Past Conferences: 2016

Strange Matters

The Conference was held at the Wessex Hotel, Street, Friday 12 August to Sunday 14 August 2016.

Conference Prospectus

contemplating the Tor
Contemplating the Tor from Wirrall Hill

‘O Glastonbury, Glastonbury... how lamentable is thy case now? How hath Hypocrisie and Pride wrought thy desolation?’

In this sorrowful lament for Glastonbury, written in the late sixteenth century, the Elizabethan magus and hermetic philosopher, John Dee, looked back to a vanished period of Albion’s ancient history under the reign of the ‘peaceable’ Saxon king Edgar.

Dee’s lament for the destruction of the Abbey, and its great library of books and manuscripts, strikes a Powysian note, for the name of Edgar is invoked several times in A Glastonbury Romance. Like the poet and novelist Charles Williams, John Cowper Powys tapped into modern interest in the Glastonbury legends and the medieval Grail romances, ‘the matter of Britain’, but, unlike Williams, JCP’s attitude to Glastonbury’s legends was much more critical and sceptical. He says of Glastonbury: “the land reeked with the honey lotus of all the superstitions of the world”.

We cannot avoid encountering the Glastonbury myths, in one form or another, at this year’s conference. The location for our conference, the small, busy, town of Street, whose emblem is the ichthyosaurus, is only two miles from Glastonbury and is situated in the shadow of places closely associated with Arthurian romance: Pomparlès bridge, where John Crow in A Glastonbury Romance experienced a vision of something — Excalibur, or a meteor, or a hallucination, or perhaps a cosmic ray — certainly something “beyond the limits of the known” ; the Terre Gastée at the foot of Wirral Hill, and Beckery, the Grail Castle and the Chapel Perilous. If you believe in such things, Street also forms part of Glastonbury’s legendary terrestrial zodiac and earthly Temple of the Stars, supposedly first uncovered by John Dee. In Street we are in the sign of Aries and on the cusp of Pisces.

Street is surrounded by a pleasant vista of water meadows, rhynes, marshy fields, pine- covered hills, cider-apple orchards, woods and slow flowing rivers such as the Brue, Hartlake and Whitelake where eel, pike, dace, chub, perch and tench may be found; thin-legged herons stand silently on the riverbanks, and egrets, lapwings and bitterns can often be seen flying overhead. There is a fine view of Glastonbury from the top of Wirral hill revealing a sea of greenness dominated by the Tor, rising up, “like the phallus of an unknown god”. The occultist, Dion Fortune, called this view of Glastonbury “a goodly place and kind”.

JCP was of course profoundly sensitive to the spirit and atmosphere of certain places especially “the psychic chemistry of religious sites older than Christianity”. Ever since his father first pointed out to him, from the slopes of Montacute hill, St. Michael’s tower and the Tor, he had been attracted by the “immemorial mystery” of Glastonbury, Urbs Beata, the “mysterious Vale of Avalon”, Ynys Witrin, the Fortunate Isle, which he also knew from Tennyson’s familiar description: “deep meadowed, happy, fair, with orchard lawns.” No wonder JCP described Glastonbury as an ancient medieval city, “a city that Fra Angelico might have painted”. When the antiquarian, chorographer and bibliophile John Leland visited the Abbey library in the early 1530s, before the dissolution, he was so overwhelmed by the fabulous collection of books he fell into a state of intense ecstasy: “the mere sight of the books struck my mind with an awe or amazement of some kind... I paid my respects to the deity of the place...” JCP’s reverence for the genius loci of the Tor is recorded in his diary for 1929: “...The Tower, the Tower, the Tower...I knelt and said Oh Tower help me.”

The title for this year’s conference, ‘Strange Matters’, comes from Macbeth (Act 1, Scene V) and was one of JCP’s favourite quotations: “Your face, my Thane, is as a book where men / May read strange matters.” [Lady Macbeth, advising her husband to change his face: “look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t”.] In A Glastonbury Romance, “Barter’s face at that moment was indeed one in which could be read ‘strange matters’ ”. G.Wilson Knight said of JCP’s work: “... each saturated in a sense of... prodigious strangeness and importance...”

