In the stump of the old tree


I’ve just come across a Guardian blogpost by Billy Mills about the pleasure of discovering little-known writers, in which he mentions Hugh Sykes Davies, pictured above in the grounds of St John’s, Cambridge, where he taught. Like Billy, I first came across Sykes Davies in the Penguin anthology of Forties poetry, where, as a teenager, I fell in love with his wonderful, creepy poem, beginning In the stump of the old tree…


I haven’t thought about him for ages, but the post reminded me that an old GLF acquaintance of mine from my Cambridge days, Derek, Bowie look-alike and famous for having fucked every member of the St John’s boat crew (he said), had Sykes Davies as his long essay supervisor. Derek told me all kind of fascinating, often scurrilous details about the man, which to my shame I’ve forgotten, but I do remember him talking about the  massive amount of unpublished material there was and about Sykes Davies’ plans to organise it. Or maybe my memory is wrong. Maybe he was planning to destroy it. Having just read this fascinating piece on Sykes Davies, by George Watson, from Jacket Magazine, I suspect the latter to be more likely. But if I’m wrong and there is this work somewhere, it would be very good to have it. In the meantime, here’s a taste of the man from Watson’s article:

His role model was a cab driver he had once fished with whose previous job had been in a circus, riding a motorbike on the Wall of Death, until he started to have blackouts and had to give it up. ‘You can’t have blackouts on the Wall of Death: besides, I had a lioness in the sidecar.’ 


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4 Responses to In the stump of the old tree

  1. Anonymous says:

    Funnily enough, that Penguin anthology is exactly where I first came across him. The novel I mentioned in the Guardian blog is pretty good. BM

  2. I suspect that’s pretty much the only place you could come across him in the late 60s-early 70s. I remember there was a bit of a Gascoyne revival around then, with a couple of books coming out, but I don’t recall any HSD…Thank you for jogging my memory, by the way!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sykes-Davies was my great uncle! I only briefly knew him as Mad Uncle Hugh when I was tiny and never knew about his writing until I had a similar discovery at 18, idly typing his name into a library catalog. Look up Petron, it’s a mad gem and apparently one of the first books of the surrealist movement to be published in English, which is also cool.

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