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.

McKellen celebrates birthday on 80 stages

Ian McKellen on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others & You – Lighthouse, Poole (Tuesday 2nd July 2019)

This was a joyful evening – a masterclass from one of our finest actors on how to hold an audience absolutely spellbound. When Sir Ian McKellen announced last year that he was going to celebrate his 80th birthday (it happened on 25th May by the way ) and would be raising funds for theatres, with a new solo show touring 80 stages across the UK, no one really knew what to expect.

He hinted it would be a mixture of anecdote and acting including, as the title suggests, some Tolkien, Shakespeare and perhaps a bit of interaction with the audience. All I can say is that this show is all of that and more, much more. It’s a tour de force that celebrates McKellen’s long and illustrious career with enormous energy, passion and above all humour.

It doesn’t take long before you realise that, despite his much garlanded career as an actor, he could just as easily have been a cutting edge stand-up. From the opening Gandalf speech from Lord of the Rings to the final lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, we see McKellen reviewing a  very serious career but one that he has always regarded with a twinkle in his eye.

Armed with just a box of props, he delivers wonderful anecdotes describing his northern childhood in Wigan and Bolton, his early love of the theatre, his gay awakening watching the Welsh actor/composer Ivor Novello and his later ‘coming out’ at the age of 48.  

There are stories too about his activism, his scholarship to Cambridge and his subsequent career in the theatre from weekly rep to the classical stage. There are the big names he’s met along the way, his knighthood and how he nearly decided that rather than be an actor he wanted to go into hotel management. Fortunately, unlike Cambridge University, the Blackpool Catering College turned him down.

Alongside his readings from Shakespeare and the classics, McKellen also displays his tremendous range as an actor and raconteur, camping it up outrageously for instance as he pays tribute to panto while showing  the audience his ‘Twankey’. 

Proceeds from the show will go towards Bright Sparks, a programme that enables and inspires talented people in Dorset to develop professionally across the arts sector.

Footnote: This wasn’t the first time that Ian McKellen had been on the Lighthouse stage. He first appeared there 40 years ago in a performance of Twelfth Night. That was a show he is unlikely to forget. As he attempted to access the stage via the auditorium (a direction written into the play) he found his way barred by an over-zealous usherette who told him he couldn’t come in without a ticket. A dumbfounded McKellen gestured to the fact that he was wearing full doublet and hose and pleaded: “Do I look like a member of the audience?” The penny finally dropped and the usherette let him pass.

Jeremy Miles

Berkoff’s photographs capture the dying days of London’s old East End

Image
Steven Berkoff: Photo by Hattie Miles

Director, actor and playwright Steven Berkoff knows a thing or two about the East End. He was born there 75 long years ago, a mere barrow boy’s shout from the chic Thames-side studio that is now his artistic base.

Yes the East End has changed and so too has Berkoff who fought his way from unpromising beginnings as the son of a Russian Jewish tailor  to produce a radical body of theatrical work that has brought him both widespread acclaim and a certain degree of notoriety.

These days he’s recognised as a creative giant of the theatre, equally at home producing hard-hitting avant garde drama, adapting Shakespeare, Kafka and Sophocles or writing his own critically acclaimed original plays. He also has a parallel career as a Hollywood movie actor of course having appeared in a curious mixture of movies that include  A Clockwork Orange, Octopussy, Rambo, Beverly Hills Cop and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

It’s all a long, long way from  the now lost world that Berkoff grew up in. Happily when he was just 11-years-old  and kicking around the streets of Stepney someone gave him a camera. It sparked a lifelong interest in photography and a few years later when he acquired an enlarger and learnt how to print his own pictures, he was ready to go.

Armed with a second-hand Rolleiflex, Berkoff started photographing the people and places of the old East End – the markets, the street sellers, the potpourri of cultures brought to the area by immigrants.

By the 60s and 70s it became all too apparent that the bagel-sellers, chicken-slaughterers and other colourful characters that were the life and soul of East End London were slowly but surely disappearing. Berkoff’s photographs captured the last gasp of an era.  “I felt I had to record it before it vanished forever,” he says.

Happily the pictures – now so historically important – have survived and have just been publishing in the book  East End Photographs. There is also an exhibition of his prints which is currently showing at Lucy Bell Fine Art in East Sussex.

You can see ‘Steven Berkoff – East End Photographs’ at Lucy Bell Fine Art, St Leonards-on-Sea, until 21 Feb 2013. For book sales: www.lucy-bell.com