London Diary


Carl Rollyson

Wednesday, January 11

End of my second full day in London. Yesterday spent at the British Library looking at the Ted Hughes Papers. Today as well, and then a trip to Hampstead to see Al Alvarez about his memories of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

This morning I arrived at the BL at 9:25. A long queue had formed awaiting the building’s opening. I remarked to a friendly looking chap that if we had been in front of the New York Public Library waiting for it to open, everyone would have been crowded around the entrance in no discernible order. He laughed and said, yes, he had been to New York City. How orderly of the British, I said. In New York it is a free for all, with taxis stopping to pick up fares even if it means holding up traffic and incurring the wrath of drivers quick to get on the horn.

I’ve been thinking about what it was like for Sylvia Plath to settle in London in 1959 and die there four years later. It was a different country, then, in some respects. It was still recovering from the war—as I could see when I first visited London in the summer of 1963, about six months after Plath’s death. I had not heard of Plath then and indeed, most Americans had not heard of her and would not until the early 1970s, when Alvarez, more than anyone else, made her known through The Savage God. Alvarez had championed her work even earlier when, as poetry editor of The Observer, he printed poems that almost no one else would touch—certainly not the New Yorker, Plath’s favored venue. Even British literary lights like Karl Miller deemed her work “too extreme” when, in his capacity as an editor at the New Statesman, he had rejected poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus.” Alvarez learned about these rejections during a chance meeting with Miller on a London street.

Plath was the poet Alvarez had dreamed of, since she fulfilled his call for poetry written in Britain to jettison its all-too-genteel gloss and get down to the ground, so to speak. Plath had jumped the queue, and she broke the way the poetic line should flow on to the page. This departure was especially apparent to Alvarez, because she read the poems aloud as performances. I wonder if, in fact, she needed that stately, if shabby, Old World propriety to stage her breakout. Perhaps not, but the cold English climate certainly stimulated her to generate her own heat.

The British publishing house, Heinemann, had—like Alvarez—been quicker to accept Plath’s first book, The Colossus, than any American concern, although Knopf eventually followed suit. There had to be, in other words, rude awakenings at home and in the mother country—as indeed there were, although they were called Beats and “angry young men.” The angry young women would show up a decade later, although they were not so named. When women started “bitching,” as Marion Meade put it in her book bearing that title, and wrote chapters about the fascism of family life that made women merely the props and the servants of the male ego, they discovered the prophetic Plath of “Daddy,” who declared that every woman adores a fascist.

Plath arrived in London as Mrs. Hughes, since her husband was the first one of this couple to win major literary prizes and fellowships. The city held out some kind of stimulation, I supposed, that Sylvia could not obtain back home. This train of thought led me to look for ways in which the English do jump queues—or at least define places where order and high courtesy do not prevail. When walking in London, I’ve always noticed that as a pedestrian approaches a side street, vehicles do not yield but rush right past. You would think someone in command of a couple thousand pounds of steel would be wary of knocking down a human obstacle. But it is customary, not offensive, for vehicles to command the right of way in these instances. Perhaps this custom arose because there are so many marked crosswalks where vehicles must defer to pedestrians. Any street crossing not so marked is virtually a signal to go ahead without braking. What looks like aggressive driving to me is just normal behavior to the Brit, who has his or her own way of remaining on the go. In other words, each culture, however different, has its own dynamic and idea of what constitutes good behavior and its insulting opposite. The trouble is, we (that is, both sides of the transatlantic cultural coin) don’t always appreciate how our respective cultures encourage as well as retard our initiative.

Ted Hughes’s friends—almost to a man and woman—disliked Sylvia Plath, whom they saw as a pushy, spoiled, self-absorbed American. And she had that side to her, no doubt. She was a go-ahead American, and when Ted married her, that is what he wanted. He didn’t have a clue how to make a life, or a living, as a poet, and Sylvia did. Ted’s friends could not believe how oblivious Sylvia could be of what they considered common courtesy.

I know how Sylvia felt, having lived in a British home and spent something like an entire year in the country in the course of taking more than forty trips to the UK since 1963. You would think after that much exposure I would know how to comport myself. And yet like Plath, I can entirely forget my place (as the British might say) and defy the decorum of the occasion or the venue. So there I was on my first day, fresh (well not so fresh) off the plane, rushing to the British Library acutely aware—as Sylvia always was—that time is a-wasting. I didn’t stop to eat, but decided in my bleary-eyed state to subsist on eyedrops and chewing gum until closing time. Fiercely focusing on the file in front of me and heading toward the counter to pick up yet another folder, I was suddenly taken aback by the librarian’s BIG FROWN. As I opened my mouth to make my request, she interrupted: “No chewing in the reading room.” I thought she was going to ask me to stand in the corner. I can easily imagine that Sylvia had the same impact, in countless ways, on the inhabitants of Albion. Actually, I don’t have to imagine how Sylvia offended. All I have to do is read Dido Merwin’s rant against Plath in an appendix to Anne Stevenson’s Plath biography.

