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Beyond Holy Russia

Michael Hughes

9. The Pilgrim Reborn?

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1The last twenty years of Graham’s life were dogged by ill-health and, perhaps even more, by concerns about ill-health, for it is hard to avoid the impression that both he and Vera became border-line hypochondriacs in their advancing years. Long descriptions of their aches and pains filled Graham’s voluminous correspondence with his old friend Marion Hay, a Professor of Education at Florida State University, who in her spare time ran a travel agency that specialised in providing guided tours of Europe for wealthy Floridians. Graham and Hay first became acquainted in the 1930s, when Hay spent time organising courses for the Centro de Estudios Históricos in Madrid, before later making a dramatic flight from Spain following the outbreak of the civil war. During the difficult days of rationing in the 1940s, it was Hay who sent parcels of food and other essential supplies to her old friend, generosity which Graham later repaid by organising hotel accommodation and theatre tickets for her tour groups when they visited London. Hay herself stayed at Frith Street at least once a year during the 1950s and 1960s, and, when back in the USA, she helped to manage Graham’s financial affairs, liaising with his American publishers to ensure that his royalty cheques were forwarded to Soho.

2Graham was enthralled by the accounts that Hay regularly sent of her long trips through remote areas of the globe, ranging from Latin America to Russia, but the constraints of health and money meant that his own life was increasingly confined to the streets and buildings of central London. His notebooks show that in the silence of his study his mind often turned back to his sojourns in Russia and America so many years before. He also continued to ruminate on the meaning of the world around him, privately musing over the ideas that had intrigued him when he was still a young man, once again becoming enthralled by an “idealism” that retained a luminosity even as it seemed increasingly elusive in the face of advancing years and uncertain finances. Graham’s situation was not easy in the twenty years before his death. He had always worked hard to exploit the commercial potential of his work, but his lifestyle had never been particularly frugal, and his finances were in a parlous state by the time he entered his eighth decade. After Graham’s hours at the BBC were reduced in 1954, he devoted more time to his writing, in the hope of earning extra money, but the work he produced was too old-fashioned for a modern audience. His letters throughout the final two decades of his life were filled with mournful reflections about the cost of living, descending on occasion to gloomy descriptions of how he and Vera were forced to sit in the cold at Frith Street, surviving on a diet of cold macaroni cheese and tea. The picture was exaggerated. Although money was tight, Stephen and Vera continued to go on regular holidays, whilst Graham himself remained a fixture at many of the more convivial London literary meetings.

  • 1 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 7, Graham to Marion Hay, 14 May 1954.
  • 2 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 18 September 1955.

3Graham’s novels of the 1930s had not made him wealthy, but they did produce a solid income in advances and royalties, and he only abandoned fiction after the legal furore that followed the publication of African Tragedy in 1938. It was seventeen more years before his next (and final) novel appeared in 1955. Pay as You Run was a sequel to his earlier Everybody Pays, perhaps his most inoffensively tedious book, which had charted the unlikely romance between the tax inspector Henry Pillguard and the nightclub dancer Clara Lehman. In Pay as you Run, Pillguard is charged by his office with investigating the financial affairs of one Monty Sandburn, a raffish con-man, who made his money through the twin activities of selling dubious antiques and befriending lonely widows (Graham was, it seems, still fascinated by the way in which individuals could succeed in presenting a false persona to the world). The book is most politely described as forgettable – it attracted few reviews – but its obsession with taxes and taxmen echoed its creator’s perennial resentment at having to hand over a large part of his earnings to the government. Graham started the novel whilst on a holiday in Guernsey, and continued work on it throughout the winter of 1954-55, a time when he was consuming twelve oranges and several pints of milk every day (a diet which, for some unknown reason, he hoped would ease his chronic digestive problems).1 When the book finally appeared in the autumn of 1955, he held a cocktail party at Frith Street for more than fifty guests, ranging from publishers and booksellers to a restorer of old paintings. A number of tax inspectors were also present (Graham had met them when carrying out research for the book). One of the inspectors enjoyed the hospitality rather too eagerly, and had to be walked swaying to the local bus stop, but other guests remained into the small hours, consuming the left-over food in the kitchen.2 The eclectic crowd was very different from the one that would have assembled at a launch-party for a book by one of Graham’s more celebrated contemporaries. He was, however, always something of an outsider in the London literary world, and had no hesitation in pronouncing the Frith Street party a great success, even though it did little to push sales of the book.

  • 3 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 25 May 1955.
  • 4 The phrase is taken from Graham’s earlier book, Twice Round the London (London: Ernest Benn, 1933) (...)

4Although 1954 and 1955 were dominated by Graham’s work on Pay as you Run and his duties at the BBC, he and Vera still found time for holidays in Cornwall and the Channel Islands. They also made numerous trips to Epping Forest, where they relished the peace of the woodland that Graham had known when he was a boy living in nearby Chigwell. They planned a trip to Italy to visit one of Vera’s sisters, but were forced to cancel because of poor health, although various members of the Mitrinović clan descended on London from time to time to see them (Vera and Stephen eventually managed their first trip together to Yugoslavia in 1960, but few records of their impressions remain). Graham continued to view the British political scene with a morose eye, writing to Marion Hay in 1955 that he and Vera expected the Tories to win the forthcoming election, “but we are not in love with them. But don’t think much of Atlee and Company either”.3 Nor was life easy on the domestic front. Although Graham and Vera were fiercely committed to staying at Frith Street, repainting the walls and moving around furniture to keep the house aired and fresh, the winters were often grim. The temperature in the living room was on occasion just above freezing, and the lavatory was only kept working by the use of an oil heater. The two of them nevertheless continued to accept such hardship as the price of living in one of London’s most distinctive enclaves. Soho in the 1950s was still a cosmopolitan quarter, a fitting home for an aging writer living with a foreigner to whom he was not married. Graham continued to find Soho a place where he could relish life as “one of London’s living bricks”.4

  • 5 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 7, Graham to Hay, 27 October 1956.
  • 6 Daily Mail, 20 October 1956.
  • 7 Evening News, 20 October 1956.

