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Paddy Fraser

G.S.Fraser: A Memoir

‘Like many Scotsmen, George had strong appetites and an even stronger sense of guilt about indulging them. Madeleine Redman described him... as a mixture of John Knox and Lord Byron — a too-extreme polarity, but one saw what she meant.’

This piece is made up of an edited series of excerpts from an unpublished memoir of the poet and critic G.S. Fraser by his widow, Paddy Fraser. I am grateful to her for the opportunity to bring the story to a wider audience. The piece is 18,000 words or about forty printed pages long.

You can read G.S.Fraser’s poem about Veronica Forrest-Thomson in this issue of Jacket.

— John Tranter, editor


When G.S. Fraser’s autobiography A Stranger and Afraid was published by Carcanet Press in 1983, reviewers were disappointed that the book ended in 1947 when he was 32. He had been awarded a Hodder and Stoughton Ex-Serviceman’s bursary, which required him to write a book of his choice, and he wrote this at the age of 35.
      If he had lived, he would have written about his years in London in the Fifties and his life as an academic in Leicester in the Sixties and Seventies. This book is an attempt to continue the story of his life from the point where he left it. It is not intended to be a formal biography, but simply recollections of G.S. Fraser as I knew him.
  There were large areas of his life: his childhood in Glasgow and Aberdeen, his university days in St Andrews, the War Years in Cairo and Eritrea, that I knew about only in fragmentary fashion from others and through that early autobiography. His life with me lasted another thirty-four years.
      A memoir of some sort is called for, I feel, because he was a poet and critic of some talent, writing in an interesting period of English literary history; his taste was for Yeats and Eliot, especially Yeats. He was in close touch with the poetry of his own time and encouraged many young poets to develop their talents; he was for a few years a kind of arbiter of taste in one part of the London literary scene. He was in a way, one of the last of the ‘men of letters’, earning his living for much of his life by writing. He had a brilliant mind, a complicated personality and varied gifts, not always used to the full. I may have been too close to him to see the picture clearly, but I have tried as far as possible to be honest and fair.

— Paddy Fraser

The Post-War Scene

London in 1946 was full of people back from the War: poets, writers, artists flocked back to their old haunts in Chelsea and Soho, and George delighted in it all. He had his gratuity to spend and plenty of well-earned leisure, after his six years in the Army. There were gatherings of poets every evening at favourite pubs, afternoon drinking clubs and parties.
      The Singhalese publisher and editor, M.J. Tambimuttu, was the hub around which many of the returning poets circled. His fine, carved, almost hawk-like features, flashing dark eyes and loud peremptory voice made you notice him at once. He was a commanding figure, though often the worse for drink, which made him quarrelsome. A formidable and brilliant publisher, Tambi could be childish, and stamped and swore when he couldn’t get his own way  Yet he had a sweet smile and could be gentle and charming. His favourite pub was the Hog in the Pound in Oxford Street, where he could be found most evenings from six-o-clock onwards.
      Pubs became almost like clubs at that time: certain people could always be found in certain pubs: Julian MacLaren Ross for example at the bar always standing in the same position, in The Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place. Anthony Powell’s portrait of X.J. Trapnel in Books Do Furnish A Room was modelled on MacLaren Ross, with his huge, black greatcoat (except that MacLaren Ross’s was camel-coloured), and the walking stick with the carved handle. The Wheatsheaf had a dark gloomy interior, decorated with tartans and photographs of actors, artists and writers of the Twenties and Thirties. The Fitzroy was another favourite haunt of Tambi’s; indeed it gave the name of Fitzrovia to that area of Soho, north of Oxford Street — Rathbone Place, Windmill Street, and to the South, Frith and Dean Streets. Tambi made occasional forays to Fitzrovia from his headquarters at The Hog in the Pound in Oxford Street, to The York Minster, known as The French Pub, in Dean Street. Here the very French, wax-moustached Gaston Berlemont kept a stern watch on drunken or quarrelsome customers; it was very popular with writers; it still is, I believe. Upstairs there was excellent French food. A small Italian restaurant, much favoured by the hard-up, was Fava’s in Greek Street, which served great plates of pasta for five shillings. BBC producers like Rayner Heppenstall, Douglas Cleverdon, W.R. Rodgers liked The George in Mortimer Street, known as The Gluepot. Here the questing free-lance writer might pick up a commission to write something for The Third Programme.

George Fraser

George Fraser

reading at the house of Christmas Humphries. Paddy Fraser is visible in the background with a siamese cat.

A distinguished lawyer and a judge of the Supreme Court, Christmas Humphries adopted Buddhism as a way of life at the age of eighteen and in 1926 founded the Buddhist Society, London.

      Those were prosperous days for The Third Programme. BBC producers, themselves often poets and creative writers, were able to put on imaginative features like Louis MacNeice’s The White Tower or the now famous Under Milk Wood, written by Dylan Thomas, urged on by Douglas Cleverdon, no doubt over lunch-time beers. Dylan was very unlike the stereotype of the young poet; he was a small tubby man, bulging out of his jacket, with round bewildered eyes, and an incongruous deep booming voice. George admired his gifts and maintained that, far from being a wild, undisciplined spirit, Dylan was a careful craftsman in verse, working hard on his drafts. It was known in Laugharne, where he lived, that he worked on his poems in his garden hut every morning until noon; then he would go to the pub with a morning’s work behind him.
      He himself fostered the wild, erratic genius image by getting drunk often and behaving outrageously; his tragic early death in America, from what the doctors called ‘an alcoholic shock to the brain’ was a final confirmation of the legend. A.J.P. Taylor’s autobiography underlines the image of the sexually ruthless Dylan, riding roughshod over other people’s lives; he also suggests that the poet altered words randomly to puzzle the critics. Understandable personal animus probably moved A.J.P. Taylor to write as he did (he had suffered enough from Dylan). He is an example, I think, of the life and legend obscuring the poetry. George, William Empson and others tried from time to time to right the balance and appraise the poetry.
      George maintained that whiskey-drinking in America killed Thomas, that he undertook those poetry-reading tours to pay overdue income tax (though the money rarely found its way home); that, if he had not soothed his fears with whiskey on those stressful tours, but stuck to weak English beer, he would have lived much longer. Who knows? George remembered him as a very funny man, telling long, elaborate stories in afternoon drinking clubs. He recalled one about Dylan travelling in a railway carriage during the War, with tall, impassive guardsmen sitting opposite, while he tremblingly undid the string of his packet of sandwiches, scarcely able to swallow for sheer self-consciousness.
      Another favourite lunch-time haunt was the Museum Tavern in Great Russell Street. There one met scholars like Ian Fletcher and Christine Brook-Rose, taking a break from working in The British Museum Library. I sometimes rushed up there to join them in my lunch-hour for a hurried drink and waited feverishly for buses to get me back to the office, guiltily overstaying my hour.
      The Chelsea pubs were rather off Tambi’s regular Soho/Oxford Street beat, but artists and writers who lived in Chelsea (in the days when it was still possible to live there on a small income) met regularly at The Anglesey, just off the Fulham Road. In summer one could sit outside at wooden tables and, strolling along there in the evening, one could be sure of seeing a known face — Bernard Spencer or Nicholas de Watteville, an old friend, who spent most of his waking hours at The Anglesey. Pinter’s play, Old Times describes just such a pub; I feel sure that Pinter himself, as an unknown young actor, might have been there. When the pubs shut at 3.00 p.m. in the afternoon, people continued their talk in small drinking clubs like The Marie Lloyd and The Mandrake.
      John Waller, a descendent of the poet Edmund Waller and a serious drinker, introduced George to these. He had been George’s superior officer in Cairo and before that I had known him as a notable figure in Oxford, editor of a lively magazine, Kingdom Come and author of two volumes of graceful verse. As a young man he was very handsome with a very fair skin and golden hair and conspicuous in a vast teddy-bear overcoat. In his autobiography George described his unusually handsome face as being ‘marred by certain lines of indecision — as if he found it hard to decide whether he was enjoying himself or not, and by the faintly fretful and abstract look that goes with the pursuit of pleasure’: there is a similar expression in some of the portraits of Rochester.’ Certainly John’s thoughts always seemed somewhere else; he did not listen much, but sparkled up when retailing the latest bit of gossip or telling one of his rambling stories. It is sad that he never developed his talents as poet or editor, though he did help George and J.C. Hall to edit the poems of Keith Douglas.
      On Sunday mornings The King’s Head and Eight Bells on the Chelsea Embankment was a regular meeting place. There you were allowed to take your beer outside where you could sit on a low stone wall by the Embankment Gardens. Those who had reviews in the Sunday papers boasted mildly, but in mock-modest fashion: ‘Seen my little piece in The Observer today?’ Peter Green, author of long scholarly novels about ancient Greece was usually there, and John Davenport, accompanied once, I remember, by a gaunt Malcolm Lowry. There was a good deal of literary gossip and mutual back-patting.
      But meanwhile George’s mother had cooked a delicious Sunday lunch. Anxiously at 1 o’clock I would urge him to leave. He was reluctant and always we were late. I did not realise until years later that this was a repetition of a pattern in the Sundays of his childhood, when his father, after a long walk, would stop on his way home for a drink, urged by his young son to get home in time for lunch.
      All this makes those immediate post-war years sound like one long round of drinking; in fact the beer was thin and weak and cheap, and was the occasion for meeting and talking; it was as though these writers and artists needed to get together, after being scattered during the War, to make contact with other minds, to tune in again, after exile, to what was being thought and written, and, one must be honest, to the latest gossip: ‘who’s in, who’s out.’ The pub may have meant home, England, for those who felt rootless after absence abroad; perhaps it was a continuation of male fellowship in the Forces, or a way of coping with restlessness and the difficulty of ‘settling down’.
      There were parties too, of course, often given by older, more distinguished figures. The first sign that George was mildly interested in me was when he took me to a party given by Roy Campbell. This large, loud-voiced famous South African poet rather alarmed me partly because I couldn’t understand a word he said and because of his strong accent, and partly because, whenever I saw him, which was always at parties, his speech was blurred by drink. Later I came to appreciate his geniality and kindness and the power of his poetry. That particular party was full of literary lions and George was in his element. I was abandoned, to my fury, but later, going home in the taxi, George, confident and elated, began to take notice of me as a person in my own right.
      Another party he took me to was the one the Empsons gave before they left for Peking. It was in the huge studio of their Hampstead flat. There were crowds of people and some famous names among them: Louis MacNeice and Hedli Anderson, Kathleen Raine, Janet Adam-Smith and her husband, Michael Roberts, and many more. The women tended to wear tight black sweaters and full dirndl skirts, which became a kind of uniform for parties in those days; hair was long to the shoulders or swept up on top, Edwardian-style.
      There was quite a lot of steady drinking, since the Empsons were generous and most people took bottles. Some got helplessly drunk, others mildly and amorously so, or simply talked loudly and excitedly at each other. It was all very new and strange to me, as was Tambi’s devastating frankness.
      Drink hadn’t figured much in my life; I’m not sure why; not principle I think, but lack of money or lack of interest. Nor did I drink much at Oxford, since I had very little money to spare, and the same was true of my friends. I had to get used to people being drunk, aggressively or amorously, and to a whole new vocabulary of swear words, especially Tambi’s, which generously interlarded his conversation, words we think little of now, but which had quite a lot of shock value then. Fortunately I was too interested in people to be censorious: after the first blenchings, I accepted it all. I admired in many ways the freedom, the recklessness, the lack of constraint, the not-counting-the-cost.
      These people were wildly generous, not taking too much thought for the morrow, not caring much about conventions or even good manners. I was, I think, still am, too self-controlled or repressed to enter wholeheartedly into this careless, carefree way of life. George was less inhibited and took easily to Bohemia. I tended to be a spectator at these parties; I am not a hearty drinker and I always remembered that I had to get up early the next day. I retain one vivid memory of that first Empson party when Hetta, William’s tall, handsome wife, wild like a Maenad, swept her guests out of the door late in the night, with a kitchen broom.
      George loved it all: the wine, the talk, the famous names, the freedom to do what he liked after the constrictions of army life. But there were tensions at home: his mother hated his coming home late at night after parties and pub sessions; there were scenes and tears. She had looked forward to his return after a long absence; she had been in a nervous overwrought state after her husband’s death and her health was not good. As so often happens, though they loved each other, they didn’t understand each other. Jean, George’s sister, knowing both so well, would soothe angry, hurt feelings; I kept prudently out of the way at these times.
      But I was delighted to be included in the pub and party gatherings: it was all new and exotic to me and very different from my staid daily life at The Board of Trade. It was in many ways an arduous social life, standing on one’s feet for hours at a time, drinking endless half pints of beer. At times I would ask plaintively when we were going to eat; I was hungry. ‘Here dear’, George would say, ‘have a sausage roll or some crisps’. When the pub closed Tambi would lead us to his favourite curry restaurant in Tottenham Court Road, not very clean, I remember, but by that time one had gone long past food and was longing for bed.
      There was much excitement in The Hog in the Pound when Lawrence Durrell arrived back from Cairo. He had already won a reputation as a poet and novelist with his first novel, The Black Book, published by the Obelisk Press in Paris, also as editor of Personal Landscapes, a very good anthology of Cairo poetry. George commented once on the suppleness and sparkle of Durrell’s prose in that early novel, the very strong natural vitality, ‘working itself into a consciously elaborate texture of style’, and on his gift for making an evening ‘magically entertaining’. He sounded a glamorous, attractive figure, with lots of love affairs behind him.
      That night he seemed a little flat and weary and bored with the company. He was a short, square, chunky man, with a round face, not handsome, but compact with energy. The truth is that he was a Mediterranean man; he had never liked England, and came back only reluctantly. He was probably depressed that evening by the shabbiness of post-war London, the drabness of people’s clothes, the weak beer. In later years we got to know him well and relished his dry sardonic comments delivered in a languid, light Noel Cowardish voice, which belied the sharpness of his wit.
      Many years later in 1965 we stayed with him and his wife, Claude, in Corfu on our way to Greece, where he was in his element, ‘biscuit-brown,’ George so described him, and ‘bouncily at home in the sea like a dolphin.’ Our days in Corfu were spent in swimming and sunbathing and the evenings in the nearby taverna, eating and drinking vast quantities of retsina. Larry would often round off the evening with a swim, claiming this to be a cure for hangovers. One evening as he and George swam far out into the bay, Larry said : ‘Why don’t we just go on swimming and never come back? Think what a service it would be to  literature!’
  Most of the people at the pub sessions were men, but there were a few women, and very striking, strong personalities they were too, well able to stand on their feet and drink beer for hours, as I too was learning to do. There was Helen Scott, graceful, slim, with a dancer’s body and long legs, black hair, piled up, almost Japanese-style; her features were strong, but delicate, ‘the Nefertiti profile’, as George called it in a poem written on her marriage to John Irwin; she had an air of distinction, of refined exoticism. She was then working as a secretary to Tambimuttu in that chaotic Poetry London office in Manchester Square. It was reported that one of her duties was washing Tambi’s back. He was fortunate too in Betty Jesse, another of his assistants, very striking-looking with strongly carved features and long black hair.

