Denise Riley, ‘Death of a Hero’

Denise Riley - Say Something Back (2016)

The wonderful poet Denise Riley’s most recent collection Say Something Back (2016) brings together much of her recent verse.  Concluding the collection is her sequence ‘A gramophone on the subject’, commissioned as part of ‘a commemoration in poetry of the war’ and first published in The Pity (The Poetry Society, 2014).  The sixth of seven sections is a short, six-line poem entitled ‘Death of a Hero’, which Riley describes in the Eliotesque notes to the volume as ‘a note on post war aesthetic isolation, as if by some “modernist” writer.’’ (p. 78).  Aldington is directly invoked.  Other sections take as their inspiration other familiar acts of memorialisation.

You can read more about Riley’s collection in:

The Nation

The Fortnightly Review

The Guardian

Andrew Frayn


Neil Pearson talk on Jack Kahane

Jack Kahane

On 17 May 2019 I attended a talk organised by the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society at the Quaker Meeting House on the West Bow, near the National Library of Scotland.  The actor, bookseller, and author Neil Pearson gave an entertaining talk on Jack Kahane, the man who published the first unexpurgated edition of Aldington’s Death of a Hero in Paris in 1930.

Pearson guided us through Kahane’s fascinating life and times, including his own discovery after publication of Obelisk [check title] of another item by Kahane – an advertising verse of 1908 entitled A Smoker’s Rubaiyat.  Kahane’s frustrations at his novelistic career were invoked memorably, and the cast of expatriate eccentrics around him in the French capital was illustrated using a set of fine images, memorable among them Nancy Cunard’s exceptional millinery.

Death of a Hero did get a mention from Pearson, commended as an exceptional, under-read and under-appreciated novel of the First World War, and he noted the pity that the unexpurgated edition is not more widely available.  We chatted a little afterwards, and it’s good to know that there are prominent champions of Aldington out there.

Andrew Frayn



Reminder: Neil Pearson talk on Jack Kahane

Jack Kahane

A reminder that Neil Pearson will be talking to the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society about Jack Kahane this Thursday, 16 May 2019, at 5.45pm at the Quaker Meeting House on Victoria Terrace in Edinburgh.  It is the final talk of their programme this academic year.

Along with then partner Henri Babou, Kahane published the first unexpurgated edition of Aldington’s Death of a Hero in Paris in 1930.  We hope that this will get a mention!

Vivien Whelpton remembers David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson: Obituary

I met David on a few occasions apart from our 2012 lunch to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Aldington’s death, and each was a memorable and enjoyable event. The first was in 2010 when my husband and I met up with him in Padworth for a walk round significant landmarks, from the war memorial outside Padworth Church that figures in ‘The Lads of the Village’ to Lawrence’s cottage at Hermitage, General Mills’s grave at Beenham and, of course, Bridge House and Malthouse Cottage. Our walk was made all the more vivid by the stories David told us about the inhabitants of the village whom he had interviewed and who had memories of Aldington and of all the characters who figured, thinly disguised, in The Colonel’s Daughter. If I had not grasped David’s passion for his subject then, I certainly did so in the months following as I listened to the recordings or read the transcripts of the interviews, in which his curiosity and his natural warmth and humour combined to elicit so many recollections from the village inhabitants. It is good to know that he was able to see all that research finally brought to fruition in the publication of his book in 2016.

Other more recent meetings – at his home in St Ives, where he introduced myself and a friend to the local art scene, or in Cambridge when he had just signed a contract with Lutterworth for the publication of his book on Gaudier-Brzeska – also remain vivid in my memory because of his unquenchable curiosity, his love of art, music and literature, his delight in people and their eccentricities, in life and its incongruities and surprises. He was a remarkable man.

Vivien Whelpton

Review: Jean Moorcroft Wilson on Robert Graves

Robert Graves, c. 1920.

Book Review

Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Goodbye to All That (Bloomsbury, 2018)

When the memorial to the poets of the First World War was unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1985, the only poet still alive was Robert Graves. This is strikingly ironic given that Graves had long since decided to suppress his war poems and to excise his war poetry from any later selected or collected editions of his poems. To mark this occasion poems by fourteen of the sixteen poets were read out by a distinguished group of actors. It is puzzling to note that apparently nothing by David Jones or Edmund Blunden was included. For Graves, the chosen poem was ‘Two Fusiliers’.

