Up to the age of six I lived in a farmhands cottage on top of a hill called Sire’s Hill near Oxford which was opposite Wittenham Clumps . A place that Paul Nash visited and painted. It is a beautiful area even now despite the remains of Didcot power station. It has an iron-age fort and Roman remains and was the first place the monks stopped off at in their journey up the Thames to Oxford. Dorchester Abbey that they founded actually predates the University. Ironically Edwin Smith photographed the inside of the church at Dorchester which I found out in my recent research for the Edwin Smith Poem.
My father gave up working on that farm as we were so poor he would breed rabbits to sell etc. But I think we were all really happy there. Lots of space. We then moved to a council estate in Didcot (small town 15 miles from Oxford) and my dad started working for a building firm. Not so much space but a secure house etc. We regularly visited my Nan and Gramps tied cottage on the High Street in Long Wittenham as children.
My dad’s stepfather was the country grandfather I talk about in my early poems. He was a farm labourer all his life and up until the 1950s used to plough with shire horses. I have this photo of my dad on plough aged about three between my grandad’s arms.
The other photo shows my Step-grandfather and my father stood in front of the tied cottage the University of Oxford evicted them from when in old age so they could sell to developers. I took this in about 1977.
The barn and tractor photo was taken in the 1980s as the farm began to fail and was then converted into workshops. Lay’s farm was located behind my grandparent’s cottage. The group of cottages included a ‘cruck’ built cottage and are amongst the oldest known dwellings in Oxfordshire (originally Berkshire until 1976 when the boundaries were changed).
It has informed a lot of my artistic work, this country side of the family, as the country imagery was so vivid. My mum’s side was more urban coming from Irish Catholic stock in Reading. The story around my father is a deep and troubled one. His step grandad took over when his real father disappeared at or before the birth in 1932. There is no record of a father in the church records and my father retains his mother’s maiden name – ‘Belcher’ as did I.
My step grandfather was a farm-labourer all his life called Aubrey Didcock. He was a gentle pipe-smoking gentleman who never learnt to read until very late in life and had a hare-lip (see poem ‘The Hare-Lip‘) This question over his father haunted my father all his life but I never confronted him about it . I was sworn to silence on the subject by my mother who said I should never mention it.
But I did spend time walking round the graveyards in Little and Long Wittenham Church with him
(these photographs are from 2001) and he was obviously searching for something (see poem ‘The Stone Code below). My father never read it or any of my poetry.I was going to confront him and show him the poems but backed off and sadly he passed away from cancer in August 2004 with it never ever being discussed.
My mother finally passed away in 2012 and now finally I am discussing this openly after 27 years of silence.
THE STONE CODE
A flood plain half-wild, half mown
between timber barns and flint walls.
Places where I found violets when small.
A field of headstones, iron crosses,
(poor copies of a gentry’s Celtic fashion)
is still dew-damp with river-mist.
We linger and talk
as we visit stone after stone
commemorating Belchers and Didcocks
as if the whole village was only two families
and no others had been born,
worked or died here.
Some questions I never ask.
The church register remains blank
where my grandfather’s name should be.
We stand in a rich harvest of names
strung across the meadow like bales.
Cut flowers wilt in the shadows.
By a cathedral in Spain I paused
to watch students brushing dust
from row upon row of unearthed skeletons.
The compressed bones of medieval monks.
Fragments of skull, splinters of bone,
delicate as a book of pressed flowers.
No markers, discovered by chance
in a restoration project,
now each was being carefully disinterred
and age, position, rank plotted.
Here my father and I and inscriptions
that reveal nothing.
further poems in the online volume Farm Hand’s Radio
I found out that a short story writer called A.E.Coppard lived in the village of Long Wittenham until 1932 and was a known womaniser .One woman tried to drown herself in the river at this time over him (Gay Taylor the wife of the then Cockerel Press owner). A.E.Coppard and his ‘new’ family departed in April 1932 as his by then estranged first wife Lily Anne Coppard (also an author of one novel) died in hospital in Oxford from cancer. Coppard then married a South African Doctor called Winifred De Kok whom he had been living with in Long Wittenham and they had a child, a daughter called Julia.The entire Coppard family then moved to Walberswick in Suffolk for the period 1932-1938 and a boy was born (see image below). There were then many years of happy marriage and Winifred actually became a TV personality through her medicinal work with new borns in the 1960s.
