Where the Spirit Breathes
The Conference was held at the Hand Hotel, Llangollen, Friday 18 to Sunday 20 August 2017
In 1909, Mrs Rodolph Stawell, made a journey, by car, through Wales at a time when there must have been very few other motorists. She described Llangollen in her book, Motor Tours in Wales: ‘a little town that owes its charm entirely to its position...it is an entrancing place.’ In the eighteenth century the English naturalist, William Bingley, also toured Wales, and observed the view of Llangollen from a distance ‘with its church and elegant bridge romantically embosomed in mountains.’ When JCP arrived in Llangollen in May 1935, on the way to his new home in Corwen, he was at first unimpressed. He wrote in his diary that he thought Llangollen was: ‘a grievous disappointment...we shall not return.’ However on that first visit he was also very much impressed by the river Dee and instantly remembered, appropriately, a line from Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, ‘where Deva spreads her wizard stream’. He stared, transfixed, at the ruins of Dinas Bran and prayed for the soul of Owen Glendower. JCP’s veneration for the subject of his new novel, which he was already thinking about, connects with a fragment of verse by Shelley: ‘Great Spirit whom the sea of boundless thought nurtures within its imagined caves...’ Of course JCP did return to Llangollen many times. He loved the town and its surroundings reversing his original impression. For this year’s conference we also return to Llangollen and the friendly hospitality of the Hand Hotel in its picturesque position overlooking the Dee. Famous guests who have stayed here, in the past, have included Darwin, Wordsworth, Browning, Scott and Shaw.
One of JCP’s favourite excursions from Llangollen was to visit the nearby Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis which was a site of special meaning and significance for him (the editors of The Dorset Year say it was a place of ‘psychic focus’.) He believed the bard Iolo Goch was buried in the precincts of the Abbey. It was also here, on 24 April 1937, in the beautiful chapter house, underneath the lovely ribbed vault, that he began to write the first page of his novel Owen Glendower. He told Nicholas Ross: ... the spirits of those Cistercian Monks were inspiring it... This is a place well worth visiting during the conference. If you climb to the top of the hill immediately opposite Valle Crucis, above the A539, you will find yourself encircled by towering mountains, (Llantysilio and Ruabon), forests, wide valleys, and a vast open grassy space filled with heather, bilberry and gorse. Overhead you might see red kite, curlews or merlins. Up here, amidst what Ruskin called ‘gentle wildness’, your spirit can breathe freely.
The title of this year’s conference is a quotation from Katie Powys’s poem ‘The Valley’ published in her collection Driftwood (E. Lahr, 1930; Powys Society 1992). History, and personal memory, the conflict of spirit and matter, self discovery, the spirit of freedom and the quest for liberation, the spirit of romance, myth and legend, the spirit of place, and spirit as the power that inspires and gives life, all feature in the talks presented by our speakers. David Goodway will examine the life and career of Gerald Brenan, especially his association with the Powyses, members of the Bloomsbury Group, his marriage to Gamel Woolsey, and his study of Spanish history. Like JCP Gerald Brenan rebelled against his conventional family background and looked for freedom outside England: I set off to discover new and more breathable atmospheres, he said, in his book South from Granada (1957), a copy of which he presented to JCP, who was greatly amused by the portraits of Lytton Strachey, and Virginia and Leonard Woolf looking completely out of place in Brenan’s home in a remote Spanish village in Alpujarra in the 1920s. David Stimpson will give us a very personal interpretation of JCP’s discovery of creative freedom in America focusing on the development of the spirit of JCP’s philosophy of life. In Autobiography JCP said that in America: I felt always that I had escaped from something much more insidious than grey skies or drifting rain. Grevel Lindop will discuss the spirit of Arthurian romance and legend in the novels of JCP and Charles Williams. We are especially delighted to welcome Grevel to a Powys Society conference following the publication of his important biography of Charles Williams in 2015. Patrick Quigley, who recently visited the Holy Land, retracing the footsteps of Llewelyn on his visit to Palestine in 1928, will examine in depth Llewelyn’s evocations of the spirit of place, his views on religious belief, the Bible and his attitude to Christianity. Reflecting on his tour of Palestine Llewelyn wrote in The Cradle of God (1929): ‘I found myself treading upon this God-trodden soil, treading upon it and tracking the Great Spirit’s footmarks in the hot dust’.
On Saturday afternoon we have arranged a visit to Blaenau Ffestiniog to see JCP’s last home, No 1 Waterloo, where JCP lived between 1955 and 1963. This place is wonderful he said. Here he loved to observe the lights coming on during the construction of the hydroelectric power station at Tanygrisiau. Here he enjoyed reading Beckett, Tolkien and Denis Saurat, and walking in what he considered a primal and elemental world, the bare bones of our old planet earth, as he wrote to Katie. He was amazed by the great piles of grey slate, pyramids of stone. There will be an opportunity to explore the town, ‘Cloud Cuckoo heaven’, his Ultima Thule and personal utopia, encircled by the Moelwyn mountains, and in sight of Cader Idris, a place which JCP thought to be much more romantic and Mabinogionish than Beth-Gelert or Bettwys-y-Coed in Snowdonia. There will be an opportunity to see the waterfall and old woollen mill behind Waterloo where JCP used to sit and rest beside a low stone wall reciting passages from Lewis Carroll to himself. The mill now houses a display of artefacts relating to the slate industry as well as an exhibition of paintings by local artist Falcon Hildred. If time allows, you can travel on the Ffestiniog railway down to Porthmadoc, take a guided tour of the nearby slate mines at Llechwedd, or see the replica of the Porius stone in the field called ‘bedd Porius’ near Trawsfynydd. You can also travel to the adjacent Roman ruins at Castell Tomen y Mur or Sarn Helen.
