By CAHAL DALLAT
Opening a Can of Worms
“Why would London want to honour Ireland’s national poet?” is the question, asked in a range of tones and phrasings.
The starting point’s that it clearly does, as half our WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project backers on the crowdfund page (where you can read more on Londoner Conrad Shawcross RA’s Yeats-inspired “Enwrought Light” and pledge to make it a reality!) are Bedford Park residents, Chiswick people, are Londoners, alongside the big backers, London Borough of Hounslow and London’s Royal Academy of Art.
The other half (alongside Irish Embassy and The Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation) are poets, actors, artists, academics, British, Irish and American, with lots of known names rallying to signify their support for what’ll be the most visible tribute to London-Irish-ness to-date.
From middle-class suburban Londoners in Bedford Park, a perfectly conserved (preserved, even) Queen-Anne-retro, Arts-&-Crafts-inspired “village”, close by the District and Piccadilly Lines, that opening question might actually be rephrased as “Why should Bedford Park honour an Irish poet?”
And from a Sligonian, if that’s the correct term, it might by “Why would we let London claim its part in developing Yeats’s genius?”
The subtexts to the latter “Irish question” might range from “Wasn’t ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ all about escaping from London’s Victorian greyness?” to “And wasn’t it Yeats’s plays that sent out ‘certain men the English shot’, that created the cultural uprising, that primed the actual rising?”
Which might just be one of the thoughts underlying suburban London’s puzzlement, too: to which could be added “And weren’t there lots of (English) artists and writers in 19c Bedford Park that we should be honouring?”.
But it isn’t all subtexts. When English Heritage held a meeting a few years back to discuss a “Blue Plaque” on the Yeatses’ home, one objection was that “apparently the old chap [John Butler Yeats] was always behind with his rent”.
There are whole histories to unpick in that statement. Echoes of Yeats’s complaint that he was picked on at school in Hammersmith 100 years earlier because he was Irish, of Joyce’s take, that an Englishman’s proudest boast was ‘paying his way’. A reminder that they have long memories in this part of London: the Yeatses lived in Bedford Park between 1879 and 1902; the disparaging remark was made 90 years after they left.
The questions the WB Yeats Bedford Park Project evokes go to the heart, not just of English-Irish interaction, or of London-Irish cultural heritage, but to questions of Ireland’s, and Britain’s, relationship with Ireland’s diaspora.
Not merely in terms of where Irish people are dispersed throughout the world, but in terms of what Irish people, and exiles/migrants/outsiders generally, bring to a “host” community. And in terms of what they bring back or give back to the “home” culture from that experience of, and exposure to, “the outside”.
That Can of Worms
Have I opened a can of worms by provoking all those complicated questions by encouraging Bedford Park to recognise that the outstanding international literary success of the bullied schoolkid whose dad was always in the red, is actual proof of the Bedford Park concept, evidence of its historical importance?
Rather than a squirming can of worms, I see the artwork as a bridge, if not over the Irish Sea, at least across the attitude-gulf Brexit’s brought about, and a reminder of how completely Irish and English literature are intertwined: less wriggling roundworms than an illuminated Celtic manuscript’s geometrically interwoven serpents perhaps.
What did London ever do for Irish writers?
The streets of London had always been paved by Irishmen but it was in the nineteenth century that the capital became such an economic opportunity, not just for construction workers and domestic servants but for medics, lawyers, and increasingly – as Ireland’s MPs and Lords had to attend Westminster and so spent more of their rents in and around London than on their Irish estates – the only place to be for artists who needed sponsors, sitters and galleries, for actors and playwrights who needed theatres and audiences, for writers who needed high-circulation newspapers.
But while Irishmen such as Moore, Boucicault, Wilde, Shaw and Stoker (not to mention painters Maclise and Archer-Shee, composers Wallace, Balfe and Stanford) followed eighteenth-century Goldsmith, Sheridan and Macklin in availing of the capital’s opportunities, Yeats is unique in that he’s the only one to grow up in London.
Brought here aged two by his would-be-portrait-painter father, he lived two thirds of his life up to age thirty in the capital but was frequently sent home to live with relatives when the larder was low. Not the only Irish or other-migrant family to resort to that tactic. And so it was in Sligo summers, and occasional winters, that he developed his love of Irish landscapes, legends and lore.
But it was in London in the company of other writers, the proximity of poetry presses, the nearness of national newspapers, the possibility of plays being produced in the West End, where that longing for otherness, that nostlagia for Sligo and the West and Catholic and Celtic Ireland, was transmuted from mere memory into gold, into Nobel-Prize-winning genius! And the crucible for that alchemy was Utopian Bedford Park.
Taking the Tube
It’s not without significance that Yeats mentions taking the train to visit Oscar Wilde or his mother, “Speranza”. Bedford Park people cycled (Jack B. Yeats did Punch cartoons of early cyclists, his father was paid for one portrait with a used bike!) or took the train. They didn’t have horses and carriages like Kensington and Belgravia people with mews and stables.