The leaving in April 1932 (my father was born on April 13th 1932) and a local history publication called ‘Three Wittenham Writers’ alerted me to the possibility there might be a connection in the early 1990s. This followed the event below.
In spring 1992 I went with my mother to a local history exhibition about the village (Long Wittenham) in a museum in Wallingford and she froze in front of a picture of Coppard (see above) and just said ‘the nose’ before I interrupted her. She looked pale and immediately clammed up and wouldn’t talk about it. She forbade me to mention it to my father so I knew something significant had just happened.I had just started getting published as a poet (The Ice Horses was published in Slowdancer magazine by John Harvey in 1992) and if you read Coppard’s poems they are full of horses and barns and feel strangely familiar as if coming from the same ‘territory’…..I started digging into the past…
This from Wikipedia..
Alfred Edgar Coppard ( January 4 1878 – January 13,1957) was an English writer, noted for his influence on the short story form, and poet. He was born in Folkestone, and had little formal education. In the early 1920s, and still unpublished, he was in Oxford and a leading light of a literary group, the New Elizabethans, who met in a pub to read Elizabethan drama. The meetings were sometimes attended by W. B. Yeats. At this period he met Richard Hughes and Edgell Rickword, amongst others.
He was more famous for short stories and was published alongside Pound and Eliot and Lawrence in The Atlantic Monthly –Ford Madox Ford championed his work and he even had an English TV episode made from one of his stories. Through the Golden Cockerel Press he was in contact with David Jones who is said to have visited Long Wittenham.
During the period 1920-1960 the Golden Cockerel Press was one of the foremost publishers of illustrated books. Closely associated with the revival of wood-engraving, its books were vehicles for the work of such artists as Robert Gibbings, Eric Gill, David Jones, Agnes Miller Parker, Eric Ravilious and John Buckland Wright.
Well my family background had nothing like this….A lot of drunks, vagabonds,and ne’r do wells certainly and farm labourers but nothing like Coppard.
I started investigating every other possibility..incest, vicars..American soldiers and airmen (too early they didn’t arrive until the 1940s).I found no other candidate and after 27 years still have not.
My grandmother forbade my father books and furthering his education but encouraged his brother ….a strangely relevant detail…there were no books in my house as a child except children’s books and a solitary Victorian Bible that I still possess.
If the Coppard connection is true then my grandmother ‘Daisy’ would have become the real life incarnation of the Dusky Ruth story…Coppard’s famous evocation of an assignation with a gypsy girl in an Inn.
Coppard and Gibbings and friends frequented the front room of The Plough Inn in Long Wittenham. My grandmother at 18 was a serving girl there….fact and fiction here become entwined. Coppard wrote the story years before…’faction’?
Daisy’s mother was a Lee from a large Gypsy family that had become ‘settled’ in Little Wittenham up the road…..it becomes more like a Coppard tale the more I delved…but nothing really added up to conclusive proof.
I recently (May 2016) found these images of a gypsey looking woman which I had mistakenly thought were of Daisy. I am now sure they are of her mother and the child is Daisy in the second photo. This means the photos taken before 31st January 1923 when Emily Elizabeth Belcher died in childbirth with fourth child Joan.
Emily Elizabeth Belcher – Died 1923 – The original Dusky Ruth? Coppard was visiting Wittenham from at least 1917 before moving there in 1927 because he was published by the Cockerel Press and although Taylor now dead and Julia about to be born it looks like the village was important enough to Coppard to settle there for 5 years.
Indeed he had an affair with the wife of Taylor who ran the Cockerel Press which documented as reaching a suicidal climax at Day’s Lock. (Jewess a Long Wittenham local historian interviewed Irene Bond and published it in a local history publication called ‘Three Wittenham Writers’ ). The publication includes a lurid descripton of Gay Taylor attempting to drown herself in the lock and then having a abortion 1926-7. There is no way to test the veracity of this claim but it was published by Jewess who a respected local historian who wrote articles for the Chronicle The Journal of the Long Wittenham Local History Group. Issue No. 3 1988 contains an extended version of the Coppard part of TWW pamphlet.
