New Partisan
Happily Never After, or, The Rubbish Tower
Robert Latona | 08.9.2008
6 Jan 2005—Somewhere I must have read and forgotten the name of the woman for whom Paul Potts wrote Dante Called You Beatrice, a book that I think finishes in a dead heat with Berlioz’s Memoirs in presenting a convincing prose simulation of the self-lacerating emotional delirium that comes from being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back.

Well, there’s a claim for you. Written “for” rather than “about” the woman (actually a conflation of two) who has no personality, identity or narrative of her own, this compelling, awkward book was first published in Britain in 1960. By that time, its Canadian-born author had become a shabby fixture of London’s Fitzrovia district, peddling broadsheet copies of bad poems in the same overcrawled pubs where stronger talents and more conventionally focused lives than his were undone by promiscuous boozing.

During a lifetime spent treading water off the seacoast of artsy Bohemia where his hopes of being a “real” poet had long since foundered, Potts got on pretty well with those who enjoyed far more success that he ever would in endeavors of love and/or literary careerism, among them the now-neglected George Barker and Dylan Thomas, whom Potts identified correctly and ahead of his time as “the biggest minor poet in the language”. In a posthumous tribute later parsed to death by biographers, Potts celebrated his close friendship with George Orwell, one of the few contemporaries who never patronized him, valued his company and did not begrudge him handouts and hospitality-on-demand.

Dante might be described as a De Profundis-style open letter of self-justification addressed to the spurner by the spurned, only without Wilde’s bitchy recriminations. But this follows a declaration of devotion that includes all the Jews (absolutely and without exception, and by extension the state of Israel) the Irish (also without exception); the Italian Communist novelist Ignazio Silone, the poet Patrick Kavanagh (good choice!), Jesus Christ (“Our Lord” on second reference), Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Walt Whitman and Spinoza. And, lest we forget, all “the world’s poor and oppressed” with particular regard for the beautiful losers and saintly failures, among whose number Potts counted himself.

In self-deprecatory snippets, Potts hints at how his emotions came to be thus configured, starting with the prudish and obsessively Catholic mother whose memory he obviously still reveres. It appears that outrage over what Hitler was doing to the Jews led him to enlist in the Commandos, where he served as an officer’s orderly after being turned down for glider raids. The mind boggles at the thought of this gentle soul trying to slit the throat of some conscript sentry. Later on, he went off to Israel as a Catholic Zionist true believer to help the Jews in their 1948 war of independence. What in the world did he get up to over there? A handshake from President Chaim Weizmann in Jerusalem is all he relates in print.

Recapping those episodes allows Potts to kick his autobiographically objectified  self repeatedly in the head on account of all the frustration and loneliness in his life. “I have tried and failed to get the English language to fall in love with the thinking in my heart,” he says over and over and concludes, “I don’t seem to have much talent for anything very much except for being hurt.”

The sentiments he finds words for are more commonly encountered on letters that should never see the inside of a mailbox, verbal fallout from the same old story that has endured from Cro-Magnon to Country and Western, by way of Catullus. The novelty here is that the writer not only wears his heart on his sleeve, he gets up in front of a live audience and mainlines the chambered organ with the stylistic equivalent of steroids.

“She made me want to go to Tuscany to bring her wine,” comes at the milder end; and if over-the-top is more to your taste, try: “My heart is a city which, should you ever care or need to enter it, whatever the circumstances of your coming or the condition of the visitor, will receive you as Venice received Marco Polo the day he got back from China.”

Strong stuff indeed. And Dante is replete with it: “Once anyone has crossed the frontier of the republic of one’s heart, they are citizens of it forever. Even if they live their whole lives abroad” — that one I like, by the way — along with such gnomic utterances as “To mistake sex for love is like mistaking the Pope for God.”

A double helix of intertwining greeting-card sentiment paired with self-flagellation creates an off-the-wall masterpiece only comparable to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. “I am not worthy of you, good God woman, of course I’m not, but is a cowslip worthy of the sun?” or “I want to say something to you or write something about you that would be as beautiful in itself as the life I would have led with you had you loved me.”

“You are more important to me than everything else in the world is to you.” Bits and pieces of Rod McKuen, William Blake and the Song of Songs get fed into the boiler as Potts’ panegyric picks up speed and acquires the momentum of a locomotive. “The fact that it did hurt you when you said no to me made my hurt less.” Young Werther and his sorrows sound like a wino’s hard luck story by comparison, and if poetry really has anything to do with emotion recollected in tranquility, it’s no wonder Paul Potts was mistaken in his choice of vocation.

But he did write this book. Maybe, just maybe, it deserves to be read and taken seriously. Not as an addition to the “so bad it’s almost good” canon, though. In Dante’s defense, it was brought out by a mainstream London publisher, got generally good write-ups from somewhat startled reviewers, and was even taken up by a staid, middle-class book club, a move that may have brought Potts the only real money he enjoyed in his life. One would like to think so.

