Saturday, 30 April 2011

That Cemetery Without Walls

'In any real sense of the world I was born at Oxford: I have no more connection with my early life and with Birmingham than I have with Timbuctoo.' - Kenneth Tynan

The year 1927 was in retrospect an important one in Birmingham's cultural history. Henry Green arrived in Tyseley to begin work at his father's factory, Laurence Olivier began his career at Barry Jackson's Birmingham Rep, and despite his denial, Kenneth Peacock Tynan was indeed born by Caesarean section on 2nd April 'in a small Birmingham nursing home, Glenhurst, 319 Shaftmoor Lane, Hall Green', and raised in the city. The first eight years of his life were spent living at 955 Stratford Road, Hall Green, then in 1935 the family moved to 229 Portland Road, Edgbaston, near 'the Smethwick frontier'. The young Ken switched to George Dixon school, then from 1938 until he reached adulthood and an Oxford scholarship, Tynan attended King Edward's Grammar School where he was regarded as a brilliant scholar. They could teach him little he did not already know.

After school he would often read for up to six hours in the Birmingham Reference Library. In the evening he would write up his journal, turn out a theatre review, and the following day produce immaculate school work, which he had completed in the early hours of the morning.

the 'reflib'

I read the first hundred pages of 'Ulysses' in the reflib the other day; it is prob the finest comic classic of our time. [Letter from Tynan to Julian Holland, 16/12/1943]

In reading his Letters, I was struck by the lack of love Tynan had for his father, and for his hometown. They seemed to be one and the same when they received his revulsion. He described Birmingham as 'the ugliest city in Europe' and could not wait to get away. Tynan may have disliked his father for all sorts of teenage reasons, but there was a very good one which Tynan claimed to be unaware of until his father's death in 1948. Peter Tynan was not who he said he was. In reality, only his mother bore the Tynan surname, his father was Sir Peter Peacock, self-made businessman, six times mayor of Warrington, and, on Tuesdays, a Justice of the Peace in the town. Ken's parents were not married as Sir Peter had been refused a divorce from Maria Peacock whom he had walked out on and their five children.

Although Sir Peter Peacock and Rose Tynan had set up home together in Birmingham since 1921, it was not the end of his life in Warrington. Two days a week he continued to travel north to oversee his expanding business empire and his civic duties. He had many fingers in many pies, but the Peacock name was most associated with Peacock Stores. By the time Ken was sixteen, there were twelve Peacock Stores in the Birmingham and Black Country area. Today, there are 900 stores in the UK, and 200 overseas.

The last trace of the fading Kardomah Cafe sign, New St.

The flamboyantly dressed Kenneth Tynan must have been an anachronistic sight as he glided down New Street in the middle of wartime Birmingham; an austere city at the best of times. On the first floor of the Kardomah Cafe he sat overlooking the street below, writing on his typewriter and generally holding court amongst the young bohemians of the day. Home to the Birmingham Group of surrealists, various actors and thieves (including the notorious Paul Lund), the Kardomah Cafe on New Street was the cool centre of young Birmingham.

Tynan once described the most significant event in his early life as seeing Citizen Kane. He did not just watch it, he completely immersed himself.

On 4 March 1942, the day Kane opened in Birmingham at the Gaumont Cinema, the fourteen-year-old Ken was there. He came away, as he later wrote 'dazzled by its narrative virtuosity, its shocking but always relevant cuts... its brilliantly orchestrated dialogue, and its use of deep focus in sound as well as vision'. By the end of the week he had seen the film five times, once with his mother, once with his eyes shut in order to prove that the sound track was expressive enough to be listened to in its own right.

Letter from Orson Welles to Kenneth Tynan, 29-4-1943