Postcards from Bohemia: Laura Riding’s bold plan to stop time

I’m enjoying Virginia Nicholson’s book, Among The Bohemians, with its tales of bohemian experiments in living at the beginning of the 20th century. I particularly enjoyed David Garnett’s account of the strange love triangle between the poet Robert Graves, his mistress the poet Laura Riding, and the young poet Geoffrey Phibbs:

Laura Riding took [Geoffrey Phibbs] as her lover and drove him all the way from Hammersmith to the Burlington Arcade in a taxi where she bought him an immensely expensive pair of black silk pyjamas for him to wear in bed with her. She had the bill sent to Robert Graves. He had been sent providentially to help in the great work. Laura Riding had everything planned out. And her plan was to shake the Universe itself.

…One day, quite unexpectedly, Geoffrey Phibbs sent me a telegram saying that he was coming to stay with me at Hilton Hall. He wanted advice…

I spent almost all the time of his visit discussing the predicament in which he found himself and his future and giving him advice. The trouble was that he was scared of Laura Riding. She had told him, as a great secret, that she was going to stop TIME, and that his help was necessary for this operation. Stopping time was carried out in bed. Robert was all right in bed and she loved him and admired him – but he had proved no good as a time-stopper. [Geoffrey] discovered that she really believed that with the assistance of this vigorous new young lover she was going to break the frame of the universe. What was more, she was dead nuts on doing it.

‘Time has been going on long enough’, she would say earnestly. ‘We can break through and stop it. Not just move about in it as Donne has shown is possible, but smash it up altogether.’ She expected him to do his share of the work. No shirking was allowed. She had a timetable.

…Geoffrey had decided that on no account would he go back to live with Laura. It was not that he was afraid that she would be proved right and that he would suddenly find himself an Immortal. No. It was not the consequences that scared him but the process designed to bring it about. he could not and would not face it any longer…

Graves eventually tracks Geoffrey down to Hilton Hall. There were flurries of telegrams.

‘Will never return to Laura.’

‘Laura cannot live without you. Robert.’

‘Absolutely refuse to return to Laura. Geoffrey.’

‘Am coming to fetch you. Matter of life and death. Robert.’

Graves eventually hired a car and drove to Hilton to fetch him. Geoffrey departed with him ‘but within twenty-four hours he was back again, wild eyed and on the verge of an emotional collapse.

It reminds me of a story my mother told me, about her days as an English teacher. She had taught one of her students – a Brazilian lothario – how to compliment his English girlfriend by saying ‘you have a timeless beauty’. He came back the next lesson miffed at her reaction when he’d told her ‘your face would stop a clock’.



  • Nicky Mander says:

    A great anecdote. But it’s not “Donne”, surely, but John William Dunne, author of ‘An Experiment with Time’, etc., still in print in my day. His books are full of teasing theories, some reworked from Schopenhauer, such as that the future already exists and we must move to it; that eternity is already ours and dreams corroborate this; that there are infinite dimensions of time, whose dimensions are spatial (for example one time may be perpendicular to another): all much loved and often quoted by J.-L. Borges.

  • Thanks for a wonderful laugh! What self-absorbed arrivistes. ‘Time has been going on long enough’ … Shurely shome tautology here … Yep … it’s Dunne not Donne.

  • says:

    So how are you planning to surprise your kid at their next birthday.
    It was un-occupied children that caused the downfall of the
    Roman Empire, the Black Plague, both World Wars,
    Country and Western Music and the invention of the musical doorbell.
    And remember Air Hockey Tables are not just for kids.

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