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Friday, 22 January 2016

New Zealand's Typewriting, Milk Selling 'King of Poland': The Great Eccentric Count Geoffrey Wladislas Vaile Potocki de Montalk

Poets are treated badly in New Zealand, “this land of white savages and All Blacks”, while “they are feted, laurelled and crowned in Merrie England.” 
- Geoffrey de Montalk, “the all time bad boy of Aotearoa letters”
who believed New Zealand's Coat of Arms
was an "offence against good taste".
He considered himself to be the most high-born individual 
ever conceived in New Zealand.
In the winter of 1992, the last "King of Poland", Geoffrey Wladislas Vaile Potocki de Montalk, although a pronounced pagan, walked into a Presbyterian Church Op-Shop in Hamilton in the Waikato of New Zealand and paid $35 for his last typewriter. It was a second-hand Sperry Rand Remington portable, appropriately enough a Monarch model made in Holland, which de Montalk, in his typewriter innocence, said "must be one of the last to have been made entirely of metal as opposed to plastic. And is correspondingly heavy."
Until the late 1980s, de Montalk had been using another "all-metal" - though lighter - machine, an Olivetti Lettera 32, but like so many other innocents of the time, had then fallen victim to the beguiling charms of electronic typewriters. These proved, naturally enough, entirely unreliable, so de Montalk went looking for another manual. While he might have been a heathen who hated and despised Christian morality and was vehemently opposed to Puritanism, Calvinism, Democracy and Christianity, de Montalk knew a good typewriter in a church fund-raising outlet when he saw one!
In February 1993 de Montalk used the Monarch to type a long letter to his cousin, Stephanie de Montalk*, who had produced the 1987 NZTV1 documentary The Count - Profile of a Polemicist (and in the process filmed De Montalk typing with his Olivetti, see image at the top of this post). De Montalk had found Stephanie also, apparently, used a Sperry Rand Remington typewriter, and said, "It is rather fun about our typewriters being cousins." De Montalk later moved to Palmerston North with his typewriter, then returned to Europe. He died at Brignoles in France on April 14, 1997, aged 93, and was buried at Draguignan. Thus ended the life of an infamous bigot, an enigmatic eccentric who was also one of the most colourful characters in New Zealand literary history.
Robert Wladislas de Montalk
Geoffrey de Montalk, poet, polemicist, pagan, pretender to the throne of Poland and one of the great eccentrics of the 20th centurywas born in Remuera in Auckland, New Zealand, on October 6, 1903, the son of architect and inveterate inventor Robert Wladislas de Montalk (1872-1942) and Annie Maud Vaile (1867-1908).
Edmond de Montalk
Geoffrey's claim to Polish royal linage was legitimate enough (in Poland in 1933 he found the Potockis had married into the Piast family, which had reigned over Poland until the mid-17th century). His grandfather, Count Joseph Wladislas Edmond Potocki de Montalk (1836-1901) had dispensed with his title and reduced his name down to Edmond De Montalk upon migrating to New Zealand from France in 1868, as befits a land without noble tradition other than that of the MāoriHe was born in Paris, the son of Józef Franciszek Jan Potocki, "the Insurgent of Białystok", a Polish émigré of noble descent who had arrived in France after the 1830-31 revolt against Russia and was married to Judith Charlotte Anne O'Kennedy, who was held by family tradition to be an illegitimate daughter of King George IV of England. Józef later fought in the Spanish army under General Juan Prim. In France the family adopted the name de Montalk.
Edmond de Montalk (above) matriculated at the Université de Paris and went to London, where he raised funds for Garibaldi's campaign, and in 1859 went to Italy to join his army. In New Zealand de Montalk worked as a teacher of languages, at Nelson College and at the University of Otago. In 1877 he became a storekeeper at Okuru in the Jackson's Bay special settlement in South Westland, living among some "old Garibaldian friends". Between 1881-87 he was a teacher at Christchurch Boys' High School and a master at Christ's College. De Montalk moved to Auckland in 1891 and became a lecturer at Auckland University.
With such a distinguished, erudite grandfather, it was little wonder that Geoffrey de Montalk became one of the glittering generation of New Zealand poets and other literati of the 1930s, "the Golden Age of New Zealand Culture", along with his friends Arthur Rex Dugard Fairburn (left, above, 1904-1957, who had briefly known him at primary school) and Ronald Allison Kells Mason (right, above, 1905-1971), as well as Thomas Allen Munro Curnow (1911-2001) and Walter D'Arcy Cresswell (1896-1960). De Montalk started writing poetry at age eight.
