Photograph by Lucy Scholes.
The poet and novelist Rosemary Tonks wrote her third novel, The Bloater, in just four weeks in the autumn of 1967, which would have been impressive by any standards but her own. She had originally set out to finish it in half the time and had hoped it would earn her “a lot of red-hot money.” (Here, she fell short too). But the result was a dizzying, madcap story that was a hit with the critics. Again, most writers would have been over the moon with such a reception, but Tonks could never be so predictable. “It just proves the English like their porridge,” she once reportedly replied to congratulations from her editor. To borrow a confession from The Bloater’s canny narrator—a young woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Tonks herself: “I knew perfectly well what I was doing.”
Between 1963 and 1972, Tonks published two collections of poetry, six novels, a large body of literary journalism, and an experimental sound-poem. She was a serious stylist, writing in the tradition of French nineteenth-century novels and those preeminent portraitists of the modern metropolis: Baudelaire and Rimbaud. As a hip young thing, a fixture on the London scene, her writing captured the pungent, punchy essence of that city in the Swinging Sixties. But she was also an experimental writer and a pioneering mixed media artist; her 1966 “Sono-Montage” was made in collaboration with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the now-legendary musician and composer Delia Derbyshire (most famous for her electronic arrangement for the theme tune to the cult British TV series Doctor Who). Poetry readings “can be very boring,” Tonks told an interviewer in 1968—“I want to bring poetry into its own dramatically.”
As such, Tonks sat somewhere between the establishment and the avant-garde; as concisely summed up in this description in The Guardian in 1970: “She has a white Italian sports car, a French purple velvet trouser suit, and lives in a Queen Anne house in Hampstead.” Nowhere is her particular eclecticism more in evidence than in The Bloater, which documents London’s cultural vanguard with Tonks’s signature caustic humor and stylistic flair. Originally published in 1968, it sets the tone for the three novels that followed it—Businessmen as Lovers (1969), The Way Out of Berkeley Square (1970), and The Halt During the Chase (1972)—all of which are variations on the same theme: stories of the breakneck romantic escapades of young Tonks-like heroines.
The Bloater is narrated by Min, an audio engineer who works at the BBC, where she and her colleagues spend their days “sealed” in airless rooms, “like tinned shepherd’s pie.” When the novel opens, they’re busy attempting to set a poem about Orestes to electron sound, a tricky and ultimately rather thankless task. As Min wryly observes: “We know that however well we succeed, fifty ‘experts’ (people who acquire theoretical knowledge without using it) will pour cold water on the result. And five years later, grudgingly, and ten years later, publicly, stuff our work into the sound archives, and refer to it incessantly to intimidate future electronic composers.” (Given the cult status of Delia Derbyshire in certain circles today, Tonks couldn’t be more on the money!) Min’s grappling, in particular, with the job of producing an electronic replication of a human heartbeat—an apt allegory, as she’s also plagued by matters of the heart when it comes to her private life. Her husband is more absent than present—in one scene, she exits a room and turns the lights off behind her, having forgotten he’s still in there—so she’s looking for thrills further afield. There’s her burgeoning attraction to her colleague Billy, a fellow musicologist, but she’s also being hounded by a huge opera singer with an overpowering odor; “my bloater, the black cloud,” as Min refers to this majestic figure of a man who both repels and attracts her: “the Bloater is my Bloater—Ah, so that’s my secret! He’s mine, and so I alone can abuse him. It’s my job to make him suffer.”
Can the reader tell the novel was a rush job? Although its themes do have a distinctly frivolous air, and the plot proceeds at a vertiginous pace, Tonks’s composition is never slapdash: her prose is always concise and well-crafted. Even during the story’s rare moments of downtime, most of which describe Min’s attempts to alleviate her gout—“one of the great horizontal diseases,” and every bit as distracting and agonizing as her romantic indecision—The Bloater is still deliciously pacey: “Back to The Cheerful Home Doctor for another hour before tea. I stew my toe, and will it to go down. I read the newspapers and get a vague impression that somebody is running the country, but who is it exactly? I rearrange all the facts of my life to slightly better advantage. I repeat the opening lines of a little ditty that Jenny and I made up after our deep-confidence lunch: ‘I was feeling simply awful (pronounced “offal”) when I went into that brothel … ’” The action gallops along from scene to scene, the dialogue is whip-smart, and, line by line, it’s hard to beat for entertainment, which is exactly what Tonks had in mind: “I wrote it like a child writing a diary—it’s the only way to be really humorous.”
It’s a novel enveloped in a veritable miasma of smells, textures, and colors, composed with the same attention to sensory detail one finds in Tonks’s poetry: “The main duty of the poet is to excite—to send the senses reeling,” she once told an interviewer. In one scene, Min and her friend Jenny (who’s torn between suitors of her own) make a pub lunch of pints of cask-aged “stingos” and cheese sandwiches so “harsh” they make the women’s “gums smart.” An evening out at the opera with the Bloater, meanwhile, is described as smelling “rather Russian […] like the old Czars’ St Petersburg, pulverised at the height of its glory, and sold off in ounces of solid cologne … one gets an impression of chandeliers, ice-buckets, and indoor Russians in crocodile shoes talking French.” And a walk on Hampstead Heath allows for this sensorially impressionistic description:
Whitish. Plane trees with patches on the trunks come straight out of the tarmac walk (that’s blue and humped) and join twenty feet aloft—the same height as the stained glass windows in Gerona cathedral. You get your daylight stained green or amber but always with rose in it, due to the flush that lies over London on a good September afternoon. All those plate-glass windows down there behind you throw up a pink sky from three o’clock.
