Friday, July 28, 2017

At the Club of Bad Books – Dylan Thomas & John Davenport’s The Death of the King’s Canary

Quite a few years ago I visited, with my friend and fellow Arthur Machen enthusiast Roger Dobson, the legendary bookseller Ben Bass at Greyne House, his home in the little Wiltshire town of Marshfield. Roger had worked as a journalist in nearby Bristol, and had got to know Ben, who then sold books on the city market. I had already begun to receive Ben’s characterful catalogues, full of fantasists and decadents, and which sometimes contained entirely fanciful titles. They were not always easy to spot, since so many of the genuine titles seemed equally implausible.

While we were in Marshfield, Roger conducted me along the road to look at a house a few doors down. He pointed to the upper storeys. “In that house,” he proclaimed, “Dylan Thomas and John Davenport wrote The Death of the King’s Canary.” I regarded the windows carefully, as if the faces of the poet and his friend might have left some spectral imprint. The place looked lofty, haughty, but also curiously empty, a hall of departed glory. The local reputation, I learned, was that Thomas and Davenport had been a somewhat lively party.

In ‘The Malting House Summer’ (The New Review, Vol. 3, No. 31, October 1976), Diana Davenport recalled the place: “The Malting House still retains an air of legend: a tall, Provencal-looking building, flat against the main street, its putty-coloured wash peeling, lower windows shuttered, door ever-open.” Within, there were rooms that the Dylan Thomas party had named The Pub Room and The Music Room, and a study where Thomas and Davenport worked each morning at their book. This they planned to be the first of a new venture, the Club of Bad Books (perhaps with a nod to Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades). A barn at the back of the garden was used, she recalled, by the parish priest to say Mass: on one wall of the courtyard was a mosaic of St Francis and his attendant birds and animals.

Later, I got the book out from the library, but I didn’t make much of it. I might have been expecting something vaguely Ruritanian, or at least a swashbuckling crime story. I couldn’t work out what all the mad cavalcade of characters were up to, or when things would begin to make sense. It was just one of a number of very peculiar books that I tried around that time, which I knew were clever and odd but didn’t quite understand. They included A Melon for Ecstasy (1971) by John Fortune and John Wells, about a lonely young man who falls in love with a laburnum, and The Terrors of Dr Treviles (1974) by Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle, a tumultous tale of Cornish sex-magic. It was only a long time later that I came to realise just what kind of book The Death of the King’s Canary was: a full tilt, full-bodied spoof of most of Thomas’ poet contemporaries, and a cod-Gothic extravaganza.

Thomas stayed with Davenport at The Malting House in the Summer of 1940, along with a spasmodic company of composers, musicians, artists and other writers. Here they spent some months in louche living. Thomas had just had a success with his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940), and reckoned publishers could be persuaded to have another one from him.

John Davenport was a larger-than-life critic and raconteur, a busy man of letters, a reviews editor, maker of reputations, literary go-between, who had contrived nevertheless not to have published a book himself. He had probably met Dylan Thomas as part of the dedicated drinking circle that came to be known as the Fitzrovians, after the Fitzroy, the Soho tavern that was one (but only one) of their favourite haunts.

He had earlier met and befriended Malcolm Lowry at Cambridge, and encouraged him in the writing of his first novel, Ultramarine (1933). Later, when Lowry had gone to live in Mexico and Canada, Davenport was the recipient of some of his long, literary and often (at least) half-sozzled letters.

Thomas had been working on The Death of the King’s Canary at intervals for a few years. It was to be a spoof crime story that broke all the rules, and had every bizarre improbability it was possible to cram in. There was already, it is true, a tradition of literary crime novels, in which obscure knowledge about a minor poem might provide the vital clue, or where characters bandied apposite quotations with each other: Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes were the leading writers in this field, now often referred to as the “donnish” detective story.

