Obituary: Philip O'Connor

Andrew Barrow
Monday 01 June 1998 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


PHILIP O'CONNOR was kept alive by a kind of fiendish, gleeful curiosity, only partly centred on himself. One of the many virtues of his autobiographical masterpiece Memoirs of a Public Baby, published in 1958 to widespread acclaim, was that the author showed his ability to drag his eyes away from his own tortured life and look with penetrating compassion on the world about him. The same qualities of poetic understanding later made him a highly effective and fashionable radio interviewer, especially when he chatted with other misfits and madcaps like himself.

Most of O'Connor's life was spent far outside society. The impression that he created as a young man in wartime Fitzrovia was of utter precariousness. As thin as a skeleton, his face already eroded, his smile never calm, he lived off doughnuts and Woodbines, ogled at women and spoke in cryptograms, spoonerisms and jingles, delivering sentences backwards and falling about in drunken exhilaration.

It counted little in his favour that he had already produced some important Surrealist poetry. Many people knew him simply as The Man Who Stood Behind the Door and Said Boo To T.S. Eliot. According to Quentin Crisp, who inhabited the same select corner of low Bohemia, O'Connor's gestures were so emphatic that a taxi would stop for him even if it already had a passenger.

Philip O'Connor's life had been full of folly from the beginning. Born in Leighton Buzzard in 1916, delivered - he claimed - by the King's physician, and encouraged by his mother, a fallen gentlewoman of mixed Asiatic, Dutch and Burmese blood, to consider himself descended through his father from the last King of Ireland, O'Connor had a disorderly childhood. Taken to France as a baby, he was abandoned at the age of four with Madame Tillieux, matronly proprietor of a patisserie in the seaside resort of Wimereux near Boulogne. Two years later, his mother returned to claim him and was met with violent protests. "Non!" screamed young Philip, scurrying to Madame's black skirts. "Ce n'est past Maman, t'es Maman. 'Suis Francais."

This heartbreaking scene later became the subject of a BBC radio play and Wimereux, its wide white beaches and the warmth of its well-ordered teashop, was to haunt O'Connor for many years afterwards. "Memories of twilight in Wimereux return home in a glass of wine," he wrote later.

Little beans of warmth from the heart's pod pop through the network of nerves to the mnemonic nerve- stations; I inhale accompanied by the sound of the sea in recession, exhale with the sea coming in.

Of the customers whom he had often observed scoffing cakes he had cruder recollections:

With hatred and envy I watched their big white teeth dipping sheerly into the creams and biscuitry, their lips proudly curve and pensively fold over the sweet crumbles, their cream- coated tongues dart like acquisitive rabbits from red hutches.

Back in England a few years later, O'Connor was again adopted, this time by a one-legged bachelor civil servant who wore size 13 boots and owned a small wooden hut on Box Hill near Dorking. In circumstances unthinkable in today's suspicious climate, here the dreamy little lad and his shy misogynist guardian set up house.

In due course, O'Connor attended the nearby Dorking High School, reading the entire works of Dickens before the age of 14 but otherwise proving a difficult student, ill at ease with his fellow pupils, one of whom he wrote later appeared "to have the unpleasant aspect of combined milk and urine in his face". Eventually his love for his guardian also turned sour and the boy began to register disgust as the man "murdered apples with abominable salivatory noises in his big many-toothed mouth".

By the time he left school, O'Connor's megalomania or messianism was already pronounced: "The word 'fool' had fastened itself sharply, hissingly on my tongue." Autocratic bad temper, omniscience and almost epileptic exhibitionism had become his trademarks. He babbled, prattled, gesticulated and displayed himself to the maximum, projecting a ferocious and maniacal hatred of the middle classes: "As an example of the real sewer-soul, the tart-heart, the mashbrain, the scummy-eyed hypocrite, nothing can rival the eminent plain man," he wrote in Memoirs of a Public Baby. Tough words, but O'Connor also had an amiable side to his nature and made friends quickly. To the young Laurie Lee, encountered in Putney, O'Connor had "an adolescent mystery about him, a frenetic melancholy, like a schoolboy Hamlet".

