A DECADE OF POWYS SOCIETY CONFERENCES
By Pat Quigley
My first Powys Society conference was in Chichester in August 2008, a long decade ago in which much has changed. We gather the years into decades to make events more manageable and it seems a good time to review my relationship with the Powys family, especially as experienced through the annual conferences. In the early 2000s I joined the Powys Society after reading novels by John Cowper that extend the concept of what it means to be a fully alive human being. He was a writer with an exuberant, oceanic energy few writers can match—Joyce, Kazantzakis, Dostoyevsky etc. At his best his writing expresses boundless delight in life that breaches boundaries and enriches perception. I was at a hiatus in my writing life and hoped to get access to the deep wells where he derived his inspiration.
I wanted to learn more about the background to the amazing books and could not find anyone who knew anything about them in Ireland. For some reason JCP’s blend of realism and mysticism made little impact in the country that produced so much imaginative literature in the past. I was wary of attending a conference: would the lectures sag under the weight of academic jargon or would it be a cultish gathering for the initiated? It was with some apprehension I packed my bags for the 2008 gathering at the University of Chichester.
My misgivings were dispelled when greeted at the entrance by two smiling ladies—Anna Rosic and Louise deBruin who gave me a warm welcome and a programme for the weekend. As well as details of the lectures the programme included a list of attendees. Over the years this became a vital tool as recall of names lags behind recognition of faces. The list usually contains fifty people, a manageable number to interact with over a weekend. It was obvious that the majority of those attending had a deep acquaintance with each other. Some like Stephen Powys Marks were descendants of the Powys family, while others such as Glen Cavaliero and Louise deBruin knew many of them. At first it seemed very unusual that people would give up valuable holiday time to attend conference every year. Surely they would have exhausted the topic after one or two? However after ten years it all looks much different.
This was more than a literary appreciation society—it was devoted to the study and celebration of a family who had interacted with their surroundings in many fascinating ways. It was a space where the academic and the enthusiastic independent scholar could mingle and share knowledge, rare enough in our compartmentalized world. As a non-academic it was a pleasure to meet others who had non-literary careers with a passionate interest in art and literature. I was hardly aware of being on the threshold of what could become an obsession, a source of delight, or both. I was fortunate to view the only performance of a stimulating once-off literary entertainment, The Bride who Pays the Organist by Chris Wilkinson, featuring (among others) Richard Maxwell as Ezra Pound and PJ Kavanagh as JCP.
Apart from the lectures and conversations an abiding memory of the Chichester conference comes from the aftermath. On the way to the train station I passed a cricket ground with a game in progress. White-clothed bowlers and batsmen on the green sward; the crack of ball against bat echoing through an August afternoon. The scene evoked the cricket stories I read in DC Thompson comics over half a lifetime ago and merged with the post-conference atmosphere to form a memory that recurs as quintessentially English.
It would be repetitive to list the conferences by year—after a time they merge in memory. Over the decade the structure has not changed while the atmosphere of the informal and scholarly has persisted. As a bonus there is often a guide to Powys connections in the area, meticulously prepared by the Secretary, Chris Thomas, with maps, photos, quotations and useful information—these beautifully-produced brochures have become precious items of Powys memorabilia. There were missed conferences in 2009 when I travelled in Ukraine, and in 2013 and 2016 to Paris and Palestine. From 2009 to 2018 the venues alternated between the Hand Hotel in Llangollen and the Wessex Hotel in Street, with a diversion to the former Sherborne Hotel in 2014.
Over the years I managed to extend the holiday by a few days at either end. After the 2011 conference in Llangollen I remained in Denbighshire, moving ten miles up the road to the Owain Glyndwr Hotel in Corwen. When John Cowper & Phyllis Playter lived at 7 Cae Coed between 1935 and 1955 their visitors often stayed in this hotel. The ensuite toilet taking up a third of the room was definitely new, but the black wooden beam across the ceiling was centuries old. I met local man, David Jones, who invited me to his home at Carrog to see Powys memorabilia. He vividly remembered John Cowper and Phyllis, having lived two doors from them in the early 1950s. On the following days I explored the lanes and hills around the town and the river Dee which Powys made the centre of a mythological world in his magisterial Porius. It was marvellous to climb the slopes of Myndd-y-Gaer and sit among the stone walls of a prehistoric fortress bleached by countless winters and summers. In such a place one feels close to the worlds of Porius and Owen Glendower and the source of that creative energy he invokes in a passage from his Autobiography: “The point is that we have the power of re-creating the universe from the depths of ourselves. In doing so we share the creative force that started the whole process.”(p.361)
I observed the distant town in the valley, high above ravens gliding on currents of air, like a John Cowper character, detached from the pressures and routines of normal life. As the hours passed I imagined myself close to my internal reality; it was clear why Powys rejected the mechanical world for isolated places where he could draw on his creative energy. The power he invokes does not derive from ideology or human relationships, but from the processes of nature. Sitting among the stones I was connected to the world of my childhood among the fields and valleys of rural Ireland. I was far above the petty concerns down below until I realized darkness was approaching and a night on the mountain did not appeal. One can get too close to nature.
