Friday, October 26, 2012

The poet W.T. Nettlefold

When I was a teenager - I would guess this was in 1977 - my mother and I went to visit her cousin and aunt who lived close to one another in Bexleyheath. Also present at the lunch was a neighbour of theirs called Bill Nettlefold.

He turned out to have been a poet as a young man and to have moved in London literary circles. After serving in World War II he had taken up a respectable career in the civil service. He had recently retired from that and, as I recall, had lost his wife too.

We got on well and after lunch, to escape the family for a while, I went back to his house for a cup of tea and to talk about writers. It was heaven for a bookish sixth former who was just discovering the figures he had met.

I can recall two of his stories. He used to go drinking with Dylan Thomas and Thomas never bought his round. And he had once sent some poems to Orwell at Tribune, but Orwell never replied.

He also said that he was a Nettlefold as in Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds, but that none of the family money had come down to him.

Years later I bought a copy of Robin Skelton's Penguin anthology Poetry of the Thirties. It has an introduction in which Skelton discusses the movements and controversies of the decade.

And one point he talks about the sense of betrayal that many felt when T.S. Eliot, seen as the leading Modernist, turned to religion and Conservatism.

Skelton writes:
Moreover, behind the jokes there was often, one feels, real shame, real anger, as perhaps in: 
To he read over a network of high-power Radio Stations by an American Hot-gospeller
HOW NICE for a man to be clever,
So famous, so true
So sound an investment how EVER
So nice to be YOU.

To peer into basements, up alleys,
A nose for the search.
To chal1ene with pertinent sallies,
And then JOIN the Church.

First comes Prufrock. then Sweeney. and then
Thomas à Becket.
How frightfully nice of the good men
In cloth to forget it.

The broad-hacked hippo so weak and frail
Succumbed lo the shock.
But the TRUE Church now can never fail,
Based upon ‘THE ROCK.

As a POET you visit today
The NICE Portuguese.
You can help England so in this way
I DO hope you please.

You WILL watch Spain’s terrible border;
Take care where you tread.
How AWFUL for England if you were
Shot down for a RED’

I like you, and whats more I READ you:
There are such a few
Christian Poets so nob1e indeed you
Must know it — YOU DO.

How nice for a man to be clever
So famous, so true
So sound an investment how EVER
So nice to be YOU.

This poem is a lament for a lost leader. Eliot had betrayed the admiration and respect shown him by the thirties men, not only by turning to orthodox religion after his mockery of it, but also by visiting a fascist country which was helping Franco in the Spanish Civil War. This again illustrates the way in which a poet was regarded as a person whose actions were as publicly important as his poems.
I don't suppose there were two poets called Nettlefold active in the 1930s, so this must be my Bill Nettlefold. It is not great poetry - I suspect you had to be around at the time to understand this sense of betrayal - but I was delighted and astounded to find it in the Penguin book.

Another book, Modernism and Mourning by Patricia Rae, mentions a Nettlefold poem ("Lullaby for a Poet Born in 1937") in a footnote, and he also had something included in a 1944 anthology Poetry London X.

Those are the only traces of Bill Nettlefold I can find on the internet, but I am glad that I met him.


York Stories said...

That's very interesting. I've found the poem above also quoted in 'A Map of Modern English Verse' by John Press, published 1969, in the section discussing Eliot.

A few more references to W T Nettlefoot come up via Including a brief extract from/reference to a poem called 'Remembrance Day', published 1937: 'Purchase the poppies while you may/For whom the next Remembrance Day?' [source]

Anonymous said...

'Not great poetry' rather over-estimates it....