How to read Powys #1

I’ve not tried, but I’m guessing nothing by John Cowper Powys would work well as beach holiday reading. Returning home after a walk by a winter sea and anything most probably would.

I need to be in the right state of mind to fall into the Powys flow. It reminds me of lines from an old Chinese poem on ‘Proper moments for drinking tea’:

When one’s heart and hands are idle.

Before a bright window and a clean desk. 

On a day of light showers.

Shut up at one’s home on a holiday.

In a forest with tall bamboos.

When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.

Having lighted incense in a small studio.

In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.

After a feast is over and the guests are gone.

And from the same poem, ‘Things and places to be kept away from’ (when drinking tea):

Damp rooms.


Hotheaded persons.

Quarrelling servants.

Lessons from writing Powysland #1, #2

John Cowper Powys fans pop up in all kinds of places. The head of non-fiction at Bloomsbury turns out be a fan. As does Adam Curtis, maker of cult documentary films for the BBC such as the brilliant Century of the Self. Most of all though – as I discovered from exchanges with potential agents and publishers – he’s mostly unheard of, even among the most dedicated of bookworms: “I feel like I really should know him, but I don’t”. Some would mention people they knew were into Powys, mostly with a note of curiosity, as if it was a love of Chinese algebra or competitive dog grooming.

I also learnt how tetchy I am. I thought I’d take rejection from big publishers quite well. The Powys name was never a money-maker or likely to appeal to a large mainstream audience. And anyway it’s all for the best that he isn’t exposed to that kind of bald attention. So I thought I’d be philosophical when Powysland was turned down. Instead I was scratchy and vengeful. “There’s not going to be a large enough audience, the sums don’t add up”, they said. “Too enthusiastic” as well as “Not enthusiastic enough”. They needed to stick to books that better suited them, I whinged to myself – Funny Things That Cats Do, or biographies of the latest You Tube sensation.

It was a passing moment; they’re businesses; they know what they’re doing. But I’m very grateful for publishers like Sundial who know there’s an audience for John Cowper Powys, maybe only a small one in terms of those who know him, but also so many other readers who will find him a revelation.

Powys and the black masseur

Charles Sprawson’s history of swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur (1992), is steeped in old-world romance. There’s no smell of chlorine or Deep Heat about it, no banging of sports hall doors, no Thorpedo. Instead the waters he describes, in pools, lakes or emerging as springs from far-off hills, are full of a seductive character and personality: velvet smooth, musky amber, black and fatal, a crystal window to pillared ruins.

In his introduction, Sprawson talks about realising how swimming “appealed to the introverted and eccentric, individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” Naturally then, Haunts is dominated by the relationships between writers and water, and eventually arrives at John Cowper Powys.  

Powys was born to be a swimmer. After the fall of the Roman Empire, swimming took on the decadent look of something unhealthy and dangerous (as well as likely to encourage all kinds of lewd behaviour) and the next public baths wouldn’t be built until Victorian England: the new Golden Age of bathing-appreciation. Sprawson highlights how Classical literature “celebrates with such obvious pleasure the magic of cool water at noonday in an arid landscape.” And there’s a comparison to be made here with the thirst of some members of the Victorian industrial civilisation for myth and poetry. While reading Classical works was the theory, swimming became a kind of living practice. 

By re-telling the experiences of British and German Romantics, Haunts helps with an understanding of why water – whether immersing oneself in it, sitting by its banks or watching from a distance – is so highly-charged in Powys’s novels. Sprawson points to its early importance when John Cowper was a schoolboy.

It was in the presence of water that he could occasionally find consolation and become totally lost to the world, by the swimming pool and the ponds surrounding Sherborne that became for Powys, during his walks in the area, ‘holy’ places. They reminded him of an aquarium he had been given as a child, in which he arranged an underwater landscape of hills, gorges, and forests and in so doing became aware of the power of the individual mind to create its own enclosed world, independent of the attitudes of others.

Water is never just passive scenery in the novels, it’s a participant. The roaring nothingness of the sea in Rodmoor; the ominous depths of Lenty Pond; Glastonbury’s swallowing, redeeming flood. And then, over time, the waters seem to mellow and become sweeter, in the form of the life-giving goddess of the River Dee (in Owen Glendower and Porius), and in the sea-washed fantasia of Atlantis. In its absorption and reflection of moods, its sensuality, its ever-changing character, water is the most Powysian of elements.