June 19, 2004
The Kings of Redonda
As I mentioned a few entries ago, I recently read M.P. Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud, a ripely Late-Victorian melodrama following one lone man’s survival of a global catastrophe. I read it in the new Tartarus Press edition which is set splendidly between purple endpapers and covers, with a purple marker-ribbon to keep ones page. After that, I started reading Tomorrow In the Battle, Think On Me, a sophisticated literary novel of secrets & lies by the contemporary Spanish writer Javier Marías, which I finished only yesterday. I never would have imagined any link between these two authors, had I not glanced at the acknowledgements on the reverse of the Tartarus edition’s title-page, where I read the following:
This edition is made possible by the kindness of Javier Marías (Xavier of Redonda), the executor and holder of the estate of M.P. Shiel. The publishers would like to express their thanks to King Xavier, [...] and the Redondan Cultural Foundation.
So, I had to wonder, what was all that about? King Xavier? And where, or what, was Redonda? The internet had the answers, of course, which I will now attempt to summarise.
Marías had bought a collection of private papers that had formerly belonged to a writer and literary enthusiast by the name of John Gawsworth, at an auction at Sotheby’s in 1995. Gawsworth had previously figured as a character in Marías’ Oxford-set novel All Souls (which I haven’t read yet). With the papers came literary executorship for the estates of Gawsworth and Shiel. The title of King of Redonda, Marías claims, also came to him as part of this package. It was only some five years later that King Xavier laid any public claim to the Redondan crown, to the dismay of King Leo of Redonda, who had considered himself the King since 1989. Marías used his title as part of the background to a new publishing venture, and has conferred dukedoms on authors and other public figures he admires.
John Gawsworth was the pen name used by the poet and editor Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong (1912-70). Gawsworth had, as a young man, been a tireless supporter of and campaigner for the pre-modernist writers he idolised - notably Shiel, Arthur Machen, Ernest Dowson and Richard Middleton. By the ‘30s, these authors had become altogether unfashionable, and Machen and Shiel had every reason to appreciate Gawsworth’s efforts on their behalf (Dowson and Middleton had both died young). Shiel expressed his gratitude by designating Armstrong as his executor, and as his successor as King of Redonda. Shiel had married twice, and had at least two children, but must presumably have been estranged from them. Gawsworth’s later career was, alas, blighted by chronic alcoholism, and his reign as King Juan I of Redonda descended into chaos.
Gawsworth’s talents as a poet and man of letters failed to sustain him in the bleak post-war years, and he gradually fell on evil days, taking odd jobs, suffering from ill-health, and spending much time in the bar of the “Alma” tavern in Westbourne Grove, West London. Here he often held court, and knowledgeable tourists would frequently track him down. In return for buying His Majesty a drink, it was sometimes possible to receive a Dukedom, inscribed on the back of a beermat. Such prodigality, together with Gawsworth's undoubted skill in keeping the Realm in the public eye by newspaper reports (usually compiled by himself) eventually brought the Realm into disrepute - source here.
Gawsworth gave dukedoms to writers such as J.B.Priestley, Dorothy L.Sayers, Arthur Ransome, Henry Williamson, George Barker, Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, and Lawrence & Gerald Durrell. The actors Vincent Price and Dirk Bogarde were also honoured thus, as, incongruously, was Diana Dors. Gawsworth attempted to sell his kingdom to a member of the Swedish Royal Family, but the sale was never concluded. That there are now as many as nine pretenders to the Redondan throne is a testament to the confusion of Gawsworth’s last years.
M.P. Shiel (1865-1947) had reigned as King Philip (or Felipe) of Redonda since 1880. During that time he had written some twenty-five novels, and dozens of short stories. Many of his books were romantic mysteries and adventure stories in a popular vein, whilst others had a science-fictional basis (The Purple Cloud, for example), or were concerned with the supernatural. Shiel also penned philosophical and religious texts. His works earned praise from such diverse figures as H.G. Wells, August Derleth and Dashiell Hammett, but he was perhaps his own greatest admirer, considering himself ‘the best prose writer living.’
The kingdom of Redonda had been a gift to Shiel from his father. Matthew Dowdy Shiell, a wealthy trader of Irish descent from the Caribbean island of Montserrat, had claimed the ‘rocky and uninhabitable remnant of an extinct volcanic cone’ as his own in 1865, to celebrate the birth of his first and only son: he already had nine daughters. Columbus had discovered the islet, naming it Nuestra Señora de la Redonda, in 1493, but no government had officially annexed it until the British Empire did so, ca 1872. Disregarding this imperial expansionism, Shiell senior abdicated his ephemeral throne in July 1880, on Matthew Phipps Shiell’s fifteenth birthday, and in a coronation ceremony performed by the Bishop of Antigua, passed the crown on to his son.
Posted by misteraitch at June 19, 2004 10:29 AM
As a febrile adolescent with pretensions to literary grandeur stuck in a boarding school, I corresponded for a while with one Royston Ellis, a self-styled beatnik nabob who impressed me mightily. He was a Duke of Redonda but was very coy about how he came by the title. I never found out.
Marias and Shiel are both wonderful writers. You really have to read ALL SOULS (TODAS LAS ALMAS), a novel where the protagonist's inquiries into Gawsworth's life feature prominently, and then DARK BACK OF TIME (NEGRA ESPALDA DEL TIEMPO), which is a non-fictional examination into how Marias came to write ALL SOULS.
This was a very readable essay on MP Shiel but closer study of the life of MP Shiel and his antecedents reveals that, although they may have been comfortably off compared with many of the other coloreds on Montserrat, they were far from "wealthy". True, Matthew Dowdy Shiell had a store and did some inter-island trading in his small sailing vessel but raising 9 children was not cheap then or now. In letters written later in life to his impecunious son in London we see him apologising to MPS because he could only spare a pound or two in cash.
Much of the story of the "Coronation" was no doubt heavily embellished by Shiel . There is no record of the Bishop of Antigua ever being on Redonda. If there was a clergyman present it was probably the Rev Semper, a colored Methodist minister from Montserrat, As the Shiells' were strict Methodists any wine (if indeed present at all) would have been poured on the rocks to seek blessing rather than inbibed by the coronation party. Sorry to spoil a good story!!
I have written a good deal about the earlier (white)Shiell family of Montserrat from whom MPS was most likely descended. Several of these biographies are already available and I will gradually release the rest on one of the Websites when polished and referenced to my satisfaction
Thanks for your comment, Richard: its fascinating to learn the unembellished origins of this tale.
I've just finished writing a piece on the 1970 BBC film on John Gawsworth for FAUNUS, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen, and could send you a version of it if you'd care to read/publish it. It should interest Redondan enthusiasts, though it's more about Gawsworth and his friendship with Lawrence Durrell than the kingdom. It's quite long (5 pages of A4) but I could trim it to publishable length for you.
The Friends of Arthur Machen
I would like to get a Count Position,with the Kingdom of Redonda.
Dick Jones mentions me on your site - about Redonda. I'm no longer coy - what do you (does he) need to know?
As master of my own ship, the S/V SeaGull, well found and well armed, I hereby announce that it is my intention, at some point in time in the near future, to invade the Kingdom of Redonda and conquer said kingdom, whereupon I shall establish myself as its absolute ruler by Force Majeure.
I promised you a piece on the BBC TV Gawsworth documentary some time ago: hope to send it along shortly.
Have you the email address of Royston Ellis? I'd like to approach him for his memories of Gawsworth.
The Friends of Arthur Machen
The BBC LINE-UP documentary on John Gawsworth was released on DVD by The Friends of Arthur Machen (www.machensoc.demon.co.uk) in February 2006, under licence from the BBC. It was distributed free to members, with a booklet giving the background to the feature. New members will receive the DVD and booklet while stocks last. The novelists Lawrence Durrell and Kate O’Brien, two of Gawsworth’s Redondan peers, pay tribute to the poet, editor, and horror-story anthologist in the feature, which was made in January 1970, just a few months before JG’s death in a London hospital, aged fifty-eight. Durrell and his friend and bibliographer Alan G. Thomas sing Gawsworth’s praises in the Elephant and Castle pub. At the end of the film, Gawsworth, several sheets to the wind, greets his friends at the bar and reads his moving poem ‘Four A.M.- January 3, 1970’. The pub was initially believed to be the famous watering-hole in South London, near Waterloo Station. However further research has shown that this Elephant was rebuilt in the 1960s, before the documentary was made. The pub may have been the Elephant and Castle in Elgin Avenue, just north of Gawsworth’s former bedsitting room at 35 Sutherland Place, Bayswater. A modern pub stands there now. Gawsworth’s old Redonda HQ, the Alma pub at 175 Westbourne Grove, Bayswater, is now the Tea Palace restaurant. Issue No. 13 of the society journal FAUNUS (2006) is devoted to Gawsworth.
