TWELVE TEXTS FOR ADMONITORY SERMONS
ON THE POET RUTHVEN TODD
    
    

1. I mean that it is the biographer's special agony and his glory to grasp that reality, that radiant gist, that energy and direction, which should inform, in-form, a thousand thousand otherwise disparate facts and make them dance together. -- Paul Mariani, author of William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked.      
2. 'What's it like, having an adolescent for a father?' Robert Graves to Christopher Todd, in conversation.    
     
What measure should we use to gauge the talent that a conventionally unsuitable lifestyle subtracted from the legacy of Ruthven Todd? Not an easy one to call: the penniless poet as alcohol-addled frequenter of low bohemian dives has become something of a frayed construct in our time. Certainly it is no longer easy to spot one  propping up bars in Soho, Greenwich Village, Martha's Vineyard and Mallorca, all of them venues where the rootless, Edinburgh-born author drank, smoked and talked with staggering immoderation to anyone, about practically anything at all, until his death in 1978. He also wrote poems. Many of them meet or exceed Auden's criterion of 'memorable speech', and can be read with pleasure, now and for a long time to come.      
     
The poetry occupies the summit of a mountain of wordage thrust to the surface by a tectonic impulse to render into language the experiences and interests that consumed Ruthven's attention in a way that a life with family, steady job etc. evidently did not. It also produced three 'serious' novels, substantial chunks of an encyclopaedia sold in supermarkets; eight or ten (or twelve --no-one knows for sure) detective novels, each knocked off in a few days' writing time, a best-selling manual for raising tropical fish (an activity he never cared for nor attempted), a series of children's classics, a biography of Alexandre Dumas pére
, several essential works of cultural scholarship on 18th century Britain, and hundreds of poems or text contributions to the 'little magazines' in which the poets of the day displayed their wares.     
    
Then there is the work that should be on the list but isn't because publishers' advances and grants were used up before they were completed -- or started. So there is no sign of the authorized biography commissioned by the Dylan Thomas estate, the catalogue raisonné
of William Blake's works, A Checklist of the Flora of Martha's Vineyard, a completely revised edition of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of Blake, and the persistent attempts at memoirs by someone who knew practically everyone, but could not muster the self-critical insight that might have taken those experiences beyond the tediously anecdotal. The book that launched Julian Symons on his distinguished career as crime writer was to have been a collaboration; when Ruthven failed to follow through, Symons caricatured him chaffingly and made him the murderer.     
    
If looking for a poster child to campaign against excess and irresponsibility, however, you should be aware that Ruthven's drinking companion in London and New York, Dylan Thomas, already has the position all sewn up. Another close friend, Louis MacNeice, drank as much and as often (and frequently in the same pubs), yet produced compelling poetry in a much higher register than Ruthven's. Nor did the buzz of continuous inebriation prevent MacNeice from holding down a job, something that Ruthven did only rarely and under compulsion.      
    
'These are facts, observe them how you will,' begins one of his wartime poems, and it has to be admitted the facts do seem to be suggesting he was just one of the odd fish who add anecdotal spice to the biographies of their betters: a sort of Oliver St John Gogarty (who did write the sort of name-dripping memoirs that Ruthven failed to produce).     
    
But to many who knew him, Ruthven Todd was also an uncommonly rewarding person to spend time with, exhausting to keep up with, booze or no booze, a born teacher/explainer brimming with contagious enthusiasm for aspects of the external world and for other people and their several pursuits, and above all, was incredibly generous with his time and his efforts on behalf of others. This is what kept him from becoming the monstrous bore that everything written here has made him appear, and ensured him the exasperated affection of his friends, and especially from the women he loved, though they, of all people, really should have known better.     
    
3. Ruthven Todd is a Nineteenth Century Country Clergyman who has mysteriously managed to get born and survive in this hectic age. He is that contemporary oddity, a poet who actually seems to be happy.
-- W.H. Auden, 1959    
    
4. Ruthven is very much the clown - but the clown with a breaking heart. His wife has left him, largely, I should think, because when he sees a book he wants, he just buys it, with, I imagine, disastrous results to the family budget.  But I know how much he misses the child, his son, about five. Haven't I gone through all that myself? So when Ruthven plays the mountebank, I know why. I know the dark patch between his eyes and the world and I am sorry. And like me, he is the eternally uncrushed romantic and would get married again if he could. Probably will if he lives long enough to get through his divorce.
  -- Charles Wrey Gardner. The Dark Thorn, 1946.    
    
