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JEFF KWINTNER: TWO LIVES


by Shaun Kenaelly

 

I didn't know Jeff Kwintner personally but encountered him socially once or twice and exchanged a word or two. I recall the first occasion as being at a gallery opening of a show of local artists, the kind of occasion that, in a provincial context, draws out practically all the creative people in the town: the artists and collectors. Introductions are made and before too long everybody is aware of everybody else in the room. This is to invite an early theme, for here is John Cowper Powys and the pageant assembled in A Glastonbury Romance. Powys suggests one difference. In ours, the arts-intelligentsia 'set' is self-constituted; in his, everybody in the town is related to each other through blood, however distant the cousinhood and even if they don't always care to acknowledge the relationship.

 

I am very sorry not to have spoken more with him. Jeff Kwintner very much resembled a character encountered in Powys. He was charismatic and an initiator. He had skill, imagination, verve: he made things happen. People often speak of him as if the leader of a creative circle, but these are not the reasons I regret the conversation. He has an important place in the history of British fashion in the 1960s. His name occasionally turns up in the books but usually in passing and as far as I know, not in any substantive way. His significance is not yet generally understood. Nothing of this I knew at the time and when I did it was too late. He deserves scholarly attention and his papers a proper archival home.

 

Here opens a second theme, for although significant in his own times, he remained very much in the position of an outsider in terms of official culture. This is a familiar Jewish position of course, for he was indeed that, a Jew; but it also the position of the artist in modernity, once the social role or 'place' supplied by traditional society has gone. John Cowper Powys was one such, set adrift to make his way in the literary marketplace, and a spiritual affinity between the two men ought not surprise. Powys in his friendships recognised such kindred souls. Yet in ancient understanding, the outsider-figure is also a boundary-rider, a creative spirit unsatisfied by the world as it is constituted and driven to move beyond the given. This very much describes Jeff Kwintner. Powys gave archetypal portraiture in his novels. One is the determined, restless young man, a Promethean figure prepared to wrestle with the elemental spirits – much as we first encounter Jobber Skald in Weymouth Sands.

 

Risk-taking was a distinguishing characteristic of Jeff Kwintner. He excelled as a businessman, but his wisdom was not prudential. His flair in a fickle market was truly admirable. How often he must have sailed close to the wind! Yet worldly success does not define him. Spiritually, he was acutely aware, probably from an early age. There is something of the mystic in his history. He moved fluently from the word to the act. Through the relation he lived. I speak of two lives, in the sense that the entrepreneur who made fashion history was also a natural philosopher who earned a virtuous place in literary history through his championing of John Cowper Powys. His precise role in the Powys revival of the 1970s is not clear, not yet, and that history is another waiting to be written.

 

Powys believed the creative, significant individuals might be encountered anywhere in society at any point and in his historical novels reached far back in time to find them. We recognise Jeff Kwintner as one such but biographical details are few. From fragments – often the recollections of others – we must compose a portrait. Born 1939 in Brighton and raised in London, the son of a tailor, he developed an aptitude for science and commenced a B.Sc at the Polytechnic in Regent Street. There's a first marker: Soho was a few streets away from college, with a Jewish community not quite moved on to the suburbs; the Soho of the carnival, bookshops and espresso bars. A marker, for it was surely here that he discovered Bohemia and read the key books that were to change his life. Kerouac was a revelation and he followed the literary trail into the beat writers and poets, Zen and the Tao. In this he is faithful to his cohort. His path must have crossed with many of those who, like he, were soon to be lifted up by the big waves of the 1960s.

 

Another important book was Colin Wilson's The Outsider (1956). Almost forgotten now, Wilson left an impression upon generations of young intelligent readers well into the 1970s. His platform was the popular paperback market. Enthusiastic, passionately committed, an excellent communicator, he spoke directly to the young. Hermann Hesse was like this. A polymath, he was unable to conceive of the formal barriers between disciplines and capable of moving seamlessly through intellectual history. Nothing like this appeared on the school or college syllabus and Wilson filled a gap supplied by philosophy in France. Later the men became friends. By 1960 change was in the air. An underground was forming among the young. Estrangement accompanied commitment. It carried the feeling of being nowhere at home unless among likeminded souls. He abandoned college and made an existential choice for the authentic life, following Kerouac and Cassidy onto the road. He hitch-hiked across Europe as far as Turkey and dropped out of notice for a year or two.

 

There is a return – there must be – to respectability. London, a start in business, marriage, a family, serious commitment and hard work – it is a familiar bildungsroman. What is interesting about Jeff Kwintner the businessman is just how successful he was, spectacularly so. He returned to his roots and a traditional Jewish trade, tailoring. He jumped in at the right moment, with the emergence of Mod as a style that quickly developed into a social movement. Defined at its narrowest point, London Mod drew upon classic English skills in the sharpness of cutting and styling of men's tailoring. As peacock display on-the-town, such patterns have a considerable lineage. Around 1953 the press noticed how East End boys, moving in gangs, wore suits cut in the gentlemanly style of the Edwardian era: the teddy-boy vogue. Mod broke new ground. It was contemporary, now.


