I first came across her late one night when I was working a Christmas job in a bookshop in Newcastle. As the clatter of cash registers grew quieter and the grey sky outside turned black and starless, I’d spend the last hours of my shifts sorting through the neglected poetry shelves. There was only one copy of the newly-published collection, Bedouin of the London Evening, by Rosemary Tonks. Had its pages not been bent slightly backwards, I might never have noticed it. Lifting it from the shelf, I was captivated straight away. Something about the cover image of the slim Bloodaxe Books volume was immediately arresting: an androgynous woman, legs spread wide apart in tweed trousers, stared off into the middle-distance with eyes swimming with intelligence and humour. I was sold before I’d cracked the spine. As a writer, she was bold, daring, louche, bohemian, sultry, smart. A ‘true poet of any era’ – according to John Hartley Williams in the Poetry Review – she came stalking through the city streets behind sunglasses, fusing the fog and the squalor of a 1960s Britain still pockmarked by war, with the debauchery of nineteenth-century Paris and the colourful exoticism of the East. “The main duty of the poet is to excite – to send the senses reeling”, Tonks said in an interview in 1967, and her poetry – full of extremes, insults, longings and frustrations – does just that.
But for all the sensual drama of her poetry, her personal life is equally as intriguing: as a person, she was an unsolvable mystery. In the prime of her writing career and having written six novels – Emir (1963), Opium Fogs (1963), The Bloater (1968), Businessmen as Lovers (1969), The Way out of Berkeley Square (1970) and The Halt During the Chase (1972) – and two volumes of poetry, Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms (1963), and Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967), she simply disappeared in 1978.
Neil Astley’s meticulous research on the poet sheds some light on the fate of the promising young writer. It wasn’t until after her death in 2014 that he was able to share his findings: that she had never really been missing, after all, but merely in exile, from herself. Having fled London and the vestiges of her once literary life, she had spent the remaining 36 years of her life boxed up in a box bedroom in Bournemouth, god-fearing, lonely and puritanical after a major breakdown.
Astley describes a life marked by tragedy and uniqueness. There are almost too many remarkable details to recount. Having contracted polio in India in 1952, Tonks took to wearing a single, black, rakish glove to disguise the affected hand. She spent a spell of time living in Paris, where she’d lie beside the effigy of her hero, Baudelaire, marvelling at their similarity in height. Returning to London with her husband, Tonks struck up a friendship with her neighbour, the birdlike eccentric Dame Edith Sitwell and began correspondence with the poet Philip Larkin. After the death of her mother in a freak accident in ’68, Tonks renounced the church, and sought refuge in spiritualist meetings and healers. Her marriage collapsed, and in the ensuing heartbreak, she took up Taoist meditation and eye exercises, which she then blamed for the detachment of her retinas and subsequent temporary agonising blindness. Believing god to have forsaken her as punishment for the debauchery of her lifestyle and faith in false idols, she renounced it all: literature, art, alcohol, sex. The effervescent Rosemary Tonks who lit up the dining tables of the metropolis became the lonely, unremarkable ‘Rosemary Lightband’: fled from London, she spent the rest of her days in complete anonymity, handing out Christian flyers outside churches in Bournemouth until her death.
As part of her renunciation of her former life, Tonks’ poetry was removed from publication at her own request: until relatively recently, few people had heard of her.
But Rosemary Tonks wrote like Arthur Rimbaud, looked like Rita Tushingham and lived a life of almost Shakespearean tragedy and irreverent genius, and she deserves to be remembered and celebrated for the remarkable work that she left behind.
Part poet, part novelist and part social observer, she was a writer of kitchen tables, bare light bulbs, smoke, sex, sensuality and cups of tea. She lent beauty and drama to the ordinary and approached the sublime with an intellectual languor and detachment from behind the rim of her coffee cup.
Tonks glowered from within the folds of her dressing gown at a bronze-brown London that captivated her: encrusted with dirt, part-obscured by fog and cigarette smoke from the doors of pubs thrown open at dusk. It is a city whose streets she watched from flat windows with both lust and disdain. Windows are especially significant in her poetry as the crossover of the two worlds that she inhabited: both the terrible, interior, domestic space and the gloomy, lamplit haunting grounds of the urbane street flaneuse. In ‘Story of a Hotel Room’, the shutters of the window screech awkwardly when she attempts to throw them open during a secret tryst: ‘owls make the ink squeak’ at the window in ‘The Solitary’s Bedroom’ and the light comes grimly through ‘an apricot fabric, hanging in wads lightly/grimed’ as ‘Bedroom in an Old City’s’ ‘London minx/ of seventeen’ stirs slowly on a pillowcase. In ‘The Sash Window’, the window is ‘mysterious’, with a ‘big, dull pane’, and, in a poetic prose piece named ‘The Old Fashioned Traveller on the Trade Routes’, travellers tremble like jellyfish in the ‘precarious glass salon’ and ‘transparent decks’ of the London busses that shudder through the London streets.
Domesticity becomes tyrannical in Tonks: kitchen tables, dressing gowns and pillows assume nightmarish proportions: “I insist on vegetating here/In Motheaten grandeur” she exclaims in Dressing-Gown Olympian, part Shelagh Delaney, part Miss Havisham.
She is ‘addicted to an old mattress’, sofas are ‘dug into’ like graves, and beds are covered in ‘cold, electric linen’. But if the interior is a place of danger and discomfort, the streets outside could be equally mutinous, full of lust and heavy rain. When Rosemary ventured from her bedroom, casting off the silk gowns in which she had ‘wasted away’ her youth, it was through streets lined with the ripped pages of magazines, caked in dust and lined with seedy hotels, the setting for ‘steam and leaves and love affairs’: a European metropolis riddled with decay and immorality.
Cafes defined her London experience – she had spent “ten years in the café’s and bedrooms” of the city, and she often writes about her experiences in these social and voyeuristic spaces. “the café and the boredom, in the semi-dark/people have a certain rank elegance” she writes, in Rome; “For my fierce, hot-blooded sulkiness/I need the café” she writes, in ‘Diary of a Rebel’ and it is here that we can perhaps most clearly imagine her: the young woman, pen in hand, sitting against a window dripping with moisture in the late afternoon, sipping on a coffee to assuage the hangover of the broken-blue night before.
And this is how I always picture Tonks – louche, with hot drink in one hand and paperback in the other – an observer and a chronicler of a chaotic generation staggering between drugs, pubs, loves and parties. Writing my own notes about the writer, in a Glasgow café in 2017, I pour another cup of tea, the morning alcoholic as a lily.
Lyndsey Skinner is a writer based in Glasgow. Her work has appeared in print and online in Oh Comely, Northern Soul, Wifie, The Wee Review and The Skinny. She was recently shortlisted for the Anthony Burgess/Observer award for new arts journalism, and is currently working on her first novel.