show’s demise; likewise, and based on the lively and catchy numbers preserved by the informal demo-tape, it seems unlikely that quality was the problem. Instead, and as in many cases of musico-literary collaborations, it seems that a rift opened between the collaborators on the matters of rights and royalties. In a letter to Duncan dated the 6th of May 1966, Eric Glass suggested that negotiations had reached an impasse – the 30% required by Duncan was too distant from the 15% offered by the co-producer, Stanley Gordon. Taking the view that he could negotiate no further, he wrote

… I think in the circumstances all we can do is try and sell the film rights or find a musical author or lyric writer who may be prepared to start from scratch on your original novel.

It is very sad that after all this time the deal has come to nought…

As a coda to this post, here is the end of the last song from the show, which is both accidentally apt and rather enjoyable.

 

 

Written by Andrew Cusworth. We are very grateful for the assistance of Jeff Wayne and his assistant, Lindsey Key, and for Jeff Wayne’s permission to share parts of the demonstration tape and the photograph of Jeff Wayne at Mead Farm.

Newly Catalogued: the Modern Monastic Manuscripts of Syon Abbey

Following the completion of the Syon Abbey archive cataloguing project, I have been left with a little time before my next project to turn my attention to some enchanting and intriguing items in our collections: modern manuscripts in the Syon Abbey Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection (reference number EUL MS 262).

In 2004, twelve medieval and early modern manuscripts were deposited with us for safekeeping, and these have remained some of the most popular items in our collections, both in the reading room and in teaching here at the University. Three subsequent additions to the manuscript collection since 2004 have increased the number of manuscripts to 191 bound volumes and 8 folders of unbound papers. These additional manuscripts have always been open to users, but they have only been accessible through scanned lists in PDF files, which provide limited detail and are not searchable. In an endeavour to improve their discoverability and accessibility, I was delighted to devote two magical weeks to cataloguing the manuscripts at item level.

As the manuscripts were accessioned or transferred to the manuscript collection as three separate additions, they have been catalogued as three distinct sections. I have renumbered these as EUL MS 262/add1, EUL MS 262/add2 and EUL MS 262/add3. But never fear! I have made a note of the previous reference numbers in the catalogue entry for each item, so if you have accessed one of the manuscripts before, you will still be able to find it on the catalogue by entering the old reference number in the search box.

The section numbered EUL MS 262/add1 comprises handwritten, typewritten, and a very small number of printed items that were kept by the community on a bookshelf at their last place of residence in South Brent, Devon. To improve access, these manuscripts have now been rearranged into an approximate chronological order, but a list of the items in their original order exists and is available on request. The section numbered EUL MS 262/add2 consists of 28 manuscripts that were previously listed as part of the Syon Abbey archive, and the majority were kept in a box marked ‘Box 28’; 24 of these manuscripts were numbered 1-24 by the community at Syon Abbey and entered into a notebook labelled ‘Register of Syon Manuscripts’. Finally, three early modern manuscripts that were previously kept in the safe by the community at Syon Abbey make up the third section, numbered EUL MS 262/add3.

The newly-catalogued manuscripts were created or collected by the community over the course of five centuries, with the earliest manuscript dating to 1526 (EUL MS 262/add3/1), and the most recent dating to the late twentieth century (EUL MS 262/add1/143). In addition to the theological, liturgical, and devotional manuscripts that one might expect to find in a monastery, the manuscripts also include several histories of Syon Abbey, personal accounts of the lives of sisters, and notes on the contents of the library. The majority of the manuscripts are in English; however, the collection also includes manuscripts partly or wholly written in Latin, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Spanish, Swedish, German and Italian. Intriguingly, many of the manuscripts include the names of the nuns or monks who transcribed or read them, providing fascinating insight into scribing and readership at Syon Abbey. I’ve included images of extracts from some of my favourite manuscripts (it was so hard to choose!) in the slideshow below.

 

The manuscripts are now fully-catalogued and available to browse in our online catalogue. Simpy enter EUL MS 262* into the ‘Ref No’ field to view all the catalogued manuscripts. And don’t forget – we also look after the printed books from the Syon Abbey library and the recently catalogued Syon Abbey archive, as well as several other Syon Abbey related collections.

Happy browsing, reading and exploring!

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

Cataloguing the Syon Abbey Archive: Project Completed!

Annie with the archive

In November 2016, I began my new role as the project archivist working on the Syon Abbey archive, and immediately recognised that I faced a daunting but exciting task. The archive was large, complex, created over six centuries, and there was no discernible order into specific management groups. Nineteen months and 152 repackaged boxes (in addition to outsize material on shelves and in three plan chest drawers) later, the cataloguing project has been completed, allowing the archive to be more easily searched online and accessed in our reading room. You can view and browse the new archive catalogue here.

