Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Louis MacNeice & Highfield




"The front door of my own home in England has no knob or handle on the outside at all; it can only be opened from the inside after an enormous bolt has been shifted. It is a mid-Victorian house built for security and privacy. At the entrance to the drive there is a great wooden gate which is so formidable that I doubt whether I should have the temerity to go in myself if I ever found it closed."
Lella Secor Florence, 'Our Private Lives' (1944)




Between 1930 and 1936, the Irish poet Louis MacNeice lived in a former coachman's dwelling (below) in the grounds of a home in Selly Park called Highfield, one of the large Victorian houses built in the 1860s on Selly Hill but demolished in 1984. MacNeice's home was known as Highfield Cottage which he shared with his wife Mary, and later with their son Dan.

    




From 1929 until its demise, Highfield was the home of Prof. Philip Sargant-Florence, Director of Social Studies at the University and Professor of Economics, with his wife Lella who 'had a charming smile, violent red hair and vitality,' according to MacNeice. She worked in Birmingham promoting family planning, and seems to have spent the 1930s using Highfield (below) as the centre of Birmingham's 'alternative Bloomsbury'.










Philip Sargant Florence had indeed lived in Bloomsbury before moving to Birmingham. His sister Alix was even more connected to the Bloomsbury Set, having married James Strachey in 1920. Together, Alix and James made the standard translation of Freud into English.


Philip, Mary, Anthony, Noel and Lella Sargant Florence with Alix Strachey (nee Sargant Florence)

MacNeice writes in his unfinished autobiography, 'Two or three times a summer they would lend their garden for Labour Party garden parties and our doorstep would be littered with orange peel... Our landlady's friends had a gospel-tent enthusiasm and quivers of prickly statistics.'


'Most English Left-Wing intellectuals and American intellectuals visiting Britain must have passed through Highfield between 1930 and 1950.'

Walter Allen, 'As I Walked Down New Grub Street.'

 The interior walls of Highfield were decorated with murals by the artist Joan Souter-Robertson, making it sadder to hear of its destruction. The address was 128 Selly Park Road, but the land is now Southbourne Close, an exclusive, private cul-de-sac. Residents there have access to what little remains of Highfield - the Southbourne Close Pool, one of a number of lakes which once existed across Selly Hill, and the pagoda which can be glimpsed behind trees from Kensington Road.



There was a scheme for Highfield in 1939 with the intention of Isokon building flats on Highfield's land. But the war intervened and Isokon could no longer operate. Here's a picture of what might have been, the Lawn Road flats, in Hampstead, London:



In November 1935, Mary MacNeice left Louis and Dan to be with Charles Katzman, a former American Football star who the MacNeices had befriended. The month previously MacNeice was driving Katzman back from Oxford and was about a mile away from Selly Park, when he crashed his Austin 7, throwing Louis and Katzman out of the vehicle.


Although MacNeice was able to walk home, Katzman was hospitalised but released after a few days. He continued his recovery at Highfield Cottage where Mary nursed him back to health, but also fell in love with him. This Ballardian collision was a blow to MacNeice who was in danger of having a breakdown according to his worried friends, but it was a gain to Birmingham. After Mary's departure, Louis became more involved with the city, spending more time with its writers and artists.

The spell of the Enchanted Island was broken when Mary left. Louis instigated divorce proceedings immediately. Mary's mother sent a nanny for Dan, but her real role was to seduce Louis into undermining his grounds for divorce. A year after Mary's departure, a year of 'intrigue, spiritual squalor and anxiety', Louis successfully applied for the position of lecturer in classics at Bedford College, London. After a trip to Iceland with W.H. Auden, which became the basis for the collaborative Letters from Iceland, a 'spectacular' farewell party was thrown at Highfield Cottage in the autumn of 1936. Walter Allen recalls it in his memoir, As I Walked Down New Grub Street:

[It] began about nine of a Saturday evening and for some of us, Louis included, did not end until more than twenty-four hours later. My memories of the party are appropriately hazy. Professor and Mrs Dodds were there at the beginning and so was Auden... Those who came from London included Spender, Rupert Doone, the director of the Group Theatre, which had recently staged Auden's and Isherwood's The Dog Beneath the Skin and was soon to do Louis's translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and the painter Robert Medley. I remember Doone, at one point during the night, sitting cross-legged on the floor and reiterating with great impressiveness, 'The theatre is like a basket of eggs: you take some out and you put some in.' I remember someone, for reasons best known to himself, throwing a glass of brandy on to the fire and a jet of flame shooting out and scorching the backside of the person standing in front of it, who I have always believed was Henry Reed. And I remember, as we woke up at first light from our impromptu beds on couches and blankets strewn on the floor, seeing Gordon Herickx standing at the window and surveying the grounds of Highfield, which must have been two or three acres in extent, and saying meditatively to himself: 'So this is how the poor live!'