Poetry London: A bi-monthly which became the leading poetry magazine of the 1940s. It was conceived by a group of four, Dylan Thomas, James Meary Tambimuttu (1915-83), Anthony Dickins, and Keidrych Rhys, and edited by Tambimuttu, who had arrived in 1938 from Ceylon, almost penniless, and entered the literary London of Soho and Fitzrovia. The first issue appeared in Feb. 1939; Tambimuttu produced 15 numbers, and it was subsequently edited by Richard Marsh and Nicholas Moore. It published work by G. Barker, V. Watkins, G. Ewart, H. Pinter, C. Tomlinson, D. Gascoyne, L. Durrell, and many others. [Thanks to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Margaret Drabble and Oxford University Press, 1995]

      Tambi certainly needed help: he was a clever and courageous poetry publisher and had discovered and fostered many noted talents such as Kathleen Raine, David Gascoyne, Lawrence Durrell and Bernard Spencer. He had a nose for poetic talent; indeed there was a current myth that Tambi only had to put his hands on a manuscript to know if the poems were any good or not. Editions Poetry London, or P.L. as it was known, was the most adventurous publisher in London at that time. Poetry London Magazine with its famous lyrebird cover, by Ceri Richards, handsomely produced on thick paper, made many of the P.L. poets widely known.
      Over the years many of the Forties Poets have been inaccurately lumped together as ‘Apocalpytics’, though they were strongly individualistic and would themselves have rejected such a crude classification. The name arose through manifestos, published by Henry Treece in How I See Apocalypse and in an anthology called The White Horseman for which George wrote the introductory essay. Reacting against the impersonal, political poetry of some of the Thirties poets, the younger poets, growing up in an age of political upheaval, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler, rejected political commitment and chose a kind of romantic anarchism.
      The most interesting feature of the Apocalypse movement was the exploration of Surrealism, well-documented in David Gascoyne’s book on the subject, as a source of poetic inspiration and imagery. What George’s introduction did was to present a critique of Surrealism as offering ‘the riches of man’s submerged mind’ as material for poetry, but rejecting the idea that the sub-conscious could be a power in political and social life. Much of this was portentous and a little un-self-critical, and the poetry did not always match up to the high tone of the manifesto, but it was unfair to hang the label, ‘apocalyptic’ with all its suggestions of arrogant muddled thinking, round the necks of some of these poets for life. They were young and idealistic at the time and foolish perhaps, but many of them like David Gascoyne, Norman McCaig and Vernon Watkins went on to develop highly individual talents.
      The label certainly stuck to George: for many years afterwards conscientious chairmen, having looked him up in a reference book, would introduce him as ‘an apocalyptic poet’. The movement was, I suppose, part of a general move towards a kind of neo-Romanticism, anti-rationalism. Dylan Thomas’s poetry was another manifestation of this, and, though he had no connections with the group, he clearly had affinities with them. The movement was, I suppose, symptomatic of the emotional and cultural currents of the time; a flight from reason and the conscious mind to the sub-conscious, because of the lunacy and terror of war.
      Considering how much of Tambi’s time was spent in pubs, it was remarkable that so much was produced so efficiently; this must have been due to his hardworking staff: Helen, Betty and Nicholas, though the flair was Tambi’s. Of course, when P.L. became widely known, manuscripts poured in; many of them piled up in the office and were left to moulder for months or years, while aspiring poets wailed in the wilderness outside London. There were terrible tales of manuscripts left in taxis and lost forever, including one of William Empson’s with no copy.
      Tambi was a magnetic figure, genuinely so, since he attracted so many talented people round him; he was someone you could never ignore, and his strong insistent personality imposed itself on the company, whether he was sagely discussing poetry, or childishly quarrelling because he couldn’t get his own way. He went straight for what he wanted, especially girls, and if he was rebuffed, he flew into terrible rages. He hated the evening to end and always wanted to go on somewhere else — to a party or a night-club. Thinking of getting up early the next morning, I used to protest, but Tambi used to shout me down with a torrent of invective, liberally sprinkled with obscenities. These arguments always seemed to take place outside Tottenham Court Tube Station (probably because his curry restaurant was nearby).
      One night Ruth Speirs, the beautiful Latvian wife of John Speirs (John Speirs was an academic, a mediaevalist, and a disciple of Leavis) had spent the evening with us. Tambi wanted to take her home with him. ‘Please,’ she whispered, ‘tell him I’m going home with you and George.’ Tambi roared with rage at this and clearly didn’t believe a word of it. ‘You women,’ he bellowed, ‘you’re all in league together; you keep your legs tight shut like scissors.’ But there was no malice there; it was the rage of a child, deprived of an expected treat. He was the most generous and extravagant of men. One of the things he did that touched us deeply was to present us with a beautifully printed booklet of Epiuthalamia for our wedding; most of Tambi’s poets: among them, Bernard Spencer, Gavin Ewart, Nicholas Moore contributed, wishing us among other things:

A little touch of Bloomsbury in the air
And anniversaries thick as Tambi’s hair

It was the nicest wedding present anyone could have wished for.
      Tambi’s desire to prolong the evening often led us to night-clubs. The Caribbean or The Gargoyle. The Caribbean was in a sort of whitewashed cellar; it had a superb West-Indian band and one could just manage to dance on the tiny floor. The Gargoyle was half-smart and half-bohemian and more expensive. One evening when a group of us was sitting round a table Dylan Thomas, rather drunk, tiptoed past on tiny feet, went up to one of the party, a glamorous blonde, Tilly Parkes, chucked her under the chin, and murmured: ‘A fairy’, before tiptoeing stealthily away.
      Tilly was much courted in our circles: her glamour was instantly apparent and at parties the young men hovered round her like bees around a flower. It was hard to define the appeal: she was not conventionally beautiful: she had a small pug-like face, myopic green eyes (she was far too vain to wear spectacles), a short child-like body and very long slender legs. I think it was her fragile waif-like air, and most of all her hair, fine and golden, expertly bleached and cascading over her face like a curtain in Veronica Lake-style, that drew them. Richard March, a kindly middle-aged businessman, a partner in P.L., once told me how Tilly had infuriated him in Paris by keeping him waiting while she took a long time to dress for dinner. When finally they sat down at the restaurant table, she was very apologetic. Richard said: ‘I forgive you everything, if you will do just one thing for me: let down your hair.’ So the pins came out and down fell the gold cascade. Richard said : ‘It was worth the fret of waiting.’
      But Tilly was far from being a dumb blonde, though men liked to think she was. She often surprised her admirers by talking cleverly about the fashionable philosophers of the day like Sartre and Heidegger, or the latest Eliot play. For all her glamour, she was at heart a shrewd Staffordshire lass from Lichfield. She, like many of us, had struggled from grammar school to Oxford. Her voice had the merest trace of her origins: she always pronounced ‘one’ as ‘wan’. She was also surprisingly a very efficient civil servant. Like me she was an Assistant Principal at The Board of Trade; later she joined the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome. One of the most tedious jobs I ever did at The Board was to look after the narrow fabrics industry: ribbons, bootlaces, elastics etc — not the most exhilarating of fields to work in. I managed to move after some protests and Tilly took my place among the ribbons and elastics. We shared an office for a while. I was always deeply impressed by her daily transformation. She would arrive late looking crumpled and haggard after a late night, with straggly hair and bleary eyes. After her first cigarette, she would disappear into the cloak room, and about an hour later emerge perfectly made up with shining lipstick and coiled hair upswept, ready to face the day.
      We introduced Tilly to our friends and through us she met Nicholas de Watteville, with whom she had a brief affair, after wresting him ruthlessly from his then girl friend. Tilly was a good friend, but had no scruples about stealing your man, if she felt so inclined. I was one of the few women, I think, who liked her, but I would not have trusted her an inch in affairs of the heart. I liked her unconventionality, her unexpectedness, but I was wary of her sexual ruthlessness. For her, friendships and love affairs were kept in separate compartments. She was one of the many ‘liberated’ young women about at the time. Philip Larkin wrote:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three.

but John Mortimer notes in his autobiography that the Sixties, reputed to be ‘the decade in which young people enjoyed going to bed together’ did not differ noticeably from ‘the Forties or Fifties or the swinging 1410s.’
      Early in 1946 at the time when George and I were being drawn to each other, he met Anne Electra Sprague, a nineteen-year old poet and rather a good one. She was in a desperate state, trying to find her lover who had seduced her at the age of sixteen, lived with her for a few years and then abandoned her. She was very unhappy and dragged George on wild fruitless journeys all over the West country in search of the lover, borrowing large sums of money which came out of his gratuity. I think it was her youth, her vulnerability and her undoubted poetic talent which attracted him.
      I was jealous of her certainly and maddened by all those futile, exhausting and expensive journeys. I was also puzzled by the attraction she held for him. It couldn’t have been a physical one, or perhaps it was. How can one understand the appeal of one’s own sex? She was plumpish with lank hair and a pasty complexion, not very clean, scruffily dressed — very unappetising, I thought. She had though something of the pathos of a lost travel-stained child; she appealed to protective instincts. I remember George’s mother, always warm and sympathetic to those in trouble, murmuring: ‘Puir wee thing’, as she gave her a bath. If Anne Electra wanted anything she demanded it in the direct way children sometimes have. I had a white silk scarf, given me by my brother who was in the Navy; she demanded it and, in the end, under pressure, I sulkily gave in. She had a strong will and a desire to dominate, and half an hour in her company left one exhausted and drained by the relentless egoism. Yet George was fascinated and I was angry and hurt. In the end she seemed to vanish from the scene, perhaps on another fruitless chase. I heard later that her first husband had died and that she had married again and gone to The Falkland Islands. She had a doomed air, as if nothing would go right for her; her very name had an echo of Greek tragedy.

Our friendships grew and ripened: many of our friends were women, whose company, I think George enjoyed more than that of men: with men he enjoyed writer’s talk, with women he was relaxed, could charm them and talk about anything. Among our Bloomsbury friends were Norma Shebbeare and Mu Ziar, two beautiful sisters, but strikingly different from each other. Norma had a delicate fine-boned beauty with fair reddish hair; Mu had a charming, almost oriental pussy-cat face, with dark, sleek hair. Norma was an actress and had worked with The Old Vic, but, bored with walk-on parts, she was trying to get a foothold elsewhere. Her deep, throaty voice often belied the comicality of her mimicry. There was a tender innocence about Norma, a beguiling absurdity, a delightful frankness. Her clothes were a mixture of garments that seemed to have come from theatrical wardrobes: lace collars, velvet bodices, frilly petticoats, yet all combining to produce a Norma-ish style about them.
      She lived at the top of Number 12 Great Ormond Street, where there was a distinct smell of cats on the staircases; below her lived Roger Senhouse, whose eccentricity I saw lovingly recalled in Arthur Marshall’s autobiography; on the ground floor Sybil Wingate, sister of General Orde Wingate, had a flat. She was then a Senior Civil Servant, brisk and staccato in manner, crisp in judgement and a ruthless talker. She was extremely knowledgeable, ‘very able’, as they say in the Civil Service, but rather daunting too. I was a little alarmed by her at first, but later nerved myself to argue with her.
      Sibyl was at that time a Labour Councillor for Holborn, very left-wing, denouncing furiously the lies and deceptions of the capitalist press. Yet there was about her the air of an old-fashioned gentlewoman, distinguished and elegant: one of her enthusiasms was Nineteenth Century poetry, another collecting epitaphs from tombstones. Her family were Plymouth Brethren, and this had turned her into a fierce agnostic. Once when she was staying with us, she came into the kitchen when I was cooking, and said challengingly: ‘Do you believe in God And if so, why?’. Years later a government security officer came to check on her reliability, as she was being moved to a job where she would have access to secret state papers. ‘Do you think she would be capable of betraying her country?’ he asked. ‘No’, we said simultaneously; we were so sure. I suppose that no one can be really sure, but Sybil had an old-fashioned stern sense of morality and patriotism, which would never have allowed her to turn against her country. Meetings with Sybil were fierce and argumentative, but never dull.
      Another friend we made at this time was Biddy Crozier; she had always an air of great distinction and fastidiousness; tall and thin, with large burning eyes, she had a look of being expensively dressed, even in times of penury. She had not had an easy life, but she had always been generous in feeding and housing people, ready to give one delicious simple suppers in her Hampstead flat, crammed with books and paintings. She was especially generous to poets like W.S. Graham and David Gascoyne in hard times, and occasionally put Tambi up for the night, though this required some ‘fending off’ measures. Whatever money or food she had, she would share; also she was tolerant of the anarchic behaviour of some poets.
      She had been an actress and had taught in the drama school, run by Michel Saint-Denis at The Old Vic. Her voice is soft and deep with an occasional high, cracked note at moments of protest. She read and brooded over philosophical problems; her mind was subtle, but her judgements were sometimes uncertain.
      George loved philosophical talk and playing around with ideas: it was a secret vice: he bought books on logic secretly and hid them, in case he should be accused of extravagance. When I remarked on his mental stamina in reading books on logic late at night in bed; he said: ‘Well, you see, I have such a muddled mind; this may help it to become clearer.’ I have a very unphilosophical mind and often became impatient with the discussions George and Biddy had, though I did share their enthusiasm for poetry. [....]
      Kathleen Raine we met through the Empsons. She lived in a charming small house in Paulton’s Square just next to Beaufort Street. She had been a great beauty in her Cambridge days in the Twenties and most of the brilliant young men of those days had been in love with her. She continues to be beautiful in her eighties: ‘good bones’, as they say, a firm chin, fine eyes, and an expression of calm and serenity, though one that John Davenport said mockingly was ‘hard-won’. Hard-won or not, it was impressive. Her voice is soft and lulling, deceptively so, since some of her judgements can be sharp and dismissive. She is an excellent cook and made wonderful apple pies. I admired her greatly, though I was not so much at ease with her as I am now. I was very much aware of her scholarly distinction, of her monumental book on Blake, which she was working on when we first met, of her reputation as a poet; I tended to take a back seat when George and she were discussing Heidegger or Martin Buber or Blake. I listened, but inwardly rebelled when the talk moved to a round dismissal of the modern world or of contemporary poetry.
      She had little time for young poets, since they had, in her view, lost touch with ‘The Perennial Philosophy’, the ‘great tradition’ descending from Blake through Shelley, Coleridge and Yeats; for her the young poets were too much part of present-day materialist society. I suppose that, at the heart of my disagreement with her views, was, on my part, a practical sense that we have to make the best of the world we’ve got, with all its imperfections, and that looking back idealistically to a golden age is unprofitable. I found some of her views romantically out of key with the present: she once said at a dinner party at her house, to the astonishment of two American guests: ‘The only thing to be is a peasant or an aristocrat, and I for my part am a peasant, brought up running barefoot in a Cumberland village.’ The poet, Hilary Corke, who was there, said: ‘And I for my part am an aristocrat; I come from an old Worcestershire family.’
   I found this hard to take: ‘And I’, I blurted out, ‘am thoroughly middle-class; my father was a schoolmaster in a Leeds Grammar School.’ Kathleen’s father was also a schoolmaster, in Ilford. Her loathing of Ilford and of the class from which she partly comes, as well as her love of country life and pride in her mother’s Scottish ancestry are expressed with great strength of feeling in the first volume of her autobiography, Farewell Happy Fields. But in spite of disagreements, I liked and admired Kathleen, and still do. I never could resist her brilliant smile.
      Looking back I realise now how many beautiful and distinguished women we knew, women with powerful personalities, fine minds. George’s early image of himself as a clumsy, shy person, unable to talk winningly to girls, amusingly portrayed in an early poem, ‘Social Pleasures’, disappeared; he began to enjoy the game of sexual attraction. There was a great deal of kissing and hugging among our friends; ‘Old Chelsea Custom’, George would say. And yet I think it was innocent, an uninhibited childlike enjoyment of beauty and a warmth of feeling. In an early poem, ‘A letter to Nicholas Moore’ he writes of

