"I've Spent My Life Being Me": The Life and Singular Exploits of Count Potocki de Montalk

by Chris Martin

Geoffrey Wladyslaw Vaile Potocki de Montalk was born in New Zealand in 1903. He died in Provence in 1996. He was a distinguished poet, also notable for being involved in one of the most outrageous "obscenity" trials of the century, as will be shewn. The Count's ancestors included Polish royalty - this had an effect which, again, will be shewn. His grandfather [see Mrs Theodora Gaye's Scutt's comments at the end of this article: The Editors], born in Poland and an officer in Garibaldi's legions - which the Count deprecated - was a distinguished professor and linguist, the latter of whose talents the Count inherited in spades: he spoke and wrote around thirty-two languages, including Hungarian (one of the world's most obscure languages); in his advanced eighties he was still attempting to learn Maori: most, unusually for a racialist, the Count was of the opinion that the Maoris were a "master race". New Zealand he referred to as "the Butter Republic". One can see that the Count did not have the highest of opinions of his native land; nor, indeed, of certain of his forebears. His father, who appears to have been an undistinguished architect, he referred to as "a parlous humbug". His mother was of Scottish descent. After a distinguished university career, and a number of other accomplishments, including becoming New Zealand's fastest milker, which led one derogatory opponent later to refer to him inaccurately as "an Australian milkman", he married for the first time, but then moved to England, determined upon a literary career. Potocki has already become acquainted with a number of New Zealand poets. He had also become acquainted with some of the leading London literary lions; many of the latter were subsequently both to contribute to his fortunes and to support him.

This, really, is where our story takes off. In 1932 Potocki took five of his poems, together with some of his highly accurate translations from Rabelais and Verlaine, to a small printer. The collection was entitled Here Lies John Penis, that being the name of his own principal poem:

Here lies John Penis / Buried in the mound of Venus.

This will give an idea of what - Rabelais and Verlaine aside - was objected to in the curious moral climate of 1932.

He asked for fifty copies which were designed for private distribution amongst his acquaintances. The printer, who was also printer of the Methodist Recorder, decided that these were obscene, and therefore informed the police. The Count was therefore arrested, and on 8th February 1932 appeared at the Central Criminal Court before Sir Ernest Wild, Recorder of London. Already at his trial being a self-declared pagan, he asked to swear upon a volume of Shakespeare rather than the Bible. (The Count continued his own version of pagan religion then - and ever since - offering devotions to Apollo at a domestical altar in Provence.)

The Count appeared in a red mediaeval robe, hair two feet long, and sandals. Considering that the notorious Joynson-Hicks ("Jix") - "the Policeman of the Lord" - was Home Secretary at the time and the relatively recent Well of Loneliness case had occurred and that Sir Ernest was a notoriously severe judge, one could say that this mode of appearance was not calculated to lead to success.

The Recorder was predictably unimpressed:

Recorder: "You call that poetry?"

Potocki: "Yes."

Recorder: "That is how a poet writes? How did you become a poet?"

Potocki: "My Lord, it is the choice of the gods."

Recorder: "What gods?"

Potocki: "A man cannot call himself a poet if he is not a poet."

Edgell Rickword then testified that two of Potocki's poems, a translation of Rabelais' "Chanson de la Braguette" and a parody of Verlaine's "Taille" - "High Life"- were very good versions of the originals but did not express an opinion about Potocki's own poems, saying merely, "They're not my style." It was beyond the remit of the Recorder of London to haul Rabelais and Verlaine themselves into court.

The Recorder, in his summing-up, stated "A man must not say he is a poet and be filthy. He has to obey the law the same as ordinary citizens, and the sooner the highbrow school learns that, the better for the morality of the country." The Recorder further stated that literature should be protected against "offal of this kind". The jury, as so often, swayed by judicial opinion (not to mention leading opinion), found the Count guilty, whereupon he was sentenced to six months in Wormwood Scrubs.

The sentence was denounced by - as the Count put it - the "gentle" W.B. Yeats. "Shockingly brutal."