 

The archive has been arranged into 24 sections to reflect the different functions and activities of Syon Abbey, and to provide context for how the records were used. The sections are listed below with their reference numbers.

There have been many challenges throughout the course of this project, but there have been an equal number of (if not more) pleasures. With such a large archive, one would expect (as initially did I) that I would have a favourite section or one that I would particularly dislike, but this has simply not been the case. In each of the sections I have found records that have intrigued, moved, gripped or amused me; through each of them I have learnt what makes religious communities, and Syon Abbey in particular, unique, but also identified the many things we share in common; and while sorting through the material I’ve considered a multitude of different avenues of exciting research that could be – and I hope will be – pursued, now that the archive is more searchable and accessible. Nevertheless, I did want to share a very small selection of my favourite items with you, which you can view in the slideshow below.

 

As with all things, this project would have been much harder and less joyful if I had gone it alone. Fortunately, I am part of a wonderful team of colleagues who have supported me throughout, and I am very grateful for their kindness and expertise. A special thanks to Angela Mandrioli for her help in interpreting Latin documents and cataloguing papers relating to history and research; and to Sophie Morgan, our student volunteer, who did fantastic work in cataloguing the 100 community diaries and 155 vows at item level.

Volunteer Sophie Morgan with eight boxes containing the 100 community diaries she catalogued

So that just leaves me to say goodbye for now! I have so enjoyed working on this project, which has been my very first cataloguing project as a newly-qualified archivist. The skills I have developed (for example, I can now proudly claim to be capable of making a four-flap folder), the new knowledge I have acquired, and the people I have met through it, have made this project very special to me and I will miss it greatly. However, I am pleased and excited to be continuing in my role as archivist at the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, where I will soon be embarking on a new project.

Photomontage of records in the Syon Abbey archive

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Syon Abbey archive (which I hope you are!), why not check out the new online catalogue, revisit previous blog posts about the Syon Abbey archive, or take a look at our tweets about the archive on Twitter. And don’t forget – in addition to the archive, we also look after the Syon Abbey manuscripts and printed books from the Syon Abbey library, as well as several other Syon Abbey related collections. For more information, please contact us at libspc@exeter.ac.uk.

I hope you enjoy your journey of discovery into Syon Abbey!

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

 

The Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride

 

This weekend will see endurance riders from across Britain descend on Exmoor for the challenging Golden Horseshoe Ride. The first ride took place on 4th September 1965 supported by the Sunday Telegraph, British Horse Society and writer Ronald Duncan. Now in its 53rd year, having survived a serious threat to its future in 2016, we delve into the archives of the Ronald Duncan Collection to find out more about how the ride came into being.

Two letters held in the archive from 19 January 1965 show Duncan’s early impetus for the race. A letter to Colonel Mike Ansell of the horse society thanks him for an article on long distance riding (sent 9 December 1964) which Duncan claims “quite convinces me that the long distance race which I envisage could be undertaken”. Duncan clearly wasted no time in getting to work on the event as a draft letter asking for sponsorship for “an open annual event run over a distance of 100 miles, terminating at Welcombe” was composed the same day. By 16 June 1965 the Sunday Telegraph is involved, and on 1 August 1965 Duncan drafted a letter to a Mr Etheridge of the Sunday Telegraph proposing various points on the route. A hand written list of points on the route also survives.

 

A number of drafts of material for publicity, entrance forms and programmes survive showing the evolution of the event; its name going through several iterations as The Welcombe Marathon Race, The Welcombe Long Distance Ride and The Golden Horseshoe Fifty Mile Ride. In addition, an Agenda for a meeting on 4 August 1965 concerning the ride also survives, complete with scribbled annotations. These documents show the decisions made on route, vet points, entrance fees and start dates, and all show the marked focus on horsemanship and animal welfare that continues in the ride today.

 

The first ride comprised on 120 riders with 80 reserves, mostly from the West Country, with some from Wales and the Midlands, nearly 2/3rds of whom were women, with a large number of the men coming from the armed forces. In 2018 there will be 260 riders taking part in more than 7 classes. A sight that I am sure Duncan would have been thrilled to see.

