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George Watson: Remembering Prufrock

Hugh Sykes Davies 1909–1984

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First published in the Sewanee Review, vol. 109, no. 4, Fall 2001.

Copyright © 2001 by George Watson. Reprinted with the permission of the editor and the author. You can visit the Sewanee Review at

He had done so many things and played so many parts that you never felt you had come to the end of him. Some knew Hugh Sykes Davies as a wit, some as a lover, some as a teacher; and there were those who read his novels and even his poems. He also married a good deal. He had many wives, four of them his own; taught at Cambridge for nearly half a century — a communist for half the time; was a surrealist in the Paris of the mid-1930s; and finally, as faith and dogma ran dry, a structural linguist. He was once to have been a candidate for the House of Commons too, in 1940, in an election canceled because of invasion fears.
      Soon afterward he found himself an official in the wartime Ministry of Food, and later was an ardent campaigner for school reform. He cooked and fished. Above all he talked.

Photo of Hugh Sykes-Davies

Hugh Sykes-Davies

Photo copyright St John’s College, Cambridge,
courtesy of the College Library

      In 1959, when I first met him, he would soon turn fifty. He chaired an English department I joined that year. By then literature interested him only spasmodically. The real passion of his life was fishing, which induced a state of passivity, he would say, almost of nonbeing, not otherwise to be achieved. He loved his motorbike too, till his wife and his mother joined forces to make him give it up. At his age it was too dangerous, they felt. He probably felt it was not dangerous enough, since it was danger above all that attracted him. He loved doing things he could not quite do, such as writing fiction or playing the accordion. If it was not new — new to him — it was not interesting. Thought had to be dangerous too, in a high theoretical way. ‘One must always have a general analysis,’ Hugh once remarked to explain why, after socialism had failed, he took to structuralism. A love of novelty explains his marital career, which began with the poet Kathleen Raine and ended by his remarrying his third wife as his fifth. It was not a return but something new, since he had not remarried anyone earlier; and besides she was related to a baronet. ‘Every time I marry her I get into Debrett.’
      He was half famous and content to remain so. In April 1959, when I had a letter from him inviting me to Cambridge for a job interview, I vaguely felt I had heard of him and went about asking people, ‘Who is Hugh Sykes Davies?’ They too felt the name rang a bell. But what bell? A bibliography suggested he had written something called Petron before the war, but it did not seem to be in any library, and I discovered only later it was a prose-poem written in his surrealist period, when he knew André Breton in Paris. I am slightly ashamed to say I have still not read it, though I do not think he would have minded and may even have preferred it so. By 1959 he had long outlived surrealism, though he was pleased to receive letters from total strangers working on dissertations in California who had spotted him in group photos taken in Paris before the war. They wondered if he was still alive, and he was happy to reassure them. An inveterate avant-gardiste, he rightly had no sense of loyalty to the nonsense of his youth, but it was still nice to feel unforgotten. In a television program of the 1970s, on spying for Stalin, he hinted strongly he had been as much a communist traitor in the 1930s as his friends Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Cambridge men who had become famous by fleeing to Moscow in 1952. His charm, however, guaranteed that no one believed it. As an old friend crushingly remarked, ‘Hugh is harmless.’
      He was always, and by choice, on the margins of life, rather like the hero of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’; and it is perhaps a pity that Eliot wrote the poem before he met Hugh, though he may have had moments of recognition when he did. Prufrock calls himself an attendant lord, thinking of the character who stands about in the court scenes of Elizabethan plays; and Hugh was supremely the Prufrock of English letters between the wars, humming his love song in an unromantic world, living his life in fragments or (as Eliot put it) measuring it out in coffee spoons, and making do in a haphazard existence in which all beliefs are transitory — no settled conviction links you to family or tribe, and no choice looks certain in an overabundance of choices: ‘Dare I eat a peach?’ As a post-Marxist you are not sure of your class; as a post-Darwinian you are not even sure of your species. ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.’ Others might be unclear who or what you were. But then you were unclear yourself, and life was not a finding but an unending search.
      It was Hugh’s foible to know people before they were famous and to drop them — never to be dropped — before celebrity came. He had known Eliot closely down to the mid-1930s, taking him to football games and inviting him to college dinners, but deserted him in 1934 when an audience crowded with bishops and lesser clergy at the first performance of The Rock persuaded him at a glance that Eliot was no company for a devout atheist. The son of a Yorkshire clergyman, Hugh was implacably against God; and it was one of the few convictions he retained all his life. Religion was so closely allied to madness, he believed, that it was difficult to know which had caused which. That differed interestingly from the atheism of his lifelong friend William Empson. Empson thought religion made you evil. Hugh thought it drove you insane — assuming, that is, you were not so already.

