Saturday 5 June 2021

Amis's Camberwell Beauty

 Ageing has its pleasures. One is that, as my memory becomes lightly perforated, I find myself 'discovering' something – a poem, even a book – that I subsequently discover I had read before. It reads as if for the first time, but, no, I've been here before... Case in point: the other day I heard someone on the radio mention that Kingsley Amis had written a poem about seeing a Camberwell Beauty butterfly when he was a boy – in Camberwell. I soon found it – not exactly a poem about seeing a Camberwell Beauty but the first stanza of a poem of regret, 'To H.', addressed to Amis's first wife, Hilary 'Hilly' Bardwell, whom he had treated appallingly when they were married. Nevertheless, Hilly and her third husband ended up living in Kingsley's big house as a kind of upmarket housekeepers. By then, Amis's sex drive (the lunatic to whom he'd been handcuffed for fifty years, to use his own image) had finally waned, so life was that bit simpler. Looking back in this poignant poem, Kingsley clearly regrets the way he undervalued and mistreated Hilly when he had her – but I think what we're looking at here is wistful regret rather than repentance. Or is that uncharitable?

To H.

In 1932 when I was ten
In my grandmother’s garden in Camberwell
I saw a Camberwell Beauty butterfly
Sitting on a clump of Michaelmas daisies.
I recognised it because I’d seen a picture
Showing its brownish wings with creamy edges
In a boy’s paper or on a cigarette-card
Earlier that week. And I remember thinking,
What else would you expect? Everyone knows
Camberwell Beauties come from Camberwell;
That’s why they’re called that. Yes, I was ten.

In 1940 when I was eighteen
In Marlborough, going out one winter’s morning
To walk to school, I saw that every twig,
Every leaf in the vicar’s privet hedge
And every stalk and stem was covered in
A thin layer of ice as clear as glass
Because the rain had frozen as it landed.
The sun shone and the trees and shrubs shone back
Like pale flames with orange and green sparkles.
Freak weather conditions, people said,
And one was always hearing about them.

In ’46 when I was twenty-four
I met someone harmless, someone defenceless,
But till then whole, unadapted within;
Awkward, gentle, healthy, straight-backed,
Who spoke to say something, laughed when amused;
If things went wrong, feared she might be at fault,
Whose eye I could have met for ever then,
Oh yes, and who was also beautiful.
Well, that was much as women were meant to be,
I thought, and set about looking further.
How can we tell, with nothing to compare?

Anyway, having read 'To H' as if for the first time, I noticed an online link to Stephen Pentz's wonderful First Known When Lost blog, and discovered that, back in 2010, he had posted just this poem – and, what's more, I had commented on it. Ah well – it was good to 'discover' it again. 


  1. Nige: Thank you very much for the kind reference. Since July of 2010 (when I was a neophyte blogger), I've been fortunate to become more acquainted with you and with Nigeness, and, as I seem to recall, you have reported once coming upon a Camberwell Beauty. Your fondness for butterflies comes to mind whenever I revisit Amis' poem. The internet is not a wholly barren landscape. Thank you again. I hope another Camberwell Beauty awaits you.

  2. Well thank you, Stephen – and yes I did post an account of seeing a Camberwell Beauty. It was on Mount Royal in Montreal, on a day when there was still snow on the ground, and a butterfly – least of all a Camberwell Beauty – was the last thing I was expecting to see. An encounter I'll never forget.