On Saturday evening we will present dramatised readings -- yet to be decided. The book room will be open, at selected times, so please bring your donations for the book sale which will be very much appreciated.
David Goodway was a founder member of the Powys Society in 1969 and the first vice-chair, a position he again occupies (for the third time). A historian, from 1969 he taught mainly adult students at the University of Leeds until it closed its School of Continuing Education in 2005. His books include Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward (2nd edition, 2012), with two chapters devoted to John Cowper Powys, and an edition of the correspondence between J. C. Powys and Emma Goldman. Gerald Brenan was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, but necessarily a fringe participant since after service in the First World War he lived largely in Spain. Back in Britain in 1930, he visited East Chaldon to meet Theodore Powys and encountered Gamel Woolsey, Llewelyn Powys’s lover who, as Powysians know well, had followed him on his return to Dorset. Brenan and Woolsey immediately fell for one another and settled in Spain together. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War they were compelled to leave the country temporarily and Brenan proceeded to write a major, immensely influential, work of history, The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Civil War (1943) -- the first book to be published under his own name. But when in the early 1950s he was invited to contribute the volume on Spain to The Oxford History of Modern Europe he declined, explaining: I’ve given up writing history. You can’t get at the truth by writing history. That only a novelist can discover. Yet whereas The Spanish Labyrinth was masterly and of great originality, Brenan’s handful of novels left even him dissatisfied. His Literature of the Spanish People (1951) was enthralling and his two autobiographies much admired.
David Jones when a boy lived next door to John Cowper Powys and Phyllis at Corwen. He described bringing meals for Phyllis (John didn't eat!) cooked by his mother, seeing Phyllis walking down to the village, and visiting and helping Phyllis after John had died. Part of his talk was recorded and is available on the Powys Society website.
Grevel Lindop was formerly Professor of Romantic and Early Victorian Studies at the University of Manchester. Since 2001 he has been a freelance writer. His prose books include The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (1981; recent revised edition available as an e-book from Crux publishing); A Literary Guide to the Lake District (Lakeland Book of the Year 1992; now in its 3rd, revised, edition from Sigma Leisure); Travels on the Dance Floor (Andre Deutsch; BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, shortlisted as Best Travel Book 2009); and Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (OUP; Mythopeoic Society Award for Inklings Scholarship, 2016). He has published seven collections of poems with Carcanet Press, including Selected Poems (2001) and Luna Park (2016). Work in progress includes an edition of The Arthurian Poems of Charles Williams (with John Matthews) and a study of the spiritual life and poetry of W.B. Yeats. Twenty-one years (1930-51) cover the publication of Charles Williams’s War in Heaven, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, and of John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance and Porius. Almost at the centre of this period were the years of the Second World War. The lecture will look at ways in which both authors drew upon legends of Arthur and the Grail in attempting to illuminate and even transform the experience of their own times.
Patrick Quigley lives in Dublin and is a retired public servant. His first novel, Borderland (1994) was broadcast on Irish national radio and translated into German. Recently he has written two books of popular history — The Polish Irishman: The Life and Times of Count Casimir Markievicz (2012) and Sisters Against the Empire, Countess Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth in 1916/17 (2016), both available from the Liffey Press. He has given Creative Writing courses and lectured in Ireland, Poland and Ukraine. The Polish Government awarded him a Pro Memoria medal for The Polish Irishman in 2014. He is a long-standing member of the Powys Society and has written articles on the family, especially the connections with Ireland, in the Powys Society Newsletter and in la lettre powysienne. Llewelyn Powys visited Palestine with Alyse Gregory in 1928, a visit which crystallized his views on religion and the supernatural. On a personal level the journey to Palestine was at a time of marital tension and his difficult love for Gamel Woolsey. His experiences led him to interrogate his religious beliefs and his upbringing in the family of a clergyman. Following the visit he wrote three ‘religious books’ — The Cradle of God, The Pathetic Fallacy and A Pagan's Pilgrimage. The talk will examine these and subsequent books in which Llewelyn outlined his philosophy of life. It will also look at the complex religious beliefs of the Powys siblings and the changing nature of religious belief in the early 20th century.
David Stimpson describes himself as a happily ageing baby boomer. He was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, USA and now lives in New York. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in Communication Arts from Cornell University. Over the years he has served as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia, and as an intern with the Population Council in Taiwan. Subsequently, David worked both in New York and Malaysia as an account executive with the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, then as a managing director of editors and public relations with the Wall Street based bond rating firm, Moody’s Investors Service. David has been a member of the Powys Society since 2013. He has been an enthusiastic admirer of John Cowper’s life philosophy since the early 1980s, when, in a sort of alternative calling, he began researching a book on what he called ‘Friends of Solitude’, and by chance (or perhaps it was synchronicity at work) he discovered JCP’s A Philosophy of Solitude in the New York Public Library. After escaping from Wall Street and retiring for good from public relations, he finally found time to write and then publish The Greatest Escape: Adventures in the History of Solitude (2004). John Cowper makes a cameo appearance in the book among dozens of other friends of solitude, from Zhuang Zhou and The Buddha to Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. Soon after finishing The Greatest Escape, David realized he should have spent more time with JCP. Though he had only read one of JCP’s books thus far, he had come to regard his new friend as the wildest, most adventurous, vehement, down-to-earth, and enticing of all the advocates and philosophers of solitude he had ever met. Thus began a lonely research project to find out who this long-forgotten writer was, what his overall life-philosophy is all about, and what he was up to during the three decades he spent in America. David’s talk will present his personal interpretation of JCP’s philosophy and his life in America.