Now John Gawsworth’s LIFE OF ARTHUR MACHEN is finally in print after seventy years the editors of THE LOST CLUB JOURNAL (www.lost-club.co.uk) thought it was about time they found out where the royal ashes of Redonda’s monarchs were laid to rest. The matter stands as something of a mystery.
Before his death in September 1970 John Gawsworth, who traced his ancestry to the Fitton family of Gawsworth Hall, Cheshire in Northern England, requested that his ashes be taken to the church of his forefathers, but were they?
Gawsworth took pride in his descent from the Fittons. Mary Fitton was a candidate for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the Old Hall and Mary are depicted on JG’s bookplate. The hall, he wrote, ‘was in the hands of my family since the 12th Century – until the Battle of the Boyne!’ Little wonder then that Gawsworth was dubbed ‘the last of the Jacobites’.
Shortly before he died, and just before undergoing an operation for stomach ulcers (he feared he might not survive), Gawsworth wrote to his literary executor Jon Wynne-Tyson, subsequently his successor as King Juan II, that he wished his ashes to be mingled with those of Shiel: ‘then the pair of us – “in death they were not divided” – seek the asylum of Gawsworth church’. The custodian of Shiel’s ashes at that time was Her Ex-Majesty Estelle (wife No. 2), who lived at 28 Addison Gardens near Shepherd’s Bush, West London. Gunterstone Road, West Kensington, where Gawsworth was born in 1912 is nearby, as is Blythe Road, where the Order of the Golden Dawn temple was sited in the 1890s. H. Rider Haggard wrote KING SOLOMON’S MINES and SHE while living in Gunterstone Road in the 1880s.
Gawsworth, alias King Juan I, married three times, but his ex-wives are all dead, it appears, and his surviving friends do not know if his wishes were acted upon; though the poet John Heath-Stubbs, one of Gawsworth’s associates and a duke of Redonda, believes the ashes were mingled and enshrined among the funerary monuments of the Fittons. We’ve heard different accounts of what happened: that the ashes were scattered at Golders Green crematorium, North London, or in the grounds of St James’s, the 15th century church at Gawsworth. King Juan I had suggested that it would be fitting if the remains were dropped from an aircraft over Redonda. Gawsworth served in the RAF during the war and so this would have been an appropriate romantic climax to the Redonda saga. Jon Wynne-Tyson has written: ‘I felt foolishly guilty that I had not secured his ashes, and as things turned out I could have scattered them on the actual island of Redonda some years later, which is what he had always wanted.’ Mr Wynne-Tyson ascended the rock on the 1979 A. Reynolds Morse expedition.
Not all of Shiel’s ashes survived over the years of Gawsworth’s descent into penury and alcoholism. Gawsworth stored them in a tea caddy, and when the poet moved from his Bayswater bedsit in 1968 a friend who was helping brewed up what he thought was tea, but caddy’s contents were actually Shiel’s incinerated remains. A photograph of Gawsworth with the urn on his mantelpiece can be found in the Reynolds Morse SHIELOGRAPHY. This elegant canister appears to be of brass, and is shaped like an 18th century stagecoach: squarish, with sides sloping inwards. Jon Wynne-Tyson writes in his memoir FINDING THE WORDS that while he was minding the urn for Gawsworth after the exodus from Bayswater his daughter Sue expressed some curiosity about the contents. So he removed the lid to find a set of dentures lying on the bed of ash. He took these to be JG’s teeth, but were they Shiel’s? The poet and bookseller Arthur Freeman has written on how JG preserved Shiel’s dentures into the 1960s.
