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Bill Luckin and Barry Wood

Poet as Expatriate:

Jack Beeching, 1922–2001

This piece is 5,000 words or about ten printed pages long.

Jack Beeching, the expatriate writer who died at the age of seventy nine in Palma de Mallorca in December 2001, was born in Hastings. He attended the local grammar school. His father had inherited land and then dabbled in business. But Beeching chose a different path. Before he was twenty one, he had published his first co-authored collection of poems, shared with a school friend, Fred Ball. In 1939 university beckoned. But war intervened and Beeching’s life was transformed. He served in the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm. His ship was torpedoed and he was seriously wounded. Twenty years later this would play a crucial role in his decision to spend the rest of his life in the Mediterranean south.

Photo of Jack Beeching

Jack Beeching
in Charlotte’s studio, Menton, c. 1990.

In the 1940s and 1950s Beeching developed his skills as poet, writer and reviewer. He became a board member and regular contributor to the high-profile left-wing periodical, Our Time. He got to know John Davenport, Jack Lindsay, Randall Swingler, Edgell Rickwood and, from a rather different neck of the literary woods, Hugh Kingsmill and George Barker. (Who, one sometimes wondered, hadn’t he known ?) He wrote for Arena, hustled and bustled in Fitzrovia, and worked in advertising, public relations and publishing. (He also taught briefly and tried his hand as a smallholder.) Beeching was appointed editorial adviser to Lawrence and Wishart and encouraged Nancy Cunard to edit Poèmes à La France (1947), a collaboration that presaged a life-long commitment to anti-Fascism. He was a natural linguist. His Spanish and French were excellent, Italian serviceable. Beeching also knew Catalan, Portuguese and German and taught himself some Greek and Turkish. Latin was read for pleasure.

In 1956, Beeching was fortunate to survive a road accident that nevertheless exacerbated the injuries that he had suffered during the war. He decided to get away once and for all from damp British winters, and became a temporary then permanent expatriate. But this was no ordinary exile. For more than twenty years, he moved here, there and everywhere. Even Charlotte Mensforth, artist and sculptor, Beeching’s third wife and constant companion from the early 1960s onwards, finds it difficult to put all the pieces together. The Canary Islands, Poros: Mexico and Spain: then Greece again (just in time for the colonels’ coup): Istanbul, Bodrum (and a worrying bout of cholera): Toledo, Tarragona: Rome: Lourmarin and Fontenille in the south of France: Antigua de Guatemala for research on a book about Latin American buccaneers which coincided with a major earthquake: back to the south of France: and then, finally, Paris, Menton, Minorca and Palma.

Beeching also lived for a brief period in the United States. In the late 1960s he was appointed to a visiting fellowship at North Dakota State University and promptly found himself accused of awarding superior grades to students desperate to dodge the draft. Charlotte Mensforth takes up the story, ‘One dark night a couple of guys knocked at our door. They flashed badges at me and said they were putting me on the train to Winnepeg that very minute as I was living in a state of adultery and fornication in a state that forbade pre-marital co-residence. We staved off deportation for two weeks. And I left voluntarily. They knew Jack would follow.’


By the mid-1950s Beeching had begun to write fiction. In 1959 he published Let Me See Your Face which drew heavily on personal experience of what was still then considered to be the risqué world of advertising. This was followed in 1968 by a thriller, The Dakota Project: the predictive and successful Death of a Terrorist in 1981: and in 1988 Tides of Fortune, a block-busting saga of life in Roman Britain. (There are two other completed, unpublished manuscripts, The End of England which traces a twentieth century British family’s experience of total war, and Roscoe.) During the early years as an expatriate Beeching reviewed widely and in the late 1960s wrote a Paris-based arts and cultural column for the Times Educational Supplement.

Photo of Jack Beeching

... in the Luberon, Provence, c. 1991. Charlotte made the hat.

