Saturday 22 June 2013

Old Possum and the limbs of Satan

Yesterday I blogged about a chance discovery - a typescript letter from T. S. Eliot to his close friend Geoffrey Tandy.

Who was Geoffrey Tandy? His debut appearance in Volume II of Eliot's letters merits only the barest footnote: '1900-1965, botanist, worked at the Natural History Museum, London'. In fact the Eliot connection, while intriguing, is the least of it as I discovered late last year, when I spent two days in the Museum looking through their substantial Tandy archive in connection with my researches into W. H. Auden's brief career in documentary film. Tandy provided the spoken commentary for The Way to the Sea, a 1939 production which included an Auden commentary.  More on this later. 

I remember my mixed feelings when I picking up a thick manilla file unpromisingly labelled 'Algae Correspondence and Papers'. 

To my surprise it turned out to be a wonderful collection of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, broadcasting scripts, poetry and files of newspaper cuttings about Samuel Pepys, yachts, freemasonry and cats, all Tandy passions. 

Geoffrey Tandy 

Born in Chaddesley Corbett, a small village in Worcestershire where his parents kept a pub, he won a scholarship to Kidderminster Grammar School and then became an Usher at the Cathedral School in Salisbury, until he was called up in 1918, joining the Royal Field Artillery, where he eventually gained a commission as a Second Lieutenant. Thanks to a serviceman's grant Tandy took a degree in Forestry at Oxford and married Doris May Ellis (known as Polly) in 1923. By the age of 25 he was employed as Assistant Keeper of Botany at the Museum of Natural History in South Kensington, post that brought with it a respectable salary and a certain social status.  It was around this time he became friends with Eliot and Stephen Spender. His interest had moved on from Forestry to Marine Biology and in 1928 he undertook an exhibition to the Great Barrier Reef,. In the summers of 1931 and 1933 he joined an expedition to Loggerhead Key in The Dry Tortugas, a group of tiny islands in the Gulf of Mexico where he studied the fauna and flora of the reefs and recorded seeing 'with considerable if not very comprehensible pleasure, the arching roots of mangroves again.' 

In The Listener (20th September 1933) Tandy describes the region:

[T]hese islands are nothing better than wind- and wave- driven heaps of very porous loose sand, no more than ten or twelve feet above high water mark. Therefore there is no permanent fresh water unless you have roof to collect the rain and tanks to store it in. There are such things there to- day, but they weren’t there when the islands were named.

Was there a link between Tandy’s expeditions to this comfortless location and Eliot’s choice of title for The Dry Salvages, ('presumably les trois sauvages'). Perhaps some casual conversation contributed to the composition of Four Quartets, or indeed to Sweeney Agonistes with its cannibal island and bamboo trees. A photograph of Tandy the explorer accompanies a January 1932 Natural History Magazine article and shows him bare-chested in baggy shorts, holding aloft a large barracuda. He is exceptionally tall and skinny, with a modest beard. The beard would become more ambitious as he grew older. 

Eliot liked to make chortling references to his friend's nautical tendencies and in a letter dated 1st November 1927 to the printer and publisher Richard Cobden-Sanderson, a friend of both Eliot and Tandy, he labours an extended maritime metaphor:

[...] I was signalled this afternoon (about 6 Bells) by a Vessell named the Tandy, master one Tandy A.B., and  arranged to lay along side Chiswick Wharf one evening next week, on the understanding that you and Mrs Cobden-Sanderson were likely to cross the bar Later in the Evening. I have arranged to arrive from the Continent  in time for Supper or a shade sooner by Seaplane; so you may hear my engines.

Chiswick Wharf was near the Tandy family home and headquarters of the London Corinthian Sailing Club, of which Tandy was Honorary Secretary in the 1930s. 'A. B.' presumably stands for Able Boatman. A keen sailing enthusiast, Tandy was part-owner of a boat called Aquilla and would throughout his life regard himself as a 'Navy Man'. 

Eliot became a regular guest of the family (now with two young children, Richard and Alison with a third, Anthea, born in 1935), and in 1934 he wrote to Doris:

I only hope that I may be asked again: I have certain gifts as a guest which I like to exhibit; making beds, sweeping, bathing dishes, and cooking corned beef hash.

