Falling, Fallen, Found:

The Imaginary Biography Of Edgar Bourchier

Edgar Louis Bourchier was born in 1893 in the sleepy rural backwater of Tanworth-in-Arden, which nestles deep within the bosom of Shakespeare country, just a few short miles north-west of Stratford-upon-Avon. His family were well-to-do – his father served with distinction in the Foreign Office, his mother was the indulged daughter of a local manufacturer – and so like many others from his affluent background, Bourchier was predestined to be despatched to boarding school in 1900 by way of ensuring that he would be satisfactorily processed to meet privileged expectations. His mother Molly Bourchier was deeply interested in poetry – an interest that was apparently scorned by her husband – and she enthusiastically encouraged her only child to invent his own nursery rhymes from an early age (1).

Bourchier attended Stowborough College in Wiltshire for ten years - often cited as the third best public school after Eton and Harrow - before being gently conveyed to its older sibling, Drake College in Cambridge, where he of course read English Literature. Exhibiting an obvious talent for poetry, Bourchier was swiftly invited to join the Cambridge Apostles after G.E. Moore expressed keen admiration for the decadent and somewhat nihilistic ‘Bored Was I’ which he had heard Bourchier recite through a megaphone while punting drunkenly along the Backs. (2)

       

          Bored was I 
        I who stood
        Stood upon the chair
        "Indecisive", "indolent", "cursed to never care"

 

       Glancing out the window
        I glimpsed a sorry sight 
        A child berated by a parent 
        For a childish slight 

 

        I crooked my neck and checked the rope 
        To see that it would hold 
        Then kicked the chair fast away
        And swung there in the cold 

 

Bourchier’s admission to this elite clique however piqued the oft-opinionated F.L. Lucas who staunchly opposed the young man’s selection with this waspishly documented criticism:

“Any man capable of expressing such despondent and miserable nihilistic sentiment is surely not worthy of the name ‘poet’.” (3)

 

In 1914, shortly after graduating with First Class Honours, Bourchier enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Up until the point that he first saw action, the graduate continued to compose ‘decadent poems’, citing the work of Eric Stenbock, W.B. Yeats and Ernest Dowson as having been inspirational. (4) Perhaps predictably, his work then began to quickly adopt a bleaker more realistic perspective once he reached the Front, partly influenced by his own grim personal experiences in the trenches, and partly by the poetry of such peers as Siegfried Sassoon (although there is only scant anecdotal evidence to suggest that the two poets ever actually met). (5)

Nobody knows quite how Bourchier came to be transferred into the rather notorious XIX Corps - it would be reasonable to deduce that he applied for the transfer himself - but shortly afterwards he was reported ‘missing in action’ at Passchendaele on 4th October 1917. (6) Information briefly came to light which suggested that Bourchier had, along with several of his comrades, been accidentally killed by an Allied tank, crushed to death while sheltering in a foxhole. (7) He was aged just 24. It would appear that the operators of the vehicle had either panicked or else engaged the wrong gear, and that after realising their catastrophic error, the crew had failed to document the incident accurately. Sadly, it is unlikely that the War Office would have insisted upon the incident being too diligently investigated given the need to both preserve public morale and to secure enthusiasm for this new and very expensive tool of weaponry.

Bourchier’s private papers revealed that the influential London publisher Elkin Mathews had offered to publish the poet’s work earlier that same year. In the immediate aftermath of the young man’s death, Bourchier’s section commander therefore gave orders that the diary and notebooks were to be forwarded directly to this same publisher. It is of course tempting to speculate whether the superior officer had familiarised himself with the harshly critical nature of the poetry when issuing this decree for if he had been aware of the poet’s darkly scathing ‘secret hidden messages’ (8) then we can reasonably assume that he might also have secretly approved of them.

