Found: the secrets of the little prince still alive

He was the confidant and publisher of Stephen Spender, Edith Sitwell, Lawrence Durrell - a conduit interlinking literary London. But in 1949 the mysterious Prince Tambi fled the country, leaving an archive of letters and poems hidden for over 50 years. Now Christopher Fletcher has unearthed a treasure which sheds new light on the chaotic lives of artists in wartime
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All curators dream of that great discovery - the scroll in the cave which tells us something new about Jesus, the flash of silver from dark-age silt, the old master long overlooked in the cool dark corner of a Tuscan church. My find was made in a cul-de-sac just off the Oxford ring road.

All curators dream of that great discovery - the scroll in the cave which tells us something new about Jesus, the flash of silver from dark-age silt, the old master long overlooked in the cool dark corner of a Tuscan church. My find was made in a cul-de-sac just off the Oxford ring road.

It all started when a man contacted me at the British Library where I work as a curator of literary manuscripts. He explained that his mother-in-law had some old boxes of papers that a literary friend had given to her many years back. She had carried them with her through most of her life but the time had now come for her to move into sheltered accommodation. There would be no room for the papers, which she was none the less unwilling to dispose of. Would I be interested in taking a look?

Barrelling down the M4, I called to mind the great manuscript turn-ups of the past: Coleridge's "Kubla Khan", unearthed from a private collection by scholars in 1934, its measured script looking remarkably sober for a drug-induced vision; the 15th-century Book of Margery Kempe, the earliest autobiography in the language, stumbled upon in the same year and almost thrown out by an old buffer searching for ping-pong balls; Thomas Traherne's meditative Commentaries of Heaven, written around 1674 and plucked from a Lancashire rubbish tip in 1967.

As I pulled into the drive the more mundane image came to mind of an old biscuit tin I had once buried, stuffed with treasure for future generations. It was rediscovered a few months later (by Dad, planting potatoes, or interring a pet), a sodden piece of trash.

My scepticism was misplaced. The roughly wrapped parcels I found piled up in the corner of that modest house really were a time capsule. As soon as I undid the first, I realised that I had unearthed the holy grail of the literary Forties: Tambimuttu's long-lost archive.

Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu, claimed descendant of the Kings of Jaffna and future King of bohemian London, steamed into England from Ceylon in January 1938, aged 22. Poor and obscure, he headed for the capital and set up editorial shop wherever he could, determined to establish himself as the West's foremost publisher of poetry.

A little ambitious, for sure. Yet over the course of the next 10 years, despite illness, debt, bombs, paper shortages and the general chaos of world war, Tambimuttu's "Poetry London" imprint left an indelible, colourful mark on British literary culture.

And so did its director. In a decade celebrated for its bohemians, none comes more extravagantly mythologised than the man known as "Tambi". Seemingly every account of the period has something to say about the dissolute, handsome, princely poet of Fitzrovia; the snake-hipped wonder worker who could promise Parnassus and snaffle your cash in the blink of an eye; the talk of the town who could spot genius with a glance, charm a pint off Dylan Thomas, and the pants off anyone.

The stories of Tambi's pub-crawling progress through the Forties trailed a persistent subtext: that no papers had survived. The notion is hardly surprising. In his celebrated memoirs of the Forties, the Soho dandy Julian Maclaren-Ross recalled one basement room crawling with cockroaches and littered with manuscript submissions. Rats, Tambi confessed, had eaten many of them.

On another occasion, the young Lawrence Durrell, calling at his new editor's shabby digs off the Tottenham Court Road, noted "that the contents of his first number reposed under his bed in an enormous Victorian chamber pot". Durrell later brought his poetic offerings for appraisal to the Turkish Baths at Russell Square. Tambimuttu, cold in his new country, found the atmosphere conducive, only resigning his tenancy when he could no longer ignore the "deleterious effect of the steam on his manuscripts".

Yet here were the very papers I had long wondered about, untouched for over half a century. In the cluttered front room of the house she was about to leave, Tambi's keeper told me her story. She had been his friend from the mid-1940s, by which time he had moved from his eccentric offices of earlier years to functional rooms at 26 Manchester Square. She worked round the corner. Late in 1949, after an argument with the latest of many financial backers, Tambi lost control of his operation. Exhausted and broke, he decided to head home. She helped to arrange his transport to Southampton docks and watched him depart aboard the SS Canton for Ceylon. Before he left he had handed the papers to her.

