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.