Larchfield's Polly Clark on W.H. Auden in Helensburgh
Author Polly Clark, author of our Scottish Book of the Month for March, Larchfield, uncovers how she found solace and inspiration in the little-known story of W.H. Auden's time in Helensburgh.
In 1930, Wystan Hugh Auden, still only twenty-four but already on the cusp of fame as a poet, accepted a job as a schoolmaster at Larchfield school in Helensburgh. His friend, the poet Cecil Day Lewis was leaving the job and had recommended him for the post. In the interwar years, good schoolmasters were scarce. WH Auden was straight out of Oxford University, had no experience of teaching, or Scotland; nevertheless he would stay in Helensburgh for two and half years and would later say that he had come to love teaching. Years later, when the school was strapped for cash and wrote to the now-famous Auden in America, a cheque for £50 was swiftly forthcoming.
We think of Auden as such an English establishment figure, but his origins were provincial. He grew up as a doctor’s son in Birmingham and was never comfortable in London. Perhaps this helped him make a life in ‘the Wimbledon of the North’ as Day Lewis described Helensburgh back then. Also, Auden was a kind and generous person (there are accounts of striking acts of kindness, often to strangers, throughout his life) and appears to have had an inability to suppress his true self for long, so the boys in his charge remember with affection a strangely dressed eccentric with an impenetrable English accent, who taught them to stick stamps to the ceiling using pennies and amused them with practical jokes.
When I moved to the area, I was surprised how little was written anywhere about this formative time in Auden’s life. While he was at Larchfield he published his first book of poems with Faber and Faber, and wrote The Orators, a book length collection of prose, poems, jokes and diagrams which is considered his first work of genius. Helensburgh (and Larchfield) has a number of famous luminaries, most famous of all of course being John Logie Baird, inventor of the television. There’s a bust of Logie Baird on the waterfront. Admittedly an English, gay, poet who had lived here so long ago might not merit a bronze overlooking the Clyde. But barely a mention? It wasn’t just in Helensburgh where this was ignored: his biographers also skimmed over this time in his life. Probably they were under the illusion that this pretty seaside town was just too far away to investigate.
Perhaps some inkling of the reason for his neglect might be glimpsed in my own slow realisation. For although I knew he had lived in the town, and am a poet myself, the gallop to find out more simply did not possess me. For eight years I walked about doing nothing with the knowledge that one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century had lived, loved and written just around the corner. In truth I was a little disappointed it was him. We had nothing in common, or so I thought. I knew a handful of the famous poems, but little else. He wasn’t relevant to me, my heart cried, that pitiful cry of our inward looking age.
Events in my own life took over. I had a baby, was newly married, and had left a whole life behind to start family life in a new place. Desperation often makes us turn to poetry, and one day, feeling pretty desperate, I picked up The Orators in the hope of diversion.
What I got was an explosion of strangeness, of paranoia, of linguistic brilliance. It reached into my mind and my heart, and like all the great poets, changed my life. For in the words of this twenty-four year old, gay man from long ago, I found the same alienation and struggle to be true to oneself that I was feeling in my own day to day life. I realised the young Auden and I had everything in common, and through him, I would find a way to tell the story I needed to tell.
What followed were a couple of years of enjoyable research to uncover more about his time in Helensburgh and the labour of creating a fictional world in which he and my heroine, Dora, could meet and find the solace that his work had brought me. The setting for that world is Helensburgh: sleepy and picturesque on the outside, but inside, a place of poetry and magic. If you stand outside Larchfield School – unchanged from his time – I am sure you will be able to imagine the young poet stepping out from the porch, ready to change your life as he did mine.
Five favourite poems by WH Auden:
The Orators: written whilst at Larchfield, this is a book length mash of poems, speeches, jokes and diagrams, and is full of Helensburgh landmarks and atmosphere
'Musee des Beaux Arts': to me, one of the finest poems in English, this brings to life not just a painting, nor a fable, nor the sense of ourselves as tiny in an indifferent world, but all of these, at once, and more.
'Night Mail': this was written as a commentary to the film Auden made with the BBC about the Night mail train. It brings to vivid life the powering train.
'Stop All The Clocks': this is the poem from ‘Four Wedding and a Funeral’ that made WH Auden wildly famous to a whole new generation. In the recent BBC2 film about WH Auden (Stop All The Clocks: Auden in an Age of Anxiety) the screenwriter of Four Weddings, Richard Curtis said they filmed the reading of the poem fourteen times, and it became more moving with each reading. The tears on the actors’ faces are genuine.
'Lullaby': a beautiful poem, about flawed human love. ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love/ Human on my faithless arm’.
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