Dorset’s McGonagall – Cumberland Clark
Nick Churchill explores the life and work of Cumberland Clark… from bard to verse
Published in January ’14
‘For many years I’ve held a brief
For Bournemouth’s Golden Sands
Indeed A1 in my belief
Are Bournemouth’s Golden Sands
You lie on your back from ten till one,
And get well baked by the genial sun;
And then turn over when you’re done
On Bournemouth’s Golden Sands.’
As an opening salvo from Cumberland Clark’s audacious 1929 tome, The Bournemouth Songbook, the first stanza from ‘Bournemouth’s Golden Sands’ serves as well as any. Some fifty years after the Muse first struck that most celebrated master of doggerel, William McGonagall, Clark celebrated his passion for ‘Beautiful Bournemouth’ with a publication that, incredibly, ran to three editions with its first and third incarnations sharing his full repertoire of 161 songs with its readers – clearly the abridged 1934 edition of a mere 135 songs was considered too miserly a representation of the author’s skills, although others might contend it was certainly not abridged too far.
To the extent that he is remembered at all, Clark would doubtless be gratified that he is best known as a prolific writer – The Bournemouth Songbook attributes 67 other titles to him although his final tally runs to at least 72, including fifteen volumes about Shakespeare, nine on Dickens, seven about the British Empire, a raft of anti-Communist political tracts and, of course, 21 songbooks of verse so determined that it is impossible not to harbour a certain respect for his dogged pursuit of the rhyme.
‘The English coast can proudly boast
Of many beauty spots;
Of sands and bays for holidays
We happily have lots
But yet to me ’twould ever seem
When I of their allurements dream,
That lovely Bournemouth reigns supreme.’
Clark had plenty of first-hand experiences of the wider world against which he could measure the apparent beauty of Bournemouth. Born in London in 1862, he was still a teenager when he embarked on thirty years of adventures in the colonies. He trained for the church at Sydney University and conducted the very first marriage ceremony in Coolgardie, then a new mining town in Western Australia.
He lived and worked throughout Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and North America variously as a sheep and cattle farmer, minister and gold-miner.
But his travels evidently did little for his sense of place. Taking the contents of The Bournemouth Songbook (and its even more parochial companion volume, The Ferndown Girl Guides Songbook) as evidence, Clark’s Bournemouth appears to stretch from the New Forest in the east to Weymouth in the west as he pays tribute in verse to the Romsey-Ringwood road, Brockenhurst, Mudeford, Sopley, Christchurch, Parkstone, Poole, Wimborne, the Stour Valley, Wareham, Corfe Castle, Studland and Swanage before beginning his eulogy to the undoubted charms of Weymouth thus:
‘It’s wise to visit Weymouth,
whilst at Bournemouth you are staying.
Its many interests repay you well,
I’m safe in saying.
The scenery, of course, you’ll find
To Bournemouth’s is a different kind.
The pines and firs, no doubt, you’ll miss.
But still I say with emphasis,
Visit Weymouth, certainly; don’t dilly-dally: go
You’ll come away agreeing
it’s a place that you should know.’
Although he had visited Bournemouth at least since the turn of the century, he didn’t make the town his home until after the death of his wife
Bessie in 1933. Records show him living at the Victorian Highcliff Hotel on the West Cliff and in a serviced suite at the then thoroughly modern Palace Court Hotel on Westover Road, which had opened in 1936. There are accounts of him as an old man sitting on Richmond Hill by the Norfolk Royale Hotel watching office girls on their way to work – he clearly had an eye for a fine hotel as this stanza from ‘The Bournemouth Hotels’ attests:
‘The Canford Cliffs Hotel will do you very well.
I’ve met girls when I’ve stayed there,
and in love I always fell.
At the Branksome Tower a minx
once took me on the links:
She played with me, and holed in three,
and let me in for drinks.’
It also points to another abiding theme – Clark’s fondness for the fairer sex. The contents page includes such titles as ‘Bournemouth Girls’, ‘Bournemouth Schoolgirls’, ‘A Bournemouth Love Song’, ‘Bournemouth Dowagers’, ‘The Girls of Bournemouth’, ‘An Eligible Bournemouth Bachelor’, ‘Love In Bournemouth’, ‘Love Found In Bournemouth’, ‘One of the Beauties of Bournemouth’ and, astonishingly, ‘The Fattest Girl In Bournemouth’. The late Dorset historian and author, Harry Ashley, recalled a story that Clark had been known to offer girls half a crown for an innocent kiss.