After a three-month sojourn in the blast freezer (it does for the insects), I spread the papers out in the vaults of the greatest research library in the world. There, fixed together with rusting pins and clips, occasionally riddled with pest holes but otherwise intact, lay the substantial remains of a decade's worth of literary endeavour; a decade in which Tambi had issued 14 editions of Poetry London magazine and over 60 books of poetry and prose, often exquisitely illustrated by up and coming artists. Here was something wonderfully - almost spookily - hermetic, beginning in 1938 as soon as Tambi arrived in London, and ending in 1949, on the very eve of his departure.

Manuscript submissions, usually typed up and signed, but frequently handwritten, came with covering letters from their aspiring authors. In addition to the usual headed or addressed paper - how strange to see one letter sent all those years ago from the flat next door to my own - there were telegrams and, occasionally, wartime airgrams.

Many of Tambimuttu's authors he brought to print for the first time and helped to make famous. Others were more established names, survivors from previous decades. Wyndham Lewis, for example, his angular script scratching out admonitions to this young whippersnapper for bodging contracts and failing to answer letters. Or the more generous Edith Sitwell. "What an amount you have done for poetry, to be sure!", she writes in 1943 from the Sesame Imperial and Pioneer Club, "and how lucky the young poets are to have such a champion & helper."

The Auden generation puts in an appearance, with sheaths of poems from Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender who, in pale blue ink, presents us with a curious verse fragment, a vignette, hitherto unknown, of a sleeping bride. Auden's own famous valediction of 1941 to the "low dishonest decade" from which he had just emerged is bashed out for inclusion in Poetry in Wartime, an anthology which none other than T S Eliot commissioned Tambimuttu to edit. The manuscript of the book survives, the various submissions carefully numerated and marked up for the printer. Cecil Day Lewis, Laurie Lee, Alun Lewis, Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas (typescripts; no handwritten manuscripts, alas) jostle together within it.

All important stuff, which will have the bibliographers and biographers knocking at the door. But the manuscripts of the promising young writers trying their luck caught my attention more. Winking up at me was the cheeky Gavin Ewart, with his encomium to "Young Blondes" (subtitled "a religious poem"). Then the precocious R S Thomas, convinced that Macmillan and Faber were wrong to invoke the paper shortage as an excuse to turn down his verse. And there was Stevie Smith, pleading in August 1944 for "an enormous cheque as I am awfully hard up", her entreaties running off the right hand margin of a tiny sheet: "This is very economical notepaper but it is difficult to keep the letter on it." Several typescripts poems follow.

David Gascoyne, another young lion (still published by Enitharmon Press), features prominently, his wobbly, inky, overly florid hand betraying a little of his surrealism and a lot of his Benzedrine addiction: "when the typography doesn't have real functional raison d'etre, & the humour is merely - I mean unredeemed by any subtlety," he opines of ee cummings, a Poetry London prospect, "then he can genuinely stink."

Movingly, there is a run of letters from the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart, proud to have published the passionate, poetic evocation of her love affair with the Soho stalwart George Barker, and asking for review copies to be sent far and wide to help her sales. Tambi snapped up By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept and published it in 1945, to a muted reception in London (a few, like Cyril Connolly, saw its worth) and a ban in Canada. Time has proved his judgement right, but it was all a bit too much for his protégée back then. "I'm sorry I was so dumb yesterday," Smart confesses in one letter, "but I find having a book rather nervewracking - much more than babies."

Tambi's stamping ground, of Soho to the south of Oxford Street and what he called "Fitzrovia" to its North, turned out to have elastic borders. Certainly he conducted much of his work, between darts and pints, in the Hog in the Pound pub near Oxford Circus; but his contributors were by no means all denizens of bleary, beery London.

Cornish postmarks proliferate, with W S Graham dispatching his densely typed, rich, apocalyptic verse; Barbara Hepworth wanting to discuss a large monograph on her work; Sven Berlin complaining about the frost at night and demanding drawings back; Ben Nicholson hesitating to send artwork to London for fear of doodlebugs. And all of them hoping Tambi, so frequently run down, so vulnerable in the blitzed out metropolis, will visit them again in the wonderful air of the west.

It wasn't just the St Ives set Tambi commissioned. Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland (yikes - green ink!), Ceri Richards and Laurence Whistler all make their voices heard in the archive. On the back of one of his poems Mervyn Peake has rapidly, brilliantly caught his friend's likeness in bold, bounding graphite. According to Tambi himself (in a typed up account of a Parisian adventure) Picasso evidently considered Moore's Shelter Sketchbook, a pictorial record of London braving the bombs, one of the most interesting documents to come out of the war. For Moore's troubles, an unusually prompt Tambi stumped up £100.

