The University of Exeter Special Collections is pleased to announce that a full transcript of the wartime letters of John Jarmain (EUL MS 413) to his wife, Beryl Jarmain, is now available to browse on our online Digital Collections platform. This transcript will enable enhanced access, including full-text search, to this collection of unique and deeply personal letters.
We would like to take this opportunity to express our thanks to our student interns, Ruby and Beth, who transcribed the letters; and to Janet Coward, the daughter of John Jarmain, for kindly granting permission for the transcriptions. We are committed to providing access to our collections in many different ways, and hope this new resource will faciliate discovery, use and enjoyment of this archival collection.
The transcript is free to access by everyone here on our Digital Collections platform.
Earlier this year, Special Collections launched its first remote internship for University of Exeter students. Unable to run our usual in-person work experience programme, and knowing that another lockdown at the start of 2021 was highly likely, we were pleased to offer an opportunity for students to gain valuable archive experience whilst working from home.
The collection we chose for this remote internship was the Letters of John Jarmain (EUL MS 413). William John Fletcher Jarmain (1911-1944) was a novelist and poet. He served throughout the Second World War as a gunnery officer with the 51st Highland Division during their campaigns in North Africa and Sicily. He took part in the D-Day landing and was killed in action on 26 June 1944. The collection comprises 120 manuscript letters that he sent home to his wife Beryl between June 1942 and November 1943.
EUL MS 413/1/66 – Aerogram dated 10 March 1943
Digitised images of all of the letters are available to view online through our Digital Collections website, making them ideal for our interns to access and transcribe from home. Once proofread, the transcripts produced by the interns on this project will be uploaded to the website to sit alongside the digitised letters, enabling letters of interest to be more easily identified, accessed and understood.
We would like to take this moment to thank our interns, Beth Howell and Ruby, for their hard work, diligence and enthusiasm for this project. Through a combined effort, they recently completed the transcription of all 120 letters – an amazing achievement! Below you can read their reflections on the project.
Reflections by Beth Howell
Transcribing the letters of a person is always a very involved experience, and working on John Jarmain’s war-time correspondence has proven to be no exception. However, perhaps because Jarmain was so engaged with the process of writing, (often demonstrating himself to be an almost obsessive editor of his own poetry), he always seems to write with a real sense of how his words might be read and interpreted in the future, making his letters a real privilege to read. Though most of his correspondence is addressed to his wife, Beryl, he often appears to imagine a reader beyond her, documenting the world around him with a real sense of capturing the present moment. His letters are therefore not only interesting because of what they reveal about his poetic practice, but also the landscapes he found himself in, the relationships he fostered, and his hopes and anxieties for a future after the war.
My favourite element of Jarmain’s writing, though, was probably the way in which he balanced larger concerns with little details. His ability to find joy in the spaces around him, even though the vision of those landscapes necessarily meant his separation from home (and, of course, were imbued with the ever-present anxieties of potential battles), is really heartening and beautiful to read. He loved birds, and many of his letters are preoccupied with identifying species from a little bird book he bought and carried around with him. (Though I have to say that deciphering rare specimens from his sometimes quite hastily-scribbled writing presented a few challenges- I had certainly never heard of a rufous warbler before!)
EUL MS 413/1/85 – Letter dated 30 April 1943, in which Jarmain writes about birds, including the rufous warbler (highlighted)
I also admired his confidence in informing his wife that he had fallen in (platonic) love with various women during his time in service- including Yone May, the subject of one of his poems. Jarmain presents a tangible picture of contemporary technologies (or quite the opposite), which affect his writing in a very material way- he finds himself scribbling in pencil, writing by candlelight in the wee hours, hastily penning an aerogram when he knows the post is leaving soon. He laments his ability to construct suitable diagrams of views and barracks, continues to marvel at unexpectedly quick postal deliveries, and to agonise when the opposite proves to be the case. His letters are a fascinating and absorbing insight into his life away- checked only by the knowledge that his observations would be tragically cut short. Jarmain died, killed by a fragment of mortar shell, on Saturday 26th June, 1944.
EUL MS 413/1/19 Letter dated 11 October 1942, next to transcript by Beth Howell
Reflections by Ruby
It hardly seems right to call this internship “work”. Work refers to something laborious, something that has to be done, but I found transcribing John Jarmain’s letters delightful. It saddens me that the World War II poets don’t receive the same attention as the World War I poets. Jarmain, though brilliant and sensitive, is far from a household name and does not even have a poetry collection currently in print. This is what makes me so genuinely honoured to have been involved in this project, typing up his letters, so that we can start to make Jarmain’s literature more accessible for more people. I hope that, going forward, people will read these letters and be touched in the same way that I was.
