A Fervent Mind: The Life of Ruthven Todd

Peter Main
Lomax Press, £23.00, PP494, ISBN 978-0-9929160-6-0
by Colin Waters

Name Dropping

November 10, 2018 | by Colin Waters

In Against Oblivion, poet and critic Ian Hamilton posited only four twentieth-century English-language poets had a chance of achieving something like literary immortality: Hardy, Yeats, Eliot and Auden. The rest? Sooner or later time would Tippex out their names – even ones as familiar and diverse as Dylan Thomas, Hugh MacDiarmid, Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound and John Berryman, all of whom, coincidentally, were, to greater and lesser degrees of intimacy, acquaintances of Ruthven Todd.

A poet himself, Todd doesn’t rate a mention in Against Oblivion, but his poems appear in anthologies of Scottish verse edited by Douglas Dunn, Alexander McCall Smith, Maurice Lindsay, Antonia Fraser, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah. His poetry is good, good enough to be published in The New Yorker. His poetry, novels, illustrations and Blake scholarship earned him entrée into the company of many of the leading literary and artistic figures of the last mid-century, but wasn’t in the end substantial enough to escape the pall of obscurity, which descended upon him even before his death in a Spanish village in 1978. Today not one of the twenty-plus books he wrote remains in print, excepting a pair of recently re-published detective novels and a series of books written for children in the 1950s, Space Cat.

A fat new volume by Peter Main, A Fervent Mind, disinters Todd. Might it not be overdoing it to lavish nearly 500 pages on a poet largely forgotten? I have single-volume biographies of Lou Reed, Pablo Picasso and Orson Welles whose page-counts come in under Main’s. True, the dramatis personae is epic and Todd zig-zagged across the Atlantic, living in London in the 1930s, the US in the 1940s and Spain in the 1950s. Nevertheless, A Fervent Mind could have lost 150 pages without compromising Todd’s story. Even with the fat untrimmed, however, it’s rarely a dull read. Todd is a drily witty, not to mention unreliable, narrator, having left behind numerous unfinished attempts to write his memoirs for his biographer to quote from.

Ruthven (pronounced ‘riven’) Todd was born in 1914 ‘in Edinburgh’s prosperous New Town’. His father Walker was an architect while his mother had notable ancestry: her grandfather was Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Todd was educated at Fettes, which the nascent bohemian ‘loathed’. After several incidents, he was asked to leave in 1931. Thereafter he enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art, where his drinking spiralled, so much so his parents exiled him to Mull for two years, where he worked as a farm labourer.

He returned to Edinburgh in a somewhat steadier state than he left, although drink was to remain a presence in his life and reliable thwarter of ambition: ‘I had, rather happily, taken to drink…. I believed then that all good artists drank to excess, and I remembered Blake’s praises of excess… and so far as my limited means would allow, I pursued my fantasy and fallacy with all possible vigour.’ Todd was also powerfully addicted to tobacco, which, in the end, was what did for him more than the drink. ‘I found,’ he wrote, ‘I could live without eating, but not without smoking.’

He didn’t linger in his hometown, relocating to London in 1935 to become a writer and artist. He rarely returned to Scotland after leaving. He was to adopt the lofty tone of one who believes himself to have shaken off a parochial nook to mount a larger stage more befitting their talent. ‘I never considered myself a particularly local figure…. Chance and volition have made me a citizen of a rather larger world than that into which I was born.’

Settled in Fitzrovia, Todd spent the second half of the Thirties drinking and, sometimes, writing. Then as now verse didn’t pay the rent, so he had other jobs. Cecil Day-Lewis recommended writing detective fiction to supplement his income, which he did under the pseudonym RT Campbell. ‘I don’t see why one should not write bilge under a nom de guerre to keep one going financially.’ Throughout his career, Todd moved between passion projects, chiefly his poetry and Blake scholarship, which earned little, and rent-payers: whodunits and children’s books, where his talent as an illustrator and author combined. His great success was his Space Cat series of books, the first volume of which sold over 50,000 copies in the US in its first three years after publication in 1952 and proved a steady earner. Ever afterwards, when Todd was collared by an appreciative reader, it was likelier than not that admiration was expressed for Space Cat, rather than his poetry. In 1958, David Pleydell-Bouverie, a rich architect, invited Todd to his estate to speak to a well-heeled audience about the painter John Martin, several of whose works he owned. Todd was recognized but not as he would have wished. ‘So far as [actor] Joseph Cotton’s wife and the other ladies were concerned, I was the author of Space Cat. Just how ambivalent can my reputation get?’

Whatever his talents as a writer, artist or scholar, it pales in comparison to his ability to bump into people of note. His friend the poet Julian Symons wrote: ‘Ruthven knew everybody. It might be said that knowing people was his occupation.’ As one reads A Fervent Mind, Todd emerges as a real-life version of Anthony Burgess’ Kenneth Toomey or William Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart. It would be simpler to list who he didn’t know than who he did. He started young. Within the space of one page, the 17-year-old Todd first meets T.S. Eliot in his office at Faber and then is introduced to D.H. Lawrence by Catherine Carswell. Eliot, to whom Todd handed over a sheaf of his poems, ‘carried the air of the banker with him… [and] gave me the impression that he was peeking into my intellectual overdraft’.

Given the way Peter Main chooses to shape his material, Todd sometimes meets more legends in a sentence than most of us do in a lifetime. For example, he accompanied his friend the poet David Gascoyne to Paris for the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition, where he introduced him to the movement’s leading figures. ‘Among them were Andre Breton, Paul Éluard, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, as well as Joan Miro.’

As I read, I noted where and when Todd made contacts.