Mark Holloway, JG’s half-brother and the author of the Lost Club/Redondan Cultural Foundation booklet JOHN GAWSWORTH AND THE ISLAND KINGDOM OF REDONDA, said he saw Gawsworth (when sloshed one hopes) use the urn as an ashtray. Barry Humphries, an admirer of Machen and Shiel’s writings, explains in his autobiography MORE PLEASE how, when Gawsworth was in his cups, Redonda’s sovereign sprinkled some of Shiel’s ashes in a stew he’d cooked. Barry has contributed a fine reminiscence of his old friend to Gawsworth’s biography of Machen. Written in the 1930s, this substantial biography was rejected by the publishers Rich & Cowan. It’s a pity Gawsworth didn’t attempt to revise and update the biography over the years. He certainly could have had it published in the 1960s when Machen’s reputation revived with paperback editions of the horror tales.
William L. Gates, King Leo of Redonda, writes: ‘All hearsay, but I understand that JG planned two attempts to take Shiel’s ashes to Gawsworth, Cheshire. Each time, the car broke down, and the idea was abandoned. He kept the urn on his mantelpiece, as you know, and was in the habit of taking it with him to The Alma [Gawsworth’s local pub in Bayswater] occasionally. After JG’s funeral and cremation at Golders Green, I understand that JG’s ashes were scattered on the Crocus Lawn at the Crematorium. (Steve Eng wrote to them later, seeking information on the possibility of setting up a memorial plaque there, but it came to nothing.) I have no idea what happened to Shiel’s ashes; perhaps they were mingled, as JG desired. Nor do I know who took responsibility for the arrangements. The person who may have had first-hand information on all this might have been JG’s cousin, Francis Fytton, who was invited a year later to give the Address at the Memorial Service for JG arranged by [the poet] Oliver Cox at his house in Kensington – too late to check now, I presume?’
All of which leaves us with one final question: where are Shiel’s false teeth?
I was interested to read your comment about Francis Fytton being John Gawsworth's cousin in the last paragraph. Do you mean the writer and journalist? If so please could you tell me how you know they were cousins.
I don't know precisely how Gawsworth and Francis Fytton were related. Gawsworth's real name was Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong (spelled "Fitton" on his birth certificate, I believe). I have seen mentions of at least one article linking Gawsworth and Francis Fytton together. I think Fytton wrote a piece on Gawsworth for a magazine, but haven't read it.
I would be grateful if you would post any references linking John Gawsworth (Armstrong) and Francis Fytton. I have been trying to look for references on the internet but I am not sure where else to look. Thank you
Enthusiasts are encouraged to enjoy the literary Realm of Redonda kingdom of make believe, but they need to be reminded from time to time that this realm was constructed from a promotianal puff by M.P. Shiel on the occasion of the republication of a number of his works by Gollancz in 1929.
I encourage interested historians to follow the trail of MPS's acknowledged exaggerations (in my biography of his early years), to see that he was simply pulling legs with that coronation story, picked up happily and used by Gawsworth ... to the point of creating a bookplate to place in the hundreds of books that he got MPS to sign for him over the years, that tied this "kingship" to both Phipps and himself. All from a jury-rigged story that MPS let continue after 1929. How could either give it up? For years, Gawsworth passed along to Shiel bits of money made by selling his signed books.
Phipps even told a reporter in 1937 that his valuable crown, made of wood and gold, was rolling around in L'Abri somewhere!
He had told reporters in the 1890s that he was born in the same chambers as the Empress Josephine, laughing with his family at how much fun it was to fool these gullible journalists. He offered to send his sister some of the exaggerations that the papers had printed -- so easy to see that the Redonda story was just another tale made up for the press as he had done for so long.
Shiel couldn't even keep the story straight as to whether it was Bishop Mitchinson -- who had been affiliated with Harrison College when Phipps first entered that school in 1880 -- or poor old Hugh Semper, a Methodist minister and family friend wandering around St. Kitts and Antigua -- who performed the "coronation" at a likely birthday party in 1880 after Phipps had returned from school in England.
On the occasion of the publication of this puff, Machen said it was a "mass of infernal lies," that Phipps was a born "liar." And it seems true, that every bit of the story that Phipps told about the kingdom was either false or exaggerated. There is simply not a fact that can be found to substantiate the 1929 story. Continued assertions that there is any factual basis for Shiel's coronation story is simply spitting against the real-life record.
