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.

Bob Dylan may play centenary concert for his hard-drinking near-namesake Welsh poet Dylan Thomas

So Bob Dylan is ‘thinking positively’ about playing a centenary gig in honour of his hard-drinking near namesake, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. And if you don’t believe me check out Hansard. For the matter has already been discussed in the House of Commons.

The young Bob Dylan
The young Bob Dylan

Talking about the concert, which will be part of a series of events being staged in Swansea next year to mark Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday, local MP Geraint Davies said:  “I have asked Bob Dylan whether he would be prepared to give a centenary concert in Swansea, in order that he could blend his music with Dylan Thomas’s poetry. Sony Music has come back and said that Mr. Dylan is thinking very positively about the idea.”

The honorable member for Swansea West added: “Bob Dylan named himself after Dylan Thomas.” This isn’t strictly true. It is well documented that the singer songwriter, whose real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, actually named himself after the fictional Dodge City lawman Marshal Matt Dillon,  hero the 1950s radio and TV cowboy drama  Gunsmoke. However it widely believed that he changed the spelling after reading Dylan Thomas’s work.

It’s easy to see why the young Bob would have been impressed by Dylan Thomas’s extraordinary sense of literary rhythm and extravagant use of language. The Welshman  was a larger than life character, writer of groundbreaking poems like Do not go gentle into that good night and radical plays like Under Milk Wood.

He was also a notorious boozer who died in New York after several reckless binge-drinking sessions during a poetry tour. He had lived fast and died young. In that respect he fitted neatly in with other tragic heroes of the era like Hank Williams and James Dean.

Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

The end came for Dylan Thomas after he returned to the famous Chelsea Hotel very much the worse for wear after a heavy session at the Manhattan drinking hole, The White Horse, proudly claiming “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!”

Unfortunately instead of just sleeping it off he became ill and within two days had been admitted to the emergency ward at St Vincent’s Hospital where he slipped into a coma.  He was diagnosed  as suffering from alcoholic brain damage and  died a few days later on 9 November 1953 – just two weeks after his 39th birthday.

It’s noticeable that Bob Dylan has done markedly better commercially than his Welsh namesake. Despite enjoying considerable fame in his lifetime Dylan Thomas was invariably broke or looking for a loan. He died leaving just £100.

Bob Dylan meanwhile has a multi-million dollar fortune bolstered no doubt by deals with Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret. Remarkable for a man who once wrote:

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

Today programme guest editor Zephaniah and the power of emphasising the positive

Image
Benjamin Zephaniah

It was good to hear Benjamin Zephaniah doing his bit as guest editor of this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

As a particularly articulate and accessible poet, he has been embraced by the British middle-class. For many that would have been sell-out point but Zephaniah hasn’t forgotten what it was like to grow up as a black person in an England torn apart by racial tensions.

I first met him nearly 30-years-ago. The riots of Handsworth, Brixton and Toxteth were still raw memories. The police were about to move on to beating the living daylights out of the miners. It was a deeply uncomfortable time if your race or political stance didn’t fit the bill as it were.

Benjamin Zephaniah saw through the crap, refused to be cowed and intimidated and exuded a sense of confidence, thoughtfulness, engagement and enthusiasm. He believed then that positive thoughts and actions can be more powerful than negativity and violence. He still believes it today.

Arguing with John Humphrys that there can be a place for good news in the media was always going to be a pointless exercise but Zephaniah danced around the subject with an impressive lack of ego. He knew he was sounding naive but sailed on regardless.

The point is that BZ is right. No one wants to be spoon-fed endless tales about fluffy kittens and lovely people. Well actually they probably do but they’d soon get fed up with it. However, finding the positive to counterbalance the negative in the news agenda might just give people a broader view of life, the world and help bolster their hopes and aspirations.