'I do not regret the spread of my interests,' he once wrote on a grant application. 'And anyhow, what else could have been expected from a Gemini whose given name, though spelled Ruthven, is pronounced 'Riven'? The Shorter Oxford defines that as 'split, cloven, rent, torn asunder.''     
    
(Nowadays 'clinically bipolar' might be appended to the list. Though the trendy thing is to paper over with pathologies what used to be considered a moral failing, studies really have shown that alcohol eases and regulates the mood-swings that manifest as compulsive verborrhea and 'extreme sociability' at their manic extreme. That Ruthven had already developed major drinking issues by age 17, when he was shipped off to the island of Mull to dry out, would support the idea that there was more to his dependency than just uncorrected youthful excess.)    
    
Non-stop talking was not his only means of keeping realities and responsibilities at bay with ack-ack barrages of verbosity.
He was not happy to share the spotlight with people who resembled him in that way, such as the legendary Daily Mail sportswriter Peter Wilson, another drinking, smoking non-stop raconteur who knew everyone. (They met in Mallorca after Wilson retired to the island). In later, sadder years, Ruthven's correspondence took over his life; recipients would seldom receive fewer than eight or ten closely-typed pages of airmailed onionskin. What started out as a business letter to a curator at Sotheby's - whom he had never met -- metastasises into a jumble of random reminiscence and present-tense accounts of people stopping by for a drink. It goes on like that, weaving in and out of time, for 118 single-spaced, margin-free pages, until cut short by an attack of pleurisy.     
    
One would not care to guess at how many times he attempted writing his memoirs. A month at the National Library of Scotland might produce a rough count of drafts begun, set aside and eventually engulfed by stacks of yellowing paper heaped on every available flat surface, or providing in-drawer accommodations for nesting mice. Months or years would go by and he would start over from scratch. Without consulting the now-inaccessible prior version, a new one would emerge as a near-exact copy of what had been written before; the same word choice and sentence structure framing the same feeble anecdotes. The words were never the right words, no matter how many came spilling out.     
    
5. In the evening, dined with Ruth Witt-Diamant, who had with her Ruthven Todd who was very drunk, chattered endlessly revealing his interests and symptoms in one interminable stream, any segment of which contained the same strata of his character running along it. Interests: his poems, which he considers at least as good as everyone else's poems, his flower drawings, which are in fact, better than those of others, his teeth, false and genuine, girls whom he has loved and have loved him; the extraordinarily helpful and useful role he has played in other's lives. There is nothing bad about him… The only trouble about his stories is that they give such an impression of coming from the repertoire.'
Stephen Spender, Diaries, March 1957.    
    
Ruthven thrived on contradiction. As he moved about from place to place, country to country, there is no telling how he managed to retain as many objects as he did: the Miró crayon designs, the rare and beautiful seashells, a selection of arrowheads, a diminutive Samuel Palmer oil sketch, hand-carved hunter's decoys, a pre-Colombian stone mushroom smuggled out of Mexico, a peculiar Fuseli ink drawing (that turned out to be by Theodore von Holst, but never mind) and a few of the commercial engravings made by Blake and his circle.     
    
All those were in the Mallorcan mountain cottage where he died, along with hundreds of books - a remnant only of many hundreds more bearing an endpaper signature  familiar to those who ply the antiquarian book trade, or unique items like the draft of Dylan Thomas's unfinished last poem now in the Morgan Library. Sad for someone who relished the pleasure of possessing books, and had first-hand experience of fine printing  (he personally set up and pulled the first collection of verse by Frank O'Hara, with engravings by Larry Rivers) to see so many disappear as he migrated from Edinburgh to London (1934-1947), then on to New York (1947-53), Martha's Vineyard (1954-59) and finally Mallorca.    
     
On that Mediterranean island where expat living was easy and liquor, lodgings and cigarettes insanely cheap, Ruthven's kitchen was well-stocked with cookbooks and gadgetry for the professional chef such as could be found nowhere else in Spain at that time. Like many alcoholics, however, he had developed an aversion to food and eating. But he remained fascinated by cooking and carpentry and the production of Blake's 'illuminated books' -- anything involving processes, expertise, methodology and precision tools. To acquire the latter, which he might never have occasion to use, he was happy to spend the money that should have gone for food and rent.     
    
