Sarah Salway is the author of three novels. The latest, Getting the Picture, is about love in a care home. She has also written two collections of short stories, and is currently the RLF Fellow at the London School of Economics. She blogs about writing at Sarah's Writing Journal. In this post Sarah discusses Denton Welch's Maiden Voyage.
Sarah Salway on Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch
There's an English bookshop in Amsterdam that seems to stock only writers you want to fall in love with. Recently I discovered the poet Anne Carson there; the time before it was John Buchan. But you never forget your first time.
I had never heard of Denton Welch when I picked his book out from the shelves, but I can't remember reading anyone before whose writing felt so direct. Or who was as skilful at creating such vivid and human atmospheres just through the careful record of objects and details. Here's his description of wandering through the bedrooms in his elderly cousin's house:
Wills's was small. I expected to see hair-tidy, but there was nothing: only a doggy calendar and a few pins. My cousin's room was dark and quiet. The white furniture gleamed from dark corners, and the pink eiderdown seemed like a soft patch of rouge on someone's white cheek. In Stanley's room I found a lot of medicines on the marble washstand. I read the labels and tasted some of them.
Can't you just picture these people through their possessions? But it's the last bit that always gets me ('I read the labels and tasted some of them'), because Welch captures each moment so completely that it really does feel as if he - and we his readers - are tasting it. Maiden Voyage is the story – a fictionalized autobiography – of how he ran away from Repton School in 1931 and travelled out to join his distant father and older brother in his birth country of China.
Snapshots of the characters he gives us include the man who is so greedy that his ashamed wife has to hide the chocolates in a music-stool; the antique collector whose eye-glass dangles from his waistcoat to look like 'one of those little windows that vivisectionists let into the stomach of animals'; a 'powerfully built' girl called Belle who claims Denton lacks 'initiative' when dancing and whose turquoise chiffon dress makes her look 'like a prefect dressed up for the end of term play. She was beefy.' My favourite, though, is the middle-aged woman dressed all in green: 'On the table in front of her stood a glass of crème de menthe and she held a green cigarette between her lips.' Denton writes that the last time anyone saw her she was wearing red velvet and sipping cherry brandy.
Small things that would pass most of us by become matters of high importance when he directs his extreme awareness and self-consciousness on to them. Not least the many portraits of beautiful men: 'I saw the hairs on his arm gleam bright gold as the sun caught them'. In fact, sex, and in particular adolescent homosexual desire, simmers under the surface of nearly every page of this book. When he makes an excursion into Port Said from the cruise ship he is travelling to China on, the author builds himself up into a frenzy of speculation:
While walking in the town I had expected to be stopped and asked to buy obscene pictures. I had imagined touts plucking my sleeve and suggesting that I go to see some extraordinary spectacle. I had even feared that there would be whores standing in doorways with red lights above their heads, beckoning to me.
He is disappointed to find, instead, 'Egyptian designs on cloth to hang behind the washstand in a boarding-house, and little telescopic pencils, shaped like an obelisk and enamelled with hieroglyphics'. Still, he is so fastidious that he has to wash his hair in disinfectant when he gets back to the boat.
Snobby and precious, yes, and it is perhaps no great surprise that the frontispiece to Maiden Voyage is the illustrated dedication, 'For Miss Edith Sitwell'; but there's a freshness to his honesty. In one scene, he writes about how he is so unsporty that when a stranger takes him to a gym to learn to box, he prepares for his next lesson by spending the next day in his father's library looking for books on boxing. However, he gets sidetracked by a book of flower-paintings, then drops The Ballad of Reading Gaol after the first page, and finds instead an old cookery book with recipes for perfume. Boxing forgotten, he happily takes a 'little covered basket' off to the park to look for rose petals to make up one of the recipes.
In his journals, Denton Welch reports a conversation with Edward Sackville-West who tells him he will probably come to hate Maiden Voyage in time. 'But that won't make it bad,' says Sackville-West, 'you'll just be like most of us when we grow older – less willing to give yourself away on a plate.'
Edith Sitwell says, less charmingly, that Denton's danger as a writer lies in his metaphorical 'ingrowing toe-nail. Everything is in, in, in.' She goes on to decree that although it is perfect for this book, he's not to do it again. But it is exactly this narrow focus, and honesty, that has drawn public admiration from writers as diverse as William Burroughs and Alan Bennett.
Denton Welch's adult life, until he died in 1948 at the age of 33, was marked by pain and an ongoing severe illness, caused by a bicycle accident when he was an art student in London. These limitations put on him by his illness intensified the closeness of his observation so that he can take several pages to describe one plate, and this is exactly what I find so wonderful in his writing. I could read a description like this again and again and still get a sensuous pleasure from it.
My only chair was found, one weekend, in a country shop. It had little out-sweeping feet and a Greek spoon back, and so I suppose would be called Regency. The back was painted in white and terracotta, with the classic honeysuckle pattern surrounding a Gothic cusp and trefoil. The mixture of styles made it strange, and to me, very attractive. I found too, when I sat in it, that the curved back fitted round my own like a shell.
I have lost count of the number of copies of Maiden Voyage and Denton's other books that I've bought and pressed on friends, and on people I hope will become my friends. But more than that, the magic Denton Welch created from the smallest thing encouraged me to write about what I was seeing and living. I wanted to write my own version of the world too.
As a postscript: about 20 years ago, in the red heat of my addiction, my husband (then boyfriend) and I would travel out of London for idyllic cycle rides around Kent, following the routes set out in Denton Welch's diaries. We would even take exact replicas of the picnics he often wrote about ('We both had rolls, one with tongue in it, and one with ham, a hard-boiled egg, sweet biscuits, and a bar of delicious bitter chocolate; tangerine oranges were our dessert'). So when, 10 years later and living in Edinburgh, we wanted to move back to the South we thought of Kent first, only to find when we got here that we were living next door to the widower of Joan, Denton Welch's fellow Goldsmiths Art College student and best friend, and whom he wrote so much about in his journals.
What a gift. Just like finding his book in Amsterdam in the first place.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]