RECLINING on a chaise-longue in her restored Tudor house, Ida Affleck Graves shows remarkably few signs of author's nerves. Next month, Oxford University Press will publish her collection of poems, A Kind Husband, and, as the new girl on a poetry list that includes such celebrated names as Joseph Brodsky, Peter Porter, Marina Tsvetaeva and Charles Tomlinson, she might, you'd think, be apprehensive. Not a bit. 'When I look at my book, I think it's bloody good,' she says. Besides, she is 92.
Mary Wesley published her first novel at 70, which was thought quite a blow against ageism but now looks, alongside Ida's example, mere child's play. Thomas Hardy brought out a collection of poems at 88; George Bernard Shaw went on writing for the theatre till 94. But they were famous by then, whereas Ida Affleck Graves has still to make her name.
A Kind Husband is not, strictly speaking, a debut. Ida Graves, as she then called herself, published a slim volume in 1929, with Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press, but it was 'ever so soppy, mostly stuff I'd written at school'. A long poem, Mother and Child, came out with the Fortune Press on VE Day but was, she says, overshadowed by other events. In the Fifties, under the name Affleck Graves ('You couldn't tell the gender: I was advised that that would improve my chances'), she published two autobiographical novels and three children's books. But then silence fell for nearly 40 years. She was writing poems but stuffing them all in the bottom drawer of her desk. It didn't help that she has never learnt to type: not many editors of poetry magazines accept handwritten submissions.
But then a teacher from Norwich called Peter Wallis noticed her work in a small- press periodical, Rialto. He wrote her a fan letter. She replied, inviting him, should he ever be passing, to visit her in Stratford St Mary, Essex, where she has lived for 50 years and where, as she likes to say, 'the door is always open'. He replied enthusiastically, but by a bizarre Hardyesque mishap his letter, posted through the window (Ms Graves has no letter- box), lay undiscovered for several months. Finally he came, struck up a friendship, typed out her poems, and sent them off to magazines.
When the day came to submit a collection to a publisher, Ms Graves closedher eyes and stabbed her finger at a list of candidates: it landed on Oxford University Press. Jacqueline Simms, OUP's poetry editor, dithered for a while but then decided to break all the rules and to take on, not a thirtysomething New Generation poet, but a nonagenarian: 'The poems,' she found, 'were unique: lively, quirky, both funny and sad, and with great musical compression.'
'Round here,' says Ms Graves, 'if I told someone, 'I've written a poem, shall I read it to you?', they'd say: 'Oh, Ida, I'm sorry, we've got the plumber coming round at half-past four.' I was sinking below the waves and thinking: What's the use in going on writing if no one reads me? Peter Wallis was my rescuer from heaven. 'Ida, poem, please]' he'd say. It's people asking that has spurred me.'
In a long life, Ida Affleck Graves has been rescued several times before. She was born in India, a distant cousin of Robert Graves: 'Very posh it was. Grandfather Graves had been made supervisor of Indian education by Queen Victoria. The other grandfather, Eaton Wallace Petley, started the Indian marine service - and his father was Master of Greenwich and married a Lucan. Tons of the glory stuff.
'But being part of the British Raj, we were always moving with the regiment and changing bungalows, and I had no real home. At six, I was sent to a dreadful school in Eastbourne - all religion and hymns. I was a gifted child, except at arithmetic. I wanted to be Shakespeare or Pavlova, both if possible, and made up my mind to write every day except Sunday. But I didn't believe in saying prayers into empty air and was persecuted - beaten up and locked in my room. And whenever I wrote a poem, the mistress would tear it up.
'I was rescued by a wonderful aunt, a friend of Christabel Pankhurst, who wrote to my father and said: 'Ida must be moved.' So at 16 I went to a Quaker school in Penge, run by a woman called Theodora Clark, who taught me about painting and sculpture and who realised I was a poet.' Later, at college, her best friend was Stella Gibbons, who drew on aspects of Ida and Ida's first husband for Cold Comfort Farm.
'I married because I didn't know what else to do. He was an accountant, very Jewish, and starving for culture, just like me. I didn't know anything about the facts of life, and he had a terrible head injury from a crash on a motorbike which had left him impotent - you know, not infertile but useless at holding his horses. I thought sex was horrible. We had two children, but I was praying for him to find someone else, which luckily he did, a daughter of one of the Powys brothers. He beseeched me not to divorce him, because there'd be a scandal and so many people depended on him for their money: I was a martyr to big business.'
Later, Ida married the artist and illustrator Blair Hughes- Stanton, and had two children by him as well: 'But it was all pub, pub, pub. And womanising, even here in the village, which just won't do. He was terribly sadistic - so full of charm and breeding, but a sadist. D H Lawrence was his hero, but far from encouraging my poetry he used to say: 'If you dare write a lot of rubbish, I'm walking out.' Finally I chucked him out.'
By this point, she had moved into, and restored, her tumbledown mid-16th century weaver's house. She kept going, through the years of domestic upheaval and through the war, by reading manuscripts for the stage, sculpting, making collages, scene-painting for the Royal Ballet, and writing.
Then she met Don Nevard, a young local jazz musician. She was 50ish, he 25. They have been together ever since, in impecunious bohemian bliss ('Sorry, I haven't got a lavatory,' she tells me, 'it's only a hole in the ground'). She is proud to report that her grandchildren are following her rebellious example, not least 23- year-old Victoria Hughes-Stanton, who was recently in the papers for having broken into Buckingham Palace to draw attention to a campaign against nuclear testing.
'One day I'll be caught up by a mighty sigh that will take me off to heaven. For now, I'm tottery and arthritic, but alive, more or less. I write a new poem every six weeks or so - I did one yesterday. I work quite hard at them. I have a good ear for a cadence - always have had. I'd love to be a cult. But you have to have drama in your life, suicides and so on, and I don't'
She uses a compressed diction, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, but the subject matter is quotidian, the tone amused. One poem describes two legs up a ladder. Others celebrate marrows, sparrows, swallows, goats. There are love poems. There is an outburst against a man ('It was me,' admits Don) trying to destroy her beloved poppies. There is a sequence about being in hospital.
'I adamantly refuse to read any contemporaries, such as Larkin or Sylvia Plath. I was an earlydiscoverer of John Donne, but I don't want to be buggered up by the Moderns: I want to plug on with my own scribbles. If you do a piece, be sure to say my poems are wholesome and cheerful: there's always some hope at the end of them.'
Which there is, even when she is writing about death.
by Ida Affleck Graves
I am nothing, I am numbed, I am nobody,
I have none; I am yellow in the wax nudity,
The jaw bandage, the collapsed lonely nostrils,
The limp soles of my feet wrenched from gravity.
And thankfully. Please I don't need the music of spheres,
Feathers, mutter beads, nor the clip-on halo,
Nor mother's Hullo, she in a see-through bone malady
Of flame and tears, she and her Lord least of all.
Spare me this, stiff in the identity of dust.
Spare me. But before I hurtle to the hollow
Beyond this galaxy, grant me please the paws
Andpurrs of cats, mine, all nine of them.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies