Monday, 10 June 2013

"From a Museum Man's Album", John Hewitt's haunting poem about a fading world of gentility and deference

I'm reading this poem at the Acton Pass On a Poem gathering at the Rocket pub, Wednesday evening, 7.30 (it's free and anyone can attend). I was reminded of it recently while reading Elizabeth Taylor's 1971 masterpiece, Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont, a novel about an old lady who winds up in one of those hotels/boarding houses (the one in the novel is situated in the Cromwell Road) where gentlefolk who found themselves alone in old age camped out for a bit on their way to the nursing home. "From a Museum Man's Album"  conveys the same impression of a well-mannered, orderly, respectful world - and the whole way of life associated with it - coming gently, wistfully, to a close.

John Hewitt (1907-1987) held a variety of positions in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, so - as is obvious from the poem - writes from experience. It's interesting that his left-wing opinions didn't cause him to slip into caricature - indeed his sympathy for his faded subjects, while utterly unsentimental, is obvious. (You can read more about Hewitt, who was a sufficiently eminent Ulster poet to have a pub named after him in 1999, here.)

I found this poem in my favourite poetry anthology, The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse (1978), edited by Philip Larkin, which is full of poems displaying Larkins-style strengths - emotional restraint, good stories, the deft use of physical details to convey character and emotion, written in a style that doesn't deliberately mask the meaning. Apart from being Larkinesque, this poem strikes me as also being very Betjemanesque - but that's probably because of the milieu in which it's set:

"From a Museum Man's Album", John Hewitt 
My trade takes me frequently into decaying houses,
house not literally in the sense of gaping roof,
although often with the damp maps of wallpaper in the attic
and the pickle plaster on the cellar shelf:
but house usually represented by a very old woman
who bears a name once famous for trade or wealth
or skill or simply breeding,
and is the last of that name. 
Take, for instance, the tall large-knuckled woman in tweeds
whose grandfather was an artist of repute,
and had his quarrel with the Academy
and wrote his angry letters, and marginal notes
on those from his friends and patrons. (O pitiful letters,
I keep your copies safely in a metal drawer.)
Her mother had been part of a caravan
he trundled through Europe, eloquent, passionate, poor. 
Now she offers us a few early copies
made in his student days when Rubens hit him
like a boy’s first cigar;
a badly-cracked circular head-of-a-girl
with flowers on a balcony, from his Roman days;
a thick bronze medal from the Exposition;
and a beaded chair-cover made by her grandmother. 
She will die in a boarding house. 

I remember, too, the small stout woman well,
her white hair brushed up in a manner
which was then out of fashion but has been in it again,
her deafness and her gentle smile,
her way of talking as if her words
were like the porcelain in her cabinets.
The substance of her conversation has gone blurred:
something of Assissi and Siena and Giotto
and the children singing at evening
and mist coming up the valley, and, I think, bells.
I remember, too, her shelves of books;
Okey, Henry James, Berenson, Vernon Lee,
and a number of popular manuals
like Chaffers on Pottery Marks;
and the maiolica plaque of a smiling head,
and the large glossy photograph of Mussolini
on the mantelpiece. 
She was a widow, and I remember thinking it odd
that she displayed no photograph of her nephew
who was at that time a Cabinet Minister. 
She died later at another address,
and left us her ceramics, but her books were to be
divided among the friends who used to come in
for an evening’s bridge in the winter –
That is, all except the green-bound Chaffers
which came to us with the ceramics. 
Another, younger, a spinster, led me up to an attic,
offering antlered heads, and a ship in a bottle,
and an ivory rickshaw model. 
She panted a little after climbing the stairs,
and sat on a leather trunk to get her breath,
and pointed out a golden photograph
of her tall brother who died of a fever in Siam
after his first leave home. 
She was giving up the house to go and live
in a larger one among trees, left by her aunt,
and in the family at least two hundred years. 
I selected a rough-edged book in wooden covers,
watercolours on worm-holed rice paper, with unstuck silk
- a series of Chinese tortures of prisoners.

I couldn't find this poem anywhere on the internet, so I'm delighted to put that right: it deserves better. 


  1. I must get hold of a copy of Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont.

    My paternal grandmother Mrs Moss was at the Tudor Court Hotel, 58 Cromwell Rd, for some decades before making the half-mile trip to the Knaresborough Nursing Home (now the Sorensen Clinic, surely straight out of Raymond Chandler), where she ended (1977, I think).

    Is the head waitress at The Claremont an Irishwoman called Peggy?

    And do they serve bread sauce at every meal so repugnant as to put off a grandson for life?

    Does Mrs Palfrey occupy the sitting room, knitting, smoking and referring loudly to all the other guests as "old trouts"?

    And does she have a tiny friend called Ethel who scuttles across the road from the Milton Court Hotel in a green felt hat to giggle about that morning's "divis"?

    When she coughed, great lumps of powder fell off her face like a crumbling building and landed in the knitting.

    She had, reputedly, once been young and when the family immigrated from New Zealand in 1910 she is said to have played the piano throughout the crossing.

    Mrs SH Moss. Stella Huberta Moss. Huberta?

    1. David Moss. Excellent story about the Cromwell Road. Thanks.

      Your chum, the author of this blog, fails to mention that his own entry to this country was via the King Charles Hotel [corner of Cromwell Road and Earl's Court Road] in 1958 where he resided for a month. He was introduced to the pleasures of 50s British cuisine [ a small glass of tomato juice and half a grapefruit with a maraschino was regarded as haute cuisine], the effectiveness of the one-bar electrical heater in January [his father: " the coldest place on earth is the English bed-room" - Canadian expletives deleted] and to being screamed at by some lesbian manageress for scuffing up the lino with his tiny skiboots. He was only six at the time. These experiences are possibly still festering in his subconscious. Perhaps that is why he is the only person on this planet who still reads Patrick Hamilton? If you want to really depress yourself try "Hangover Square".

