I am sitting in a tiny, sparse stone hut at the top of a North Devon cliff, overlooking the sea. Outside is an enticing sign: ‘Ronald Duncan’s Writing Hut is Open’. This is where the West Country poet and playwright – best known for writing the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia – used to spend his working days.
Just down the steep coastal path is his former home, West Mill, now belonging to his daughter, the sculptor Briony Lawson, and her photographer husband Andrew Lawson. I’m currently staying at the house, which is nestled in the isolated Marsland Valley, probably the most beautiful and inspiring landscape I’ve ever encountered. At night, sleeping with the windows wide open, I can hear both a running stream and the waves crashing into the rocks in the bay. On my first day at the mill I found a shelf-full of Ronald Duncan’s writings, and began reading his lyrical, outspoken and completely captivating book All Men Are Islands, the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy.
Duncan, who was born in 1914 and died in 1982, is not as well known as he once was. But in his autobiography I discovered an extraordinary literary life. He was friends not just with Benjamin Britten, but with poets and writers like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gerald Brennan, who had lived at West Mill before the First World War (along with Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington). As a young man Duncan had an adventurous streak, and after leaving Cambridge, where he had studied English Literature under F.R. Leavis, he spent a month working in a coal mine, then lived on an ashram with Gandhi. Quite unusual for a budding aesthete who was descended from wealthy Austro-German aristocrats.
During the Second World War he was a conscientious objector, and together with his wife Rose Marie conducted an experiment in utopian living influenced by Gandhi, running his farm as a commune. Unfortunately several of the poets and pacifists who joined them were more interested in writing verse and squabbling with each other than milking cows, and the experiment faded into failure. Despite this, it was emblematic of Duncan’s attempts to live by his political and ethical principles. Not that he was of a saintly nature. He was well aware of his contradictory and often narcissistic character, openly admitting that for much of his life, ‘I was obsessed with myself, and in love with myself’.
I was immediately struck by the opening lines of his autobiography, written in his late forties, which signal a unique and free-thinking literary voice:
‘We settle down to write our life when we no longer know how to live it. To pause is to admit defeat. When the present is interesting we do not bother with the past. We try to remember only when we’ve lost the vitality of doing anything worth remembering. The past is a wastepaper basket. We burrow into it only when we feel we have no future.’
Duncan certainly made the present interesting. His venture down the coal mine had echoes of George Orwell’s empathy experiment living as a tramp on the streets of East London in the early 1930s. Like Orwell, Duncan pawned his clothes and got himself a second-hand coat and slouch cap. He then trudged across the slag heaps near Chesterfield in search of work. Being mistaken for a gypsy due to his dark complexion, and claiming he had worked with horses in a circus, he landed a job looking after 35 pit ponies at the bottom of the shaft. His descriptions of work at the coal face have a poetic precision that rivals Orwell’s essay ‘Down the Mine’:
‘The face itself was only three feet high. Men lay on their sides, stripped to the waist, hacking the wall with a pick-axe. Their mates, kneeling beside them, loaded the stint on to the conveyor-belt, which, like an endless crocodile, clawed its way through the workings. I was terrified: each stroke of the pick-axe brought down part of the wall. It looked like energetic suicide, a desperate effort to bury oneself alive. But these matchstick pit-props held the roof of slate and, as soon as the coal was cleared, the miner placed another prop in position and rammed a wedge home with a sledge-hammer. All this time they were oblivious of the dangers, and spoke only of the relative merit of football players.’
Later he said that nobody had the right to use coal who had not worked down the mine themselves.
My favourite passage in All Men Are Islands is buried in the middle of the book, where he tries to spell out his underlying philosophy of life and give a sense of how he felt different, even detached, from other people. In doing so, he offers one of the most evocative descriptions I have ever read of what it can mean to seize the day:
‘What people said was important seemed trivial to me. Things I thought fundamental were not subjects they cared to discuss. All men are islands: there seemed to be no bridge for me.
Basically the difference lay in this: I was, and am, acutely aware that life is ephemeral, limited and brief. I never wake up in the morning without being surprised at being alive: I never go to sleep without wondering whether I shall wake up. Death to me was the reality. Yet everybody I met and saw seemed unaware of it. They seemed to live as if they would live for ever. How else could they spend forty years marking exercise-books, going to an office to earn the money which would enable them to go on going to an office to earn the money which would enable them to – . I could see a skull beneath every bowler hat. Perhaps I should have been an undertaker. But I must make this point if no other: I was obsessed with the feeling that I was a small boat floating on an ocean, and the ocean was death. Nobody I knew would admit this sea that supported and surrounded them. This made communication difficult: the language was the same, but I could not share their values. I envied their insulation. I was jealous of their indifference. But I could not emulate them, however much I tried.’
As I sit here in Duncan’s cliff-top writing hut, the wind and rain swirling around me, I can only hope that his message stays with me and that I have the courage to sail on that same boat on that same ocean.
Suddenly there’s a knock at the hut door. A woman in sensible walking gear peers inside and sees me sitting at the old desk with my fingers poised on my laptop, staring out across the Atlantic. She looks me up and down and asks, hesitantly, ‘Are you Ronald Duncan?’
Roman Krznaric is a founding faculty member of The School of Life. His latest book is Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.