The war saw other contributors much farther flung. North Africa was well populated with Tambi's authors, Lawrence Durrell being the prominent figure. "Egypt would be interesting if it were really the beginning of Africa," an airgram of 1943 reads, "but it is an ante-room, a limbo. In this soft corrupting plenty nothing very much is possible." A lively exchange follows. Tambi is (unsuccessfully) trying to get Durrell's Black Book past the censors between sessions of girl-hunting with the old Soho pack.

For his part, Durrell offers "raw ideas" for a fiver and sends manuscripts - "Tambi: this is literally all I can find in my notebooks" - along with sage advice: "Don't fuss about sperm, dear boy: we all have more than we know what to do with. Let a little escape into our poems." He was also pinning his hopes on Cefalu, a novel Tambi eventually brought out in 1948: "Perhaps the book society will leap, their wombs [will] be quickened, the Nobel prize people will gasp, the King's medal will descend, a fellowship will be offered to Kings, the Savile will invite me to a dinner, and my next month's rent will remain as ever unpaid."

Durrell's eccentric satellites in turn found themselves pulled into Tambi's gravitational field. Naughty Anaïs Nin, writing from New York, is concerned about the stories which appeared as Under a Glass Bell, while Henry Miller in California discusses his poems and the watercolours which Tambi, acting as an agent, manages to place with the swanky Reid & Lefevre gallery.

It's curious how the poets of the World War One so consistently eclipse in popularity and critical attention those of World War Two. The phenomenon also masks the importance of the publishers of this later generation. The most famous poem of the war was both published and preserved in its original manuscript form thanks to Tambi. In "Soldiers Bathing" the South African poet and combatant Frank Prince neatly accumulates in his crabbed hand arresting images of bestial destruction and baptismal redemption.

But there is a more important poet who makes his presence felt in this great gathering. For me, the discovery of manuscripts by and about Keith Castellain Douglas - a poet whom Ted Hughes reckoned among the most significant of the 20th century - marked a red-letter day. Here, for example, was one poem "written in Egypt shortly before Montgomery's attack" and another entitled "Song", specially written out in a fair calligraphic hand, its lovely, lilting strangeness absurdly at odds with the standard issue R.A.C BASE DEPOT paper upon which it survives.

The poems were among a number published by Tambi in his magazine. Entirely unknown, however, are the letters from Douglas's mother, grieving at his death in a tank action three days after D-Day. "We had a far closer understanding than most mothers & sons," she writes barely a month after her loss. "He treated me in many ways more as his contemporary & trusted me to understand his view of life - I cannot think of him as dead. He was far too vital." Another letter recalls his childhood literary influences: "He was the only small child I have ever known who read the Bible for pure pleasure of the sound of certain phrases." The correspondence goes on to reveal how Marie Douglas helped the sheepish Tambi start to gather together material for the two long-delayed books her son had so looked forward to seeing: a collected edition of poems and his war narrative, Alamein to Zem Zem, both of which eventually appeared.

But there is more to this story. A friend of Douglas's in the Sherwood Rangers, an armoured brigade, was known to have written a substantial memoir of his war experiences. Thought to have been destroyed or lost, John Bethell Fox's narrative - albeit a little battered and with the odd page missing - has lain, for all those hard-won years, undisturbed in the archive.

In fact, it's right here before me now, where I spot a tender detail not noticed before. After his description of Douglas's death ("I felt hot tears running down my cheek, Keith my only real riend"), he quietly reveals the degree to which he longs once again to be close to his friend: "When darkness fell I rolled into my sleeping bag, which until then had been Keith's, and fell asleep from sheer exhaustion of mind and body."

Restrictions on space prevent more than a mention of the collection's full scope here. Particularly tantalising is the pile of manuscripts I have set aside (more research needed), as "anon". One contributor, identity deliberately withheld, sends in a series of odes. Number nine is to a bed: "O temple of magnificent fortune,/ Where disport and sport all angels,/ Where sleep falls solemn/ By statue and column,/ Between your impressive sides I lie,/ Incisively, and live and die." Who is this snoozing genius?

And who is this? "Say something at last of the craft of dying/ Wrap your pain in a green leaf./ The greenest tree in the wood is death/ Wrap your stone in a green leaf." The neo-romantic flavour brings Dylan Thomas to mind, but it's not in his improbable school-girly script.

