Feeling My Age

Getting older has its drawbacks – but it's a lot better than the alternative.

Lear showing a doubting stranger his name in his hat to prove that Edward Lear was a man and not merely a name. Drawn by Himself.How pleasant to know Mr.Lear!
Who has written such volumes of stuff!
Some think him ill-tempered and queer,
But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,
His nose is remarkably big;
His visage is more or less hideous,
His beard it resembles a wig.

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers,
Leastways if you reckon two thumbs;
Long ago he was one of the singers,
But now he is one of the dumbs.

He sits in a beautiful parlour,
With hundreds of books on the wall;
He drinks a great deal of Marsala,
But never gets tipsy at all.

He has many friends, lay men and clerical,
Old Foss is the name of his cat;
His body is perfectly spherical,
He weareth a runcible hat.

When he walks in waterproof white,
The children run after him so!
Calling out, ‘He’s gone out in his night-
Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!’

He weeps by the side of the ocean,
He weeps on the top of the hill;
He purchases pancakes and lotion,
And chocolate shrimps from the mill.

He reads, but he cannot speak, Spanish,
He cannot abide ginger beer:
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish,
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!

Edward Lear aged seventy three and a half and his cat Foss aged 16

From The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, edited by Holbrook Jackson.
I still have the 1948 edition of this anthology, inherited from Hartford Grandma. Born in the 19th Century, her life had briefly overlapped with his and she adored his wild cartoons and the anarchic humour of his verses. My whole family grew up thinking of him as – above all – the man who wrote The Owl And The Pussycat.

But then in 1973 I saw a superb one-man theatre show which took How Pleasant To Know Mr Lear as its title: a tour de force by the actor Charles Lewsen which left me with a radically different picture of this well-loved children’s author. With narrative, readings and projections of drawings and photographs he brought Lear’s personal life and private unhappiness vividly alive on stage.

The biggest surprise was that the funny, selfdeprecating Edward Lear had – a century before me – also fallen hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with another man. In his case it had been with a youth called Frank Lushington, for whom he developed an unfulfilled longing he would harbour for the rest of his life.

Searching Google this morning it was hard to find anything about Charles Lewsen or his brilliant show, beyond the fact that it was premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1968, transferred to London the same year, and revived for a one-off performance at the Redgrave Theatre in Bristol 16th July 2000 in aid of the Friends of the Bristol Oncology Centre.

Vivien Noakes as portrayed by her husband, the painter Michael Noakes, in 1995. Photograph: AC Cooper Colour Ltd

And then – bingo – I found a piece by Mr Lewsen himself: a warm and appreciative obituary for Vivien Noakes. She had been his colleague and collaborator on three books and had written the definitive biography Edward Lear: The Life Of A Wanderer. From the book, here’s her take the Lushington affair – and a sadder, darker way to read this funny, rueful poem.

“If Lushington had loved and encouraged him, theirs might have turned into a full homosexual relationship. As it was, Lear probably only partly realised him homosexuality, though in the deeper layers of his mind there was conflict as he fought to suppress it, a conflict that contributed to his constant state of restlesness and depression. His search was not for physical love but for someone who would want him in the way that his parents had not.”

“Through his sensibility and charm he was sought after as a friend, and he loved to be with children because they liked him and showed it. But what he was searching for, and never found, was real spiritual involvement with another person. Beyond even this was the terrible unhappiness of forty years: the constant epileptic attacks that came as often as twnty times a month – and the bewlildering memories of childhood.”

“Today we would say that Lear was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. What he knew was that he was so unhappy he could do nothing. For hours he walked up and down his room with tears streaming down his face. If he tried to sleep, he just lay looking up at the ceiling. Nobody called, nothing happened, and day after day it rained.”

Edward Lear by Holman Hunt, 1857

There’s a decent thumbnail biography of Edward Lear at fathom.com, a comprehensive archive of his work at the old Edward Lear Home Page and the widest overview of his life and influence is at Marco Graziosi’s Blog Of Bosh.

 

One Comment

  1. Tabbies: Daft Or What? | Feeling My Age on November 26, 2011 3:40 pm

    […] Edward Lear had an elderly tomcat – tabby of course – whom he immortalised in seven sketches entitled¬† The Heraldic Blazon Of Foss The Cat. […]

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