This ranks with any of the great XIXth/XXth century "obscenity/libel" trials -Bradlaugh, Mylius, etc. Is this to imply that if I write the word "fuck" during some future puritanical regime, I - or you - could be hauled off to gaol for six months?

Potocki wrote an interesting account of this experiences in gaol - remarkably objective, aside from asserting that high-class prisoners like himself and Lord Alfred Douglas (who had served a similar sentence for libelling Winston Churchill) should have been better treated. George Orwell, whilst deploring the quality of contemporary pamphleteering, singled out two pamphlets for praise, one being D.H. Lawrence's Pornography and Obscenity and the latter, Potocki's Snobbery with Violence. A previous pamphlet - not praised by Orwell - dealt with the trial itself and was better-titled Whited Sepulchres.

After his release the Count became a well-known figure around the streets of central London dressed in his royal robes of red, long hair and sandals (long before their rebirth) being one of his characteristic trademarks. To give one example, V.S. Pritchett in a collection of travel articles cited as one of the sights of Soho the King of Poland in his long golden hair and his long crimson robe (At Home & Abroad). The Count resided for a long time in Devonia Road, Islington, on account of its heavy (and continuing) Polish émigré community. He continued both printing and publishing; his initial printing press having been the gift of friends (or acquaintances) including Aldous Huxley, Edgell Rickword and others. This was an antiquated machine which none the less, as with all Potocki's presses, bore tribute to his life-long dedication to pouring out both poems and opinions to anybody who would pay attention. (This continued to the extent that the absurd magazine entitled The Failiure Press, co-edited by the late Fr Guichot de Fortis and the author of this article, published a number of poems and articles, for which, as for this article, no remuneration eventuated.) In addition to this, Potocki had become (at least in his own opinion) in 1936 Wladyslaw V, King of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia. He was incited to this "ennoblement" by John Hooper Harvey, the celebrated historian; with him, as with Edgell Rickword, he subsequently quarrelled.

Anyone see a resemblance to Corvo?

The Count at this time was associated with a whole load of currency cranks, political dissidents, I suppose one would have to say, and so forth - one may remark passim that the Count contributed to the English language the expression, while maundering that one might say "and so forth and so fifth".

During the last World War Potocki was again imprisoned. In spite of his offer in 1939 to fly to Warsaw to rally the Poles, he was imprisoned, possibly under the 18B Regulations for sympathising with the enemy. Amongst other things, he was a close friend of William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw"), whose execution at Wandsworth Prison he attended. According to another account, he bashed a policeman over the head with his own truncheon claiming diplomatic immunity since he was a King. The Count's views on matters relating to and prior to WWII were curious at best: I learnt that Dr Goebbels had a beautiful basso speaking voice and never spoke ill of Poland. As they say in the United States, if you'd believe that, you'd believe anything.

The Count was to leave England on the grounds that it was "uninhabitable" and also placing a jinx upon the country (the Count throughout his life, in addition to pagan devotions, was a believer in magic); he continued to be prominent; especially along with a number of other peculiar figures, at the annual commemoration of the execution of Charles I, whose statue at Charing Cross is celebrated by Lionel Johnson's poem.

The Count moved to Dorset in the 1960s, where he resided near Plush, Piddletrenthide, described by Richard Aldington as "your P.G. Wodehouse address". Aldington was a neighbour of the Count's, subsequently in France; they continued a lively correspondence, though as far as one can judge, Aldington was at least as irascible as the Count himself. The Count found himself in the ironical situation whereby his letters to and from Aldington were more saleable than his works themselves. In later years this latter ceased to be so. I am not aware that the Count, unusually for him, indulged in abuse against Aldington; the reverse is by no means the case. The Count printed a number of pamphlets for Aldington, including A Tourist's Rome. Aldington was so hacked off with the result that in published correspondence between himself and Lawrence Durrell he referred to the Count as le Roi de Cons. In Dorset, the Count acquired some land and a few cows, and something described as a Dorset Horn (whatever that might be). He was described by Colin Jordan, the British fascist leader, as "The Monarch of the Madhouse in the Mud".

