Nest Cleverdon

Wife of the publisher and BBC producer Douglas Cleverdon
Click to follow

Elinor Nest Lewis: born Aberdare, Glamorgan 17 December 1920; married 1944 Douglas Cleverdon (died 1987; two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died London 27 December 2003.

Hospitality was at the core of the life of Nest and Douglas Cleverdon. She was a secretary at the BBC and he was a bookseller and publisher turned BBC producer when they married, 60 years ago on Thursday, in 1944.

Laurence Gilliam, Louis MacNeice and other producers, writers and actors all came to lunch or supper at Albany Street, round the corner from Broadcasting House, and Nest cooked meals at all hours for them. Any day Richard Burton, Frank Duncan, Carleton Hobbs (a special favourite), Judi Dench or Derek Jacobi might be there trying out parts. Nest darned David Jones's vests, Flanders and Swann tried out new songs, David Gascoyne and Henry Reed agonised, John Betjeman and Stevie Smith sang Hymns A & M, with Nest (who knew all the words by heart) at the piano, and Dylan Thomas drank.

There was a first-night party for Under Milk Wood - produced by Douglas and first broadcast, 50 years ago this month, in 1954 - where the young Welsh actors were offered paté. "Putty?" they said. "That's what they put the windows in with in Dowlais."

People always thought that "Nest" was short for something, perhaps because she was so short herself, but the poet and artist David Jones knew better. When she was engaged to Douglas Cleverdon in October 1943, he wrote to her husband-to-be, adding a PS. "Was she named after Arglwyddes Nest, perch Rhys ap Tewdur, Giraldus's grandmother?"

Wales was indeed in her bones, as it had been in Giraldus Cambrensis, the fount of knowledge of medieval Wales. She was born in 1920, the fourth of five daughters of James Abraham and Winifred Lewis, each of whom was given a Welsh and an English name (she detested and never used her English "Elinor"). Her father, himself from a long line of Welsh schoolmasters, was Vicar of Aberdare, a mining parish that suffered deeply from the post-war depression that led to the "hunger marches". He cared passionately and practically for his flock; one of her earliest memories was unpacking clothes parcels sent from London on the vicarage table.

She was educated at home by her mother, who read aloud all the Victorian classics to her, and by a series of governesses, and then joined her sisters at St Brandon's School for Clergy Daughters in Bristol. She was a bright girl who did well academically, but excelled at music, playing the violin and piano, and singing. When she was seven her father had taken her to the Three Valleys Festival to hear the young Malcolm Sargent conduct a choir drawn from every chapel in the valleys of Aberdare, Merthyr and Rhondda, and she could sing like a bird even late in life.

She became Head Girl, a Girl Guide, and taught the younger girls music. She also frequented the Bristol Arts Club, run by G. Methven Brownlee, "Brownie", photographer and the life and soul of literate Bristol between the wars. In 1938 she went for an audition at the Royal Academy, and was given a violin scholarship for the following year. The Second World War put paid to that, and she went instead to read Music at Cardiff University, living at home: her father had now become Vicar of St John's, Cardiff, and Canon of Llandaff.

After a year, determined to do her bit for the war, she refused to go back, and applied to join the WAAF. She was turned down on grounds of height, and the Army Catering Corps said she would drown in their vast cooking pots. So she did a quick typing course and joined the BBC Music Department as a secretary.

As a treat on her 21st birthday she was taken by some of the brass section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to a concert at Cambridge, and then went by herself to tea at the Copper Kettle. At a table nearby she saw a hand with a familiar signet-ring, and looked up to see it was Douglas Cleverdon, met before at Bristol, now also working for the BBC.

His bookshop had been next to Brownie's studio, and he had been part of that poor but cheerful Bohemian circle. He was 16 years her elder, but they set up house together, and were married at Cardiff by Canon Lewis, with Douglas's colleague Lance Sieveking as best man. John Betjeman sent a telegram to "Douglas Cleverdon and his child bride". On the bus to honeymoon at Borth, near Tal-y-Bont, Douglas was offered a half-fare for his wife.

Back in London, Nest worked all hours in the BBC News Department on War Report with Richard Dimbleby, while Douglas went to Burma as a war correspondent. When the war came to an end, Douglas returned to the Features Department under Laurence Gilliam, before moving to the Third Programme when it was founded. They wanted to start a family, but it was only after many miscarriages that her three children Julia, Lewis and Francis were born between 1950 and 1960.

Dylan Thomas famously gave Douglas Cleverdon the manuscript of Under Milk Wood, on condition that he could find it in the Soho pub where Thomas had left it. Cleverdon did, and this was the source of later strife. When the lease on Albany Street was up in 1959, Douglas sold the manuscript to provide the down payment on the house in Barnsbury Square, Islington, to which he and Nest moved. Sued for its return, he was triumphantly vindicated in court, and husband and wife were photographed sitting on a park bench eating sandwiches before the judgment, Nest wearing a Davy Crockett hat out of the acting chest.

When Douglas retired from the BBC, creativity and confusion continued in the imprint Clover Hill Editions that he set up with the printer Will Carter. From The Story of Cupid and Psyche illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones (1974) to The Engravings of David Jones (1981), they needed texts. Nest typed them all on her old Olympia, and put everything else in order, reducing what Carter, whose gentle and laid-back manner concealed a printer's desire for precision, invoiced as "GBA" (general buggering about). She dealt with other people's books, typing and re-typing Margaret Keynes's A House by the River (1976) - as she had, until pregnancy stopped her, typed most of David Jones's long poem The Anathemata (1952: "quite", she and her co-typist Ruth Winawer agreed, "the most difficult job we had ever tackled") - and sustained old friends and new, cooking, comforting and entertaining.

None of this ceased when Douglas died in 1987. The house in Barnsbury Square was often full, as children, grandchildren, friends and Welsh lurchers came and went. She collected Victorian children's books, read Charlotte Yonge, Trollope, Dickens and Thackeray, did the Times crossword, inspected Independent obituaries and knitted Aran jerseys and matinée jackets.

In recent years she moved on to wonderful tapestries and rugs, as well as delighting new audiences on television and radio with her reminiscences of the poets, painters and actors she knew. She contributed a memoir of David Jones to a National Museums & Galleries of Wales exhibition catalogue, David Jones 1895-1974: a map of the artist's mind, in 1995. "I always tried to cook something Welsh for him," she wrote:

cawl, roast lamb and leeks, crempog las (pancakes). The idea that Dafydd ap Gwilym and even Owain Glydwyr himself would have enjoyed the same food always pleased him, and he would happily take home a loaf of barabrith, or some Welsh cakes, cooked on a griddle.

Nicolas Barker