Past Conferences: 1981

The Conference was held at the Dorset Institute for Further Education, Weymouth, 4 – 7 September 1981


James Turner: ‘Charlatanism’ in the philosophy of John Cowper Powys.

Oliver Holt: Reminiscences of Littleton Powys

Martin Pollock: On Llewelyn Powys

Stephen Powys Marks: On A.R. Powys

Ingemar Algulin: John Cowper Powys and the Sceptical Tradition

Reports on Speakers

Martin Pollock on Llewelyn Powys

The talk given by Dr. Martin Pollock was, as he, himself, described it “a fragment of memory” and fascinating for those of us meeting, talking and listening for the first time to members of that ”dwindling band” who had personally known Llewelyn Powys.

The speaker made no apologies for the egocentricity of his talk, it was, he said,”… my memories, my impressions, of a personality, scattered and fractured and sometimes rather dim and confused, neither an analysis nor a biographical sketch.” But the easy flowing conversational style of his delivery and the timelessness of the aspects of life upon which he touched made one easily identify with the speaker so that the listener felt that he, too, had known Llewelyn Powys,

It was interesting to trace the speaker’s changing views on Llewelyn from the first meeting - when the speaker was perhaps 11 or 12 years old - to his last meeting with him at Clavadel in Switzerland when he was 23 years old and suffering the misery of the end of his first real love affair.

The speaker readily admitted that what Llewelyn said to him at the time was of less importance then than now, "This is due" said Dr. Pollock "to my attaching more importance now to the things and ideas he valued than I did 40 odd years ago, rather than to the lapse of time or to the nostalgic sadness of his no longer being alive".

The conversations of the speaker with Llewelyn Powys were concerned with the latter’s sensual love of life and with sexual love. Much has been said and written of both these aspects of Llewelyn’s nature. As to the latter, the speaker could only puzzle uncertainty at Alyse Gregory’s “… dry silence, her expression of patient affectionate scepticism … as if it ought to be saying a great deal …” when Llewelyn had said in a remark made for her rather than for him “… I knew that Alyse was the right person, the only person for me “. As to the former, at the conclusion of his talk the speaker drew a delightful picture of Llewelyn at his best when he said, ”the image I like especially to recall of Llewelyn is one that I can remember as clearly in my mind’s eye as if it were a photograph held in my hand:- of when I was only about 14 years old and he still in his early forties, unbearded and very good-looking, sitting on that large flat sloping pebbly brown rock at the foot of White Nose (the same as it was a half-century ago) completely surrounded by quite deep water at high tide, clasping his knees in his hands and beaming with benevolence out to sea, blessing the world and occasionally turning to smile at me on the shore with a sort of conspiratorial delight at sharing the joys of being alive:- loving life I suppose, just that...."

The talk was a delightful personal reminiscence gentle, affectionate and again particularly interesting when the speaker readily admitted that Llewelyn’s counsel is of more value to him now than at the time it was given.

For those not fortunate enough to be a member of Dr. Pollock’s audience, a cassette of the talk is available for hire.

Stephen Powys Marks on A.R. Powys

The talk by Stephen Powys Marks on "ARP" was timely in its coincidence with the republication of "The Repair of Ancient Buildings" by the SPAB Society, the Society for which A.R.P. had for many distinguished years been secretary. The amount of preparation which had so obviously gone into the talk was remarkable not only for the extensive display of photographs, booklets, letters from John Cowper and a wooden chess table made by ARP himself but also for the technical intricacies through which the speaker - himself an architect - led his audience so expertly. A transcript of the talk will be published in The Powys Review No. 10.

Oliver Holt on Littleton Powys

Oliver Holt’s talk on Littleton is best described in the words of Dr. Glen Cavaliero in his vote of thanks at the conclusion of the talk. Dr. Cavaliero said that we, the audience, now knew very much more about a brother who had tended to be overlooked and Mr. Holt had given us a perfect model of the neglected art of literary portraiture. It was extremely moving to have been present at Mr. Holt’s talk. The paper is shortly to be published in the Review but the transcript alone does not convey either the eloquence of the speaker or the overwhelming loss which he so obviously still felt for a man for whom he had the greatest respect and affection. The audience was privileged to have heard Mr. Oliver Holt and the Society owes him a debt of gratitude.

James Turner: John Cowper Powys and Charlatanism
Ingemar Algulin: John Cowper Powys and the Sceptical Tradition

Coming at the beginning and end of the conference, these two entirely independent papers turned out to be surprisingly inter-related. Both showed how consciously John Cowper placed himself, as a type of the intellect, and as a representative of a discredited but significant philosophic ancestry. What links “Charlatan” and "Sceptic", is the concept of the "empiric", Powys was aware how easily the Dictionary Definition shades from "acting on observation and experiment, not on theory" to "relying solely on experiment" and so to that crushing monosyllable, "Quack".

These ambiguities were meat and drink to John Cowper; he loved to conceive himself as, on the one hand, a wandering medicine-man, dispensing miraculous cures just as the fancy took him; he willingly embodied a challenge to all the citadels of entrenched logic, but he revelled also in the charge of Charlatanry, that he knew would result. Charlatanism consists, in John Cowper’s definition of "the impulsive communication of your feelings ...without waiting to get the details correct”. This indiscretion of the intellect was partly a strategy, adopted as a corrective to the increasingly restrictive disciplines of modern scholarship. In this respect it has nothing at all in common with that "empiricism" of English tradition, which explicitly set out to combat those wide imponderables to which Powys, two centuries later, was attempting to give new currency.

And similarly, with his "scepticism", it is of the inclusive rather than the exclusive variety, and one recalls Blake’s "Proverb of Hell"

"Everything that is possible to be believed is an Image of the Truth".

Powys’s fiction exists partly to group such "Images".

As Dr. Algulin pointed out, Wolf Solent is about scepticism, both its fruitfulness, and its problems. It shows Wolf’s belief in its cyclic ebb and flow, the process by which a man’s intellectual bearings are first destroyed, and, at the eleventh hour, re-constituted. It is because of his scepticism that Powys’ form had to be fiction, not philosophy. The Complex Vision was too abstract, and, willy-nilly, presented a system; it distorted his voice. In his fiction John Cowper can say, with Nietzsche, "Believe me when I speak in Images".

In A Glastonbury Romance the sceptical structure is complicated by more and more religious and metaphysical "possibilities"; and the crowding of these images seems part of their essential meaning. The separation that occurs here between the "sceptical" John Crow, and the "empiric" or "charlatan" Geard - (both miracle worker and Quack)- will provide the central relationship in all the subsequent fiction. But it is never in question who is master. Geard, Uryen, Owen, Myrddin, Cronos....Their life, and death, and not the sceptical servant’s doubts, provide the mainspring of each book. But it’s the sceptic, even so, who survives to tell the tale.

Timothy Hyman