After another legal contretemps (whose details are still at issue) the Count moved to France, where he continued his career as a private printer. With a succession of antiquated machines he produced a series of polemical pamphlets; what at least in my opinion) were remarkably well-written poems and a variety of more or less objectionable Right-wing propaganda.

The Count, in addition to serious verse, was adept at what I think in French is called badinage. Here is one little example, a commentary upon the "1930s" poets:

W.H. Auden was not a churchwarden / Nor was Eliot a Spanish Red / After which there is no more to be said.

I could instance other memorabilia of this sort, but it would not do for a family publication.

It is not for me to condemn Potocki for being what a pre-war Mass Observation survey, Aspects of Politics, described as:

Can't be disguised. Red robes and long hair. Polish Count… Pretender to the Crown of Poland, lordship of Bialystok… Suffers from Jewish paranoia, megalomania, satyriasis, and a few other complexes.

In a friendly note in the Times Cyril Connolly quoted the Count's own description of his religion as being "beauty and one's friends": his association with a variety of Right-wing thugs does not seem wholly consonant - although in view of the virtual deification of Stalin by naïve Left-wingers, one queries who would be in a position to cast the first stone. In the 1930s Edgell Rickword and others founded The Left Review; the Count's response, perhaps predictably, was to produce a virtual one-man rival called… The Right Review. This periodical was to continue incessantly and, in spite of being produced in mediocre monotype, was to crow that it had put The Left Review in its grave. This is, shall we say, contestable. The Right Review was idiosyncratic, being resuscitated itself after twenty-odd years it still evinced such views of its proprietor on aesthetic matters as "Wordsworth a windbag... Haydn a hurdy-gurdy..."

The Count spent his latter years living in a beautiful farmhouse surrounded by olive trees in Provence. He was accompanied by a variety of lady friends and continued to work on his press. Driving around in a Citroën 2CV, flying the Polish Royal Standard he was a well-liked local figure. He also produced a translation of Adam Mickiewicz' Dziady, or Forefathers, which is the Polish national epic and the translation of which is now a standard text in a large number of American universities. The irony, if one should look for one, is that this same standard text, beautifully produced, comes with an introduction by a Jewish professor. The work was - characteristically - the subject of a prolonged legal tussle between the Count and the Polish Cultural Foundation, at whose instigation the work had been translated. (It is, in passing, worth mentioning that parts of the work were recited by the translator at a concert at Leighton House, West London, together with a recital by the Count's compatriot, the pianist Richard Bielicki.)

The Count's best-known poems are probably a love poem addressed to his second wife Odile, beginning "I love you as I love the rain", and secondly, that entitled "No Cats in The Bible". This later sentiment is not actually original but occurs in Mary Webb's Gone to Earth (Cape, 1917); though I believe the Count to have arrived at this observation independently. No doubt if God had wanted cats in the Bible He would have put them there.

It would seem that apart from the outrageous trial of Here Lies John Penis (which was pirated while the Count was in gaol and then apparently published in North America - text available in full in A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England by Donald Thomas), the Count's position in literary history will rest upon his poems. He was also a source of literary anecdotage regarding, for example, Augustus John and Dylan Thomas. In addition, so as not to belittle the Count and whilst not giving a personal account of my relations with him, I will quote a few choice observations gleaned from visits and acquaintance with him.

I do my best neither to take advice nor to give it.

I don't dislike dogs; I merely despise them.

Kings may be oppressive; but then look at the alternatives.

I've spent my life in being me.