Our speakers will discuss this theme in a variety of ways. Paul Cheshire appears at a Powys Society conference for the first time and will take us deep into A Glastonbury Romance to explore JCP’s personal ‘strange’ philosophical ideas about the psychic-sensuous margins of life. Peter Foss will give a talk, illustrated with slides, on the background to Llewelyn’s 1911 diary, discussing his recovery in England, convalescence and relapse into illness again. (A strange, or at least unusual, life). Novelist Lindsay Clarke also appears at a Powys Society conference for the first time. His talk on Porius, JCP’s imaginative vision and multiversal consciousness, draws on insights from recent advances in archetypal psychology and current ecological thinking. We are especially pleased to welcome back Angelika Reichmann from Hungary, who will give a talk on the previously unexplored, possibly strange, affinities between Wolf Solent and Lucky Jim.

On Saturday afternoon there will be an opportunity to visit places of interest in Glastonbury and Street, take walks to places associated with A Glastonbury Romance, or travel further afield to explore places such as Wells, Wookey Hole caves, Burrow Mump with its ruined 18th century church, situated near Burrowbridge and Southlake Moor, or visit the Iron Age lake village near Godney, the prehistoric causeway, the Sweet Track near Westhay, Cadbury Castle, Ilchester or Tintinhull.

On Saturday night our special guest Frank Wintle will introduce the screening of a documentary film, Hilda’s Book, he made in 1986 for South West TV, about the complicated relationship between Frances Gregg (JCP’s greatest love before he met Phyllis Playter), the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Ezra Pound, Louis Wilkinson and JCP, sparked by the discovery, in strange circumstances, of Pound’s original manuscript of poems dedicated to H.D. (written in the romantic manner of Swinburne, William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in 1905 before he began experimenting with modernism). Hilda’s Book includes scenes filmed on location in Plymouth, the West Country, Venice, and Wyncote, Pennsylvania, which was Ezra Pound’s home town. On Sunday morning members are invited to participate in a discussion about proposals to launch a project of Powys talking books.

Chris Thomas


Friday 12th August

16.00 Arrival
17.30 Reception
18.30 Dinner
20.00 Paul Cheshire: ‘John Cowper Powys and the “psychic sensuous margin of life”’

Saturday 13th August

08.00 Breakfast
09.30 Peter Foss: ‘Recalled to Life’: an illustrated talk, with slides, about the events described in Llewelyn Powys's diary for 1911
10.30 Coffee
11.15 Lindsay Clarke: ‘Beyond the literary. JCP’s Porius and the romance of the Polytheistic Imagination’
13.00 Lunch
Afternoon free
19.00 Dinner
20.30 A special screening of Hilda’s Book, a dramatised documentary film written and produced by Frank Wintle in 1986, with the participation of Oliver Wilkinson and Professor Donald Davie, an expert on the life and work of Ezra Pound. In his introduction Frank Wintle will discuss his collaboration with Donald Davie and Oliver Wilkinson, and explain how he was inspired to make the film. The duration of Hilda’s Book is approximately 52 minutes.

Sunday 14th August

08.00 Breakfast
09.30 Angelika Reichmann: ‘Two Historians, Two Christies, Two Urquharts: Kingsley Amis and JCP’
11.00 AGM
12.00 Open discussion with members on a project to develop Powys talking-books.
13.00 Lunch
15.00 Departure

Conference Speakers

Paul Cheshire is a past Trustee of the Friends of Coleridge. He has written a number of articles on Coleridge, as well as articles about Coleridge’s contemporaries, including a chapter on Coleridge’s Notebooks for the Oxford Handbook of S. T. Coleridge; he has also written on the influence of seventeenth-century hermetic philosophy on Milton. He is currently researching the life and thought of Coleridge’s little-known friend, William Gilbert, astrologer and author of an eccentric theosophical poem, ‘The Hurricane’, which shows the hermetic tradition surviving into the romantic era. He has created a website dedicated to William Gilbert. Paul gave a talk to the Powys Society on JCP and Wordsworth at the Dorset County Museum in June 2015. He also presented this talk to an appreciative audience at the 44th Wordsworth Summer Conference at Rydal Hall, in Cumbria, in August 2015. Paul’s talk will examine JCP’s vision of a world in which consciousness is not restricted to human and animal life, but inheres universally: in planets, plants and minerals, and even in light or twilight. He will take examples, mainly from A Glastonbury Romance, of the different ways JCP portrays this world, and ask why it seems so persuasively real that one hesitates to view it as ‘imagination’.