In fact the 1880s housing development owed its existence to the railway’s arrival: Jonathan Carr spotted the potential for an artists’-colony when his Scottish engineer father-in-law heard the railway was headed west, and bought up an orchard near Turnham Green on which to build his model eighteenth-century English village with its windey tree-lined roads to attract artists – poets and painters love pastoral – within reach of London’s patronage and playhouses.
And in keeping with Carr’s socialist principles the development was aimed, not at profit, but at communal happiness, the first ever ‘garden-suburb’ and built with inn, church, social club, sports-ground, and school, its ethos egalitarian, suffragist, multi-cultural, anti-imperial…
One starts to see Yeats’s poems in a new light, “Innisfree” inspired by a nearby Thames river island, and by Thoreau who, like Walt Whitman, whose agent lived nearby, was a presiding Bedford Park spirit (the poem was published by WE Henley – who lived nearby); “The Cap and Bells” by the area’s mannered mediaevalism; “The Indian Upon His God” by the multi-cultural atmosphere of spiritual seeking – Britain’s second Asian MP lived nearby too. And “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by his sister Lily’s emboidery work for Wm. Morris (who also lived nearby.)
The area has long since redeemed the “rent arrears” slur, erecting a Bedford Park Society green plaque to the talented Yeatses many years ago. But it has also started to look at its own place, not just in the history of the garden-suburbs which followed it, nationwide and world-wide, and all the housing developments since, but in the history of radical thought.
And as Bedford Park pondered exactly what a village built for communal happiness had achieved, of what a striving for better work-life balance might have done for the human spirit, at what a bringing-together of artists, actors, anarchists and aesthetes in a small, green patch of West London could do for creativity, it was clear that fostering the lanky schoolkid from an Irish migrant family to become one of the most outstanding figures of twentieth-century literature (quite apart from his impact on Irish and, eventually, world, politics) was something everyone could agree on celebrating, was proof that a good neighbourhood, a pleasant environment, a supportive community are as crucial to the development of great art, of genius, as, say, longing, exile and unrequited love.
So Bedford Park can take a pride in the genius it fostered, Irish-London can celebrate one of our number who turned ‘the ache for home’ into great art and Ireland generally can bathe in the glow of its immeasurable contribution to English – and world – literature.
And this is a Bedford Park celebration in no uncertain terms: “Enwrought Light” is a 4.5M high helical swirl inspired by Yeats’s lines from “He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven” which will be inscribed around the stone base (Shawcross was captivated by Ciarán Hinds’s reading of that particular poem at the project’s Irish Literary Society-sponsored launch at the Irish Embassy in Grosvenor Place).
It will reflect the “golden and silver light” of that poem as well as – as the seasons change, as hours pass, the “dim and the dark”, “of night, and light, and the half light”. But its uplifting swirl can also be seen as a rush of golden-brown autumn leaves, a sacred Celtic grove, a flight of Yeats’s white birds, a flock of the angels that appear throughout Yeats’s poems of the Bedford Park period – and appear as the frontispiece of his 1895 Poems, the angels to which the Yeatses local Bedford Park parish church, St. Michael and All Angels, is dedicated.
A new literary landmark that – seen from Piccadilly Line Heathrow train-carriages – will bring visitors from all over London, all around Britain, and from Ireland, the US and around the world, to Bedford Park’s dream of a holistic work/life/art balance, to Yeats’s dream of embroidered cloths, of art in the everyday, a landmark that will point people to Yeats’s Sligo and the sublime West, a landmark that will focus minds on Irishness as both distinct from, and central to, the literature and culture of London, of England, of Britain. A landmark that celebrates a truly London-Irish writer, honours a ‘patron saint’ of the diaspora. A landmark that answers so many questions and hopefully raises many more productive questions going forward.
Cahal Dallat is a London-based poet, critic and musician. He studied Statistics and Operational Research at Queen’s University Belfast and is married to poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, with two children. Cahal reviews literature and the arts for the TLS and Guardian among others, and has been a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s weekly arts programme, Saturday Review, since 1998. His first poetry collection, Morning Star, was published in 1998 and he won the Strokestown International Poetry Competition in 2006. His latest collection of poetry is The Year of Not Dancing (Blackstaff Press, 2009). He has worked in television, publishing, public utilities, construction & information technology and has taught systems analysts in India. He plays several instruments including bandoneon, musette-accordion, traditional flute, mando-fiddle, balalaika, piano, clarinet & soprano-sax. He is also the organiser of — and inspiration behind — the W.B. Yeats Bedford Park Project to create public artwork in West London’s 19c garden-suburb/artists’-colony where Nobel-prize winning poet and dramatist W.B. Yeats spent his early years.