His family moved to Nelson in 1917 and Geoffrey went to Wellington the next year. In 1919, aged 16, he became a teacher and privately studied Greek at Victoria University. In 1921 he returned to Auckland and met Mason. De Montalk entered a seminary to study for the Anglican priesthood, attracted to the ritual and liturgy. It was here that he learned about missionary printing in the 19th century, and this prompted his own lifelong interest in self-publishing limited editions of his works on antiquated presses. De Montalk married Ada Lillian Hemus (below, 1903-) in 1924, but left her and their little daughter Maud Wanda (later Mrs Henderson of Tauranga) behind when he went overseas.
The young de Montalk.
His first wife Lillie.
In October 1927 he left for England and by 1931 was earning sufficient money to devote himself to writing, and was being published regularly back home in the Auckland and Christchurch newspapers as a feature writer. But in 1932 De Montalk was imprisoned for obscene libel after a celebrated trial in London (at which he was defended by, among others, Leonard Sidney Woolf (1880-1969, below, who also used a Sperry Rand Remington portable typewriter).
A collection of poems entitled Here Lies John Penis (a supposed knight who he had allegedly obscenely libeled!) including translations from Rabelais and Verlaine, was intended only for distribution among friends and was to be printed by de Montalk himself on his small press. But his typescript was shown to typesetting manager Leslie de Lozey at Comps Ltd, printers of the Methodist Recorder, and taken to the police. De Montalk was remanded in custody in Brixton Prison.
British police images of de Montalk upon arrest.
At his trial before the Recorder of London at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), Sir Ernest Wild, the judge warned three women jurors that “this was a very filthy case indeed” and two excused themselves from service. De Montalk’s refusal to swear on the Bible caused some consternation and there was a question as to whether a pagan’s oath would be acceptable. The oath sworn was to Apollo, de Montalk raising his right arm “in the Roman salute,” “like Julius Caesar or Benito Mussolini”. De Montalk was sentenced to six months in Wormwood Scrubs. The case was widely reported and commented upon, generally with sympathy for de Montalk. Among those who tried to help financially were W. B. Yeats, J. B. Priestly, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley and Augustus John.
Aldous Huxley
 T. S. Eliot
J.B. Priestley
The Woolfs organised a campaign and questions were asked in the House of Commons. An appeal heard in March 1932 was rejected. The experiences left de Montalk embittered towards the justice system and the British class structure and, aimed primarily at de Lozey, antagonistic towards Jewish people.
De Montalk in London in 1939.
After his imprisonment, the freshly Anglophobe de Montalk, determined to flout English convention, turned unequivocally to the Right (he was pro-fascism and pro-Nazi) and became an increasingly eccentric bohemian, roaming London’s Soho and Fitzrovia areas in arresting ensembles, dressed in medieval robes and a crimson cloak (made from an old curtain), styled after the garb of Richard II, with sandals, a velvet beret adorned with the Polish royal eagle and the Potocki coat of arms, and waist-length hair that he had first been allowed to grow out while in jail. Claiming the throne of Poland, he issued a stream of poetry and pamphlets from his base in the south of France, remaining a traditionalist and a royalist, a neo-aristocrat and a fascinating yet fugitive figure.
Though an outspoken racist who spoke and wrote French, Provençal, Latin, Greek, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, German and Sanskrit, in the last years of his life De Montalk was learning Māori, considering the Māori to be superior to the common run of New Zealanders and being far ahead of the liberal pack in believing the Māori deserved cultural and language accommodation and land compensation. But in London in the 1930s, having failed “to make and to mould a New Zealand civilization” and disillusioned with the cultural climate in that countryde Montalk had become equally unimpressed with bohemian society and the Bloomsbury intellectuals (including the Woolfs). The Woolfs assumed that de Montalk would go Left, like the common rut of Bloomsbury. But he was, like his contemporaries Ezra Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Roy Campbell, innately and irredeemably of the Right. What's more, he was no longer taken seriously as a poet.
