Feverish Haste

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In 2005 an excellent article by Lucy Lethbridge about Denton Welch appeared in Slightly Foxed. So why another? Well, he is one of those writers who attract a small but passionate band of devotees. Though regarded as a minor author by many, much as Saki is, or Nancy Mitford or Henry Green, he has nothing in common with any of these. He is unique, and my love of his books has continued throughout my reading life.

Welch was born in 1915 and died in 1948. Almost everything he wrote is in the first person and based on real events in his life. He describes things exactly as they happened with a disciplined and assured spontaneity. As Edith Sitwell commented, ‘He is a born writer. He never fumbles.’ I discovered his writing when I was very young, at a time when I identified completely with his adolescent self. He was still alive then, and I wish now that I had thought to write to him.

I first found his story ‘The Judas Tree’ at a time when copies of Penguin New Writing could be picked up for 6d. In it Welch relates how, as an art student, he was accosted by an obsessed, slightly crazed ex-school-master who lured him back to his house in Greenwich and beseeched him to paint Judas Iscariot, hanging from a tree with his tongue black and lolling. He must have red hair, he insisted. We feel the young man’s discomfort at finding himself so trapped. As the schoolmaster leans over him, he can smell ‘the juicy pipe tobacco, the animal smell of tweeds, and something between alcohol and the smell in chemist shops’. We know this man. Welch engages all the senses, touch and smell especially, to describe things and people. Now when I reread this story, I identify more strongly with the sad, pathetic old man desperately attempting to hold back time and satisfy his yearnings before it is too late.

I searched for more of Welch’s books and will always remember the excitement when I found his selected journals in a blue Boots Library copy, th

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About the contributor

Benjamin Whitrow is an actor who, during a long career, has worked for both the National Theatre and the RSC. He is perhaps best known for his role as Mr Bennet in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, but he is also proud to have been a reviewer for Alan Ross’s London Magazine.

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