His eagerness for fame appears to have been equally single-minded. In a 1974 interview, Bournemouth music hall impresario George Fairweather, who sang with Willie Cave’s Revels in one of Bournemouth’s two beach theatres by the Pier in the 1930s and went on to mentor the young Tony Hancock, remembered Clark’s attempt to get the group to perform his songs: ‘We changed the words a couple of times, but he didn’t seem to mind as long as his name was mentioned.’
Reading Clark’s poetry today, it is tempting to wonder at the lengths to which he would go to challenge his creativity. How else could he (and indeed who else would) have alighted upon ‘Educational Institutions’, ‘The Soil and Water Supply’, ‘The Car I Bought At Bournemouth’, ‘Bournemouth Boarding-houses’, ‘The Boarding-house Gourmand’, ‘Shopping In Bournemouth’ and ‘Shopping In Boscombe’, not to mention ‘Song of the Bournemouth Unemployment Queue’ for inspiration? Indeed, his ability to wring rhyme out of the most meagre materials is endlessly impressive, even if that rhyme is stretched to breaking point – in his poem ‘Wareham’ he relates the story of a Viking raid on the town in order to pit ‘bunkum’ against ‘sunk ’em’!
‘I was first drawn to Clark by a description I read of his poetry as “magnificently awful”, but the more you learn about him, the more you discover that his other writing was quite highly regarded,’ says Tom Roberts of the Cumberland Clark Memorial Society. ‘He was a leading authority on Shakespeare and Dickens, for instance.’ The society was formed to revive the tradition of holding an annual memorial dinner in April, the month both of Clark’s birth and of his death.
‘Give him a metre and he’ll find a rhyme,’ says Tom, ‘but in Clark’s defence it’s worth pointing out that the works in the songbooks are lyrics and that somewhere in his head it’s likely there were tunes that went with them. I’m sure if you look at the lyrics of modern pop songs they wouldn’t always stand up to close scrutiny.’
Probably not, but Cumberland Clark’s relentless rhyming knew few bounds, or not decent ones anyway.
At times he is so hopelessly lost in the absolute indulgence of a rich (or otherwise) vein of rhyme that he simply cocks a snook at reader interest (and would not earn too many Brownie points from Bournemouth Tourism either, one suspects:
‘If you go to the Boscombe Arcade
No excitement you’ll meet I’m afraid.
You won’t find the place is a tax on your strength
Four hundred and forty three feet is its length.
You walk to and fro with a dignified air:
Then you walk fro and to, or you sit on a chair;
And there isn’t much else you can do when you’re there.’
At other times he appears to be beside himself with aimless enthusiasm, providing fascinating first-hand accounts of Bournemouth’s civic adolescence:
‘It’s built in various sections,
Sea views in two directions:
A1 for social meeting.
For drinking or for eating.
Tea rooms and beauteous balconies
beset with flower and shrub.
Where roughly fifteen hundred people
all can take their “grub”.’
(‘The New Pavilion’)
Moving back in time. Clark attempts to weave civic pride with world history in a somewhat tenuous manner as he recounts the town’s foundation in the improbably titled ‘Bournemouth and Napoleon’, praising its founding father by saying ‘I hope it isn’t too late, as I the story tell,/To give three hearty cheers for Captain Lewis Tregonwell.’
Cumberland Clark died, together with his housekeeper, Kathleen Donnelly (known as ‘Fat’), when his flat at Fern Bank in St Stephen’s Road was bombed during an enemy air raid on 10/11 April 1941 that also gutted the Woolworths store in the Square. He was laid to rest in Bournemouth East (Boscombe) Cemetery beneath a surprisingly spiritual memorial, which he designed himself and had installed six years earlier, ‘so that there will be no bother or anxiety to fall back on relatives or friends,’ he told the Bournemouth Graphic.
Resisting the urge to rhyme, he had it inscribed: ‘Sacred to the memory of Cumberland Clark, poet, historian, dramatist … The longer I live the more do I turn to Christianity as the one hope of salvation, the one faith for the soul of man, the one comfort in distress, and the one and only power that can save the world.’ Clark reportedly told Rev. Dr John Short, minister of Richmond Hill Congregational Church: ‘I do not care if everything else I have written should perish; I would like that to live.’