Sunday 18 February 2018

Leland, an Irish everywoman

Writer Leland Bardwell always had brains, drive and talent, but grew up believing her mother's dictum that she was ugly. Now in her 80s, she tells the story of her bizarre upbringing, her bohemian early life and her many love affairs, writes Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

THE Anglo-Irish, if they survived their upbringing at all, were a hardy, resilient lot. To make it through formative years spent rattling around freezing houses, on bleak estates, barely cared for by emotionally distant parents and ignorant, often drunken, nannies, required the kind of survival instincts that were part inherited, and part learned in extreme conditions. Neglect, abuse, violence -- there are plenty of dark tales to tarnish the trappings of upper-class glamour.

Although Leland Bardwell -- poet, novelist, playwright and now memoirist; friend of Michael Hartnett, Paul Durcan and Patrick Kavanagh -- has no truck with the Anglo-Irish label ("We were a Protestant family, but not Anglo-Irish. We didn't come from England. We came from Holland. Not that that's much better, but it's different"), her childhood was bleak even by the standards of the times.

Her father, Pat Hone, born of generations of painters, including Nathaniel Hone the younger and stained-glass artist, Evie, was an engineer who worked in Canada and India, where Leland was born. Pat fought in the First World War, before returning to Ireland in 1924 and uniting his scattered family under the crumbling roof of a large, Georgian house in Leixlip.

Leland's older brother, Noll, and her dazzling sister, Paloma, had been left in the care of grandparents, and were then scooped up and taken to this house, "huge and cold as death", bought at the insistence of Leland's mother, Mary Hone, who had social ambitions and a love of hunting. [Born a Collise, the notable difference between Mary and her husband's family, as recorded by Enid Starkie, was that "tea with the Hones meant cake, tea with the Collises, bread and jam." By such narrow distinctions and domestic short-hand was class decided in those days.]

A chilly, remote woman, reminiscent of Molly Keane's elegantly cruel Mrs St Charles in Good Behaviour, Mary Hone was passionately in love with her husband, and showed a sort of sly contempt for everyone else. Her savage treatment of her youngest daughter casts a long shadow across A Restless Life, Leland's extraordinarily vivid and immediate memoirs of her life being buffeted by the many forces over which she had no control.

Until they were about 12, she was "very handy with the cane", as Leland recalls, and would scream hysterically and rant at Leland to "speak, to do, to behave". Maybe worse though were the the little throw-away cruelties, of comment and action, that greeted almost everything Leland did; "once," Leland recalls, "I showed her a picture of a toddler I'd found, wondering if it was me. As if I'd committed a mortal sin, she screamed at me, 'You were never as pretty as that!'" Not that Leland paints herself as an engaging child; she was shy to the point of physical discomfort, unable to shake hands or even speak to visitors, and given to eavesdropping.

A Restless Life is, often, a bleak and distressing read, made possible only by Leland's crisp lack of self-pity and endless amounts of guts. The blows are many, but she seems equal to them all. Was it a hard book to write? "Not at all," she responds decisively. "I was hard pressed to write it. I didn't want to, but I was pressed and once I started I zoomed along." Today Leland, well into her 80s, is magnificent looking, with a kind of Lauren Bacall cool; strong features and heavily-lidded eyes, wearing a dark purple beret and jeans. She has presence, and great charm. She is also wonderfully evasive, sliding away from questions she doesn't want to answer with a sort of appealing sideways laugh. Throughout A Restless Life she insists that she was an ugly child, "Neanderthal" even, called "elephant head" by her mother, and hideous next to her sister's beauty, but I can't see it.

Although the book wasn't hard to write, Leland is not happy with the results. "I regret it. I don't think it's well enough written. I wrote it a long time ago and had almost forgotten it when Jonathan Williams said Liberties Press was interested. It's not the book I would write now." Critical as she is, A Restless Life is not just a great read, it's a valuable record of the kind of narrow, choked circumstances faced by so many women, women with brains and drive, but without money or beauty, and consequently lacking power. Indeed, when, during the Sixties and Seventies, Leland became involved with the Women's Movement in Dublin, she recalls. "I was so broke, so near the ground, that I knew more than them about certain things. The other women were well-heeled, middle-class, they didn't know about this kind of thing."