Poetry was a perfect outlet for him. Receptive to the Surrealist movement then percolating through London, Philip O'Connor rapidly produced poems which he later described as "a shockspill of sensations and thoughts in Surrealist disarray" and with untypical modesty as "mountebankery". His contempt for the editors who published his early work in magazines like New Verse and Life and Letters Today was often equally fierce.

O'Connor's extreme outsider status was reinforced in his late teens by a longish period tramping across England - an experience which formed the basis for his book Vagrancy published as a Penguin Special in 1963. His time on the road was followed by a six-month stay in the Maudsley Hospital, where he was diagnosed as the youngest schizophrenic in the ward. He then bounced, or fell, back into Fitzrovia and into a marriage with the daughter of a Scottish lawyer, whose inheritance he was to squander on pate de foie gras and percussion instruments.

In a pattern that he was to repeat in later life, O'Connor and his frail bride returned to the hill where he had lived with his guardian and purchased another hut there. On the eve of the Second World War, they also conducted their own version of the Grand Tour, during which O'Connor's "oratory of the second bottle became full developed in two daily sessions". The marriage ended after five years and O'Connor embarked upon a number of other relationships, fathering an unknown number of attractive and intelligent children, in whose upbringing he was to play little part.

Some of his wives and girlfriends attempted to tame him and at various times O'Connor earned a living by pushing an old man round Salisbury in a bath-chair, wielding the lights at the Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town, and as an operator on the continental telephone exchange. In this last role, he boasted that he had eavesdropped on a private conversation between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The publication of the complex, adroit and highly pertinent Memoirs of a Public Baby lent O'Connor considerable prestige in literary circles: Dorothy Parker declared in Esquire that there could be no calmer word to describe the book than superb and, in the Sunday Times, Cyril Connolly loudly proclaimed O'Connor's "acutely conscious and contemporary sensibility". The book's success launched its author into a career as an off-beat radio interviewer.

In a series of Third Programme documentaries, produced by the writer David Thomson of Woodbrook fame, his gift for absolute and immediate intimacy with his subjects - the hitherto unknown Quentin Crisp was among them - won him admiring audiences. Vagrancy and other autobiographical works followed and three volumes of poetry but O'Connor's grasp on his genius proved illusory and much of his later work came out too convoluted to be publishable. "I have this dotty idea of accuracy," he explained in old age. "Everything I write becomes so infernally complicated." Drink may not have helped though there were certainly periods of sobriety in his life and an item among the O'Connor papers on deposit at the University of Texas is interestingly entitled "Adventures Without Alcohol".

In material and emotional terms, O'Connor's life was stabilised by his meeting at the age of 51 with the young, beautiful and beguiling American Panna Grady, whose self-effacing generosity to artists and writers in her New York apartment in the Dakota building had been on an epic scale. O'Connor started the love affair which was to last for the rest of his life. Repeating the earlier pattern, the couple left immediately for France, and soon settled in Wimereux where O'Connor's formative early years had been spent. The patisserie - which still exists today - was now in other hands, but Mrs Grady was able to purchase the largest house on the sea front, from an upper floor of which O'Connor was to play Beethoven loudly and bark insults at the country across the Channel.

A few years later they and their two sons moved to the South of France, living a convenient distance from O'Connor's old friend and supporter Stephen Spender, who on the publication of Memoirs of a Public Baby had declared that O'Connor offered body and spirit a "blessed new chance".

O'Connor and Grady never married, but they created an atmosphere of strange fastidiousness around them in which O'Connor's hisses and cackles were matched by a neurasthenic fear of the sounds and movements of others. This private world hedged in by Grady's antique screens and Chinese tapestries was rarely penetrated or understood by others, though O'Connor could on occasions be an exhilarating host. Reluctant to shake hands - he was more likely to extend a dangling finger - he had considerable skills as a cook, dabbled interestingly with chickens but was just as likely to offer visitors a glass of boiling rum as a tumbler of the best champagne.

It could be argued that Philip O'Connor never grew up. Most of his life he avoided responsibility for others and himself. He was, said Stephen Spender, "part angel, part demon".

Philip Marie Constant Bancroft O'Connor, writer, poet and broadcaster: born Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire 8 September 1916; died Fontareches, France 29 May 1998.

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