The Conference was held at the Bishop Otter Campus, University of Chichester, Friday 29 August to Sunday 31 August 2008.
Chichester is an elegant cathedral city situated between the English Channel and the South Downs. The cathedral with its imposing spire dates back from Norman times, and is surrounded by elegant streets of fine Georgian houses. The Pallant House Gallery, is a unique combination of a Queen Anne townhouse and a contemporary building holding one of the best collections of 20th century British art in the world, with works by Edward Burra, Lucien Freud, Eric Gill, Andy Goldsworthy, Howard Hodgkin, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, and many others.
John Cowper Powys bought a house in the downland village of Burpham in 1902, and his son Littleton Alfred was born there. Many attenders at our 2006 conference in Chichester will remember our walk across the downs, along paths that John Cowper will have known, with expansive views over the Sussex Weald and to the sea, with readings from Powys’s works in situ. For the less energetic, we hope to organize a coastal walk through Felpham, where William Blake’s cottage still stands.
The conference speakers include our president, Glen Cavaliero, who will talk on “That Goblin Race – the Powys Family Mystique”. The title of his talk comes from a phrase describing the Powyses in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s diary, and he will look at the enduring fascination that the different members of the family, individually and together, continue to exert on readers.
Bill Keith’s talk, “John Cowper Powys and ‘Other Dimensions”: The Evidence of His Fiction” will tackle the “beyond-this-world” possibilities in John Cowper’s work which have been little discussed, perhaps out of embarrassment, since Wilson Knight’s highly controversial interpretations. Professor Keith says that his talk nevertheless will be “primarily literary, not New-Age-mystical.”
Arjen Mulder, in “Becoming John Cowper Powys” will discuss John Cowper Powys’s early novels from Wood and Stone to Ducdame, and David Goodway will discuss John Cowper Powys’s relation to anarchist thought.
Friday 29 August
1600 Arrival – Reception – Dinner
2000 Glen Cavaliero: “That Goblin Race – the Powys Family Mystique”
Saturday 30 August
0900 Arjen Mulder: “Becoming John Cowper Powys”
1100 David Goodway: “John Cowper Powys. Emma Goldman, and Anarchism”
Afternoon: guided walks round Burpham or coastal Sussex
2000 “The Bride Who Pays the Organist…” a reading devised by Christopher Wilkinson based on the diaries and letters of the Powys and Wilkinson families from 1912.
Sunday 31 August
0900 Bill Keith: “John Cowper Powys and ‘Other Dimensions’: The Evidence of His Fiction”
1100 AGM followed by a discussion led by Timothy Hyman on the usefulness of biographies of writers for literary appreciation and the auction of a watercolour painting by Will Powys
This year’s conference was a bit smaller than of late (about 40, including guests) but was generally agreed to be one of the happiest.
Bishop Otter campus appeared little changed from two years ago: its building works seemingly completed, with new automatic doors on every side, complex entrance systems and powerful security lights. Its greatest attractions are still the beautiful trees that have been spared and incorporated.
Our president Glen was there, also Richard Maxwell from America, introducing his first Powys Journal, and Bill Keith from Canada. On Saturday a cloudless sun — one of the few this summer — shone on the walk on the Burpham downs, again led by Kieran McCann, and on a visit to charming Felpham by the sea, led by Geoffrey Winch.
The four persuasive speakers were nicely contrasted.
Glen Cavaliero, who has been writing about the Powyses for more than half a century, speculated on the enduring fascination of this family, in everything from their distinctive appearance to their dedication to the utmost individual "livingness": their enthusiasm, their selfhood, their joie de vivre. They were — all of them — life-enhancers. We then focused on different areas of the life and works of John Cowper.
Arjen Mulder (from the Netherlands) presented a witty and convincing interpretation of the four early novels, in terms of its main characters representing aspects of life that no longer suited their creator, who thus killed them off. From these failures came Wolf and his successors.
David Goodway enlarged on his introduction to the Emma Goldman-JCP letters (recently published by Cecil Woolf after 15 years in the pipeline), recreating the early-20th century American political scene in which Goldman and Powys had met, and recapitulating his talk five years ago on JCP and Anarchy.
Bill Keith, who has become a veritable concordance to the Works, gave an interesting survey of textual references in JCP’s fiction to the supernatural: through imagination (sensitive or creative) hallucination, teleporting, time-warp, the occult, the uncanny, and actual visions. Predictably, his conclusion was that for JCP all these held interest but the most powerful was the first, the infinite resources of the human spirit.