Greed’s shy gaze for the expensive treat
Of beauty excellent in bone and blood

As a conventional new wife, I was at first taken aback by these Chelsea customs, but came to accept them as a sort of game, something that could not touch our true feeling for each other.
      I could, I suppose, have felt overshadowed by the high-powered women we knew and become a mouse-like adjunct to my talented husband, but I think a Yorkshire toughness saved me, an independent ‘I’m-as-good-as-the-next-one’ attitude (I was born and brought up in Yorkshire and retain some of my countrymen’s pride and self-esteem). I learned quickly, picked up current ideas, ways of looking at things, without, I hope, losing my individuality. Also I was never shy. I had been to a grammar school in Leeds, which gave me enough education to get to Oxford, and somehow I had acquired a kind of confidence which helped me to adjust to different kinds of people, and certainly this was useful in adapting to the wilder shores of London literary life. Luckily too, I was fairly unshockable and tolerated various and sometimes strange kinds of human behaviour.
      I do not think I came into the category of the intellectual women George admired: indeed Biddy Crozier remarked, on hearing of our engagement: ‘I’m glad, George, you’re not marrying an intellectual,’ which rankled a little. Physically I was the type he admired, tall and fairly slim, though one has to admit that he was also very much attracted to small, delicate Asiatic women. Mentally I had qualities he respected: I was intelligent, quick, clear-thinking, practical, able to cope with those complexities of everyday life which baffled him. He often marvelled at my ability, one which most women have, to do several things at once. For him, making breakfast meant a series of actions, performed one after the other; making the toast, the tea, laying the table, and not always in the right order.
      I think one of the reasons why our marriage lasted was a mutual respect: each of us knew the other had quite different and enviable qualities, and each admired and supported the other. George opened my mind to new ideas, new writers, a whole new world of people and of experiences. For my part, I organised the practical side of our lives: income tax, paying the bills, decorating, planning holidays, tasks, which were easy for me, but which for him would have meant hours of work.
      To return to our London friends: [....] William and Hetta Empson remained our friends ever since those early days before we were married. Sadly, since I first began writing this book, William died, in the Spring of 1984 and Hetta died a year or two ago. He is captured well in the poem George wrote for his fiftieth birthday; this was written when William had the beard of an oriental sage, growing in a strange way from beneath his chin:

The enormous room is crowded, the wine is red:
The extraordinary luminous eyes in the backcast head
Of this institution, epithet, sage, joke
As famous as Pepsodent or Basic English
Confront their own world over our heads with a tinglish
Coiling shock. He is an electric eel
From whom our soft fat flounder thoughts rebound:
He stirs up his own air his own sea
Of lithe prehensile ambiguity
Where in the deeper waters the light changes
Over sunk words like hidden mountain ranges
To what, to our eyes seems opacity:
But his fanbeard of a Japanese luckgod reaches
Out of that sea to proliferate on our beaches
In a popping tangle of fruitful misapprehension:
“Oh to be sure, to be sure’. Now that you mention...”
The mind is a vortex, thoughts have their own round
In a wilder and wittier than Highland reel,
Splutter and flutter with a Bengal match’s rage.

He taught us thinking is a kind of feel
And how to read and wonderfully misread, a page!
But who has plumbed the poet’s narrow sound?

The images of the electric eel and the popping tangle of seaweed convey something of the speed and surprisingness of William’s mind. George had admired William’s poetry for a long time and had written several critical articles about it, explaining some of the obscurities and showing its great technical skill. He had been nourished on Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral, which he regarded as products of a great mind; indeed he thought of William as a great man; he admired the subtle sinuosities of his thinking and his crisp, staccato prose style. George could make the mental leaps necessary in following William’s conversation, which assumed that you knew all the detail and background of what he was talking about, and that therefore there was no need to dwell boringly on these, but it was more interesting to dart ahead to the next point. I got lost completely on these occasions, but George could follow William’s trail, like a good hound, the fox.
      William liked George and encouraged his critical writing, but wouldn’t acknowledge that his poems after the war years were any good. ‘The best poems you wrote, George,’ he would say, ‘were when you were the scruffiest private in the British Army. But don’t delude yourself that you can still keep it up.’ It was all sharp, but good-humoured; he once made a paper dart of a poem that George had written and threw it across the room. At moments like this they were near to quarrelling; (Hetta once said to George: ‘You might be William’s younger brother.’)William’s last volume was published in 1940 and after that he seemed to have stopped writing poems; I think that in some subconscious way, he liked to think that George had too. But it was a long-lasting master-disciple relationship, surviving occasional flare-ups of resentment on George’s side.

William Empson

William Empson

Photo copyright © the Master and Fellows,
Magdalene College, Cambridge, courtesy the Pepys Library, Magdalene College

      I think he was in tune with William’s mind: he wrote once in an essay that Empson’s great gift was ‘to exploit in his poems the concessive/aggressive hesitancies of English syntax — like “Not but...”, as in his prose writing and conversation ‘To be sure’......’ (I admit that it’s obvious, but it’s irrelevant to what we’re talking about, though I can see your sly reasons for bringing it up;) or ‘Of course......’ (I am asserting that everybody accepts this, because I know they don’t.) I’m banging down a jack on the table, with the assurance that it will make everybody agree it was an ace.’ A subtle translation, this, of William’s methods of conducting an argument.
      He shared Hetta’s left-wing views and both loved and admired China, but there was something seigniorial about him: one didn’t forget that there were family estates in Yorkshire and that he was descended from that famous, but unlucky Richard Empson, who was executed by Henry VIII. I was surprised once to hear him dismiss haughtily a girl his son was paying attention to, as unsuitable: ‘She has not dot.’ (dowry).
      On the other hand William was totally unpretentious and extremely austere in his living arrangements. I remember visiting him with George when he was Professor of English at Sheffield and was living in a decrepit basement flat, with unshaded electric light bulbs and no bathroom, only a stone sink. The roof leaked and the upstairs tenants had left, but William resided comfortably in his basement, knowing that there were several floors between him and the rain. I think he was unaware of physical discomfort, or regarded it as not worth bothering about. There was a toughness about him which made him make light of illnesses most of us would make a fuss about. I remember when he had operations for cancer and for a slipped retina and sailed through them with a remarkable absence of self-pity. He told us afterwards, without a trace of resentment and with some glee that, after all he had endured, the surgeon pronounced the growth to be non-cancerous.
      Under the gruff exterior William was a kind man, always ready to help young writers: he made several attempts when George came out of the Army to get him a job at London University and at the BBC which didn’t, alas, succeed. Later when he retired from Sheffield, he urged George to apply for the Professorship in English there, promising to back his application. He turned to me and said: ‘The thing is do you want to go to Sheffield?’ ‘Of course’, I said, ‘if George wants to go, I’d be happy to go too. After all I do come from Yorkshire.’ ‘Good,’ he said, ‘that’s most important, that you should want to go too.’ That touched me greatly.
      He loved to play the eccentric, but not the teddy-bearish kind; he could be formidable, but kind. We called on him once with two American friends, Sam and Liz Hynes. After drinks in his favourite Hampstead pub, he insisted on taking us back to Studio House, to make his special soup. Hetta was away. We watched fascinated as he flung into a pan the contents of the fridge and any bits and pieces lying around; cheese, sausage, old vegetables, plus the contents of several tins. It was a delicious soup.
      Hetta is impossible to describe: large-boned, half-way between a powerful Greek goddess and one of the large cats, tigerish, I suppose is the word, something fierce, even frightening at times, combined with a lithe strength. But this is too feline an image, too smooth; Hetta had a tremendous directness, a brutal frankness, a don’t-give-a-damn attitude, which was surprising and refreshing: it was this, I believe, that attracted William from their earliest meeting. Brought up, as I had been in a rather repressed family atmosphere, I had never encountered anyone like Hetta before: she was so much herself, so totally unconventional. Once she seized me in her arms and threw me like a doll up to the ceiling; I was terrified. I think she realised that she would not fit happily into the circle of faculty wives in Sheffield and wisely kept on the family home in Hampstead.
      George quotes in his autobiography some perceptive remarks, made by Tom Scott, Scottish poet and academic, on first meeting William Empson: ‘I suppose he is the most intensely intellectual person I have met, with just a touch of puckish, childish sentimentality about him. His degree of introversion was another surprise; I had imagined he would be rather arrogant and socially poised; instead he has humility, is pedantic, keenly observant of people, intellectually precise, athletic-looking and erudite. He is a born scholar, of complete integrity and really what he is.’
      George goes on to say that Tom does not bring out William’s sprightliness, especially noticeable when he read his own poems aloud: ‘with his head on one side, cocking it up a little with an alert and pleased look when he came, every three lines or so, to some pungent equivocation; and with his legs astride, swaying to rest his weight now on this foot, now on that, to mark the broad movement of the rhythm. His gaiety, his physical enjoyment of his own verses become a positive quality; one was no longer aware of his obscurities as hampering of the total intention of the poem.’ That is a very exact description of Empson reading his poems, and I like the word ‘gaiety’: at his most provocative, William was gleeful, outrageous, daring you to disagree.
      If I spend much of this book describing friendships, it is because they were a part of the framework of our London life. One friendship often led to another: through Charles Monteith of Fabers we came to know Richard Murphy and his wife, Patricia Avis. Richard looked a poet: tall, thin-faced, melancholy, with a dark lock of hair over his forehead and an attractive touch of Irish in his voice. Through him we found ourselves dining one night in Soho, with Harold Nicholson. I listened hard to this voice from another age: here was someone who had seen Proust plain, always dining at the same table at his favourite restaurant in Paris. And then Virginia Woolf: ‘She was such fun,’ he said, ‘our children jumped for joy when they knew she was coming to stay. I feel so cross with Leonard for the way he’s edited her journal. They make her seem so sad, always moping over reviews of her books. Not like that at all.’
      The ‘Cairo connection’ grew: we got to know well Ruth Speirs, wife of the medievalist, John Speirs, who had spent much of the War teaching in Cairo; both were part of the Cairo group of poets: Bernard Spencer, Lawrence Durrell, Terence Tiller and others, cast up there by the War. Ruth had a delicate beauty, not unlike Vivien Leigh’s — small, pointed face, black hair, blue eyes. She was Latvian by birth and an excellent linguist; her fine translations of Rilke were much admired and were published in literary magazines, but she was bitterly frustrated by the fact that J.B. Leishmann held the copyright, which prevented their being published in book form. Finally she abandoned Rilke and turned to translating modern Latvian poetry, which sold out in Latvia a few days after publication, as though they satisfied some hunger for poetry. Britain, it seems to me is the only nation that doesn’t value poets, even though we have produced so many great ones: whereas Latvians, Spaniards, Japanese, almost any other nation in the world revere and honour their poets; perhaps in England this only happens when poets die.
      Ruth lived in a flat in Muswell Hill, furnished with solid, beautifully-made furniture, brought as part of her dowry from Latvia. There she entertained generously the group of friends, known jokingly as ‘The Old Chums League’. We brought wine and Ruth provided a huge dish of corned beef and beans and vegetables, ‘nourishing stew’, I think a friend called it. Looking back on those days when none of us had much money, I am surprised at how many good parties we had and how much we enjoyed simple food and cheap wine. [....]


