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.

click to enlarge

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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41 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Canada is the donut capital of the world.

    He would have thrived here.

    • when I went to Canada, my mother took me straight to a donut shop on the way back from the airport. I still don’t understand why really…..

      • What else is there to do in Canada??

      • *ouch*

  2. I wonder if these lives were as much fun as you make them seem? I so hope so…

    • I think he had a pretty wild time. Lots of ups and downs

      • I think these busy, prolific, eclectic kind of lives are never as fun to live through – but they’re always interesting to remember and make for good stories.

  3. I didn’t like Philip O’ Connor at all. Have you read Quentin and Philip, (2002), Andrew Barrow, it’s a dual biography of Quentin Crisp and O’Connor. If you’re planning to read real books while you’re on your vacation, that may be one you’ll enjoy.

    • It seems to be his most well known book. I did enjoy Animal Magic so I think I’d probably like Quentin and Philip as well. Such interesting characters.

  4. How do you squander an inheritance on pate and drums? Maybe it wasn’t a large inheritance, but even if it wasn’t, let’s assume that the dude really liked his pate. Maybe he ate it while drumming.

    • Pate sounds good, drums even better.

      King Willy

      • That bit jumped out at me too. You know, if one is going to squander an inheritance, I believe it should always be on two completely unrelated yet frivolous items.

    • Maybe it was an extremely small inheritance.

  5. I am not so certain how one dabbles in chickens? At any rate, bathing in life and drying on the typewriter is a brilliant line.

  6. I have to have that Lego typewriter. It would make my kids much more interested in my wanting to be a writer.

  7. My favourite spoonerism, which I’ve used a couple of times when toasting bridesmaids, is “And now let us graze our arses to the queer Dean”

    • “GLAZE!!!!!” …. tsk

      • That’s a good one daddyp!

  8. “bathed in life and dried myself on the typewriter” – I’m jealous. The perfect existence.

    • i aspire to the life O’Connor lived… minus the dude with the size 13 shoes.

  9. I’m not surprised Philip refused to go back to his uncaring and pretentious mother, particularly when he had landed up in a pretty French seaside resort. The awful possibility of returning to dreary Leighton Buzzard would put anyone off.

    • Yes, I choose France over England any day (oops, sorry to all my British readers, but I do love France)

  10. What would a one-legged civil servant want with boots? Surely one boot would be enough.

    • He may have had a one-legged friend

      • TouchΓ©!

  11. If I had to be abandoned anywhere, it would be in a patisserie.

    • I’d like to be abandoned somewhere warm like Tahiti or the Seychelles

  12. Squandering an inheritance on percussion and pate? Now that is decadence!

  13. I wonder if you can buy just one boot at a time…
    in way it would seem wrong to split up the pair, but still…

  14. Sounds like he was barking mad. πŸ˜‰

  15. I started reading this post about an hour ago, came back and finished. Yeah I’m a slow reader. Anyway, it’s always an educational experience here at the Gimcrack.. I have lived my whole life without knowing about spoonerisms. How is that possible? You smart people make me feel so dumb. πŸ™‚

  16. I rather like a woman who will share a bath with me….as long as she isn’t a coal miner or oil driller.

    • *sigh* I have some lovely memories of bathing with Stephen…. once in an enormous submarine-like tub in Venice. That bathroom was also memorable for having two bidets!

  17. I found the bath chairs in this post very interesting and had never heard of them before. How awesome for sick folks!

    • Much nicer than wheelchairs weren’t they?

  18. I can assure you that there is no longer an open artists community within the Dakota. You have to pay a lot just to look at that building!

    I was momentarily distracted from your post by the one-legged man story. Remind me to stop complaining so much.

    • I preferred the one-legged man BEFORE he started all that body building

  19. Seems to me a life well lived and someone who i’m going to look into a bit more, so thanks for the heads up Nursie… “part angel, part demon”, i think i know someone else who’s been described that way, his name escapes me at the moment…

    • Me too πŸ˜‰

      We had a part angel part demon poet here in Australia. there’s a biography of him called Delinquent Angel but if you can’t get hold of it, you can get a sense of the man by reading what his friends and admirers wrote about him here. He had an amazingly bad upbringing after he was adopted by the famous Darrell Lea family

  20. A propos of nothing, we stayed in Wimereux in March. A charming place with a playful beach, which I could imagine a child not wishing to leave

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