Tandy enjoyed a measure of celebrity in the 1930s and makes an appearance in a Radio Times article of 19 January 1939 entitled 'Masters of the Microphone'. The piece is illustrated by an impressive double-page photomontage of the foremost broadcasters of the day, assembled in the grand foyer of Broadcasting House. Tandy’s tall and now heavily-bearded figure can be glimpsed in the background, in the illustrious and exclusively male company of, among others, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Winston Churchill and H. G. Wells.

He was a talented performer, giving the first ever wireless reading of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats on the BBC programme The Children's Hour on Christmas Day, 1937, two years before it was first published. And this is another intriguing link. 

A Practical Cat?

Eliot would sometimes recite the latest Old Possum verses when visiting a later Tandy family residence, Hope Cottage in Hampton-on-Thames. The book’s co-dedicatee was his god-daughter 'Miss Alison Tandy'. As we have seen Tandy père and Eliot shared a love of cats, and the Natural History Museum archive contains a large selection of cute feline snapshots, snipped from the pages of The Daily Sketch (see above). Did Eliot, in an amiable mood after Sunday lunch, riffle through these pictures and take them as a prompt to create Skimbleshanks, Macavity, Old Deuteronomy and the rest of the Practical Cats?

The archive includes an undated typescript note from Eliot to Tandy (on Criterion-headed notepaper) and here it is in full. 

With best wishes for Pentecost.

How’s the fat girl with the eye shade? And how about a glass of the inwariable on Wednesday next? Usual time and place. 

With regards to Pollylorum and the limbs of Satan, and love to the licensee.

The ecclesiastical greeting and bleakly jocular tone are characteristic. The fat girl with the eyeshade remains unidentified - perhaps a colleague or researcher at the Natural History Museum? The usual rendezvous for 'a glass of the inwariable' (i.e. sherry) was Gordon’s Wine Bar, a sepulchral dive in the shadows of Charing Cross Station, still in business today. 'Pollylorum' was Eliot's pet name for Tandy’s wife Doris, (a name that had a particular attraction for Eliot, who used it in The Waste Land, Sweeney Erect, Sweeney Agonistes and the third of Doris's Dream Songs, which became Part III of The Hollow Men). The 'limbs of Satan' are their innocent daughters Anthea and Alison and 'the licensee' is Tandy himself. The note is unsigned, but concludes with a flourish - a confident pencil drawing of a  Prufrock-like gent smoking a large cigar and wearing a piratical eye-patch. Another Eliot drawing can be found in a first edition of Old Possum’s book of Practical Cats inscribed to Geoffrey Tandy - a lively caricature of the bearded dedicatee in his Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve uniform. 

Eliot was particularly fond of Polly ('My dear Polligal', 'Ole Ma Tandy', 'Pollitandy') and, in a letter dated Ash Wednesday 1936, does his best to cheer her up during a difficult phase in her marriage, adopting the guise of a Hollywood tough guy:

If you needs any sistance to keep the Ole Man peaceable you say the word, sister, say the word, and I’ll be along with a mighty powerful monkey-wrench I got handy.

Income from book reviews and BBC broadcasts supplemented Tandy’s museum salary but his finances tended to be shaky. He contributed a Broadcasting Chronicle to Eliot's Criterion Eliot took a keen interest in his friend’s fortunes, and arranged a Faber commission for a natural history book aimed at young readers. This never materialised and Eliot  was mildly exasperated in an undated letter to Polly:

Furthermore, while the broadcasting is all very well, for the meagre sums paid by that corporation do help to keep the kettles boiling; and this book would do more for his reputation, and so for his pocket in the long run.

Eliot recommended his friend to the producer Donald Taylor at Strand Films and Geoffrey Tandy is credited as one of the two commentators on The Way to the Sea, the 1936 Strand production which features a verse commentary by Auden and a score by Benjamin Britten (who described Tandy in a diary entry as resembling 'a stage bug-hunter'). Tandy has a slight Worcestershire accent and his brisk enunciation of Auden's verses is perfectly-judged for this subversive exercise in documentary. His delivery suggests a reined-in sense of anarchic humour that contributes greatly to the film’s success. It was the encounter with Auden in the documentary film movement that led to Tandy's appearance in Letters from Iceland.