My copy came with a page from the club magazine in which you can just about hear the editors shift uneasily in their chairs as they introduced their monthly selection to customers in Tunbridge Wells, but they are right enough in claiming “It is not possible again, after reading Dante Called You Beatrice, to permit oneself the luxuries of smugness, prejudice and complacency. In examining his own human weaknesses, he makes us painfully aware of our own. This is a salutary and significant book.”

Really? Can “bad” writing have that kind of effect? Someone whose talent is of a vastly different order of magnitude — say, Saul Bellow — may have a brilliant take on human affairs but would Bellow have anything all that different to add when Potts reflects in his fiction on the incontrovertible fact that “love objects are not so readily come by, and once acquired, not easily put aside.”

Think of Los Angles’ Watts tower. Think of all those pieces of second-hand junk and car parts as if they were so much warmed-over cliché, fervid overstatement, gushes of self pity and gobs of adoration held together by the gravity-defying sincerity that allows the artless to prevail over the meretricious. You can say, “Well, it’s made out of crap and rubbish”. But the horizon that contains it will never be the same.

Allow me one more analogy. It is manifestly thanks to a whole lot of professionally self-effacing single-cell life forms, random encrustations, and coral sheathing that it is possible for us to contemplate in awesome detail the superstructure of the sunken Titanic. The Titanic isn’t there, of course, just a lot of solidified aquarium sludge. But what we see is something magnificent.

Forget about Rousseau. Paul Potts’s confessions are closer to the memories we hoard until the grave, memories that bear less resemblance to the lives we actually lived than they do to whatever it was that we wanted most to happen and for whatever reason did not. Perhaps it is with such memories that autobiographies come closest to telling the truth.



9 Aug 2008—It appears that an unpublished biography of Paul Potts exists; the writer Paul Willets describes it as completed and “substantial” in his 2004 Independent obit for the author, Mark Holloway, another Fitzrovian fixture who witnessed the “real life” that Potts would have considered as being of scant consequence to anyone — as pitifully scant, indeed, as were the means by which he maintained it long after the Dante windfall was gone. I have no idea if there are any plans to publish the biography or if attempts to do so have been made.

Andrew Barrow’s Quentin & Philip: A Double Portrait (2002) makes it clear the woman Paul Potts called “Beatrice” was Jean Hore, a Scottish heiress who looked like “a young Virginia Woolf and a little like Augustus John’s cello player.” By the time they met, however, Jean had already attracted the attention of Potts’s friend, the brash Fitzrovia newcomer, Philip O’Connor, who married her, spent as much of her money as he could on what would prove the first of his matrimonial plunder raids on Yeats’s “parish of rich women,” and packed her off to an insane asylum shortly after the start of the war. In the course of his research, Andrew Barrow was amazed to discover that Jean Hore lived until 1997, having been confined for over 50 years as a hopeless schizophrenic. O’Connor’s account of the relationship is given in his Memoirs of a Public Baby; and Dante aside, Potts synthesizes his feelings in the almost-poem, “Jean”.

Christopher Barker made a conscience-scalding photographic portrait of Potts during his last days on earth, in which the addled, rag-clad poet evokes a penitent St Jerome as Goya might have depicted him. It appeared in Portraits of Poets, a book which seems not to be available through Amazon.uk. However, the photo can also be found in The London Magazine for Aug-Sept 2004, in which Anthony Carroll recaps his cordial but intermittent acquaintance with Potts and gives a harrowing account of his subject’s relapse from published author to public embarrassment, leading up to his death in August 1990, when the pipe Potts puffed on for solace started a fire in the squalid bed-sit that had been provided for him through the kindness of a few devoted friends. “He smelled better dead than when he was alive,” was the sort of comment elicited by his passing.

The impact of the Barker portrait led Canadian poet Ronald Caplan to do some digging and bring out a slimmish selection of Potts’s verse and prose in Canada in 2008. George Orwell’s Friend: Selected Writing by Paul Potts, consists of material culled entirely from Dante and its later revisions, plus a handful of poems, and of course, the Orwell piece that justifies the title which the editor admits is a deliberate “hook” to snag readers who would otherwise not pause for a closer look.

Caplan’s introduction is good, never unjustly trying to set Potts on the pedestal of the unjustly neglected, but it supplies little by way of new information or context. Since copies of Dante are neither expensive nor hard to come by from second-hand book sources on the Internet, readers may prefer to go directly to the originals. On the other hand, Caplan’s selection may be just right for those who find that purple prose is best ingested in the form of hors d’oeurves, rather than as a multiple course, sit-down meal. I acquired my copy through Amazon.ca.

Finally, somebody within striking range of the Poetry Collection at the State University of New York at Buffalo, might want to check to see if I’m right in suspecting there may be unpublished, unexamined material by Potts in its holdings. The collection’s founder, Charles Abbot, was in Soho buying up poetical mss. like crazy just before the War, when Potts was at his most productive as well as his most ubiquitous. It’s just a hunch of mine, however.

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