Most of the major war poets have been well covered by at least one, if not two or more, biographical studies. Jean Moorcroft Wilson has been pre-eminent in this respect, leading the way with biographies of Sorley, Rosenberg, Sassoon and Thomas. This, then, is the fifth major war poet that she has tackled. Wilson’s book – along with Charles Mundye’s fine Robert Graves: War Poems (Seren, 2016) – seeks to reinstall Graves among the truly major poets of the First World War.

The quaintly titled 1917 volume, Fairies and Fusiliers, suggests that when Graves wrote about the war he returned at the same time to childhood memories and themes from nursery mythologies. Friends such as Robbie Ross and Siegfried Sassoon wanted a more homogeneous collection, consisting solely of the second category of the title. For them the grimly fantastic realism of ‘A Dead Boche’ sat rather awkwardly alongside a poem like ‘The Poet in the Nursery’ which ends as follows:

While round the nursery for long months there floated

Wonderful words no one could understand.  (p. 76)

Wilson stresses the point that Graves was “a poet who already favoured childhood innocence, myth and legend as the more effective way of conveying his horror of the war.” And his increasing belief in the supernatural is already evident in ‘Corporal Stare’. Furthermore, his sister, Rosaleen, believed he possessed psychic powers.

The Charterhouse years, during which the schoolboy Graves grappled with his sexual problems, are treated by Wilson with clarity and an even-handed honesty.

The relationships with both Nancy Nicholson and Laura Riding show Graves attracted to two formidable women, one a bohemian feminist, the other a dominant and domineering personality who had a huge influence on Graves’s development as a poet. Nancy was to cause Graves to explore further the world of nursery rhyme and song. Laura Riding was a force of nature, a woman who would initiate him fiercely to the full experience of sex and who would elicit some powerful love poetry. What began as a folie à deux soon became a ménage à trois, and, with the arrival of Geoffrey Phibbs an unbelievable ménage à quatre was created. Wilson charts a course through this extraordinary period of absurd and baffling behaviour with vivid intensity. I will be intrigued to see what Wilson makes of The White Goddess in her subsequent volume. For many, this is a deeply controversial book, an eclectic and idiosyncratic mélange of highly selective data, dubious inferences and questionable ahistorical conclusions.

The war memoirs of Sassoon, Blunden and Graves have all acquired the status of modern classics. When Graves’s ‘bombshell’, Good-bye to All That, appeared, Sassoon and Blunden responded with outrage. They famously marked an edition of the book with their own hostile reactions and critical comments. Now Wilson offers us a glimpse of a less well-known personal copy that Sassoon annotated in a far more vituperative manner. One of the photographs in her book shows that Sassoon pasted inserts into his copy, so that it becomes in effect a very personal satirical collage.

Wilson’s first part of Graves’s life is a vigorous and meticulously researched retelling of the complications of the Graves story.

Michael Copp










Obituary: David Wilkinson (1941-2018)

David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson died on 15 September 2018 after a short illness.  His contribution to the study and enduring reputation of Richard Aldington has been appreciated for over thirty years.

David’s interest in Aldington came about as a result of living in Malthouse Cottage in Padworth, Berkshire, his home from 1971 to 1992; at the time he was working as an architect.  Not knowing anything about Aldington beforehand, to find that he was living in the same house as a once-well-known author had done for most of the nineteen twenties stirred his curiosity.

This led David on a journey to discover all he could about Aldington, and particularly his time in Berkshire. Remaining villagers who remembered those thinly fictionalised in The Colonel’s Daughter (1931) were interviewed by David, and along the way he amassed an unrivalled collection of Aldingtoniana which (which he later sold).  The story of this journey of discovery is told in his recent book, The Death of a Hero: The Quest for World War One Poet Richard Aldington’s Berkshire Retreat (Pen & Sword, 2016).

Making the acquaintance, at first by correspondence and then in person, of Professor Norman T. Gates, himself a passionate and prolific Aldington scholar who founded the NCLSN, situated David at the heart of Aldington networks.  He was an attendee of the 1986 Richard Aldington Conference at the University of Reading; he became the Associate Editor of the NCLSN as its reach grew.  He introduced a reprint of Aldington’s Roads to Glory (Imperial War Museum, 1993), and contributed to the proceedings of the Montpelier Conference organised by Caroline Zilboorg and Alain Blayac for the centenary of Aldington’s birth in 1992.  (You can see a partial list of his publications on Goodreads.)