Photo of Hugh Sykes-Davies

Hugh Sykes-Davies

Photo copyright St John’s College, Cambridge,
courtesy of the College Library

      His friendships with the not-yet-famous were numerous. Before the war, which caused C. P. Snow to move to London, Hugh spent many convivial hours with him, though he found Snow laborious in conversation and delighted in mockingly calling him Percy instead of Charles. He drank with C. S. Lewis, avoiding topics that involved their conflicting opinions, such as religion and communism; and he enjoyed discussing the Italian comic epics, though he occasionally found Lewis overly disputatious. He had known Maynard Keynes, though he took no interest in economics, and Henry Moore, a fellow Yorkshireman still unknown as a sculptor. In fact for a time he lived in north London with Moore and his Russian wife, Irene, and would tell how the sculptor would go down to his basement studio after breakfast and light a cigarette. Carving, however, is a noisy business, and Irene was ambitious. ‘Henry, what are you doing?’ she would shout repeatedly down the stairs, with rising emphasis, until he reluctantly threw away his cigarette and took up his chisel.
      Hugh had learned about Picasso from his fellow communist Anthony Blunt, though they later quarreled, since Blunt saw surrealism as apostasy and bourgeois decadence. Hugh made the young Malcolm Lowry his ward to protect him from drink, and they lived for a time with Conrad Aiken in Rye, in Sussex, where Aiken had settled out of admiration for Henry James, its most famous resident. Aiken and Lowry were serious alcoholics, each consuming a bottle of brandy a day, so Hugh kept them company in the habit of drinking, not to seem unsociable, and enjoyed beating them at ping-pong. But he miraculously escaped addiction, though he retained a warm liking for gin and vermouth as well as brandy, and interested himself, like De Quincey and Baudelaire before him, in drugs deriving from opium. Then Aiken went home to America, and Lowry wandered the world, settling in Vancouver, and all contact with each man was lost. Lowry’s Under the Volcano, when it finally appeared in 1947, meant nothing to Hugh. It was alcoholic fiction, he declared, though near the end of his life he was persuaded by Canadian television to make a program; and he did it on the symbolic condition they supplied a bottle of brandy in a Cambridge pub during the interview. That put him in a high good humor. As he walked home late he came upon a lonely policeman standing outside King’s College and approached him unsteadily. ‘Have there been any interesting fires in the colleges this evening, constable?’
      He had known Salvador Dali too, assisting him one warm afternoon as he lectured for surrealists in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Dali loved to make an effect. He entered the lecture room in a diver’s suit, leading a greyhound on a leash, then opened the glass window covering his face and delivered the lecture, while Hugh danced around him loosening the screws at his neck for ventilation. Hugh had known Wittgenstein too, his drinking companion — not as a philosopher but as a whistler. Ludwig, as he called him, could whistle an entire movement of a Beethoven symphony — not just the melodic line but the harmonies beneath. But Hugh never read his philosophy and only once went to a class. Wittgenstein, when they met in the street next day, was not pleased. ‘I saw you at my class yesterday, Hugh,’ he said, ‘and I hope you won’t come again. My stomach-ache is not your stomach-ache.’


A bohemian life meant escape from the factories of Yorkshire and the stolid parsonage where his family, who had been Methodist before they were Anglican, practiced the strictest abstention. In fact his grandmother’s middle name, he delighted to recall, had been Abstemia. A freshman in 1928, he found Cambridge a liberation, and spent the rest of his life defining himself against the values of a puritan childhood, discovering the virtues of abstention only when it was too late to matter. He had lost his virginity at a remarkably early age at a boarding school, when a nurse brought in to deal with an epidemic had been rashly allowed a latchkey, and he never forgot his anxiety, as he crept back after his first amorous adventure, wondering whether it would impair his performance at football.

Photo of Hugh Sykes-Davies

Hugh Sykes-Davies

Photo copyright St John’s College, Cambridge,
courtesy of the College Library

      Cambridge put him at eighteen into the middle of the only school of critical theory on earth, and he adored a new theory even more than solid or liquid stimulants and in much the same way. In the heady days of I. A. Richards, theory could turn you on and help you drop out, which he did, editing an undergraduate journal called Experiment with his fellow student William Empson.