Beeching had always been attracted to, indeed obsessed by history. To help make ends meet during the Fitzrovia years, he had written pseudonymous longue durée surveys and what would now be called ‘topic’ books for use in secondary schools. As an exile, he engaged with the classic literature of exploration and discovery. He contributed an introduction to Alexander Olivier Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America (1969): edited, abridged and introduced Richard Hakluyt’s classic Voyages and Discoveries (1972): and then wrote three impressive studies in political, social and cultural history. The first of these, The Chinese Opium Wars (1975) is a scholarly and readable book. The second, An Open Path: Christian Missionaries 1515 — 1914 (1979) develops themes implicit in the China volume. Beeching’s final large-scale historical study — The Galleys of Lepanto — was published in 1982 to high critical acclaim, with the Times Literary Supplement describing it as essential reading for all those wishing to understand the making of early modern Europe and the final decline of the Ottoman empire. Each of these studies is underwritten by a preoccupation with the ironies and tragedies of imperialism, conflict between weak and strong, travel and exoticism, and the role of the individual in shaping or redirecting political and social change.

Beeching set out his basic historical approach in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Hakluyt’s Voyages. Here he ruminates on the sixteenth and seventeenth century origins of England’s emergence as a great trading power and reminds readers that Hakluyt’s magnum opus on travel, seamanship and commerce had occupied a prominent place on the shelves of many a mid-Victorian middle-class home.

However, these overwhelmingly self-confident members of the British social elite knew little about the anonymous individuals whom Hakluyt attempted to recover from the massive condescension of posterity.

Thousands of seamen, Beeching informs us, confronted the oceans ‘not for fun, but in order to do business’, thereby laying the foundations for the opening up of America, Africa and Asia. Countless anonymous individuals played a role in shaping the British world capitalist system. Seamen, travelers, cartographers and explorers intuitively understood the benefits that would one day drop into the lap of a small island with a ‘conveniently indented coastline’ facing outwards towards the New World. Already, by Shakespeare’s time, practitioners of the ‘new science’ were breaking with classical astronomical theory. Static relationships between stars and tides would soon be discarded. ‘Sailing under discipline’ on the high seas, seamen would begin to look to the skies as navigational aids rather than ‘symbols of perfection’.

At this point, Beeching draws on a broadly New Liberal account of the transition from a commercial economy to the era of the industrial revolution. What Asa Briggs classically termed the ‘shock cities’ of the early nineteenth century, had, Beeching claimed, been constructed from the labour of those who had died over the preceding three hundred years, from exhaustion, thirst and disease, in storm and battle. In Beeching’s view world trading and industrial supremacy contributed to the creation of a society which over-valued the virtues of ‘puritanism’.

He also believed that economic and technological modernization had given birth to a culture in which inborn gentlemanliness — a concept to which he remained loyal until the very end of his life — had been replaced by a ‘synthetic’ substitute produced by the new Arnoldian public schools. At a cultural level, there had been intellectual and cognitive fracture, with an unbridgeable divide now separating ‘religion and science, reason and faith, poetry and prose.’ Like many writers and intellectuals of his generation, Beeching believed that social atomization could be traced back to ‘an open... civil war of opposing forces, [which had been] inexorably confronting each other down the centuries.’ The origins of cultural crisis lay deep, and reached right back to the Reformation.

At the same time, the specific subject-matter that attracted the poet and novelist, and which provided the themes for each of his major works in social, political and cultural history, was solidly rooted in biographical experience: the ‘discipline of the sea’, above and below decks, during the Second World War.

The themes of empire, class and the exotic dominate both The Chinese Opium Wars and An Open Path. In the China volume Beeching unravels a tangled thirty-year period in British political, imperial and military history. Machiavellian maneuverings at the court in Peking — and the Cabinet Room in Whitehall — are expertly summarized. Beeching writes that the ‘[popular] narrative historian ... [has] valid standards of his own, corresponding to those of the responsible journalist. History is the resurrection of the dead: [The Chinese Opium Wars] is only a sketch of a possible beginning.’ He provides ironic vignettes of the major actors in a long-drawn-out, savage and undignified drama. Cross-cutting between London and Asia, Beeching uses rare diary material to present strategy and counter-strategy: the ‘progressive’ British condescending to China as an abjectly inefficient state rooted in a pagan past: and Chinese courtiers dismissing the British and the French — all those, in fact, born outside the charmed circle of the Middle Kingdom — as ‘barbarians’ incapable of teaching the most venerable nation in the world anything new about art, science, technology or trade.