David was relentless in his pursuit of Aldington, and he was able to locate and correspond with many people who had known Aldington, including Aldington’s sister and daughter.  It is a shame that he never wrote more directly about the development of his Aldington collection: it would have been a textbook on collecting a particular author.  His commitment to knowledge about Aldington can be felt powerfully by looking back through the pages of the NCLSN.

After he left Malthouse Cottage, David moved to St Ives in Cornwall, where he and his wife ran The Book Gallery, a specialist art bookshop.  David was proud to be a published author; he had worried that he would be remembered as a footnote.  His first major book was Guy Thorne: C. Ranger Gull: Edwardian Tabloid Novelist and his Unseemly Brotherhood (Rivendale Press, 2012), and he also published a study of the artist Alfred WallisHenri Gaudier-Brzeska: The Truth Behind the London Years, 1911-1914 was awaiting publication at the time of his death.  This remarkable late flurry of activity attests to David’s important legacy in the study of twentieth-century art and literature.

I met David only once, at a commemorative gathering in Padworth organised by Aldington biographer Vivien Whelpton in 2013.  We were pleased finally to make each other’s physical acquaintance, after nearly a decade’s correspondence.  I had good intentions of making it down to St Ives, his home for the last twenty-five years; I’m sad that life intervened and that never quite came to pass.

As well as his tangible legacy in print to future Aldington scholars, less easily quantified is the value of the energy that David put in to encouraging others in their own research.  We need true enthusiasts like him, collectors who will chase every artefact and detail.  He will be sorely missed by this community, and I send good wishes to his family.

Andrew Frayn

with thanks to Simon Hewett for amendments and additions.

Neil Pearson talk on Jack Kahane, May 2019

Jack Kahane

The Edinburgh Bibliographical Society has recently released its programme for the 2018/19 academic year.

Aldingtonians will be interested to note the talk on 16 May 2019 by Neil Pearson, the bookseller and collector whose face will be familiar to many British readers from his other accomplisments.  The title of his talk is ‘Jack Kahane: literature, censorship, and a very British pornographer’.

Kahane was, of course, one of the publishers of the first unexpurgated edition of Death of a Hero: 300 numbered copies were printed in Paris by Kahane and Henri Babou.  Pearson has written Obelisk: A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press (2007), and presented a documentary on Kahane for the BBC in 2016.

Richard Aldington’s Grave

Richard Aldington in 1955

NCLSN reader Geoffrey Taylor contributes the following:

A barn that has been converted into an estaminet at Auchonvillers seems a fitting place to be introduced to the name and works of Richard Aldington. As the village lies within the chalk moors in the district of the Somme. Here I attended a lecture delivered by Vivien Whelpton, the author’s biographer. I was on a battlefield tour with the War Poets Association, and Aldington’s Death of a Hero appeared on a list of recommended reading for the tour.

Returning home afterwards I procured a copy from a secondhand bookshop. In the space of two pages of reading, I became convinced that here is someone of a rare genius who was worthy of further investigation. Since then I have also acquired and devoured The Colonel’s Daughter, All Men Are Enemies, Seven Against Reeves, The Romance of Casanova, and Rejected Guest. Furthermore, through Charles Doyle’s biography I discovered more of Aldington’s background.

A peculiar hobby of mine is to visit places associated with favourite authors. I stayed at the Mermaid Inn at Rye, which Aldington’s mother ran. I visited Combe Martin in Devonshire where he lived before the war. I visited the Piazza Santa Croce, Firenze, where he lodged and met Norman Douglas. Last weekend, I set about in finding Malthouse Cottage, on Aldermaston Wharf, which he rented for the greater part of the twenties.

Moved by an account of local vine-dressers forming a vigil when Aldington passed away at Maison Salle, I paid a visit to the Sancerrois. It was Christmas, and having scoured the small cimetiere at Sury-en-Vaux, where he is buried. I found nothing. I became duly alarmed. Until I attended a church service, and got introduced to some useful contacts who, in turn, put me in contact with Madame Kershaw.

It was through her late husband that Aldington was offered a bungalow there. Here he spent the remaining five years of his life. Madame Kershaw told me of the precise location of Aldington’s grave. But, on returning to the cimetiere, I soon learned why I could not find the gravestone previously. There is no headstone!—But what’s called a table-sepulchre low to the ground. Only the author’s name is engraved there, and over the years, the lettering has become shallow and begrimed.