Leland's parents, although they showed little warmth to any of their children, were besotted with Paloma, in thrall to her beauty and athleticism. She was a remarkably talented horsewoman, captain of the school teams in hockey and tennis, full of dash and spirit. As a result, she was properly educated at boarding school in England, given a respectable allowance and bought a good horse, while Leland taught herself to read French and Latin, was lumped in with any governess that happened to be giving lessons in the vicinity, and taught herself to ride on the family donkey. Her parents refused to spend any money at all on her, ignoring, or possibly unaware of the fact, that she was remarkably bright and longing for an education.

What now, does she make of her mother, looking back? "She was a very strange woman, very frustrated, a very good artist, but she didn't realise that until the end of her life. She wasn't really interested in anything much. In retrospect, I feel sorry for her, she didn't have anything she wanted." As for Mary Hone's treatment of Leland, "It was jealousy more than anything else. She didn't want me to succeed in anything, she wanted me to be the youngest, the servant, the ugliest."

Leland was finally sent to Alexandra School in Dublin, where she, too, excelled at sports, although she never told her parents, perhaps fearing that even their love of athletics wouldn't cancel their indifference towards her. "He never knew," she says of her father; "he never asked." Her Aunt Olive, her father's sister, and the good angel of Leland's early life, paid for piano lessons -- she was extremely musical -- and sent her to college in Switzerland for a term, but Trinity, where Leland longed to go, was out of the question; "we've spent enough money on Noll and Paloma's education," was the response.

Mary Hone died, following a hunting fall, and for years Leland dreamt of her almost every night, in her coffin, scraping at the lid, trying to get out. She left behind an emotionally sundered family with few prospects. Hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, dissipated, glamorous, charismatic Paloma could always find work with horses, and even ran a riding school for a time, until the NSPCA complained about the starved state of the animals. Yet Paloma too had "a restless life". Shortly after her mother died, she installed her lover John Price in the stables at Leixlip, became pregnant by him, gave the baby up for adoption, later married Price, by whom she had two more children. She eventually left him and moved to Rhodesia and was married another three times, finally dying, in her 50s, on her fourth honeymoon.

So Leland was left to drift, doing various, vaguely horsey, jobs on the estates of the Anglo-Irish, attending endlessly same-y hunt balls and tennis parties. At one of these she met her much older cousin, Christopher, for the first time, who was, in many ways, the love of her life. They never married, although they came close to the idea, and had an intense, occasionally-sexual relationship that lasted throughout his life, overlapping Leland's marriage and subsequent affairs.

She was finally propelled out of Ireland and her formless existence by discovering she was pregnant -- though not by Christopher. She never did tell the father. Using the "war effort" as an excuse, she escaped to Britain, had the baby and, just like Paloma, gave it up for adoption. Despite the bombing, blackouts and rationing, it was a good time to be Irish and a woman in England, there was a freedom and an anonymity that favoured those brave enough to grab it. Leland found work in the Chinese Embassy, and discovered that she was attractive; "in some magic way my looks had improved". She was earning money, had nice clothes -- "high-heeled shoes and sexy outfits" -- and a host of boyfriends.

When the war finished she got a job at John Aitkenhead's progressive Kilquhanity School in Scotland, where, among a crowd of boozy, vaguely hippyish, kaftan-wearing teachers, she met Michael Bardwell (brother of Hilary Bardwell, who married Kingsley Amis). The two shared a love of classical music, and eventually, feeling that she had lost Christopher for good, and convinced that life as a married woman held more promise than spinsterhood, Leland persuaded herself that she loved him.

They married and had twins, Billy and Anna. When the twins were three, Leland left Michael for his brother, Brian, a journalist, even though again she was not in love. Together they had a daughter, Jacky, and moved to London, where Leland had a seven-year affair with Oscar Gates, who shared the upstairs flat with his partner, Maggie.

Every afternoon, with baby Jacky in her carry-cot, they would roam London for deserted, bombed-out houses, where they would make love on bare boards until it was time for Leland to fetch the twins from their nursery. Despite the obvious wrongdoing, those were good times.

Oscar was a warm, passionate man, loyal and supportive, and perhaps the first man to really touch her emotionally; "perhaps the only man I really cared for in an adult way". All the same, she cheated on him, too. Something about her cold, neglected childhood had made it impossible for Leland to understand or mitigate the pain she caused; "I, always expecting to be the one to be hurt, never believed I could hurt others."

