The only surviving photograph of Uncle Oswald. He was later to be savaged by stoats.
One of the most famous members of the Bilston clan, Oswald is now perhaps remembered more for his unfortunate end than for the contribution he made to academic life throughout the twentieth century. A scholar, a thinker, a poet, a dreamer, Oswald was, in many respects, the most eminent Bilston of them all.
Oswald’s precocity was manifest from the moment he first coughed and spluttered his way into being on February 12th, 1911, equalling the record for the world’s youngest living person. It is a record he still holds jointly to this day. Later that morning, Oswald created what was to be one of his first oral poems:
Wah wah wah wooh
It’s a construction that bears all the hallmarks of Oswald’s later, more complex pieces; the short, insistent phrasings, the alliterations and repetitions, the rhythmic cadences, all feeding the fury that lies within. It’s a fury that seems somehow infinite in its duration, as if Oswald is saying that in the beginning is the end and in the end is the beginning. To this day, scholars have disputed the poem’s provenance; some claiming that it represents Oswald’s first howl of protest against the horrors of the Great War which was just a few short years ahead, whilst others maintain Oswald was merely hungry for more milk from wet nurse, Nanny Newbold.
By the age of five, Oswald had devoured the complete works of Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Zola and Vialli. Later, having learnt to read, it was something he came to regret bitterly. It wasn’t until ten years later when his father, Edmond Bilston, returned home with the spoils from the infamous Stadhampton Public Library Robbery of 1926 that he was able to familiarise himself with the literary greats.
One of thirty-two children and of an insular disposition, Oswald must have struggled to make his voice heard in the Bilston household in the interwar years. From one of his poems at this time, we have a glimpse of what his life must have been like at Bleakstone Hall:
Cedric got more potatoes than me
Clarence got buttered scones for tea
Spencer got to play with Daddy
But nobody noticed Oswald.
Celia got a new shinty-stick
Lisbeth got a fine tooth-pick
Shaznay got a five-card trick
But nobody noticed Oswald.
Oswald set fire to the potting shed
Oswald tortured his tortoise Fred
Oswald dirtied his parents’ bed
But nobody noticed Oswald.
But whatever archetypal agonies of adolescence Oswald may have gone through, he was not an unhappy child, and, thus far, there was little intimation of the stoats which would blight his later years and be the cause of his hastened demise.
It was 1929. With such obvious intellectual capabilities, it was clear that university was the next step for Oswald. But this route was not without its setbacks. He passed the Oxbridge examinations with flying colours but, as chronicled in his famous poem Oxford Cambridge Blues, he soon ran into difficulties:
I had hoped to go to Oxbridge
But could not find it on the map
So I ended up here in Uxbridge
With nothing but a dose of clap.
Undeterred, Oswald enrolled himself at Uxbridge Technical College that September on a joint honours course of Systolic Dysteleology and Woodwork. It was there he came under the thrall of controversial thinker and pedagogue Professor Arnold Battle. Although many of his theories have since been discredited, Battle at that time was regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of his generation, particularly for his theory of Indeterminability. This was the belief that in the world there existed some things that it was impossible to quite put one’s finger on and which sometimes looked or felt like one thing but were not necessarily that thing although they might very well be and in which case perhaps it was best not to commit properly to one thing or another for fear of appearing foolish. This powerful credo made its way into Oswald’s poetry of the time:
I must go now to the shops
And get myself one of those things
That are handy to have around the house,
You know the kind of thing I mean.
It comes in a variety of colours
Or maybe just the one.
Although intellectually he was making huge strides, his progress was to become almost completely derailed in his final year at Uxbridge as he developed an addiction that almost destroyed him and one which he was to destined fight for the rest of his life: queueing.
Queueing, for Oswald, was something that he came to see as quintessentially English; as English, say, as cucumber sandwiches on a summer’s day or a pleasantly unexpected conversation about Sir Jack Hobbs’ batting form with a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman on a doorstep in Croydon. Like many addicts before him and since, he had stumbled into it inadvertently. One morning in February 1931 he stooped to tie an unruly shoelace outside the doorway of a haberdashery shop on Uxbridge High Street. Upon righting himself, he glanced behind to see two women standing in line behind him, waiting for the shop to open. He stood there for some more minutes and was interested to note the arrival of two more people, again standing patiently in line. Standing there, he felt a reassuring sense of order and, with it, an inner serenity the like of which he had never experienced before. He returned to the haberdashers the next day.
Over the coming weeks, Oswald found himself joining queues whenever and wherever they presented themselves: at the post-office, the butchers, the betting shop, the launderette, the Women’s Institute. He began to form one-man queues in the middle of the university library and would stand patiently for hours waiting until the feeling subsided. One estimate has it that Oswald was spending 16 or 17 hours a day queueing during this period. His studies began to suffer as a result and it was no surprise when he received notification of his third-class degree.
There is one interesting footnote to this period in Oswald’s life; the first appearance of the word “stoat” in his poetry. The reference itself appeared innocuous enough, almost hidden away in the middle of his lyrical composition, Upon Awakening to the Sound of Tubas:
But you, as submissive as a trilling stoat,
Listened deeply to the tuba’s song,
One hand upon your milk-white throat.
There is little indication that Oswald knew at this time how important stoats were to become to him, and how unsubmissive they really were.
“The Lost Years”
Oswald was later to refer to the interwar period as “the lost years”; not without truth, as he mislaid both 1933 and 1935 and wasn’t to discover them again until after Attlee came to power in 1945. In many ways, though, this period was to lay the foundations of his future acclaim and many of the famous poems written in the final years of his life drew heavily on his experiences during this time.
