What turned a Cornish country girl into a dangerous woman?

Scottish PENScottish PEN is the Scottish centre of PEN International, a worldwide organisation committed to promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. An important strand of PEN’s work is the support of women writers, so often marginalised. Scottish PEN has produced a revised version of its 100 Scottish Women Writers poster. Twelve writers from the poster will be featured as part of the Dangerous Women Project, in a contribution each month by a member of Scottish PEN.

by Deirdre Chapman


In this pack she is probably a wild card, and OK with that — even, arguably, pleased to be here, so long as she isn’t signing up to some sanctimonious sisterhood — the need to diverge being what first turned Cornish country girl Valda Trevlyn into the dangerous Valda Grieve.

Born and brought up in a straitened household of women on the Cornish coast, she arrived in London in her early twenties and, one evening in 1931, went with a boyfriend to what turned out to be a literary gathering in Henneky’s High Holborn bar, where she caught the eye of the Scottish poet Christopher Grieve, aka Hugh MacDiarmid, then living in London and emerging from the breakdown of his first marriage. A meeting, then, entirely fortuitous. But in an era of narrow possibilities for women and the malicious type-casting which that produced, to be artless was to be vulnerable.

Neither a groupie nor an aspiring creative talent, she found herself amongst some of the most fiercely combative, intellectual, radical and consciously bohemian writers and artists, their partners and their circle, that London could throw up.

As her relationship with Christopher deepened, her place in that circle would have had to be addressed, not least by herself. What was she exactly? Flame-haired. Curvaceous. Petite. Striking. Outwardly adventurous. And without the protection of a creative identity of her own. That she was by nature firmly monogamous and a fiercely talented embryonic nest-builder whose talent was about to be tested in some of the most godforsaken, bizarre and taxing locations in the British Isles was not yet an issue. At that time and in that place she would have found herself by turns befriended, belittled, patronised and ignored. Those last being unthinkable, she decided to became dangerous. And spent the rest of her life honing her technique.

Four hundred miles north of her London debut and more than a quarter of a century later, the impact of her personality still resonated in literary circles. In 1957, newly engaged to her son Michael, and a guest with him and his parents at an Edinburgh book event, I was taken aside by one of the caped and chignon-ed ladies of the Edinburgh literati. She lowered her voice and glanced over to where the Grieves were standing. ‘I have a message for you from Hedli MacNiece,’ she said. ‘Beware of Valda.’

That the wife of Louis MacNiece, poet and pivotal programme maker of the early BBC, should recall her own toothmarks sufficiently to send down the grapevine a warning to a stranger about to step into the lioness’s den was, and remains, remarkable. But already I had guessed that I should not look forward to a relaxing relationship with my future mother-in-law, who seemed programmed to cause scenes everywhere we went, and who faithfully repeated to me every acid remark she made about me to her friends.

Married, and thereafter inside the stockade she built around her family, there was only intermittent respite. Nonetheless we began a lasting close but edgy relationship, and in my role as wary but resigned sitting duck I now had a front-line view of the attacks she launched on fellow guests at every formal occasion and, more to the point, of her targets.

There were stand-out figures, certainly, and stand-out occasions. But from the broad sweep of strangers at any invitation event she would find someone, anyone, to unsettle or provoke. Gearing up for an evening out seemed to spark in her something akin to blood lust. It had to be assuaged and the person chosen to help with that might never know what had happened.

The bourgeois and the boring were favourite choices. She would pick on something they said, small talk, anything, or if they hadn’t yet spoken, some aspect of their appearance. Pomposity was another marker, also the whiff of bureaucracy. But, with a pattern seeming to emerge, she would drop everything and go for her favourite prey, eye-catching young women who looked unable or unprepared to fight back. These she used routinely for target practice. Then, with her victim upset or thoroughly confused, she could relax and enjoy her evening, a process often as dispassionate as it was automatic. It was her way.

Even her stand-out targets could be hard to get your head round, people she might be expected to applaud, compliment or thank. At an Edinburgh reception she emptied her wineglass over Ian Hamilton QC who simply continued his conversation. She heckled the painter Peter Westwater at the unveiling of his portrait of Christopher, and heckled again at the presentation to her husband of the Freedom of Cumbernauld.

When I asked why, her explanations were terse. He gave back The Stone (Ian Hamilton). He kept him late in the pub (Peter Westwater after Christopher’s ‘portrait sittings’). They didn’t appreciate who they were getting (Cumbernauld Town Council). A token protest usually seemed called for. Supplying these — but he stole it in the first place . . . he painted the portrait . . . they’ve just given him the freedom of their town — my efforts would be treated with the contempt they probably deserved. The dreary flatlands of rationality and balance held no charm for her. She lived in a different place. Christopher’s weary Now, Valda and Mike’s Now, Mum were the stock asides of bit-part players in her performances.

If this makes her sound a diva she would be shocked. In her head she was always fighting the fight of the under-dog. When times were tough she had been both Christopher’s protector and his promoter. Job done, times better, good things happening she could and did enjoy life to the full. But the enemy was always out there, only changing shape.

