Tag Archives: South West Writers

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)

The Writer that Rocked

 

In the swinging sixties the bedrooms of Britain vibrated to the sounds of Rock and Roll. Opposing the monopoly of the BBC, pirate radio stations were broadcasting popular music to the masses, with none more infamous than Radio Caroline.

News cutting of an article by Ronald Duncan

50 years ago today, indignant at this flagrant disregard for its laws, parliament passed the 1967 Marine and Broadcasting Offences Act. This Act banned not only the act of broadcasting, but the operation of broadcasting equipment, or the knowing collaboration or assistance with the broadcasting of Pirate Radio stations. This meant that for the first time writers supplying Radio Caroline with scripts would also be risking jail.

Ronald Duncan was one of a number of writers who openly campaigned against the act on the grounds of freedom of speech. Writing a number of newspaper columns on the subject and going so far as to openly claim that he had broadcast from Radio Caroline every day for a month in protest, despite attesting that he hated pop music.

Extract from a workbook showing a handwritten script for Radio Caroline

A handwritten script and recording held within the Ronald Duncan collection suggest that Duncan likely followed through with his claim to write for Pirate Radio, though as these were written under the generic pseudonym ‘Mr X’ it would take a great deal of research into the depths of Radio Caroline’s archives to see if he did indeed ever spend a week aboard the ship. Either way, his campaigning on behalf of the pirate stations’ freedom of speech earns him a small place in the
annals of radio history.

Listen to a short extract of a recording of Ronald Duncan’s script for Radio Caroline below.

Happy Birthday Ronald Duncan!

 

Ronald Duncan on his 50th birthday 6th August 1964

I can’t think of a better way to mark Ronald Duncan’s birthday than with one of his own poems.

They tell me it’s my birthday. How old am I?

Too innocent to be 10;

Too arrogant to be 20,

Too rich to be 30

Too poor to be 40.

Not ambitious enough to be 50;

Not wise enough to be 60

If 70, women would need me

and love me more; if 80, my family

would look more hopeful;

If 90, they would appear more frustrated

Nor can I be 100 for then I,

as all the world will know.

So, 15 must be the age of me

If age is measured by maturity.

 

Ronald Duncan, 1970

 

Ronald and Briony Duncan celebrating Ronald’s birthday in August 1969

Ronald Duncan’s Welcombe

 

The Ronald Duncan Collection contains a wealth of photographs of the Duncan family, their friends and areas of North Devon. In order to identify these photographs I recently travelled to meet Ronald Duncan’s daughter Briony Lawson at West Mill, Welcombe. Spending a few days in one of the most picturesque parts of Devon is undoubtedly a tough job, but I was up for the challenge.

My accommodation for the trip was at Home Farm Bed and Breakfast, run by friendly hosts Mike and Alison. Home Farm was previously owned by Ronald Duncan and remained the home of his wife Rose Marie Duncan after his death. Though the house has now been extended, it remains broadly as it was in Duncan’s time, along with the connecting Mead Farm which is now holiday cottages.

Home Farm today

My room was a small building at the bottom of the garden known as ‘The Old Dairy’. Though this may once have been true, both Mike and Briony reliably informed me that it more recently served as Ronald Duncan’s tool shed. Mike happily recalled the salvaged nuts, bolts and other assorted wonders he found hoarded there, some of which now take new life as part of a bird sculpture in the Garden. Down in the guest lounge it was lovely to see well-worn copies of Duncan’s books which had clearly amused scores of walkers on rainy days.

‘The Old Dairy’ at Home Farm, or Ronald Duncan’s shed!

Having arrived a little early I decided to take a trip down to Welcombe Mouth beach, a favourite beach-combing site of Duncan’s and the scene of many photographs of family picnics. Alison took one look at my Ford KA and warned me that I’d better not attempt the track down and should park near the Post Box at the top. Too busy staring at the scenery, I missed the post-box and carried on down the track. A few nerve racking minutes later I emerged to a dirt car park filled with 4×4’s and a stunning view out over the mouth.

Briony, Mole and Bunny Duncan picnicking on Welcombe Beach c 1960s

Welcombe Beach today

It’s clear why Duncan loved this beach. Its lack of accessibility means there were only a few people enjoying the scenery and dramatic ridges of rock rise up out of the sea and sand. Here and there someone had built a tower of stones and scattered rocks bore messages from visitors. It was easy to imagine that I might find the initials RD if I looked long enough. Round the corner a beautiful waterfall trickled down onto the beach and scattered around were bits of rope and sea-glass ready for any beach-combers.

Welcombe Mouth from the top of the waterfall c late 1930s

Welcombe Mouth from the top of the waterfall today

A little reluctantly I left the beach and attempted the steep ascent. Luckily my car is made of stern stuff and I managed to get up from the beach and down the steep track to West Mill without mishap. The valley was incredibly picturesque and Briony and Andrew Lawson were ready to welcome me warmly with a lovely cream tea. West Mill today is a far cry from the early photos in the collection. Its days without electricity and central heating are long gone and Briony remarked that she couldn’t imagine how the family used to survive there in the winter.

West Mill today

West Mill today

A view of West Mill and the surrounding Valley c 1930s

Considering the mound of photographs we had to identify I’m amazed at the pace at which we sped through them during the visit. Briony easily recalled the people, places, dates, and little anecdotes that brought them to life for me. The water wheel, lovingly restored by Duncan’s close friend Nigel Spottiswoode, has been converted to electric and is turned on for me to experience. Having read so much in Duncan’s autobiographies about the continual struggle to keep it working I’m glad that it still remains.