If Al Alvarez became Sylvia's steadfast friend toward the end of her life, it is because he is so thoroughly English and yet so utterly comfortable with America and Americans. Unlike Ted Hughes, who disliked what he called cellophane-wrapped America when he arrived there in 1957, Alvarez reveled in his American interludes. He greeted me with extraordinary warmth and a feeling of instant camaraderie—exactly the sort of openness that Ted Hughes scorned in the Americans he met, since he could not believe it was anything more than a habit of superficial agreeability. I imagine Sylvia found it restful to be in Alvarez’s company. He was such a receptive listener and an astute critic. I can’t tell the whole story here, but by the end of my three hours with him, he was reading to me from his diary, which recounted a shocking event that will have its place in the last chapter of my Plath biography.

Thursday, January 12

9:15: Off for another day at the British Library. No gum this time. I rather feel like my daughter when she was about six or seven, visiting me after her mother and I had divorced. Amelia had to adjust to the new regime, so to speak. Her Daddy had a new wife quite different from Mom. This was, I seem to recall, my daughter’s second trip to Detroit, where I was living then. She had flown from New Jersey, escorted by a flight attendant down the ramp into my awaiting arms. When we arrived at my apartment, Amelia looked around and sat down on the couch. How was she feeling? I asked. “Fine,” she said. She always said “fine” when I asked her that question. But this time, she sighed happily and said, “And I know all the rules.” I laughed and didn’t inquire further. This is rather a long-winded of saying, as I finish this sentence, that I feel like announcing to the librarian of the BIG FROWN, “I know all the rules.”

10:05: “You haven’t tied it properly.” So says you know who. I give her a look (use your imagination). She gives me a look (ditto). Silently she re-ties the collection of files (drafts of Ted Hughes self-exculpatory Birthday Letters). I then carry back to my desk the next folder, which must be placed inside a large box (maybe 2 feet by 18 inches). It would be more convenient if I could put it all flat next to my iPod Touch and keyboard. “BUT NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!” as John Belushi used to say.

3:00: I’ve run out of my quota of requests for the day. No more file folders for me! No one told me I could make only ten requests. That may seem a lot, but sometimes I’m fishing—that is, I can’t tell from the catalogue description whether the folder I request will have anything pertaining to my concerns. So some folders I dispatch in a minute; others need a half hour or more. And to request a folder is a nightmare entailing a multi-step process, with nearly every step requiring me to re-enter my library pass number. And since I can only request four items at a time, I’m at the mercy of the librarians who don’t always remember to enter in the system that I’ve already returned a folder. So I keep getting messages that I have reached the limit of my requests, even after I’ve returned several folders.

3:10: After sitting in dejection for a few minutes, I return to the front desk to see if I am really out of requests and learn that I could apply to get one more precious folder. The librarian asks me to write down the catalog number on a slip he hands me. Now, mind you, I have NO documents on my desk, and I write the number on the slip he gives me. When I turn it in, he scrutinizes the slip and then says, “Is that a pen?” At first, I don’t take in what he’s asking. I think he means I’ve left something out in the arcane number codes. BUT NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He’s telling me that only pencils can be used in the Reading Room. Okay, I know that, but I’m not using the pen to take notes. I just absentmindedly used what was available. Crikey. I want to tell him to bugger off. But I hold my tongue. Did these guys by any chance read my rant a few columns ago about how I hate the way modern day archives are run? After I wrote that column, a friend said to me, “Aren't you worried about burning your bridges?” All I can say now is show me some more bridges to burn.

One more folder, and then I’m going to get a drink!

At least the last folder is a find: Sylvia’s description of the folk around Court Green. She took more of an interest in the locals than Ted did. She describes the birth of her son, a big boy weighing almost ten pounds. Giving birth to him had made her feel like her insides were being torn out, and yet the midwife announced that Plath had not suffered a scratch.

The free wifi is nice, except that anytime I put my iPod to sleep, I have to log back in and promise not to do anything obscene. How did they know I had been tempted to cock a snook at the staff.

Here’s a nice little bit I read in one of Sylvia’s descriptions of a Devon home interior: “The typical British wallpaper—a pale beige embossed with faintly sheened white roses, the effect of cream scum patterns on weak tea.” Thus is your habitat immortalized, Rose and Percy Key!

4:45: I can’t take it anymore. I’m out of here.

5:30: Spent the evening with an old friend complaining about the British Library. She is an American working for a banking firm in London. She supplied me with many more examples of the overcomplicated British way of doing things. It’s built into the language, I observe: “Why say pressured when you can say pressurized?” I tell her, picking a word I’ve often heard on British newscasts. And have you ever noticed the way British historians use the passive voice? Deadly.