Among a rich metropolitan cast Thomas Babington Macaulay addresses a crowded parliamentary chamber in the style of a novice ‘making up an essay as [he goes] along.’: William Gladstone is portrayed as a child at his father’s sprawling family seat, playing with ‘ponies and flowers and piety... ’: Helen, his drug-dependent sister, is depicted as ‘a hopeless and scandalous addict’. Beeching probes the infection-like spread of mob violence. At the height of the Summer Palace crisis, the British cavalry ‘skylarked in... magnificent rooms’, firing randomly at mirrors, statuary and ceramics. This persuaded the French to believe that they were entitled to carry off ‘small and portable souvenirs’. The British completed the cycle, looting the great ‘treasure house of China’. Finally, Lord Elgin, the commander, ordered the Palace to be gutted and burnt. A French officer walked away from the blaze carrying a single leaf, a brave act of protest against what Elgin saw as nothing more than a ‘warning’, designed to save the Chinese from further, ‘necessary’ punishment.

At the very end, Beeching allows the principal actors to speak for — and condemn — themselves. He eavesdrops on an after-dinner speech that Elgin made on his return from ‘darkest Asia’. The English, the aristocrat told his audience, had nothing to learn from the Chinese ‘in matters of art’. Nevertheless, ‘under [a]mess of abortions and rubbish there lie some hidden sparks of a ... fire, which the genius of my countrymen may gather and nurse into a flame.’

In a final paragraph — clearly owing something to Lytton Strachey — Beeching muses on ‘a curious breed of small dog ... encountered at the Summer Palace.’ A ‘considerate dog-lover carried the little beasts back home.’ One of these ‘Pekingese [was presented] to Queen Victoria. Aptly named Lootie, it ran happily yapping about the Palace until its death in 1872.’

An Open Path: Christian Missionaries 1515 — 1914 was Beeching’s only venture into comparative history. An implicitly ‘philosophical’ text, what he called an essay in the evolution of ‘human behaviour’, the book describes the multi-nation project for extra-European conversion between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. An Open Path is a predictive work which raises issues closely tied to nationalism, internecine violence, and the kind of everyday terrorism and torture that have dominated the world stage since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. At a biographical level, the study reveals a Graham Greene-like dimension to Beeching’s character: a belief that, despite its faults, the Catholic faith in particular may be capable, in the right place and at the right time, of encouraging the expression of individuality in a depersonalized cosmos.

An Open Path suggests that the kind of radical liberation theology that flourished in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s may in the right circumstances augment resistance to authoritarians, demagogues and torturers. Like Greene, Beeching expresses extreme skepticism towards the achievements of both democratic and non-democratic state apparatuses in the later twentieth century. An Open Path has as much to do with alternatives to the centralization of political and social power as with the continuing potential of Catholicism as a living faith.

Beeching traces the process whereby first Catholic and then Protestant missionaries joined explorers, traders, businessmen, emigrants, civil servants and businessmen as the torch-bearers of a new and purportedly more ‘advanced’ civilization. He suggests that a dispassionate observer might convincingly argue that, following two world wars, and the rush towards independence in the developing world after 1945, extra-European Christianity would have become an irrelevance. But there would be no such retreat. In Afro-Asia and Latin America missionaries stayed on and aligned themselves with those who resisted totalitarian oppression. As a consequence, the ‘old joke stereotype of a missionary as a fatuous man in a dog collar, being boiled alive in a cannibal’s cauldron’ must be revised.

An Open Path is concerned with those who refused to be diverted from their calling in the interest of making ‘a quick pile’. Beeching argues that in the longer term these men guaranteed the survival of institutionalized Christianity outside Europe in a form that would outlast any ‘foreseeable social change’. By way of evidence, he directs attention to the ‘surprising persistence of churches in [what were in the late 1970s] Communist countries.’