Photo of William Empson (at right of group)

Photo of William Empson (at right of group) copyright © the Master and Fellows, Magdalene College, Cambridge, courtesy the Pepys Library, Magdalene College

It was a critical school dedicated to T. S. Eliot, then a young American in London; but he broke with Eliot over religion, and, at Eliot’s death in 1965, Hugh wrote an obituary called ‘Mr. Kurtz, He Dead,’ in which Conrad’s bitter epitaph in Heart of Darkness sums up an abiding sense of betrayal. Kurtz had exterminated natives in the Congo, and Eliot’s Anglicanism seemed to Hugh hardly better; worse still his equivocal attitude to Franco during the Spanish Civil War and his fellow feeling for Marshal Pétain after the fall of France in 1940. The Vichy slogan Family, Fatherland, Work summed up everything Hugh did not believe in, and quite a lot that Eliot did. Not that Eliot rejoiced in the defeat of France. ‘But he did think it an opportunity,’ Hugh said sadly, ‘to do something interesting.’ Eliot had taken a path his disciples could not follow.
      In his late twenties Hugh’s life had been paradoxically saved by illness. The onset of tuberculosis coincided with the Spanish Civil War, in which he would certainly have fought and probably died; and his long cure in a Swiss sanatorium, funded by Lord Rothschild, left him too weak to serve after 1939. In any case, as an active communist he rejected all collaboration in what the party called an imperialistic war, at least until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941; and a meeting with George Orwell at the BBC, when Orwell invited him to broadcast to India, struck him as an act of betrayal. His party loyalty was in those days unqualified. Stalin’s pact with Hitler in August 1939 was ‘just another custard pie to throw at Neville Chamberlain.’
      By 1959, when we first met, he had given up almost everything, including Marx and André Breton, and regretted a good deal. ‘My conscience reproves me when I am wrong,’ he would say; ‘and never commends me when I am right.’ Even the critical theories of I. A. Richards, such as Basic English, no longer held his attention, though he continued to love Richards’s company after he returned from nearly forty years at Harvard. ‘The subtlest mind in the West,’ he would call Richards. He had given up communism shortly before we met, not long after the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. Not because of the invasion, apparently, which he had defended in a public speech, but for reasons he would never quite explain. Hints were occasionally dropped. ‘Workers don’t work any more,’ he would exclaim bitterly, and he was horrified by transport and power strikes in the days when British unions were still militant. I picture him standing on cold railway stations waiting for trains that would not come. He loathed, too, what some presume to call progressive education; and he would deride teachers who protested they could not teach children to count or to spell. He never became a conservative, and kept up a connection with the left by opposing nuclear armaments. But on many issues, and more and more, he thought conservatively.
      By then the left’s literary avant-garde, which he had given his life to, was running out of issues. If you are an inveterate avant-gardiste, you need a quick supersession of new ideas, or ideas that look new, to replace what fate and chance have forced you to abandon; and there is a natural limit to the search for novelty. It is called old age. He had given up modernism because of Eliot’s reactionary ideas in politics and religion. He had given up surrealism on sadly realizing that you need fixed points, after all, both in life and in the arts. He had given up Richards’ Basic English because no native speaker of English, he discovered, can remember what eight hundred words he is allowed to use. And he had given up socialism, in all likelihood, because of union militancy. Dying in June 1984, a few months after his friend William Empson, he did not live to see the Soviet collapse of 1989–90, but I suspect he would not have minded. The failure of his marriages, too, had faded into a limbo of mind; and fishing was a consolation in that it took him into lonely places. ‘I am glad to say I have parted from all my wives on the terms of the greatest possible bitterness,’ he would say, with a smile that made a virtue of his isolation. The art of life, he would add, quoting a Greek motto, was to lurk, and he sometimes tried to look invisible as he entered rooms or walked familiar paths, and almost succeeded. It was as if he had wrapped a cloak of invisibility around himself.
      He was not a great traveler, and avoided cities when he moved. ‘I am a citizen of no mean city,’ he would say of his country retreat, misquoting Saint Paul. He was never in America and showed no wish to go, though one of his daughters lived as a lawyer in New York. Indeed he was never out of Europe, apart from a two-day trip to Tunis during the Second World War to victual the British Eighth Army that had just defeated Rommel. The visit brought one memorable encounter. He was told that, as a representative of the British government, he should pay a courtesy call on the head of state, known as the dey. A small dark man sat cross-legged on a divan, and Hugh made an unpracticed little bow. The dey looked infinitely gloomy, but he had evidently heard the visitor had some connection with food, and asked, ‘Vous avez du chocolat?’ Hugh said he thought he might manage some, and the dey brightened a little. ‘Et vous avez un frigidaire?’
      A classic twentieth-century man, he moved from coterie to coterie — the Richards circle of critical theorists, the communist party, and the surrealists — and eventually found there were no new things to do, beyond fitful enthusiasms. A sudden craze in his fifties for skydiving was derisively dismissed by his friends and remained, for them, happily unfulfilled. He was always ‘into’ something, and a colleague once remarked that the word might have been invented for him. One day it was the grammatical functions of the brain, another word-frequency in the great English novelists and poets, another the imminent danger of a nuclear war.