To begin to understand this you need only look at the course of her life once it had merged with Christopher’s. In 1932, pregnant with Michael, she left London with him for a cottage in Sussex rented to them by his friend Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk, pretender to the Polish throne, a man who dressed in a scarlet cloak and drove a pony and trap, and who was then doing time in Wormwood Scrubs for his translations of Rabelais and his own poem John Penis, a historic sentence under the Obscene Publications Act.

Valda had not seen a doctor. She had spent her last savings on the publication in pamphlet form of Christopher’s Second Hymn to Lenin. She expected to give birth ‘in a ditch like the mill girls’, an idea implanted by Christopher. When, late in her pregnancy, a local GP told her that that was not an option, the local hospital was already full, and so Mike was born in a private nursing home, from where, after a prolonged stay due to complications, she fled through the window with her baby under her arm to be met by Christopher, already being pursued for debts as well as for harbouring a Breton nationalist wanted by the police. Catching their breath in London they left on a seventeen-hour overnight bus journey for Edinburgh.

After a sojourn in a dank and isolated cottage near Longniddry, the poet, suffragette and nationalist Helen Cruickshank pointed them to the small Shetland island of Whalsay where a doctor friend of hers agreed they could stay with him, allowing Christopher peace to write while Valda acted as his housekeeper. By the time they arrived, however, the doctor had married. He no longer needed a housekeeper. So they found a place of their own and stayed on there for ten years, Christopher writing furiously while Valda cut peats and learned Fairisle knitting to help eke out their subsistence on a diet of seagulls’ eggs collected from the cliffs, mackerel discarded by the fishermen, and porridge made from the sack of oatmeal in the corner from which Valda had sifted the mouse droppings. That MI5 should send an undercover officer to Whalsay to check out Christopher as a threat to national security from his nationalism, his communism, or both, threatens to over-egg the family pudding.

Back on the mainland they finally settled, in 1951, at Brownsbank Cottage on a hillside near Biggar, offered rent-free by the farmer, and to the end of their long lives achieved, by degrees, a happy and tranquil domesticity.

If feeling different from other people is a root cause of fractious behaviour, then Valda had surely drawn the get out of jail free card. Since throwing in her lot with Christopher twenty years earlier she had had no say in where they were to live, and nor for that matter did he. Benefactors, well-wishers and admirers plotted the course of their lives, pointing them here and there.

They were beholden. Valda was always deeply conscious of who their truest friends were, the people to whom they owed their eventual arrival on the sunny uplands of recognition, peace of mind and financial security. These people were her tribe, inviolate, as were the many close friends she made along he way. That left everyone else. Out on the plains where those others roamed, perhaps she sniffed the air and felt her old instincts stirring.

In a time before arts subsidies they lived, until pensionable, on the earnings of Christopher’s writing – his long poems, his difficult prose, talks and occasional commissions. He had created a new literary Scots and worked it into the lyrics that had launched the Scottish literary renaissance, while becoming, politically, a mainspring of the nationalist movement. An oeuvre, in cash terms, calculated to positively invite the wolf to the door.

But Valda was at her best in challenging conditions. At Brownsbank, at first without plumbing or electricity, she created an offbeat sanctuary, Left Bank meets sheep country. Cornish glass fishing floats dangled among vivid crocheted drapes, there were junk shop antiques and walls of books. Here she sawed logs, pickled onions, knitted socks, made sloe gin, slow-cooked stews, mixed henna and Nescafe to dye her hair in sunset colours, and every night went to bed sprayed with perfume, from choice Christian Dior’s Poison. By then well-read, confident, a figure in her own right with poems of her own published, she entertained writers, academics, publishers and political thinkers from every corner of the globe.

She ran Christopher’s life, booking rail tickets to London or Oxford, sending him off with clean pyjamas and glasses and enough money to see him through, recalling the times in the past when he had drunk away the proceeds of a lecture or a publication. He was the star, she was the manager, the roadie, the bodyguard.

Altogether she rewrote the job description of celebrity wife, hingeing as it does on retaining the husband. Fear of being supplanted certainly coloured her early behaviour. It also coloured her view of feminism – women all over the place, nowhere safe from them once the last men-only bars opened their doors. Literary groupies, real as well as imagined, hovered on the fringes of book events, a new invention, with drink flowing. These would be seen off crisply. Uncool but effective. She didn’t do cool. She knew her priorities.

She was a fun grandmother, doggedly subversive, pressing her grandsons to grow cannabis in our greenhouse so she could feed it experimentally to Brownsbank guests. Had that worked out she might have hit Category A on the danger scale. She had already cast a Cornish death spell on a friend who displeased her. When she heard (much later) he had died she slipped away from Christopher, she told me, to carry out the log-off ritual. He would not have approved.

Had she lived later she might have been a formidable lobbyist, though prone to going off-message. Earlier, or elsewhere, she would be manning barricades, rallying peasants, leading a bareback horse charge. When in 1952 Mike went to jail after losing his case as a conscientious objector to National Service, she petitioned Manny Shinwell, then Minister for Defence, to have him treated as a political prisoner. When he declined she went to a rally he was addressing and pelted him with rotten eggs.

Famous in her own lifetime, triumphantly, for none of the usual reasons, her reputation made strong men quake. At the Edinburgh Festival where the actor Tom Fleming was to give his virtuoso rendition of Christopher’s long poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, he saw Valda arrive.

Keep that bloody woman out of my sight, he told us, or I’ll forget every damn word.