How best to describe the Count? Whilst possessed of opinions with which I personally often disagreed, he was a small and handsome figure, extremely attractive to the ladies, exceptionally well-spoken (to the extent of correcting my own English), obviously extremely talented but, equally obviously, an embittered victim of the English judicial system, and what in 1932 passed for reality. His nephew Peter Potocki described him as "Uncle Nero". I can state personally that the Count was an extremely interesting person to know; his position in literary history is pretty well irrefragable. However, I will say that he was most interesting company and one of the most informed people one has met about virtually any aspect of European history. For a person born in New Zealand in 1903, the Count was what, with Nietzsche, we might term "a good European". He was unfailingly personally courteous: I can recall one occasion on which the Count had a conversation with the Deputy Librarian of the London Borough of Islington, who had only one eye, his left eye being glass; the Count made some remark concerning seeing and sight or eyes, as one might do to Borges or Milton or Homer; the Count then appeared genuinely and prolongedly upset that he might thereby inadvertently have caused offence. At the same time, opinions aside, the Count, perhaps with good reason, was, one would have to say, embittered and irascible - one would have had to have heard him arguing with the BBC World Service and correcting its English to have believed that such a thing were either possible or plausible.

The Count remained a dedicated and industrious small printer - his works were taken up by many other small presses (also the Private Library Association) but his principal source of publication was his own Mélissa Press (whose mechanics were from time to time specified as "printed by hand and foot at the Mélissa Press"). Many of his later works were illustrated by the remarkable graphic artist Rigby Graham. Count Potocki leaves a daughter in Ireland and a numerous progeny in New Zealand. He was often impoverished but never beleaguered.

All in all, the word "eccentricities" hardly seems to fit: years ago along the Holloway Road, one of the grubbiest thoroughfares in North London, my then partner and I used to meet a bloke who cycled up and down the road naked except that he had a transparent mackintosh; the reason for this was that the police insisted upon it for reasons of decency. I don't really think that the Count was going out of his way to be "eccentric": in fact, if you look, now, at half the stuff he was doing, you would find it unexceptionable - the major thing is the enormity of being tried for publishing what one has not even published.

The Count was a most interesting person to have known and in his own peculiar way has made quite a dent in English literary and legal history. Requiescat in pace.



Mrs Theodora Gaye Scutt replies to Chris Martin’s article on her father, Count Potocki de Montalk

Dear Chris,

You write a very good article, but you haven’t made use of the sources (that you had to hand) necessary for checking your facts. One of these sources is me, and as I have the misfortune, as you know, to be Potocki’s daughter, and can remember quite a lot about him, in the name of the ‘Daughter of Time’ I shall now correct you.

Potocki’s grandfather was Joseph, Count Potocki, known as ‘the Professor’, and whether he inherited his undoubted and very great talent for languages from his Polish or Irish ancestors is not a thing that can be decided; but it was not he but his father who was born in Poland and spent much of his latter years in Garibaldi’s legions – which does seem rather a waste of time, and damned unfair to the wife and kids he walked out on. The name was the same, and the title, but it was the son who was so talented, not the father. It was the son, also, who left France, where he was born, to go to New Zealand; and as he was probably old enough to remember the Reign of Terror, who shall blame him? He met there and married Alexandrina Wilhemina Sutherland McAlister, which is where the Scottish blood comes in. His eldest son Robert, known I believe as Bob, married Annie Maud Vaile. Vaile is a Surrey name but I believe Annie’s mother came from the Welsh Border . . . It was the Professor’s mother, Judith Charlotte Anne O’Kennedy, who brought the Irish blood into the family. As often happens with the children of highly gifted parents (for the Professor’s Scottish wife was also highly literate and somewhat of a linguist) my paternal grandfather seems to have been pretty mediocre; but from what my father had told me, I gather that he wasn’t a ‘parlous humbug’ but a parlous silly ass. I leave you to judge which is the worse of the two. Having lost his wife at the birth of my Aunt Dulce (now herself deceased) Grandfather made a not very happy second marriage and his children were not very happy either, which is why Father was so vitriolic about Grandfather. At one time Grandfather tried his hand at farming, at which he seems to have been less than good; but he made his children learn how to milk, as machines had not yet been invented. Father was certainly not the fastest milker in N.Z., but he may well have been one of the youngest. When, on his marriage, he needed some sort of career, being too toffee-nosed to take a job, he started a milk-round, which led to somebody at some literary party in London saying, ‘But weren’t you my milkman in Auckland?’ which afforded Father great glee. The milk-round failed, for which he blamed his wife – he never blamed himself for anything, ever; I should think, myself, that they were both a bit young and not too business like. It was then, as I recollect his remarks, that Father moved to England which was not the best of moves, as England is no longer the kingdom of the Georges nor of the Stuarts.