Peter Foss is a past Vice-Chairman and Hon. Secretary of the Powys Society. He was the first editor of the Powys Journal in 1991. He is a writer and artist and well known as an authority on Llewelyn Powys: his A Bibliography of Llewelyn Powys was published by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press in 2007. He has contributed many articles on Llewelyn Powys to the Society’s publications. His indispensable book on Llewelyn Powys, A Study of Llewelyn Powys: His Literary Criticism and Personal Philosophy, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 1991. He has since edited Llewelyn’s diaries for 1903, 1908 and 1909, published by Cecil Woolf, 2005-2007; The Conqueror Worm, his edition of Llewelyn’s diary for 1910, was published by the Powys Press in 2015. (For reviews: see NL85 John Gray in the Literary Review, and NL86 Michael Caines in the TLS.) Peter’s edition of Llewelyn’s 1911 diary, Recalled to Life, will be published by the Powys Press later this year. For many years Peter has been investigating the history of Market Bosworth, its topography and links with the Battle of Bosworth (1485). He published a history of Market Bosworth in 1983 and a book, The Field of Redemore, in 1990. Recently Peter has been involved with the archaeological survey at Bosworth, having been the first to locate the battlefield from documents in the 1980s (see NL No.78, March 2012). Peter's discussion of the 1911 diary includes Llewelyn’s return to England from Clavadel in April, the summer spent at Montacute, walks in the countryside with JCP, holidays with Theodore and Katie at East Chaldon, his relapse into illness again, and plans to return to Switzerland in 1912. Much of this was summarised in Skin for Skin, first published in 1926.

Lindsay Clarke is a well-known novelist and teacher. Before becoming a full-time writer he taught in newly independent Ghana, in Further Education in the UK and with an American College of cross-cultural experiential learning. He was a Writer in Residence at the University of Wales in Cardiff, where he is an Associate of the MA Creative Writing Course. His novel, The Chymical Wedding, won the Whitbread Prize in 1989 and in 2010 his novel The Water Theatre, (“powerful and convincing”, Financial Times) was selected by The Times as one of their Books of the Year. Lindsay has also written about Celtic mythology, Arthurian myth, the Grail romances and the legends of the ‘Matter of Britain’. In 2012, he edited The Gist: A Celebration of the Imagination. Lindsay is a keen advocate of the work of John Cowper Powys. His enthusiastic review of the Society’s publication, Proteus and the Magician, the letters of Henry Miller and John Cowper Powys, appeared in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine (also in NL 83, November 2014). His talk will explore JCP’s attraction to Romance as the fictional genre most suited to his nature and philosophy, taking as his starting point a quotation from Autobiography: “What I wanted was that kind of romantic struggle with things and people ... which takes place in an ideal region, hewn out of reality and constantly touching but never quite identified with reality, such as might be most conveniently described by the expression, a Quest’ (p.66). Lindsay will also discuss some of the close affinities he feels with JCP as a novelist and writer. While looking at Porius in particular, the talk will examine how Romance was peculiarly appropriate for exploring the multiversal nature of consciousness, and how JCP's imaginative vision “both anticipates recent developments in Archetypal Psychology and perhaps illuminates urgent aspects of the current planetary crisis.”