6. Ruthven Todd, she thought, all but ignored in spite of his remarkable poetry; one line of his, she had once said, was worth fifty lines of MacDiarmid, with all his posturing; but nobody remembered Ruthven Todd any more. --
Alexander McCall Smith, The Sunday Philosophy Club.      
    
In October 1978, the Times
noted the passing of 'a Scots poet whose writing achieved a considerable degree of success and reputation over the past four decades.' How Ruthven would have deplored having the sporran hung around his neck like a noose! He had scant regard for those who, in their self-conceit, thought their verse as rampant as any lion - with the exception of Norman McCaig. But when the anthologists came calling, he was in no position to decline their guineas.    
                
What can be said about the writing, the success and the reputation?  Ruthven started producing verse in his teens, so it is no surprise to find early work that is derivative in subject matter and style, more copybook than imitation. A line like 'But now from the map/a gun is pointing at me' could only have come from an over-eager Auden wannabee, but you have to admit, it is
a good line.  Similarly,  the poems from this period convey a palpable sense of a young man deploying all the perceptive and intellectual powers of a half-formed adult in an attempt to reach an awareness of how the world is set up and what his place in it is likely to be. Auden was the master, obviously, but was Auden ever really young? Truly young?         
     
Much of the verse Ruthven wrote before the end of his first marriage in 1943 is heavily, blatantly indebted to Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal,
cast as a running dialogue in which poet decouples from self to demand an accounting of who am I, where am I coming from and what should I do about the horrors shortly to engulf the world, ending with an inventory of personal aspirations. Ruthven deals as peremptorily with Edinburgh as MacNeice does with his Belfast childhood. He must also have realized that the Anglo-Irish poet was onto something very effective indeed by placing the 'I' of his poems as one of the objects in a vivid landscape constructed with realistic or imaginary elements.      
      
Academics may lump Ruthven with the 'New Romantics' of the forties or their 'New Apocalypse' subset because lumping is their trade, and because he was doing his drinking at the same Fitzrovian pubs where Dylan Thomas was being tediously outrageous.  It would be truer to say they had little magazines and publishers (the Grey Walls Press)  in common,  rather than a common repertory of poetic sensibilities. Ruthven had, by that time, come very much under the influence of Geoffrey Grigson, the ferociously fang-jawed Cerberus who edited New Verse
. Grigson demanded absolute congruency from his contributors in the development of a poetic conceit through the rendering of  experience and in the use of figurative language. To the end of his days, Ruthven revered Grigson as his mentor and literary conscience, the one person who encouraged him to systematize and incorporate into his work the casual familiarity with the natural world he had been acquiring since boyhood and to put natural objects to work as transmitters of poetical significance, just as Grigson, the author of The Englishmanęs Flora, did in his own verse.      
    
The novels represent an interesting detour into the bywaters of fantasy and dream imagery. Fascination with the idea of weaving a narrative out of snippets of remembered dreams, or mimicking their content, as the Surrealists were attempting to do, had not yet run its course in 1930s Britain, nor in Ruthven's hyperactive imagination.  'The strange shapes of the personages in a painting by Miró were as real to me as the people on the underground  during the rush hour, whose faces became to me blanker and less meaningful,' Moreover,  Ruthven had become a friend of Edwin and Willa  Muir when they were working on the translations that introduced Kafka to the English-speaking world.      
    
Over the Mountain
depends too much on an ending easily seen coming. The Lost Traveller is much more off- the-wall and the political allegory is handled more deftly; when an American edition came out in the 1970s, it became something of a  head shop bestseller. A third novel, written and published after Ruthven had settled in New York, was called Loser's Choice and aside from proving that its author had no notion of how to create a female character,  is of little interest other than its prefiguring to some extent Vonnegut's Mother Night. This is the one of which Ruthven remarked, 'Only I would have had the bright idea of writing a novel in which the traitor is the hero, just at the height of McCarthyism.'          
    
