part angel, part demon

After reading Andrew Barrow’s heartfelt memoir about the short life of his younger brother I did a little googling to find out more about him. Among other things, he’s also the author of this obituary for the poet Philip O’Connor

image found here

“As thin as a skeleton, his face already eroded, his smile never calm, he lived off doughnuts and Woodbines, ogled at women and spoke in cryptograms, spoonerisms and jingles, delivering sentences backwards and falling about in drunken exhilaration.

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Philip O’Connor’s life had been full of folly from the beginning. Born in Leighton Buzzard in 1916, delivered – he claimed – by the King’s physician, and encouraged by his mother, a fallen gentlewoman of mixed Asiatic, Dutch and Burmese blood, to consider himself descended through his father from the last King of Ireland, O’Connor had a disorderly childhood. Taken to France as a baby, he was abandoned at the age of four with Madame Tillieux, matronly proprietor of a patisserie in the seaside resort of Wimereux near Boulogne. Two years later, his mother returned to claim him and was met with violent protests. “Non!” screamed young Philip, scurrying to Madame’s black skirts. “Ce n’est past Maman, t’es Maman. ‘Suis Francais.”

Wimereux found here

Back in England a few years later, O’Connor was again adopted, this time by a one-legged bachelor civil servant who wore size 13 boots and owned a small wooden hut on Box Hill near Dorking. In circumstances unthinkable in today’s suspicious climate, here the dreamy little lad and his shy misogynist guardian set up house.

NOT this one legged man (found here)

By the time he left school, O’Connor’s megalomania or messianism was already pronounced: “The word ‘fool’ had fastened itself sharply, hissingly on my tongue.” Autocratic bad temper, omniscience and almost epileptic exhibitionism had become his trademarks.

O’Connor’s extreme outsider status was reinforced in his late teens by a longish period tramping across England – an experience which formed the basis for his book Vagrancy published in 1963. His time on the road was followed by a six-month stay in the Maudsley Hospital, where he was diagnosed as the youngest schizophrenic in the ward. He then bounced, or fell, back into Fitzrovia and into a marriage with the daughter of a Scottish lawyer, whose inheritance he was to squander on pate de foie gras and percussion instruments.

Gene Krupa found here

The marriage ended after five years and O’Connor embarked upon a number of other relationships, fathering an unknown number of attractive and intelligent children, in whose upbringing he was to play little part.

Some of his wives and girlfriends attempted to tame him and at various times O’Connor earned a living by pushing an old man round Salisbury in a bath-chair, wielding the lights at the Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town, and as an operator on the continental telephone exchange. In this last role, he boasted that he had eavesdropped on a private conversation between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

bath-chairs found here

Along the way he took up with a woman who earned her living taking baths with older men, then improved his lot by marrying a wealthy woman who financed a high-living fling that ended when her money and her sanity ran out. (After she tried to kill him, she was confined to a mental hospital and Philip O’Connor went on to other lovers.)

In material and emotional terms, O’Connor’s life was stabilised by his meeting at the age of 51 with the young, beautiful and beguiling American Panna Grady, whose self-effacing generosity to artists and writers in her New York apartment in the Dakota building had been on an epic scale. O’Connor began a love affair which was to last for the rest of his life.

Panna Grady and friends (including Andy Warhol) found here

O’Connor and Grady never married, but they created an atmosphere of strange fastidiousness around them in which O’Connor’s hisses and cackles were matched by a neurasthenic fear of the sounds and movements of others. This private world hedged in by Grady’s antique screens and Chinese tapestries was rarely penetrated or understood by others, though O’Connor could on occasions be an exhilarating host. Reluctant to shake hands – he was more likely to extend a dangling finger – he had considerable skills as a cook, dabbled interestingly with chickens but was just as likely to offer visitors a glass of boiling rum as a tumbler of the best champagne.

It could be argued that Philip O’Connor never grew up. Most of his life he avoided responsibility for others and himself. He was, said Stephen Spender, “part angel, part demon”.

In his own words, he “bathed in life and dried myself on the typewriter“.

Lego Vintage Typewriter found here

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