Once I returned home to Gloucester, I contacted Aldington’s granddaughter, Florence Guillaume, asking for her permission to give the grave a clean. She lives in the Camargue. She duly acquiesced to my entreaty, as did the local mairie at Sury-en-Vaux. So, armed with a scrubbing brush, and a commemorative poppy which I obtained during the battlefield tour, I came to the cimetiere for a third time in the spring. The site is located on a gentle slope among quiet vineyards.

Alas, even though the engraved name is now cleaned, the carving remains deteriorating. Reading among the acknowledgements in Whelpton’s biography, I came across the New Canterbury Literary Society. If the New Canterbury Literary Society is interested, and if further permission from his relatives is forthcoming, I should be honoured to help arrange for a modest marker stone to be placed there with fresh lettering describing the author’s dates and profession. The Alliance of Literary Societies indicated that a small grant toward this could be obtained, but this would require written support from interested circles.

Aldington deserves a posterity in this delightful setting. Members really should go and see the place. I recommend a flight to Orly, then Sancerre is a two hour journey from the Gare Bercy. The village lies after a pleasant walk along the paths that traverse the vineyards.

Geoffrey Taylor


[I have offered to write in support of Mr Taylor’s proposal above and have extended to him the offer of any help in facilitating that I can provide.

Andrew Frayn]

NCLSN Archives


I’m very grateful to Michael Copp, an excellent Richard Aldington scholar, for lending me his full archives of the New Canterbury Literary Society Newsletter.  If you don’t know Mike’s work on Aldington, then you should look for his An Imagist at War and Imagist Dialogues in particular.  Some of his more recent work was recently featured on the blog, and I’ve been grateful since becoming editor for his ever-interesting contributions.

As editor of the Newsletter, now in blog form, I thought it was remiss that I didn’t have the full run.  Norman T. Gates, a widely-published Aldington scholar particularly noted for his Poetry of Richard AldingtonA Checklist of the Letters of Richard Aldington, and Richard Aldington: An Autobiography in Letters, first published a single, xeroxed, sheet of letter-sized paper as the NCLSN dated 1 August 1973, 45 years ago this month.

Here’s the first item, which is phrased rather charmingly, and which gives some information that’ll be new to many of you about the original Canterbury Literary Society:


The New Canterbury Literary Society consisted of a number of notable bookmen and women, and scholars of modernist literature:  Ann Bagnell, Miriam Benkovitz, Ruth Galloway, Norman T. Gates, Frank Harrington, Alister Kershaw, Selwyn Kittredge, Harry T. Moore, Sidney Rosenthal, and David Thatcher.  The ten asterisks that separated items in the Newsletter stand for the original ten members of both societies.

It’s fascinating reading back through the Newsletter and seeing the long development of scholarly projects, along with things that never quite came to pass, and finding out information that was new to me.  I’ll continue to write more about the NCLSN archives in months to come.

Andrew Frayn

May Aldington’s ‘Roll of Honour’ as a sidelight on Death of a Hero

In 1917, the year Richard Aldington saw his first active service in the Great War, his mother May Aldington published a poem in which she – roughly speaking – fantastized about his being killed in battle. This poem is interesting for the light it throws not only on RA’s conflicted relationship with his mother, but on the portrayal of Isabel Winterbourne in his war novel Death of a Hero, whose son’s death in battle becomes an excuse for the mother’s self-dramatization.

Before writing war poetry, May Aldington had some success as a romantic novelist with titles including Love Letters that Caused a Divorce, The Man of Kent and Meg of the Salt-Pans. The Westminster Review said of the last, ‘Mrs Aldington has succeeded in doing for a corner of rural Kent that which Thomas Hardy has done for his beloved Wessex’. For the bulk of her living, May ran the historic Mermaid Inn in Rye, Sussex, a frequent hangout of writers. RA was as ambivalent about her literary career as he was about his mother in general. He admired her drive (which he inherited) and acknowledged that her novels had ‘vitality’, yet despised what he saw as the vulgarity of both her fiction and her petit bourgeois atttitudes. ‘She keeps a saloon and writes inconceivable novels’, he once complained.

When, in 1917, the small volume Roll of Honour and Other Poems was printed in Rye, its attitudes were not only bourgeois but decidedly dated. May Aldington’s verse retained the patriotic, clean-limbed view of war that had greeted the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. It showed little contact with the three years of grim reality that had subsequently passed. May’s portrayal of a girl who wants only ‘to be a British Soldier’s bride’ shows an almost childlike naivete:

while you fight, I’ll knit and sew,
And love, the hours will quickly go.
(‘Love in War-Time)

As does her idealized portrait of an officer:

when the blessed word of peace
Shall be proclaimed, and this war cease,
He says, he will at war still play,
Because it makes a holiday.
(‘To a Major’)

This type of verse had been satirized in The Egoist, the radical magazine of which RA was literary editor. Reviewing poetry written in the first, optimistic phase of the war, RA’s fellow imagist John Gould Fletcher had roundly criticized its jingoism and false rhetoric. A rhyming lampoon, probably by RA himself, lamented ‘the little poets we hoped were dumb’ who nonetheless came, ‘at the sound of the drum’, to inflict their verses on the public.

The most striking part of Roll of Honour, however, was its title poem:

Roll of Honour

He was born on a summer’s day,
Just as a lark awoke to singing,
Soft in the bend of my arm he lay,
And the bells of Heav’n were ringing.

Brave he grew, as men are brave,
Swift to hear the big drum rolling,
Forth he marched to the bugle’s call
And the fifes of the Scots carolling.

“Killed in action,” this do they say?
With the fifes and the drums still calling!

Soft in the bend of my arm he lay,
These are tears of pride now falling.

This poem is an idealized rewriting of RA’s own military career. The speaker’s son is ‘swift to hear’ the call, marches off amid the atmosphere of a Boy’s Own story, and dies so heroically his loss can’t even be reckoned grief. In contrast, its author’s real-life son, though sharing the summer birthday of his fictional counterpart, was not an eager recruit. RA enlisted only in 1916, after debating whether to plead conscientious objection, and in two years at the front conspicuously failed to get killed or even wounded. ‘Roll of Honour’ contains little of what the son in the poem might have experienced at war. The son is portrayed simply as a fulfilment of the attitudes of his time and class, and his death as an occasion for the mother to display her own patriotism by declaring it a matter of ‘pride’ rather than loss.

‘The death of a hero! What mockery, what bloody cant!’ wrote RA in his 1929 novel Death of a Hero, the antithesis and satire of the attitudes exhibited in his mother’s verse. In the novel, the character of Isabel Winterbourne is based on May Aldington. Isabel’s son, George, is killed in the final days of the war. Readers know, while Isabel does not, that his ‘heroic’ death is actually suicide. When Isabel receives the news, she’s with a lover (‘Sam Browne’), and the scene becomes one of pulp melodrama in which the posturing of both participants takes precedence over the suffering of George:

In low moaning tones, founded on the best tradition of sensational fiction, Mrs. Winterbourne feebly ejaculated:
“Dead, dead, dead!”
“Who’s dead? Winterbourne [Isabel’s husband]?”
(Some apprehension perhaps in the attendant Sam Browne – he would have to propose, of course, and might be accepted.)
“They’ve killed him, those vile, filthy foreigners. My baby son.”
Sam Browne, still mystified, read the telegram. He then stood to attention, saluted (although not wearing a cap), and said solemnly:
“A clean sportin’ death, an Englishman’s death.”

Later, when relaying the news over the telephone, Isabel sobs theatrically to ensure the telephone operator recognizes her grief. ‘The tears Mrs. Winterbourne shed were not very natural,’ comments the novel’s narrator, ‘but they did not take long to dry.’ He might have been thinking of the tears of pride that close ‘Roll of Honour’, just as Isabel’s reliance on ‘sensational fiction’ for her emotional cues recalls May Aldington’s career as a romantic novelist.

In the days that follow, death lends flavour to Isabel’s life:

She found it rather exciting and stimulating at first, especially erotically stimulating. She was a woman who constantly dramatized herself and her life. She was as avid of public consideration as an Italian lieutenant, no matter what the quality of the praise.

In RA’s final blow, the ‘erotically stimulated’ Isabel sleeps with her lover while ostensibly bedridden with grief.

Despite their very different attitudes to war, ‘Roll of Honour’ and Death of a Hero reference shared themes. Both have a semi-autobiographical framework into which is inserted a death that is not biographical, an alternative fate for RA himself. That death provides a vehicle for a mother to dramatize her bereavement through patriotic sentiments, in which her maternal sacrifice is given precedence over the suffering of her son. In May Aldington’s poem, those sentiments are presented positively. Her son’s novel satirizes them as an example of the ‘cant’ on which it blames the slaughter of the war. Whether or not RA was responding specifically to his mother’s poem when he wrote the scenes of Isabel Winterbourne grieving, ‘Roll of Honour’ was a piece of cant that hit especially close to home.

Gemma Bristow