Ruthven's stay at the Edinburgh College of Art lasted just long enough for him to realize that he lacked all originality. Yet a fascination with the phenomena and processes of nature, combined with an ability to recognize and reproduce significant detail made him particularly good at botanical illustration. Over time, and especially after his last wife divorced him and he was up in Martha's Vineyard drinking non-stop, he produced rigorously exact, absolutely enchanting drawings of flowers, plants and fungi, heightened with watercolour and surrounded by a running text in his miniscule italic hand. The locus of his poetical practice also shifted towards the natural world, giving rise to Auden's remark:  'As a nature poet, he is almost the only one today who is a real naturalist and can tell one bird or flower from another - his erudition in these matters makes me very jealous.'    
     
Ruthven Todd may not have possessed the vision that allowed Blake to see heaven in a flower, but he certainly could see the flower, and he could make others see it, too, with pen and brush. And you could be sure it was a real flower, blooming in the proper season and habitat, and that when it turned up in a poem, there was a good reason for it being there.     
      
Rigour and attention to detail likewise characterize Ruthven's scholarly glosses on art and cultural history, centring on William Blake and his contemporaries and the emergent Romantic sensibility they shared. Blake was reasonably well known, but considered (by Rossetti and Yeats, among others) a nutter with a strange lyrical gift. No one was paying much attention to the illuminated books, the impenetrable visionary poems, nor seriously examined the system of personal mythology that informed them, until the 1920s, when Sir Geoffrey Keynes, prepared the first critical exegeses, compiled the catalogues and midwifed the first modern biography (by Mona Wilson). Only then did Blake's achievement gradually come to be made the object of serious study.     
                 
Thus the flood that now gushes from American universities began as a trickle from a scholarly backwater that, for a time, Ruthven and a handful of collectors and fellow amateurs had pretty much to themselves.  By the time his closely annotated edition of Gilchrist's Life of William Blake
came out in 1942, he had become absorbed by the technical aspects of Blake's achievement at the expense of the poetics. The question of how much Blake owed to the world he lived in, with its cross currents of scientific breakthroughs, triumphant Enlightenment rationalism fracturing the old religious verities,  radical political movements and the emergence of esoteric belief systems, was addressed in the essays published in 1946 as Tracks in the Snow. Within a year, the standard texts by Schorer, Frye and Bronowski would appear, and William Blake crossed the Atlantic, thereafter to be exhibited to the public under exclusively academic management.    
    
By that time, Ruthven was himself in the United States, where he enlisted the noted engraver S.W. Hayter, along with Joan Miró and other visiting artists popping in and out of Hayter's transplanted Atelier 17, in experiments aimed at duplicating what Ruthven was convinced had been the method Blake must have used to transfer images with a handwritten text to the copper plates for printing. Since then, alternative procedures have been suggested, giving rise to a scholarly slugfest that still has the Blake boys divided into feuding camps (one-pulls vs. two-pulls), but my understanding is that Ruthven's explanation has not been refuted, only it now appears there are other procedures that might have occurred to the artist.     
    
Decades later, in his down and out in Mallorca period, Ruthven would made heroic efforts at regaining a toehold in the world of Blake studies, seeking financial support for an updated, much enlarged and absolutely definitive edition of the Gilchrist. That he was just scraping by on diminishing royalty checks, and too far from the libraries and picture collections essential to such a project, ensured that it would founder, as did his insistence that every single piece of artwork mentioned in the text should have an illustration. Remarkably, a good deal of work on 'Gilchrist redivivus
' actually did get done, as can be seen from the archive housed at the University of Leeds, and the sparks it threw off were the notes-and-queries-type short takes examining 'minute particulars' of Blakean scholarship, speculative hunches and avenues of inquiry to be followed ups. As noted by G.E. Bentley, 'He had a large correspondence with Blake scholars and collectors - he wrote to many scholars with queries and advice and he wrote at enormous length…much of Ruthven Todd's best work on Blake was in stimulating others through this private correspondence.'    
    