And yet Sylvia Plath chose London over New York or Boston or any other American homeground. I’ve come here often for holidays, but also to research the lives of Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Jill Craigie, and now Sylvia Plath. What is it that attracted them—and me?

Friday, January 13

11:15: I’m in Hampstead, in a Starbucks, enjoying the free wifi. I’ve just returned an article I borrowed from Al Alvarez, and I’m writing this diary and also waiting for Keats House to open. Amy Lowell, the subject of one of my long-term biographical projects, wrote a biography of Keats and was instrumental in making sure his Hampstead house remained a national treasure. In doing so, she not only spent her own money for its refurbishment, but also enlisted a legion of American contributors to do so. Call it a literary foreign aid program.

1:00: On the way to Keats’s house, I walk down Pilgrim’s Lane and stop at #66, which used to be Michael Foot’s home. Sold after he died a few years ago, it is being rehabbed, gutted, which does not surprise me since during my three years of visiting Michael (2000–03) I saw the home deteriorating. Michael did not see the disrepair. He was in his mid-ninties and just happy to remain in the home that his wife, Jill Craigie, picked out in 1963 and then refurbished. Jill had a wonderful sense of decor and design, but Michael did not have her eye or her interests. I wanted to say to the workman at Pilgrim’s Lane, “Do you know you are demolishing a bit of history: the home of the Labour Party leader who ran against Margaret Thatcher in 1983?”

Keats House is just a few streets down. It looks more imposing than it was in Keats’s day. A later owner put an addition on the house, but inside the scale of the rooms, the furnishings, are pretty close to what Keats had known. Although the brochure mentions the house was redone in the 1920s, I’m aggrieved to see that Lowell is not mentioned. Without her funds and her magnificent organizing efforts, the house might well have been lost to posterity.

Saturday, January 14

At the train station on the way to Cornwall. I notice a sign saying that if you are drunk and disorderly, you can enjoy the walk home. In other words, the rail management reserves the right to refuse rowdy passengers. I recall my friend last night noting how much her British fellow employees drink just as soon as the workday is over.

12:30: A splendid time in Cornwall with Elizabeth Sigmund, one of Sylvia’s friends, who has wonderful memories and papers to share. One startling moment: Her recollection of Ted’s reaction to Sylvia’s death about a month later, when Elizabeth visited him: “It’s not given to every man to murder a genius.” “You didn’t murder her,” Elizabeth replied. “I might as well have done,” he concluded.

5:30: Elizabeth’s husband drives me to the Weary Friar Inn, near the small village of Pillaton.

6:30: Down from my cozy top floor room for dinner, I enter the pub-like dining room, order a Guinness, and scrutinize the menu. The locals give me a friendly, curious look, and I decide to do a Sylvia Plath—that is, take part in the badinage in the vicinity of my table. As the waitress approaches, I am primed, waiting to take the pitch. “It says here,” I speak up, as though I am about to express a community concern about the dinner menu, “you have award-winning local sausages. But I’m partial to the liver and bacon. However, it does not appear to have won any awards.” Debate at the bar ensues—one patron advancing the motion that the links may be too sweet. But he fails to attract a second, and after a respectful silence I announce my vote for the porkers. Tactful smiles all round in deference to the one dissenter. For the nonce, I’m included in the conversation, and though I don’t have much to say, everyone is pleased by the way I polish off my sausages, capping off the meal with local blackberry ice cream.

Sunday, January 15

A breakfast of perfectly prepared poached eggs on toast. I memorialize the event in the inn’s guestbook. Then a marvelous morning walk overlooking beautiful felt-green valleys. Returning to the inn, I notice a wall that notes this building dates back to the twelfth century. It’s the kind of historic site that excited Sylvia. She had a tumulus on her Devon property and loved to think of it as a Roman remnant.

12:30: Actually it has been recently discovered that the mound is a Norman site, Elizabeth tells me during another afternoon of talk. When I compliment her husband William on his fine onion tart, which I am devouring, Elizabeth reminds me that Sylvia was a lusty eater. Then she recalls eating a meal with Sylvia balancing her baby boy Nicholas on her lap. “Watch his eyes,” she told Elizabeth. “See that greedy look? He’s making sure he gets his share.”

7:00: On the train back to London, the conductor is asking for tickets. I produce mine with alacrity and am rewarded with, “Smashing.” Yes indeed, the pilgrimage to Pillaton has been . . . well, smashing.

It’s rather wonderful the way the British brighten up mundane transactions. Martha Gellhorn once explained why she loved riding London buses, recalling the time a ticket taker accepted her offering with a cheerful sally, “Thank you, my blossom.”

Monday, January 6

An uneventful return to Philadelphia airport. Customs man asks me what I’ve been doing abroad. “Researching a writer,” I reply. And to my surprise he launches into how much he loves the writing of Somerset Maugham.

Go figure.


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.



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