Work in progress – identifying the photographs from the Ronald Duncan Collection

Briony and Andrew Lawson in front of the water wheel at West Mill

One evening I climbed the steep cliff to Ronald Duncan’s writing hut, overlooking West Mill and the valley on one side and Marsland Mouth on the other. It was only a five minute walk from the house, nevertheless I was sweating by the time I reached the top. I can’t imagine climbing up and down the cliff several times a day to write.

Exterior of Ronald Duncan’s writing hut overlooking Marsland Mouth today

Interior of Ronald Duncan’s writing hut today

Originally an old lookout point, the hut was rebuilt by Duncan, who wrote his epic poem ‘Man’ there among other works. It has been maintained by the family and has information panels about Ronald Duncan and his work on the walls inside. The visitor’s book is a fascinating read and shows that the hut continues to provide shelter and inspiration to walkers. The view from the hut over the mouth was breath-taking, though its un-sheltered position must have made it a bleak, cold place to work in the winter.

Ronald Duncan lying on the roof of his writing hut c 1960s

Exterior of Ronald Duncan’s writing hut today

On my last day I visited Docton Mill. Now open to the public as a garden and tea rooms, this lovely old house used to be the home of Mole and Bunny Duncan, Ronald Duncan’s mother and sister. Briony and Andrew very kindly introduced me to the owners and I spent a pleasant couple of hours looking over old photos of Docton Mill with them and wandering round the beautiful gardens in an attempt to recreate the old photographs.

Docton Mill c 1950s

Docton Mill today

I left North Devon reluctantly with a greater understanding of Ronald Duncan’s life there and with an invaluable resource for researchers of the photographs in the collection.

More about the Ronald Duncan collection can be found here.

 

‘The past is a wastepaper basket’ – An Introduction to the Ronald Duncan Collection

Part of the Ronald Duncan Collection

Hello Readers!

2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the University of Exeter Special Collections Team. We have two interesting projects taking place, thanks to generous funding and we’re taking to social media to keep you all up to date on them. You can read my colleague Annie’s introduction to the Syon Abbey cataloguing project here.

I’m lucky enough to be working as Project Archivist on the Ronald Duncan Collection as part of an 18-month project to catalogue and improve access to this fascinating collection. You can follow the progress of the project through this blog and also through @UoEHeritageColl on twitter.

The archive was permanently acquired from the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation in 2012, having previously been on loan for a number of years, and the foundation has now generously funded this project to ensure that the collection is accessible for future researchers. In addition to being a full resource on the life of a West Country writer, the archive is a treasure trove of material on literary, musical and stage culture from the 1930’s. Its contents include material relating to many notable figures of the day, including: Gandhi, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Jacob Epstein and George Devine. It covers topics ranging from Politics to Self-Sufficiency, and also holds material relating to Rose Marie Duncan (nee Hansom), Ronald Duncan’s wife and a talented artist in her own right.

In his first Autobiography ‘All Men Are Islands’ (1964) Duncan writes:

‘When the present is interesting we do not bother with the past. We try to remember only when we’ve lost the vitality of doing anything worth remembering. The past is a wastepaper basket. We burrow into it only when we feel we have no future.’

Well, no offence to Duncan, but I disagree. I find the past every bit as exciting as the present and I hope that you will continue to join me as I delve into Ronald Duncan’s ‘wastepaper basket’

 

A short biography of Ronald Frederick Henry Duncan (6 August 1914 – 3 June 1982)

Ronald Duncan as a child

Born in 1914 in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), Duncan spent his early life in London before reading English at Cambridge under F.R. Leavis. An interest in Pacifism led him to write the manifesto for the Peace Pledge Union and sparked an invitation to visit Gandhi at his Wardha Ashram in 1937. Later settling in Devon, Duncan ran a community farm at West Mill, Bideford during WWII and entertained notable figures of the day; including Benjamin Britten, Virginia Maskell, and Lord Harewood. His work on the Exeter Taw and Torridge Festival led to the establishment of the Royal Court Theatre in 1956.

Duncan’s career spanned stage and screen, with over 25 plays to his name, including ‘Abelard and Heloise’, ‘This Way to the Tomb’ and ‘Don Juan’. In 1968 Duncan scripted Jack Cardiff’s ‘Girl on a Motorcycle and in 1969 the BBC Drama Workshop released a ground-breaking vinyl record ‘The Seasons’, setting Duncan’s poems to music by David Cain. Though largely ignored at the time, this recording achieved cult status in the 1990’s and was reissued in 2012. He also had a prolific literary career, publishing several volumes of poetry and short stories in addition to three rather controversial biographies and a five-part epic scientific poem entitled ‘Man’. He is however, perhaps best known for the libretto in Benjamin Britten’s ‘Rape of Lucretia’ and for his poem ‘The Horse’, written for the National Horse Show.

In 1941 Duncan married Rose Marie Hansom, a talented illustrator, and the couple had two children. Duncan died in 1982, age 68, leaving a fascinating archive and the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation (set up during his lifetime) as his lasting legacy.

More information on Ronald Duncan and his works can be found on the website of the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation here

For more about the University of Exeter Heritage Collections click here, and to search the current list of the Ronald Duncan Archive click here