The affair with Oscar lasted until Leland found her way into the wild literary scene based around Soho, with Anthony and Therese Cronin, Francis Bacon, George Barker, Patrick Kavanagh and Anthony Burgess at its heart. She was smitten. It was a milieu that excited her enormously, and into which she threw herself with abandon, hosting endless parties -- her flat was described by Kavanagh as "the last outpost of civilisation" and hanging around nightly in the Colony Rooms and the Caves. She was also writing again, inspired by the intellects around her, although they were occasionally cruel -- "I was easily teased and taunted when a target was needed. But like a child who says, 'Please play with me', I always bounced back, to listen and learn." As an unpublished writer, a woman, and a Protestant, she was low in the often ruthlessly-enforced pecking order.

As the Sixties approached, she was involved in "a crescendo of madness," with wild, drunken parties every night and countless unexplained house guests who would simply sleep where they fell; Patrick Kavanagh was a long-term guest, installed on a camp bed in the sitting room. It was thoroughly ramshackle and bohemian -- recalled by Leland as "hectic, funny, wonderful and painful" -- and naturally tough for Brian and the children, but the scene put her into conflict with Oscar also, and eventually their relationship simply wore away.

By this time, Leland was ready to bolt again, and that was when she met Finton McLachlan, six years younger, son of a Scotch Presbyterian father and an Irish Catholic mother, and "possibly the most beautiful young man I'd ever seen. With reddish hair, green eyes and golden skin."

They had, according to almost all who knew them both, nothing in common. And yet, it was an intense, irresistible relationship that would last through many years, despite Leland's better instincts.

"I was infatuated with Finton. Nothing mattered, except my being with him. I am not proud of this, I simply state it." The couple moved back to Dublin, where they lived on Leeson Street for 10 years, collecting around them the same kind of hard-drinking artistic scene as the Soho days. During this time, Leland had three more children, Nicholas, Edward and John, and the family lived on the tiny amount of money Leland had inherited and what she could earn by reviewing books for Hibernia. Finton contributed little or nothing, and the contriving was all Leland's. She made all her own and the children's clothes, and would trundle a broken go-cart round to Camden Street every day to buy the cheapest fruit, vegetables, herrings and mince. By dint of constantly shopping and cooking, she managed to feed and clothe the family -- "we lived on the edge all right, but at least we lived" -- and even breastfed her babies, back in the days when it was considered a filthy practice, and actively discouraged. Despite the rotten example of her own mother, she tried to follow her instincts, but when I ask her does she think she was a good mother, she smiles a sad, sideways smile; "I wouldn't say that".

During the Sixties, Leland gathered a salon around herself -- John Jordan, Paul Durcan, Macdara Woods, Michael Hartnett -- and they would listen to Bob Dylan, the Beatles and old Irish tunes, drink and talk. She was also writing furiously, bashing at an old typewriter as the children played on the floor.

Life with Finton continued melodramatically, interspersed with callousness and indifference. Asked why she stayed so long with him, she is evasive; "why didn't I leave him? So many different reasons. I got stuck in one of those relationships, too difficult to describe. I thought the children would be better off with a father. Also, I gave the impression things were OK, to my father and to the people who called in, because that's me. I don't go out looking for sympathy. I did leave eventually, 10 years later. I deliberately haven't blasted him in the book. It's easy to make everything negative. I gave him what I could in the book."

A Restless Life ends, abruptly, at the end of the Sixties, with the suicide of Paddy McNeice, the death of Patrick Kavanagh and the death of Christopher. "I ended it deliberately there," says Leland. "I thought it was the end of an era; the Sixties, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, flower power, love, was sliding away."

But it was also the start of her life as a published writer. Constrained first by her class, age and sex, later by poverty, domesticity, and a turbulent relationship, it wasn't until very late in life that Leland began to publish her work, finally giving public voice to the promise shown since the age of six when, in her loneliness, she would write endless stories, even entire newspapers, to while away the hours.

And so, finally, after the many restless years, she found release and salvation, not in love as she had always expected, but in her poems, novels and plays.

'A Restless Life' by Leland Bardwell is published by Liberties Press, available in paperback €17.99 and hardback €25, in all good bookshops and from www.LibertiesPress.com

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment