A pretty seaside town 40 miles west of Glasgow, Helensburgh is an unlikely literary destination. Over 200 years ago Laird Colquhoun designed it and dedicated it to his wife Helen. Its planned origins can be seen in the grid arrangement of streets, neat as New York. From its shores Bute and the Irish Sea are visible, as is, ‘the wicked city’ of Greenock, as the poet WH Auden described it.
Cecil Day Lewis called Helensburgh ‘Wimbledon of the North’ and lived here for just over a year in 1929. He was a teacher at Larchfield School, at the time a cash starved prep school for boys, whose teachers were a motley collection not conscripted in World War I and whose pupils would go on to fight in World War II. Day Lewis did not enjoy the school, though he crafted a school song, and when he moved on he recommended his young friend WH Auden, newly out of Oxford and with a dwindling trust fund, for his job.
Helensburgh and Auden may seem an unlikely pairing, but Auden ran with the opportunity in a way that Day Lewis had not. Just twenty-four at the time of his arrival at Easter, 1930, he had already caused a sensation in Oxford (despite his poor degree) and his first book of poems was about to be published by TS Eliot at Faber and Faber. He had also never taught before.
Though stifled in the wealthy, churchy and conservative atmosphere of Helensburgh at that time, he nevertheless had his first serious love affair, developed some unusual teaching methods, and wrote The Orators, a fizzing book length document that is recognised as his first work of genius. Helensburgh was home to Auden for three and a half years, and they were formative for him as an artist, and as a young man looking for ways to be true to himself, at a time where his true self was criminal.
Auden was remembered by the boys as a kindly eccentric with an incomprehensible accent. He endeared himself to them by teaching them how to stick stamps to the ceiling using pennies, and with practical jokes, including an obscene one involving a steak. He also wrote poems and plays with the boys for the school magazine The Larchfieldian, but the (now priceless) copies containing his work have never been found.
The school still remains as a building, though it has been converted into flats. The Helensburgh that Auden found so inspiring is in many ways unchanged and can be experienced in the hyper-real descriptions of The Orators. In the 1966 Preface to The Orators, Auden wrote wryly of his younger self: ‘The name on the title page seems like a pseudonym for someone else, someone talented but on the border of sanity, who might in a year or two become a Nazi.’ The Orators is an attempt to reconcile the warring sides of himself, like the conflicted state of Britain itself between the wars, and I believe Helensburgh’s uniquely stunning setting, combined with its social constraint, and for Auden, isolation from his mileu, made The Orators the crazily truthful document it is, one that has new resonance for our own time.
Polly Clark was born in Toronto and lives in Helensburgh on Scotland’s west coast, close to where W.H. Auden wrote The Orators. She is Literature Programme Producer for Cove Park, Scotland’s International Artist Residency Centre, and the author of three poetry collections. She won the MsLexia Prize for Larchfield, the Eric Gregory Award, and has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Larchfield is published by Quercus under their riverrun imprint . A volume of New and Selected Poems, Afterlife, is due in 2018.
Larchfield by Polly Clark is available now.
Auden: the new age of anxiety, a documentary by Adam Low, is screened on BBC2 9pm, 30th September.
For more information about Polly Clark, visit www.pollyclark.co.uk. She can also be found on Twitter @mspollyclark.