Like Steam Escaping

P.N. Furbank

  • Denton Welch: Writer and Artist by James Methuen-Campbell
    Tartarus, 268 pp, £30.00, March 2002, ISBN 1 872621 60 0

In 1936 Denton Welch, who was then an art student at Goldsmiths College and had no thoughts of becoming a writer, suffered an appalling accident. He was bicycling from Greenwich down the main Brighton road, on a Whitsun holiday, when a car ran into him, fracturing his spine and leaving him a permanent invalid, till his death in 1948 at the age of 32.

It is of course a tragic tale, but also an inspiring and encouraging one. You might say that the hero of the story is writing. That puts the point clumsily, but if you are to write a biography of Welch, it is what it will have be about.

Before catastrophe overtook him, he was, after all, not a very impressive character. One can loosely describe him as a ‘narcissist’, a very wide label but one that he would have used himself. He was an incorrigible poker into other people’s cupboards and belongings, had a passion for antiques and a mild tendency to theft. His mother, of whom he was passionately fond, died when he was 11, and this loss no doubt reinforced his fetishistic feeling for objets d’art. We read in his In Youth Is Pleasure (1944) of how, to quiet his terror at going to a new school, he rubs a Chinese agate chicken, given to him by his mother, and then pops it into his mouth and sucks it like a sweet. It was no doubt the loss of his mother which prompted him, in bewilderment more than for any more definite reason, to run away from his public school (Repton) and then to agree, without much resistance, to return. His life as an art student was lonely and aimless, and though he had charm and a malicious wit, there would come times when any friend of his would be rebuffed, for interfering with his solitude.

He had, at all events, a certain inner toughness, so that the horror of his awakening in hospital, in agonising pain, with his legs paralysed and his battered face almost unrecognisable, did not completely overwhelm him. He was still observant and curious: he studied the effect of his grotesque appearance on his visitors’ faces. His long stay in hospitals and nursing homes, lasting more than a year, would, however, be an endless, directionless saga of mood changes: he would be overcome with tides of irritation, disgust and childish resentments (though not of self-pity). He would seethe against nurses, matrons and doctors, resenting their friendly overtures or exhortations to be stoical. Whole days would pass for him, too, in deliberately organised daydreams, in which he would minutely explore an imaginary 18th-century house. When at last he finds a doctor he can be friendly with, he falls madly and unmanageably in love with him. He feels his own absurdity and finds it impossible to think of the future; though just occasionally he has an inkling of unused power. At last, by a strong instinct of self-preservation, he decides to escape from medical care, and his erstwhile landlady, from his Greenwich days, comes to share a flat with him and to help look after him.

All this is described in great detail in his last major piece of writing, the poignant novel A Voice through a Cloud (1950). His first year or so of independence was, in fact, a time of extreme unhappiness for him, though much of what happened remains obscure. But what is plain is that, at this time, he discovered the potentialities of writing and surprised himself by the seriousness and ambition with which he approached it.

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