I see from John D. Squires' valuable bibliography of the Redonda story that Francis Fytton wrote an article, presumably on JG, entitled 'The Homing Poet' for the magazine CHESHIRE LIFE in December 1956. Gawsworth sometimes used the term 'cousin' loosely, alluding to 'our cousin Elizabeth' on occasion: a kind of royal relation since he was Juan I. He also claimed that John Meade Falkner, the author of MOONFLEET,was a cousin. Someone interested in genealogy may care to confirm this.
Francis Fytton, the author, was my Father. As a young boy I remember John Gawsworth and several items regarding Redonda, although I was quite young at the time. John Gawsworth wrote my Father's obituary for the Times. I cannot accurately comment on the "cousin" relationship, but I recall it being true. I believe a copy of our family tree may have survived various moves and floods. I will endevour to find it, and satisfy that small part of the puzzle.
There are several
Dear Mr Fytton,
Thank you for the clarification of this mystery. I would be very grateful if you could email me as I have some more information for you about your father
the email is firstname.lastname@example.org, couldn't make the link in the post work properly!
It is with such interest that I have found out only within the last few days of John Gawsworth and the tale of Redonda. I am a part of the Fytton family tree with my Grandmother Joan Fytton. Currently I am looking further into our family history and would very much like to hear from anyone who might be kind enough to pass on information that maybe of interest.
I am interested in the Fytton family history, John Gawsworth and Redonda as I am finding the each area holds so much exciting tale.
please put an @ sign where I have typed at in my email, thank you
I was a friend of John Gawsworth. It was during the 'Alma' period. At that time he was lodging with Charles Wrey Gardiner, author. (John Heath-Stubbs was also in residence.) Twice I repaired the ceiling of King Juan's room; damage occasioned by his more-than-ceremonial sword of office, he infuriated by the noise Heath-Stubbs was making above. (It would not do to discuss what occasioned that noise.) Tough people quailed when John was in a bad mood...I remember him, cloaked, grey beard jutting, bringing down his sword with a thwack on the counter of one of the roughest Irish pubs off Westbourne Grove, and roaring, 'Wine, you barstards, give me wine!' and getting it. I loved him very much. I got my dukedom (Duke of Reykjavik) merely because we were friends, and I stood him pints when I could, and had published a few short stories. It was never written down (he was beyond that by then) but his word was good enough for me.
If Mr van Raat would get in touch with me, I'd like to ask him for more of his Gawsworth memories. I'm at email@example.com
REDONDA – THE ISLAND WITH TOO MANY KINGS, a BBC Radio 4 programme narrated by Angus Deayton, will be broadcast on the morning of 22 May 2007. Interviewees include Javier Marías (King Xavier), Jon Wynne-Tyson (ex-King Juan II) and his wife Jennifer, Fay Weldon, Brian Stableford, Bob Williamson (King Robert the Bald), William L. Gates (King Leo), Oliver Cox, Cedric Boston (King Cedric), A.S. Byatt and Arthur Freeman – all involved over the years in one way or another with the glorious story of the island realm. We even have a snatch or two of the late lamented Juan I, alias Johnny Gawsworth, in there.
The programme will be available on the Internet for seven days, after its initial broadcast, at the Radio 4 website. We are currently still searching for three of the realm’s non-legitimist monarchs: Margaret Parry (Queen Maggie), granddaughter of M.P. Shiel; King Aleph Kamal, whose royal court is said to include Edna O’Brien, the musician Sting and the late Andy Warhol; and the mysterious, possibly apocryphal, Ferdinand the barman – whereabouts all unknown. Floreat Redonda!
Royston Ellis has asked me to pass on this message about his links with John Gawsworth and the Redondan court.
By chance, searching for my own email address, I discovered again the Redonda correspondence. I'm a footnote to all of this, having been awarded TWO dukedoms plus the Redondan VC (a certificate of which I still have in the King's handwriting!) in the 1960s and then, in the 1970s when i lived in the Caribbean, helping to research and organise the landing on Redonda by the Morse expedition. As a further footnote inFebruary 2007 in Sri Lanka (where I now live) I had tea with Sir Cliff Richard who recalled with regret that day in 1961 when he nearly became a Duke of Redonda (sponsored by me) but the King failed to perform. Sir Cliff commented, as we posed for a photograph in 2007: "Well, nevertheless, here we are a Knight and a Duke together."