“I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness” so begins this unputdownable memoir of Denton Welch. Born in 1915, he’s at art school in London when in 1935 he decides to cycle to his uncle’s vicarage in Surrey. On the way he is hit by a car severely damaging his spine and kidneys. Written in 1948 this memoir recalls the accident and his convalescence.
When his world is reduced to his bed, visiting hours and hospital staff his observations of the daily routine are funny, tragic and acutely observed. The brusque and efficient nurses are always ready with a “don’t be silly now” or “we don’t want to make a fuss” comment. His bitterness towards them is told with searing honesty: “I longed to be able to get up, hit Scott, smash the chair to pieces and walk out forever; but I was helpless and in his hands – he could play with me as he liked. The thought was so bitter that it seemed to degrade me in my own eyes. My face stiffened into a dead mask.”
But through his fear and bewilderment and panic he daydreams and he dreams the dreams of an artist and describes them as a poet. Everything is vividly coloured in mauve-grey and lemon, emerald and rose, his nostrils are filled with the smells of humid earth and dank grass, there are ghosts and apparitions and velvet bats. The book jacket shows his painting, ‘By the Sea’ (1940’s), and I think could be one of the dreams he describes.
He leaves the hospital for a nursing home and his convalescence begins. This is the England of Agatha Christie, and there are tables laden with cakes for tea followed by cigarettes around the fire; wide lawns leading to a walled kitchen garden; greaseproof parcels of sandwiches, toast and dripping and steaming cups of tea. His delight in a picnic, a thermos and a tin of shortbread . . .
“‘I love it,’ I said with too greedy a determination to enjoy everything – as if there were not time, as if I must exaggerate and emphasize each detail to extract the very last drop of pleasure.”
Denton Welch died in December 1948 before he completed this book. John Lehmann published it in 1950 as it was, no attempt was made to ‘finish’ it and I really respect that decision.
Welch describes his consultants’ room thus: ” The room seemed like a brown casserole, a baked dish, warm and comforting and heavy. It gave me a slight feeling of sadness.” That is how I would describe this book, perhaps adding a rainbow.