We settled happily into Great Ormond Street, our lives following much the same pattern as before: I, working at The Board of Trade, George gradually building up his reputation as a reviewer and broadcaster. His early training as a reporter on The Aberdeen Press and Journal proved invaluable: he had an enviable ability to write at any time, to any length, any deadline, in any state; even if he was ill or hung-over, he could turn in his copy on time, always perfectly typed; he could write late at night, or early in the morning, often sitting in a dressing-gown in an icy room, without tea or coffee, oblivious of comfort or surroundings. The arrival of parcels of books to review delighted him; he would immediately begin to dip and sample. Often I used to think that writing reviews was probably a way of avoiding writing a full-length book, just as a woman will seize on any easy household task to postpone something really difficult. But his reviews had a freshness, a sense of enjoyment that came from that gleeful pouncing on a new book.
      Poetry, as he said many years later, had always been the ruling passion of his life: he was interested simply in any poetry that was being written, published or unpublished; he was like a kindly schoolmaster, encouraging bright, but wayward pupils; he was always looking for something good and never enjoyed writing about inferior work. It was sometimes said that he was too kind, not critical enough; he could be sharp about technical laziness, but he wanted to foster talent, when there were signs of it. Kathleen Raine said to me after his death that he had made some bad poets less bad.
      In an interview recorded two years before his death, he was asked what made a good poetry reviewer? How could one detect good poems? How did he rate poetry-reviewing today? He replied jokingly that writing a review was, in a way, like writing a poem: it had to be of a certain length, convey certain information and have an eye-catching beginning and end. He felt that a reviewer had to have a sense of the totality of poetry in the English language; he had to be catholic in his tastes: a narrow view was, he felt, a weakness of many critics, who could approve only of particular kinds of poetry. He disliked the simplified ‘broad mesh’ writing of some critics, who rarely quoted or analysed poems; literary editors seemed not to favour close analysis.
      As to spotting great poetry, he instanced a stanza of Philip Larkin’s ‘Church-Going’, which he unhesitatingly pronounced great. When asked how one can be sure of such things, he replied; ‘One knows simply; if one has devoted a lifetime to poetry, one is sure, just as any antique dealer of many years experience can place and distinguish a genuine from a fake antique.’
      He belonged to no ‘school’ or group and was never influenced by fashions in poetry: he would praise one group like ‘The Movement’ and admire poets they despised like Dylan Thomas. He did not think of reviews as showcases for displaying the author’s wit or learning; for this reason he approved of the then anonymity of The Times Literary Supplement, because he felt it made showing off unnecessary — why display your ego when no one knows who you are? He felt that unsigned reviews were fairer, since no one would hit below the belt anonymously. I’m not sure of this: I think the TLS reviewers could be quite malicious in a polite TLS kind of way.
      Perhaps I make him sound too bland: he was generous and tolerant, but he did have blind spots: one was the poetry of Ted Hughes. Other poets tried to persuade him of Hughes’s undoubted ability, but there was something in that poet’s dark view of life that he rejected, perhaps was afraid of. In a recorded interview he talks of Hughes’s ‘chunking snorting horses’ in a joky way.
      He had a streak of malice, of sharpness, never apparent in his writings, but which showed itself occasionally in conversation: in the same interview he remarks tartly that poets don’t much like to hear other poets praised. There was a teasing quality in his occasionally malicious remarks, but it did not mitigate the sting; sometimes he would remind one of past foolishness or occasions of embarrassment that one would rather have forgotten. Sometimes he could be surprisingly blunt and tactless, perhaps passing on some unwelcome bit of information. We argued often about this: ‘But it was the truth,’ he would say. ‘Yes, I know, but unnecessary truth. Why tell it if it hurts?’ ‘Yes, but why hide the truth?’
      Certainly he was utterly truthful himself and there may have been a moral basis to this urge, but there was also a touch of spite. He was ‘snail-horn’ sensitive himself, easily hurt and quick to take offence. But mixed with this spikiness was rare generosity and kindness of an unstinting kind. Throughout his life he was constantly sent poems by aspiring poets and asked for criticism; no other profession is asked, I think, to give its services for nothing. He had no half-way house: either he wrote a long, detailed critique, sometimes re-writing the poems which he was always tempted to do, or he didn’t answer at all.
      It was not easy for young poets to get into print at that time. George with Ian Fletcher rashly offered to edit an anthology of verse by young poets, called Springtime, published by Peter Owen in 1953. They advertised in the literary weeklies and the Sunday papers inviting contributions: poems arrived in hundreds, huge bundles daily: they filled several suitcases. It was an arduous task: I remember Ian and George sitting surrounded by over-flowing suitcases, making piles labelled ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘possible’. The resulting anthology was a creditable effort and included some good poets, who seem to have sunk without trace, and others like Norman McCaig, Edwin Morgan, Donald Davie and Philip Larkin who were then beginning to make their way.
      In 1956 he edited for Faber another anthology of young poets, Poetry Now. Reviewing poetry was one way of supporting his family and encouraging young poets was what he wanted to do, but there is no doubt that his own poetry suffered; he said many years later: ‘The energy that went into the appreciation of other people’s poetry made me more doubtful about my own.’

George Fraser

George Fraser

probably taken at a student party
some time in the 1970s.

One poet among our friends who was not very good, but who had once managed to get published just the same was John Gawsworth. John deserves a place in any book about this period because of his extravagant eccentricity; it was this and not his poetry that made him notable. His real name was Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong and he claimed to be descended from the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Mary Fytton. Indeed he claimed to be many things and to have many loyalties; he acted out roles and the life of his imaginings was more real to him than his actual life. He claimed to be a Sinn Feiner, an Indian Nationalist, a French Republican, a Chevalier of the Bey of Tunis and a loyal Jacobite, bent on restoring the Stuart kings to the throne of England.
      George met him when John was an Aircraftsman in the RAF in Cairo during the War. His appearance was strange, but striking: lean, scruffy, broken-nosed, mottled with drink and with sparse hair. Nevertheless he managed to fascinate a number of women in his life; he had three wives, all attractive, interesting women, beguiled no doubt by the romantic roles he played. His greatest pride was in his title, King Juan of Redonda, a barren rocky island in the Caribbean, left to him by the novelist, M.P. Shiel. John took his kingly duties seriously and issued periodic honours lists. To receive an honour you had to have done something for M.P. Shiel or for John, though services to Shiel counted for more. George did not receive an honour until by chance the TLS sent him a volume of M.P. Shiel’s short stories to review, whereupon he became the Duke of Neruda.
      John carried off all this nonsense with a kind of humorous panache, almost daring one to challenge the absurdity of it all. His speech was full of rhetorical flourishes, indeed almost like monologues from imitation Jacobean drama; one had to play along or retire from the scene, bored: dialogue or conversation were impossible, you simply had to let the cascades of orotund nonsense pour over your head. George enjoyed eccentricity, the more absurd the better; I was less tolerant.
      John had a strange precarious life, arriving on the London literary scene at sixteen in the Twenties and being taken up by popular writers of the day; M.P. Shiel, Arthur Machin, Edgar Jepson (now forgotten names). He had a great reverence for the poets of the Nineties, especially Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson. When quite young he had been awarded The Benson Medal for Poetry and went on writing in the style of the Georgians all his life. He was a copious writer, dashing off verses, very often on the wet surfaces of pub tables. In the last week of his life he wrote to say that he had written 150 verses in the hospital ward where he lay dying. His loyalties were strong — for friends and for those poets he approved of. (I noted recently from a memoir by Ian Fletcher that John published Lawrence Durrell’s first collection of poems when he ran a small private press in the Thirties.) Equally he expected friends and allies to lend him support; he could be very demanding and usually required one’s sole undivided attention. Those who were not with him were against him. As Ian Fletcher says in his memoir ‘he conducted his life as if it were an enemy; the enemy was named and differently at different times.’
      Ian and George worked together to edit John’s Collected Poems. Any criticism was met with a roar of ‘Judases and Trimmers’. The poets he admired, Swinburne, Lionel Johnson, were referred to as ‘the Giant Race’, contemporary poets as ‘the foul tide of modernism’. Claiming a mixed descent from the Jacobites, from the Irish rebels of 1798 and from the French Canadians who defied General Wolfe, he loathed ‘the English’, though he probably had more English blood in him than any other kind. Ian recalls in his memoir grotesque episodes: John summoned to the pub by an airgun shot from the house opposite, John, wearing a sword and challenging Ian to a duel, John keeping Shiel’s ashes on the mantelpiece, tapping it smartly at times and saying ‘Sorry Shiel’. Once, I believe they were accidentally spilled in the seat of a taxi. He gave us for a wedding present a luridly purple-bound volume of his erotic verses, called The Flesh of Cyprus, with very ninetyish illustrations and an inscription which read: ‘None of that stuff on page 92’.
      We were invited to one of his wedding parties in a decrepit flat in Notting Hill; the bride looked worn and patient (I felt she would need the patience.) I remembered it particularly for the presence of Nina Hamnet, a notable artist of the Twenties, by then old and down on her luck, but still drawing with marvellous skill. She was taken with my youngest daughter, Katie, then a rather striking three-year-old, and began to draw her. Katie wriggled; Nina fixed a glittering eye on her and said: ‘I’m a witch; I can cast spells on little girls, so be still.’
      John’s career was very chequered and his finances were precarious  for many years. He had worked on odd journalistic jobs on the fringes of Fleet Street, for papers like The Irish Digest, which, I imagine, was a relation of The Readers’ Digest. For a year or two he edited The Poetry Review following Muriel Spark; after his abrupt dismissal his friends, out of loyalty, refused to contribute to the magazine. He was a very scholarly bibliographer, with a remarkable flair for collecting valuable first editions; when really desperate he would sell some of these to stave off poverty.
      By the early Sixties he was living a ramshackle life, moving from one shabby lodging to another, often homeless, borrowing where he could, though he always repaid debts scrupulously when he had the money and was always ready to lend money when he had it. Aware of John’s wretched state some friends persuaded Ian to set up a fund, so that John could be found a lodging and thereby have an address, which would enable him to draw social security. A letter in The Times drew attention to his plight and there was a good response — about £800 was collected. As a consequence John then promptly went to stay with Ian in Reading. It must have been a sore trial: however fond you were of him, John could be a wearing guest. Also he regarded the £800 as his to spend on drink, while Ian was trying to keep it intact in order to set John up in a flat. There were constant requests for ‘loans’, ‘just £25 old boy to tide me over,’ and many furious altercations; John often referring to Ian as ‘the embezzler of Reading.’
      Long after we had left London and moved to Leicester John erupted suddenly into our lives: George and I were going off to our evening jobs, George to take a poetry class at Vaughan College, I to my evening stint at the Community College where I worked. As we were about to get into the car, a taxi drew up and a wild figure in a long, stained raincoat emerged, waving a whiskey bottle. It was John. What should we do? George bravely took him along to his poetry class, where, far from being shocked, the ladies in the class were enthralled by this wild Villonesque version of the ‘poéte maudit’. John pulled himself together and recited reams of French poetry by heart. When they returned he was still fulminating about ‘that Judas, that embezzler who has stolen all my money.’ (Ian) It seemed that he had taken a taxi all the way from Reading to Leicester, casting off (for the time being) his benefactor forever, but that night he drank himself to a standstill and suddenly said: ‘Don’t want any more whiskey; just want to go to bed.’ And he did. John had an ulcer and was diabetic; for a fortnight I fed him on milk puddings and steamed fish. Our kindly GP, Dr Millard, said: ‘keep him off the drink if you can, but don’t refuse it.’ Our son, George, then aged about 15, had often seen people mildly drunk at parties, but was alarmed and repelled by John’s extreme drunkenness. But gradually, as he lay in bed, sober, he exerted his very considerable charm and won the boy over with his talk.
   The sad postscript to this story was that the almost dried-out and recovered Gawsworth was lured back to London by the BBC, who wanted to make a film about him, his haunts, his friends, people like Anna Wickham, Kate O’Brien, Walter de la Mare, and a very good film it turned out to be, but at a cost. The BBC men drove him about London in a van with a case of champagne in the back, giving him enough (as they hoped) to make him, talk, but not enough to make him incapable; so he was back on the drink again.
      During the making of the film, George and I were asked to a lunch at the Café Royal to celebrate the publication of one of Lawrence Durrell’s novels. It was a stiff affair with Durrell surrounded by smart young Faber editors in dark suits and white shirts. Suddenly the double doors of the ornate dining-room were flung open, and there again was the wild figure in the long stained raincoat, waving a walking stick. ‘Larry my old friend,’ he shouted with arms outstretched. I thought it kind and tactful of Larry to lead him out of the door, promising to meet him in the downstairs bar after the lunch; the Faber men were disconcerted. Sadly, when we hurried down to the bar, John had fled, leaving a baffled BBC man behind in the van. ‘A difficult one that,’ he said.
      Some months later a letter addressed to Gawsworth, c/o Ian Fletcher arrived; it had been forwarded to us while Ian was in America. We sent it to John; it informed him of a legacy of something like £2000 left to him by a relative. It later appeared that this would have to be divided among several cousins, but to John it was a promise of wealth at last. He went on a wild drinking bout and ended up in hospital where he died in July 1970. His last letter, addressed characteristically to ‘Caro Neruda’, was full of excited plans to get out a Selected Poems (‘I have now written 150 verses in this ward’), to apply for money to The Arts Council and The Royal Literary Fund, to find somewhere to live on the legacy (‘A roof, a roof!’). The letter refers to Lawrence Durrell being ‘royally loyal’ and talks of Antigua issuing a set of three Redondan stamps, ‘with the portrait of our cousin of England on ’em. Demmed impertinence, what!’).
      I have written at length about John Gawsworth, partly because he was a genuine eccentric and there are few of those about these days, partly because, with all his fantasy and posing, there was something unquenchable about him, a spark of brio, of courage that couldn’t be beaten out in the face of grim hardships. I felt protective about him, as most women did, but the flow of ornate nonsense bewildered me: I somehow couldn’t reach the real person there; he was muffled in rhetoric. I was reminded at times of Ancient Pistol in Henry IVth and Vth. Ian thought that John, number one, the man of many identities, was the creation of John number two, who was not gulled by his own image, but that John one, creation of John two, controlled his creator. In spite of irritation and annoyance, his friends were genuinely attached to him. In ‘Epistle to J.G.’ George describes him thus:

In a fierce time, a gentle face
And a consoling voice.

and in ‘Three Characters in a Bar’ he is described as:

Charming gentle bohemian
Last, last of the Jacobites
Lighting my countless cigarettes.


Then suddenly there came a letter from the Foreign Office, which was to change our lives for the next two years. Edmund Blunden, Cultural Adviser to the U.K. Liaison Mission in Tokyo, (this was the name of The British Embassy during the Occupation of Japan by the Allied Forces), was retiring. The Foreign Office wrote to ask if George would like to succeed him. We never knew how they came to think of him: it may have been John Hayward who was often consulted on matters of this sort, or Alan Pryce Jones, Editor of The Times Literary Supplement. We tried to argue calmly the pros and cons, but both of us knew we would accept; it seemed too good a chance to miss: to go to the other end of the world and see a remote Far-Eastern country we would otherwise never have seen in a life-time.
      This was November 1949 and we were due to sail in February 1950. There followed frenzied preparations, health checks, inoculations, briefings, visits to Saccone and Speed to order fine wines by the case; this seemed to me wild extravagance, but I realised later that this was really an economy. We even had to buy a second-hand morning suit for George, as we were told that the Japanese wore them on every formal or semi-formal occasion. In all of this Vere Redman, Information Counsellor and George’s new boss at the Tokyo Embassy, was invaluable. No-one seemed to know what food supplies would be like in Japan or if milk powder would be available: I busied myself collecting large tins of National Health milk powder, which later proved to be unnecessary. I had many misgivings about launching into this totally different way of life. But I was excited too and felt, as George did, that it was a chance not to be missed. Clothes were a problem, since neither of us had evening clothes and my wardrobe was distinctly sparse after clothes rationing, but somehow we scraped together some clothes, some second-hand, some given by kind friends.
      We sailed in a Glen Line freighter (this was the line favoured by the Foreign Service) carrying cargo to various ports on the way to Japan in February 1950. There were only twelve passengers on board, which meant that we had large comfortable cabins and excellent service. Helen, our daughter, was eight months old, but not active enough to be in danger, and sleeping much of the day in her pram, lovingly watched by Chinese stewards. The voyage, my first, took six weeks, stopping two or three days in each port to unload cargo. After the frantic scurry of the days before our departure, it was soothing to have no telephone calls, no letters to answer, not much to do but look after the baby, and eat, drink and sleep.
      I read Ulysses, which took up most of the voyage. George had to finish a translation for the Harvill Press of Gabriel Marcel’s Gifford Lectures, called The Philosophy of Existence — a tough book indeed. As the stewards bustled in and out of our cabin in the mornings, he took to typing in the bar which was closed until lunch-time; he managed to finish the translation before we reached Japan; his powers of concentration were remarkable, as was his ability to work in all sorts of conditions.
      Eating and drinking took up a lot of time; in an enclosed life, meal-times break up the day. Rituals and routines quickly established themselves: the pre-lunch drink, the pre-dinner drink, the after-dinner bridge and so on. Drink was astonishingly cheap, a double gin cost one shilling and a single — sixpence. The other passengers were all ‘Old Far-East Hands’ — executives of the British American Tobacco Company or of Jardine Matheson in Hong King, comfortably-off, well-dressed, very right wing, deeply suspicious of writers and intellectuals. We were tolerated because we were now Foreign Service and sat at the Captain’s table — always a mark of honour. He was a bluff, authoritative figure, who maintained that seasickness was ‘all in the mind’. [....]
      In February 1950 a neck-and-neck General Election was taking place in Britain. The results began to trickle through on the ship’s radio late at night; excitement grew as we strained to hear the results on the loudspeaker, rigged up for us by the Chief Engineer. True political colours began to emerge, mostly deeply-blue, as only three of us were Labour supporters. Acrimonious arguments broke out about Churchill, the saviour of the country, and Britain going to ruin under Socialism. Excitement mixed with gin proved explosive; no-one actually hit anyone, but veneers cracked: Mrs X, the wife of a B.A.T. executive, a steady gin drinker, became hysterical. When the Chief Engineer packed up his radio to go to bed in the early hours, the Election was still in the balance; either party could win. We accepted that the man needed his rest, but Mrs X screamed at him in fishwife language, and added for good measure: ‘You are only the servant of the passengers, here to obey our orders’. The Chief Engineer flushed darkly, took his equipment, and went below. It was one of those moments when one felt deep shame at being British. [....]
      Early in March we landed at Kobe and took the train to Yokohama, where we were met by Embassy officials and a crowd of reporters; it felt a little like being a celebrity, and I suppose that at that time and in that place George was one and Edmund Blunden had certainly been one. It was disconcerting to be asked what we thought of Japan when we had just landed, but Ron was deft and tactful in his interpreting. The road from Yokohama to Tokyo was a dismaying introduction to Japan, long and straight and lined with ugly, shabby factories, shanties, scrap metal; but this was, of course, only four years since the War had ended. The Occupation forces, mainly American, were everywhere and the only cars on the road were enormous American ones. [....]
      William Empson, on his way from Peking to a summer school at Stanford, California, called in at Yokohama. The Redmans and George and I drove out to collect him from his cabin in the bowels of the ship, his rumpled bed covered with books. He had grown a very Chinese-looking beard, like those in the ink drawings of the sages, which left his chin shaved, but seemed to grow from under it, falling in long strands over his chest. Beards were not common then and the Ambassador, meeting William in the Embassy Compound, was startled by it. ‘Been in Peking, eh?’ ‘Yes’, said William curtly. ‘Must have been jolly interesting.’ A great deal of whiskey had been drunk and William was concentrating on keeping upright, as we walked Madeleine’s dogs in the compound. H.E. (His Excellency was the name by which the Ambassador was known) became obsessed by William’s beard: every time I met him he would say: ‘’Straordinary fella I met you with in the Compound. What a beard! Wanted to ask him back to lunch so that Lady G. could see it. ’Straordinary things these writer chaps do!’ [....]
      Succeeding Edmund Blunden was not easy for George: Edmund’s former students, now many of them professors, worshipped him, and no wonder! He was one of those people to whom the hackneyed word ‘loveable’ could properly apply. His gentleness, diffidence, enthusiasm, his sense of fun, his quietly mocking spirit enslaved everyone. He gave of himself generously during his two years in a Japan shattered by war. I think the reason why so many people loved him was that he was a truly good man, and this quality shines out of those who possess it; it is instantly recognisable. I retain one vivid memory of Edmund at a farewell party given by an English film director for him in a Japanese restaurant, of him and Vere Redman singing through all the verses of famous music-hall songs: ‘Any Old Iron’, ‘Knock ‘em in the Old Kent Road’, ‘Don’t Dilly-Dally’. Edmund’s handwriting was exquisite, a strong yet delicate Italic hand. At all the famous beauty spots we visited, the Visitor’s Book would be produced and there would be a poem or a stanza with appropriate sentiments in that unmistakable hand. [....]
      Though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was the beginning of a division in my life between the claims of husband and children. Because of George’s secret fears, his shyness, his anxieties about strange people and strange places (and Japan was very strange to us), I saw that he needed me as some sort of token of safety.
      Outwardly he was confident and cheerful and always very professional, turning out articles, broadcasts, lecture scripts in record time; he had never been afraid of hard work and had the added advantage of ‘a well-stocked mind’, full of odd out-of-the-way information as well as years of wide reading. This meant that he did not have to do much research for his lectures; it was mostly there in his head.
      The audiences at these lectures were huge and one wondered, looking at the sea of faces, how much was understood; but then they did have their lecture scripts to clutch at. There was some social strain in the after-lecture lunches and dinners with Japanese professors, all friendly and eager, but inhibited by halting English or over-politeness: the Japanese belief that it is rude to disagree made discussion of ideas almost impossible; also junior professors felt unable to converse freely in the presence of their seniors. Once in Kyoto we began talking to a young professor about I.A. Richards and William Empson; we asked him to come to our hotel for a drink that evening. This was quite contrary to Japanese etiquette, as we should have realised. That evening his head of department, a much older and duller man, arrived at the hotel, apologising for his colleague’s ‘indisposition’. George’s innate kindness and his interest in anything to do with literature carried him through these exhausting post-lecture sessions, but they were a strain. [....]
      There were unusual people at the Embassy who didn’t quite fit the stereotype of diplomat and not all the wives fitted the expected mould: Nicoline Goodman was not at all typical. A Polish countess and wife of one of the first secretaries, she was extraordinary, like some exotic bird, with a film-starish glamour, beautiful clothes, a pale skin, yellowish-gold hair and a foreign accent. She had a genuine passion for the arts, especially poetry, and wrote poems herself. She didn’t give a damn about rules and protocol and gave the impression of being detached from embassy life, even rather disdainful of it; one felt that she gave the dinner parties she would enjoy. [....]
      Almost at once George conceived a romantic attachment to her; I say romantic because I think he was attracted by her beauty, her foreignness, and because she was a poet and loved talking about poetry. He loved an aristocrat: titles always had an allure for him. I do not say this flippantly, it was genuine. His feeling for her ancient lineage comes out in the moving elegy he wrote after her tragically early death.