In a draft of Duncan’s introduction for the programme, he mentions the International Marathon Ride as one of the historical impetuses for starting the ride, and a typescript of an article by the Inspector of Calvary on The Grand International 1906 seems to bear this out. However, Duncan’s love of horses would also have been a large part of his motivation, particularly the Arab horses that he bred with his wife Rose Marie Duncan. This love of horses led to his connection with Colonel Sir Mike Ansell for whom he wrote ‘The Horse’ in 1964, which is still recited annually at the Horse of the Year Show. As with the Golden Horseshoe Ride, this poem still inspires horse lovers today and the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation receives many requests to use it in books, magazines, conferences, calendars, artworks and funerals.

 

Duncan explains his deep love of horses best in his programme introduction, stating “People sometimes ask my why, I as a poet should be so fond of horses? My answer is: a horse is a poem on four legs.”

 

‘The Horse’ by Ronald Duncan

 

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,

friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?

Here where grace is laced with muscle and strength by gentleness confined.

 

He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity

There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent;

there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.

 

England’s past has been borne on his back.

All our history is in his industry.

We are his heirs;

He is our inheritance.

 

Best of luck to all the riders this weekend!

 

Ronald and Rose Marie Duncan with horse

 

The Abbess in the Archive: the records of the ‘Mothers’ of Syon Abbey

One of the great joys of using archives is the unique opportunity to get to know people from the past on as personal a level as possible (without the help of time travel). We can gain insight into their personalities from their recorded thoughts, their manner of expression, their handwriting, and even their style of recordkeeping. I have been working as an archivist on the Syon Abbey cataloguing project for just over a year and, having now examined most of the material in the archive, I consider myself to be fairly well acquainted with several of the sisters from across six centuries. However, of all the sisters in Syon’s long history, those whom I feel I know best are the abbesses. The abbess – at Syon Abbey most often referred to as the ‘Lady Abbess’ but frequently also as ‘Mother’ – was an elected sister responsible for the management of the abbey, who had final authority on all matters. A large majority of the records throughout the archive were created by or for the abbess, so it is therefore unsurprising that it is abbesses of Syon Abbey who we get to know the best.

Syon Abbey postcard featuring Abbess Mary Peter Wallace (elected in 1964), c 1954 [EUL MS 389/PUB/3].             Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

So how can you go about discovering more about the lives of these women and their role as abbess? A good place to start off your exploration is a manuscript volume entitled, ‘The Annals of the English Bridgettines’, which was completed between 1880 and 1909 and includes a history of the community from 1415 to 1880, annal entries for the years 1878 to 1886, and diary entries for the years 1887 to 1895 [EUL MS 389/HIST/1]. The annals reveal more about the challenges faced by the community, particularly during its exile, and the actions taken by the abbesses of Syon that enabled the brothers and sisters to remain together and continue their religious practice.

Title page of ‘The Annals of the English Bridgettines’ [EUL MS 389/HIST/1]                                                                         Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

Following on from the annals are the 100 community diaries, dated between 1890 and 2004, many of which were kept by the abbess. Several of the diaries, particularly between 1920 and 1970, are extremely detailed and provide a rare insight into daily life in an enclosed religious community. You can browse the Syon Abbey diaries via the online catalogue, where each of the diaries have been described individually.

Syon Abbey community diaries [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/1-100]

If you would like to learn more about the abbesses day-to-day management of the abbey, a good place to look is the ‘Administration’ section of the archive, where amongst other records, you will find minute books of the Chapter and minute books of the Council of Syon Abbey. These record the decisions made by the abbess with the agreement of the community concerning all kinds of matters, including, as you will see below, the purchase of a jersey cow!

Notebook entitled ‘Minutes of the ‘Discreets’, 1898-1907 [EUL MS 389/ADM/2/2]                                                               Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

The Syon Abbey archive contains vast quantities of correspondence regarding all manner of things, and the majority of letters, postcards and telegramms are addressed to the ‘Lady Abbess’. The archive also includes many drafts or copies of letters sent out by the abbess. The correspondence highlights just how important the role of the abbess was, not just within the community, but also externally as the representative of the community. The archive includes correspondence regarding spiritual matters; financial, property and legal matters; relics and treasures; manuscripts and books; and history and research (just to name a few!).

Envelopes from correspondence with other Bridgettine houses [EUL MS 389/HOU/1]

In addition to her many responsibilities regarding the management of the abbey, one of the most important tasks of the abbess was to ensure peace and order within the community. There is much evidence in the archive of the love and respect felt by the sisters towards their abbesses, but the greatest indications of this are the little homemade gifts given by the sisters to the abbess, usually on birthdays or anniversaries. They include poems, songs, and booklets containing spiritual verses. Below are two images from a booklet entitled, ‘Bridgettine Breviary Bouquet’ [EUL MS 389/PERS/JOCELYN], a compilation of extracts from the Bridgettine Breviary which was given to Abbess Teresa Jocelyn by seven sisters in 1923. The inscription reads: ‘To our dear Mother on her Bridal-day…from her loving and grateful children’.