The Darkling Fields Of Stowborough & Other Melancholy Reflections first appeared posthumously in the autumn of 1918 in a handsome brick-red cloth binding with elegant gilt titles, untrimmed page edges and wide generous margins. This now impossibly-rare volume collected all of Bourchier’s known work, comprising both the small number of decadent poems that he had written prior to enlisting with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment together with the war poems that were subsequently composed while posted on the Western Front. A contemporary letter from Elkin Mathews to the librarian at Stowborough College exists which informs the school that the publisher had decided to proceed with publication despite anticipating controversy and possible censure for the strongly unpatriotic tone of the poems. Indeed, it is likely that Bourchier’s work might never have appeared had it not been for the courage of Mr Mathews and the quick-witted actions of the late poet’s section commander.  This latter party is not named out of respect for the wishes on that gentleman’s descendants. (9)

It is of course particularly tragic that Edgar Bourchier died before ever seeing his work published. Indeed, it is a small miracle that the fragile handwritten originals ever survived given the harsh living conditions endured on the Front Line, and the fact that very few personal possessions were actually recovered from the company of soldiers he served with. Enquiries to the War Office have elicited no information other than to confirm that Bourchier went ‘Missing In Action’ (‘Crushed To Death Beneath The Wheels Of One Of Our Own Bloody Tanks’ presumably not being a term much favoured by the authorities) along with clarification that the original records of the incident were then lost in a subsequent WW2 bombing raid in the East End of London; also that his books and papers were forwarded first to his publisher in London and then on to his alma mater Stowborough College after his parents expressed a strong aversion to possessing them. (10)

According to Mr Elkin Mathews (11) these items were delivered to his premises in rather unusual circumstances, in a grubby hand-delivered envelope by ‘...a very shabby person, almost certainly not an official from the War Office’. However, this anonymous person must have elicited some twinge of pity for it is noted that the clerk taking delivery of the bundle gave him a shilling of his own money for no other reason than the other looked '...dreadfully haggard and malnourished, as though he might have been recently demobbed.’

As Elkin Matthews had expected, The Darkling Fields Of Stowborough & Other Melancholy Reflections made little impact upon the literary world. The book received no known extant reviews, perhaps because of the bleak and nihilistic anti-establishment sentiments expressed within, although it should also be acknowledged that the work might simply have been eclipsed by other eminently notable works that were being far more eagerly championed. Naturally it did little for Bourchier’s cause that his parents had retreated very firmly into their own private grief and were reluctant to discuss their late son’s work, far less promote it, for without a proactive living advocate a dead artist can very easily slip into obscurity. However, we do know from a letter held at Stowborough that Siegfried Sassoon personally admired the work. (12) He wrote to the school expressing his high regard for the collection, informing them they should take pride from having nurtured such a rare talent. Sassoon singled out ‘The Haunted Yellow Hours’ for specific praise, informing them that the title was for him ‘a near perfect description of the mundane, tedious horror of trench-life’.

Bourchier’s poems languished in relative obscurity until 1965 when the controversial Olympia Press in Paris abruptly reprinted the whole collection in its customary plain paper wrappers without any advance fanfare. (13) An intriguing mention was made in their introduction to some hitherto unknown 1920s musical adaptations of the poet’s work by a Saul Preminger but no actual detail was given beyond a tantalising reference to ‘the Weimar Republic and Otto Dix’. It would be another 20 years before any further information came to light.

After Mick Jagger was photographed holding a copy of this new edition while walking through Regent’s Park with Marianne Faithfull (14), Bourchier’s work suddenly reached a ‘hipper’ young audience, which in turn led to a small number of the poems being adapted into song by contemporary musicians e.g. 'Listen In The Twilight Breeze' by Nicholas Parkes. The dead poet’s tantalising connection to the decadent cabaret excess of the Weimar Republic was obviously of some interest to musicians and artists still emerging from a grim post-war Britain. Happily this trend continued all the way through into the 1980s, with bands such as The Moon Lepers (house band at the notorious 1980s nightclub The Plague Pit) freely adapting the poems to better fit different rhythms and melodies. Indeed it is fair to say that although few people will actually be aware of the existence of Edgar Bourchier the poet that most of us will at some stage have encountered his ideas in distilled musical essence.

A chance discovery in 1987 threw light onto the role played by Saul Preminger when his granddaughter came into the possession of some original music scores and notebooks. Spurred on by an interest in genealogy, she learned that Preminger had been thinly tolerated by the British Establishment by virtue of both his Jewish German heritage and his marriage to an American black singer called Bessie Mae House (15), who had been lauded for such beautiful mournful ballads as ‘My Man Gone An’ Left Me Again’ and ‘Don’t Go Treat Me Unkind’. She also discovered that for a short but intriguing time Preminger had managed a fashionable club out of a basement in Heddon Street – you can just glimpse the original entrance to this on the cover of David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars – and that it was through this platform that he had cultivated the ‘Coterie’, an eclectic clique of wealthy, aristocratic and Bohemian socialites whose defining characteristic was the decadent celebration of the unconventional (14). A dotted line can easily be drawn between the ‘naughty 1890s’ and the jazzier 1920s – you need only consult the work of Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald to see evidence of this – so it is little wonder that Preminger was drawn to the work of Edgar Bourchier, a poet whose dark flower was firmly rooted in an appreciation of the fin-de-siècle. Of course, a similar movement existed in Germany under the Weimar Republic, and these notebooks confirmed that Preminger did indeed know the artist Otto Dix, and that the two men had discussed collaborating together. (15) Little is known of the precise detail of Preminger’s proposed ‘Edgar Bourchier’ endeavour however beyond the composition of eight or nine tunes including ‘The Expressionist Tell’ and ‘The Haunted Yellow Hours’ (later to revert to its alternate title, ‘Further Down The Line’). (16)

