Longing Under The Moon: The Pleasing Melancholy Of Attila József

On 11th April 1905, Attila József was born in Ferencváros, then a poor district of Budapest. His father, Áron József was a Romanian factory-worker and his mother, Borbála Pőcze, a Hungarian peasant girl; the couple already had two daughters, Etelka and Jolán. By the time Attila was three years old, his father had deserted the family, leaving Borbála struggling to support her children and eventually forced to place them in the care of the National Child Protection League before they were found foster parents in Öcsöd, a small village in the Northern Great Plain region of south-east Hungary.

The move to Öcsöd would have a profound and lasting effect upon the young Attila, his foster father was extremely strict, and cruelly insisted on telling the boy there was ‘no such name as Attila’ instead calling him Pista. József later remembered how this had made him doubt his ‘very existence.’ When he later discovered the tales of King Attila the Hun, József recalled how they ‘had a decisive effect on all my ambitions after that. In the last analysis perhaps it was this experience that led me to literature, that made me a thinking person, the kind of person who would listen to the opinions of others but would examine them carefully in his own mind.’ József finally escaped from Öcsöd to return to his mother in Budapest.

At the age of forty-three, Borbála died from cancer, leaving her fourteen year-old son under the guardianship of his eldest sister and her wealthy husband, Ödön Makai who ensured that he went to the best school possible. In 1922, at the age of seventeen and whilst he was still at school, József published his first collection of poetry, A szépség koldusa (Beggar of Beauty). Two years later, József’s work would cause controversy after his poem Lázadó Krisztus (Rebellious Christ) was featured in the October 1923 issue of the magazine Bluebird, consequently he faced charges of blasphemy was sentenced to eight months in prison sand a hefty fine, both of which were later overturned.

His ambition to become a teacher led József to apply to the University of Szeged to study Hungarian and French Literature, yet his defiant streak would ensure that his time there was cut short. One of the University’s lecturers, Professor Horger objected to the poem Tiszta szívvel (With a Pure Heart) which appeared in József’s second volume of poetry, Nem én kiáltok (That’s Not Me Shouting) in 1925 and began with lines, ‘I have no father, I have no mother, I have no God and no country.’ Continue reading

Men Of Two Worlds: Berto Pasuka, Richie Riley And Les Ballets Nègres

On 20th April 1946, Les Ballets Nègres performed publicly for the first time at the Twentieth-Century Theatre in Westbourne Grove. As the only black ballet company in Europe, their ground-breaking performance received both critical praise and public acclaim. Following their move to the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, the company’s remarkable success made tickets so sought after, that the most prestigious stages in Europe beckoned. Yet in spite of their contemporary popularity, today the company and its founders unjustly warrant little more than a footnote in the history of the arts in Britain. The company even recorded a performance for the BBC’s fledgling national television service, which makes their absence from BBC Four’s current Ballet Season a somewhat surprising omission.

Above: BBC recording of Les Ballets Nègres (1946)

 

Described as ‘an idealist’ and ‘fascinatingly different,’ the man behind Les Ballets Nègres was Berto Pasuka, proclaimed by the ballet critic of The Stage as, ‘the most colourful dance personality since Isadora Duncan.’ Born Wilbert Passerley in Jamaica in 1919, Pasuka shunned his family’s wishes for him to become a dentist, deciding instead to pursue his own burning desire to dance. While studying classical ballet in Kingston, he would often steal away to watch the beguiling dancing of the Maroon people of Jamaica. The descendants of escapees from slavery, who had set up their own free communities on the island, for the Maroon people these vibrant displays, were instrumental in their fierce preservation of their own cultural identity. After finishing his training Pasuka struggled to find work in Jamaica and left for London in 1939, with the prejudice he faced because of his homosexuality contributing to his decision.

The capital of the former Empire would also draw Richie Riley, a close friend of Pasuka’s who shared his aspirations of becoming a professional dancer. Defying the hopes of his wealthy family that he would study English Literature at Cambridge, Riley instead secured a place at Serafina Astafieva’s dance academy, on the King’s Road in Chelsea; booking himself onto the first ship to leave Jamaica for England after the war, he arrived in January 1946.