 

This and much more is now available for you to explore – why not visit our online catalogue today to find out what you can discover about the abbesses of Syon Abbey!

Click here to search the Syon Abbey archive via the online catalogue.

 

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

What are notes but tears with wings? Duncan, Schubert, and the Sublime

‘If I had to grade the necessities of life, I should put them in this order: the sun, for without it we are dead; horses, for without them to look at we are blind; music, for otherwise we are deaf.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

It is not entirely surprising that Ronald Duncan, close friend of and and sometimes librettist for Benjamin Britten, had a deep and intricate relationship with music, a fact touched upon occasionally in the first volume of his autobiography, All men are islands. Duncan makes mention of often visceral responses to musical works, of the bust of Beethoven that he kept with him, of his encounters with musicians (including Stravinsky), and of how he would invent poems to the rhythms or melodies of pieces that he knew; however, his connection with music was at a distance, and, a little below the comment quoted above, he goes on to write

‘Sadly I realised I had been deprived of the one language I needed. For I could not write or read music.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

Above all other music, Duncan loved that of Franz Schubert, whose birthday it is as I write this post. As described by Duncan, it was a love, like many of his loves seem to have been, immediate in its conception:

‘I was about twelve years old when I met the influence in my life that has affected me more than anything. I went to the theatre and heard Schubert … The play was a sentimental musical comedy, supposedly based on Schubert’s life, called ‘Lilac Time’. It contained a number of his songs. I was quite unable to keep away from the theatre. I went to it twenty-seven times … I cannot possibly explain why I found Schubert an irresistible influence at the age of twelve, or why he has always remained my favourite composer.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 44)

Part of Schubert’s appeal, in Duncan’s later life at least, may have been the directness of melody and affect in his music, a quality that has made his lieder (songs) amongst the most enduringly admired of the Western tradition, and which permeates his instrumental work also. This directness of communication would have been attractive to Duncan, who considered poetry and, by extension, art more generally, to be a mode of communication:

‘If you can’t hear me, it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough; and, if you don’t understand me, it is because the poetry isn’t any good, because I really feel, very strongly, that poetry should be lucid. I mean it as a communication, and if I fail to make that communication, I ask you to blame me. I do not believe that poetry should be obscure. What I have to say, if I fail to say it, then it’s my fault.’
(Duncan, transcribed from an audio recording of a poetry reading)

The nature and emotional affect of Schubert’s writing is a large subject, but its effect on Duncan is perhaps best illustrated in his own words. The following is extracted from an anecdote about enduring a potential lover playing the piano badly at her home:

… suddenly I heard a melody I had never heard before. It was so beautiful I had to rush from the room, from the house, before the girl or the mother could see my tears. Years later I heard the melody again. Of course it was Schubert – “The Shepherd on the Rock.”
(Duncan, 1964, p. 124)

Duncan’s fascination with Schubert reached its apotheosis with his play, Schubert, completed late in his life (1980), and performed in the same year. The play takes the form of what might be described as an occasionally interrupted monologue by the composer, who works at an ‘untuned rotten piano’. It is, perhaps, a distillation of Duncan’s view of the artist at work: the genius who is at once confident of the brilliance of his own abilities and wrestling with a vortex of social anxiety and emotional (not to mention physical) pain and frailty. Whether or not these romantic ideas appealed to Duncan’s sensibilities of his own artistic and emotional challenges, it is clear from his other writings that he developed an affinity for and, in his own mind, with Schubert that extended beyond simple admiration for the composer’s music. In a poem from 1970, Duncan describes time as a ‘saboteur’ for separating him from his idol, and laments

‘…
What songs we could have written
If your genius with mine
     had been combined
Harnessed by our single mind.
Now only silence sings them
The wind mourning for their loss.’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, p. 185)

As evidenced in other poems, particularly Franz Schubert, the affinity felt by Duncan for Schubert seems to have had the effect of turning the latter into a distant beloved, to borrow a phrase from Beethoven’s song cycle, with Duncan describing a love

‘…
Far deeper than
                     I ever knew
For any woman[.]’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 311-3)

Page one of the manuscript copy of 'Franz Schubert.

Page one of the manuscript copy of ‘Franz Schubert’.

Page two of the Franz Schubert manuscript, decorated by an idiosyncratic sketch of the composer.

Page two of the ‘Franz Schubert’ manuscript.