7. There was Ruthven, a good example of the nervous, jumping, gutter-combing Scotsman made good. What a change from the early London days when we used to know him: gabbling, penny counting, the shy man's too hysterical cackling laugh. But now I come to think of it seriously, he hardly changed at all, only gained in assurance.  He had expanded not only physically but mentally, giving to others pleasant, warming confidence, rather than seeming in need of it himself
. -- Caitlin Thomas, Leftover Life to Kill, 1957    
    
'The trouble with Ruthven is that he carries tolerance to a fault,' one of his wives is supposed to have said, but it would be too much to claim that the bonhomie of the barstool made absolutely everyone, without exception, Ruthven's friend. Certainly he had little love for Oscar Williams or George Barker or the 'unspeakable' George Reavey. Louis MacNeice's second wife, the cabaret singer Hedli Anderson, was the targett of scurrilous limericks and epigrams. It appears that while back in Europe for his mother's funeral, Ruthven resumed an affair dating back a decade earlier with the actress Nicolette Bernard. Unfortunately, they were spotted canoodling in Dublin by Hedli, who made sure that Ruthven's then-wife, the American painter, Joellen 'Jody' Hall, found out about it. That put a bitter end to the marital venture voted 'most likely to succeed' and the beginning of a decade-long descent into obliterating drunkenness. It will not have escaped notice that he never admitted - and perhaps never even realized -- that his own actions may have had something to do with the break-up.    
    
But, yes, knowing everyone was as much a part of Ruthven being Ruthven as was the drinking and smoking. Many of those whose friendship he valued most had nothing to do with literature or pubs, such as printer Harry Hoehn, whose portrait presided over his worktable. Greenwich Village's pacifist-in-residence Howard Schoenfeld was one of two people whom I have heard voice the same sentiment using the identical words: 'I just loved him.' Though he disliked pubs, Julian Symons was a loyal friend, and remained so forty years after they first met at Mitre Coffee House off Fleet Street, waiting for Geoffrey Grigson to show up.    
    
Not everyone deserved the high regard in which Ruthven held them. Here, notably, belongs Dr Milton Feltenstein, whom modern biographers hold responsible for Dylan Thomas's death by injecting him with morphine and causing his bronchitis-ravaged lungs to shut down. Ruthven's gushing praise of the doctor's medical skills and willingness to waive a fee undermines his eyewitness account of Dylan's drawn-out demise, as messy and grotesque as the life that preceded it.     
    
It was not a pub where Ruthven first met Dylan Thomas; it was at the flat of Norman Cameron, who was helping both penniless 20-year-olds wedge a foot in the door of literary London by providing them both with food, sleeping-it-off space and a glass of lime juice to ward off hangover. The two of them became close, but not that close, at least not in ways that correspond to the usual kind of relationships that Dylan could manage, that is, friends with utterly different temperaments (Dan Jones, Vernon Watkins) or the patrons, publishers and landlords considered fair game for chiselling and cadging.  Ruthven's unpublished memoirs give the impression of school chums on a spree, a relationship that did not grow much or deepen over the years. For both I suspect, prolonged propinquity may have been a little too much like looking into a mirror.      
    
Ruthven and Dylan were young dogs together and they shared their Woodbines and Player's Weights, shared a 'girlfriend' known as Fluffy (the sharing took place 'under a bar billiards table in a Soho drinking club'), and shared the thrill of seeing one's poems appear between hard covers. They were reunited for the final act of the Dylan road show that took place largely at the White Horse Tavern, a few minutes' walk from the Bank Street brownstone in New York owned by Ruthven's wife, where Dylan, on a day of relative sobriety, made final revisions to Under Milk Wood.
    
    
While Dylan was hospitalized and dawdling towards death, it was Ruthven who went to find out if there was any truth to the 'eighteen straight whiskies' Dylan claimed to have downed (apparently not), and it was Ruthven who wrestled with a violently berserk Caitlin Thomas to strap her down in the ambulance taking her to a mental ward (cue to 'Ruthven, you old fucker, even though I HATE you, I would never let you lie here like this!').  It was also Ruthven who, while Dylan was still breathing, had the wit to contact the people who could channel money to Caitlin and the children.  But he insisted that his remark on the blue bowtie with white polka dots his friend was buried in was not heartless, merely inadvertent. 'My God, Dylan wouldn't be seen dead in that.'      
    
8. Wholeheartedly, gave completely, toute tendresse. --
Mavis deVere Cole handicapping Ruthven's lovemaking in the margins of her copy of the book of verse, The Planet in My Hand, dedicated to her (did she also pay the printer?)    
    
