An Arcadian, Literary Childhood in Tilty
by Helen Reilly Donlon
Can I ever return again
To where I can never go,
To the dark green woods by the fields
Where the tall grasses grow?
Can I ever return again
To the child I was before
When I lay by the rippling water
And the dappled light on the shore?
For ever and ever amen
I am delighting there
While the sun on the wooden wheel
And the millstream arcs through the air.
Tilty Mill by Sebastian Barker
In 1948, the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart arrived at Tilty Mill House, just outside Thaxted in the beautiful countryside of north Essex. Her children, Georgina, Christopher, Sebastian and Rose accompanied her. Their father, the poet George Barker was to join them there from time to time, although his visits were far from regular, and when he did appear, their peaceful life was usually catapulted into rupture.
The years at Tilty were to leave a lasting impression on the children however. Christopher would later go on to write a memoir of his parents, The Arms of the Infinite (Pomona, 2006), an early draft extract of which formed a beautiful essay in the Granta anthology, The Group (Life at Tilty Mill, Granta 80, Winter 2002). Sebastian Barker’s yearning poem Tilty Mill (above) captures the classic timelessness of a child’s memories of freedom in nature. His poem at the end of the article, I Hear The Wood Doves Cooing In The Trees evokes memories of his mother’s presence in the house and fields.
The tiny hamlet of Tilty is as quiet today as it would have been back in the late 1940s, except for the few cars that now punctuate the otherworldly silence. Behind the church and at the bottom of the fields is the old and now disused mill, next door to the house where Smart made her family home. Back then they had no electricity, so they used candles, oil lamps and lights known as Tillies, which burned methylated spirits through a cotton mantle. The hearth of the home was the old Rayburn stove in the kitchen. Outside was the wheat mill, fields of buttercups and the sound of cattle. Inside, the house was a lived-in source of wonder.
Christopher Barker writes of their first day there:
We barged each other into the hallway and turned into a dark corridor. A shaft of light fell across it from a half-open door. Georgina’s arm pulled us into a cool stone-floored chamber. It had empty shelves on both sides and I front of us was a large tin box with air-holes all over its front door. Mum came in behind us, reached over and turned the little butterfly cap to open it. Nestling in a geometrical cardboard tray of little cups was a burgeoning sea of huge white eggs shimmering in smart ranks to the back of the lower shelf. I had never seen so many eggs before…I was dizzy with happiness as we clambered up the stairs and ran into the bathroom. In it was something we had always longed for – a deep enamel tub that had two chromium-plated taps at one end. Bashie [Sebastian] and me immediately jumped in and as we started to wrestle I realised with delight all four of us children could probably fit in it together.
Round the scrubbed kitchen table we munched through doorsteps of bread and jam with moustaches of fresh milk under our noses while Mary [the nanny] fed Rosie her bottle. Mum leaned with her back against the Rayburn rail and stared through the lattice window with a faraway look in her eyes. Outside, the evening sky flared a vivid crimson and Mum’s smiling face was lit up from the glow. Then her chin started to tremble.
Three years earlier, in 1945, Elizabeth Smart’s intense and searing prose poem novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept had been published, although it was only to become a literary classic some years later. Described by Angela Carter as ‘like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning’ and by The Spectator as ‘constructed as a single, sustained climax, it is like a cry of ecstasy which, without changing volume or pitch, becomes a cry of agony’ , it remains Smart’s defining work.
Based on Smart’s affair with George Barker, the father of her four children, the work describes the heartache, longing and ultimate confusion of their romantic entanglement. Smart had met Barker through her connection with writer Lawrence Durrell, and although Barker already had an American wife, Smart pursued him anyway. Their relationship would somehow survive many emotionally turbulent years. When she gave birth to their first child, Georgina, in 1941, Smart’s well-connected and somewhat uppity Canadian family having judged the ‘decadent’ Barker a character of ‘moral turpitude’, saw to it that he was refused entry at the border when he tried to come and visit Smart and their baby daughter.
