Gonne Girl

I last posted from Bedford Park on 17/2/18, and I’m back for the Bedford Park Festival (launched in 1967). “Chiswick’s favourite fortnight” began this year with the Summer Exhibition preview party yesterday, and runs until 23rd June. Each year its first weekend sees the Green Days Fete & Craft Fair, on the Green opposite St Michael & All Angels Church and Turnham Green tube station.

Andy Nyman, actor, writer and director, opens the proceedings. He is currently appearing as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Playhouse Theatre. In an interview with Sarah Crompton in March, he described his musical performance as “about finding the emotion that means it has to be sung instead of spoken.”. In his spare time, Nyman creates magic shows with Derren Brown.

Bryan Appleyard’s 2013 novel, “Bedford Park”, is set in the years before the First World War and takes as a decisive moment 30th January, 1889. Bedford Park, which Appleyard terms an “enchanted suburb”, was a haven for intellectuals and artists, and W B Yeats spent two periods of his life with his family there. (The Festival’s W.B. Yeats Walk on Sunday, 16th June has sold out.)

From a hansom cab that drew up at the door of 3, Blenheim Road, the Yeats family home, stepped Maud Gonne, the English born Irish revolutionary often described as the most beautiful woman in the world. The poet Yeats said it was at that moment “the troubling of my life began”, and he preserved a memory of her standing luminous as “apple blossom through which the light falls…by a great heap of such blossoms by the window”.

At one point, Yeats and Gonne would conduct a spiritual marriage through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practised ritual magic, to channel his frustrations at the lack of a physical one.

Adrian Frazier, Member of the Royal Irish Academy, revisited their relationship in his 2016 biography of Gonne, “The Adulterous Muse”, and clarifies the book’s title:

“…the sense of the title is that in the courtly love tradition of poetry in which Yeats enrolled himself, and in which Maud Gonne consciously and proudly played a creative part, a love poet requires a muse, and the muse always belongs to someone else other than the poet. The muse was, in that tradition, another man’s wife.”.

Judy Campbell, the actor and playwright who was married to Lieutenant Commander David Birkin, was widely known to be Noel Coward’s muse. The dawning of her West End career was described in the various obituaries published following her death on 6th June, 2004.

In 1940, as an unknown actress from the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, she was playing in a revue, New Faces, at the Comedy Theatre. But when the script of a Dorothy Parker monologue she was intending to perform was mislaid, she was given a song by Eric Maschwitz to sing. Although she had never sung in public before, it became, in her rendering (“parlando”, “almost sprechgesang”), a hit. She “croaked her way through A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square – then threw (her mother’s) boa in the air and walked off, leaving the feathers to float to the ground.”.

Coward told her: “It takes talent to put over a song when you haven’t got a voice.”.

They dined at the Savoy on a Saturday night in April 1941. Coward noted in his diary: “Pretty bad blitz, but not as bad as Wednesday. A couple of bombs fell very near during dinner. Wall bulged a bit and door blew in. Orchestra went on playing, no one stopped eating or talking. Blitz continued.”.

“That certain night

The night we met

There was magic abroad in the air

There were angels dining at the Ritz

And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.”.

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