21 comments:

  1. This is great! I'd read a few accounts of life at Highfield in my research on the poet Henry Reed, but wasn't exactly sure where it was located, until now. In New Grub Street, Walter Allen describes a party held at the MacNeice's, in honor of W.H. Auden:

    "I remember someone, for reasons best known to
    himself, throwing a glass of brandy on to the fire and a jet of flame shooting out and scorching the backside of the person standing in front of it, who I have always believed was Henry Reed. And I remember, as we woke up at first light from our impromptu beds on couches and blankets strewn on the floor, seeing Gordon Herickx standing at the window and surveying the grounds of Highfield, which must have been two or three acres in extent, and saying meditatively to himself: 'So this is how the poor live!'"

    You're view of the pagoda is even visible from your Google Map!

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  2. I am writing a biography of Lella Secor Florence and would be glad to know the origin of your interest in Highfield and from where you have obtained the pictures above.

    Geoffrey

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  3. Thanks for leaving a message, Geoffrey. Like Louis MacNeice, I was born in Belfast and for a time lived in Selly Park. I always assumed there would be one of those blue plaques on a house nearby to say where he lived, so I was a bit shocked to discover that his home had been bulldozed, but at least this led to discovering some of the intriguing history of Highfield. The colour photos of Highfield and Highfield Cottage are taken from David Lodge's 1982 documentary, As I Was Walking Down Bristol Street: Birmingham Writers In The Thirties, made for Central TV. I would very much like to read your biography of Lella. Good Luck.

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  4. So great to find your blog and account of Highfield! But so sad to hear that it was torn down! It was beautiful! I lived there in the '70's and have fond memories of people who lived there, those who came through, parties and other events.... Philip was in his 80's but still writing and sharp as a tack.

    The foyer was spectacular with scenes from the opera painted throughout (can't remember which one). Philip and Lella left for holiday one summer and let two art students "practice" on the walls. It was so beautiful they left it! Years later when I lived there, the artist came to visit. By this time she was quite accomplished, but also very gracious:) She painted herself in the crowd scene. It was lovely to see her as a young girl:)

    Thanks for your account. It brings back fond memories!

    Nancy

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    1. The murals were from Diaghilev's production of Petrushka, which I think the professor and his family went to see. They were painted into it in a theatre box on the landing. I used to visit Highfield in the early 80s when I lived in another house run by the letting agent Margaret Glassey.

      A strange personal coincidence came when the Birmingham Royal Ballet revived Petrushka with the same costume asnd sets as depicted in Highfield. I didn't realise it at the time, but the actress I was to meet and marry was on stage, paying her way through drama school as an extra. I only found out years later, when describing the house and the ballet.

      A few years ago I was given a tape copy of the Central TV documentary by David Lodge which I transferred to DVD for him. He also gave me a 14-page paper called 'Highfield: Birmingham's Lost Bloomsbury' by one of his students Tracey Allen. I don't know if/where it was published, or if Mike is aware of it.

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    2. I'm not aware of the paper but would love to read it.

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    4. Here's a Dropbox link to it:

      https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/36830535/Highfield.pdf

      I was at a party at Selly Park Road at the house of my MA supervisor the late Prof. John Sinclair, the night before it was demolished. John Sinclair's daughter was a photographer, and showed us some of her photos of the place. And I remember some guests walked up to Highfield afterwards to have a last look round.

      My memory of the final times are that the residents included Eric Braithwaite (a Literature PhD), the artist Jo Naden who had a studio there, and a geneticist. The parties were huge - I went to one which had members of the CBSO, and the pop star Stephen Tintin Duffy!

      I remember a lake, a stone folly, and a summer house covered in 60s psychedelic art.

      Someone (can't remember who) told me a very silly story of the filming of the Central documentary, of being approached at the gate by a strange old man, and claiming that they didn't show on the cameraman's tape. And that this must have been the ghost of Louis Mac Neice...

      Margaret Glassey also told of Dora Russell turning up there unannounced, dressed like a baglady.

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    5. Thank you for sharing your memories. The article is really good too. It certainly paints an intriguing picture of life at Highfield. I wish I could have been there. I think I will have to believe the story of Louis MacNeice's ghost as it it the perfect icing on the cake.

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  5. Just read through your article. It wasn't Mary Sargant Florence who painted the murals. It was another woman and her then husband. Can't remember their names....

    Nancy

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  6. Thank you so much Nancy for leaving your messages. I'm very intrigued now as to who the artist might have been, and would love to hear more of your memories of Highfield and Philip.

    Mike

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  7. Hello Mike. You want to know who the artist was that did the Highfield murals. Her name was Joan Souter-Robinson. I don't remember her husband's name as it was Joan that my grandfather Philip Sargant Florence (no hyphen!) used to talk about. She also did a portrait of Lella, my grandmother and later (after Lella's death) a matching one of Philip. I have photos of the murals but just good old-fashioned prints, not digital unfortunately.

    Incidentally, in the family group photo (taken at Lords Wood, Mary's house in Marlow) my father Anthony is to the right of my Uncle Noel (you list them the other way round).

    The Isokon flats in Lawn Road were designed by Wells Coates for Molly and Jack Pritchard, friends of my grandparents, and Lella had a flat there. I remember visiting Molly and Jack there in their penthouse flat . I wasn't aware that the building was originally planned for Highfield!