Perhaps dazzled by such illustrious company Tandy became increasingly bored and unhappy in his career at the Museum, despite promotion to the post Head Curator of Botany. An undated archive typescript of random quotations and jumbled lines of letters and numbers includes the lines:

          Natural History is a comic subject
          I do not know why we pursue it at all.

Eliot, no doubt remembering his time working in the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyd’s Bank, recognised his friend’s frustration, writing to Polly about his 'grasping at activities at the BBC which could not lead to anything, but which seemed to provide an outlet of some kind'.

A very different outlet came with the outbreak of the Second World War. Tandy’s special interest in peace time was in cryptogaphy, the study of certain classes of plant life such as algae, ferns, lichens and mosses which have no apparent means of reproduction - the word’s Greek roots mean 'hidden or secret marriage'. Somebody in authority at the War Office confused Tandy’s specialism with that of cryptography, (i.e. deciphering codes, or cryptograms) and he was posted to Bletchley Park. headquarters of the top-secret team, led by Alan Turing, dedicated to breaking the Nazi’s complex Enigma code. Lieutenant-Commander Tandy, RNVR, was appointed head of Naval Section VI in Block D and known, not too respectfully, as 'Admiral' Tandy by his colleagues.

That at least is the story circulated for many years and is is one which Tandy’s son Miles, who has researched his father’s life in thoughtful detail, remains sceptical about. In conversation recently he confirmed his view the cryptog(r)amme story is no more than an engagingly donnish yarn put about by the inmates at Bletchley park following his father’s arrival. Tandy was no expert on codes, although he was an accomplished linguist and his research skills were also of great value. But Tandy’s moment came in a breathtaking example of serendipity.

An abandoned German U-boat had been investigated by Royal Navy divers who salvaged a pulpy, waterlogged copy of an Enigma codebook. This was rushed straight to Bletchley Park. What was needed, and urgently, was an expert in the handling of saturated organic matter recovered from the seabed. Cometh the hour . . .

Thanks to Tandy’s expert intervention and access to specialist absorbent paper, the leaves of the U-boat’s codebook were quickly made available for examination by the code-breakers. It is now widely accepted by historians that cracking the Enigma code brought the end of the war materially closer, perhaps by as much as two years.

Tandy continued working in intelligence gathering and interpretation after the war. His private life became more complicated and he found a return to civilian life both personally and professionally difficult. A 1950 letter from Eliot to Polly refers to Tandy’s 'mental-physical-spiritual' breakdown, which in the poet’s view had its roots ten years earlier, during the war. Eliot was always a thoughtful and generous godfather, later setting up a formal covenant for Anthea Tandy using some of his substantial earnings from The Cocktail Party (1949).

In 1946 Tandy started a new family with Maire MacDermott, and they had five children together - daughters Genista (now Baroness McIntosh), Francesca, Nicola, Ann (now Jessica) and a son, Miles. Miles has written with great insight and understanding about his father in A Life in Translation: Biography and the Life of Geoffrey Tandy, to which I am greatly indebted.

All quotations from Eliot's correspondence are © The Estate of T. S. Eliot
Images © Hulton Getty; Faber and Faber; Google Images


  1. Great article! His is a really fascinating story - is Miles Tandy's biography available anywhere?

  2. Thank you for this very interesting and thorough article. I am one of Geoffrey's grandchildren, and I would like to make one correction: he in fact had five children with my Grandmother; apart from Miles and Genista (Baroness McIntosh), there were also Francesca, Nicola and Ann (now Jessica), my Mother.

    1. Many thanks for this correction and clarification. Apologies for a belated acknowledgement. I have amended the text. All good wishes, DC

  3. Hi there, I just came on this fascinating piece when looking into my late mother's family history.

    She (Hanna Gottfried) was fostered by the Tandy's in the early part of WW2, having come from Vienna in late 1938, and while her mother worked as a domestic in London. I remember her talking of Polly and Alison at least.

    I would love to dig a little deeper; is there perhaps some way you can help me get in contact with Miles or any other of Geoffrey's grandchildren?

    Best wishes,