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Nancy Cunard and Henry Moore.

IT is now an incredible twenty-six years since Nancy Cunard the poet died in Paris, twelve since the publication of her biography. But I am still haunted by memories of a twenty-year friendship with her. Her fascinating personality springs to life before me whenever I dip into my collection of her letters, postcards, scraps of notes she left behind--some long and typed, some handwritten in ink, others dashed off in pencil.

I had been in correspondence with her during the summer of 1944. Although, reluctantly, she had turned down my poem |Paris remembered' as too general for her antholgy Poems for France, she was enthusiastic about my English version of the sonnet by Peguy. |Paris, Double Galere': |Why not send it to my friend, John Mortimer of the New Statesman?' I did, and it was published in the |liberation of Paris' issue. Nancy had also liked a translation I had sent her of Aragon's Richard Coeur de Lion and other poems by the lynch-pin of the intellectuals of the Resistance.

Then the postcard from 93 Jermyn Street, SW1 (one of the scores of addresses she was to write from), succinct but friendly: |Cafe Royal, Regent Street, at 6.15 p.m. Ed. in the big cafe on ground floor.

My signalement: Old beige large coat with high fur collar. Will this suit? Work makes everything impossible! But look forward to meeting you. N.C.'

If, aged 49, she could no longer be the stunning beauty of the |twenties, no war-time old coat could hide her slim elegance, nor deflect one's gaze from those intense blue eyes.

Over a simple larger -- not as I soon learnt, her usual drink -- a discussion on how best we francophile writers and educators (as schoolmaster and poet I was both) could help France. The ivory bangles that clothed her arms rattled as she gesticulated. She offered to help me contact the poets whom she knew personally and whose poems I wanted to translate, and place in reviews. Nancy had already informed her fellow-writer, Cecily Mackworth, of my projected anthology of -- chiefly -- poets connected with the Resistance, and she wanted to use several of the translations for her Mirror for French Verse. She introduced me to the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, suggested particular poems she would like for her book. |I hope you are trying Zone'.

Around the time of our first encounter, Nancy had had disquieting news; her offices in Normandy -- her hand-press (founded in 1928) -- had been looted by the Nazis. Only a few books had survived intact; luckily Beckett's Whoroscope, and Ezra Pound's Cantos among them. We talked a lot about her press on the occasion of her first visit to us at Bishop's Stortford College. She was, surprisingly to me, fairly free -- for that time -- with four-letter words. Nancy was also charming with out two children and squatted on the floor and talked about their books.

After a wartime lunch on veal olives we discussed printing. She showed interest in the typographical exhibition I was preparing. Then, we discussed Virginia Woolf (I had written a sonnet on hearing of her suicide in 1941). Nancy returned to the subject in a letter two days later: |having known Virginia...what I wanted to say was how she laughed when I said, in answer to the awful difficulty of understanding James Joyce, that she should read him with a good strong drink, perhaps even a little tight. What Stulik, of the Eiffel Tower restaurant, used to qualify as "hearing the anchells sing!".'

Nancy encouraged me to get as many translations as possible published in literary and other reviews. It would help to persuade Aragon -- and other French poets -- to give permission for book publication. The review Adelphi, published my translation of Aragon's Plus belle que des larmes, Tribune my version of his Dunkerque. I could now work confidently too the title Apollinaire to Aragon.

Meantime in that annus mirabilis peace was on its way. May 9 -- VE Day -- the unblacking of windows was a symbol of a return to light. Communications between this country and France were opening up. I was able to introduce to Nancy an old French literary friend, Madame Baudouin, who was trying to obtain permission to adapt J. M. Barrie plays for French TV. Nancy sent a hasty card: |Here is news; Tristan Tzara is coming over to lecture on Language et Poesie at the French Institute'. It gave me the chance of meeting the inventor of Dadaism, one of whose poems I had already translated. Nancy reported back from Paris (October 24): |Compliments on your excellent translation of Tzara's most difficult poem. He showed it to me and I think he is very pleased'.

