Thursday 19 April 2018

WB Yeats, the art teacher and the sex tale in the attic

SEX LIFE: The poet WB Yeats met Platt while at a sex talk
SEX LIFE: The poet WB Yeats met Platt while at a sex talk

Sarah Hughes

It's a story that has lain hidden in a plastic bag at the back of a dusty drawer and forgotten for more than 40 years before being uncovered, alongside faded letters and old diaries - a description of an extraordinary encounter between an art teacher and WB Yeats during a debate on methods to restore sexual potency.

Now Avies Platt's account of her meeting and subsequent evening with the poet is set to be published in the London Review of Books.

Platt, an art mistress at Wellingborough County High School for Girls in Northamptonshire, was in her early 40s when she met the 72-year-old Yeats at an open meeting of the Sex Education Society, a group headed by controversial sexologist Norman Haire - best-known for his practice of the Steinach rejuvenation operation, a semi-vasectomy, which he believed could combat the effects of old age and restore sexual potency.

"Two rows back stood the most striking-looking man I had ever seen," Platt records. "Tall, somewhat gaunt, aristocratic, very dignified: a strong, yet sensitive face, crowned by untidy locks of white hair ... He leaned slightly forward, resting both hands on the chair in front of him ... How long I looked I do not know, but ... all the time he just stood motionless and gazed."

The two strangers struck up a conversation and discovered a mutual interest in writing and art, not to mention the Steinach operation. Platt was hoping to find help for her older lover, referred to only as MM, who had begun to suffer from impotence, and Yeats admitted he had had the operation three years previously. "As we drove across London [he told me]: 'I regard it as one of the greatest events, if not the supreme event of my life'," Platt writes.

As the evening progressed it became obvious that the elderly poet's interest in Platt went further than conversation - she mentions him sitting outside the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall and expressing his regrets at "the stupid rule that we may not take ladies in after midnight" - yet their relationship did not progress beyond the platonic, although they later exchanged letters, with Yeats even agreeing to meet MM and discuss the Steinach operation in detail ("MM went to Dublin but refused to see him").

Yeats died in 1939, two years after the meeting. Platt died in 1976. Keen to become a writer, she had recorded her account in 1946 but did nothing with it.

It was discovered two months ago by the poet Peter Scupham and his wife Margaret Stewart.

"Margaret's cousin was the executor of Avies's will and she'd inherited this tremendous jumble of stuff, letters and journals, fragments of writing, the whole thing was totally unsorted and had been stuffed in drawers and never looked at," says Scupham.

"So two months ago she gave it to us and said: 'Do you think there's anything of interest or should I just throw it all away?'

"The most coherent-looking thing was a manuscript, which turned out to be the story of her encounter with WB Yeats. I read it and immediately said it should be published."

Sadly, the additional correspondence between the two that Platt refers to is yet to be uncovered.

"They may still be in a dusty box somewhere, waiting to be found," says Scupham.

"There was also apparently a photograph of Avies lying across Yeats's grave after the interment - it would be nice if we could find that, but we haven't discovered it yet."

A Lazarus Beside Me, Avies Platt's account of her meeting with WB Yeats, will be published in the 27 August edition of the London Review of Books

© Observer

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News