Damian Barr: Musings from a Writing Residency at West Dean

By Damian Barr

I have been here for three weeks but also a lifetime.

My writing residency has stretched from the last of Winter into the first of Spring, words rising with the sap through March. I have been here long enough to watch the apple trees in the orchard bud grey and then burst into green – today I paused, on my way to lunch, to greet the first bright leaf but it was too busy to do anything other than nod. The starry pink blossoms on the peach trees in the hothouses are being knocked off by the fat bees buzzing their way in. I won’t be here to see the peaches, but can imagine them nodding warm and heavy in August and know already I would find it difficult, if not impossible, to resist. This is the point of peaches.

There is a magnolia blooming in the woods, just before you crest the hill that leads your eye back to the big house as it was meant to. It will be finished by the time you read this but no matter. As it ambushed me, I thought: somebody planned this beauty. Somebody planted this beauty. This thought: that all the loveliness here is lovingly intended and carefully cultivated, is one I have savored daily.

Somebody chose the tone of the bells which mark the busy hours and days of weaving, mending, painting, throwing, fettling, firing, casting, carving, drawing, thinking, and writing, yes writing. Somebody wanted you to see the rich and storied tapestries - don’t miss the one on your left as you turn down the hall which shows two female lovers being rescued from being burnt at the stake by a warrior queen atop her rescuing steed.

Somebody decided there was no real reason why Mae West’s luscious lips should not inspire a sofa or, indeed, that a lobster should not become a telephone. Somebody dallied with Dali, maybe, but definitely nurtured his peculiar genius (until he didn’t). Somebody corresponded with Cocteau, somebody was the first to publish the poems of Betjeman, somebody conjured a fantastical garden of sculptures in the Mexican jungle, somebody loved birds because they always seemed freer than he felt he could be. That somebody was Edward James. He made Las Pozas, his garden in Mexico, with Plutarco Gastélum, a man he undoubtedly loved and who loved him back - a man who was more, much more, than a ‘companion’. Of all the famous people he knew, all the celebrated pictures he could have chosen, Edward placed a portrait of Plutarco in his bedroom here, where he could see it if he sat up in his magnificently camp mausoleum of a bed. It is a simple charcoal portrait, if any work by Pavel Tchelitchew can be said to be simple. Plutarco would bid Edward goodnight and greet him every morning.

I visited Edward’s grave in the woods here - it is not far from the surprise magnolia and faces east, towards the rising sun. His gravestone reads, simply, ‘Poet’ which says a lot but also not enough. Thank you, Edward, for the love you gave this place, which I feel still in all the choices you made and the great care lavished upon it by the experts who tend it indoors and out, and the students who use it, now.

I don’t know why I have slipped into this almost Victorian register – maybe too much beauty is like laudanum, it’s overcoming me. I’ve got the aesthetic vapors. Show me to the white and yellow striped chaise longue I found at the top of the West Wing staircase, and which is just perfect for writing on and leave me there. No, really. Leave me there.

I have been here for three weeks but also a lifetime.