Ruthven liked women and women liked Ruthven. He enjoyed paying court to them, seeing that they had a good time, enjoyed the lovemaking and the conversation. They seemed to sense he was truly interested
in them. For as long as it lasted. When separation came, it was supplanted with an enduring fondness that somehow grew more intimate as the relationship that had engendered it dwindled away in time and distance. If the lady friend was also fond of a drink, so much the better. 'Men's magazine' editor Paula Norworth could drink him under the table (she became, briefly, his second wife). Another much-cherished former girlfriend acknowledged that much as she would have liked to see him give it a try, Ruthven probably would not have responded to the Alcoholics Anonymous program, which she herself strongly supported.     
                
Faithfulness and domesticity were not his strong suit, but even so, I can't think of a single woman with whom Ruthven appears to have parted on bad terms. The poet Carolyn Kizer even wrote a love poem to him, which delighted him to no end.  Ruthven's own love poems are really infatuation poems, or fondness poems or cherish forever the memory of poems but they never quite convince as love poems, principally because they turn away from the darker side of love, with not even a hint of sorrow, pain, jealousy or recrimination. Many are addressed directly to the beloved by way of paying her an elaborate compliment. Think Robert Herrick: loving kindness, empathy,  gallantry  '… Blossomes, Birds, and Bowers'.  Passion not so much.  He was a disaster as a husband.       
     
9. Having given him a collection of valuable books, stamped with his own arms, [Lord Tyrconnel] had the mortification to see them in a short time exposed to sale upon the stalls, it being usual, with Mr Savage, when he wanted a small sum, to take his books to the pawnbroker. Samuel Johnson, The Life of Richard Savage.    
    
10. Anyhow, people do seem to prefer their own myths and fables to the hard facts. Ruthven's a case in point. He simply WOULD NOT listen to the truth.
  Elizabeth Smart,  in a letter, 1981    
    
Once you have convinced yourself that you are not really
an alcoholic and that drinking does not utterly determine your life, then deceiving yourself about everything else becomes the easiest thing in the world. The fact that your lie can easily be trumped with the truth is no guarantee that others are automatically spared your self-validating duplicity. George IV was absolutely convinced that he had been at Waterloo and led the charge of the Royal Scots Greys and didn't even mind letting Wellington know about it. For Ruthven, verging off into a different reality ensured the hand-to-mouth existence he led, and he, like King George, never anticipated the contingency of contradiction.     
In January 1947, thanks to two generous grants from the Pilgrim Trust, Ruthven set blithely off to America to carry out what was supposed to be a short-term survey of the Blakes that had migrated to that country. Before departing, he had invited the writer Elizabeth Smart to take over the lease on Tilty Mill House, a rural retreat at Dunmow in Essex. He had decamped there in 1944 when his Mecklenburg Square flat was demolished by a flying bomb.    
                
To care for her four small children by George Barker while holding down  copywriting and editing jobs in London, the as yet-uncelebrated author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
invited a hard-drinking homosexual couple, the talented Scottish painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, to live on the property.  Ruthven blamed them for all but destroying the house during his absence and removing virtually everything of value he had in it.     
                 
In that version, when Ruthven finally came back to Britain in 1954, he found that 'sluttishness and destruction had run riot' all over the property, windows were shattered, furniture smashed; 'the bothy Scots' were falling-down drunk, and most of the books and works of art he had been assembling since his school days had been 'pilfered'. Sickened and disgusted, he claims to have got away as soon as he could, writing off the irrecoverable books, prints and paintings, and reserving his version of what he called the rape of Tilty until a quarter century had gone by. By then he was confident enough of what his memory was telling him to put it down in print, for the  exhibition catalogue at a London gallery.    
                 