Nancy took the business of writing very seriously; her reports from Spain appeared in The Guardian and elsewhere. She was always talking about the PEN Club and all it was doing internationally for oppressed or censored authors. She was a great friend of its first secretary, Herman Ould who welcomed me as a member. Nancy, at the first dinner I attended, found me another francophile friend, the novelist Irene Rathbone. We met several times at the Cafe Royal. Nancy was enthusiastic about the Nice (PEN) Congress: |munificent'. Cecily described her at the Venice Congress: |Nancy looked very nice. She was staying at her cousin's (Victor) palazzo. She gave a splendid cocktail party. Day Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly and Auden were there...'. It represented a nostalgic return to her old social sphere, while in her letter to me about the strike of the Spanish bank employees: |Strike, strike, people are always right to strike...'. She had sent a report on the plight of Spanish republicans in Franco's prisons. She was at home with ordinary people--she learned Russian from a chauffeur--and anyone, especially writers in distress. On one occasion I was able to help. At her request I had sent a copy of Thomson's A City of Dreadful Night to the poet, Joe Bousquet, who had been seriously wounded in the 1914-18 War. He was pathetically grateful. He wrote in English: (I quote from a longish letter) |Will you receive, Sir, a thousand thanks, and never forget a dying man in Carcassonne who is in love with England and the dearest Nancy Cunard, Yours faithfully, Joe.' I was moved to write a poem: |The Grief of a Poet' (included in Aragon to Apollinaire).

Still under the sign of N.C. in December 1945, out of the blue, a long letter appeared from an American journalist working in Paris, Morris Gilbert: |Miss Cunard', he writes, |has told me of the interest instilled by you among your pupils about Le Canard enchaine, and it struck me as so remarkable that I felt you would not mind if I wrote about this extraordinary paper, in case your students don't know the details...'. It was ten years later that she summed up this extension of her interest and affection: |Do you know I have your boys constantly in mind--my book--that's some of the public I'd like.' The look was about her press, These were the Hours (published posthumously); poetry and printing books were her first love.

In 1947 (January 2nd) Nancy wrote to me from Paris: |am demented at not having a place of my own to start anew, it's HELL!' Then I received a letter, dated November 16th, moderately triumphant: |I now have a HOUSE, a nutshell, absolutely complete with every discomfort and inconvenience and a veritable network of fissures... My little old woman of the Lot totters about stone-deaf, competent, undeterrable.' Nancy expands on this |character' in a latter letter when she is confronted by an importunate tax-collector: |Madame Achille had me in fits of laughter: Allez vous emandouiller ailleurs! On a assez d'emerdements dans cette maison, sans cela!' One can sympathize with her job of coping with Nancy's erratic hours, I heard her during my visit muttering in mild protest: |Mais, ce n'est pas normal!' This tumble-down house at Lamothe-Fenelon, some eight kilometres from Souillac in the Dordogne, became a guesthouse for Nancy's more intimate friends: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Irene Rathbone; also her new friends, Geraldine Balaye of Radio-Toulouse and the American journalist, Louise Morgan. Of course, on her general principle, Nancy lost no time in enlisting their interest in, respectively, my French translations broadcast from Radio Toulouse-Hautes Pyrenees and the calligraphy of my pupils, which appeared as a feature in The New Chronicle.

By this time Apollinaire to Aragon had reached Nancy . . . |I read Apollinaire to Aragon with very real pleasure . . . in bed and in Meadow'. Nancy will paid visits to England. We met at PEN Club dinners. She continued to follow her political interests. She and Cecily Mackworth were assiduous attenders of PEN Congresses abroad.

