Simon Watson Taylor

Surrealist turned anarchist, Pataphysician and hippie

By George Melly
Wednesday 16 November 2005 01:00

Simon Watson Taylor, actor, translator and air steward: born Wallingford, Oxfordshire 15 May 1923; died London 4 November 2005.

One morning, between the defeat of Hitler and the explosion of the atom bomb, I moved permanently from Liverpool to London, where Simon Watson Taylor was the first adult friend I made by myself. We remained friends until his death.

In a navy training camp at the end of the Second World War, I had met Tony Harris Reed, already a Surrealist convert, and he had discovered an advertisement in the New Statesman for various publications of the Surrealist Group in England; with our order we sent off his Ernstian collage and my derivative poems. There was soon a letter which, while acknowledging our work without over-praising it, suggested that if we ever came to London we get in touch. It was signed "Simon Watson Taylor, Secretary to the Surrealist Group".

Eventually I rang and made a date requesting a visit to Watson Taylor's flat in Markham Square. He answered crisply and I hitch-hiked into London on the day agreed and found my way to his rather smart address. I nervously rang the bell. My first impression when he answered was of a small but neatly made man, full of aggressive energy fuelled by alcohol, controlled by discipline. He was well dressed, in a conservative tweed suit and with an expensive shirt and tie. His hair was short, cut en brosse by an excellent barber. His humour was icy.

Wishing to impress, I declared my adherence to Surrealism in the solemn style based on what I had read in translation of André Breton, but it was only when I hypocritically attacked homosexuality that he assured me that few of the other great Surrealists shared Breton's curious homophobia. The only trouble with the human body, he said, was that there were not enough holes in it for exploring human pleasure. I must have been maddening, but it was clear he had taken a liking to me and a friendship was born.

He opened a walk-in cupboard of rare vintage jazz records, many with the original label. I was somehow not surprised, as jazz and Surrealism were my own twin passions. Before we parted, he suggested I attend the next Surrealist meeting in the upstairs room of a Spanish restaurant off Regent Street.

I arrived rather early but others gradually showed up, mostly Portuguese and Turkish foreigners, and soon the Belgian E.L.T. Mesens and his wife Sybil swept in. Mesens was the organiser of the London group, but Watson Taylor would frequently disagree with his pronouncements and most enjoyable shouting matches took place as we ate the under-populated paella and drank the cheap red wine.

Watson Taylor continued to visit E.L.T. from time to time, although Sybil, like most wives, detested him. Once, when not being offered a whisky, he insisted on it and E.L.T. eventually poured him one out. Watson Taylor spat it out, saying that it had been watered, to deceive Sybil as to the amount he had been knocking back. She looked furious.

He was a great friend too of Andy Garnett, one-time leader of the Chelsea Set, and much later on went to stay with the Garnetts at their country house. There Watson Taylor practised yoga on the lawn, but showed no sign of leaving, and Andy's wife Polly eventually kicked him out. But they remained friends and later Watson Taylor became the godfather (no religious connection of course) of their first daughter.

Then, in our case, he visited our house in Wales with a girl. They both took LSD and, when the girl developed a bad trip, Watson Taylor simply left and my second wife, Diana, far from pleased, had to talk her down. These instances were disgraceful, no doubt, but Andy and I accepted them as part of our friend's intransigence.

Simon Watson Taylor was born in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, in 1923. His father Felix's family had made a fortune in the West Indies. I met his father once and he seemed amiable enough, but Simon rejected him like Oedipus on speed. His mother was a Tennant, something he quite often mentioned. During the Second World War, he once told me, he had worked at a factory and was converted to Communism but, falling in love with a beautiful girl of Italian birth and discovering she was an anarchist, he became one overnight. He thus fulfilled the most important belief of the Surrealists, the complete suppression of all other considerations in favour of l'amour fou.

He remained an anarchist and sometimes a violent one - in the thick of the protest against Suez, for example, he threw ball-bearings under the police horses' hooves. On the other hand, he was secretary of the Freedom Defence Committee, whose chairman was Herbert Read and which included A.E. Housman, George Orwell and J.B. Priestley, protesting against the imprisonment of the editors of a magazine, War Commentary, for attempting to cause the disaffection of English troops.