5The death of Rose Graham early in 1956, in Somerset, made it possible for Stephen and Vera to marry. It is not clear why Stephen and Rose never divorced, despite their long separation, but the bitterness of Graham’s occasional comments suggests that his wife refused to bring their marriage to a formal close. Within a few months of his wife’s death, Graham wrote to Marion Hay in Florida, telling her that “Vera and I are now married in the letter as well as the spirit. Decided to get married as quietly as possible and have a celebration much later when I am completely restored to health. Still cannot face a round of any big excitement”.5 There were only two guests at the wedding, which took place at Caxton Hall registry office in Westminster. Although Graham blamed his health for the quiet ceremony, he was, like his father so many years before, conventional enough to have been embarrassed about his irregular marital status, and was both gratified and perturbed when “some of the newspapers got hold of the event and gave us a write-up”. Graham was happy to meet a reporter from the Daily Mail, telling him that he and Vera planned to have a short honeymoon at Hove, but the story he told the journalist about how and when they had met was decidedly at odds with the truth.6 He was even more disingenuous in speaking to the Evening News, although he warmly praised Vera as “a wonderful companion”, and told how she had helped him to learn Serbo-Croat many years earlier.7 Graham was torn between a desire to celebrate his wedding and unease at drawing attention to the unorthodox nature of his living arrangements over the previous twenty five years.

Figure 9: Photograph of Stephen and Vera Graham on the 13 August 1957 (photographer unknown). Courtesy Private Collection.

  • 8 Walter Jerrold, Thomas Hood: his Life and Times (London: Alston Rivers, 1907).
  • 9 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 583 (Typed manuscript of The Life and Times of Tom Hood).
  • 10 Ibid, S. Lawrence (Atlantic Monthly Press) to Graham, 30 November 1961.

6Within a few months of his marriage, Graham was suddenly faced with the alarming prospect of losing his lease on Frith Street, a result of the controversial 1957 Rent Act, introduced to help increase the supply of rented property by removing restrictions on the amount landlords could charge their tenants. He had to spend a good deal of effort during the following years bargaining with the freeholder, and it looked for a time as though he and Vera might have to move out, although they eventually agreed a new lease in 1961. A good deal of restoration and repair was carried out to the building in the late 1950s, creating extensive disruption for its residents, but Graham nevertheless continued to write. He found it increasingly difficult to find a publisher for his work, though, an ironic state of affairs given that he continued to lecture on the theme of ‘How to Get a Book Published’. Graham produced at least four long manuscripts in the ten years after 1958 which never appeared in print. The first of these was a biography of the humourist and poet Thomas Hood (1799-1845), a rather curious project, given Hood’s comparative obscurity and the existence of a competent biography published many years earlier.8 Graham nevertheless spent many hours in the British Library working on the manuscript (which was completed at the end of 1958). The book was written in Graham’s usual style, and contained scenes that must have been speculative in character, including a detailed account of how visitors to the bookshop run by Hood’s father “came in from the busy street, took their time, not rushing in to buy a book, but staying often half an hour or more browsing about”.9 The manuscript failed to catch the complex shades of light and dark in Hood’s personality, which allowed him to be both a comic writer and a serious poet. Graham’s biography ended with the kind of archaic flourish that was unlikely to appeal to a contemporary audience: “He quit the world with everlasting farewells and with oft-repeated hopes of reunion in heaven. Then he faded away. Late on the night of May Day 1845 he entered a coma. He died at noon on the 3rd of May”. Graham was proud of the manuscript of The Life and Times of Tom Hood, so much so that he mentioned it in the will he made in 1957, but publishers were unwilling to accept a manuscript on a topic that was “not on a sufficiently large scale to attract a wide reading audience”.10

  • 11 BBC Archives (Caversham), Correspondence related to, and transcript of, Murder at Marseilles (tran (...)

