Stevie Smith's Ashes
The ashes of Florence Margaret Smith, more famously known as Stevie Smith,
were scattered at Torquay Crematorium in Devon on 13th March 1971
following her death at Ashburton Hospital on 7th March. Torquay is
far away from the London suburb of
where she lived and wrote all her life, but its setting on the Devon coast fits
with Stevie's love of the sea and with her best known poem,' Not Waving but
Stevie knew Devon from visits to her sister who lived near the Roman Catholic Buckfast Abbey after she retired as a teacher. Stevie’s sister, who was a Catholic, would have liked to have buried Stevie at Buckfast Abbey, but as Stevie's will specified cremation this was out of the question and Torquay was the nearest crematorium. A burial at Buckfast Abbey would have given a more significant focus for those who would like to pay tribute to her memory, but it would have been remarkably confusing. Although she was tempted, Stevie made a conscious decision when she was young not to follow the many intellectuals who joined the Catholic Church in the 1920s. She later voiced many doubts about Christianity and so scattering her ashes in a place without a specific religious connotation should be right, and yet there seems something incomplete about it. After her death her friends wondered whether it was appropriate to hold a memorial service in a church, but in the end a memorial service was held in St Matthew's Church, London.
Torquay is a sea-side resort on ‘the English Riviera’ and in January 2008 I spent a weekend there and of course visited Torquay Crematorium. This is to the north of Torquay and overlooks the Devon countryside. I wanted to take flowers, and wondered what would be appropriate; a standard tasteful florist arrangement didn’t seem right for Stevie.
At the time I was reading Me Again, The Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith and I found a review, written by Stevie for the Observer in 1968, of a collection of poems by women called Without Adam: The Femina Anthology of Poetry. Stevie found the title ‘awkward’ and quotes disapprovingly from the foreword: ‘in order to please everyone, a good armful of flowers (which is after all what an anthology means) should include not only tall lilies and perfect roses but some simple and pungent field flowers as well.’ Stevie comments: 'perhaps as a pungent field flower I might observe that 20 lines have been cut from one of my poems, without the fact being mentioned or permission asked. Awkward.'
It was awkward, in the middle of January, to find any pungent flowers of the field; there were naturally no sunny dandelions or splendid spear thistles anywhere so I had to resort to the florist. I chose some bright gerberas that looked like brilliantly overgrown daisies and some large glossy leaves that brought thoughts of jungle foliage into my mind. They were included on the grounds that a number of Stevie’s poems featured a jungle, including ‘The Jungle Husband' , featured a jungle.
Stevie’s ashes were scattered somewhere on the lawn behind the Crematorium, there is no record of exactly where. When I read Stevie’s writing, I often find it difficult to know where Stevie stands; she flits between contradictions, as when she calls on the god in whom she does not believe, and now it seems that in death as in life, no one can pin her down to one position.
The only focus on the sloping lawn was a large tree, and so I placed the flowers at the base. The tree trunk was forked, so the tree was in two separate halves with interlacing branches. There were, I thought, always two sides to Stevie: she was serious and silly, compassionate and cruel, religious and agnostic, childlike and cynical. We tend to feel that people should be one thing or another, but character traits that we usually think should belong to different people were united in Stevie. Her poems often expressed this tension, and to confuse us further, things are often not what they seem. For instance, as the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, said on unveiling a Blue Plaque at Palmers Green, it’s difficult to know how serious she was, how naive, how falsely naive, how artful.
