For those critics who love the sound of their own tortured vowels…
Even as he lay dying, an unsavoury old man in clothes roughly hewn from sanatorium blankets, felled by a halibut-wielding caretaker, high on a mixture of camphorated oil and Werther’s Originals, Senna refused to hide his contempt for the ‘Art’ that had failed to provide for any of his basic needs for almost fifty years and, turning to his long-time confidante, Layette, uttered his immortal last words, ‘Boil me and egg, Harold, and fetch my teeth from the dog – they will not bite me again.’
To trace the roots of this disdain we have to go back to his eighteenth birthday and the first real indications of a burgeoning talent. Haunted by the butcher’s bill and a landlord who threatened to, ‘Hang him by the ears from a really tall building until he pays his rent,’ Senna put his quill to paper for the first time since leaving school:
This quill is very difficult to write with and leaves large blobs all over the paper. I think it may need a point, but I cannot afford to buy one. If I am to progress as a writer I will need something from a nobler bird. Send money.
One can only imagine the consternation caused by this outburst, as not a single one of his contemporaries in the so-called ‘Cellar-set’ felt it worthy of even the briefest of mentions in their own, extensive, missives. It did, however, appear to have a totally debilitating effect upon Senna who did not feel well enough to raise a quill again for over two years.
His first attempt at poetry was an agonising challenge to him. Poverty forced him to drink the first gallon of ink he bought, and the only paper he was able to find came from his neighbour’s walls, none-the-less he forged on, producing his first real masterpiece – only a tiny fragment of which survives today:
‘“I must go down to the sea,” he said. “My boat has sprung a leak.
My socks are on the mizzen mast and have been there for a week.”’
Was this an indication of his earliest yearnings for a life at sea, or merely his dissatisfaction at owning only a single pair of socks, both of which, it would appear, he had misplaced? Whatever his reasons, it was a theme to which he was to return throughout his career. It was a mere decade later that he produced his next work, a lyrical evocation of the lure of the sea. Sadly, only two pages of this four thousand stanza meisterwerk survive, all but two lines of which consist of crossings-out and an oblique reference to an unpaid laundry bill:
‘And as they drifted onward ‘twixt lofty sky and shore,
He lost his favourite pair of socks and they were seen no more.’
Clearly he now owned more than one pair of socks – that is implicit in his reference to a pair that he held in higher esteem than all others. Various experts have subsequently estimated his sock-holdings at this time as being anywhere between two and thirty seven pairs. As always in the art world, there are dissenting voices. Dyer, for instance, states, ‘It’s two bleedin’ lines from an unfinished ditty about an incompetent sailor. How the hell can you calculate the contents of his sock drawer from that? Besides,’ he goes on to add darkly, ‘We only have Senna’s word for it that the poem was ever longer than two lines in the first place.’
Without doubt, it is one of literature’s great mysteries that such a prolific writer managed to leave behind only two lines from an entire decade’s labours. Some have postulated that his legacy may have been plundered at the time, by a bevy of less-talented contemporaries. Perhaps we can glean some indication from a fragment of a letter that he wrote to Layette on the occasion of his thirtieth birthday:
‘I fear I must leave my rooms. Each night I write a complete novel, sometimes a play, toiling away into the darkling hours, but each morning, the fruits of my labour disappear into the ether as I visit the bucket. I have only my poetry for solace, but I do not know where I put it. Send more money.’
We have nothing left of his mighty legacy from the ensuing decade. He did, at one time claim to have written an entire novel in Sanskrit but, claims Dyer, ‘It turned out to be nothing more than The Arabian Nights written backwards, sent to a publisher who he had forgotten was Saudi Arabian.’ Senna was forced to flee, under the threat of being made overly familiar with the publisher’s Kukri, and he began his opus work You’d Better Look Behind You When You Next Walk Down a Darkened Alley Matey, the very next day:
‘I wandered lonely as an insurance salesman with halitosis
Who plies his trade from door-to-door,
And if I could find my walking socks
I’d really give you what for…’
It was as far as he got, as he reported that his quill had been stolen and it took him almost five years to locate a new duck, by which time he had quite lost his drift. We can, however, surmise much from this literary fragment. He was clearly a poet at the very zenith of his powers: it does not scan, it ignores all basic word structure, it barely makes sense: a man ahead of his time. Artistic licence? Dyer suggests he would have failed the oral. In fact, the intrigue is deepened when we realise that this is the very last piece of work ever officially attributed to him (although Merry claimed to hold a fragment of an old shopping list). Senna, himself, never claimed to have written a single verse from that time until his untimely death, ten years later, at the hands of an apprentice masseur with a grudge.
In reviewing Senna’s contribution to the literary riches of history, we may be forced to review Sewer’s opinion that Senna was ‘Perhaps the greatest poet never to have been Laureate,’ although few are likely to agree with Dyer’s view that he was not even the greatest poet ‘Never to have so much as a single word published.’ History, and a hefty TV advance will tell…
I barely remember writing this at all, but clearly somebody had got deeply under my skin. As I go through it now I have a weird amalgamation of Melvyn Bragg, Brian Sewell and Will Gompertz inside my head. It is deeply unsettling.