On Walking Around in Chelsea and Buying Bedouin of the London Evening
I’d spent the late afternoon and early evening walking around Chelsea having started southbound, from Sloane Square along King’s Road. I turned down Oakley Street and headed to Cheney Row to see Carlyle’s House and Leigh Hunt’s; then to Cheyne Walk, about which I read that Henry James, T.S. Eliot (renting downstairs from James), and Oscar Wilde all had lived, across from the Albert Bridge, which I gazed at from the embankment. I walked back along Oakley Street to King’s Road and into a Waterstone’s, and Bedouin of the London Evening just leapt out at me from a shelf in the poetry section. I was destined to buy it right then, since I had meant to do so ever since it was issued in 2014.
I decided to leave the area but I didn’t know which bus to take to get to my vicinity (Old Street). As I consulted the Transport for London bus stop schema, a white-haired man who spoke quickly insisted I take No. 19, which it so happened he too was embarking. He was curious about me and asked all kinds of questions, all the while speaking rapidly about this and that–half-muttering, really, as if he were the gatekeeper of some knowledge I could never inherit.
After some under-confident-sounding rationalizations on his part (”well, this goes to Angel Tube, and you can get to Old Street from there”) I agreed to take No. 19 and he followed me up to the top of the bus and sat behind me at the front–we had the top to ourselves on this Easter Monday of the long weekend–and continued to engage me, adding along the way that he was a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, was only 55 (”It’s the grey hair!” he said when I asked if he was retired, because he looked at least 70), and that his brother was married in Canada and he knew about the Group of Seven.
I didn’t believe anything he said at all, by the time he finally alighted somewhere around Seven Dials (he asked for my phone number, simply, by saying, ‘Do you have a phone number?’ and I answered simply, No.’). Part of his deception, or perhaps self-deception, was bringing up a tangled ball of information involving the plays and fiction he was writing – themed around the ‘spiritual’– and needless to say, I was glad when he finally disembarked. It occurred to me later I’d just spent a half hour with a harmless sociopath whose goal it had been to have me believe as much about himself as he could get away with, while he peppered his dialogue with expressions of interest in me.
Neil Astley’s introduction to Bloodaxe’s edition of Tonks’s Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, begins,
Take care whom you mix with in life, irresponsible one,
For if you mix with the wrong people
–And you yourself may be one of the wrong people–
If you make love to the wrong person […]
They will do you ferocious, indelible harm!
Far beyond anything you can imagine, jazzy sneering one,
And afterwards you’ll live in no man’s land,
You’ll lose your identity, and never get yourself back […]
(from “Done for!”)
The disappearance of the poet Rosemary Tonks in the 1970s was one of the literary world’s most tantalising mysteries. For many years bizarre theories abounded as to her whereabouts–if she was still alive–many of these finding their way into reputable guides. As Brian Patten put it in a BBC Radio feature in 2009 called "The Poet Who Vanished": ‘Rosemary Tonks evaporated into air like the Cheshire cat.’ Nobody seemed to know what had happened to her and why, the general belief being that she’d found religion, shut herself away and become a recluse. All her books were out of print and she was said to have disowned everything she had written.
Having tried to visit her myself, ten years ago, I was aware that her actual situation was rather different from what everyone had imagined. But out of respect for her declared wish, maintained by her family, that she should be left in peace, I told no one what I knew, continuing to nurse the hope that with encouragement she might one day relent and allow her poetry to be republished.
Since her death in 2014–at the age of 85–a very different picture has emerged of her later life, shedding new light on why it was that she turned her back on literature–following a series of personal tragedies and medical crises–embarking on a self-torturing spiritual quest which required her to repudiate her own books. That involved a complete change of identity, from Rosemary Tonks, the fêted London writer, to the socially challenged Christian convert Mrs Rosemary Lightband, who lived a solitary life (although not as a recluse) in the seaside town of Bournemouth for the next 35 years.
Over an 11-year period, from 1963 to 1974, Rosemary Tonks published two-epoch-defining poetry collections, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms (1963) and Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967), six acerbic, satirical novels, and a number of short stories. She wrote trenchant reviews for leading journals and newspapers, and also collaborated with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Hampstead Festival on an experimental sound-poem, "Sono-Montage" (1966).
Interviewed in 1967, she declared her direct literary forebears to be Baudelaire and Rimbaud: ‘They were both poets of the modern metropolis as we know it and no one has bothered to learn what there is to be learned from them…The main duty of the poet is to excite–to send the senses reeling.’
In sharp contrast with the traditional, well-behaved, dry, self-deprecating verse being published at that time by most of her English contemporaries, her poetry was declamatory, bold, spirited, extravagant and exuberantly sensuous, a hymn to sixties hedonism set amid the bohemian nighttime world of a London reinvented through French poetic influences and sultry Oriental imagery.
Anthony Rudolph praised the ‘visionary quality’ of her poems: “They seem to me to have emerged from the 1940s poetic matrix of Nicholas Moore, George Barker, and J.F. Hendry, poets she would have read in her early twenties. It is a hyper-urban, angst-ridden poetry, with ancestry stretching back to Baudelaire’s Spleen de Paris and the Francophile English symbolists.’
In another interview (see page 109), Tonks asserted:
I don’t understand why poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing passions […] People are born, they procreate, they are terribly happy, they have changes in their fortune, and they meet other people who have effects on them, and then they die; and these thousands of dramatic things happen to them, and they happen to everybody. Everybody has to make terrible decisions or pass examinations, or fall in love, or else avoid falling in love. All these things happen and contemporary poets don’t write about them. Why not?