Angelika Reichmann is senior lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Eszterházy College, Eger, in Hungary. She became interested in the works of JCP over ten years ago, when, as a PhD student, she researched Dostoevsky’s influence on English and Russian novelists. She has written articles about John Cowper Powys’s novels Weymouth Sands and A Glastonbury Romance for the Powys Journal in 2009 and 2013, and for la lettre powysienne a review of Descents of Memory by Morine Krissdóttir (lettre 17, Spring 2009), a study of Wolf Solent (lettre 15, 2008), on Dostoevskyan allusion in Wolf Solent (lettre 20, 2010), and on narrative desire in JCP’s novels (letter 30, 2015/ 2016). Angelika has also written about Wolf Solent for the Romanian Journal of English Studies (2004). In 2012 she published the collection of articles Desire – Identity – Narrative: Dostoevsky’s Devils in English Modernism, which includes studies of Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance and Weymouth Sands. Angelika notes the admiration expressed by two outstanding ’50s writers, Iris Murdoch and Philip Larkin, for the Powyses. Martin Amis’s reference to one of his characters, in his novel The Information (1998), as having “a chance of becoming a monument of neglect, like a Powys”, is often quoted although it is usually misquoted as if Amis meant only to refer to JCP’s work. Angelika says: “The person who connects these three writers – an eminent friend to two of them, father to the third – is Kingsley Amis, never mentioned in any Powysian context, as far as I know, yet his celebrated Lucky Jim (1954) shows a number of parallels with Wolf Solent (1929). Both Wolf and Jim Dixon are history teachers of sorts with a (relatively) new job in the country; both are caught up in a love triangle; both prefer a girl called Christie/ Christine, who works in a bookshop; and finally a powerful older male character plays a crucial part in the fate of both. I aim to explore whether these parallels can suggest a reading of Lucky Jim in Powysian terms; and if so, what kind of attitude this implies to JCP’s work”.

Frank Wintle is the founder and director of a communications consultancy, PanMedia Ltd, which advises governments, businesses, academia, NGO’s and charities, and provides training courses and tailored one-to-one coaching to help organisations and individuals improve their communication skills, and to develop knowledge of production and script writing, promotional films, presentation and webcasts. In his career in filmmaking and broadcasting Frank has won gold and silver medals from the New York Film and TV Festival, the Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco Film and TV Festival, best programme award from the Royal Television Society and an Emmy nomination. He has written for most of Britain’s national newspapers, produced and directed programmes for ITV and Channel 4, and worked as a presenter for BBC television and a producer and presenter for Radio 4. He is a published historian and biographer and has been a visiting professor in media at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and at the University of Vermillion, South Dakota.

Frank’s film, Hilda’s Book, was made for South West Television in 1986, during a six week period, but has never been broadcast on national TV. It was directed by Kevin Crooks. The cast includes Denis Lil, Al Mathews, Manny Redwood and David Shaw. This is a rare screening of the film. Frank was intrigued when he read the story in a note to H.D.’s End to Torment, of how Pound’s book of poems, dedicated to H.D., had in 1941 been found in the rubble of Frances Gregg’s bombed house in Plymouth, and decided to investigate the circumstances and the characters involved in the story. This led him to Oliver Wilkinson, who participated in the making of the film and who provided advice about the life of Frances Gregg and her relationship with his father, Louis Wilkinson; as well as to travel to locations in the West country, Italy and America. Frank reports that the original manuscript of Pound’s poems, Hilda’s Book, is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. “In the film”, says Frank, “you’ll see (a much younger) me with the book and a librarian in situ. I had an exact replica made for use in the dramatised blitz sequences, which I kept.”

For more details of the relationships, events and poems described in the film, members may wish to consult Frances Gregg’s memoir, The Mystic Leeway (1995, edited by Ben Jones with an introduction by Oliver Wilkinson), and H.D.’s 1979 memoir of Ezra Pound, End to Torment. There are articles, by Jacqueline Peltier and Odile Stuart, about The Mystic Leeway in la lettre powysienne, No. 26, Summer 2013, and on H.D. and Frances Gregg by Penny Smith in The Powys Review, No.22, 1988. There is also a reference to the film in the introduction to Vol. 1 of the correspondence between Frances Gregg and JCP, published in 1994.