Her friend Helen Fowler recalled driving to the cremation at ‘the Crematorium at Torquay of all places, how Stevie would have laughed –the Shangri-la of the Midlands, she called it once.’( from Stevie –a Biography’ Barbera J, McBrien W,). Stevie’s mocking laughter can’t be taken at face value though, she laughed at her aunt in Novel on Yellow Paper; her aunt was annoyed until people pointed out how much affection there was in her portrayal. Stevie also mocked and loved the very ordinary suburb of Palmers Green, and in her poem, ‘Suburb’, invested the mundane streets with a deathly significance. In another poem she devoutly linked God and manure:
‘Mother among the dustbins and the manure
I feel the measure of my humanity, an allure
As of the presence of God, I am sure'
As for ending up at the Crematorium, she would no doubt have laughed, it’s not exactly Westminster Abbey after all, but she would have had the power to see beyond the bunches of flowers wilting on the lawn to the mysteries of death and her atoms moving into the leaves of grass and trees. Stevie, if she had come to Torquay in life, would have enjoyed having tea at one of the big hotels; she loved having tea at the Ritz in London and after her death her friends met there to remember her.
There is a small building near the Crematorium lawn which houses the Books of
Remembrance. An entry for 13th March 1971 reads:
Florence Margaret (Stevie) Smith
Poet aged 68 years. Beloved sister of Molly Ward Smith
For anyone would like to visit there are directions to the Torquay Crematorium on the Torbay Council web pages. Just after the entrance to the cemetery and crematorium grounds there is a small office and the staff will direct you to the place where Stevie’s ashes were scattered. Remember though to ask for Florence Margaret Smith, as Stevie Smith will draw a blank on their computers. If you want to leave flowers, you can either place them, unwrapped, on the lawn as I did, or, if you prefer, in vases in the building which houses the books of remembrance, where they will be kept for a week.
After we left the Crematorium we had lunch at the Imperial Hotel and enjoyed the panoramic view over Torbay where the wintry sea was being infused with squalls of sharp drizzle. In the warmth and opulence of the hotel Torquay seemed to us, even though we don’t come from the Midlands, to be the next best thing to ‘Shangri-La’.
Photos - The lawn where Stevie's ashes are scattered - the flowers - my sister and I on the front at Torquay
I would like to thank my husband, Dave, for taking the photographs and also for not grumbling at being taken to Torquay crematorium on his birthday.
The books referred to are: Stevie, a Biography of Stevie Smith by Jack Barbera and William McBrien, published by William Heinmann Ltd in 1985 and now out of print, Me Again, Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, published by Virago Press in 1981. These books are available secondhand.
If you aren't familiar with Stevie Smith’s poems give yourself a treat and buy 'The Collected Poems & Drawings of Stevie Smith' which was published in hardback by Faber and Faber in 2015, edited and with an introduction by Will May. As a second best, previous editions of Smith's collected poems are available second hand and as a very third best ‘Selected Poems’ is also available in paperback.
If you want to quote from my work for essays or course work you are welcome to do so as long as you attribute the work to Anne Bryan and this web site. Stevie Smith's work may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of the Stevie Smith Estate who may be contacted at Faber and Faber
Follow the links to find out more about Stevie Smith:
Stevie Smith Biography - a short account of Stevie's life and work.
Stevie Smith's Suburb - Palmers Green, North London and how it features in Stevie's work
Stevie Smith’s Connections - an exploration of Stevie’s connections to her contemporary writers, with a quick look at Stevie's possible influence on today's poets.
Childe Rolandine - this poem is considered together with Robert Browning’s famous poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.'
'The Jungle Husband' - this dark poem about a jungle which is green on top is explored.
The Frog Prince - a dive into a deceptively simple poem with hidden depths.
Smiths suburban cats NEW an introduction to three of Smith's suburban cat poems: 'Tidzal', 'The Singing Cat' and 'My Cat Major'.
Stevie's religious poems are explored in the light of the religious ideas of the time and the relevance of her poems today is considered
Stevie Smith Festival at Palmer’s Green - an account of a memorable poetry reading in the streets of Palmers Green to celebrate the centenary of Stevie Smith’s birth, with thoughts on the poems which were read.
Stevie and music - musical adaptations of Stevie's work
Stevie's Blue plaque: an account of the unveiling of a blue plaque at Stevie Smith's house in Palmers Green, London, on 16th September 2005 by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.
Remembering Stevie at Torquay - where her ashes were scattered
Stevie Smith links to other sites which feature her work.
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