O time of terrible elegies,
I turn aside and weep
For what, though distant while I wake,
Disdains to haunt my sleep,

An insolence of centuries
Gathered about a head
Whose pose mere transience does not break
Nor crumble with the dead,

High head, its look now turned away
Towards another scene,
That even when transient seemed to know
What all the sybils mean,

And seemed to dominate our day,
A castle of the plains,
As grey as mist, as cold as snow,
And endless as the rains,

The look of horsemen who prevailed
Against the nomad spears,
The music of an ancestry,
And vain must be my tears

For one to whom the heart availed,
Whose courage was so high
That even in an elegy
I cannot meet her eye.

Many a long afternoon George spent, sitting at her feet in the Goodmans’ drawing room. Whether or not they had an affair I do not know, but there was certainly a strong bond between them. Nicoline died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1951, when George himself was ill.
      I was pregnant at this time and preoccupied; busy trying to see as much of Helen as I could, running our complicated household, entertaining Japanese professors and their wives, as well as Embassy friends and teaching a few hours a week in a Tokyo women’s college. Our son, George, was born in March 1951; the weather was coldish, but his arrival was greeted with an abundance of spring flowers and a giant paper carp, which flew from the roof of our house: boys in Japan celebrate their birthdays on ‘Boys’ Day’ in March when every family flies a paper carp (symbolising strength and courage) from the roof, one for each son.


Early in April George was due to leave for a lecture tour of Sendai in Northern Japan. He wanted me to go with him, but it seemed too soon after the baby’s birth; I had accompanied him on some of his tours, but he had gone to Kyushu alone and managed it successfully. We discussed it a great deal: I was nervous about taking a few-weeks-old baby into remote corners of northern Honshu, fearful perhaps of the cold or of infections — irrational fears, but real to me. I quailed at the thought of a long train journey with a small baby. I blame myself now for not going: there might not have been much risk and I would probably have weathered the journey. Perhaps I was making a stand of some sort, saying sub-consciously: ‘This tiny baby must come first this time.’ I do not know. In the end we compromised: George would go ahead to Sendai on the first leg of his journey and I would join him in a fortnight’s time, with the baby, by which time I thought I would be stronger and the baby sturdier. It was a fateful decision.
      I saw him off a Tokyo station; he was very quiet and rather sad. We agreed to keep in touch by letter, since the Japanese telephone system was not very reliable, and said goodbye, looking forward to our meeting in the north. I had faint misgivings, knowing how much he hated journeys, but reassured myself: after all he had all his tickets and travel times and he would be met and fèted by the professors: initial nerves would be followed by enjoyment, which was what usually happened. I felt that he was getting used to these tours, knew how to chat to the professors about modern poetry, enjoy the saké and the feasting, as he had in Kyushu.
      Two days later I went to Vere Redman’s house for one of his monthly poetry readings: those of us who were interested in poetry met there to drink and talk and read our favourite poems. Vere asked me hesitantly if I had heard from George. ‘No,’ I answered cheerfully, ‘He isn’t very good about writing letters; I’ll probably get one in a day or two.’ There was a subdued air about the gathering which I couldn’t quite understand. In the light of the news I had the next day, they must have thought me crazy. The next morning Arthur Goodman, Nicoline’s husband, came to see me. He told me that George had behaved strangely at Sendai, his first stop, but had managed to give his lectures. On the next stage of his journey, he had made a desperate and nearly successful attempt to commit suicide, but failing, had jumped out of a moving train, was found by a farmer in a rice field and was taken to the American Army Hospital in Tokyo.
      The shock was appalling: at first I was furiously angry: why should he do this to me, to the children? Why? Why? Why? I lay on my bed and wept while the servants moved about soft-footedly, murmuring sympathetically. They were shocked, but not perhaps horrified: suicide was in the air in Japan: lovers made suicide pacts and jumped off cliffs, students and schoolchildren killed themselves when they failed exams. For me it was the worst time in my life.
      The American doctors questioned me closely, as other doctors subsequently did, asking if I had seen any sign, any hint, of coming breakdown. Looking back at those early months of 1951, I cannot see, even now, how I could have foreseen it. There were no warning signs: he had seemed busy, cheerful, sociable; he was drinking fairly heavily, but so he always had; it was an accepted part of embassy life; drink was cheap, duty-free and served abundantly at all the social occasions we went to. George, never one to be abstemious, and after being rather poor in London, hugely enjoyed all this; he was not an alcoholic and never drank in private.
      So, though heavy drinking may have been a symptom, it was not the cause. What was the cause? I don’t think I shall ever know: in the time of recovery it seemed dangerous to ask and then the time for asking passed and one was afraid to probe an old wound. Perhaps there was some deep-seated malaise that had been building up for years, brought to crisis point by some immediate terror. I heard later that some very tough-looking American military police had been travelling in the same railway carriage, which may have panicked him, brought back the humiliations of his Army days. Both of us admired the way the Americans had managed the Occupation of Japan, but there was a constant looming military presence there. The ripples of McCarthyism were spreading in the States and there was evidence of this in books we read; one of these by Owen Lattimore, a distinguished American Sinologist who had spent many years in China and was hounded for his pro-Communist views, shocked us both.
      This is pure speculation; there may have been more personal reasons: perhaps he was restless and uneasy about his relationship with Nicoline, perhaps guilty — I don’t know. Later a psychotherapist in London went into his childhood memories, his relationship with his parents, his Army years, his marriage. It may have been that this breakdown was an unbearable coming together of many deep-rooted, complex fears and anxieties. I knew that he had always dreaded journeys, meeting strange people, and these were the very strains his job imposed. I knew too that he had always been nervous when people were talking in another room when he couldn’t hear clearly what was being said. I remembered the tension on our honeymoon when we lay listening to the noises of a party down below in the little guest house at Killiney Bay. I shall never know what terrors came together in his mind to cause that terrifying loss of reason on the train from Sendai.
      What was remarkable was the heroic way in which he fought down these fears all his life, rarely admitting to them or seeking help or comfort. His reticence was a grave disadvantage; if he had confided in me before that terrible train journey we could have done something, cancelled the tour, arranged for a friend to go with him, but I had not the remotest suspicion that anything was seriously wrong. There was something Scottish about this reticence, a feeling that it was indecent to parade your deepest fears, that you must cope with them yourself. It may have been the Army years, when he was separated from the sister he had always confided in, that deepened this resolve. I imagine that he was determined to acquire at least the virtue of not complaining about his lot. This stoicism persisted throughout his life, through severe illnesses in later years, and may have been the reason why he failed to seek help when the crisis came upon him in May 1951.
      Tears cannot go on forever; daily life continues. I was comforted by the presence of Helen and the new baby and by the support of friends. George had been sent to the American Army hospital where he was receiving five or six electric shock treatments a day, then considered the best treatment, but no attempt was made to diagnose the nature of his illness. He was weak, apathetic, confused, remembered nothing and often didn’t recognise me. But when he did, in moments of lucidity, he was full of guilt: ‘I have been unbelievably wicked; I shall be punished; I deserve it.’ ‘No, no,’ I cried in anguish, ‘You mustn’t talk like that; you are a good man.’ But it was no use. ‘Vilely, horribly wicked,’ he would say. Apart from these outbursts of self-castigation, his emotions seemed to be anaesthetised. Nicoline was taken ill at this time and died a few days later. I didn’t want to tell George about her death, but mentioned that she had been very ill; he took the news in an absent-minded way, hardly registering what I said. I thought this terribly symptomatic of the deadness of his feelings, no doubt the result of too much shock treatment.
      At last it was decided that we should go back to England, George by hospital plane and the children and I by an ordinary flight. Packing and preparing to go took my mind off agonising anxiety. The Redmans gave a big farewell party for me, crowded with English and Japanese friends; there I am in the photograph I have still, looking haggard and feeling unreal.
      As the plane took off from Tokyo airport, I sat in the back surrounded by babies’ bottles, toys and nappies, with tears running down my cheeks. In those pre-jet days the flight took two and a half days with an overnight stop at Hong Kong. It was a nightmare flight with little sleep and odd, dreamlike impressions of exotic places: fish and chips in the middle of the night in Bombay, roses round the airport lounge at Basra, and then at last London and a warm tearful welcome from George’s mother and sister.
      But underneath the bustle of departures and arrivals, and the kind of ‘high’ that extreme fatigue produces, there was a nagging fear and anxiety. I knew nothing about George’s illness, what it was, whether there was any cure. I did not even know where he was — somewhere on a hospital plane between Tokyo and London; later I learned that his plane had been delayed for four days at Singapore, which must have intensified the nightmarishness of the journey for him.
      By a miracle of timing Jean and Fritz and George’s mother were on the point of leaving the Beaufort Street flat in Chelsea and moving to Wallingford. I decided at once to stay in the Chelsea flat and give up the Bloomsbury one. So began our stay in Beaufort Mansions, which lasted until 1958.
      There followed for me a grim and arduous and penny-pinching time. I decided, against the advice of my friends, not to put the children in a day nursery and try to get a job. Helen was just two and Georgie four months old. Helen was bewildered by the sudden change in her life: at one go her father had gone, her amah, her friends, the Japanese house, the familiar sound of the Japanese language. Apart from a few words of English, she spoke only ‘kitchen’ Japanese, learned from her amah. It was a changed, confusing life for a small child: I was the only part of her life that had remained constant. When I left to visit George in hospital on Sundays, she stood at the top of the stone steps leading up to our flat, screaming. George’s mother was there to comfort her, but, as I fled down the steps, I knew how desolate she must have felt.
      I decided to stay at home and earn money somehow. We had about £400 saved from Japan, which soon vanished. The Royal Literary Fund gave us £200, thanks to Kathleen Raine’s efforts and the warm testimonies of others to George’s promise as a writer. I decided to take in two lodgers and given them bed and breakfast. Vere Redman kindly got me some journalism to do on a regular basis for Japanese papers: a weekly ‘London Letter’ for The Nippon Times, an English language newspaper, and a monthly literary newsletter for a journal called The Rising Generation, written half in Japanese, half in English, reporting on new books, plays, trends. I wrote late at night when the children were in bed. It was not well-paid work, but it was something coming in to add to the family allowance and the rent from the lodgers. It was too a kind of solace, something to occupy my mind and stop me thinking too much about the future.
      The Embassy in Tokyo had undertaken to make all the arrangements about George’s return to England. ‘But where will you send him?’ I asked, ‘Can he be in London?’ ‘Well, actually, no, there are no mental hospitals in London; they’re all out in the country.’ Only later did I learn that this was inaccurate. ‘In that case I suppose he’d better go to Wallingford in Berkshire, where his sister lives.’ And so George found himself one of hundreds of patients in a huge Victorian pile near Cholesey in Berkshire. I visited him every Sunday, travelling out on a Green Line bus. I met other wives on the journey, who seemed resigned and almost complacent: ‘My husband’s much better off there, much happier than when he was at home.’ They may have been right, but I shuddered at the thought of George spending years of his life in a mental hospital. He was subdued, apathetic, resigned, hopeless, but perfectly in his right mind; there had been no more shock treatments since leaving Japan. ‘I’ll never get out of here,’ he said gloomily, as we walked in the beautiful sunlit gardens, and talked of his empty days — eating, walking, sleeping.
      On Sunday afternoons you could, if you wished, see the doctor in charge. I told him all I knew of George, of his breakdown. ‘Does that help at all?’ ‘Well, yes, it enlarges our picture of the patient’s personality.’ ‘But is anything being done?’ ‘You must realise, Mrs Fraser, that we have six hundred patients here and three doctors. We do what we can, but it isn’t easy. Since it must be a long journey for you coming all this way, wouldn’t a London hospital be better?’ ‘But I thought there wasn’t one in London.’ ‘There’s the fountain-head of psychiatry at the Maudsley, in London,’ he replied. It wasn’t easy to get him admitted because the Maudsley is a famous teaching hospital and takes only the patients it chooses, but we persevered and soon George was transferred there.
      What a contrast it was! There was a high ratio of doctors to patients, with time to spare to interview everyone connected with the patient, in George’s case: me, his mother and sister, Tom Scott and other Army friends. He was given a series of tests which lasted six weeks to help the doctors to decide on the best kind of treatment, which proved to be psychotherapy, since it was said that he was intelligent and co-operative. I didn’t particularly like his psychotherapist, who seemed to me rather brusque and blockish, yet he seemed to establish a trusting relationship very quickly. But it was all very uncertain; no-one would say whether he was progressing or not, or when he would be likely to come out, if ever. He was amazingly patient and stoical, though sad and resigned, as though all this was a deserved punishment. He had to stay in bed for the first few weeks, but then was allowed up and even finally was given permission to type in a corner of the ward.

