Prester John: John Cowper Powys’s 1930 Diary

P.J. Kavanagh

Recently there was published The Faber Book of Diaries, which extracted entries for a day of the year from diaries written over the centuries, and put them all together under that date. The result is entertaining but thin. It proves that the real interest of a diary, or journal, lies in its dailyness. To get the full flavour of another's life we need to see the whole game, not edited highlights.

Now there is published, by Greymitre Books, as highly flavoured a day-by-day account as can be imagined, by a benignly obsessive and magical man: the diary, for one important year, 1930, of John Cowper Powys. (He is magical, if for no other reason, in that he grew healthier as he grew older.)

To those who know about him the diary is important for two reasons. First, it begins with an account of his last few weeks as the inspired improvising lecturer, to women's clubs and anyone else who would have him; half mage, half pantaloon, he had crisscrossed the United States doing this for 25 years. Then it describes his suddenly settling, at last, in a cottage on a bank in upper New York State, in his 58th year, to write A Glastonbury Romance.
He had written novels before, was well-known as a writer and lecturer, but that vast book turned out to be nothing less than a cosmography that exfoliated easily from ordinary people and daily doings in the distant Somerset town.

The insight into the scale of these lecture tours is alone worth the price of admission. In five weeks he went backwards and forwards through eight States, took eighteen vast train journeys, crossed the Mississippi six times and gave more than thirty extempore lectures.

All this with half a stomach and the constant nipping of fresh ulcers. He did it to support himself and his estranged wife and son in England, and seems either to have been cheated or very ill-paid. What is useful in his self-descriptions are the mental and spiritual devices he uses to cope with his endless travels and his physical pain. He taps some deep vein of the life-force and is nervous of the power it grants him. When he curses the vulgarity of an American woman who giggles at an exiled Russian singing sad songs — 'O damn the bitch!' — he adds quickly, fearfully, 'This is no curse upon her, may all be well with her.'  Not long afterwards he is looking at some polar bears in a zoo: 'One was tenderly scratching its hurt paw. It was lame. It scratched absent-mindedly like one puzzled, pondering on past and future, faintly recalling some arctic moss that was the cure.' That is like a thumb-nail sketch for the cosmic sympathies and far, apt connections that are in . A Glastonbury Romance.

At last he moves to the cottage, with Phyllis Playter, his companion for the previous nine years and, as the reader knows but Powys does not, for the rest of his long life. She hates the place; its pokiness, its smoking stove, the housework. He loves her, depends on her, agonises about his decision to bring her here, and it is as though he
is required to summon all his devices and tricks and spells to be tested by the negative side of the female principle. Meanwhile, page by page, the great book grows and he reads it to her, the only critic he cares about.  And she loves it.

Perhaps the source of Powys's mage-like power is his unshakeable faith in the value of the childlike, his lack of embarrassment. His supreme pleasure that summer is the rescuing of trout and flies from drying pools and watching them revive in deeper ponds. His brother Llewelyn thinks this foolish. John Cowper knows 'Lulu' is wrong and tells his diary so and John Cowper is right.

Spectator, 'Life and Letters',  September 1987
(in A Kind of Journal, Carcanet 2003, p.8)