With his earthlier and sometimes frustrated relationship with Britten in mind, it was, one might suppose, the very separation and lack of artistic consummation that helped Duncan’s nostalgic and idealised affair with Schubert to flourish. This idealisation of Schubert and his music can be felt most strongly, perhaps, in the lines:

‘Only the deaf
                    dare listen to Schubert,
Music is noise, or too meaningful to bear.
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 313)’

Taken with Duncan’s comment, ‘great art affects me like great pain’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 88), this allows us to posit that Schubert specifically, and great music more generally, becomes, for Duncan, a symbol of aching perfection, a reification of and metaphor for the sublime. It is from this position, perhaps, that one of Duncan’s more poignant questions arose:

‘What are notes but tears with wings?’

Manuscript bearing the words 'What are notes but tears with wings?' decorated by Ronald Duncan with a drawing of music manuscript with the notes decorated with read paint, as if bloody.

Manuscript, What are notes but tears with wings? as decorated by Ronald Duncan.

Amongst the Schubert-related items held in the Ronald Duncan Collection are those connected to his plays ‘Girl Friday’ and ‘Schubert’ (including the script, an audio recording of a performance replete with the occasional wrong note at the piano, the music to be played at the ‘untuned rotten piano’, and programmes from performances), his correspondence (particularly with the prominent music lover and patron George Harewood), a film script (Obsession), the scores of some Schubert songs, and materials relevant to his work as the literary editor of ‘The Penguin Book of Accompanied Songs’ (also known as ‘Classical Songs for Children’).

For an enjoyable and easily accessible source of further information on Franz Schubert’s artistic and musical struggles, I would recommend the episode of BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Listening Service’ entitled ‘Schubert’s Dark Side’, which is available from the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0801l4l

Andrew Cusworth, 31.1.2018

Quoted sources
Duncan, R., All men are islands, Rupert Hart Davies, 1964.
Duncan, R., Weston-Smith, M., Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003.

Volunteering at the Ronald Duncan Collection

University of Exeter Special Collections is lucky to have a number of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers. In this blog post our Volunteer Rhiannon McLoughlin talks about her experiences volunteering with the Ronald Duncan Collection.

When I say I work in a library people often respond with “Oh do you like reading?” Whilst I do like reading this doesn’t tend to be part of the job description! However, my time volunteering at Exeter University Special Collections during 2017 in order to gain some insight into the differences between library and archive work did, I am happy to report, involve a lot of reading.

When I found I was to work alongside Project Archivist Caroline Walter on the Ronald Duncan Collection I was intrigued as he is not an author I had come across before. Caroline kindly loaned me the first volume of his autobiography and I enjoyed getting to know this colourful character alongside the work.

I started out cataloguing the Ronald Duncan book collection. Cataloguing books for an archive is a far slower process than the new library books I normally deal with but can be much more fascinating. I found myself leafing through items looking for anything that made them singular – notes, dedications, markings, edition numbers, or inserts of letters, press cuttings, even a risqué postcard!

I was impressed by the wide variety of writings Duncan produced. Writer, poet, playwright, librettist and editor the collection shows his interests lay in many directions. As a Devonian I particularly enjoyed the local connection and could not help but stop occasionally to read bits and pieces about North Devon life. Whilst his former home and rented buildings may look idyllic now it sounded a far more hardy existence then in wartime and winter months. The tales of pouncing on items washed up on the beach particularly made me chuckle whilst his “Guide to housebuilding and smallholdings” and volume on tobacco farming demonstrated his determination to turn his hand to self-sufficiency.

The book collection contains not only his own writing career but writings and responses by others to his work- from letters in journals to student theses about him. There are works in progress, annotated books, proof copies and newsletters pieced together. There are a large number of different literary journals he contributed to and programmes for his plays. There are anthologies where his verse was included – “The site: choose a dry site…” seems a particularly popular choice. There are also items translated into other languages including Polish and Turkish and of course various musical scores and items relating to his work with Benjamin Britten.

I found some of Ronald Duncan’s self-published items by his own Rebel Press to be of especial interest. These are often short limited edition runs such as the volume “Auschwitz” with sobering illustrations and a volume of poems by Virginia Maskell under a pseudonym [Leaves of Silence by Simon Orme].

The book collection indicates the important relationships in Ronald Duncan’s life. Most copies of his own work are signed by him and many are also signed “desk copy” so were clearly his own personal copies – one amusingly “if anywhere else it was stolen”! But many of his books are variously inscribed to friends and family – including a multitude to his wife Rose Marie – usually loving inscriptions but some hinting at more challenging times in their relationship. A particular marker of his friendship with Gandhi are gifts of tiny books of silvery woody paper with Gandhi’s writings – one complete with woodworm holes spiralling throughout.

