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Drayton

Drayton lies 5 miles north-west of Norwich and is now part of the City's suburbs.

Between 1956 and 1960 the Australian poet Francis Webb (1925-1973) was an in-patient at the David Rice Psychiatric Hospital in Drayton and while there he wrote over 20 poems that were directly inspired by the county. 

Francis Webb: troubled but joyful poet

The bulk of these poems appeared in his 1961 collection Socrates and Other Poems and include: The Yellowhammer, Bells of St Peter Mancroft, Gale Force (about a storm over the Wensum valley), Beeston Regis and Mousehold Health. There are also two poems which relate directly to his experiences at the David Rice: one called Five Days Old - about meeting the new-born child of his consultant Dr Napier and October - which is more disturbing and draws upon his experiences of E.C.T and E.C.G.

Webb suffered from schizophrenia for most of his adult life and spent time in mental health institutions in Birmingham before moving to Norwich in the late 1950s.

His work is complex and highly crafted and, despite his troubled mental state, often surprising joyful in tone. One such poem is the delightful Bells of St Peter Mancroft which describes the 'Gay golden volleys of banter' of the chiming bells of Norwich's largest church.

Much of Webb's work was underpinned by his Catholic faith and therefore also has a religious tone. While an in-patient at the David Rice he was allowed to walk to the nearby village of Costessey where he used to attend mass at St Walstan's and his knowledge of the village was later put to great use in his stunning Around Costessey sequence which appeared in The Ghost of the Cock (1964). The poem, which is a long ensemble piece featuring 10 individual sections, includes a superb memorial to the Norwich School painter Anthony Sandys (1806-1883), a celebration of the Jesuit John Gerard who worked in Costessey in the sixteenth century at a time of Catholic repression and a poem about the Befry Tower of Costessey Hall. Here are some lines from the fourth verse of The Tower:
 

This tower of a red stone, eroded whistling ghost
Where bush and grasses cross themselves and cower
And juvenile pigeons play at being lost
And the airman's initials rest one single hour.

The River Wensum appears in several of the poems and must have been familar to him from his walks through Drayton, Hellesdon and Costessey. It also provides the backdrop to one of his later poems Derelict Church - about St Edmund's Church in Fishergate in Norwich. When Webb visited the church it had fallen out of use. The poem has a dramatic ending:
 
Ghosts of bells chatter as from the sea
Out of memory slides home this gaping wreck
Still seaworthy, hallowed and functional.

Drayton itself also makes an appearance in Good Friday, Norfolk where Webb invokes the spirit of the village's founder: 'Conscience of the late tractor that straddled cloud,/Was hammer on nailhead, jogs into dozing rumour/ Along the sacred stolid flanks of land./ Peter de Draiton, hasten from your shroud/ To the Church of St Margaret, your beloved bird.'

Webb's ancestors were sea-farers from Great Yarmouth - which may partly explain his affinity with the county.

In 1958 Webb won a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship and with the help of Australian poets such as Rosemary Dobson and Vincent Buckley he was given his passport back and allowed to return to Australia. However, back in his homeland he unfortunately re-entered the psychiatric care system.

When Webb left Norwich in 1960 he took his poems with him and they were subsequently published in Australia but never appeared in the UK. As a result his work, and in particular his poetic Norfolk legacy, has remained virtually unknown. Today he is beginning to receive the attention he deserves and was recently championed by Simon Armitage at the Perth Writer's Festival.

A new improved version of Francis Webb's Collected Poems has recently been published by UWA Publishing; it was edited by Toby Davidson an academic at Macquarie University, Sydney.


Links:

Francis Webb: Norfolk Location Photographs

Collected Poems: Review

 

 

 

 

 

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