A Memory of 'Instant John': On First Meeting the Poet John Gawsworth, Third King of Redonda

by William L. Gates

The career of John Gawsworth (1912-70), poet, editor, bibliographer and third King of Redonda, may be viewed as a cautionary tale for Lost Club monographists. Devote too much energy to championing neglected writers and one's own creative work may come a poor second. Gawsworth was a tireless campaigner on behalf of Machen, Shiel, Dowson, Richard Middleton and other of his writer heroes, and spent much time lobbying publishers and the Royal Society of Literature on his mentors' behalf. Nowadays he is remembered more for this energetic proselytzing and as Juan I of Redonda than for his prolific versifying. Though a workmanlike lyric poet, capable of turning out pleasing lines celebrating lost, current and unrequited love, he failed to produce a deathless classic such as 'Cynara' or 'Vita summa brevis . . .' in the manner of his beloved Dowson. Jon Wynne-Tyson, King Juan II, has commented: 'A man of minor ideals and limited horizon cannot be a major poet', adding that Gawsworth remains 'a minor poet of occasional distinction'. Ironically, when Javier Marías published Todas las almas (1989; translated as All Souls, 1992) many European readers assumed Gawsworth, who features in the novel, was a fictional creation.

Gawsworth began publishing in his teens as a precocious poet. By the age of forty, when he was sacked for reasons of economy as editor of the Poetry Review, he was a burnt-out case addicted to the bottle. He needed champagne to make him feel like a king, he told one reporter in 1958. 'There was no Gawsworth to save Gawsworth,' Javier Marías has observed. His output of books shrank to a trickle, and he never managed to write his autobiography, which with its memories of writers diverse as T. E. Lawrence, Stephen Graham, Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), Count Potocki, Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Durrell, Kate O'Brien and Henry Miller would have made fascinating reading. Mark Holloway, in his forthcoming memoir of his half-brother, John Gawsworth and the Island Kingdom of Redonda, captures the impotence of Gawsworth in his latter years. His intemperate behaviour was 'his way of saying "Look at me. I should be writing wonderful poetry, and I am not. Nothing else on earth matters to me. All my journalism and my bibliographical work and my absurd kingdom of Redonda are toys I have got tired of and do not want. Nor do I want the alcohol, which I do not enjoy. All I want is that champagne of the spirit which at one time enabled me to write some good poems. It is all gone and there is no substitute on which I can live. This is why I don't care whether I live or die; but I feel bitterly about it, and this is why I am not going to die quietly." ' But here is a happier memory of the King of All the Seagulls from Gawsworth's associate William L. Gates . . .



Chance encounters in life often lead to interesting consequences. Thus it was in the autumn of 1964, when I indulged a childhood passion for heraldry, following a gruelling four years spent in full-time teaching and spare-time study for my London University Honours degree.

The Heraldry Society announced a practical course in Heraldic Art, taken by Norman Mainwaring of the College of Arms, to be held in a basement in Gordon Square, a mere book's throw from my own Birkbeck College. There I met Peter Anderson, and as the weeks went by, we got into the habit of calling in afterwards at 'The Friend at Hand', a tiny mews public house behind the soaring façade of the Russell Hotel. There we would talk over a half-pint of Watney's Brown and a bag of crisps, before parting company.

As Anderson's keen eyes noted my heraldic progress, he asked me, one evening in the pub, if I could help him with an heraldic project. It seemed that he had designed a Royal Coat of Arms for the King of Redonda, and now all the dukes of the Realm were clamouring for designs of their own, and he couldn't cope. He explained about Redonda. 'I don't believe it,' I said. 'Everyone says that,' he replied, 'but it's true.'

Thus it was that, several heraldic designs later, I was invited to a soirée at Tufnell Park, to meet His Majesty King Juan I of Redonda. I had learned that the evening might have a literary flavour to it, and that the King was a well-known poet. As a mere historian I already felt out of my depth, but I accepted, and went.

A lively evening ensued. After Anderson's various introductions, I was introduced to Gawsworth. A piercing but very kindly look, beneath sandy brows, summed me up. In spite of his baggy appearance and frayed pullover, I knew I was in the presence of a genius. We gently conversed, and he learned of my instinct to be a teacher, and my love of history. The topic of children's books came up, and in no time we were discussing enthusiastically the merits of J. Meade Falkner, who was apparently a second cousin of Gawsworth. The appeal of Moonfleet was analysed, and I then found myself talking knowledgeably, to my surprise, about The Nebuly Coat, with its underlying themes of heraldry and campanology. We then agreed that The Lost Stradivarius was probably the best ghost story ever written, outclassing even M. R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu. His Majesty then expressed a desire to watch a B.B.C. 2 television interview, about his Indian friend, the writer and poet Dom Moraes, a Duke of the Realm.

Later in the evening, during a brief lull in the various conversations, a Scotsman said, to nobody in particular, 'I did a very brave thing last week in Glasgow; I went into Number 7, Blythswood Square, and asked for a cup of cocoa.' Nobody seemed able to say anything constructive, so I ventured to suggest that it was the home of Madeleine Smith, over a century before, who poisoned her low-class lover, Pierre L'Angelier, with arsenic in his cocoa, during his assignations to her basement bedroom. This led to a classic Scottish trial for murder, the verdict of which was 'Not Proven'. It appeared that her former bedroom had been converted recently into a cafeteria, but the Scotsman was none the worse.

As this fascinating evening wore on, I felt obliged to take my leave, to allow me to catch the last bus back to Winchmore Hill. Before I departed, Gawsworth insisted on enrolling me into his Realm. 'Bring me paper,' he called. 'Bring me a pen. What was the name of that poor fellow in Glasgow?' So it was that I became 'Baron L'Angelier de Blythswood de Redonda', on my very first meeting with that remarkable monarch. Although I later progressed to a Marquis's coronet in the reign of his successor King Juan II (Mr Arthur John Roberts) and eventually found myself accepting custody of the Royal Title itself, I still hold most dear that memorable evening in that flat in Tufnell Park, so long ago, where wit and wisdom flashed and crackled around the room, like summer lightning, and Gawsworth the poet-King presided over all.