Once I had finished cataloguing the book collection I began to read through some of Rose Marie’s diaries in preparation for digitisation and also to sort photographs into archival wallets. Rose Marie’s diaries are written in a lively and readable style and give a real sense of the challenges of their North Devon lifestyle (including having the band Deep Purple stay in their rental property) and provide a further window onto Ronald Duncan’s work. Repackaging photographs offered pictures of their life I had been getting to know through words – family members, the house, the coast and their beloved horses.

I volunteered to get experience of archival work but found myself equally glad to have gained experience of Ronald Duncan. Working on this collection I got drawn in by the writing and whilst I found myself often having to record that there were signs of damp in the condition note of the books I rather liked the sense that gave of somebody working away at the edge of the sea in his little writer’s hut.

Exploring Christmas at Syon Abbey

My name is Sophie and I am currently a third year student at the University of Exeter, studying for a BA joint honours degree in History and Archaeology. In September I began volunteering at the University’s Special Collections, allowing me to gain valuable work experience, as I hope to pursue a career in the heritage sector. I have spent my time as a volunteer working with the Syon Abbey archive. My main role has been cataloguing the 100 diaries of the community from the late nineteenth to the twenty-first century at item level. I have enjoyed this task as it has provided me with a detailed insight into the daily life of the community.

Sophie with a sheet of 1950s Christmas wrapping paper found inside one of the diaries in the Syon Abbey archive

References to Christmas in the Syon Abbey diaries

As Christmas is fast approaching, I wanted to share some details of the celebrations that are recorded in the diaries. Many of the diaries mention the sisters’ festive decoration of the Abbey. For example, in a diary kept in 1955, an entry states that ‘the sisters’ gifts were hung on a large Xmas tree gaily decorated and illuminated with colourful lights’ and that ‘all danced around the tree and sang the Jubilee song’ [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/53]. This heart-warming image of the community is particularly festive and is one of my favourite entries from the diaries.

The sisters gave gifts as a sign of their love and affection for each other, especially during the Christmas period. The diary for 1906 contains a beautiful handmade paper snowflake, given to the abbess as a gift [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/1]. The community’s enthusiasm for gift giving can also be found in the diary for 1954 which records the gifts given to the Abbey’s gardeners and farm hands. The presents included: an electric kettle, socks, tobacco, biscuits, cake, pudding, butter, tea, and a hen [EUL MS 389/ADM/5/51]. This particular diary contains many more festive references, and even an inserted piece of 1950s Christmas wrapping paper. It also contains a lovely anecdote about how the Abbess ‘thoroughly enjoyed herself’ when she carved the Christmas turkey!

Elsewhere in the Syon Abbey Collection…

In addition to the diaries that I have been working with, the Syon Abbey Collection (which includes the archive and collections of printed books and manuscripts from the Syon Abbey library) contains further material relating to the celebration of Christmas. For example, within the Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection is a Syon manuscript entitled ‘A Discourse or Entertainment for ye sacred time of Advent’, written by the abbess in 1657, containing instructions for activities that the nuns should undertake during Advent [EUL MS 262/add1/B/5].

 

A particular favourite of mine in the Syon Abbey archive is a box containing small illuminated prayer cards with detailed calligraphy and hand drawn images relating to Christmas [EUL MS 389/97/1]. These beautiful pieces of art were created by Sister Mary Veronica during her religious life at Syon Abbey between 1933 and 2008.

EUL MS 389/97/1 – A Christmas prayer card created by Sister Mary Veronica Kempson, c 1933-2008.
Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

The Syon Abbey Medieval and Modern Manuscript Collection contains an illuminated transcript of the words and musical notation for ‘In Vigilia Nativitatis’ (which translates to ‘On Christmas Eve’) from the Roman Martyrology [EUL MS 262/add1/A/38]. This is a proclamation of the birth of Christ and would traditionally have been chanted or recited on Christmas Eve. It also contains a note on the back which details that the ‘Syon melody’ was originally taken from the Lisbon book and was handed down orally with some alterations. This ‘Christmas Martyrology’ was created in 1952 by Sister Mary Stanislas, of whom more artwork can be found in the Syon Abbey archive.

EUL MS 262/add1/A/38 – ‘In Vigilia Nativitatis’, created by Sister Mary Stanislas in 1952.
Provided for research and reference only. Permission to publish, copy, or otherwise use this work must be obtained from University of Exeter Special Collections (http://as.exeter.ac.uk/heritage-collections/) and all copyright holders.

