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Biography

Mole with Ronald Duncan as a child

Ronald Duncan and his mother

Ronald Duncan (1914-1982) was born of Austro-German parents in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) in 1914. When World War One broke out Duncan was moved to South London with his mother and sister. His father was due to follow, but died of an illness before he could join them. As a boy Duncan holidayed in Welcombe, North Devon and aged 18 rented a cottage there with the hope of settling one day.

In 1933, Duncan went up to the University of Cambridge to read English under F.R. Leavis at Downing College. After graduating, he worked briefly in a mine near Chesterfield and became sympathetic with the strikers’ cause and the politics of peaceful protest. This led to him writing a pamphlet for the Peace Pledge Union in 1936, later published with a foreword by the pacifist leader Dick Sheppard. Such connections prompted an invitation to stay with Mahatma Gandhi in his ashram in India in 1937. On his way back the young traveller called in on Ezra Pound in Italy. The exiled poet became a long time friend, as did the British writer and hispanist Gerald Brenan. During the Second World War, Duncan ran a community farm near Bideford in North Devon.

Duncan's wife, Rose Marie, was an artist and their son and daughter were born during the war years. From 1937 his main home where was at West Mill, Welcombe, Duncan farmed, rode, fished, wrote, and welcomed friends from both near and far. These included luminaries such as Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Lord Harewood, Kathleen Ferrier, Virginia Maskell, Anna Proclemer, and Henry Williamson, a close neighbour who had himself farmed in Norfolk. During the 1960s, Duncan built himself a writing hut overlooking Welcombe Beach, which is still a local landmark and stopping point.

Duncan's last years were marred by a series of illnesses, and he died in hospital on 3 June 1982 at the age of 68; he was survived by his wife and two children. Some years prior to his death, he had established the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation for the purpose of overseeing the survival of his work and reputation.

Ronald Duncan is perhaps best known for his poem The Horse, and for preparing the libretto for Benjamin Britten's opera The Rape of Lucretia, (1946). He had an extremely productive literary career producing fiction, poetry, film scripts, plays, newspaper columns and autobiographies. Duncan wrote the film script for Girl on a Motorcycle (Jack Cardiff, 1968) and several plays including This Way to the Tomb (1946) and Abelard and Heloise (1961). Duncan also published the epic poem Man (five books, published as Man: The Complete Cantos, 1981). Three controversial autobiographies, All Men are Islands (1964), How to Make Enemies (1968) and Obsessed (1977), describe his relationships with contemporaries in literature and theatre, and his personal life.