Edward James (1907 - 1984)

Updated: Jan 26

Swans Reflecting Elephants - My Early Years

In the first lockdown, with plenty of time on my hands, and and having had more than enough of watching television, I turned to reading.

The first book I came across that grabbed my attention was Swans Reflecting Elephants, lent to me by Lord St. Germans just after the time I had met Edward James, - always a mistake to lend books!

I remember having read part of it years ago and with my current interest in biographical material, I decided to give it another go.

I found I couldn't put it down. Reading it bought back fond memories of the time I knew Edward.

I decided to research further into the life of Edward James and ordered more books.

Edward James - A Surrealist Life - By John Lowe

During the 1930s Edward James set up his own publishing company, The James Press and published several volumes of his own poetry and his novel, The Gardener Who Saw God. He also published John Betjeman's first collection of verse.

Discovering this, I was interested in reading his poetry so I ordered another book...

The Heart And The World - A selection of the poems of Edward James

Whist reading the poetry of Edward James, I came across a piece entitled, Le sacred du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), relating to the ballet and orchestral concert work by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. There was also a poem entitled, To the thumb of Igor Stravinsky.

This revealed an interesting connection to a previous biographical interest of mine, Vaslav Nijinsky. Nijinsky having danced and choreographed the piece for the Ballet Russes in Paris.

Edward James invested a huge sum of money in the Paris ballet, becoming involved with 'Les Ballets 1933', a ballet company founded by George Balanchine and Boris Kochno, both of whom had worked previously with the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

It appears that Edward James's involvement with the Paris ballet took place only a few years after the death in 1929 of Sergei Diaghilev.

In 1909 Diaghilev founded the legendary Ballet Russes, the platform of which propelled Vaslav Nijinsky rise to fame.

Continuing with the theme of biography and autobiography, and the intersect between the two, I am now looking at the poetry of Edward James and considering whether I might experiment with using some of his text in the way I have previously with the Nijinsky text.

I have chosen three poems to begin working with and and am now in the process of having them recorded.

Young evening

There’s the moon in my coffee

I saw it last night -

a crescent of silver

encasing the light -

and under the flowerpots

a sheen of damp

dragging the silence

of the yellow lamp,

There are tears at the window,

and lies in the street

And calumny passing

On whispering feet.

But eyes of star jasmine

here speak, cool and shiny,

up the climbing house

the words of dead Heine

to the live wood-louse.

And the lamp on the warm sill

recalls the truth

that for a few more years still

you still have your youth.

The heart of love

I want to go home to the heart of love;

tired of this outer chill,

I need to find

the cave that is kind,

the gold in the sleep of the hill.

I want to touch you on the mouth of love,

feel your longing flow into mine.

But I meet instead

a shake of the head

and gall in the taste of the wine.

I want that the windows through which you look

at times so gentle at me

be opened wide

to my breaking tide

till I flow into them as the sea.

To the thumb of Igor Stravinsky

Move, mint your will, good wizard! Once again,

magnetic rod, gnome of the mines of sleep,

dig more wild silver from the cunning, deep,

harmonious intestines of that brain -

that mind whose cunning roots are fed by rain

of platinum spears. They plunge and cause to leap

the vivid jets of song, which seldom weep

because their roots have delved beyond all pain.

Kind mathematic uncle, Merlin thumb,

enchant me with the rhythms of your waves!

Time, as a trapped djinn from a dark lamp come,

himself must rear to serve you like a snake.

For you with flutes have tamed cruel Time to make

a magic world among your willing slaves.

Lie still my heart

Lie still my heart, and you sweet youth lie low!

It is so good to smooth the dread away

that, from the passing some of each gone day,

you might of changed - and prove it is not so.

Through shadowy slats, mottled with sun, I know

how the noon sun shines deep into the bay

and, as his light bathes sand and wave and spray,

my ardour washes you beneath its flow.

The weariness, the distance and that dread

of losing what I loved more than I knew,

melts and resolves in summer’s tender bed.

You are my summer and my sleep is you.

I, like the sun himself, caress the sea.

You are my ocean; yet you drown in me.

Edward James was famous as a patron of the arts, notably of the Surrealists; however, it was as a poet that he wished to be remembered.

He once remarked that after his death a ‘flood of [his] poetry would burst upon an astonished world’.

Indeed the extent of his writing was only discovered after his death in 1984, when trunks and suitcases containing papers also yielded up many poems, some scrawled on bits of paper, others in letters to friends.

‘His wealth was a sad barrier to his recognition as a poet’ says Professor Levi.

James, E. (1987) The Heart and the Word. London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson LTD.

In 1982 I was fortunate enough to meet Edward James, when he came to visit the village of Saint Germans in south east Cornwall, to attend the 'Elephant Fayre', a festival hosted by Peregrine Eliot, Earl of Saint Germans.

Edward played a major role in my leaving Cornwall, and heading out into the world. He once said to me, "you need to leave this place".

Looking back I've often wondered if this was because he recognised that I was gay, and that a small village in Cornwall was not a healthy environment for me.

I told Edward about my plans to leave Cornwall, and how I had had to postpone my plans due to the premature death of my father.

Edward inquired as to where I would like to live. I said I was planning to move to London. He then asked the good friend he was with, Desmond Guinness, if he could help me with accommodation in London. Desmond kindly offered me the use an apartment in the Kings Road - an offer I never took him up on.

I mentioned to Edward that I was considering a move to Los Angeles. He gave me a contact there to get in touch with, Paul Rucha, saying that I should mention Edward's name and Mr. Rucha would look after me. At this Edward's traveling companion, said that Edward should not have suggested me staying with Mr. Rucha as he was a homosexual. Edward looked to me, with a slight grin, and said that he thought I would be fine.

I replied that Yes, I would be fine.

Edward said that he thought I would become bored of Los Angeles in a matter of weeks, and that I should then call him in Mexico. He would then send his private plane to collect me and bring me to his home in Mexico. This felt kind of surreal in itself, as I had hardly left the confines of Cornwall, other that the odd family holiday abroad and a few trips to London.

To this day,I have kept the Elephant Fayre ticket, with the information he wrote for me.

Edward and I kept in touch. He gave me his contact numbers at West Dean, his house in England, and his apartment at the Paris Ritz.

We would have occasional telephone conversations, at which I would tell him about my new life in London and how happy I was there, and how I was not looking to move on at that time.

My life progressed and our contact diminished, then one day I heard that Edward James had passed away.

Ive often thought what might have been, had I taken Edward up on his very kind offer, and I had moved on from London and traveled to his home in Mexico. I have no regrets in life for any of the things I've done, but they do say it's often the things you don't do that you end up regretting. Well looking at the footage and photography of Las Pozas, as beautiful and tranquil as it looks, I fear that in my early twenties, after escaping the very rural confines of Cornwall it might have very rapidly become my idea of absolute hell!

To be continued...

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