Christopher, their second child was born in 1943, by which period Smart was working at the MOD in London in order to be closer to Barker, and at which point she completed By Grand Central Station. Once again Smart’s prissy and censorious family proved a spanner in the works, and her mother succeeded in getting the novel banned in Canada at the time of publication, even buying up any copies that had made their way into the country and burning them.
Meanwhile the great love affair continued, and the couple had two more children; Sebastian in 1945, and Rose in 1947. By now, Smart and the children were living in Ireland. Shortly afterwards, they moved to Tilty. Smart had acquired the Tilty house through the poet Ruthven Todd (editor of William Blake’s work), who was then in New York, on condition that she would pack up his books and send them to him. Due to exorbitant postal costs they didn’t all make it however, and Christopher Barker still has some of those very books on his shelves today.
As we began our new life together, Mum was determined to record as much of it as she could. Most of her little handmade books had been devoted to the work of my father, the poet George Barker, but in one or two she had arranged snapshots and photo contact sheets, of her children and her life. Now her family had grown in number, she wanted more room to spread out the story and these weighty tomes of learning, as they buckled the shelving in the ‘Study’, seemed ideal. She took down two of the largest volumes that the house’s owner, Ruthven Todd, had embossed with William Blake’s name. He had half-filled both books with notes in his tidy hand, but she cut these pages out and started to stick photos in with flour and water paste.
Across the way is Tilty Hill House, which dates back in parts to the 15th Century, and where the painter John Armstrong had recently been the tenant before Smart arrived in the hamlet. Film director Dallas Bower’s daughter, Pamela Bower stayed there for a while, eventually bringing poet Louis MacNeice and his wife Hedli, with their two year old daughter, Bimba into the Tilty fold. The MacNeices took over the house after Armstrong moved to Cornwall. It is said that they were completely charmed by its architecture and style, its hand-hewn oak floorboards and the views over the fields. Renting it for 100 pounds a year, the MacNeices moved themselves in by March 1946, two years earlier than Elizabeth Smart’s move to the Mill House. While becoming increasingly involved in radio production meetings at the BBC in London, Louis MacNeice would compose his scripts up at Tilty Hill. (During these days, the MacNeice’s neighbours were still fellow poet Ruthven Todd and his wife, at the Mill House.)
According to Andrew Lycett, Dylan Thomas’s biographer, when Ruthven Todd invited the Welsh poet to stay in Tilty Mill, he panicked about what the locals would make of this notorious Soho character, forgetting, perhaps, that Thomas was a country boy himself. Needless to say, Thomas utterly charmed the locals, and expressed great interest in the joys of country life to the Tilty farmers.
George Barker had been born near Epping Forest, and was the elder brother of the painter Kit Barker. By his early twenties, he was already published thanks to TS Eliot, then an editor at Faber and Faber. Barker was a poet until he died, and reached the pinnacle of his popularity during the 1930s-1950s. A great favourite of mine is his beautiful sonnet to his Irish mother (To My Mother). He eventually fathered fifteen children, with four different women. Before Elizabeth Smart had ever met Barker, she already believed he was the love of her life. Upon discovering a book of his poetry in Better Books on Charing Cross Road, she wrote: It is the juicy sound that runs, bubbles over, that intoxicates till I can hardly follow.
During this time he was lecturing in Sendai, Japan, which position he grew to despise. Smart came to the rescue, raising funds for his escape to the United States. She described the moment of their eventual meeting at the beginning of By Grand Central Station (unfortunately, she had only recently discovered Barker had a wife):
I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire…but then it is her eyes that come forward, her Madonna eyes, soft as the newly born, trusting as the un-tempted. And, for a moment, at that gaze, I am happy to forego my future, and postpone indefinitely the miracle hanging fire.
