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Brushes with famous writers 4, Philip O’Connor (1916 – 1998)

Sent in by the constant jotter R M Healey, this piece about a major/minor writer still admired in France. His main work was translated as Mémories d'Un Bébé Public and another work Steiner's Tour was first issued by Olympia Press in Paris (1960.) The dust wrapper was designed by Ronald Searle.

Philip O’Connor was a faded starlet of thirties Surrealism when I wrote to him sixteen years ago. Mine was not a fan letter, though I liked his Memoirs of a Public Baby (1958) and his surreal contributions to New Verse in the ‘thirties. I wanted to know a few details concerning his association with New Verse editor Geoffrey Grigson, but I got a lot more than I bargained for.

I obtained his address in the south of France via a female contact, who had visited him recently. She reported back that he was ‘not at all well ‘.He was, in fact, dying slowly of cancer. So I wrote to him and received a three page letter ( 21 Oct 1997)that crackled and fizzed with philosophical speculations mixed with invective, mainly aimed at middle class English sensibilities, the first page of which I offer here. 

The other two pages are in a similar vein. It was all great stuff and good reading for a student of Grigson, or indeed thirties literature in general. Enclosed with the letter were several unpublished pages of his ongoing Journal which, as he observed himself, could be read alongside the letter as reflecting his current literary and philosophical preoccupations. At one point he invited me to visit him in his ‘tiny’ house in Fontareches.

In his next, very brief, letter, which accompanied yet more pages of his Journal, O’Connor, after repeating that his health was still ‘very bad’, invited me to do whatever I liked with those pages of his Journal he had sent me, though there was a suggestion that his finances being what they were, he would appreciate a cut from any fee that might result from their publication. ‘My ambition ‘, he maintained ‘is to achieve senilittity of insnanity of the finale ‘.

But the aged Public Baby was not finished with me. A month later I received a letter that was typed so badly that much of it resembled extracts from a draft of Ulysses. At one point the sub Joycean prose-poetry lapsed into ersatz Polish (‘ohysiczl acrtaullitieiesb’ ), and though there were  heavy corrections in biro, they were clearly unnecessary.’ ‘I’m in trouble ‘, he announced, and then proceeded to complain about the way in which his Memoirs of a Public Baby had been filmed without his permission. He wanted to enforce his copyright and asked me to intercede on his behalf with the Society of Authors, of which he claimed to have been a member for 45 years. I did so, but all I got back was an application form, which suggested that his membership had lapsed, probably many years ago.

I heard no more from O’Connor. Meanwhile in February and March I received letters from the poet Christopher Reid of Faber and the Mexican poet, Michael Schmidt, boss of Carcanet, who I knew had an irrational animus against Grigson. Both poets  rejected my proposals to publish the Journal. This was disappointing news, as Faber had published O’Connor’s best-selling Memoirs forty years earlier. Naturally, knowing that he was close to death, I told O’Connor nothing of this.  Then, on 6 June 1998, I read his obituary in The Guardian.  This ‘flamboyant and self-absorbed British eccentric’ had died at his home on 29 May, aged 82. Late in August a letter arrived from O’Connor’s devoted ‘companion of 31 years’, Panna Grady, informing me that as his literary executor, she had placed all his papers with Leeds University and had given me permission to make extracts from these and any material in my hands. 

So, at last, I have done so. [R. M. Healey ]

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