Photo of Hugh Sykes-Davies copyright St John's College, Cambridge

Hugh Sykes-Davies with bust of Wordsworth
Photo copyright St John’s College, Cambridge, courtesy of the College Library

      These were his spots of time, as he called them, quoting his beloved Wordsworth, and like Wordsworth he felt their vivifying virtue. Wordsworth, he once explained in a collection he edited called The English Mind (1964), was a precursor of Freud, whom he had met in Paris in 1938 in the home of Princess Marie Bonaparte, ‘the only princess I have ever known’ and head of the French Freudians. Freud was a refugee on his way from Vienna to London, where he died; and like Wordsworth he had seen experience less as a continuum than as a broken chain of crises and traumas, a shattered record where almost all the fragments are jettisoned as meaningless, the remaining few to be interpreted and reinterpreted into patterns of healing significance. That is what Wordsworth’s Prelude is about, and Proust’s great novel, and that is how Hugh too saw time, in its aimless passage from a birth you cannot remember to a death you will never recall.
      A sworn foe to pomposity, he was content to let such moments emerge in talk as farce, parodying and mocking them to weaken their power and render them more conversable and less real. He regretted his mistakes. A being of some elegance and of endless social charm, he preferred to see his life as a series of quick takes like scenes from the Marx brothers, whose films he adored. As a young man in the Italian Alps, for example, on Lake Garda, he had hired a boat propelled by standing, like a gondolier, pushing hard at the prow on an oar. It was an object which, as a skilled Cambridge river-punter, he had never seen before, which was exactly why he wanted to try it. As he moved his boat unsteadily from the shore the boatman on the lakeside began to entertain understandable qualms about its safety and shouted anxiously after him if he knew what he was doing. ‘Ė capace?’ Hugh shouted back reassuringly ‘Si, sono capace,’ floundering at his oar, and somehow made it back to the shore. But then he was a strong swimmer, and, what is more, he had beginner’s luck.
      He had been a fishmonger too, in the 1930s, though he knew nothing about selling fish, buying a fishshop in Ely as a parliamentary candidate there to keep its manager, another undercover communist and his election agent, from being moved by his firm to the Midlands. Routine bored him utterly, whether in work, friendship, or love; and he sought the condiment of danger in everything he did. His role model was a cab driver he had once fished with whose previous job had been in a circus, riding a motorbike on the Wall of Death, until he started to have blackouts and had to give it up. ‘You can’t have blackouts on the Wall of Death: besides, I had a lioness in the sidecar.’ Hugh wanted a lioness in the sidecar in everything he did. Hence his sorrow. His gaiety masked melancholy, and it was a melancholy born of unfulfillment, and an unfulfillment born of tedium. He would always rather start than finish. His notable Wordsworth and the Worth of Words lay still unpublished at his death, though a publisher had accepted it; and it did not appear till two years later in 1986, when a colleague edited it from his papers. As always he had lost interest and moved on.
      Melancholy cannot be healed, only lightened; and his gaiety, in the end, had something heroic about it. In the choices a lifetime offers he had ultimately left himself nowhere to turn except to the consolations of talk — anecdotage at its richest, in full flood. I never dared to tell him, in our quarter-century of friendship, that he reminded me of a Swiss tale about another great clown who veiled grief in laughter, since he would have seen the point all too quickly and all too clearly. Someone once visited his doctor to find a cure for depression. ‘Do something amusing,’ said the doctor, ‘like going to the circus — the great clown Grock is in town.’ The patient looked infinitely sad: ‘But you see, doctor, I am Grock.’

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