It would be putting it mildly to say that Thomas’s book wasn’t in that tradition. Instead, his book was to be a surreal romp, and a fast-flowing satire. It was also going to be so vigorous and bold that its popularity would be assured, and royalties would flow: the usually impecunious Thomas would soon be in funds. Privately, friends doubted if it would ever be finished, or even very far begun. It was usually composed in bars, with suggestions and passages thrown in by whoever was around.

But, unexpectedly, it did finally find some sort of shape in the Marshfield studio, with Thomas and Davenport writing alternate chapters, or possibly alternative sentences, or simply working together in some wayward, improvised duet of their own devising. They each appeared in the book, too, growing larger in it as it progressed, John Davenport as Tom Asgard, and Dylan Thomas as Owen Tudor.

The King’s Canary of the title is the Poet Laureate. A vacancy has occurred and the Prime Minister is, somewhat improbably, reading the work of the possible successors and weighing up whom to advise the King to appoint. This dilemma could indeed be quite a real one. When Alfred, Lord Tennyson had died in 1892, there were difficulties with the personal reputation or the politics of the most obvious choices, Algernon Swinburne and William Morris. But none of the other candidates, such as Sir Edwin Arnold and Sir Lewis Morris, had anything like the stature of the late lord.

The appointment was only reluctantly made four years later, when in 1896 it was given to Alfred Austin. This poet’s politics were sound, so far as the statesmen were concerned, and he was safe in character: but his verse was largely negligible, and the news was received with near-universal derision. The appointment, even for such an honorary position, therefore required judicious handling. Any premier, or more likely his advisers, faced with the task would want to do two things: be sure enough that the choice would not revive the opprobrium of the Austin appointment; and put in place someone still with plenty of years left in them so that they did not have to bother with the whole thing again for a long while.

The Prime Minister’s deliberations in The Death of the King’s Canary provide the opportunity for Thomas and Davenport to produce parodies, under lightly disguised names, of all the likely contenders of their time (and some unlikely ones). These are often highly pointed and precise. Amongst those whose work is held up to view are Auden, Eliot, Sassoon and Edith Sitwell. The spoof of Eliot in his most vatic mode is uncannily accurate:

Everything is the same. It only differs
in the subjective mind which is the same
being or not-being, born, unborn,
a wind among leaves deciduous or dead.
It does not matter where
it does not matter.
Windfall or wordfall or a linnet’s feather
in rank orchards where perpetual turns the worm.
It is not different …

The Prime Minister’s choice falls upon Hilary Byrd, a tolerably acceptable poet whose verse he almost understands, and whose father he happens to know. Despite his weary diligence, the choice is still greeted with almost as much derision as the Austin appointment. Nevertheless, most of the rivals for the title agree to attend a banquet held by the new laureate to celebrate.

It is at this point that the conventional set-up for a detective story is outlined: we are in a picturesque locale, somewhat aside from the outer world, and the place is teeming with potential suspects, each with a grudge. But it is not only poets who are paraded through the book. Aleister Crowley appears as the Great Raven, telling fortunes at a midsummer fair, which also features a circle of dwarfs, a bearded lady, hermaphrodites, and a thinly disguised Augustus John.

“We shall soon make money and enemies,” Thomas had hopefully proclaimed to Davenport. Alas, the book was found to be too full of potential libels to be published, and it did not appear for well over thirty years. It was not until 1976 that it was thought (though even then with some misgivings) to be safe enough to publish. Although the tale is not on the whole well-regarded by crime fiction aficionados, it has a certain élan and undoubtedly succeeds in its aim of spoofing both this form and the modern poetry circles in which Dylan Thomas so uproariously moved.

Mark Valentine


  1. Lovely appreciation, Mark. As it happened, I once owned a copy of The Death of the King's Canary, lost it, and just recently found another in a nice jacket. That said, I am now more intrigued by those two other books you read at the same time, A Melon for Ecstasy, and The Terror of Dr. Treviles.--md

  2. This is great! A very entertaining and knowledgeable read.

  3. Hopefully, the Treviles effort has a Crowleyesque character as Redgrove thought he was the Beast's son? Say it's so, Mark!