The year after Coppard’s death in 1957 Gay Taylor took her revenge with a fairly bitter piece of fiction called ‘A Prison, A Paradise, by Loran Hurnscot (Gay Taylor). Described as ‘the diary of a woman caught up in a mad, bad love triangle that nearly destroyed two of the three principals’ it has an obvious autobiographical foundation. This seems to back up the Jewess claim.
It not too fanciful considering the documented ‘roving eye’ to imagine it may have alighted on Emily but I very much doubt as she married that anything untoward happened beyond that. Unrequited maybe…she passed away in childbirth in 1923 and the family story is she was put up for adoption because family could not cope. It was a a source of bitterness to my grandmother who wanted to look after her. This may in turn have fed in to her own young pregnancy…
The original Belcher home Long Wittenham 1915 ?
Emily and Daisy?
These are then photos of Emily around about mid 1920s with her daughter Daisy in front of their original house before they moved across road. Emily’s mother was Elizabeth Lee b???? d.1944)from a Gypsy family who settled at Little Wittenham and she married the original Ivo (Ivoy) Belcher a horseman(1863-1945).
The Coppard grandsons visit Long Wittenham 2005
In March 2005 a mutual friend and poet called Maura Dooley who I had briefly mentioned the mystery to in the 1990s put me in contact with Tim and Hattie Coppard which resulted in the grandsons of A.E.Coppard visiting Long Wittenham with me on July 26th that year.
Matthew Reisz and his brother Toby are the grandsons of A.E.Coppard and Winifred De Kok and their mother is Julia Coppard who was brought up in May Tree Cottage, Long Wittenham whilst the Coppards lived there from 1927 – 1932. She later married Karel Reisz the film director who was a Czech Jewish emigrant from the Nazis who lost both parents in the concentration camps.
The following photos in the archive were taken as we visited the village and surrounding area. I have interspersed them with some archival shots. click HERE
Subsequently I was in contact with various other members of the Coppard family including the boys mother Julia Reisz and the possibility of a DNA test* to prove once and for all either way the veracity of this intriguing story was discussed. I also saw new photos of other Coppard relatives and their strong familial resemblance was striking especially a photo of Coppard’s sister’s son which could be mistaken for photos of myself in my youth BUT this was not proof and never will be.
*After consultation with a friend who a forensic scientist and who was at a conference in France of specialists who disinterring WW1 victims and identifying them I found that due to chromosome alignment and the lack of direct bloodline it would never be possible to prove scientifically that there a link to Coppard.
Update August 2007
My mother finally confessed to overhearing an elderly relative comment ” Ivo ..that was ‘Stoppard’s boy’ (or at least she thought she had heard ‘Stoppard’). For years she had not told me this…referring only to a name she couldn’t hear in order to protect my father. My mother was in sound mind when she finally revealed this after recovering from a near fatal operation in 2005. Indeed I have a film of us both visiting the graves in Wittenham that year when she drove us both over following the ‘revelation’ and she finally started discussing it openly especially with my sister.
August 2012 – My mother finally passes away from Carcinoid cancer afer a 8 year battle.
August 2012 – Almost a breakthrough….the card..
In amongst my parent’s possessions as we cleared the house was a lovely professional portrait of Daisy taken in Reading and dated 2nd May 1931…..exactly 11 months before my father was born!
It also has a message written on the back…whoever it written to obviously returned the photo and is undoubtedly the father…it as close and as far as I will ever get to a solution. Her sister also a gypsy girl was known as ‘Darky’.
In this photo she would have been 18. After my father’s birth they both almost starved to death and the image below is from that period. This is why there such silence and resentment within the family. I never thought whoever it was got her pregnant acted entirely honourably.
The photo below is my favourite photo of them. This would be about 1936-8. No smart clothes and shoes, no ring, no watch…she has a weary look and is much thinner..not good times. A telling document.