What his memory was telling him had wandered a long way from the truth. Fitzrovia denizens who came down to Tilty on the weekend or for long-term stays agree that the house was never 'gutted' the way Ruthven described. They confirmed that 'the two Roberts' (as they were known around Soho) were meticulous housekeepers in or out of their cups, and that beneath their drunken antics each had a core of seriousness that would never countenance damaging books and paintings. It turned out that the missing books had been removed by Elizabeth Smart, to prevent them from being seized by the bailiff. The rent money she sent to Ruthven via her sister in New York somehow never made it back across the Atlantic to Tilty's landlord, so some of the books she had never wanted to be burdened with had to be sold to pay off the debt.         
If the books had
been pilfered in the way Ruthven evidently came to believe that they were, it might have been no more than justice, for if Geoffrey Grigson is to be believed, Ruthven was by way of being a book thief himself. One wonders if life may not have not been too kind to the billhook-wielding, Sitwell-baiting prophet who preached the gospel of Wystianity in the Thirties, but whose 13 volumes of verse were mostly ignored; or if Ruthven was simply as wrong about the man he considered his dearest friend as he had been about Dylan's morphine-mad Dr. Feltenstein. After Ruthven's death, Grigson sneered in print at the 'unhealthy-looking grey oddity' whom he had befriended and encouraged, accusing him of nicking books off the shelves of the people who took him in, put him up, and kept him alive during his earliest days in London and claiming to have recovered volumes from his own library that had migrated to a Cecil Court bookseller. 'We never taxed the Innocent Thief with his theft, this generous creature who seldom came to see us without some present, paid for God knows how, for the children.'     
                 
Well, Grigson ought to know his own books. Or could he just be spouting drivel? I wonder about that when reading the part where he accuses Ruthven of making off with   a copy of Louis MacNeice's debut volume of poems, inscribed to his first wife, who later ran off with another man. 'Louis could never have given it away.  Ruthven -- pronounced Riv
for short -- must have sneaked it off Louis bookshelves,' Grigson decrees, and note that must have. What kind of fool is it who cannot see that a book lovingly dedicated to the wife who walked out of their marriage would be the last thing a deserted husband might want to keep around the house? Grigson's 1982 book Recollections makes no mention of the weeks they spent doing research together in Somerset House and the British Museum, or mailing out copies of New Verse, or a hint to explain why Grigson's book, Poems and Poets, is dedicated to him.     
    
11. 'Todd was the great go-between of literary London in those days who kept one well-informed on what was going on and how to earn what modest pickings might be available in terms of reading for publishers or other hack jobs.' - George Woodcock.    
    
The first of Ruthven's odd jobs may have been the oddest, and like many to come afterwards, unpaid. Herbert Read roped him in to act as assistant secretary (a euphemism for 'general dogsbody') at the first Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936. He also assisted Peggy Guggenheim at her gallery, he collated and indexed the findings of the Mass Observation movement, that strange amalgam of oral history, surrealist dream theory and market research that presumed to create a data base avant la lettre
to document 'the everyday lives of ordinary people' in Britain. At various other times, but never for very long, he was a shop assistant at Zwemmer's, the art bookshop on Charing Cross Road, a paid consultant on the Alexander Korda film of Caesar and Cleopatra (paid but never consulted), a copywriter in an advertising agency, and a teacher of English to Felix Topolski. From the mid-1950s until the closing years of his life, two decades on, his main source - often his only source --  of  income, was Flyball.    
Flyball was a cat, a Space Cat. He was hero of the eponymous book Ruthven wrote for eight-to-ten year olds in the early 1950s, just when science fiction was beginning to take off in the American imagination. Young readers responded to a style of writing that wasn't at all condescending and had a real story to tell; librarians could find no fault with it, so Space Cat
and Space Cat Meets Mars and Space Cat Visits Venus and Space Cat and the Kittens sold and sold kept on selling for years for Scribner's.  An unauthorized parody, Space Cat on Mushrooms, appeared in the swinging sixties. Ruthven may not have known about it, but certainly would have been amused: he used to go mushroom hunting in Central Park with another amateur mycologist, the composer John Cage, and had sampled first-hand the psychedelic roller-coaster effects of the nominally poisonous A. muscaria, which Robert Graves and Gordon Wasson had identified as soma. the divine mushroom of the gods. While he was occupied tripping on toadstools, forwarded fan letters flooded Ruthven's mail box, along with a semi-annual check.    
But in 1956 he had no money and no desire to return to New York and be consoled for his shattered marriage in Chumley's, Tim Costello's, The White Horse, Goody's,  the Minetta or the San Remo. He rented a shed on a farm property near the Martha's Vineyard township of West Tisbury and stuck it out there for the next three winters, making botanical drawings, writing some poems, but mostly he drank. In 1959, he turned up in Mallorca where Robert Graves, another close friend and admirer of Norman Cameron, let him stay in a fisherman's cottage on the cliffs above the Mediterranean.  Ruthven discovered that when translated into pesetas
, a modest dollar income could purchase significant quantities of Spanish brandy and cigarettes,  so he elected to stay on the island and settled in El Terreno, a watering hole for louche expatriates,  professional remittance men, and pensioners drinking themselves into self-dug graves. One of the tell-tale symptoms of alcoholism is said to be that it leads one to socialize precisely with those people one would otherwise take pains to stay miles away from. Taking that as a bellwether, the period from 1960-1966, when he was making the rounds of Mam's Bar, the Ivy, Joe's, and the other hangouts of the Plaza Gomila in El Terreno, would represent the nadir of Ruthven's career as a drinker.              
       
