Written by Julie Balloo


Verse and adversity

Julie Balloo has always dreamed of having her residence anointed with a Blue Plaque. While her hopes are fast diminishing, her fascination for the recipients remains. This week, to celebrate National Poetry Day, she looks at remarkable poet Stevie Smith whose plaque adorns 1 Avondale Road, Palmers Green, North London.

Ever since I first read Stevie Smith’s most celebrated poem, Not Waving But Drowning, at the age of 15, I was hooked.

For the first time, I’d found a poet who spoke to me; a miserable hormonal teenager who saw darkness wherever there was light. I grew up in Australia, where at school swimming shared equal status with maths. If, like me, you were poor swimmer, you were unpopular and would never waved to anyone while in the water, unless you were actually drowning.

Whenever I read a Stevie Smith poem, I always feel something. Her verse reaches me in a way no other poet has and I am usually in tears by the last word, even the funny ones. It’s as if the author has peered into my deepest fears and assured me they are inescapable, yet entirely part of the human condition.

Stevie Smith was born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull on September 20, 1902. She gained her pen name when she was riding a horse and a friend said she reminded him of the jockey Steve Donaghue. Presumably, she liked the compliment, as she kept the nickname all her life.

After her father walked out on the family, she moved to London with her mother and sister to the house in Palmers Green. When her mother became ill, her Aunt Madge moved down to raise the girls and the house in Avondale Road was to be her home for the rest of her life. As someone who has moved home 55 times in the last 37 years I can only dream of such residential devotion, but the female occupants regarded their home as a fort, as Smith’s poem A House of Mercy proves. (“It was a house of female habitation/Two ladies fair inhabited the house/And they were brave. For although Fear knocked loud/Upon the door, and said he must come in/They did not let him in.”)

At the age of five, Smith contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in Broadstairs where she stayed on and off for several years. Her fascination with death began around that period and she came to think of it as a way out if things became too much, like a bath plug you could yank out if there was a danger of overflowing water. This proposed control over her own life brought her a sense of calm and allowed her to survive the dark days.

Although she finished her education at the esteemed North London Collegiate, Smith did not attend university, as her teachers didn’t think it suitable for her. Perhaps, even then they could see she was a raw instinctive talent rather than academic.

Her mother died when Stevie was 16, leaving the unliterary Aunt Madge in charge of the home. The poet would later say her relationship with her down-to-earth ‘Lion Aunt’ was the most important in her life.

Though she had dreamed of becoming an explorer, Smith ended up in a more mundane profession. From 1923 to 1953, she was Private Secretary to Sir Neville Pearson, chairman of Newnes Publishing Company and one-time husband of actress Gladys Cooper. The position afforded her the opportunity to write and in 1936 she produced her first novel – Novel on Yellow Paper – so called as it had been typed on her employers’ coloured paper. It was a stream of consciousness and much admired. Some, however, thought it anti-Semitic, because of a scene at a Jewish party where the main character feels elated at being the ‘only Goy’ present. Later in the book, the character visits Germany and observes the horrors unfolding at the hands of the Nazis, which was maybe too ironic for some.

In 1938, her first book of poems A Good Time Was Had By All was published. A second novel Over the Frontier and poetry book, Tender Only to One, appeared the following year. In her last novel The Holiday, which like its predecessors is a fictionalised account of her life, two characters were based on her close friend George Orwell. There were unsubstantiated rumours that she and the married Orwell were lovers, as well as suggestions Smith may have had lesbian relationships. What is known, is that she never married, felt uncomfortable with intimate relationships and lived her whole life with her aunt at 1 Avondale Road.

The Second World War saw Smith committing to active Fire Watching duties during the Blitz, an experience that inspired many poems, including I Remember (“It was wartime, and overhead/The Germans were making a particularly heavy raid on Hampstead.”)

The writer found it difficult getting published in the ‘50s and, in 1953, she suffered a serious bout of depression, which cumulated in her slitting her wrists. Even after this dramatic display, Smith maintained she was angry rather than depressed, though she was devastated to have upset her beloved aunt.

The 1957 collection Not Waving But Drowning was a critical success and by the ‘60s Smith was popular again, often appearing with younger poets at readings, something she found exhilarating. She recorded poems for the BBC and made a record of her works, though she was never considered a literary force by her contempories and her poems were often described as facile and whimsical. But for all her detractors she had many fans, her work was brutally honest, her style original and humorous, with heart (“Nobody heard him, the dead man/ But still he lay moaning:/I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.”)

Stevie cared for Lion Aunt until her death in 1968 at the age of 96. Two years later, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and went to stay with her estranged sister in Devon where, in 1971, she died. She was cremated in Torquay Crematorium. Her last collection, Scorpion and Other Poems was published posthumously in 1972 and a complete collection in 1975.

In 1977, playwright Hugh Whitemore wrote Stevie based on Smith’s life. It was filmed the following year staring Glenda Jackson in the title role.

Images and poems reproduced with kind permission from the Estate of James MacGibbon

Recommended Reading

Stevie Smith, Selected Poems (Penguin Modern Classics )

Some Are More Human Than Others: A Sketchbook by James MacGibbon (Foreword, Collaborator), Stevie Smith (Author)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/poetry/outloud/smith.shtml Listen to a reading recorded at the Edinburgh Festival in 1965.

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Written by Julie Balloo

I am a former standup and now write stories and stage/radio scripts. My long- time collaborator is Jenny Eclair.