Photo of Jack Beeching

Jack Beeching in Menton, c. 1993

Beeching identifies two central conversionary tasks which underpinned the historical missionary enterprise. Firstly, indigenous populations must be convinced that every individual possesses a unique and individual soul. Secondly, there must be widespread acceptance that ‘any relationship based on sexual pleasure which degraded the less willing partner to the status of an object was inhuman.’ Beeching claims that Catholic and Protestant initiatives failed in all those places in which it proved impossible to inculcate the ideal of the monogamous family ideal. Sometimes the methods that were deployed to achieve that objective took on a ‘grotesque form’ — for example, in Tahiti, nakedness was forcibly covered with a ‘yard and a half of textile’.

But even in extreme instances, Beeching is prepared to argue that a disinterested observer would grant that the gradual eradication of cannibalism, sacrifice and ritual orgy marked a step towards the establishment of a more genuinely civilized society. Making a direct and emotional connection between Christ the man, perishing on the cross — the ultimate punishment for ‘alien slaves’ — and twentieth century priests committed to liberation theology, he arrives at powerfully anti-relativistic conclusions. The suppression of a ‘ritual orgy’ may undermine ‘traditional society’ but which is more morally significant, that ancient civilizations should survive indefinitely or that countless ‘pleasure objects’ should be sacrificed to placate ancestors, gods and spirits?

In this sense, An Open Path is on the side of individual autonomy and individual morality, rather than conceptions of the ‘integrity’ of tribe and custom, or moving into our times, the subtly enforced diktat of the central state apparatus. An Open Path provides an insight into Beeching the moralist and rationalist: the achievement of the ‘good life’ is said to depend on voluntary and existential exercise of faith within societies ready to throw off the shackles of superstition and the crass excesses of megaphonic ideologies.

The Galleys of Lepanto is the best and most personal of Beeching’s historical works. On October 7, 1571 three hundred ships of the Holy League — the multi-nation alliance which ranged itself against an insistent Islamic threat to the Mediterrananean — faced a force of comparable size in the bay of Lepanto off the coast of modern-day Albania. Thirty thousand sailors and soldiers perished in less than thirty six hours.

In what Anthony Burgess has called a ‘marvellous narrative’, Beeching identifies Spanish and Austrian Habsburg, Venetian and Ottoman war aims: summarizes dynastic, religious and ideological differences between the protagonists: and identifies long-standing problems that were solved — as well as new ones created — in the aftermath of what Fernand Braudel has called ‘the most spectacular military event in the entire Mediterranean during the sixteenth century.’

As we have seen, irony is central to the Strachey-influenced sections of The Chinese Opium Wars. However, under-statement and wit can be found on nearly every page of The Galleys of Lepanto. In that sense, it is as much the work of a poet as a historian, and, as we shall see, a vital point of reference for an understanding of the work that Beeching produced between the early 1980s and the end of the century.

The scale and significance of what happened and what might have happened — had things gone differently, Christian Europe would have become an Ottoman satrap — convinced Beeching that compression and vignette would be much more likely to clarify these distant and astonishingly complex issues than grand narrative.

At the beginning we are introduced to an ageing and ailing Charles V: ‘his dinner was mutton, hare, beef, chicken and a mountain of pastry, all gobbled down in lumps for he had long ago lost his teeth... gluttony may have appeared to be a sin which harmed nobody but himself. But by 1546 [he] could hardly sit astride a horse... He was persuaded to take a cure, and it did him a great deal of good.’

As the fleets close on one another, Beeching proffers an extraordinary image of one of the League commanders and ‘two of his gentlemen... inspired by youthful ardour [dancing] a galliard on the gun-platform to the music of the fifes.’ The carnage mounts, and ‘the masts and spars of the [boat bristled] like elongated pincushions with Turkish arrows.’ ‘Prayer, dance, apprehension [gave way] to an insane hilarity of combat.’