As a racist, Father was more on the lines of a not very experienced cattle-breeder. He did have some sensible ideas, but he had a nest of hornets in his bonnet about the Jewish race, and he seemed unable to distinguish religion from breed – he genuinely, I believe, admired the Irish (possibly because he had Irish blood?) but he hated them for their religion almost as much as if they were natives of Africa. The Maoris are not black and this is why he distinguished them from certain other peoples. They do seem to be a fine race. So are the Irish, the Scots, the Amerindians, the Hungarians, and a few others . . . I wouldn’t, myself, refer to the Hungarian language as ‘one of the world’s most obscure languages’ – I can think of many more obscure. One of the most difficult, if you like.

I don’t think I can comment on the tomfool and less than just ‘Here Lies John Penis’ trial, save to say that Richard Aldington told me that it might not have ended as it did if Father hadn’t cheeked the judge – and yes, that does mean that the verdict was given ‘out of spite’; petty, to say the least of it.

Father was imprisoned under 18B right enough, for the very simple reason that he thought the Nazis, while not entirely right, were very far from entirely wrong; and he said so loudly and frequently. Those too young to remember the war won’t realize how impolitic that was; if one were interested in staying out of clink. He admired Lord Haw-Haw, of whom I can remember nothing, but I don’t think he’d ever met him and he certainly didn’t attend his execution, which is why he didn’t believe in it.

Magic, in which I believed long before I met my biological father (i.e. Potocki), is a dangerous thing to use for one’s own ends. Had he not done so, instead of earning his younger daughter’s extreme dislike, she might have kept some sort of eye on him and he might have been able to die under his own roof. I hope he’ll know better next time round.

Father did buy a very small field near my little holding at Monkwood, near Plush, and the two Jersey cows were his, but it was my P. G. Wodehouse address, not his. He did his best to let everyone think it was his and he certainly wrecked my delight in owning it, with his mistresses and his political carryings-on and continual lectures to me as to how I should conduct my life, – being His daughter, – but that’s no matter now. His beautiful farmhouse in Provence was a three-roomed smallholder’s cottage, which could have been made into something good and wasn’t – give Father his due, he hadn’t the money to deal with it. Certainly the surrounding olive groves were beautiful.

He never took advice; but he was very ready to give it.

He absolutely detested dogs. To the ancient Aztecs the Dog was the symbol of love and loyalty, so no wonder Father didn’t feel kinship with them.

I have to agree with him about kingship.

How else can one spend one’s life than in being oneself?

Father was small right enough, with a pot belly and not as graceful as some I’ve seen. I daresay he was reasonably good-looking and he usually dressed well, although lack of means caused him to be on the eccentric side. His hair was brown, like mine, but longer (in youth) and not so flyaway. He was attractive to some women but not all . . . his lack of inches may have had something to do with that. He was not unfailingly courteous, I have known him be appallingly and unnecessarily rude. He was not usually in the least concerned with anyone’s feelings but his own, and in the case of the Deputy Librarian I can only suppose that, finding himself back to doing his own cooking, mending and housework, and with plenty of time to think, he may have pondered on why his daughter had gone a-missing and begun to wonder if he could have been a little kinder. I hope this was not so, for no amount of kindness could have kept me any longer in a household so alien; politics, sex and a hot dry climate are all completely disagreeable to me.

Sorry, Chris, I’m not trying to upset your applecart, but you might as well get your facts right! You have my address and I’d have cheerfully checked your article for you.

Father was so unpleasant about my marriage that you can’t expect me to have any kindness for him, but that’s one thing and telling the exact truth about him is another.

However, as I’ve already said, you do write a good article. THEODORA