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.

At one point he talks about the sense of betrayal 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.


Unknown 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....

Timothy Marshal-Nichols said...

Like 'York Stories' I came across the FAN MAIL FOR A POET extract in A Map of Modern English Verse by John Press. In my case, having forgotten that I'd already seen it in the Robin Skelton collection.

Three of W T Nettlefold poems were first published in Left Review, including some of those already mentioned. For sure he's not the world greatest poet but then, maybe, he shouldn't be entirely forgotten. This blog post seem to be all there is available on him via an internet search. Here are those three Left Review pieces:

Remembrance Day

How strange that the potential dead
Should stop to-day at the eleventh hour,
Standing in silence, bow the head
And wear a tiny crimson flower,
Purchase the poppies while you may,
Symbols for someone else to-day.

So silent, seeming unaware
Of what the future holds in store,
The living millions standing there
Doomed victims of the future war.
Purchase the poppies while you may
For whom the next Remembrance Day.

It is not seen in the Parade,
You cannot smell it in the air,
The uniforms, the flags, the braid,
Disguise the Death that hovers there.
Purchase the poppies while you may
The future pays for faults to-day.

Behind the wall and factory gate
The stuff is there, they guard it well,
The blast of fear, the scream of hate,
The fire, the metal, and the smell.
Purchase the poppies while you may:
Fingers are easily blown away.

[Left Review, Vol: 3, Number: 11, December 1937, p661]

A Lullaby for a Baby Born in 1937

Oh hush thee my baby and sleep while you can,
The days that are flying will make you a man.
Sleep deeply my baby, 'tis I who should cry,
The Masters are planning the way you shall die.

The mining and blasting, the coal that we hew,
The steel we are casting, are, baby, for you.
To mortgage your future, the brain blood and bone;
Your life an investment to cover their own.

Oh stay as a baby, stay just where you are,
So tiny and helpless, yet bright as a star:
But buds break to blossom as brief moments fly,
And Masters are planning the way you shall die.

[Left Review, Vol: 3, Number: 11, December 1937, p662]

Spring also Stirs

Spring also stirs the gardens of the poor
Silently, without trumpets coming,
Having no bunting over sour door,
Calling no crowds to see his honour slumming.
The sombre washing hangs upon the line,
A mangle serves the privy for a shield.
By bath of rusty, obsolete design
Is Friday's inconvenience revealed.
Yet spring, unmindful of these grim displays,
Sweetens the bitter earth with April rain.
Trees, pensioners from brighter, richer days,
Put out their ragged silk of leaves again.
I, from the railway on embankment high,
With sharp intolerance, curse the men who come
From pleasant suburb, yet I too pass by
The Spring-touched gardens of the dismal slum.
So I am silenced by a window box,
With flowers growing in a single row.
Spring, a true communist, my protest mocks
With ease of effort as I come and go.

[Left Review, Vol: 3, Number: 14, March 1938, p868]

Jonathan Calder said...

Thanks so much for doing this, Timothy.

I like these other poems better than the one I quoted, perhaps because they owe so much to Auden.

Since I wrote this post I have dredged up a couple more memories of our conversation.

Bill Nettlefold was a friend of Victor Neuberg, Impressively for a 17-year-old, I had heard of Neuberg because I owned a copy of his Popular Literature (though I'm not sure I ever read it).

And I remember Bill Nettlefold quoting a line of poetry about "war's dustbin chariot" and then saying something like, "I don't know that that means, but it's wonderful."

It turns out to come from the Northern Irish poet W.R. Rodgers.

Timothy Marshal-Nichols said...

W. T. Nettlefold's piece in Poetry London X seems to speak more of his war time experience. Poetry London is filled with similar poems by equally obscure authors. Along with these are some book reviews, mostly of poetry as well as some on art. Alongside these are a few rather nice, outrageous and modernist, colour plates.

To The Islands

I went out heading towards the West
To the happy unknown islands
The islands of the Blessed.
My hands had built the ship, the sails were dreams,
I had a heart for compass, nerves my charts
And sympathy for knowledge of the sea.

I made new landings, touched strange ports
And found the natives friendly, mostly young.
But what was knowledge if I did not tell
My story at the port from whence I came,
Prove I was right, return to show my face
Tanned by the sun, tell scars, repeat the words
The friendly natives taught me? So a came
Back to familiar parts, alone, and told my tale.

But they laughed, tapping their heads and went
About their usual business heeding not
My trophies and my sketches, lost my plans ;
They held to what they had and hated change.
So I sit in the corner, old, and out of sight
With Winter on my head and in my heart.
Sometimes a stranger listens over drink
But mostly I am lonely, slightly mad
And in the darkness of my squalid room
Cry for the islands I have left behind.

[ed. Tambimuttu, Poetry London X, Vol: 2, no: 10, December 1944, p110]

A Rambling Ducky said...

Nettlefolds have strong links to Liberal history.

The Guest of Guest Keen & Nettlefolds is of course the Guest family of which Freddie was Chief Whip of the Lloyd George coalition.

There was also a link with the Chamberlain family - John Sutton Nettlefold married a Chamberlain (Joseph's aunt), and his grandson, also called John Sutton Nettlefold, was a pioneer of town planning and on the board of Kynoch's, the Chamberlain business which sold bullets to both Boers and British.

I haven't managed yet to make the precise connexion between the businessmen and the poet, but if I do I'll add it here.

Jonathan Calder said...