David Gascoyne, 77, is Britain's only living Surrealist poet. He was the darling of French artistic and intellectual circles in the 1930s, and lived mostly in Paris and the South of France until mental illness drove him home. His Selected Poems will be published later this year by Enitharmon Press.
JUDY GASCOYNE: Just after my silver wedding party Michael, my husband, told me he'd fallen in love with someone else and wanted to end our marriage. I never thought it would happen to me - you never do. My husband was an Isle of Wight vet. We had four children, and at that time, along with helping him run the practice, I also did voluntary work. I would visit the local psychiatric hospital once a week and spend a couple of hours with severely depressed patients.
I was so devastated that for a time I really didn't feel like going on with the hospital work. But something, my religion possibly, told me, 'For goodness' sake, Judy, these people are far worse off than you. You're not having a mental breakdown, after all.' So I went back to it. Every visit we'd play paper and pencil games, or I would read them poems and talk about them. I'd always loved poetry.
You didn't know who anybody was, but I did notice a very sad, tall man who always sat next to me. One afternoon, instead of the very well-known poems I usually read from my Oxford Book of English Verse, I turned to a more recent poem that had always intrigued me called 'September Sun'. I said: 'This afternoon we're going to read a poem by David Gascoyne. It's quite complex so I'll read it slowly and then we'll see if we can understand what it means.' The tall, sad-looking man touched me on the arm and said quietly, 'I wrote that poem. I'm David Gascoyne.' I said, 'I'm sure you are, dear.' I didn't believe him for a moment. Some of them do have delusions of grandeur, you see. But he insisted: 'I wrote that poem.' I was nonplussed, so I just went on and read it. At the tea break, I asked him, 'Are you really David Gascoyne the poet?' and he said, 'Of course I am,' and signed his name under the poem. I've kept it to this day.
He revealed that he was on his third breakdown, and I, in my usual way, told him the story of my life and that I was having a rather unhappy time at home. Then, on an impulse, I said: 'What happens to you at weekends when the ward closes?' He said: 'I go back to my empty house. It's awful.' Weekends for me were absolute hell at the time because my husband disappeared with his lady friend. So I said:'If I were to fetch you in the car, would you like to spend the weekend with me?' And to my surprise he agreed.
From then on I fetched him from the hospital every weekend, and this pale, sad giant would come out, clutching a paper bag with his pyjamas and things in. My teenage children thought I was mad to take on this extra burden, but even in his depressed state there was something very special about David. We didn't do much - just watch television or go to the pictures - and this went on for about six months. David was still very ill but occasionally he'd come out with wise and wonderful sayings. I found great comfort in those weekends.
In the meantime my husband couldn't make up his mind whether he wanted me or Mavis - the usual thing. So I asked him to spend a week on his own to decide once and for all. At the same time David received a cheque for pounds 100 from the Royal Literary Society. I suggested we spend it on a week in London, and again to my surprise he agreed. He introduced me to some of his friends - John Betjeman, Bridget Riley, all sorts of wonderful people who appeared to adore him. We went to concerts and David gave a reading for the Poetry Society to which everybody came because he's a famous old poet and they all love him and want him back for life. Then we had to go home to find out what my husband had decided.
The first night I found Michael crying in his bedroom at 4am. He said he would die if he couldn't have Mavis. So I said, 'Do, please, because I think I've fallen in love with David.' He was amazed. Then I had to wait until 8am to go to David's room and solemnly tell him all about it. He said: 'Well, I shall be a very frustrating husband, but if you think we can make a go of it, I'm more than willing.'
In 1975 we got married. It was just such a joyous occasion, with all my family and David's friends, who were surprised and delighted. I think many of them had thought he was dead. The doctors had said he'd never get better, but gradually things began to happen. In 1979 I persuaded David to accept an invitation to go to Paris, and his reception was so overwhelming that it really touched him. From then on the invitations from poetry festivals increased and we'd go abroad about 12 times a year. He even began writing again - mostly translations and articles - which was a miracle I'd never dared to hope for.
DAVID GASCOYNE: I have always had this feeling that I was born to disappoint, in friendships and relationships as well as in writing. I warned Judy that I should be a very unsatisfactory husband because earlier I had always thought of myself as a confirmed bachelor, to put it mildly.
Throughout the Fifties and early Sixties I spent summers in Aix-en-
Provence and winters in Paris under the roof of Meraud Guevara, the widow of the Chilean painter. I had nowhere to live and hardly any money, so I stayed on and on. I've been pretty impoverished all my life.
I wasn't writing at all at that time. I'd been on a trip to America with
the poet Kathleen Raine in the footsteps of Dylan Thomas, who'd also been a friend at one time. I came
back and wrote a piece for the radio about it, then dried up. I couldn't write any more.
I made my reputation very early, you see. I was extremely precocious and was publishing in magazines and anthologies, and had brought out a novel called Opening Day by the time I was 17. My Short Survey of Surrealism was published when I was 20. I've suffered as a result of that precocity.
During the times when I couldn't write I would do doodles in coloured inks while Meraud worked in her
studio. Also I read Elizabeth David's books and taught myself to cook. I loved going to the market in Aix,
and until I became ill I cooked regularly in the evening. Then, in the
summer of 1964, I went off my head completely and was sent to a psychiatric hospital in the suburbs of Paris run by the prefecture.
Eventually they sent me back to England with the proviso that on no account should I live alone, which is why I still live in what used to be my parents' house, on the Isle of Wight. Even in the state I was in, it came as a shock after Parisian society. When my father died I went off my head again and ended up in an asylum near Epsom - a terrible place, I trust it's closed down now. I later wrote a narrative about it, which was broadcast on Radio 3 about 10 years ago.
After the death of my mother in 1971 I was living alone in this house, and the local GP came and said:
'You can't go on like this, you'd
better go to Whitecroft' - the local psychiatric hospital. And that was
how I met Judy because she used to
go to read poetry there. Despite her imperfect education Judy has a genuine love of poetry and has no hidebound ideas about it. She's not afraid of difficulty.
When Judy suggested we should get married, I accepted with pleasure - not exactly pleasure, but I thought it was a marvellous idea.
I'm eternally grateful to her because gradually she brought me back not only to sanity but to cheerfulness and a willingness to travel and so on.
I have even been able to write a little - not poetry, though I am still a poet
by nature. -
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