During the Tilty years, Barker spent much of his time living in London and was a part of the Soho crowd of artists and painters which then still included Dylan Thomas (said to be a great rival of Barker’s), the surrealist David Gascoyne, and the Glaswegian painters Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun. In those days and up until the 1960s, the Soho/Fitzrovia social scene was a daily round of eating, drinking and conversation, in which painters Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and others hung all too merrily with the poets and writers of Smart and Barker’s circle, and with musicians such as Constant Lambert, Elisabeth Lutyens and Alan Rawsthorne often in tow as well. Favourite haunts included the newly opened Colony Room in Dean Street, run by the notorious and colourful Muriel Belcher.
Once Smart and her children were settled at Tilty, she set out once again to find a job, leaving them with Mary, their nanny. While she was showing a portfolio of her work to House and Garden, she heard the picture department were looking for photographs of a family at play and promptly volunteered her brood. She enlisted her old friend, the photographer Michael Wickham to come up to Essex to take the pictures.
Christopher and Georgina were soon enrolled at Thaxted Primary School, and after their first summer at Tilty:
We had a bus to catch every morning that stopped a mile’s walk from home. May shoo-ed us out the back door. Clutching my dinner money in my palm and Georgina’s hand in the other, we made a run for the bus stop. After skipping over the farmyard quagmire we had three old gates to vault, then a public footpath overhung with long wet grass. If we didn’t miss the bus I usually arrived at registration in the freezing classrooms with caked mud up my legs and soaking shor
School was a struggle for Christopher who lagged behind in class, though he made up for this by being a highly proficient runner. The class had some forty pupils, and their fifth form teacher was one Mr. Thomas who “ran a losing battle trying to control us, let alone teach, and I languished in the lower orders.”
Around this time, the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde came to join the Tilty household. With Smart away working in London, she invited “the two Roberts” (as they were commonly known) to come and stay at Tilty in loco parentis.
The two Roberts, already famous figures in Soho, had met at the Glasgow School of Art. Colquhoun was an Expressionist painter, and a prolific printmaker. One of the more famous works he produced during his time at Tilty was Figures in a Farmyard. MacBryde, who had been influenced by Cubism also moved gradually into Expressionism. Along the way the two designed sets for Stratford and Sadler’s Wells Ballet. As with George Barker, their work appeared in Patrick Swift and David Wright’s quarterly arts review X. Editorial meetings for the review would later take place at Westbourne Terrace in Paddington, where Smart and her family lived in the post-Tilty years.
According to Christopher Barker:
The wireless was fun but could not compare with the excitement of a trip to the cinema. We would keep an eye out for coming attractions at the Kinema in Dunmow. The Kinema was at the far end of town from the Tilty Road, and for your fourpenny-half from Great Easton you were taken to the centre and told by the bus conductor that this was the terminus and ‘all change’. If you kept your head down behind the seats you could travel through town and scramble out right in front of the Kinema. It was a typical hick town flea pit with broken seats and peeling facades and we adored it.
It was a time of ration books and it wasn’t unusual for the coupons to run out before the end of the month. After long nights, sometimes with visitors from London, during which the house would be filled with Soho guests – poets and painter friends of Smart and Barker, and occasionally Barker himself – the children would scoop up the empties in the morning in an act less of domestic virtue than of keen entrepreneurship. The alcoholic detritus had its allure…
Those wild nights had their compensations. Before the house had arisen and MacBryde had started to clear up, we would comb the living room that had been the battlefield of last night’s party. We’d gather up armfuls of empties to return to the pub. The Rising Sun was halfway up Duton Hill, the steepest hill in Essex, and because of this each boy racer on the council estate had a home-made greased, state of the art soapbox trolley. Ours was the envy of The Hill because Len, a local carpenter and husband of Lillian, who came to clean for Mum, had made it. He had incorporated a real car seat, a steering wheel and a hand-operated chain.
Despite the traumas which would often ensue when their parents met, the children looked forward to George Barker’s occasional visits to Tilty.