His first move after Uxbridge was to find himself a job – and in a hurry, too. Upon graduating, his father Edmond had cut off Oswald’s allowance upon finding that he was spending it on a weekly diet of stilton, Vimto and zithers. Oswald had first learnt to play the zither when eight years’ old, accompanying his brother Clement on the bassoon and his sister Theodora on the flugelhorn at local music recitals in Plimsbury. He took to the zither like a natural (he was chief secretary of the Plimsbury Zither Club for thirty years) and, as his poem Whither the Zither shows, it had a profound effect upon his state of mind:
Whither the zither?
I am in a dither.
Ah, it is thither.
Oswald would zither with zest and zeal but suffered from a tendency to get carried away with his own strumming, frequently breaking strings and, on occasion, smashing the entire frame as his performance reached its frenzied climax. Twice a week, he would make the fifty-mile round trip to Purlows the Zithermakers to order a replacement.
Oswald looks on as Peter Purlow assesses the zither damage.
The necessity to finance his zithering led him to take up a position at Henry Finch & Co, a renowned outfitters specialising in tastefully selected attire for the country gentleman. His first six months were spent predominantly working in the socks and stockings department but it was not a happy experience. Oswald showed little natural aptitude for the role and once even made the mistake of offering a pair of Hedley Argyle partridge-hunting socks to a client about to embark upon a pheasant shoot. The embarrassment surrounding the hapless Oswald was palpable and hung in the air for several weeks.
It was clear that Oswald was unfit for the world of outfitting and he then embarked upon a series of positions over the following three years, none of which he remained in for more than a couple of months: hospital porter, sewing machine salesman, chicken sexer, human cannonball, scullery maid, whittler. And so it was, in October 1937, that he was to find himself walking through the door of J.D. Batterby’s, the academic and scientific publishers, with low expectations of retaining his new position even until Christmas. If he had been told that he would spend the rest of his working life there, he would have been astonished.
It was during these turbulent times that Oswald was to pen his most famous poem, Stoats. It was a poem that when published in 1950 was to make Oswald Bilston a name in most households (whether furnished or unfurnished) across the land but it also represented the first firm footstep on the march towards his own unfortunate end:
Why should I let this stoat, work,
Invade my life?
Can’t I use my zither as a scimitar
To drive the vermin off?
For the time being, though, it was not to be the stoat but the vermin of Nazism that was to emerge as the biggest threat and the country drifted slowly to war.
The War Years
J.D. Batterby was just twenty-one when he formed the publishing company that was to make both his fortune and his reputation. The natural charisma and zeal of Batterby was such that very quickly he was able to convince many of the leading intellectuals of the day to write books for him; highlights of these early years included Sir Grenville Proom’s Origins of the Specious, Edmond Pennington’s History of Belgium Shipping 1782 – 1803 and Yevgeny Denisov’s The Empty Cutlery Drawer and other Philosophical Re-Imaginings. Although he’d retired by the time of Oswald’s arrival, Batterby’s presence still clung to the Clerkenwell offices like the scent of a beautiful actress lingers in a provincial theatre dressing-room after the final curtain has come down and audience, cast and crew long since departed.
Sir Grenville Proom, author of The Origins of the Specious
Oswald was flung into an office alive with the fervid fever of earnest academic debate and he was soon making his mark as the dynamic commissioning editor for Batterby’s history list. He quickly built up the publishing programme in areas which he considered had previously been under-represented, particularly in the fields of Macedonian coinage and Guatemalan-Portuguese relations.
He also began an ambitious reference project An Encyclopedia of Everything that has Ever Happened in History Ever. In this Oswald attempted to catalogue everything that had ever happened in history ever in order to create the definitive reference work for future generations of scholars and students alike on everything that had ever happened in history ever. It was a massive undertaking and by the time of Oswald’s death, 7,422 volumes had been published but coverage had still only reached as far as Charlemagne’s twelfth birthday party (a somewhat dour affair enlivened only by his father, Pepin the Short, performing his wonderful impression of Great-Aunt Swanhild’s wolfhound, Toby). Six volumes alone had been devoted to Nero’s love of biscuits. Although work continues on the Encyclopedia by other members of the Bilston family, it seems unlikely that it will ever be finished.
Oswald received his call-up papers in May 1940 and it looked as if his promising start in academic publishing was to be curtailed by the “damned inconvenience”, as he called it, of having to fight the good fight against fascism. Oswald the Warrior was never to transpire, though, as he failed his medical three weeks later. The reason for this failure remains shrouded in mystery; some biographers have ascribed it to a congenital weakness of the heart, whilst others claim that Oswald deliberately sawed off his own left leg to avoid conscription. Whatever the reason, Oswald was to soon make his own contribution to the war effort, following his appointment as Official War Poet of the British Empire (Home Front only), a position from which he wrote some of his finest verse:
Let’s have some fun
And shoot the Hun.
Do not set your gun
The self-assured, jingoistic Do Not Mess With The British:
Do not mess with the British
For we are not so skittish,
Nervous or easily scared.
You’d better be prepared
In the upcoming fight
To deal with the might
Of the world’s greatest nation.
Await your annihilation.
The mocking savagery of Hitler Has Only Got One Testicule:
Hitler has only got one testicule,
The other he left in the vestibule.
Goebbel’s are the size of gerbils
But Himmler’s belong at a festivule.
And, of course, the graphically savage What Kind of Creature is the Nazi?:
than even the stoat,
he would cut your throat,
slit your gizzard
and drown you
in a blizzard
The savage imagery of the stoat had returned to Oswald’s writing again. But it was in the years immediately following the war that stoats began to take on a broader significance in Oswald’s life, and would lead to the gradual disintegration of his mental landscape.
The Years That Came After The War