In London: WH Auden, Louis MacNiece, Wyndham Lewis, Cyril Connolly (Todd worked for a short time at Horizon), Stephen Spender (Todd lodged in a room in Spender’s apartment), Kathleen Raine, George Barker, Elizabeth Smart, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Laura Riding, film producers Alexander and Zoltan Korda, future Joy of Sex author Alex Comfort, Charles Laughton (regular Sunday lunchtime drinking com-panion), Sir Kenneth Clark (wrote Todd several grant recommendations), Lucian Freud, Roland Penrose, Norman Cameron and Julian McLaren-Ross (who died owing Todd £200).

‘When we go on the wagon in Scotland, we mean we give up whisky and other hard liquor. Wine and beer don’t count.’

After moving to the United States: Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, John Cage (whom he bonded with over mushrooms; Cage was to co-found the New York Mycological Society in 1962), James Agee, Raymond Chandler (who paid Todd’s membership fees for the Mystery Writers of America until his death in 1959), John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammet.

In Spain: Robert Graves, Colin Wilson, Anthony Burgess and Galway Kinnell.

He was networking right up until the end; the night before his death, he had dinner with neighbours who introduced him to the Israeli author Amos Oz.

It’s surprising, then, that he didn’t try to monetize his memories. Many a scribe with a less stellar address book has churned out volumes of reminiscences. The closest Todd came to cashing in came in 1959 when he was invited by the Trustees of Dylan Thomas’s estate to write the Welshman’s first official biography. Thomas and Todd were proper friends, or perhaps, given their kamikaze pub crawls, we should call them mutual enablers. They knew each other in London and, after Todd moved to New York, he was on hand to witness Thomas’ growing success in the States. He visited Thomas on his death bed and helped with funeral arrangements. When Thomas’s widow Caitlin, wild with grief, was admitted to a psychiatric clinic, Todd accompanied her in the ambulance; for his pains he was caricatured in Caitlin’s memoirs as ‘a good example of the nervous, gutter-combing Scotsman… with the sly man’s too hysterical cackling laughter’. The Thomas biography was a fantastic opportunity for the perennially broke Todd to make money and raise his profile. And yet in 1962 he dropped out of the project, with Trustees and publisher waving breached contracts.

The list of books Todd received advances for or took grants to complete but never did is as long as his actual bibliography. His lack of care for his writing and bank account is baffling. In 1947, the publisher Phoenix House sent him the galley proofs for correction of a book he’d written about Blake aimed at a popular readership. Todd didn’t correct or return the proofs. Unable to contact the author, the publisher cancelled the book. Later that same year, he received a £500 grant to research Blake’s paintings in the US. He had a three-month visa but never returned to live in the UK again. Nor did he finish the research. He took much the same attitude to his family, bailing out of three marriages and not providing his son Christopher with an enduring presence. The drink didn’t help. His friend Bob DeMarin reported: ‘We urged Ruthven to get on the wagon. He agreed, but the next day we saw him in the living room reading with a gallon of red wine by one foot and a gallon of white wine by the other foot. When I scolded him, he said, “When we go on the wagon in Scotland, we mean we give up whisky and other hard liquor. Wine and beer don’t count”.’

Still, other writers have completed great work while struggling with dipsomania and, latterly for Todd, with poor health (he suffered recurring bouts of pleurisy, bronco-pneumonia, chronic bronchitis and knee problems). In the last seventeen years of his life he published just one book, a rehash of work he’d done on Blake, although he took advances for several titles that never left his notebooks. A former lover sums up Todd harshly but perhaps fairly: ‘Poor Ruthven, he had not got what it takes to be a successful author, or even a successful man.’

In a move one might describe as characteristically cockeyed, Todd both became an American citizen in 1959 and left the US for good, settling in Mallorca instead. His former mentee Alastair Reid invited Todd to visit and meet his successor as a teacher, Robert Graves; Todd and Graves bonded over mushrooms. Spain was cheap: ‘Spanish brandy cost almost nothing.’ Shortly after arrival, Todd fell seriously ill, the medical bills swallowing up his latest advance and a National Institute of Arts and Letters award. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t leave.

Some two decades of inactivity and self-sabotage later, on 11 October 1978, Todd died of emphysema. Symons wrote afterwards, ‘In his last twenty years Ruthven must have been much haunted about the waste of his talent.’ Here was a man who nailed himself to the cross of poetry, and who, when offered the chance to descend and do something less excruciating, declined. Given his talent for rooting out rare books, he’d have made an excellent antiquarian. Or art dealer, gifted as he was at cultivating artists and recognizing significant new work. In his last decades, he discovered, first in Iowa, then Mallorca, that he was a talented and popular teacher. But, no. He was as addicted to the idea of being a writer (if not writing itself) as he was to cigarettes and alcohol.

And what of that writing? Main includes a poem by Todd at the end of each chapter, which, given Todd’s collections are out of print, is a useful innovation. He once wrote in a letter that he was ‘a good clear poet’, a fair assessment. His poetry is of its time, Audenesque with sprightly rhythms and rhymes often humorously at odds with an unillusioned view of man. From 1947’s ‘For a Nickel’:

For a nickel still each of us can get
The cheapest sort of candy or some gum,
A wad of printed paper to help us forget
That people starve, are vicious or are glum.

Could Todd yet emerge from oblivion? Main’s biography marks a decent start for his rehabilitation, although a more svelte volume would’ve made the case more nimbly. A new sensitively edited edition of Todd’s Selected Poems would be a volume worth investigating. It’s not inconceivable that some modish literary figure in the future might take up his cause. For all the squandering of his talent, Todd is a sympathetic character, or at least recognizable, for aren’t many of us destined not to be remembered for what we thought we should be, but instead for our Space Cat?

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