7Although there was no interest in Graham’s biography of Hood, some of his earlier work continued to attract attention. In 1959 Ernest Benn reissued the collection of Great Russian Short Stories that Graham had edited thirty years before, complete with a new Preface and an additional piece by the Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoschenko. Of greater excitement was the decision by the BBC to produce a radio drama based on Graham’s book about the murder of King Alexander of Yugoslavia at Marseilles. The BBC was running a series on ‘The Assassins’, and in July 1960 Graham was approached by the Corporation seeking permission “for a dramatized version of your book”.11 A few days later, though, the BBC got back in touch saying they had found another source, an unpublished thesis by one George Csrenyi, with the result that the programme would “not really [be] a dramatisation of your book, but will be based on both sources”. Graham was not pleased by the revelation – pointing out that he had himself given help and advice to Cserenyi – adding for good measure that “one has to bear in mind that the Hungarians were involved in the terrorist activities of the Ustasha” (Cserenyi is a Hungarian name and Graham seems to have been hinting that its author was not unbiased in his account). He nevertheless gave his permission on the condition that his own book was cited as “the chief source”. The dramatisation was subsequently broadcast on the Home Service and the World Service in the final months of 1960. ‘Murder at Marseilles’ lasted for thirty minutes, and was narrated by a storyteller who introduced the various characters as they recounted their lives in the days leading up to the assassination of Alexander. Ante Pavelić was portrayed in the drama – as Graham had described him in his book – as a fanatical terrorist determined to hunt down the King and destroy the state of Yugoslavia (“only by the destruction of Yugoslavia can a free Croatia be born”). The actors’ voices combined to capture the drama of the assassination itself, describing the scenes of chaos following the murder of Alexander in his open-topped car, as the police and soldiers responsible for guarding them rushed to capture their killer. Graham was not involved in the production, even though he was still doing some work for the BBC at the age of seventy six, but he was delighted to receive two cheques for twenty guineas at a time when his finances were at a low ebb.

  • 12 For some correspondence on possible publication, see Gawsworth Papers (University of Reading Libra (...)
  • 13 For copies of these reviews see Graham Papers (FSU), Box 574, 16a.

8Graham was less successful at finding a publisher for a collection of the short stories he had written over the previous forty years (many of which had already appeared in various magazines and anthologies). Some, like ‘5,000 Enemy Planes over London’ and ‘Kitchener at Archangel’, reflected Graham’s life-long interest in the macabre and ghostly.12 Others, including ‘Ilya Vilka’ and ‘Aha’, were based on his experiences long before in Russia. Graham also continued to write new works of fiction, including an unlikely fantasy called ‘Bakunin at the Dresden Zoo’, a rather shapeless piece of work loosely based on the celebrated Russian anarchist’s time in Germany. He even seems to have made a fitful effort to publish some of the poems he had written throughout his life. Graham did however develop his career as a literary critic in the late 1950s and early 1960s, mainly in Poetry Review, where his pieces revealed a sensitivity that had sometimes been missing in his earlier writing. Some of his reviews examined the works of poets like Edith Sitwell, whose Collected Poems he warmly praised, although he criticised Sitwell’s preface for spending too long talking about technique in a way that was “professorial rather than practical [...] The lover of poetry can enjoy effects without grasping how they are achieved, just as beautiful sculpture can hush the soul without a knowledge of anatomy”. Graham also lauded Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese poems for helping readers to understand that China had its own rich cultural history, and was not simply the menacing Yellow Peril of western imagination. Most of Graham’s reviews were of biographies and critical works, including Renato Poggioli’s The Poets of Russia, which he praised for its sensitive understanding of the way in which Russia’s national identity had shaped the development of a unique poetic tradition. In other pieces he mounted an enthusiastic defence of poets as varied as Rudyard Kipling and Edward Thomas (a poet he admired unreservedly for his sensitivity to nature and landscape). Most of Graham’s pieces in Poetry Review were no longer than five hundred words or so, forcing him to abandon his usual prolix style, and they revealed his acute understanding of both English and world literature.13

  • 14 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 40 (Journal for 1959, entry dated 17 May 1959). Graham’s Journals in (...)
  • 15 Stephen Graham, Part of the Wonderful Scene (London: Collins, 1964), p. 307.

9By the early 1960s, as he approached his eightieth birthday, Graham was in an increasingly reflective mood as he looked back over his long life and realised how few of the people he knew in his younger years were still alive. It was partly for this reason that he sought out the company of Vernon Hill, the illustrator who had provided the drawings for Tramping with a Poet in the Rockies many years before, staying with him on a number of occasions at Hill’s cottage in Sussex.14 Graham’s mind also turned to writing his autobiography, a decision prompted in part by the hope that it might prove a commercial success, but still more by the need to make sense of his life on the threshold of his ninth decade. When Part of the Wonderful Scene finally appeared, in 1964, he pondered on the way in which his life, like all lives, displayed “no obvious pattern”, but was instead a jumble of “experiences and activities”.15 Graham worked with great diligence on the text of Wonderful Scene throughout 1962-63, producing a number of drafts, as he struggled to shape the telling of his “experiences and activities” in a way that made sense both to himself and his readers. In doing so he told a story that highlighted particular aspects of his life and left others shrouded in a cloud of obscurity. The contents of Graham’s autobiography were determined in part by the dictates of the publishers – Collins – who believed that readers would be most interested in Graham’s time in Russia before the First World War. More than half the book therefore deals with his life between 1907 and 1917. Graham resented his publisher’s request, believing that his readers would be equally interested in his travels in America, and in the years after Wonderful Scene appeared he worked fitfully on a second edition designed to give more details about his travels in the 1920s. The text of the book was not, however, only determined by commercial requirements. It was also moulded by the mature Graham’s desire to portray his life in a way that reflected his contemporary sensitivities as much as the attitudes and adventures of his younger self.

  • 16 Margaret Haley Carpenter Papers (University of Virginia), Accession No. 10656, Box 10, 18, Graham (...)
  • 17 Ibid, Graham to Carpenter, 1 May 1966.