Ezra Pound
In 1933 de Montalk set off for Poland, where his royal pedigree was recognised by the Press, and returned to England in 1935. He and Campbell identified with the rebel cause in Spain and in 1936, with funds from Huxley and Brian Guinness, de Montalk bought a printing press and began publishing his long-running literary and political journal, Right Review. The first editorial stated, "It is our aim to show that the Divine Right of Kings is the sanest and best form of government, being in the last resort the only fount of power and consequently of human life. We intend to prove that such government is intensely beneficial to the whole human race, including the lowest races of mankind. In this way we hope to provide the Right Wing with a living ideology ... We are as much opposed to Capitalism, if by that term is meant Plutocracy, as any communist could be - but we are not opposed to capitalists so long as they function without damaging the interests of the whole State ... Neither do we consider Fascism as anything but a very bad form of government, being as it is based on demagogy, but we point out that it is a natural reaction, based on a thoroughly justifiable instinct of self-protection, whereby nations rid themselves of the socialist and communist plague ..." De Montalk's view was that “men are to be judged by their worth as members of the human race as a whole - by their beauty, breeding, wisdom and good will.” Nevertheless, he admired Sir Oswald Mosley and William Joyce (“Lord Haw Haw”),  the latter later hanged for treason for his wartime broadcasts to England from Germany.
In 1939 de Montalk, in a Rite of the Sun, crowned himself “Wladislas V, King of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia, Grand Duke of Lithuania, Silesia and the Ukraine, Hospodar of Moldavia, High Priest of the Sun.” When in 1940 he was arrested and jailed for two months on a trumped-up black-out offence, he registered his occupation as "King of Poland". De Montalk had remarried earlier that year, to Odile Morcamp, and of course wife No 2 listed herself as the "Queen of Poland". Odile, nonetheless, made certain she kept her maiden name, if indeed Morcamp it was. In 1957 she married Walter de Pomerai in Exeter.
To de Montalk's considerable credit, he was the first person in England to expose the 1940 Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish soldiers (including more or less the entire officer class of the Polish military) by the Soviet Union, which insisted that Katyn was a German war crime. Only under Gorbachev did Russia acknowledge the truth. On April 10, 2010, Polish president Lech Kaczyński died in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, while on the way to a commemorative service to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre. Commentators have since referred to the “Curse of Katyn”, pointing out that a significant portion of Poland’s military and civilian elite also went down in Kaczyński’s plane.
In April 1949 de Montalk settled in Provence, which would be his domicile for most of the rest of his life, apart from sojourns in New Zealand in later years. He lived in the Villa Vigoni, a beautiful old cottage surrounded by olive trees in the Draguignan countryside, bought for him for £100 by the Countess de Bioncourt. 
In 1959 de Montalk obtained a 100-year-old platen press and started The Mélissa Press. An admirer was Richard Aldington, who said his work was “the only answer to the lavatory-seat wipers of literature who naturally don’t recognise a poet and a gentleman when by chance they meet him.”  
Geoffrey de Montalk in 1984.
De Montalk returned to New Zealand in late 1983, after an absence of 56 years, and was given access to an old platen press at Victoria University. The Otago Daily Times described him as “vigorous, learned and cosmopolitan”, “an avowed royalist and an enemy of democracy”. It added that “he said he did not care about public opinion because the public were stupid.”
*The stunning Stephanie de Montalk is herself a New Zealand poet, novelist and biographer. Unquiet World: The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (2001), her biography of her cousin, is as much an account of an extraordinary life as a very personal memoir of the biographer's journey. Ruth Brown wrote in The Times Literary Supplement that "de Montalk succeeds in bringing her implausible relative to plausible life". Stephanie was educated at the Wellington Hospital School of Nursing and Victoria University. An engraving of her poem, "Violinist at the Edge of an Ice Field", was erected at the Franz Josef Glacier visitor centre, Waiau Village, in 2007. 

1 comment:

shordzi said...

Epic post Robert! Thank you!