With the ebbing of slaughter — the sea became greasy with blood and gore — ‘a great crowd of debtors, Jews, overtaxed peasants and petty thieves... jumped over the side before [their Venetian commanders] could force them to their places again.’ Informed of the scale of the catastrophe, the Grand Sultan Selim ‘ordered a massacre’. Did this mean, Beeching asks, ‘every Christian slave in the Ottoman dominions’: ‘every Spaniard and Venetian ... or every Christian?’ Since there were about 40,000 of the latter earning a living in Constantinople alone, ‘that would have been a memorable massacre, even for the Turks.’

The victorious Doge wanted Venice to invest in a vast celebratory mural in the Hall of Scrutiny in the Ducal Palace. Titian, who was ninety, said it would be ‘too much for him’. But a ‘canny young man, Jacopo Robusti — called Tintoretto — offered to complete a large wall painting... in a year and for no fee, and to take it down again if a better painting should turn up within the next two years.’ Meanwhile, in Rome, on ‘a bright winter’s day the [victorious] Mercantorio Colonna, in a fur-lined black silk mantle, white boots and crimson britches entered the city on a white jennet.’ Behind him ‘chained in pairs, and wearing red and yellow liveries like an operatic chorus, marched 120 Turkish prisoners.’ The ‘reformer’ Pius V forbade excessive celebration and ordered that money be set aside to provide dowries for orphan girls. Here, as elsewhere in the book, detail and imagery belong as much to Beeching’s late poetic style as to his earlier narrative history.

The Galleys of Lepanto is about history, myth and ‘fiction’. One of the strangest stories concerns a ‘lonely, bookish little prince’, the future James I of England, who ‘produced 11,000 lines in ballad metre’ on the great sea-battle between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. James’ juvenilia were published in 1591 and beneath this incredibly lengthy childhood exercise a senior of the Kirk felt constrained to add that ‘it was far contrary to his degree and religion, like a mercenary poet, to pen a work in praise of a foreign Papist bastard.’

Finally, there is Cervantes, whose involvement in the battle played a major role in attracting Beeching to the theme of Lepanto. The twenty four year-old apprentice novelist volunteered to fight for the League and was injured in ‘face and chest’. ‘For thirty years [thereafter] [he] meditated on the profounder significances of that one day before distilling them in Don Quixote’, a novel which Beeching considered nothing less than a universal master-work. Cervantes was an author whom he repeatedly reread: sections of Don Quixote were known by heart. He loved the Spanish language more than any other and had long planned to translate Gongora.

Hardly surprisingly, Beeching was rarely short of a new and tempting historical topic. Moreover, publishers reacted positively to suggestions from a poet and novelist who knew just about everything there was to know about stalking down an elusive subject. He was that rare creature, an exceptionally fluent writer capable of producing an overview that attracted the informed general reader and which also yielded a small profit.

But, as the years went on, he became increasingly aware that he might fail to fulfill his potential as a poet. History would have to wait. Between the end of 1970s and the mid-1990s he published four hard-to-find collections, three of them with decorations by Charlotte Mensforth. The pamphlets in question were Mirror Images = Images du Miroir (1979), Twentyfive Short Poems (1982), The View from the Balloon (1990) and The Invention of Love (1996).


Jack Beeching was an autodidact who became a considerable poet, novelist and historian. Impressive ranks of Oxford Classical Texts and the collected works of Milton, Donne, Browning and Keats in flats in Spain, Greece, Turkey, France or wherever comprised a personal academy in exile. He knew many poems by heart. He cared deeply about Greek and Latin history and mythology and possessed a comprehensive knowledge of the prose, poetry and prosody of the eighteenth century. Hardly surprisingly, he was also an authority on the archaeology of modernism. An omnivorous reader, Beeching had a jackdaw mind which served him well when he delved into archival material.