 

Two letters from Dix revealed that the two men had speculated upon the possibility of staging a review in Berlin’s avant-garde Kit Kat Club, to be based upon Preminger’s adaptations of Bourchier’s poems. (17) Indeed, Preminger seems to have asked for Dix’s help with printing, posters and set design but it is not clear whether Dix had actually started work on this. It is of course quite feasible that the designs for this fascinating venture may in fact exist, tucked away in a collection or gallery archive somewhere in Germany; feasible – but alas, highly unlikely.

In 2018, the writer Christopher Richard Barker and the musician Mick Harvey sought to collate for the first time all known versions of songs derived from the late poet’s work in their project, "The Fall & Rise Of Edgar Bourchier and the Horrors of War". Mr Preminger’s granddaughter kindly loaned them her grandfather’s original musical scores so that they could finally be heard, and to this they added material by The Moon Lepers et al plus one spoken-word piece and two further new songs – these latter three items having been specially created for the project (‘I Am The Messenger’, ‘The Lost Bastard Son Of War’ and ‘The Eternal Black Darkness Of My Death’), all drawn from the original poetry. They created a single thematic concept album which capitalised upon the serendipitous connection between Saul Preminger and David Bowie by paying homage to the latter’s seminal Ziggy Stardust concept album in the naming of their own title. According to that album's introduction, the work seeks to convey something of the powerful ‘secret hidden messages’ that so obsessed the tragically fêted young poet, concluding with these words: 

"Just as a sprawling nebulous fog upon the bleak and blasted tenebrous waste of No Man’s Land might abruptly muster into a near-distinct phantasmal form, The Fall and Rise of Edgar Bourchier and the Horrors of War also hopefully seeks to create a vivid if fleeting identity for this sadly Unknown Poet."

And so the legend lives on. 

(1) Refer correspondence between Molly Bourchier and Edgar held at Stowborough Library.

(2) Unpublished meeting notes, Aristolelian Society journal, 1914-15.

(3) Memoirs Of An Unreliable Narrator by A.C. Benson, unpublished mss., held at Magdalene College.

(4) Refer E.B.'s teenage diary, held at Stowborough College. 

(5) Two contemporary letters from Sassoon to his former tutor W.L. Mollison mention an ‘E.B’, ref. Cambridge University Library, Box J3/2.

(6) Refer Commonwealth & War Graves Commission.

(7) There are references to this incident in the British Army WW1 War Service Record but alas the originals were among the so-called two million “Burnt Records” lost during a bombing raid during WW2.

(8) Refer to the poem and song ‘Everything Is A Secret Hidden Message’.

(9) Bourchier’s section commander was later stripped of his rank, medals and commendations for writing a critical letter to the editor of The Times which was intercepted and destroyed by the War Office before it could be published. He subsequently passed away in the late 1930s, broken and impoverished. At the specific request of his descendants, who have yet to receive an apology for this incident, his identity has been withheld.

(10) Unpublished letters held at Stowborough College; refer Magda Squires, librarian.

(11) Tedious Brief Reminiscences by Elkin Matthews, ibid.

(12) Unpublished letter, Stowborough College, ibid.

(13) The Darkling Fields Of Stowborough & Other Melancholy Reflections, Olympia Press, n.d. (Paris, 1965).

(14) The Tatler (1967) and various contemporary newspapers.

(15) No known connection with Eddie James ‘Son’ House, Jnr (1902-1988), the noted blues singer.

(16) Notebooks in the possession of Madeleine Abandon-Preminger.

(17) Papers held by the Otto Dix Foundation, Chauvigny, France.

© 2018 Christopher Richard Barker. 

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