Remembering Cumberland Clark doyen of doggerel who went from bard to verse

Cumberland Clark: erudite scholar and the doyen of doggerel

I wonder how many people remember Cumberland Clark – writer, critic, Shakespearian scholar and, inexplicably, one of the worst poets to ever wreak havoc on the English language?

Almost exactly 80 years ago the extraordinary literary crimes that he so gleefully committed were finally brought to an end when a wartime enemy  air raid scored a direct hit on his Bournemouth flat. Both Clark and his loyal housekeeper Miss Kathleen Donnelly were killed.

Though London born and well-travelled, Bournemouth was Cumberland Clark’s adopted home. He loved the town and in the final decades of his life he eulogised it endlessly, churning out ghastly doggerel that made a mockery of his classical education and previous serious literary endeavours.

The Bournemouth Songbook, which he first privately published in 1929, contained more than 150 ‘songs’ in verse so plodding that you have to marvel at his endless determination to find a rhyme, however awful it might be.

How about such dubious gems as:-

For many years I’ve held a brief

For Bournemouth’s Golden Sands

Indeed A1 in my belief

Are Bournemouth’s Golden Sands

You lie on your back from ten till one,

And get well baked by the genial sun;

And then turn over when you’re done

On Bournemouth’s Golden Sands.

or

The bathing at Bournemouth is good

Which appeals to the holiday creature

Among seaside joys this has stood

As by far the most popular features

There’s nothing the sport to supplant

It’s joy for each person who swims

And gives to those people who can’t 

A chance to exhibit their limbs

or

When in Bournemouth if you’ve got

A notion that you would like a yacht

And your cash is quite a lot

Go and buy one on the spot

Folks will point and say ‘Big Pot’

Simply tons of money, what?

A millionaire he is. Great Scot!

And all that kind of tommy rot

Why he penned these outrageously constructed ‘songs’ which also often extolled the virtues of neighbouring towns and villages, remains a mystery.

Cumberland Clark was essentially an erudite and well read man who for reasons best known to himself delighted in reinventing himself as Bournemouth’s very own answer to William McGonagall. Maybe he was just having fun. Whatever the reason, he was a splendid eccentric, immaculately dressed and, I am told, prone to standing on street corners and striking impressive poses.

Self-aware and opinionated he was particularly fond of encouraging the attention of young women. He would acknowledge them with a cheeky wink and a twirl of his snow-white moustache. 

His intentions seem to have been quite innocent and it is said that waitresses would fight to serve at his table because by lavishing a little extra attention on him they would be guaranteed a generous tip.

Poor Cumberland Clark he was eternally optimistic and at the outbreak of World War II, by then in his late 70s, he produced a patriotic and morale-boosting collection called War Songs of the Allies. It included the following verse:

Let the bombs bounce round about us

And the shells go whizzing by

Down in our air raid shelter

We’ll be cosy, you and I

Sadly when the bombs and shells did fall on Cumberland Clark’s flat in St Stephens Road in Central Bournemouth in April 1941, he was not protected by the safety of an air-raid shelter but fast asleep in bed.

At least there is striking memorial to his memory. He made sure of that. Not only did he design an impressively over-the-top monument complete with guardian angle but he had it in place in the Bournemouth East Cemetery a full six years before his death. “So that there will be no bother or anxiety to fall back on relatives or friends”  he told the local press.

He had it inscribed too with the words ‘Sacred to the memory of Cumberland Clark, poet, historian, dramatist … The longer I live the more do I turn to Christianity as the one hope of salvation, the one faith for the soul of man, the one comfort in distress, and the one and only power that can save the world.’ 

Nothing if not thorough, Cumberland Clark left £500 to the NSPCC on the condition that they maintained his grave. He also told the minister at his local church that he didn’t care if everything else he had written was lost but he wanted his self-penned epitaph to remain.

So far it does and seems well kept even though the words are becoming a little worn by age and gradually harder to decipher.

How long will his legacy endure? There used to be a Cumberland Clark Memorial Society that held an annual dinner in his honour but that seems to have petered out around a decade ago. Unless of course you know better.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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