Better friends than he had in El Terreno thought so, too, for in 1966, they persuaded  him to undertake a cure at that time popular in Spain in which Ruthven was sedated into and out of unconsciousness over a period of 12 days while withdrawal symptoms wracked his body. That now discredited detox method not only failed to kill him, amazingly, it succeeded in getting him off the hard stuff.  For the rest of his days, a glass of Spanish red wine or a beer would keep him steady and allow him to joke about being a 'semi-retired alcoholic.' To put maximum distance between himself and temptation, he left the Plaza Gomila and settled in an inland mountain village, where a two-storey stone cottage with a tile roof was available for a monthly pittance. Only a handful of in-and-out foreigners lived there, and there was no bar.    
    
12. One step aside from the ways of comfortable men and you cannot regain them. You will live and die under the law of the intolerable thing called romance.    
-- Francis Thompson, author of 'The Hound of Heaven' (dying in a charity     hospice in 1907).    
    
Constantly drinking, but rarely exceeding his self-imposed limits, coughing up more and more phlegm and writing endless letters, Ruthven carried on doggedly to the end. His most successful works from this period, however, were the publisher's    
contracts and grant applications he put his name to. At the time of his death, he owed unwritten books to the Atlantic Monthly Press, Longmans, Granada, Rupert Hart Davis, Studio Vista and Dover. Coaxing money out of foundations was another occupational side-line. The Pilgrim Trust was still furious, forty years later, about the grants they gave him in 1946. Ruthven also obtained two Guggenheim Fellowships (1960 and 1967), a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1965), a Chaplebrook fellowship in 1968 that was supposed to have seen the revised Gilchrist through to completion, and still more funds from an Ingram Merrill fellowship in 1970. That same year, he was hired as a visiting professor for a group of American students that had come to Mallorca to learn how to write. A year later, Ruthven turned up at the State University of New York at Buffalo for another year's teaching ('if at some point, they asked an intelligent question, they got a passing grade') and stayed on afterwards in New York until the money ran out. In 1975-76, he taught a course on Blake at the University of Maryland and this time there was no surplus money to be spent. Students, of course, were amazed by their 'professor'. They had never seen anything like it.     
    
By then, income from Space Cat was down to a trickle and Scribner's decided not to reprint.  His lungs had worsened and he had to be checked into a Mallorcan TB sanatorium, where he spent a few months joining the local patients in sneaking out after dark for a clandestine cigarette. But when the end came, a few months after his release,  it was swift-acting organ failure and not the slow strangulation of terminal emphysema.  He was 64 years old.    
       
Unlike the literary world's  big-ticket alcoholics, the Eugene O'Neills or Malcolm Lowries, it is useless to search for the demons that drove Ruthven over the edge, or the missing touch of  tragedy. All that needs be said is that he drank far too much for far too long, and perhaps achieved his desire of being counted as 'one of the good, minor poets' of  his century.  Blighted Fitzrovia, the gentrified West Village, bombed-out Plaza Gomila are skeletal remains or amusement park re-creations of what they once had been, but Auden's verdict still stands: Ruthven Todd was a 'happy' man, and not only happy in himself,  but the cause that happiness is in other men - the ones who had the opportunity to see him in action and benefit from his generous outlays of time, encouragement and helpful contacts. Obviously, this tribute has been put together by one such, in gratitude and continuing amazement, but the last word should go to Julian Symons:  'Ruthven had a sweetness of personality and an eternal youthful optimism that transcended the minor irritations he could cause, and there was something wholly admirable about his certainty that a life spent in pursuit of art, literature and romantic love was superior to all others.'     
    
   © Robert Latona 2011