One part of the archive is, however, worth dwelling on for a little longer: the clutch of documents endorsed "personal". Nearly everything hitherto known about Tambi during the Forties and before derives from recollection, rumour and hearsay. Yet surviving correspondence with his uncle, brothers and old friends, together with his own closely typed autobiographical diary reflections and his deeply personal (but not, alas, so good) poetry, now show us someone more reflective, kind, sober, loyal and generous than the posing clown prince amusingly but unfairly depicted by the likes of Maclaren-Ross.

Above all, we see clearly that through all the London carousing, the indebtedness, the rows, the lost submissions, the women and the wine - oh yes, an amount of that went on - Tambi missed his home and those at home longed for him. He wants to revive his grandfather's printing business; publish his uncle's linguistic works; help out his old friends with jobs and introductions where he can. In one carbon copy of a letter sent back to Colombo, he requests that his brother, destined for London University, bring him recipes for mouth-blistering Ceylonese curries and all the associated condiments unobtainable in the West.

News came back the other way. By a quirk of fate, Anthony Dickins, one of Poetry London's earliest sponsors in London, ended up being posted to Ceylon. The letters he sent back to Tambi are moving. He visits his lovely, brilliant family (five brothers, one sister), bathes in the glittering beauty of his childhood playground, and marvels at the kindness of his people and the richness of his culture. It is significant that he sees the qualities of his friend shining forth in all these things. For I suspect that of everyone in London, Dickins knew Tambi best of all. His are the only letters addressed to an intimate family name: "Jim".

The latest document in the archive is a carefully inscribed luggage sticker for the SS Canton, evidently surplus to requirements. After the short-lived return to Ceylon there followed a period in America, with Tambi lecturing and publishing a new magazine in New York; eventually he drifted away to turn on, tune in and drop out with Timothy Leary at his "League for Spiritual Development" (LSD for short).

Then came a hazy sojourn in Paris at the famous Shakespeare & Co bookshop on the Rive Gauche and, eventually, three marriages later, the return to London, where the routine shuffle from pub to benighted dive (no interest in light bulbs, remembered one friend) was redeemed by moments of the old brilliance. These later years saw backing from the Beatles for a magazine re-launch (two numbers appeared), diplomatic missions to help found the Indian Arts Council in London, a limited edition of Indian love poems illustrated by John Piper and plans for a special anthology, to be dedicated to another Prince on his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer.

In 1983 Tambimuttu fell down the precarious stairs from the office given to him by his friends at Bloomsbury's October Gallery. He died in hospital on the 22 June and his ashes were returned to his childhood home. At the crematorium the priest intoned "the passing of our dearly beloved Mary James". Tambi's good friends thought he would have enjoyed the gaff. I doubt it. Born into a Catholic family, Mary was his given, long hidden, name.

Middle-class, educated in the clipped English of Empire and evidently never that exercised about Ceylon's struggle for independence, Tambimuttu has been scolded by post-colonial commentators for turning his back on his mother country to become a "brown Englishman". Yet, with a few exceptions (T S Eliot rated him), the West's literati has never really accepted him either. This is no doubt partly to do with his intimate association with the long unfashionable Forties, a decade written off as overly effusive, parochial and self-important by post-war pundits. But it is also, I suspect, because the outlandish Tambi myth has proved such an irresistible target for the cheap shot. One critic wrote him off as "Tutti frutti".

It's funny what survives and what doesn't. Holed up in 1970 in his book-lined refuge on the banks of the Seine, Tambi ruminated on his lack of records. Some he, thought, had been sold to dealers; others had been lost in the Empire State Building offices of a bankrupted airline. I am so glad that he wasn't quite right. That, through a weird mixture of his own odd genius and the diligence of a friend, something tangible remains to test the tales and prove the man.

Kathleen Raine, the late great poet, once told me that despite what people might say Tambi really was a prince. I never knew him. But surveying his literary remains down here in the vault I think I can see what she was getting at.

'Keith Douglas: The Complete Poems' (Faber and Faber £12.99). For permission to quote or reproduce, thanks to: Curtis Brown Ltd, London, on behalf of The Estate of Lawrence Durrell; David Higham Associates, on behalf of The Estate of Edith Sitwell; Sebastian Peake, on behalf of the trustees of The Estate of Mervyn Peake; John Hall, on behalf of The Estate of Keith Douglas; Sebastian Barker on behalf of the Estate of Elizabeth Smart