Kevin Saving on
'Not Waving but Drowning'
by Stevie Smith
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Commencing in Hull, Florence Margaret Smith's - the 'Stevie' came later - is not a life in which much seems to have happened. She moved to number 1, Avondale Road, Palmers Green, North London, at the age of three and was to reside there for the rest of her life - supported and 'managed' by the formidable Madge Spear (her 'Lion Aunt') in a relationship which some have felt almost resembled a kind of marriage.
After completing her education at the North London Collegiate School (for girls) 'Stevie' - now nick-named after Steve Donaghue, a well-known jockey of the Twenties - became secretary/PA to Sir Neville Pearson, a director of the magazine publishing firm 'George Newnes Ltd.'. 'Frozen out' in an office power-struggle, Sir Neville's responsibilities were less than onerous (in consequence, neither were Stevie's). This could make her feel disengaged, but afforded her plenty of time for her writing. She would remain with this employer for upwards of thirty years (her employment records have subsequently gone missing).
'Not Waving but Drowning' was first published in a collection bearing the same title (Andre Deutch, 1957). Its author claimed that the original idea came from a newspaper story - though a similar (fortunately non-lethal) experience had occurred to her Newnes Ltd acquaintance, the Times journalist George Buchanan (1904-1989). The anecdote is recounted in his (1959) autobiography, Green Sea Coast.
Smith wrote in April, 1953, to her friend, the editor Kay Dick: 'I felt too low for words (eh??) last weekend but worked it all off for all that in a poem...called 'Not Waving but Drowning'. Her optimistic forecast proved inaccurate. Increasingly isolative, by turns apathetic and tetchy, Stevie slashed one of her wrists with a pair of office scissors after a trivial argument with her boss (July 1st). After a period of three weeks spent almost entirely in bed, she confided to Dick 'I am a nervous wreck, it appears also anaemic'. A short holiday in Haversfordwest was followed by a communication from Newnes Ltd to the effect that as from December she was 'retired' from the company. It all appears to have been settled quite amicably and she soon found work as a reviewer. Her natural tendency towards depression may have been exacerbated by her steady failure to place her poetry in anything other than Punch. Although by this time she'd had four collections (and three novels) published, new rejection-slips from the T.L.S., New Statesman, Spectator and the Listener may have made her feel that her writing career was 'flat-lining'.
In point of fact, the last ten years of Stevie's life were, in critical terms, her most successful - the 'Beat' generation lending a belated, sympathetic ear to her 'off-beat' voice. She would survive her 96 year old aunt by only three years, dying of a brain tumour, the complications from which - most cruelly for her- caused progressive aphasia (complete linguistic 'melt-down').
Barbera, J. & McBrien, W. [Eds.], Me Again: Uncollected Writing of Stevie Smith, Virago (1981)
Smith, S., The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, Allen Lane (1975)
Spalding, F., Stevie Smith, A Critical Biography, Fabers (1988)
Kevin Saving © 2009