In succeeding years I followed paths frequented by Powys in the hills around Corwen, wondering which rock and tree he included in his personal mythology. In 2015 I climbed the steep sides of Dinas Bran where the ruined fortress recalled the mediaeval world of Owen Glendower. The 2017 conference included a journey through time on the restored steam railway from Llangollen to Corwen. On the same visit I visited the magnificent ruins of the abbey Valle Crucis, more eloquent and strange in that mountain valley than the ruins of Glastonbury. By the evening light you can visualize the original buildings as centres of energy in a belief system rooted in spiritual vision. A feature of North Wales is the changing weather; from your window in the Hand Hotel you can watch the landscape changing as the light negotiates sheets of shimmering rain.
Conferences in Street ensures one can explore the locations Powys describes in A Glastonbury Romance. It is also close to the village of Montacute where, in 2012, there was the opportunity to see inside the former vicarage where the Powys family lived. So much of this beautiful place is interwoven into the fiction, letters and memoirs of John and Llewelyn and their siblings. In 2017 I was among a group that visited the little stone house at Waterloo Terrace in Blaenau Ffestiniog. We climbed the narrow stairs to look from the bedroom window where Powys gazed at Welsh mountains and dreamed of voyagers on the moon. The steep slope he climbed each day was too much for me, a warning that an artery to the heart was closing in.
For a number of years my main interest was in John Cowper; it took longer to warm to Llewelyn and Theodore Francis. In the summer of 2013 I contacted Theodore’s stepdaughter, Theodora (Susie), now resident in a nursing home in the West of Ireland. She came to Ireland in the 1990s and lived with dogs and horses until illness caused her confinement in the home. Her memory is sharp as she delights in talking about the generation of which she is one of the last survivors. She loves to relive childhood memories in Dorset and her Polish father, Geoffrey Potocki—the self-styled King of Poland. She reveres Theodore’s memory, talks fondly of him as Daddy, but dislikes his writing; in her opinion Dorset people are not as awful as the characters in the stories.
I was slow to appreciate his peculiar novels and stories; at first glance he appears a miniaturist but his precise and careful style evokes eternity in rural settings. He is sometimes difficult to warm to, but the writing is controlled and of remarkable skill and beauty — his economy of words the opposite of the cosmic imagery employed by Brother John. He had the intensity of a sage and attracted a small community of artists and writers to the hamlet of East Chaldon. Liam O’Flaherty, considered him the best man writing in England in the 1920s, giving me the title and subject for my first lecture to a Powys Society meeting in Hampstead in December 2016 and a subsequent essay in the Powys Journal.
Although he is remembered mainly for his nature essays Llewellyn was a versatile writer. I found the depiction of the natural world in his ‘autobiographical novel,’ Love and Death, beautiful but cloying. My breakthrough came at the 2012 conference where Arjen Mulder spoke on the love triangle between Llewellyn, Alyse Gregory and Gamel Woolsey when he wrote his religious and philosophical books. When I visited the Holy Land in 2016 I was able to compare the historic sites with Llewelyn’s vivid descriptions of Palestine in 1928 which led to my debut lecture to the Society at Llangollen in 2017. Another revelation came through a lecture by Peter Foss on Llewellyn in Davos based on the 1910 Diary, The Conqueror Worm, published by the Society. The companion 1911 Diary, Recalled to Life, evoked the richness of golden Edwardian summers before the Great War and encouraged me to see the writer brothers as nourished by the energy of the entire Powys family.
As I read more about the family and their associates the narrative expanded to cover England, Wales and America with the characters participating in a huge sequence of interconnected stories—a sort of Dance to the Music of Powys. All the articles and stories in the Powys Review, Powys Journal, and Powys Society Newsletter as well as Jacqueline Peltier’s bi-lingual journal, la lettre powysienne, are contributions to, and amplifications of, that shared world which unfolds like a huge luminous tapestry. Through all of these sources and the many literary and non-literary friendships and associations with places and landscape an intricate world takes shape in our minds. The fascination spreads to the rest of the brothers and sisters—in their letters and journals we come to know them better than many of our acquaintances. The members of the family live again through the texts which feed our interest in them.
Their appreciation of art and literature was encouraged by their mother, Mary Cowper Johnson, but the love of nature was inherited from their father, the Rev. C.F. Powys; those long walking expeditions through the byways of Victorian England were a form of prayer to the glory of being alive. As they matured they took different paths but retained a sense of the spiritual in their work and lives. Their varied beliefs point to a pure source of spirituality distorted by organized religions, which makes them relevant to our time as much as their own. For them the soul was not something obscure or buried in the self, but inherent everywhere in nature and life. It is part of the fascination that draws us back to them with renewed interest.