Distance produced a fixed image of England and the English. Beeching viewed nearly everything that had happened in the political sphere following the early triumphs of the Labour big state between 1945 and 1951 in terms of ‘decline’. Later, in the 1980s and early 1990s, his conversation repeatedly returned to the theme of Britain as a potentially authoritarian state. He introduced visitors to Menton as brave survivors who had sacrificed nearly everything to combat an inevitable drift towards ideological and cultural dictatorship.

This schematic view of England and the English intensified following the victory of New Labour in 1997. In Beeching’s view this second post-war landslide marked the final triumph rather than rejection of the Thatcherite project. Thereafter, he saw the power of the state — echoes here of one of the central themes of An Open Path — penetrating every level of British society and culture. Visitors might correct him on points of fact but, blessed with that astonishingly retentive memory, he separated hard information from context and then used his critics’ qualifications to underpin his own tragic-comic vision of a state in crisis.

Photo of Jack Beeching

Jack’s daughter Tamar with Jack
in Palma, c. 1998

As we have already seen, Jack Beeching’s schematic but ironic view of the world was rooted in a detestation of totalitarianism. He disliked random use of the word ‘fascist’ but, once convinced that a genuine example of the species had been identified, words rapidly gave way to action. Happily ensconced with a bottle of wine in a sleepy mountain village on the Franco-Italian border in the late 1980s, Beeching was approached by a bespectacled campaigner for Le Pen’s National Front. The elderly poet chased the young man, belabouring him round the shoulders with a walking stick. Then he walked slowly back down the street and resumed a discussion about the relative merits of rival translations of the French imagists.

On the question of the extent to which Beeching was a fully paid up member of his marxisant generation, there is no easy answer. The precocious teenage poet was committed to leftist internationalism, the united front against fascism. During and immediately after the war, Beeching supported the patriotic socialism that received classic expression in Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn.

The poet, historian and novelist of the 1960s believed in the possibility of cultural transformation but expressed skepticism towards ‘spontaneous self-discovery’ through the use of mind-expanding drugs. (Beeching remained stoically loyal to the virtues of good red wine, cognac and scotch but cut back whenever engaged on a major writing project. Working on notebook drafts at a local bar he restricted himself to a single beer.)

Finally, in the expatriate period, he moved simultaneously to left and right and placed increasing trust in the resilience of the ‘people’. This commitment to populism lay at the heart of his loyalty to and idealization of southern Mediterranean social mores and the Catholic tradition, another half-suppressed theme in An Open Path, the most openly autobiographical of his non-poetic works.

Hardly surprising, then, that at his memorial service in London Charlotte Mensforth overheard a group of ‘Jack’s contemporaries arguing with one another about whether he’d really been a catholic or a communist.’ That conversation would have elicited a smile, and a raised eyebrow, from beyond the grave. ‘Keep them guessing’ was a frequently proffered piece of Beeching advice, in relation to art, love and the literary market-place. Many felt that he rarely revealed the ‘whole person’: he remained unconvinced that such an inherently unpoetic entity could be said to exist.

Beeching made himself astonishingly well-informed. Day-to-day information on political and cultural issues tended to be derived from Le Monde — and latterly from Libération, La Canard Enchaîne and El Pais. Before and immediately after the war he had worked briefly as a journalist. Throughout the émigré period he maintained close contact with numerous British and American friends who worked in journalism, television and film. He deplored the disappearance of independently-minded columnists from newspapers like the London Times and built up a rich and hilarious store of (apocryphal) stories about Rupert Murdoch.

Beeching distrusted the ‘readability’ and easy eclecticism of The Guardian but retained an émigré’s deep affection for the B.B.C. World Service. When the Thatcher government threatened to ‘reform and modernize’ that venerable institution, he interpreted the move as yet another indication that the new Conservatism was hell-bent on transforming Britain into an Orwellian state in which freedom of expression would be ever more stringently restricted. He hated television, loved the cinema, and devoured thousands of thrillers in English, French and Spanish. These, and good company, wine, conversation and food allowed him to relax.