    2. (The King Charles wasn't quite on the corner with the Earl's Court Rd. That was Golly's Garage.)

      This is ridiculous, SDG. You will agree.

      I was at the Lycée from the age of three in 1957 with Martin, my longest-serving friend, still doing duty today.

      The Lycée debouches at one end onto Cromwell Rd and if I was lucky I got to go home and play at Martin's parents' hotel, the King Charles.

      His father, Hugh, was a Spitfire pilot and was the model for the relevant window in Westminster Abbey. His mother, Pam, was acknowledged by Elizabeth David and others as a marvellously innovative cook. She may not have been doing the cooking the month that Scott was there. They're dead now. I loved them both.

      They sold the King Charles in about 1962 and went to Devon. It's their hotel there, Highbullen, that I was warbling on about a year ago on this blog, a distress sale for £1.4 million with 200 acres. That's where they had Laurence Olivier pretending to be a barman. And me, come to think of it, I worked there in the school holidays.

      Hugh and Pam showed me the Evening Standard press cuttings once from when they opened the King Charles. Hugh was quoted as saying something like "it's 1956, the middle classes haven't got any money, come and drown your sorrows at the King Charles".

      They knew everyone. Frank Muir was their best man. And Scott stayed there.

    3. And the coincidences don't end there.

      SDG, think Cranleigh, then think my neighbour over the road, Stuart Sleeman, His Honour Judge Sleeman (retd), whose father was also a judge, who had condemned people to be hanged by the neck, and whose mother required me (perfectly willingly) to accompany her for a cigarette or three in the garden after a meal.

      After that I think I'm pretty well out of coincidences.

    4. Fascinating stuff, David Moss. Excuse innacuracies, but it was a long time ago. I have two unhappy memories of the Cromwell Road around this period - at the intersection where the tube station is located I attended a crammer and a physio-therapist for about a year and that, as they say, "ist eine andere Geschichte". The Lycee was further up towards Knightsbridge?

      Stuart Sleeman I remember vaguely. My best pal who is a lawyer [ did you read the article about the legal profession in this week's Spectator?] remembers him well and insists that in some rugby game Judge Sleeman grabbed me by the throat and shouted in my face " manners maketh man, you foreign bastard!" By the way the blog author has banned the word "coincidence" and we must be Jung -at-heart and talk about "synchronicity".

    5. SDG, I trust that you pointed out to His Honour that there is something self-defeating about his exhortation on the pitch.

      I'm worried about this synchronicity business. How many times have I transgressed? Only God and the NSA can know.

      (No.1 daughter is getting married in August. Am fitfully considering the father of the bride's speech. Spookily enough, Jung got a long mention in the first draft. Clearly striking wrong note, that's now in the bin.)

      Have just read Harry Mount article on lawyers. Love this bit:

      ... a bag-carrying junior barrister in the Leveson inquiry — Carine Patry Hoskins, who had a fling with Hugh Grant’s barrister, David Sherborne — was paid £218,606 of taxpayers’ money for 16 months’ routine work.

      (I was told, in connection with a government project which went expensively wrong, about the remarkably warm extra-marital relationships which developed between four persons – two couples, nothing funny – who were meant to be managing the project but, not being a lawyer or a journalist, I didn't feel I could publish the allegation.)

      Please tell me that your crammers wasn't Collingham Tutors.

    6. David Moss, my two life-projects are completing "Old Curiosity Shop" and Jung's "Psychological Types". The first one bores me and the second one is basically incomprehensible - I simply don't have the education or intellectual rigour to understand what the great man is on about. Some instinct tells me he is talking sense.

      No, not Collingham Tutors, but a small, sallow man with a bristly moustache called Mr. Hastings. He heated his establishment via paraffine which gave me head-aches and regularly slapped the face of some Persian thicko. The reason why the Brits have not found a proper way of heating their homes has always puzzled me?

    7. I couldn't finish the Old Curiosity Shop and have never felt the need to have another go, being on the Oscar Wilde side of the argument about Little Nell. (I couldn't finish Edwin Drood either but then neither could he.). Good luck with it, SDG.

    8. Thank you very much, ex-KCS. OCS has gone into the trash can so that is one less bloody thing I have to worry about. My thoughts have turned to Sir Walter Scott and his outpourings.

    9. Five days in front of the Synchronicity Tribunal. No fun. Decided to cop a caution. Otherwise it would be hanging round my neck for months. Have had to agree to read a copy of The Psychological Curiosity Shop while on holiday.

  2. The Gazette, Montreal, Tuesday, January 16, 1934 Vol. CLXIII No. 14:

    (Special to The Gazette)


    Mrs Bradshaw has returned to London and is at the Milton Court Hotel, South Kensington.


    The Associated Countrywomen of the World are giving a farewell party on January 9th to Mrs. F. P. Burden and Madame Ojanson, wife of the First Secretary of the Esthonian Legation.

    ... followed by a semi-interesting story about Rudy Vallee.

    Don't miss:

    Mrs. Fred Walker and her small son Harry are coming from Montreal this week and will be guests of Mrs. S. McMullan.

    Why is he so small?

    This is OK Magazine, 89 years ago. No wonder they called it the "Depression".

  3. Come to think of it, The Gazette isn't OK Magazine, is it, it's Facebook.

  4. Sorry not to be responding to comments. I'm not being a stuck-up sticky beak - I buggered my sciatic nerve last week removing some ivy from the back of the house and can't sit at my desk for more than a few minutes without having to go and lie down. Normal service will be resumed when the tablets my nice doctor has prescribed start working!