Through the Powys publications I discovered links to ever-expanding circles of writers—Alyse Gregory, Gamel Woolsey & Gerard Brenan, Louis Wilkinson and Elizabeth Myers, Gerard and Mary Casey. Beyond these are connections to other writers and artists—Sylvia Townsend Warner, James Hanley, John Redwood Anderson, Kenneth Hopkins and Patricia Dawson as well as contemporary creators—Jeffrey Hooker, Glen Cavaliero, Timothy Hyman, Rosemary Dickens, Anna Rosic, Peter Tait, Geoffrey Winch, Sonia Lewis and many others. All are illuminated by their connection to the Powys circle, drawn to a creative energy which eludes attempts to categorize it. John Cowper wrote eloquently about his enjoyment of the many writers who influenced him; he becomes a guide to the vast world of words, mediating our journeys between worlds of matter and spirit.
There were many memorable conference experiences over the ten years; lectures where the speaker had a deep affinity with the subject remain the most vivid—Marcella Henderson-Peal on John Cowper and the French philosopher, Jean Wahl; Chris Thomas’ account of the sources of Wolf Solent and the Welsh music in his voice as David Jones spoke of his friendship with John Cowper and Phyllis. After ten years the Powys world is part of my mental landscape where each issue of the Powys Society Newsletter, really a fascinating literary magazine, is anticipated for fresh knowledge and connections. The mountain of scholarship assembled on the Powys family is a lasting achievement of the Society, but there is some concern about the advancing age profile of members. There is a need to extend the knowledge beyond the Society and to plant seeds for future development. To these ends the Society is exploring new technologies and new ways of connecting with the public and cultural institutions. The lack of public knowledge was apparent in Corwen in 2017 when I visited the Public Library and asked if they had material on Powys. Despite a plaque on the outside wall commemorating the major works he wrote during two decades in the town, the staff were perplexed. A search in the bottom of a filing cabinet produced some photocopied pages from an ancient Newsletter. The town museum nearby had much local material, but nothing on the writer who immortalized the area in Owen Glendower and Porius. Hopefully the situation will improve when the Society donates material to the Corwen Museum at the 2019 conference in Llangollen.
In 2016 I attempted to set up an Internet reading group to maintain contact with enthusiasts between conferences. It was more difficult than expected as people were supportive, but felt reading was a private experience. We went ahead with three participants and held a stimulating email discussion of Wolf Solent over a few months. In more recent times Dawn Collins has created new Facebook pages for the Society and Reading Powyses to study the novels of John Cowper which convinced me to read richly-imagined novels like Wood and Stone and Ducdame which I had been inclined to overlook.
I hoped the 2018 conference would produce special memories to round off the decade and so it proved. After ten years each return is like a family reunion, happy to meet old friends, although there is sadness at the thought of the people who have passed on in the last ten years—David Gervaise, PJ Kavanagh, Jeff Kwintner and Bill Keith. In an age of endless demands and distractions the devotion to the Powys Society can appear quixotic, but new faces emerge which strengthens the hope that things will continue. The ten years from 2008 marked a distinct phase in my life; I took early retirement in 2009 and achieved some success as a writer, although in the unexpected area of popular history. John Cowper remains my favourite brother for his emphasis on the spiritual resources which are so important to live, as well as write, well. The highpoint of the 2018 conference was the ascent of the Glastonbury Tor with Marcel Bradbury, my heart strengthened by a stent during the year.
The Monday after conference meant a rare chance to take part in the Dandelion Day commemoration for Llewellyn in East Chaldon with the local historian and expert guide, Judith Stinton. The early conference date meant the two events could be combined for the first time. I never realized the tracks across the downs were so rugged, the valleys so deep or the slopes so steep. The trek to Llewelyn’s stone overlooking the sea added a visual dimension to passages where the brothers rested on the downs as they discussed the purpose of life. On the following day Judith guided me through labyrinthine back roads, across hills and valleys, even fording a stream, to the heart of the Blackmore Vale. We visited Mappowder with the graves of Theodore, Violet and Lucy and the beautiful church with its antique carvings and monuments. Louise deBruin entertained us in her lush garden and revealed a house full of Powys memorabilia. The visit was another link to the village described so vividly by Theodora in her book where she characterized herself as the cuckoo in a Powys nest.
After ten years I wonder if I have covered all aspects of the Powys world. Why read the Powyses when there is so much else to read? Because at their best they drill beneath the surface of things so that you can return to them again and again and find fresh insights. They seemed to understand intuitively that the great struggle of our time is not between classes, creeds, races or genders, but against the mechanisation of life—a process which began well before their generation and rapidly accelerated during it. While they had little engagement with organized politics they sought to improve life by placing the mind and soul at the centre of their concerns. In their lives we can trace the sensibilities that made Littleton an educationalist, Marion a designer of beautiful forms in lace and Bertie a champion of traditional architecture. In the mountains of words in the novels, stories, essays, poems, diaries there are many unexplored hills and hidden valleys, many tangled connections and unexpected vistas still to be explored. Each discovery leads one further inward and outward: the journey is as rich and deep as life and is only beginning.
© Pat Quigley