From the rolling expanse of the Heath, through the smoke-filled pubs of Fitzrovia, and the “dim brown corridors” of Broadcasting House, to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where bejewelled ladies and tailcoated men quaff champagne with delicate slivers of smoked salmon, The Bloater is a whistle-stop tour of London, the city that had long been Tonks’s favorite subject.
Her first two novels, Opium Fogs (1963) and Emir (1963), were praised for their evocative images of the metropolis, and are best regarded as companion pieces to the Baudelaire- and Rimbaud-influenced Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms (1963), Tonks’s first poetry collection, in which she adorns bohemian sixties London with exotic Oriental imagery inspired by her travels. (Tonks and her husband, an engineer-turned-financier named Michael Lightband, whom she wed in 1948, spent the early years of their marriage in India and Pakistan, where Tonks contracted first typhoid and then polio. The latter left her right, writing hand withered—so she taught herself to use her left instead.) Tonks was interested in capturing what she once so fragrantly described as “the flavour beneath the flagstones.” Her poems are full of dirty mattresses and stained dressing gowns, foggy, grimy city streets and badly lit grotty rooms in boarding houses, and her novels are pretty piquant too. “I do see that he is large and that washing takes time, I do see that he spends most of his life travelling, or appearing in a professional capacity,” says Min of the Bloater. “Even so, it’s monstrous of him.”
Although described in distinctly Tonksian terms, the London portrayed in The Bloater is recognizable as the same city encountered in various other, more traditional novels of the era: in Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me (1964), the darker shadow-sister to her exuberant, Technicolor Parisian caper The Dud Avocado; in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net (1954); and Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country (1956). Yet, as a stylist, Tonks is more at home in very different literary company: that band of loosely connected experimental writers of the sixties and seventies that includes Ann Quin, Anna Kavan, Christine Brooke-Rose, and even Kay Dick and Muriel Spark. This group was constituted less by an actually existing community (though some were, in fact, friends), and more by the formally adventurous nature of their writing: all broke the mold in some way, and all dealt in a sort of heightened social realism. Each woman—bar, perhaps, Spark, though she certainly made some unconventional life choices—moreover, underwent a dramatic upheaval in her life that had a profound effect on her writing. Kavan emerged from a period of confinement in a mental hospital with bleach-blond hair, the heroin addiction that would kill her, and an austere new prose style. Brooke-Rose survived a near-fatal surgery in the aftermath of which she penned her most avant-garde work. Kay Dick took a trauma-ridden fifteen-year break from writing fiction, after which she wrote They, a sleek, stripped-back dystopian tale utterly unlike the five novels that preceded it. Quin poured her experiences of being given electroconvulsive therapy into The Unmapped Country, the novel that she left unfinished at the time of her suicide in 1973. But whereas these women all managed to channel the tumult in their lives into the work on the page, the personal metamorphosis that Tonks experienced left her completely and utterly silent.
Beginning in 1968, with the sudden and unexpected death of her mother, a woman with whom she’d had a troubled and traumatic history, Tonks suffered a series of personal cataclysms. Her marriage of two decades broke down, ending in a divorce that she didn’t want—and to make matters worse, her ex-husband quickly remarried. She all but went blind after she suffered detached retinas in both of her eyes, brought on, apparently, by staring at a blank white wall for hours at a time doing Taoist eye exercises. Over the next decade, she frantically sought solace from mystics, mediums and gurus, dabbling in everything from séances to Sufiism, before eventually finding succor in religious fundamentalism. Gone was the bohemian artist Rosemary Tonks; in her place stood Mrs. Lightband, henceforth the name she signed for herself and asked to be known by, a devout born-again Christian who renounced her former life. Oddly enough, it was after her divorce that she grasped most firmly to this, her married name; an indication, perhaps, of both her disappointment that the relationship had collapsed, as well as a way of clearly distancing herself from the woman she had been, and the work she had created, all of which she now vehemently rejected. Tonks came to believe that the poetry and novels she’d written were a source of evil. “What are books? They are minds, Satan’s minds,” she wrote in a notebook in the late nineties.
Her conversion was absolute. Throughout the seventies, Tonks set about divesting herself of most of her worldly possessions, including burning her impressive collection of Asian artifacts, which she now denounced as “graven images.” She also cut ties with her friends, family, and publishers. In 1980, she left London for a cloistered existence in the coastal town of Bournemouth, and the following year she travelled to Jerusalem where, the day before her fifty-third birthday, she was baptized in the River Jordan, an event that she described as her “second birth.” She incinerated the manuscript of a final unpublished novel (which she claimed was her very best work, but since it had been written under the control of a medium, she now regarded it as the product of the devil). Rumor has it that, when she wasn’t handing out bibles—outside churches in the Bournemouth area and at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park—she trawled public libraries for copies of her own books, in order to borrow and then burn them.
As such, Vintage’s republication of The Bloater earlier this month feels nearly miraculous. (Though particular credit should be given to the wonderful Backlisted podcast, who have been proselytizing about Tonks’ work so ardently for the last few years). What the rigid and pious Mrs. Lightband would make of the rediscovery of her work, we can probably guess. But when it comes to Rosemary Tonks, the velvet-suited, Italian sports car-driving, urbane and modish young thing whose intellect, creativity, and razor-sharp wit bubbles over in The Bloater, one can only hope she’d be delighted by her newfound notoriety.
Lucy Scholes is senior editor at McNally Editions.
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