As Henry Moore and his sculpture were very much in my mind since I had got to know him and had paid many visits to his studio, I would almost certainly have talked about him to Nancy. Her first mention of my proposal to take her over to Moore's house and studio was in a letter, dated May 2nd, 1949 when, unfortunately around that time she was beset with worries. Moore had his first one-man exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1948. His stone carving, |Three Standing Figures', had been Moore's important contribution to the first Battersea Park Exhibition of open-air sculpture. But with so prolific an artist one was always sure to see some important work in progress. In any case no pretext was needed for this meeting of two minds. They had much in common; the rapport was immediate. She was one of the first, if not the first foreigner to visit |Le Musee de l'Homme' in Paris since the end of hostilities and she had written an authoritative article on it, published in the prestigious Burlington Magazine. Henry was fascinated by the ivory bracelets that clothed her arms.

Subsequently Nancy stayed some days at the |Red Lion' in Much Hadham from which Moore's studios were only a couple of miles but she did not like to disturb his work. I think her realization that she could never equal Edith Sitwell as a poet was responsible for her concentration on translation and the prose books she devoted respectively to her two heroes, George Moore, Memories of George Moore and Norman Douglas, Grand Man. Her two other books were concerned with her own work -- Those were the Hours about her own Private Press. Her huge anthology -- Negro, now a classic, though much derided at the time of its publication, was about African culture and examples of ivories she had done research on in English and foreign museums. She wrote to me from Bremen, December 9th, 1955. . . |What did I see but a beautiful Henry Moore at Basle...'. The same year she wrote: |What pleasure you have given me making me know Henry Moore. He is lunching with me tommorow' (rare for Moore to leave his work for a date!).

A |ring' theme developed. First Nancy had read that the Cecil Rhodes Museum in Bishop's Storford possesses Lobengula's ring originally given to Queen Victoria by the chief of the Mattebele tribe. Our rendezvous was the museum. She was anxious to have a drawing of it by one of my pupils. I had just such a talented boy available, Christopher Hewett, (later owner of a London gallery). Nancy was deligted and showed it to Moore since it resembled the point of a Sarsen stone she treasured |with two holes in its blessed feet'. (Moore's explorations with holes through sculptural forms was a controversial topic at the time.)

In a letter, July 24th, 1964, at a time when her health, but not her will was deteriorating, she wrote (in consecutive sentences): |I am so ILL all the time. Let's not enumerate again on my ills, I have a lovely ring for Henry Moore that even he, probably cannot have seen the likes of. . . in stone, Stonehenge period'. A friend collected it and got it to Moore's studio.

He wrote to me on September 8th, 1964: |We have only been back a few days from our holiday in France . . . we went on to Les Eyzies looking at the cave art. I didn't realize that perhaps we weren't terribly far from Nancy Cunard's house. However, we were with friends in their car... so perhaps we couldn't have called on her anyhow. I have written her a short note. I didn't say anything about the ring because I didn't quite know what to say ... I have merely sent our hopes that she will soon be better.'

Nancy's mental energy was in no way in impaired. She had embarked on a long narrative poem -- a far cry from the poem |Parallax', her most avant-garde poem which Virginia Woolf had published on her Hogarth Press in 1925. But, in all her questions about metres and scansion, I joined in her nostalgic game. It was an evocation of her childhood days at St. Pertinhall. On a postcard written in the Villa Pomone, she is at her most intense: |I am uplifted by the thought of living in England'. She indulges in black humour about her fractured hip. Her last ever postcard to me was dated February 27th, 1965. She died in a Paris hospital in March that same year. Even in desperate pain, her habit of helping on work by others did not desert her. If I needed any help in connection with all my |beaux livres' articles, I should get in touch with Raymond Michelet (she adds his address). He used to work at the Hours Press. I find this last message unbearably touching.

Walter Strachan has produced three collections of his own poetry as well as translating books from French, German and Italian. For his books on art, he was created a |Chevalier des Arts et Lettres' by the French government in 1969.
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Title Annotation:poet and artist
Author:Strachan, Walter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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