10It was noted in an earlier chapter that Part of the Wonderful Scene carefully concealed as much as it revealed. Graham tellingly started work on the book less as a formal autobiography, and more as a description of the people he had met throughout his long life, which he initially planned to call Pictures of My Friends. He told one of his correspondents, the biographer Margaret Carpenter, that he loathed “debunking” and preferred to adopt a creed “that the best in a person is that person”.16 A few years later, after Part of the Wonderful Scene appeared in print, he wrote in another letter to Carpenter that “a man’s books have to stand for him, not the silly things he may have said ‘off the record’ or physical facts known only to his doctor”. He went on to note that “I am more vain of my books than I am of my actual adventures in life, because writing is art & I would rather have written Gray’s elegy than taken Quebec”.17 It was a philosophy that shaped the account he told of his own life.

  • 18 For Graham’s awareness of this danger, told through the prism of his reflections on the life of hi (...)

11Graham said nothing in Part of the Wonderful Scene about the unorthodox nature of his early family life, only discussing his father perfunctorily, and was silent about the way in which Anderson Graham abandoned his family when the children were still young. Nor did Graham say anything about his emotional crisis of the mid-1920s, which was closely linked to the break-down of his relationship with Rose, whilst his cursory discussion of his time in Yugoslavia in the 1930s avoided discussing the nature of his relationship with Vera. Nor was it only the personal details of his life that Graham sought to refashion or obscure. Whilst he wrote a good deal in Wonderful Scene about his life-long “idealism” and suspicion of materialism, he was much less forthcoming about his early interest in Theosophy. He made no mention of the youthful metaphysical vision he had outlined in Ygdrasil (his youthful unpublished meditation on Nordic myth which had reflected his essentially dualistic vision of the world). The most obvious explanation for Graham’s desire to distance himself from the esoteric interests of his earlier years was simply that he had long abandoned them. It is certainly true, as the previous chapters have shown, that the middle aged Graham developed a more prosaic set of intellectual and literary interests than the ones that had preoccupied his youthful self. In his old age, though, Graham’s notebooks and diaries show that he was, once again, turning his mind to the questions that had so preoccupied him when he was a young man. He was simply reluctant to make too much in public of his esoteric view of life which he feared could earn him a reputation as a “crank”.18

  • 19 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 21 (Journal for 1967, entry dated 4 January).
  • 20 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 577, 10 (Journal for 1963, entry dated 24 May).
  • 21 Ibid (Journal for 1963, entry dated 4 September). See, too, Graham Papers (FSU), Box 577, 13E (Jou (...)

12Graham was sharply critical in Wonderful Scene of gurus like P.D. Uspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff, who had been so popular in Britain in the 1920s, but during the years following the book’s publication his mind often returned to that period. He seemed tantalised by the memory of an age when there was still a widespread hunger to reject a “materialism that rots the soul”.19 Despite Graham’s professed dislike of anything that smacked of black magic, he met the writer John Symmonds, who had written a book about the controversial occultist Aleister Crowley. He also read numerous works on Christian theology and history, ranging from the books of Maude Royden through to David Strauss’s nineteenth-century classic Life of Jesus, which had caused a huge storm when it was published in Germany by denying the divinity of Christ. Schopenhauer and Schweitzer also figured in his reading. Graham remained convinced that “The world is not what it seems [...] it is full of magic and the most extraordinary things”, and recalled how he had once asked in one of his books “What is our life if it is not miraculous?”, a sentiment that he continued to espouse deep into old age.20 Graham remained sceptical of the main churches, although he still pondered from time to time the possibility of going over to Rome. He was particularly critical of the modern Anglican obsession with social problems. Graham was also still instinctively wary of formal theology, since “it works no miracles and it cannot inspire”, instead praising “holy men” such as St Francis of Assisi, who had devoted his life to preaching the gospel of love to the ordinary peasants of northern Italy.21

  • 22 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 577, 13A (Journal for 1965, entry dated 13 January).
  • 23 Ibid (Journal for 1965, entry dated 15 January).
  • 24 Ibid (Journal for 1965, entries dated 14 April, 14 June).
  • 25 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 21 (Journal for 1966, entry dated 4 January).
  • 26 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 577, 13A (Journal for 1965, entry dated 17 March).

13Some of the other maxims that filled Graham’s notebooks point still more strongly towards his reinvigorated sense that Christianity was simply one of “many mansions” in the spiritual domain, of value above all for capturing certain truths about the nature of the universe, rather than for articulating particular dogmas and principles. Sometimes these speculations bordered on an esoteric obscurantism that makes them hard to unravel, including such claims as “God is not a name of the Deity: it is a word not a name, but it becomes the equivalent of a name”,22 a phrase that seems to hint at its author’s sense that certain phenomena could not easily be captured in words. Vera also seemed to share such views – despite being a regular worshipper at the Serbian Orthodox Church in London – speculating that “Man arrived on the planet from God knows where. Hence the myth of Lucifer and his rebel angels. Man is descended from these rebel angels”.23 Graham’s notebooks contained speculations about the nature of a world in which “Times goes on forever because you cannot imagine a day which has no tomorrow. The whole universe may dissolve but there must be a day after [...] What we call the universe is something complete in itself [...] outside the universe – what?”24 Such speculations were peppered with the kind of reflections about self-improvement that Graham had jotted down for more than sixty years, although these were by now tinged with a realism that had once eluded him: “In a day a man does many wrong things. It is utopian to try to give up all wrong things, but a man could very well reduce the number of wrong things he does in a day”.25 Although there were times when Graham seemed to slip into a kind of depression in the period following publication of Wonderful Scene, he was aware of the dangers of living in the past, writing that “I must push on to the next turning in the road. It is as if it was long ago when I first tramped into the Caucasus, from the sunbathed [...] foothills towards the heights in the snow”.26 The wistful remembrance of the strength and emotional exuberance of his youth was matched by a melancholy realism that he was facing a time of inevitable decline and death.