The discussion after the AGM (chaired by Tim Hyman) this time proceeded on schedule. The subject, the usefulness of literary biographies, sprang off naturally with the pros and cons of Descents of Memory (Richard Maxwell, believing that people read biographies first, was happy to see it on sale in California with Porius alongside), and opened out thoughtfully. Literary biographies have grown ever more frequent and are generally much longer, and there have been some superb ones in recent years. There are (to simplify) two main varieties, the more impersonal and fact-crammed (risking boredom), and those with a thesis (informative, revisionist or adulatory) in which the attitude of the biographer figures more or less strongly — sometimes changing in the course of the book. (A third kind is the Quest, usually for a previously little-known subject — a prototype was The Quest for Corvo). Some prefer the first, giving facts and allowing the reader more scope for imagination; others enjoy the added character of a more personal biographer, even if requiring pinches of salt. Skill of selection, tact and sympathy are biographers’ essentials. Selection is not easy; neither is judgment of whom the biography is for.
Three views from conference participants
Coming from Chichester — Patrick Quigley
The landscape was steeped in a white mist that rolled in from the sea, covering the sun and submerging fields, trees and houses in a hazy womblike atmosphere. Hundreds of gulls scoured the stubbed fields where huge bales stood on their ends like giant discs. The train rushed across Southern England, carrying me back to Gatwick Airport after the 2008 Powys Conference. I took out the copy of A Glastonbury Romance I found in the Book Room, but left it on its side on the rocking table. The edition was from 1934, a copy John Cowper Powys himself might have handled, a great dark tome, longer and heavier than the Bible. My travel bag was weighed down with books, newsletters and journals - enough Powys-related reading for a year; my mind brimful with new impressions after two days of lectures, readings and encounters.
The carriage was packed with travellers with books, magazines and Ipods. It was easy to imagine them as sleep-walking through another Sunday evening. But every one of them was a universe of thoughts and sensations, fears and hopes. As the train glided through dormitory towns with rows of sleeping houses I felt like a character in a John Cowper Powys novel, full of memories and dreams, burning with ideas and obsessions. When you read a text by JCP you see the universe through his eyes. I felt close to the great writer as I watched hedgerows merge in mist and a brown horse gallop across an endless field.
It was my first Powys conference and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be like a cult with the initiated suspicious of a newcomer or intolerant of anyone with less than total immersion in Powys world? Would they be divided by factions and cliques around the different brothers? As usual all such fears were unfounded; those attending the conference were disconcertingly normal, friendly and welcoming!
My first surprise was in discovering that it wasn’t just a celebration of three famous brothers, but an evocation of a remarkable family where all were creative. The Powys family were described as “the goblin race” in a moving opening tribute from Glen Cavaliero. I needlessly feared the Powys Society might be too reverential in its approach, but there was plenty of rigour in the discussions, leavened with humour. The Society, in its events and publications, preserves and restores the rich literary heritage of the family, their partners and relations, and all they came into contact with, in a creative and life-enhancing way.
It was a weekend of many highlights - an analysis of JCP’s early fiction and how he transformed himself from a mediocre writer into a great one; his political engagement with anarchism and friendship with Emma Goldman and his treatment of the supernatural. Powys taught us to see natural and supernatural united in one expansive vision of the universe.
But the best part was the many interesting people I met and talked with. Then there was the lovely city of Chichester with its bookshops and Roman ruins and the Cathedral with the Chagall window and the quiet Georgian streets. The Saturday excursion to William Blake’s Cottage in Feltham and the J C Powys house in Burpham stand out. Then there was the Saturday night entertainment – a re-enactment of the Powys/Gregg/Wilkinson romance that evoked the complexity of relationships and love-making in the summer of 1912. It wasn’t so much a love triangle as an expanding combination of interlocking relationships conducted before a battery of distorting mirrors.
My only complaint was that it was over all too soon. Suddenly it was Sunday afternoon with the canteen staff waiting to pounce on half-cleared plates as the gathering dispersed. But I hope the contacts and friendships will endure and will be renewed in future meetings and conferences. These were my thoughts on this hazy Sunday evening with the light disappearing behind the glasshouses along the tracks. Somewhere out there among the hedgerows I could imagine the spirit of John Cowper Powys in his long overcoat, stopping to admire a flower, talking to his stick as he strode along the way. After a while thoughts returned to the immediate — the high-tech world of garbled public announcements in the glass and plastic world of the international airport. But my world was enriched by the weekend in Chichester, my spirit strengthened for the return to normal life and the renewed struggle with the word.