Jeff Kwintner began selling suits off the rail from market stalls. Another marker. With display goes the clique. Street sellers help form and sustain pathfinder tastes. Mods bought Jamaican ska or Blue Beat records from street markets. Around 1964 he opened his first shop in Richmond, the Ivy Shop – the allusion is to Ivy League, American-style suits. He had the zeitgeist at his feet. With a cluster of art schools in the neighbourhood, the towns along the river had thrown up a train of distinctive youth styles from the mid-1950s on. Jazz, Trad and Skiffle were followed by R&B. The Rolling Stones played their first gigs in Richmond at the end of 1962. Prospering, he leapfrogged onto the King's Road in 1967, the peak year. By the early 1970s he had sixteen Village Gate shops in central London selling three thousand suits a week.

 

A lot of people knew him and there are plenty of good stories about him. They make a point of his impulsiveness, intensity, dedication, a concern for his staff – he once doubled their wages on a whim – his remarkable wide-ranging conversation. He spoke as a contemporary to younger people and listened to them. He wanted his shops to reflect the feel on the street and be a step ahead of current fashion. On one thing all accounts match: everybody who encountered Jeff Kwintner in those years came away with a high regard for him. Then, at the height of success, he suddenly changed direction and opened a bookshop.

 

How and when Jeff Kwintner first discovered John Cowper Powys I do not know. The royal road into the work would surely be the big novels, but it appears that this was not the path he took. One begins to see common responses in the admirers of Powys no matter the road. It matters how people arrive at this intimate dialogue with him. It can be a moment, a profound moment, often in the form of private revelation. It seems clear that Jeff Kwintner experienced a great moment of spiritual affirmation – but like Kierkegaard on the faith of Abraham – I do not understand him.

I'm told that the source is idiosyncratic, as by now we ought to expect. Neither the novels, nor the autobiography, nor the longer discursive works, but the short essays published in The Pocket Series or Little Blue Books  by Hardeman-Julius in Kansas at the end of the 1920s. Stapled chap-books, a dozen pages or so, no longer, Powys contributed a number of literary and philosophical pieces to the series, evidently riding on the back of his strengths as a lecturer on the American circuit. From these, Jeff Kwintner arrived at a philosophy of life that changed him and sustained him unto the end of his days.

 

He acted. The Seeker in him had been re-awakened, but the businessman was also at work. Around 1974 he set about the project of reprinting everything he could find of the works of Powys, publishing through the Village Press and selling through his own shop, the Village Bookshop in Regent Street. Brilliant marketing. Later, he produced an edition of the previously unpublished 1931 Diary.

 

We remain at the edge of official culture, but boldly and bravely Jeff Kwintner set out to ferry Powys into the mainstream. One may visualise the cloaked figure of Powys as a shadow beside him, for their paths are not so removed. There is a figure in American mythology of the orator or Shakespearian actor on the frontier – a culture-bearer. John Ford knew him: he's there in My Darling Clementine. Powys made a living on the American lecture circuit, was a charismatic speaker and his gestures highly theatrical. His audiences mirrored the pocket-book readership: immigrants, the elderly, average people looking for an education. They flocked to Powys and filled the halls. He sought a change in worldconsciousness and looked to the popular classes to achieve it.

 

Bookshop and press represent a significant cultural marker, but resolutely counter-cultural. The model is supplied by his Beat heroes, notably Ferlinghetti at City Lights. The work is programmatic in the sense that he clearly expected a cultural renaissance to flower from the general discovery of the works of Powys and other writers like him. If he failed it does not diminish the high ideals nor detract from the practical achievement. Ken Kesey once said that where they went wrong in the 1960s was in believing that they were going to win. As the pillars of the old order tumbled they forgot that their kind of people moved change from the margins, not the centre. True, Powys is now 'read' and is treated seriously in academia. Ideas do not necessarily sweep the world as we might hope no matter the strength of their hold over individuals, significant or otherwise. Permeation is a more regular method for the distribution of ideas. It could be that Jeff Kwintner's work continues, unseen, unadvertised, an undercurrent in the course of general culture, but with destinations that he, like Porius, may have glimpsed from the mountain but that we do not foresee.


The two lives become one, the entrepreneur, the visionary. In reality there was never any separation. Throughout adult life Jeff Kwintner suffered the vicissitudes of depression with manic episodes. To know that is understand much about the man and his legendary dealings. At some point in mid-life there came a severe crash. The condition, as it were, would ebb and return, but never again go away. He was bi-polar and suffered for it. The anguish of the lows and intensity at the peaks is something else I do not understand, though we may look to correspondences in the Catholic mystics. The man who stood one day at the centre of an admiring circle in the middle of a room would, on another, lock himself away and be unable to face a soul in the world. He poured out his anguish through page upon page of private journals and someone who has read them tells me they are terrifying.

 

He might well have spoken to Colin Wilson about this, someone who would have understood him. If there is a common thread in Wilson's eclectic writings it is the insistence upon those states of transcendent consciousness available to us all, but by no means precious, for the savage experience of mental illness may open the doors to such realms. By necessity illumination and alienation go together, for the light is nursed by the reception of despair. Some comfort he would have gained from the steadfastness of Powys, a writer, one of the few in his own times, to make no secret of the inspiration gained from darker corners of his inner life. At the last, what is so admirable about Jeff Kwintner is the acknowledgment of how much he managed to do despite everything, or maybe because of it.

 

My thanks to Shelagh Powys and Anna Rosic.

Shaun Kenaelly 2018,

all rights reserved.






 
A DECADE OF POWYS SOCIETY CONFERENCES by Pat Quigley








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