To close…

The Syon Abbey Collection contains an array of fascinating material, including many insights into how the community celebrated Christmas. To find out more about the Syon Abbey Collection click here, or head to the Special Collections website to search our online archives catalogue. For those feeling festive, why not take a look at our Twitter account, where we are posting images from across the collections in our very own virtual Advent Calendar.

By Sophie Morgan, Volunteer

Britten, Kennedy, Duncan

The 22nd of November 1963 was the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The first broadcast assassination of a world leader, the murder of the President of the USA at the height of the Cold War, this was the epicentre of a political and media cataclysm the resultant ripples of which are still present in our thinking.

The 22nd of November 1963 was also Benjamin Britten’s 50th birthday – occurring on the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. Despite some public fanfare, Britten’s birthday must have been all but forgotten in the furore emerging from the USA.

In her diary entry for the day, Rose Marie Duncan, Ronald Duncan’s wife, noted both events:

‘Bunny rang up in evening to say Kennedy had been shot. State of shock and amazement and real sorrow – watched T.V – news etc – and also tribute for B[enjamin] B[ritten]’s 50th birthday – rather boring and sententious – shot of R[onald] in very long floppy shorts, going off to play tennis, flanked by Ben and Peter like warders.’

The next entry continues the connection in the most unexpected of ways:

‘Still upset about Kennedy’s death. Watched 1-0 news on TV – pictures of Mrs K and general mix up – also the assassin – looking like a young Benjamin B[ritten]!’ (Rose Marie Duncan, 1963 Diary, EUL MS 397/18/1/9)

At 50, and a year on from his completion of his seminal War Requiem, Britten was no longer the ‘promising young composer’ to whom Ronald Duncan had been introduced, probably in 1936, by his college friend Nigel Spottiswoode. (Ronald Duncan, All Men Are Islands, Rupert Hart-Davis 1964, p. 130) Facilitated by the interest of all three men in the Peace Pledge Union and by Spottiswoode’s involvement in the production of the GPO Film Unit’s enduringly popular Night Mail (for which Britten wrote the score), the introduction led to a fast friendship between the two writers and instigated a creative exchange that would interest them for the remainder of their careers.

The first buds of this exchange appeared in the form of the Pacifist’s March, a ‘youthful’ work which Britten apparently showed little interest in revisiting later in life; (Duncan, 1964, p. 131) their creative engagement blossomed more fully in the late forties, following Duncan’s intervention in the libretto for Peter Grimes. This period saw the creation of The Rape of Lucretia, which was swiftly followed by works including a wedding anthem (Amo ergo sum) for their mutual friends George Lascelles (Lord Harewood) and Marion Stein, and music for the plays This way to the tomb, Stratton, and The eagle has two heads. Not all of their ideas were to come to fruition, and it is tantalising to know of works that were never realised, including at least one opera (based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), a large work referred to in correspondence as St Peter, and a response to the bombing of Hiroshima (referred to as Mea Culpa), which Duncan lamented as the potential War Requiem that never was. (Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Faber and Faber, 1992, pp. 242, 405; correspondence, Benjamin Britten to Ronald Duncan, EUL MS 397/644)

The traces of their friendship and collaboration kept in the Ronald Duncan Collection include photographs, libretti, news-cuttings, programmes, letters, copies of musical scores, and audio recordings including elements of the rehearsals for This way to the tomb. Amongst the more touching items is Lament for Ben (EUL MS 397/1046), a song contrafacted by Duncan from the trio of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A minor (No. 16, D. 845). Duncan underlaid the score in minute and heavily revised scrawl with a new poem lamenting the passing of his great friend, and signed it at the foot of the page ‘RD. 4.XI.76’ (Britten died on the 4th of December 1976, rather than the indicated November). The choice of Schubert is a poignant one: not only was Schubert Ronald Duncan’s favourite composer, but Britten himself performed and recorded a not inconsiderable number of Schubert’s works, and would play some of them for Duncan in the early days of their friendship. In his autobiography, All men are islands, Duncan wrote: ‘Britten and I were now constant companions. He used to play Schubert to me. I had been looking for Britten for ten years. Sometimes he would play Chopin, but it was Schubert that I would make him play over and over again.’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 132) And so, almost exactly forty years later, Duncan memorialised Britten through a piece that Britten may well have played for him in their youth.

The text of this appropriated song is barely legible in situ, but the poem Lament for Ben appears in the collected poems – albeit in a form that does not quite match the lyric so tortuously worked out under the musical score. Working from both the manuscript and the published poem, I have attempted to reconstruct this very personal tribute. In order to do so, I have blended the printed poem with that of the manuscript, adjusted one or two rhythms and word placements, and transposed the piece into a key more amenable to the average voice. Finally, I have made a recording of myself singing and accompanying the song to give a sense of what Ronald Duncan may have had in mind – possibly its first singing in any public sense.