A typical Beeching day in France or Spain consisted of a session of writing or revising in the morning: a brief, preferably sea-side midday constitutional: siesta: another stint of work in late afternoon or early evening: dinner, company and conversation at night. Evenings ‘in’ were devoted to reading — but only rarely strictly for ‘pleasure’: having lighted on a new theme — literary, cultural, philosophical — Beeching dug deep and made connections between what he’d discovered and other long pondered themes and preoccupations.

As kidney problems and shortness of breath began to take their toll, he modified a demanding and isolating work regime. Friends noted that even in convivial company, Beeching invariably kept a part of himself to himself. In Menton, Mahon, Palma, or wherever the bearded figure, with his wide-brimmed hat, stick and stately walk, took on a larger-than-life presence.

He (and Charlotte Mensforth) advised and morally supported would-be writers, journalists, artists and actors. This could have developed into condescension or paternalism. But it didn’t. Beeching planted his hat on a spare table, propped up his stick, and then worked patiently and professionally through a poem or chapter in progress. Above all, he wanted you to be and express yourself. Fashion and ‘modernity’ must not be allowed to stand in the way of directness, authenticity and clarity. Beeching’s advice was practical and to the point.

Visitors were aware of the cloud — at times, depression — that descended just before the moment of departure. This became more pronounced as the kidney problems weakened inbuilt physical resilience. In the later days at Menton Beeching had been strong enough to get out in the evenings to a local ‘bourgeois’ restaurant. This establishment served steak precisely to his liking, with pommes de terre a vapeur. Defying doctor’s orders, he also drank a glass or three of good red wine. But in Palma, dialysis radically reduced mobility and sociability.

When family or friends visited, Beeching ate and then rested, ‘in the prone’, as he called it, gazing at the ceiling, on a day-bed. He listened, smiled and made an occasional observation or joke. During the final year or so he softened. He reveled in the role of paterfamilias. There had been three marriages: four children: and seven grandchildren. In Palma he was no longer able to cope with the scrambling and shouting of babies and toddlers. Earlier, preparing his famous sardine and onion sandwiches — children, he insisted, loved playing with bloody fish heads — or strolling with hat and stick through almond groves in the Luberon, pointing out this or that detail to a three- or four-year-old, he’d been a marvelously relaxed father, grandfather or surrogate uncle. (The trick, he said, was simple and well documented. ‘Treat them like adults.’)

Photo of Jack Beeching

Jack Beeching in Menton,
in his favourite blue shirt,
not long before he died.

Towards the end of the Menton period he discovered, or, rather, was himself rediscovered by a musician-daughter who belonged to none of the ‘official’ Beeching families. This gave him enormous pleasure. When physical strength finally declined, he made a new set of friends at the Palma dialysis centre and drew on the experience to lavish praise on the Spanish welfare state and — inevitably — mount a scathing attack on the ailing NHS. Poor old England!

Three months before his death, Beeching set down his poetic thoughts on the September 11 tragedy. This was a scandalous, witty, and incendiary draft which interrogated the origins of terrorist determination to undermine American civilization: the Palestinian problem: Israeli intransigence in relation to the West Bank: and the plight of the American people as opposed to the misguided policies of the American government. Quintessential Beeching, and reminiscent in its way, of Lowell’s Notebook: learned: barbed: rhetorical: intermittently over-ornate: but, finally, bleakly humane.

He continued to write but getting the words down on to the page became increasingly difficult. Dialysis had weakened his right arm and hand. He typed in short bursts and experimented with a tape recorder: kept in touch with friends in every part of Europe and the United States: answered questionnaires from graduate students. He worked till the end. Names caused problems, but not what had happened ten or twenty years ago, or a fragment of political and literary history, or what his friend George Barker had said to him about Eliot in 1946.

Right at the end of his life, he asked to be left at a café by the sea. Charlotte Mensforth remembers a ‘figure in a blue beret and a stick propped up against a chair. When we got back he’d managed to scribble a few lines in his notebook with his dud hand. On the way home he said: “I’ve had a marvelous morning: I’ve written a poem.”’

A second article will discuss Jack Beeching, the poet.

We are indebted to Charlotte Mensforth for her invaluable advice and support.

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