The small Tilty community was composed of various characters who peopled the Barker family life. There was Fred the miller from Duton Hill, and the postwoman, Madge Girdlestone, fondly remembered for cheerily entering the house to bring in the childrens’ comics. Unfortunately she was, according to Christopher Barker, later caught stealing money from Royal Mail letters and ended up going to prison, much to the Barker children’s chagrin. Then:
The cherubs from the church choir were my trusted lieutenants in the ongoing gang warfare we waged against the council estate boys who were led by Sid Boyle, who patrolled the streets of Duton Hill with his dog Butch, laying down the law.
And so to the fabled Reverend Cuthbertson. According to an old Pathe News reel, Cuthbertson and his entrepreneurial spirit cheerfully profited from the tobacco rationing of the Second World War, when he sold handfuls of his homegrown Virgina Flake tobacco to weed-seeking pilgrims in need. He cultivated the plants in two old greenhouses in his garden. When his daughter Cecily pleaded with him, “Oh Daddy, for heaven’s sake. Do come out and join us. What are you doing in there?” he allegedly replied, quoting the words of James Russell Lowell “And blessed are the horny hands of toil, dear…”
Visitors from London to Tilty Mill House included several of the Soho characters; friends and associates of Smart and/or Barker. There was John Davenport, the theatre critic of The Observer; and Ricky Stride, a bodybuilding ex-sailor who was the lover of artist John Minton. Stride would come cruising up the lane in his two-seater Morgan sports car, much to the locals’ delight. The photographers Michael Wickham and John Deakin, Francis Bacon’s colleague and great sparring partner were both regulars, as was the poet W.S. Graham (interest in whose work was recently revived, thanks to the efforts of playwright Harold Pinter).
Although George Barker basically remained with his girlfriend in London during this time (and also spent time in Cornwall with her and a crowd of poets and painters) he started returning to Tilty for periods of two or three days at a time. The Tilty family even managed to have, at times, something of a normal domestic life together. After just a few years though, it was time to move on to London, and the children prepared to be sent away to boarding school, away from the time Christopher describes as ‘being feral rats’ – the days at Thaxted Primary School.
Smart’s great passion for George Barker continued for the remainder of her life. Raising four children on her own, she worked for thirteen years as a copywriter before joining Queen magazine in 1963, where she eventually become an editor. It is said that she was at one point the highest-paid copywriter in England.
Elizabeth Smart died on March 4, 1986. She is the subject of the 1991 biography, By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, a Life, by Rosemary Sullivan, and a film, Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels, produced by Maya Gallus.
Christopher Barker became a photographer and writer. Sebastian Barker became a poet. He was Chairman of the Poetry Society, editor of The London Magazine, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Rose Barker died of an accidental overdose in 1982.
George Barker died on the 27th October 1991. Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker, a biography, was written by Robert Fraser.
I hear the wood doves cooing in the trees.
Softer music hurts me, for I hear
The sharp and clarion of my mother’s voice
Imitate the wood doves to summon us to her.
Her presence warmed, like witnessing a smile
Come to the face of the long since haunted.
Nothing was too much for her, the pail
Of icy water clanking on the floor.
The kitchen was her coronet, her crown.
Her sandaled feet were purposeful and sure.
She took us in her arms, her dusty children,
At two, or six, or more than forty-four.
Some come born with sunlight. She was one.
And to her language light and love are gone.
I Hear the Wood Doves Cooing in the Trees by Sebastian Barker
Article © Helen Reilly Donlon, 2011-2012. With heartfelt and continuing thanks to Christopher, Sebastian and Georgina Barker for their courteous help with memories, extracts (in italics, from The Arms of the Infinite,) poems and photographs.
An earlier draft of this article was published in The Thaxted Bulletin, Autumn 2011. Helen Reilly Donlon is currently writing a biography of the artist Isabel Lambert, to be published in 2013.