Warlock’s Maori Factotum


It is a little known fact that the composer Peter Warlock once shared a house with a Maori who conceived an opera based on Tristam Shandy and subsisted chiefly on stout…

I have been reading Peter Warlock : The Life Of Philip Heseltine by Barry Smith. Dabblers will be familiar with Warlock from Mahlerman’s succinct potted biography, and indeed I suspect that may tell you all you need to know about the combative drunkard composer. Almost all, but not quite. Mahlerman did not mention Heseltine / Warlock’s penchant for naked night-time motorcycle rides along countryside lanes, nor the fact that, seven months after he gassed himself in his Chelsea flat, his “intermittent girlfriend” gave birth to a baby who grew up to become the art critic Brian Sewell. (Sewell only discovered his father’s identity in the 1980s.)

The chief pleasure of Smith’s biography, for me, is the – often tangential – appearance of other characters, with most of whom Warlock managed to fall out sooner or later. Frederick Delius, D. H. Lawrence, and Nina Hamnett, “the Queen of Bohemia”, all show up. And I am beginning to wonder if it is possible to read any biography covering the first half of the twentieth century in which the preposterous figure of Aleister Crowley does not have a walk-on part.

But the great discovery is a man who we must thank Barry Smith for resurrecting from obscurity, and about whom one wishes to know much more, though it is doubtful we ever will. In the late 1920s, Warlock spent a few years in a cottage in the Kentish village of Eynsford. Its attraction may have been the presence of twenty-seven pubs within a four-mile radius. Here, Smith tells us,

Close to the ruins of Eynsford Castle, Philip shared the small main-street cottage with his composer friend, E. J. Moeran, together with a collection of cats and a Maori housekeeper-cum-factotum, Hal Collins (Te Akau) (d. 1929). Collins had previously been a barman at a London drinking club. [Cecil] Gray gave this intriguing description of him:

“In contra-distinction to this more or less floating population of cats and women, a permanent member of the establishment was a strange character called Hal Collins . . . whose Maori grandmother had been a cannibal and used, within his memory, to lament the passing of the good old days when she could feast upon her kind. Besides being a graphic artist of considerable talent, particularly in woodcut, he was one of those people who, without ever having learned a note of music or received a lesson in piano playing, have an inborn technical dexterity and a quite remarkable gift for improvisation. He used to compose systematically, also, but without being able to write it down; I remember him once playing to me a whole act of an opera he had conceived on the subject of Tristram Shandy . . . He subsisted chiefly on stout, of which he consumed gargantuan quantities, and when elated would perform Maori war dances with quite terrifying realism. On spirits, however, he would run completely amok, in true native fashion, and on one occasion almost succeeded in massacring the entire household.”

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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

4 thoughts on “Warlock’s Maori Factotum

  1. editor@anatomyofnorbiton.org'
    April 26, 2013 at 08:08

    Oh god, the idea of a Maori Tristram Shandy opera has me wanting to write one myself, with atavistic cannibal elements (and when I say Maori I’m really thinking Queequeg). It would be an obscenity of course, not least because I have no idea how to write music; on the other hand it would allow me to get the idea out of my head and watch it die.

    On a tangential note, Wagner once planned a Buddhist opera. I don’t know why I think that’s relevant.

    I’ll let you know how I get on.

  2. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    April 26, 2013 at 11:20

    Yes Frank, and when reducing and distilling a life to a ‘potted’ concentration, I usually have to discard some tidbit that I would sooner have left in – and in this Cow Pat piece it was Heseltine’s spawn Sewell. I missed the possible man-eater Hal Collins, but squeezed in EJ Moeran in another post about the Irish, They Lived and Laughed and Loved and Left.

  3. Worm
    April 26, 2013 at 14:12

    this sounds right up Elberry’s strasse

    • alasguinns@me.com'
      Hey Skipper
      April 27, 2013 at 03:36

      My eye, working ahead of my brain, scanned this sounds right up Elberry’s strasse as this sounds right up Elberry’s arse.

      The visual equivalent of a misheard lyric, I suppose.

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