Delius by Eric Fenby

I’m not a filmmaker but occasionally I’ll read a book that I can picture so well I’m tempted to rush out, buy a camera and enrol in film school. I’d actually started thinking about how to turn this story into a viable screenplay when I found out that David Mitchell had just used the entire tale as one section of his highly ambitious book Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s book was brilliant but, I was sure, totally un-filmable. I was so convinced they’d never make it that I was still wondering what budget I’d need to do justice to Eric Fenby’s story of how he turned up on the doorstep of an ageing, half-paralysed, blind, genius composer and offered to be his amanuensis. Don’t worry, I had to look that word up too. In short it means someone who takes dictation of an artistic nature.

So Eric arrives at the door of the increasingly mad Delius whose heyday as a classical composer is far behind him. Now Eric could come across as a stalker-fan; he’s already written a few gushing letters to Delius about the impact his music has had on his life. Delius has replied, impressed by his young fan’s knowledge of classical music and signs off with a phrase like “Please drop in if you’re in the area”. Eric takes this as a solid invitation and makes the trip from Yorkshire in England to the small village of Grez-sur-loing in France where Delius lives with his wife and a male nurse. Upon arrival Eric describes Grez-sur-loing as there being “no place duller on earth” which coming from a boy from Scarborough is damnation indeed. He’s given a small room on the upper floor and endures the same hardships as the rest of the occupants of the house. Eric wakes up one morning to find that the water in his bedroom wash-basin has frozen solid. His stay here will be neither physically nor mentally comfortable.

Delius had been very successful in his younger days and was considered one of England’s finest classical composers of the same stature as Elgar (who appears in the book) and Britten. His declining health due to syphilis had a disastrous effect not only on his physical but also his mental well-being. The phrase “a difficult man” would be a vast understatement and Eric must have been a saint to put up with his rambling, raging and torrents of abuse that could explode at any moment during any one of their sessions in the music room with the glass roof. Somehow Eric managed to coax some truly exceptional pieces of music out of Delius at a time of his life when he was consumed with self-pity and believed he was finished.

I suspect that Kate Bush read this book as her song “Delius” on the “Never for ever” album is not only suitably pastoral, mirroring Delius, but also includes spoken-word straight from the pages of Eric Fenby’s remarkable little story, which also happens to be true. It’s written in a style completely devoid of ego and is a testament to selfless commitment and to the fact that in some, the artistic drive never diminishes.

Out of print for a long time, Delius by Eric Fenby is now once more available. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell was made into a film starring Tom Hanks and Natalie Portman among others but I’m sorry to say that it proved me right. It’s totally un-watchable…apart from the Delius section.

Barton Hartshorn

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