Pasuka, who had recently starred in the film Men of Two Worlds with Phyllis Calvert, suggested that Riley should become co-founder of the ballet company he had recently formed, an offer Riley readily accepted. As Riley later remembered, they decided to call the company ‘Les Ballets Nègres – because it was, in every shape and form, ballet in a black idiom.’ Continue reading

All For Love: The Legend Of Dawn Langley Simmons

Like many other aspects of the life of Dawn Langley Simmons, her date of birth remains a matter of some dispute. While she always claimed to have been born in 1937, official records reveal the year of her birth as 1922; and the timing of some of Dawn’s own recollections certainly make that date far more plausible. Dawn’s mother was Margery Hall Ticehurst, a domestic servant, and her father, Jack Copper, the resident chauffeur at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Though the pair eventually married, Margery’s family were initially enraged at the thought of her having a child out of wedlock, so much so that her brother viciously kicked her in the stomach while pregnant. Dawn later suggested that she believed this incident was the cause of confusion, among both doctors and her parents, over her gender. Mistakenly believing her to be a boy, she argued, they had consequently brought her up as one.

Christened Gordon Langley Hall, although affectionately known by her family and friends as ‘Dinky’ on account of her slight frame, as an adult Dawn would fervently maintain that she had been born with a condition that caused swelling of the genitals, thereby leading doctors to wrongly identify her as male at birth. In his 2004 book Peninsula of Lies, based upon Dawn’s life, the journalist Edward Ball states that Dawn genuinely was born male, a fact certified to him by the doctor who carried out Dawn’s gender reassignment surgery in 1968. Yet regardless of whatever Gordon Langley Hall’s sex might have been at birth, Dawn Langley Simmons was a most remarkable woman.

Reminiscing about her childhood many years later, Dawn admitted to having a distant relationship with her parents, but an exceptional bond with her maternal grandmother, Nellie, whom she greatly admired. Nellie would inspire Dawn to follow her own path recalling how, ‘Knowing that because of my affliction I would never be able to contract a proper marriage, she decided early to fortify me with so much knowledge that I would be able to hold my own with anybody.’ Growing up at Sissinghurst, Dawn spent much time with the castle’s bohemian owners, Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, both of whom were homosexual; and through Vita’s lover, Virginia Woolf, she would also encounter the highly intellectual and artistic Bloomsbury Group for whom notions of gender and sexuality were often blurred. This was to leave an indelible mark upon her, as a close friend revealed to Edward Ball, ‘All this is what Dawn saw when she was growing up – a bunch of messed up artists.’

When asked by Virginia Woolf what she wanted to be when she grew up, Dawn remembered telling the novelist without hesitation, ‘a writer.’ Woolf’s own work also played a part in influencing the impressionable young Dinky, particularly her 1928 novel Orlando, about an epicene character with the ability to change sex, apparently based upon the androgynous Vita Sackville-West. Indeed, Dawn acknowledged, I had a recurring dream in which I saw an old fashioned glass hearse with plumes turning to go into the cemetery. And in the casket was Gordon. And that was a recurring dream. And of course, I grew up at Sissinghurst. And Virginia Woolf had written Orlando, the wonderful story about her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. How over the years Orlando had turned from a beautiful young man into a beautiful woman. And so I felt in my heart that I was the living Orlando.’ As Woolf had done, Dawn displayed a precocious talent for writing from an early age, and at nine years-old even had a regular column in a local newspaper, The Sussex Express, for which she once interviewed Mae West.

During the Second World War, Dawn was deemed unfit for service, but made herself useful by taking theatre classes and entertaining the troops, an endeavour that would have been unlikely had she been born in 1937. Still living as a man, in 1950 she moved to the United States, where she became the society editor for the Nevada Daily Mail in Missouri. A year later, she left for a brief stay in Canada, and found teaching work at an the Ojibway native reservation, an experience which would inspire her to write her 1955 book Me Papoose Sitter, the first of her critically acclaimed works. Continue reading