And so, with apologies for the recording quality and my mid-November cold-filled voice, a musical offering from the Ronald Duncan collection in time for Britten’s birthday on the feast of St Cecilia: a song which, by coincidence, is not wholly inappropriate to the more lamentable events for which the date is sometimes remembered.

This post was written by our Digital Support Officer Andrew Cusworth.


Recorded in the Mary Harries Memorial Chapel, University of Exeter, with thanks to the chaplaincy and director of chapel music for permission for the use of the piano and chapel.

 

Lament for Ben
(to Schubert’s Trio Opus 42)

Is life, this life, his life
now lost, was that a dream,
And death, a dream too?
Whose sleep, whose dream
Are we who live?
This death, his death
makes all of us die too.
His life was ours;
His death is ours;
We grieve, for whom?
We grieve for ourselves.

May Bach and Purcell
Bend down to this bier
But let music sing
to sing their song
Their song, their song
Though poetry’s dumb.

In this waste, this grief
these notes alone lend us
yields us
give us
some relief
though brief
though brief

(Ronald Duncan, ed. Miranda Weston-Smith, Collected poems, Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003, pp. 226-7)

An adapted score for Ronald Duncan’s ‘Lament for Benjamin Britten’ set to the Trio from Schubert’s Piano Sonata D845

Why not try playing it for yourself?

It’s National Poetry Day!

To celebrate Exeter Poetry Festival and National Poetry Day I have been tweeting one of my favourite Ronald Duncan poems every day this week. Why not take a look at the @UOEHeritageColl twitter feed and read a few?

Ronald Duncan published five main collections of poetry during his lifetime (Postcards to Pulcinella [1941], The Mongrel [1950], The Solitudes [1960], Unpopular Poems [1969], For the Few [1977]). In addition to these he also published a five-part epic poem ‘Man’ (1970-74) and many other individual poems. On National Poetry Day I’m moving away from the polish of published works and taking a look at some of the unique manuscripts held within the collection which offer an insight into Duncan’s life and writing process.

The poet at work

Portrayals in film and TV mean that I often imagine the writing process as a deeply organised one. The poet sits in front of his favourite typewriter, or pulls out a pocket notebook carried for such occasions, and reels off lines of beauty conveniently supplied by a voiceover. Working on the Ronald Duncan Collection has swiftly disabused me of this notion.

While the collection does contain many workbooks, and these seem to be an integral part of Duncan’s early working process, it also contains poems scribbled on paper plates, napkins, the backs of old letters and various assorted scraps of paper. To me this suggests a furious kind of franticness to the writing, an urgency that the poem must be recorded now while it is still fresh. One of the paper plates has clearly been used before being re-purposed and though it isn’t perhaps the romantic ideal of a typewriter, there’s a certain charm to the thought of Duncan wolfing down a finger sandwich or sausage roll before flipping the plate to compose a poem.

 

The gift of words

Like many other poets, a great number of Duncan’s poems are dedicated to family members and friends. Weddings, birthdays and christenings are all celebrated in verse and the grief of death is likewise immortalised. The idea of poetry as a gift is well established.

Duncan, however, takes this idea a step further than most. A manuscript poem dedicated to his granddaughter Karina reads ‘No Easter egg, my child, because I forgot to get one’ and provides a poem as a substitute. Though I’m not sure that I personally would have appreciated this exchange of chocolate for poetry as a child, it provides a lovely glimpse of family life. Another poem is dedicated ‘For Rose Marie, as good a craftsman in exchange for her parsley sauce’.

 

The art of poetry

Many of Duncan’s poems use colourful imagery to describe the natural world and a small proportion of the manuscripts in the collection have been illustrated to reflect this. The illustrations tend to be painted onto the manuscript and vary from simple bright swirls of colour to abstract representations of the poems’ subjects. The vibrant designs give a tantalising glimpse of what was in Duncan’s mind when composing the poems.

 

The final word

However familiar I become with the Ronald Duncan Collection, I am always aware that my interpretation of Duncan’s work is only one possibility. With this in mind I leave you with an audio clip of Ronald Duncan talking about poetry, one line of which I particularly enjoy;

“If you can’t hear me it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough, and if you don’t understand me it is because the poetry isn’t any good”

(please note that in some browsers the ‘Play’ button does not seem to appear. If you click before the timer on the left hand side of the sound bar it should start playing)