George Fraser

George Fraser

an official English Department photo
taken some time in the 1970s.

      To their everlasting credit, and thanks to the kindness of its Editor, Arthur Crook, The Times Literary Supplement sent him books to review — a marvellous sign of faith, that was! With remarkable confidence George took up his old trade again, but he was pessimistic about Occupational Therapy. ‘I’ll never get out of here until I’ve made one of those things,’ pointing to a woven rush stool. ‘Never mind,’ I said, ‘The others may be good at making stools but they can’t write sonnets.’ Though weaving rushes was not exactly one of his skills, he did in the end make a stool.
My own days followed a regular pattern, getting the children up, making breakfast for the lodgers, visits to the hospital. I could not have managed at this time without the help of George’s mother, who was a great comfort and support. One Sunday we took the children to see him in the hospital grounds: he was deeply moved and there were tears in his eyes.
      One Saturday he was allowed to come home for an afternoon; the next Saturday for the day. I was nervous and unsure of myself: visiting a patient in hospital creates an artificial relationship, so much of life is excluded: suddenly he was to be plunged into family life again, even though just for a day. I needn’t have been anxious: he was easy and relaxed, swiftly at home, without awkwardness. The next week he was quite unexpectedly discharged from hospital and came home for good. I was amazed at the swift return to normality; it was as though the nightmare of the last six months had never been. He was pale and thin, but himself again.
      Some months later Michael Harari, Manya Harari’s son, talked to George about his breakdown: he was curious: what had it been like? Had it changed him? Had it affected his poetry? The poem, ‘Speech of a Sufferer’, describes the nightmare vividly in fragmented memories, but calmly, laconically.

No, of course, one doesn’t like to go over it
But of course one does, and perhaps going over it
In words sometimes to somebody like you
Not particularly involved but inquisitive,
Though there is malice in all curiosity,
A friend’s weakness is one’s own strength —
In all interest even a spice of malice —
And only lack of malice is pure concern
Which saints may feel but only prigs pretend to,
Perhaps going over it, as I was going to say,
If it doesn’t help much, might not very much harm
And might make it clear in a way how very unclear
What there is to go over is. Have a cigarette.

Well. You know how it started, of course, the actual fact.
I was already in a pretty unbalanced state
When I jumped from that train. How much, up to then,
You would call real is, for me, quite a question.
And I ought to have died, of course, but I got up
There was a very tall man waiting for me
I was naked and bleeding. He was bluff and jovial,
Hospitable, you might say. I remember his words:

“Come into my house, and my dogs will eat you up.”
He might have been Death. He sounded more like Sin.
I didn’t like him though, I felt I knew him
I turned away to other archetypes,
Through a field of corn, towards a dark wood,
But then lay down in a little crater of earth,
I had not reached the wood; in fact I wasn’t
Anywhere like that. I pulled myself together,
Knocked on one of their wooden cottage doors.
They found a local doctor to stitch me up,
I remember him, working like a cobbler.
The very peculiar thing, a bad bump,
From a moving train, wrists and throat bleeding,
But I don’t remember feeling any pain.
At the moment of death, you are supposed to hear
God’s Yes or His No. Had they got the signals wrong?
I heard a great boom out of the sky condemning me,
And I remember muttering a protest, or a prayer,
Claim to be a special case perhaps. Have a drink.
And then of course it was voices all the way,
Voices and shocks, hallucinatory voices
Of old friends telling me what they really thought of me
Or what I really ought to think of myself,
And what I was in for, lots of unpleasantness,
Whether I did live or I did die.
They seemed external, until at length one finds
One can push about and pattern what they are saying,
They are parts of oneself to play with in one’s head.
I hope so anyway. Refill your glass.

There were kinder voices, calling me back to my journey,
Or I hope kinder. One always hopes, one’s friends do,
A real crash might turn one into a saint.
One’s old habits re-form very quickly:
It was almost the same journey over again,
Journey of hope, and fear, and hesitation,
Succumbing to many temptations, resisting some,
And oddly enough the important moments still
The ones where stock responses don’t work
And even subtle skills are out of place.
I don’t think illness proves anything about God.
Praying helps sometimes, but it might be a lot safer
Never to have thought about grace or hell or heaven
But just to be a decent liberal, with moderate standards,
Such people stick to the rails. And poetry
Helps a bit, I suppose, but too much imagination
Is as much of a snare as a help. I remember
Green, mostly green through dusty bars, and how
Everything turns symbolic in a corny way:
Looking at pigeons through the hospital window,
Very beautiful, swirling in the sun,
And a fellow patient asks sardonically:
‘Well, do you think that pigeons live forever?’
Twice too, I remember someone calling my attention
To a little bird, a lame one, just escaping
From a waiting cat: a sort of lingua franca
Perhaps of people who have just gone over the edge —
The cat our friendly lusts, the bird the soul?
But I’ve always loved cats, and cats must eat.
You get insights but they don’t work out as logic.

Oh, if you want something a little more poetical,
I used to think my wife was in another room,
In a female ward, putting out a hopeless hand to me
And I thought my wishes had a magic power,
Bringing about earthquakes or revolutions,
For which I felt afterwards most remorseful.
Alone against the fiend? Perhaps I was him,
All grief and sloth. Or was it he who watched me,
Made me walk backwards against the clock,
And warned against the poverty of the seasons?
Was there some evil secret never spoken,
Because to speak it well might make it true?
The garden in the autumn gathered dust
But still seemed lovely through my dusty window.
And yet again I never was a gardener.
Come back some evening for another drink.

The poem is teasing, evasive, as if he wants to cheat the young man out of slick dramatic answers. What comes through most strongly is the guilt: ‘It might be a lot safer never to have thought about grace or hell or heaven’. Like many Scotsmen, George had strong appetites and an even stronger sense of guilt about indulging them. Madeleine Redman described him, with Gallic extravagance, as a mixture of John Knox and Lord Byron — a too-extreme polarity, but one saw what she meant. Robert Lowell writes somewhere of poets seeing life too much in terms of symbols and this was true of George too: (‘Everything turns symbolic in a corny way’). We once had a hollow elm tree in the garden, which surprisingly put out new leaves every spring. I often said that we ought to cut it down as the trunk was crumbling away, but George would not have it: ‘If the tree goes, I shall go too’ he said half-jokingly. A year after his death the tree finally died and had to be cut down.

Check out this author’s work: Bookstores in Britain, and in the United States

Jacket 20 — December 2002
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