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Saturday 21 September 2019

Rhyme and reason: Roy Campbell 1901-1957

I wonder how many watching the World Cup in South Africa know that the country produced one of the three great poets in English in the second half of the 20th century. Roy Campbell was his name, the other two in the triangle being Dylan Thomas (Welsh) and Patrick Kavanagh (Irish).

In Durban, in the mid 1990s, I got a chance to visit the house where Roy Campbell grew up. It is lived in now by his nephew, Dr Hamish Campbell. He told me the house was called "Carndonagh", after the Donegal town their ancestors, whom Roy himself described as "Catholic bog trotters", had come from.

Roy was a man of action, a first-class horseman, brilliant shot and a noted bullfighter. When he came to London he was always in fights.

The poet Stephen Spender told me once how he got a punch in the nose while he was speaking through a microphone in a London hall, which turned out to be Campbell's way of disagreeing with what was being said. Spender, a saintly type, later awarded the Foyle Book of the Year prize to Campbell. When Campbell received it he said: "Why wouldn't I, I deserved it."

Not exactly a pleasant character. However, his poetry is sublime.

The Sisters is based on a memory Campbell had of when he was 18 years old and had hidden himself up a tree by the sea, to shoot bush pigs. Down below he saw two beautiful girls riding naked on their horses to an inlet at low tide. From this he got a poem which quivers with the energy of a Goya portrait.

Believe it or not, when I went to South Africa for the Sunday Independent, I located one of these sisters whose name was Joan Tatham. I asked her opinion of the poem. Alas, she had never heard of it. But she did remember Roy: "Oh, those blue eyes. They burned like coals of fire."

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