  • 27 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 8, Graham to Hay, 20 June 1966.

14When not working in his wood-panelled study on the first floor of 60 Frith Street, Graham spent a good deal of time fretting about money. Whilst he was always delighted to hear from readers who had come across his books for the first time, he never lost his resentment at how little he had earned from his writing. He nevertheless found the money for a trip to Yugoslavia with Vera in 1966, when the two of them visited Belgrade, before heading on to the town of Vela Luka, on the Dalmatian island of Korcula, where Vera’s niece and her husband owned a summer house.27 Graham’s financial situation became a little easier following his return from Vela Luka, when he received some extra money from the BBC, and he returned to the Adriatic for each of the following two summers. Graham always found the journey to Yugoslavia tiring, especially given the bureaucratic headaches involved in buying plane and train tickets. He only survived the heat of Vela Luka by buying dark sunglasses and sitting in the shade throughout the heat of the day. One visitor to the house recalled that Graham struck the assembled company of artists and scholars as “quite old and sombre”, seldom joining in the lively conversations about art and politics, although

  • 28 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 580, 37A (‘Yugoslavia is Getting Happier’).

15Graham’s own notes show that he was impressed by the growing freedom with which members of the country’s intelligentsia were able to discuss controversial topics. Whilst he never reconciled himself to the reality of communist Yugoslavia, Graham was convinced that life in the country had improved since he and Vera first went there in 1960, at least as measured by the growing number of cars and the large projects to build new houses for the population. He was also struck by the extent to which “friendly equality and good manners permeate social behaviour”.28 Graham loathed Belgrade – a city he had never liked since first going there in 1920 – but he was still captivated by the beauty of the Dalmatian coast which he so lovingly described forty years earlier in his novel Midsummer Music.

16Within a few weeks of returning from his visit to Dalmatia in the summer of 1967, Graham began preparing for his first trip outside Europe since he and Vera had gone to South Africa some thirty years before. For many years he had wanted to return to the United States – his last visit had been in 1930 – but the difficult financial circumstances of the post-war years meant that such a trip had always been out of the question. The receipt of his severance payment from the BBC finally gave Graham the means to return to the country he had not seen for thirty seven years. The detailed preparations he made for the trip could hardly have compared more starkly with his insouciant approach to travel in his younger years, when he crossed oceans with nothing more than a rucksack, and the eighty-three year old Graham was as apprehensive as he was excited about the prospect of another long journey. His correspondence with Marion Hay was full of the practical details involved in applying for a visa and getting permission to take sterling out of the country (the normal allowance of fifty pounds permitted by the British governments to its citizens travelling abroad was quite inadequate for a three-month trip). Graham and Vera even fretted about the practical business of closing up Frith Street, taking meter readings and making arrangements for their upstairs tenant to keep an eye on the flat, which had been burgled during one of their earlier trips to Yugoslavia. Both of them also predictably worried about how their health would stand up to the rigours of the journey. At the start of November 1967, the two of them finally left Heathrow on a BOAC flight to New York, where they had booked a double room on the seventeenth floor of the art deco Hotel Edison, located in midtown Manhattan near Times Square.

  • 29 All quotations in the following paragraphs unless otherwise stated from Graham Papers (FSU), Box 5 (...)

17Graham planned to write a book about his return to America after almost four decades, and was determined to use his trip to revisit the places he had known long before, although most of the friends and acquaintances he had once known were long since dead.29 He realised as soon as he arrived in New York how much the city had changed. The cheap lodgings he had taken during his first visit in 1913 had long been swept away, replaced by a red-brick skyscraper with swing doors policed by “a man in buttons”. The formerly run-down area around Third Avenue near Gramercy Park had become clean and respectable. The only person in the city who remembered Graham from the 1920s was Helen Worden, now a twice-widowed stately matron, but then one of the bright young things who had introduced him to the social life of New York. The two of them met in her apartment to chat about the changes that had taken place in the city, by now a more dangerous place than in the 1920s, as many of its prosperous white residents had fled to the suburbs.

18Graham and Vera only stayed in New York for a few days, before taking a plane southwards to stay with Marion Hay in Tallahassee, a city Graham had visited almost half a century before when collecting material for Children of the Slaves. He was stunned by the changes that had taken place. Although he found that the South was still “a different country” from the North, maintaining its culture of “early Victorian morals and piety”, Tallahassee itself was no longer “a collection of small shops and genteel residences” clustered round the domed Capitol. It had instead become a city of “lurid billboards and advertising sticks”. He was however enchanted by Marion Hay’s home, which was located in woodland on the fringes of the city, where he and Vera sat in the garden watching the local wildlife. Graham declared Florida “heavenly”.

19Graham stayed in Tallahassee for about six weeks, meeting many of Hay’s friends and fellow professors at Florida State University, as well as attending various concerts and plays. He also visited New Orleans, some three hundred and fifty miles along the Gulf coast, and was once again stunned to find how the rotting wooden city he had known half a century earlier had become a place of packed streets and convention hotels. Graham also had the opportunity to visit Houston, where he went to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, in order to see a collection of his papers that had been deposited there. He was awed by the size of Texas – “a state at which the traveller can only nibble” – and the wealth of Houston (a city he believed had more millionaires than New York City). In the early 1920s Graham had hoped to find in the south and west of the United States a place uncontaminated by the materialism and industrialisation of the north. In the late 1960s he seemed almost happy to leave the New South, heading northwards for Chicago, a city he found enveloped “half in factory smoke [and] half in lake mist”. The soaring architecture had once again destroyed most of the landmarks Graham had known, for when he first visited Chicago, in 1913, it had been a place of grim tenements and poverty, whilst on his last visit there in 1929 he had gone to hidden nightclubs guarded by gangsters with machine guns. Graham had not come to Illinois simply to see Chicago. He also wanted to visit the places connected with two of the men who had played a major role earlier in his life: the poet Vachel Lindsay and the Serbian priest Nikolai Velimirović.

20Graham left Vera in Chicago for a few days and took the train to Lindsay’s hometown of Springfield, trudging from the station through the rain to Vachel’s old house, which had by now become a museum. The house was locked and bolted, but the local newspaper office got in touch with the curator, who came over to open up the building for him. Graham was uneasy about the change that had taken place inside: “I saw not indeed the house where the poet lived but a transfigured place where all that had looked shabby had been removed”. After being guided round the house, which he populated in his mind’s eye with images of his old friend, he was then taken across to the local museum where he was asked to make a recording of some of Lindsay’s verse. Graham was intensely aware that Lindsay was no longer a living presence in Springfield, but had instead become transmogrified into a kind of literary ghost, and his search for the spirit of the man who had once played such a large role in his life proved to be forlorn. Although memories of his time with Vachel in the 1920s came flooding back, he could find no echo of his friend in a town that had been transformed into a modern urban conglomeration, far from the place Lindsay had envisioned in his Golden Book of Springfield as a city destined to transform the American psyche by rejecting the materialist civilisation of the East Coast.

  • 30 For details of Velimirović’s later life see Graham Papers (FSU), Box 581, 23a (‘Nikolai Velimirovi (...)

21On returning to Chicago, Graham rejoined Vera, and the two of them made their way out to the monastery of St Sava at Libertyville, in the north-western suburbs of the city, to visit the grave of Fr Nikolai Velimirović. It was bitterly cold and snowing when they got there, and they had some difficulty in finding the grave, “a rectangle of sacred earth, some withered flowers, a broken holder for candles and a low Orthodox wooden cross with his name on the crossbeam”. The two of them stood by the grave in the drifting snow, and Graham watched as “tears came from Vera’s eyes and crept down her cheeks”, a rare event for a woman who “never cries”. Graham’s visits to Springfield and Libertyville represented a kind of pilgrimage designed to reconnect him with two of the people who had shaped his past. The unpublished notes of his visit have an elegiac quality, evidence perhaps that he was trying to make sense of a life increasingly permeated by a sense of loss and intimations of mortality.30

  • 31 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 8. Graham to Hay, 11 February 1968.
  • 32 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 1 March 1968.

22After leaving Chicago, the Grahams returned to New York, briefly visiting Washington in order to see Stephen’s niece who taught at Howard University. They flew back to London at the start of February 1968, from where Graham wrote to Marion Hay, thanking her for her help in making their trip “so memorable”.31 He was not particularly happy to be home. The tenant in the upstairs flat at Frith Street had become a drug addict, with the result that questionable characters were coming and going at all hours of the day and night. A few days later he heard that yet another old friend, Bernard Newman, had died. Graham was appalled by the pall of “social depression” that hung over British life,32 whilst his mood was made worse by the need to confront, once again, his money worries, now made worse by the cost of the American trip. He had written to a number of prominent writers the previous year, asking them to support his application for a pension from the civil list, but apparently without any positive results, and he was forced once again to try to earn some money from writing. It was no easy task for a man entering his mid-eighties.

23Graham had for a number of years been working fitfully on a history of Russia, provisionally entitled From Barbarism to Tsarism, and the manuscript suggests that he had carried out a good deal of research for the project. It nevertheless lacked both the historical and literary merit needed to attract a publisher. The book sought to defend the idea of Holy Russia, arguing that the Russian peasantry had by temperament been inclined to adopt the Russian Orthodox faith after the conversion of the Grand Prince Vladimir in 988 A.D., but its author did not have the depth of knowledge needed to make his thesis convincing. Graham was on firmer ground in trying to write a book on the theme of America after Fifty Years, describing his recent trip, but he never turned his copious notes into anything approaching a polished manuscript. Although some of those who knew Graham in the late 1960s recall that he was still remarkably vigorous, despite constantly fretting about his health, his reserves of mental and physical energy were fading fast. The literary projects he continued to devise in his head were too demanding for his increasingly limited powers.

24Graham became more and more reclusive during the last years of his life, a consequence both of indifferent health and the loss of so many old friends. He and Vera continued to see a good deal of the publisher and bookseller Susil Gupta, who lived with his family in south London. They also saw a fair amount of Maysie Grieg, who moved permanently to London in 1966, following the death of her second husband Max Murray. Graham’s correspondence during the last ten years of his life reflects his unhappiness about the changes taking place both in Britain and across the world. He was appalled by the development of the sex industry in Soho – one strip club was opened just a few doors from his home – and dismayed by the growth of street prostitution in the area. He was also angered by the number of strikes in the second half of the 1960s, and his letters were full of denunciations of the industrial unrest that grew remorselessly during the time of Harold Wilson’s first Labour government.

  • 33 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 24 April 1968.
  • 34 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 23 August 1968.

25Graham was equally perturbed by the changes taking place beyond Britain’s shores. He was bitterly critical of the British government’s treatment of the white Rhodesian government, following its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, and complained angrily that Wilson and his ministers had no sympathy for the white minority there (“if these people were Jews you would never hear the end of it”). He also predictably condemned the decision to impose sanctions. Graham’s language was equally virulent when he wrote to Hay about the race riots that erupted in the United States in 1968. He criticised Martin Luther King for his “whining Christianity”, which he thought promoted “envy”, by encouraging “the individual coloured man [to] believe he was a wronged man”.33 Graham also condemned the demonstrations that followed King’s murder, anxiously writing to Hay to check that she had not been caught up in the race riots that swept Tallahassee, adding that his own niece had been forced to leave her teaching post at Howard University because of the anti-white feeling on campus (Howard was historically a black institution). 1968 was indeed an annus horribilis for Graham. He anxiously followed the events in Paris in May – his sympathies were entirely with De Gaulle rather than the demonstrators – and was by August “all in a frenzy” about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.34 As he sat in his study in Frith Street, increasingly remote from the world around him, Graham felt more and more disoriented by the tide of modernity sweeping away the landmarks of his life.

  • 35 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 9, Graham to Hay, 8 December 1970.
  • 36 A copy of the article can be found in Graham Papers (FSU), Box 581, 29a.
  • 37 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 9, Graham to Hay, 8 December 1970.

26Graham’s worries about his health were sometimes exaggerated, but by the end of the 1960s his medical problems were becoming more serious, although he proudly noted a few days after his eighty-sixth birthday in March 1970 that he was still “going strong” despite a problem with his leg. He also felt well enough to appear in a BBC television documentary on John Gawsworth, and in the summer he travelled with Vera to Spain, staying in the town of San Juan in Alicante, close to his old friend Susil Gupta. By the autumn Graham was feeling less well again, though, and he started to fret about what would happen if Vera should ever become incapacitated.35 His last published article appeared in 1970, a piece on Rasputin, which was printed in a magazine Men, Myth and Magic that was devoted to the supernatural.36 Graham was almost childishly happy to see his name in print once more, but by Christmas his mood was still glum, as he reflected on the state of “beleaguered Britain” with its power shortages and endless strikes.37 By the following spring he was complaining to Marion Hay in Tallahassee that strikes by postal workers and newspaper printers meant that he and Vera felt increasingly cut off from the world. Graham had in fact collapsed early in 1971 when he was found unconscious in his bedroom by Vera – probably a minor heart attack – and by the end of the year he could only walk with the benefit of two sticks. His poor sight also made it hard for him to read and write. Beset by gloom about his failing powers, Graham was depressed throughout 1972 by the “imbroglio of bad news” that filled the papers every day, and anxious about the growing inflation that was wiping out the value of his few savings. Things were not made any easier by a fire that broke out at Frith Street at the end of the year, which was caused by an oil stove Vera had left burning in an attempt to keep the old house heated. Her husband was at least able to find comfort in the fact that the damage was limited to the bedroom.

  • 38 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 25 January 1973.
  • 39 Evening News, 30 June 1973.

27Graham continued to read as much as he could, despite his poor eyesight, and during the course of 1973 he consumed many of the books and stories by the Soviet dissident writer and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Graham rather ambitiously thought he could have written August 1914 “better” than the author).38 He now spent most of his time living on the ground floor in order to avoid the stairs, although the arrival of a wheelchair in the spring of 1973 allowed him to leave the “very stuffy” house for outings into the Soho streets. An invitation to a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace caused a flourish of excitement in July, but Graham was realistic enough to know that he was too frail to attend, although the invitation was kept in pride of place on the mantelpiece. A few weeks earlier he had another excitement when the Evening News sent a journalist to interview him about recent developments in the USSR, following Leonid Brezhnev’s dramatic trip to America as part of the detente process. The subsequent half-page article described Graham’s early trips to Russia before 1917, when his writings made him “a world authority on Russia”, and quoted his views that the Soviet regime was only now seeking better relations with the West because it needed foreign investment. The article concluded with a description of “the wonderful elderly gentleman who now leans comfortably back in his armchair and says: “Life is too short – now I’m washed on the shores of time. But I am quite happy just sitting around the house, musing [...] and remembering”.39 Graham was putting on a brave face for the readers of the Evening News. At least some who knew him at this time recall a hidden sadness in his mood – a recognition not only that his life was drawing to a close – but also a pervasive sense that there had to use Wordsworth’s words “passed away a beauty from the earth”. The material cares of daily life – health and money – now seemed far more real than the elusive ideals lurking behind the mundane façade of the world. The visionary in Graham struggled in his final years to preserve the sense of the miraculous that had once been so powerful a feature of his life.

  • 40 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 9, Graham to Hay, 3 June 1974
  • 41 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 21 February 1975.

28The last full year of Graham’s life, 1974, began with illness and continued with more expressions of concern about the state of Britain. The miners’ strike and the return of a Labour government in February did nothing to improve his mood, and he was convinced that the country could only survive if “it ceases to be an industrial one and becomes an agricultural one”.40 A brief holiday at Littlehampton lightened his mood, and he enjoyed his time in “the lovely place”, relishing the sea air as Vera pushed him up and down the esplanade in his wheel chair. Their return to Frith Street was once again accompanied by concerns about rising prices and shortages of such basic goods as lavatory paper. The year ended on a high note with a “blizzard” of Christmas cards and a “glorious” Christmas dinner, complete with a four-pound duck with all the trimmings, but Graham’s health was by now fading fast. A few weeks later, on 21 February 1975, he told Marion Hay in America that he and Vera were “not in the best of health. Vera gets so easily tired and suffers from aches and pains. I get weaker daily”.41 It was the last letter he sent his old friend.

29Stephen Graham died on 16 March 1975, just four days short of his ninety-first birthday. For reasons that remain obscure, Vera insisted that his funeral should be a private affair. She had become increasingly protective of her husband during his final years, discouraging visitors who might tire him out, and did not seem to realise that there were still people who held him in high regard and were upset at being excluded. They were, however, consoled by the memorial service held at All Saints Church in Margaret Street, a few hundred yards from Frith Street, a month after Graham’s death. There were about thirty people in attendance to celebrate the life of a man who had, for more than six decades, been a permanent if sometimes neglected member of the British literary establishment.


1 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 7, Graham to Marion Hay, 14 May 1954.

2 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 18 September 1955.

3 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 25 May 1955.

4 The phrase is taken from Graham’s earlier book, Twice Round the London (London: Ernest Benn, 1933), p. 224.

5 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 7, Graham to Hay, 27 October 1956.

6 Daily Mail, 20 October 1956.

7 Evening News, 20 October 1956.

8 Walter Jerrold, Thomas Hood: his Life and Times (London: Alston Rivers, 1907).

9 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 583 (Typed manuscript of The Life and Times of Tom Hood).

10 Ibid, S. Lawrence (Atlantic Monthly Press) to Graham, 30 November 1961.

11 BBC Archives (Caversham), Correspondence related to, and transcript of, Murder at Marseilles (transmitted 17 August 1960).

12 For some correspondence on possible publication, see Gawsworth Papers (University of Reading Library), Box 9, Graham to Gawsworth, 26 May 1961. For copies of these stories see Graham Papers (FSU), Box 580.

13 For copies of these reviews see Graham Papers (FSU), Box 574, 16a.

14 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 40 (Journal for 1959, entry dated 17 May 1959). Graham’s Journals in his later years in fact really take the form of notes scribbled in diaries. The actual dates of entries are themselves unreliable, since Graham recorded his thoughts in a chaotic and unsystematic manner, and are included here simply to identify the source of quotations.

15 Stephen Graham, Part of the Wonderful Scene (London: Collins, 1964), p. 307.

16 Margaret Haley Carpenter Papers (University of Virginia), Accession No. 10656, Box 10, 18, Graham to Carpenter, 29 June 1962.

17 Ibid, Graham to Carpenter, 1 May 1966.

18 For Graham’s awareness of this danger, told through the prism of his reflections on the life of his friend Vachel Lindsay, see Margaret Haley Carpenter Papers (University of Virginia), Box 10, 18, Graham to Carpenter, 1 February 1962.

19 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 21 (Journal for 1967, entry dated 4 January).

20 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 577, 10 (Journal for 1963, entry dated 24 May).

21 Ibid (Journal for 1963, entry dated 4 September). See, too, Graham Papers (FSU), Box 577, 13E (Journal for 1964, entry dated 20 June).

22 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 577, 13A (Journal for 1965, entry dated 13 January).

23 Ibid (Journal for 1965, entry dated 15 January).

24 Ibid (Journal for 1965, entries dated 14 April, 14 June).

25 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 21 (Journal for 1966, entry dated 4 January).

26 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 577, 13A (Journal for 1965, entry dated 17 March).

27 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 8, Graham to Hay, 20 June 1966.

28 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 580, 37A (‘Yugoslavia is Getting Happier’).

29 All quotations in the following paragraphs unless otherwise stated from Graham Papers (FSU), Box 580, 2 (‘America after Fifty Years’) or Graham Papers (FSU), Box 582, 39 (Various notes on United States).

30 For details of Velimirović’s later life see Graham Papers (FSU), Box 581, 23a (‘Nikolai Velimirović’).

31 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 8. Graham to Hay, 11 February 1968.

32 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 1 March 1968.

33 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 24 April 1968.

34 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 23 August 1968.

35 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 9, Graham to Hay, 8 December 1970.

36 A copy of the article can be found in Graham Papers (FSU), Box 581, 29a.

37 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 9, Graham to Hay, 8 December 1970.

38 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 25 January 1973.

39 Evening News, 30 June 1973.

40 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 573, 9, Graham to Hay, 3 June 1974

41 Ibid, Graham to Hay, 21 February 1975.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 9: Photograph of Stephen and Vera Graham on the 13 August 1957 (photographer unknown). Courtesy Private Collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k


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