This internship has shown me that there is a big difference between reading for pleasure and reading to transcribe. Transcribing Jarmain’s letters has forced me to read them carefully, sensitively and attentively. I have had to pay attention to punctuation, names and form which I might not otherwise have paid much attention to. When I’ve read letters from authors in the past, I don’t tend to focus on people who are off-handedly mentioned (cousins, distant friends, colleagues etc.), and only really focus on those they are closest to. However, when writing up these letters I had to pay attention to every name — zooming in to make sure that I got every surname right — and, in doing so, I noticed certain people who popped up time and time again (his friend, Harry, for example). Jarmain’s handwriting also means that it’s easy to mistake a semicolon for an exclamation point. At first glance, his semicolons can look like exclamation points, but when you look more closely, they’re usually not. If I were reading these letters at a glance, I would think that he was just heavy-handed with exclamation points, but this project showed me that he is not, and that he actually uses exclamation points quite sparingly. Over the course of the internship, I became more familiar with Jarmain’s writing style and more attentive to quirks in his handwriting. For example, when writing “a”, he tends to attach it to the word in front (i.e. if he says “a ship”, he will write “aship”). This led to some tenuous guessing at the start of the project; however, I was familiar with this by the end, and found transcribing his letters much easier.
EUL MS 413/1/14 – Aerogram dated 28 September 1942, mentioning his friend Harry (highlighted)
The internship showed me how important it is to read letters attentively and slowly — to savour them and their images and their kindnesses. This is what Jarmain’s wife, Beryl, would have done, and so we perhaps get closer to the experience of these letters when we read in this way. Having to read Jarmain slowly was probably my favourite part about and, as a consequence of having done this, I feel like I know him better than I otherwise would have done.
One particularly striking part of Jarmain’s letters is just how little he refers to the actual events of war. He hardly talks about what his troops are doing, and any danger they might be in. Rather, he documents domestic experiences — for example, how he spent his time on leave, or how he goes swimming in the morning before starting work, or a joke told by one of the men. Jarmain separates himself from his identity as the “soldier” and presents himself as a real man, the same husband to whom Beryl waved goodbye. Though this is humbling to see, it also points to the separation between war and home which he documents in his poem ‘El Alemein’. The separation between Jarmain as husband and soldier in these letters makes the dramatic irony of his death all the more upsetting. Reading the letters, I knew that he would never come home and safely settle back into domestic life. In one of his last aerograms (EUL MS 413/1/153), he writes of the Christmas presents he plans to give them, clinging to the possibility that the war will end soon and he will be home with Beryl and Janet-Susan. When the letters abruptly stop, there is no warning and, since he was so secretive about his life as a soldier when writing to Beryl, it seems strangely incongruous that he could have been killed in war.
EUL MS 413/1/33 – Aerogram dated 8 December 1942: draft of poems ‘For Alamein’
Possibly my favourite parts to transcribe were his descriptions of nature — and, in particular, his descriptions of Italy in his final aerogram (EUL MS 413/1/154): “Away to the right, tier upon tier lit in streaks of sun and shade and clotted with white clustering towns, were the hills of Italy across the strait. In England you cannot imagine such beauty, such a scene”. You can feel the wonder in his voice here and the sheer extent of the view he relays. These nature descriptions are occasionally shown in his poems, but only fleetingly, and I enjoyed reading this different writing style from him. It is also so illuminating to see the poems embedded within these letters because the poems will often refer to images he’s already described for Beryl. For example, in letter one (EUL MS 413/1/1), he writes that he “was struck suddenly by willows, English willows, how they stand in rows like thick-handled powder-puffs, grey-green in the evening”. Then, in a poem in letter two (EUL MS 413/1/2), he writes that the train “Passed willows greyly bunching to the moon”. In this, we can see his poems as snapshots of real, personal experience. Indeed, the fact that they are embedded within letters shows just how intimate and personal they are, which can and should encourage us to read them contextually in new ways.
Ruby has very kindly recorded herself reading John Jarmain’s first letter (EUL MS 413/1/1). Click on the play button below to listen to the recording.
‘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 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 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, 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.
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
(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
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 , The Mongrel , The Solitudes , Unpopular Poems , For the Few ). 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.
EUL MS 397/1023 Unpublished manuscript poem on a paper plate
EUL MS 397/1024 Unpublished manuscript poem on the back of a paper plate
EUL MS 397/1024 Unpublished manuscript poem on a napkin
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’.
EUL MS 397/1204 manuscript of a published poem written for Duncan's grand-daughter Karina
EUL MS 397/1204 manuscript of an unpublished poem dedicated to Rose Marie 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.
EUL MS 397/1204 Illustrated manuscript of a published poem
EUL MS 397/1204 Illustrated manuscript of Lettera Amorosa, later published as Solitude 25
EUL MS 397/1204 Illustrated manuscript of The Felucca
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 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.
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 autobiographies 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
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.