Felpham: Blake, Myers, Sea and Tea A Powys Outing — Penelope Shuttle
Just as the sun shines on the righteous, so, in a summer notorious for its lack of sunshine, the sun shone on the members of The Powys Society on their Saturday afternoon excursion.
I joined Geoff Winch’s guided walk to Felpham, and was most grateful to borrow Kate Kavanagh’s spare sunhat!
We ambled through the quiet streets of this small seaside town (where was everyone?) and came to a side road close to the sea. The sea was concealed, tantalizingly, however, behind a high wall. Two curious structures stood, one on either side of the road.
We stood admiring the unexpected sight of two converted elderly railway carriages. One, inhabited by a holidaying or local family, was called Mi shanty. Geoff told us that Elizabeth Myers, that fascinating but unjustly-neglected novelist (come on, Persephone Books!), second wife of Littleton Powys, stayed here for a while in 1941. It was a happy and productive visit for her, despite air raid warnings and the sighting of ‘little nazi planes’ (one of which crashed nearby).
Much of the time, she worked on her Greek translations, particularly of The Odyssey. Geoff told us that she wrote in letters of getting drawn deeper and deeper into her Homeric dictionary, one alluring reference leading to another till she found herself spending all day in its pages.
I’d pricked up my ears at the mention of Myers name. Way back in the late sixties, I read her remarkable first novel, A Well Full Of Leaves. It was given to me by Father Brocard Sewell, Carmelite monk, and editor of The Aylesford Review, where I published my first teenage poems; he was a great friend of my youth and in fact introduced me to my husband Peter Redgrove.
Geoff now led us to the seafront. Throngs of holiday makers were promenading, sunbathing and swimming. So this was why the streets were deserted. It wasn’t long before Kate was in the sea, and a few of us paddled with great relish. The remainder of the group settled themselves, I’m happy to say, into a seaside café. This, as Glen our president remarked sagely, was straight out of central casting. And we were glad to join them for tea.
Fortified by sea-bathing, sea-paddling, and tea, we continued our guided walk, veering away from the sea and going through quiet and charming streets. We came to Blake’s Cottage. He lived here from 1800 to 1803 (which means he was seeing angels over Felpham while William Wordsworth was writing his sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’.) I had always wanted to see Blake’s cottage, so together with seeing Elizabeth Myers’s converted railway carriage, two literary pilgrimage ambitions were fulfilled for me. Blake’s cottage has been much extended and manicured since his day, yet I felt a living sense of the great poet and artist, and looked hard for one of those Angels of his, but they must have been off duty on this particular day.
Outside the cottage we enjoyed a short J. C. Powysian reading from Timothy Hyman, which rounded the afternoon off very fittingly.
Thank you, Geoff, for organizing such a wonderful afternoon, and for all the research you’d done, which added so greatly to the pleasure of our walk in and around Felpham on one of the few hot and sunny summer days of a rainy 2008; it was a most memorable afternoon indeed.
Burpham: A Favourite Walk — Chris Thomas
JCP describes in Autobiography how, when he was living in Burpham, he developed a mania for all kinds of metaphysical systems. He describes his pleasure of reading Hegel’s Logoi in Mr Colyer’s ‘War Field’ amongst the healthy growing wheat and wild flowers. Love of nature and love of ideas all seemed to be bound up in JCP’s mind with the same experience of sensual ecstasy, “deep, and obscure and mystical.”
I thought of this when I joined Kieran McCann’s well informed tour of the Burpham landscape. We parked in the centre of the village opposite JCP’s house hidden behind high flint stone walls and surrounded by an ancient Saxon earth bank. A good view of the house can be seen from the top of this mound where the Duke of Norfolk once stood and surveyed the No Trespassing sign erected by JCP which so offended the occupants of the George and Dragon.
It was warm and sunny as we walked down the Burpham lanes. There were blackberries in the tall hedgerows. We passed thatched cottages, and aromatic flower gardens and walked across fields smelling of wild thyme and marjoram and freshly cut grass, still wet and dewy after the summer rain.
We descended a stony path overgrown with vetch, and fumitory, till we reached the Gibbet Woods. Its cool and shady interior was dappled with little pools of sunlight. JCP thought the place so lonely he said he had never met a living soul there. On the other side of the wood we came to an open space. An immense panorama spread out all around us. We could see the location of the Norse shrine, Friday’s Church, mentioned by JCP, and the clump of trees on the top of Iron Age hill fort of Cissbury Ring.
Afterwards we descended a steep field path to the little churchyard of St Nicholas in Burpham. “This,” said JCP, “was my favourite walk for ten years.”