Watson Taylor next became an actor, touring weekly to entertain the same troops the anarchists were trying to disaffect. Apart from contributing to many Surrealist publications, his main livelihood became translating from the French. I can see him still in the flat at his work table, surrounded by reference books and dictionaries, and the results were impeccably researched and elegantly worded. Among his many translations were André Breton's Surrealism and Painting (1972) and, still in print, his collaboration with Cyril Connolly on Alfred Jarry's work, The Ubu Plays (1968), and his much-reprinted Paris Peasant by Louis Aragon (1971), one of a few masterpieces of early Surrealist literature.

Simultaneously, he joined an airline as cabin steward, and this enabled him to travel the world free and pursue his interests abroad. In New York, for instance, he became a great friend of Marcel Duchamp and the Beat poets. To begin with, these flights were very slow and often in flying boats. He was sometimes very amusing about the affairs between both staff and passengers.

When my first marriage broke up temporarily in the early/middle Fifties, I moved at his invitation into his basement flat in Tregunter Road and stayed there for several years without much friction. We were both, and it helped, fanatically tidy. At that time he still liked jazz and he was pleased with my collection of then unfashionable Surreal masterpieces. We both drank Merrydown dry cider, mostly ordered by the crate, and we split the price.

He was pleased, too, that I knew several of his jazz heroes, Mr Five-by-Five blues shouter Jimmy Rushing for one, who was given to an astounding appetite, although meat was still rare, if not rationed. Simon managed to find him a steak that overlapped a large serving plate, and Jimmy despatched it as if it were a cocktail sausage. There were other memorable jazz parties too, and many visits from girls.

There was also a porn show organised by a timber merchant during a conference of his colleagues. The film was shown by a police inspector who "borrowed them" from a pal in Scotland Yard's "Black Museum". A sergeant projected the movies and a uniformed copper rewound the films in the kitchen. It all delighted Watson Taylor's anarchist belief in the corruption of the Establishment.

I grew to love Simon when we shared his flat. We were like an old married couple, but he was never dull. Once, when he was away, two young poets he had met in New York came with his permission to sleep in his bed. Coming back from a late gig, I found the flat as if a hurricane had blown through it. The pair were in bed together both with flu, throwing their used Kleenex on the floor. I exploded and made them get up and tidy the whole place, while they complained of me being so bourgeois. Their names were Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

In 1954 Watson Taylor, who had quit Surrealism together with many other long-established members following a row with the increasingly dictatorial and mystical Breton, had joined the Pataphysicians, whose great hero was Jarry. The basis of Pataphysics was based on a character in Jarry's 1923 novel Docteur Faustroll who proposed "the science of imaginary solutions".

When Watson Taylor eventually got bored with their solemn black humour, he went the whole hog. He dismissed jazz, selling all his valuable 78s for a mere £50, discarded his suits for hippie clothing, if in his case a rather smarter version than most, and set off for Goa and the beach, with its wild teenagers, drugs and very loud rock and roll. It was party, party time. He returned to Britain occasionally, typically to visit his dentist, and here too surrounded himself with the young. Once he told me he led these fledglings to a fashionable disco. The enormous bouncer was astonished. "Who are you?" he asked Watson Taylor. "The Pied Piper?"

After Goa he moved to an island off the Philippines for more of the same. He came home finally because of a series of mild heart attacks and as a precaution against ending in a foreign hospital with its enormous bill. He got back to England with no money and possessing only what he had on. He rang up a woman whom he had met in Goa, Janet Menzel. She took him under her wing, found him a very nice bedsit off the Fulham Road - "always my favourite area", he told me - and looked after him until the day he died.

Once I was invited to dinner. It was during the only violent snowstorm in recent years and the taxi inched through it. He had promised me "a beautiful Pataphysical girl" but, sensibly, she decided not to brave the weather. Watson Taylor let me in and took me up in the lift. The rest of the "inmates", he told me, were "respectable old biddies". In our shared youth, he had always been a brilliant chef, especially of elaborate Japanese cuisine. Tonight the chicken was as rare as a young grouse. I ate it despite his protests, but it was my last visit. I phoned him from then on.

A curious thing was that I had written about him in various books and he never commented. Now he was suddenly proud of them, leaving the books out on a coffee table, and showing them to everyone. Did they remind him of his remarkable life, now that it was almost visibly drawing to its close? (That took some time. Like Dalí in old age, he enjoyed being surrounded by the young and pretty Pataphysical girls.)

What was it about Simon Watson Taylor, a man who never hesitated to be true to himself and say what came into his head without ever considering the consequences? Hard to tell. I had the feeling he was living as he did on our behalf. Here we all were, married or single, childless or smothered in kiddies, ruined or with our mortgages paid, and there was he - a truly free man.

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