Update 2014 – Finally telling the tale…
Finally after 22 years of silence (the original incident with my mother and the Coppard photograph occurred in 1992 or thereabouts) I am finally discussing this in public. This ties in with my confronting my writing past at a Creative Writing course here in Nottingham. Some secrets maybe should be kept forever but not this one. If any member of the Riesz family objects I will edit this information but so far there has been no adverse comment.
I promised my mother that during my father’s life I would never raise the matter and I have done that. I also kept the ‘secret’ until she herself had passed on. She believed it was Coppard and maybe had always known. Many of my Grandmother’s family certainly knew for certain but none would ever reveal the ‘secret’. Maybe the fact Coppard already had a wife and a child by another woman meant it ‘beyond the pale’ in a small village which would explain the total silence in the family. The 1930s were not as ‘liberal’ in their views and my Grandmother and my father survived on handouts and support from the Church in these early days.
Here is a Robert Gibbings portrait of Coppard. Gibbings is buried next to my grandparents. My grandparents remember him as he moved to a cottage down the road from Coppard’s prewar residence in Long Wittenham in 1955 whilst teaching Typography at Reading University. He wrote his book about the area ‘Till I end my song’ whilst there which was ironically published in the year of Coppard’s death 1957.Gibbings died in 1958.
This is a photo of the woman Coppard married following first wife Lily Anne’s death in 1932. This would have been taken in Suffolk not Long Wittenham I suspect by the ages of the two children. the Coppards were fairly affluent in the village of Long Wittenham I surmise as they could afford a nanny/housekeeper Irene Bond whose memories are cited in the local ‘Three Writers’ publication . I have a copy and she states that Coppard had ‘other women’ at the time. Her source not given probably Bond. There is also a mention of a child ‘born abroad’ which curious…maybe code for illegitimate.
Winifred de Kok and the two children,one of whom I presume is Julia Reisz (who recalls living at Maytree Cottage). The son I believe was born after the family move to Suffolk. If my grandmother did ‘fall’ for Coppard’s charms the combination of an estranged wife passing away from cancer in Oxford and an unwed family with a child would explain the sudden flight from Wittenham. Winifred and A.E. married after Lily Anne’s passing so that means at least 1932. Lily Anne was also an author with one novel published called ‘The Orange Court’ in 1929. It was about a woman who goes to Italy for adventure after a lover spurns her….
These children would, if the connection is true, be my lost Aunt and Uncle….Julia Coppard is the young girl in this photograph. I have been in contact with her in the last phase of her life and she stated that it ‘highly likely’ that A.E. or Flynn as he was known was indeed my grandfather. The same comment was made by the daughter of Coppard’s sister who was a little more forthright about the chances of the irrepressible ‘Flynn’ being responsible as it being almost certain such was his promiscuity.
A.E. Coppard died in 1957 – the year my father (below) was married and I was born in 1959.
My father at a ploughing match Long Wittenham 1955 – myself Oxford 2001 – Coppard Portrait
Here a picture of A.E. from National portrait gallery taken by Norman Parkinson in 1951 and an earlier portrait by William Roberts.
One last note…..A.E. was a keen athlete and footballer…my father was too…only problem was A.E. was a Chelsea supporter…My father and I have been Arsenal supporters all our lives!
Such an abberation unforgiveable…..I mean supporting Chelsea of course….without the other abberation (if it true) I would not be here….
Time to close this book and maybe open another one…..
Final footnote: The Fairy Tale
My father’s name of ‘Ivo’ is unusal as not the more common ‘Ivor’.
The myth in the family was that it came from a Fairy tale book of ‘Ivo and Verena’ .
The original Belcher side grandfather was named Ivo in 1863 and his sister was called Verena in 1862…
I have finally tracked the book they named after ..now I finally know why my father had such an unusual name….published in 1844 🙂
It starts ‘Ivo was a heathen….’ it is a pretty dismal religious propaganda piece..maybe why it took so long to find…
So much fiction so much fact 🙂
Read it here: https://archive.org/details/ivoandverenaors00dysogoog
Here the essay I wrote for the creative writing course..
I was failed on it and quit because I thought they basically a bunch of academic arseholes….and the course was shit.