    I connected to your blog by chance via a distant relative who is doing his family tree. His section on the Sargants has a link to here.
    I would also be interested in the biography on Lella. There is already a book based on her letters, edited by Noel's wife - helped by one of my sisters - and published some years ago in the States.

    I hope you find this information useful.

    Tamara

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  8. Thank you so much Tamara for your comments. Invaluable information, gratefully received. I was intrigued to read that Lella had a flat at Lawn Road, do you know when that was?

    Mike

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  9. I'm not sure of the exact dates when she had the Isokon flat but I do know she had it during the war. I think that, though living at Highfield, she was working in London in journalism at the time, possibly associated with the American embassy in some way - but don't quote me! She was actually American, as was my grandfather: his mother Mary married an American, and Philip and Alix were born in New Jersey. Mary returned with them to England on a family visit when they were still little, and then remained here following the news that her husband (still in America) had died.

    My father stayed in Lella's Isokon flat at some point at the end of the war and my uncle was also living in another flat there for a time. Did you know that Agatha Christie was also a resident there, along with some other interesting characters?

    Incidentally, Woman's Hour did a serialised docu-drama on Lella earlier this year based around her work with the trial of the contraceptive pill in Birmingham.(She was portrayed with an American accent, which she no longer had by that time!)

    If you would like more accurate info on the Isokon dates etc I can ask my uncle, who lives in the States.

    Tamara

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  10. Thank you once again, Tamara, for your contribution. I would like to say that I am researching a book on Birmingham in the first half of C20th, but it would be more accurate to say that I am researching the possibility of it. I find a blog to be a good outlet for the small steps of an ambitious project. The lives of your grandparents in the city would be an essential chapter in such a story.

    As well as being architecturally interesting the Lawn Road flats also intrigue me because of the characters who lived there. For instance the interwar Soviet spy network was able to be based there without standing out too much. One of the other Birmingham chapters I've been writing has been on atomic Birmingham - Klaus Fuchs began his spying career here. His contacts included Jurgen and Ruth Kuczynski, who lived for a time on Lawn Road. But thats besides the point. Yes, I would like to know more accurate info of when Lella was there. That would be great. I hope it is not asking too much.

    But mainly I associate the flats with a general network of progressive left-wing intellectuals - a more modernist Bloomsbury, and I get the impression that your grandparents' ambition for Highfield was for a Midlands outpost of that tradition. Certainly the role call of those who stayed or visited is quite impressive (and I only know a little). The story should really be told. And I didn't know about the Woman's Hour docu-drama! Thanks, I shall certainly try to hunt it down.

    Thank you, again.

    Mike

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  11. Thank you Mike for the info about the more 'interesting' residents of Lawn Road - but more on that later! I spoke a few days ago with my uncle on skype to try to get some more precise information re Lella and her Isokon flat; unfortunately it wasn't a good day for him and his recollecton was a bit vague. However, I will be spending Christmas and New Year with family in the States (both my father and uncle ended up settling there) and will be able to speak with him then; possibly other family members may have information too.

    I was astonished by your revelations about spy-rings: I had no idea that the neighbourhood was so exciting in those days! My mother lived at number 13 Lawn Road, and I was raised there (though I suppose these more shadowy characters would have been long gone by that time). I know that at some point she had worked in the evening in the Isokon bar, which I think was actually called The Isobar! She did it more for the interesting company and social life there, and she had a few tales to tell about that. I'm pretty sure it's also where she met my father.

    I remember as a small child regularly going into the kitchen that supplied the meals there and being treated to bowls of chips by Rosie, one of the cooks. Real memory lane stuff!

    I may have more to tell later, from my trip to the States. Meantime I hope you were able to track down the Woman's Hour drama.

    If there is any thread you want to follow-up I'll do my best to help if I can. You certainly seem to have an interesting and 'free-ranging' project going!

    Tamara

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  12. Tamara - I'm Miriam, daughter of your mother's friends Ruth and Stuart (she was a witness at their wedding) , we met in Birmingham probably late 60's- my parents lived down the road from Highfield. Can I still contact you through this blog? It seems to have come to an end?My brother and I are doing some family history research about our parents lives before the war 1930s and their possible links with Lawn Rd flats. Thanks.

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  13. I've just picked up a copy today of Dr David Burke's new book 'The Lawn Road Flats', and very excited to be reading more about that fascinating place. Only a few pages in and Lella and Philip Sargant Florence are mentioned. I would think the author would be interested in the comments above.

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  14. Hi Mike, I'm writing a blog post about Highfield, and am hoping to write a book about Birmingham's literary history/connections. Is it ok with you if I refer to your post (fully credited to you of course) as it has some detail I've not seen anywhere else? I'm writing it in the context of Birmingham's failure to conserve its history, rather than the literary context (saving that for the book). Many thanks,

    Jo Owen

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    1. Hi Jo.Yes, I am happy to have you refer anything written on my blog. It would be great to read a book on Birmingham's literary history & connections. m

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  15. Hi Mike

    I very much enjoyed reading this post. Could you tell me the source of the photo of Louis MacNeice with his baby son at Highfield? I am interested in using it for a project.

    Many thanks,

    Sara

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