Tea with Stevie

On January 29th, 1970, with the late poet, George Macbeth, I took tea with Stevie Smith, at her humble, but legendary home in London: 1, Avondale Road, Palmer’s Green.

I was twenty-five, and an aspiring poet: Stevie had just won the Queen’s Medal for Poetry; and had only one more year to live.

It had taken some weeks to set up this rendez-vous.  Stevie’s diary was full.  At the zenith of her literary career, she was very much in demand.  Richly-deserved glittering prizes were now hers for the taking.

George drove us both from the BBC to Palmer’s Green in his louche Reliant Scimitar ( his current passion), almost as special to him as his growing collection of Japanese samurai swords.  It was already dark, as we snaked through the wintry London streets for our appointment with Stevie at four o’clock.

Stevie answered the door and asked us in with much warmth and enthusiasm. She seemed so pleased to see us.

I have a few mental snapshots of the day. Stevie: her wide, dark eyes, with their  alert and intelligent gaze; straight grey hair, cut in a shiny smooth bob. Her slender frame and the grey, pinafore dress with its ‘Peter Pan’ collar that she was wearing.

I recall her intense, eager interest in us both. Her delight in everything, especially literary gossip. Her elegant laugh.

I had bought Stevie a present. An illustrated Edwardian ‘Book of Friendship’, dated 1923. Stuffed with anecdotes about friendship. I felt that she appreciated it very much. I hoped that it would mark the beginning of our friendship, too.

She then showed me where she kept many of her books: inside her piano!.

We then asked her if she would show us the medal she had just received from the Queen.

Excitedly, like a child, she unwrapped it, and we all admired it, like a rare stone. I was designed by Edmund Dulac, whom we all revered. Stevie then regaled us with dry anecdotes about the Queen. She wasn’t entirely sure if Her Majesty had read much of her work, if any, but she was still thrilled to have received this prestigious accolade, and had enjoyed her visit to the Palace.

We talked animatedly about our literary likes and dislikes, discovering a shared admiration for Angus Wilson.  I was reading everything by him at the time.

Then, Stevie made us tea, served with delicate, little cakes, and  took us into the kitchen, where she  showed us a table covered with a thick, grey blanket.e

‘This is where I write’, she told us.

We stayed and talked  for over two hours . Lively chatter about food, love, life, writing and people.  I observed her cosy sitting room closely. The large portraits, in oval frames, of family members. The heavy, dark furniture. Sideboards and a mantlepiece covered with bric a brac and invitations to literary events. Lacquered boxes.

Later, in the car, George told me that our meeting had been a success. Apparently, Stevie had taken to me; she had liked me.

Days later, I received a pleasant letter from her. We had planned to meet again.

The three of us were going to have tea at the Ritz; then go on a picnic by the Thames, when the spring came.

But Stevie died of a brain tumour on March 7th, 1971 in Ashburton hospital, Devon. I was never to see her again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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