These samples of my prose include a paper on Byron whose agile use of intricate rhymed stanzas for long poems has fed into my own longer poems, excerpts from a couple of pieces I've been asked to write on the sources and processes of my own poetry, and a memoir of Leicester, the University and the city.
BYRON'S LOOSE AND BAGGY MONSTER
A paper given on 13 July 2007 at the International Byron Society conference in Venice.
In the ‘England, with all thy faults I love thee still’ stanzas of his Venice poem Beppo, Byron is indulgent, though only the ‘beef-steak’ and ‘pot of beer’ escape an irony highlighting faults more than love. Nor, among ‘Our cloudy climate and our chilly women’ and the rest, does he here address what, in a letter of 1821 to John Murray, he would name as the national vice:
'The truth is, that the grand primum mobile of England is cant; cant political, cant poetical, cant religious, cant moral; but always cant, multiplied through all the varieties of life. It is the fashion, and while it lasts it will be too powerful for those who can only exist by taking the tone of the time.'
Just like England today, cringing before the beast of ‘political correctness’. History shakes its kaleidoscope, the pattern of our taboos changes. In Byron’s time homosexual acts could incur hanging, women had few rights, ending the slave trade freed no slaves. But way ahead of Victoria’s ascent to the throne, the modes of moral squeamishness and attendant hypocrisies that would take her name were already rampant. And a burgeoning middle class and the gentry Jane Austen depicted bought books, and knew what they didn’t want to read.
For Murray the reading public was his living, and publishing Britain’s celebrity poet had fattened it. But the first cantos of Don Juan had sparked scandal, by showing female passion as other than pure sentiment: Byron’s Juan is the seduced, not the seducer. Later instalments arriving from Italy were too much for Murray: after much dithering, he wrote, in October 1822, declining to publish matter so ‘outrageously shocking’ - as a man of commerce adding, ‘by a reaction, even your former works are considerably deteriorated in Sale.’ John Hunt became Byron’s main publisher.
Byron belongs within our invaluable tradition of quintessentially English writers in whom an itch to unmask and mock things quintessentially English is a creative mainspring. Others include Dickens, Samuel Butler, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence.
For his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and the other early satires, all written before he was twenty-five, Byron tried the heroic couplets of the Augustans he revered. His occasionally fashion a point neatly - on Wordsworth, 'Who both by precept and example shows / That prose is verse, and verse is merely prose' - but are mostly galumphing stuff lacking the sureness of tone and conciseness of Pope and Dryden. Byron needed a poetic vehicle collaborating with, not rebuking, his openness to impulse.
It took him a bit of time to find this. In the poems which won him fame, Childe Harold and the Eastern Tales, among the glooms of the former and narrative energy of the latter, the flash of a magnificent line from others inert or slapdash - the dying gladiator ‘Butchered to make a Roman holiday’ - we miss the agile, quipping immediacy that was always a hallmark of Byron’s letters. It is in Beppo that he identified his true creative temper:
'I fear I have a little turn for satire,
And yet methinks the older that one grows
Inclines us more to laugh than scold…'
It is precisely this response to things which makes Byron’s poetry so potent a force: his acceptance of, rather than rage to amend, our contradictions is what hypocrisy flinches from and would pretend or bully out of existence.
Beppo brings contradictions alive. Laura, when her long-lost husband Beppo reappears at a Carnival ball she is at with her cavalier servente the Count, fails to recognise him in his Turkish dress (he has been captive in that country). Beppo declares himself at their palazzo when she and the Count return by gondola. Laura is no swooning Englishwoman. She flails out at her husband with a barrage of questions:
'"And are you really, truly, now a Turk?
With any other women did you wive?
Is’t true they use their fingers for a fork?
Well, that’s the prettiest shawl - as I’m alive!
You’ll give it me? They say you eat no pork.
And how so many years did you contrive
To - Bless me! Did I ever? No, I never
Saw a man grown so yellow! How’s your liver?"'
The upshot? Beppo doffs alien attire, ‘borrowed the Count’s smallclothes’ and, ‘Though Laura sometimes put him in a rage, / I’ve heard the Count and he were always friends.’
Byron’s handling of a potentially explosive situation is comic. England would shudder at this set-up. Venice accepts it; and it is not hypocritical. Equally free from English ‘morality’, but resting not on worldly pragmatism but innocence, is the lovemaking, in Don Juan, of Haidée, that ‘had never heard / Of plights and promises to obey a spouse, / Or perils by a loving maid incurred.’
The form in both poems is ottava rima - used by Italian narrative poets since Boccaccio, as Byron was well aware. But it was reading, in 1817, John Hookham Frere's mock-heroic Arthurian poem Prospectus and Specimen of an intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft, written in ottava rima, that alerted Byron to the form's comic possibilities in Englaish. He wrote Beppo that autumn, and liberated into his poetry the full range of his responses.
The formal demands of a stanza rhyming ABABABCC, Byron makes a play zone for rhyming acrobatics: in Beppo, noting that unlike their English counterparts Turkish wives, kept confined and illiterate, can devise neither ‘criticism’ nor ‘witticism’ against their lot, he concludes: ‘In harams learning soon would make a pretty schism’ The stanza’s final couplet fosters clinching a point, or ironic deflation. Juan reads Julia’s letter as his ship meets choppy waters: ‘“Beloved Julia, hear me still beseeching!” / (Here he grew inarticulate with retching).’ Byron is having a giggle • but its matter stuck in the craw of English primness.
But ottava rima also flows, can bowl along, where the Spenserian stanza Byron had used for Childe Harold slews to a stately halt at each closing alexandrine. As a form, it abets his quick shifts of topic and key, between action, reflection, laughter; serpentine elaboration that can be twitched into narrative rapidity. It admits frivolities precluded by the Augustan rhetoric of Byron’s youthful satires. And ottava rima is hospitable to that crucial ingredient of his effects, his conversational idiom, itself shocking to those with stuffier notions of epic style. Thus, at Lord Henry and Lady Adeline Amundeville's Norman Abbey,
'… ’twas a public feast and public day, -
Quite full, right dull, guests hot, and dishes cold,
Great plenty, much formality, small cheer,
And every body out of his own sphere.'
And the form accommodates graver registers: as when in Canto 3 evoking twilit woods around Ravenna, as the vesper bell sounds, tenderly fusing meditation and memory.
Noteworthy is the way Byron lets the workings of composition show in the poem. It confesses dud lines, problems of tweaking sense into metre. Byron starts a simile on Adeline, ‘As a volcano holds the lava more / Within - et caetera. Shall I go on? No’ - he tries afresh, turning for image from hackneyed nature to a frozen bottle of champagne, at its heart ‘a liquid glassful’ of explosive potency. Most poets expunge false starts. We know from his manuscripts that Byron rewrote extensively. His effects are artfully calculated. So there is that volcano in the published poem, owned-up to. And such owning-up augment his persuasiveness.
The main means whereby Byron wins our complicity with what he is up to is the digressions - not distraction from his poem’s substance, but at its heart. Juan’s story takes him from his native Spain, via shipwreck to a Greek island, then Constantinople, bloody warfare on the Danube and St Petersburg, before two-thirds through he reaches England. Byron has dramatised foreign modes of both sophistication and innocence which contrast with England, the digressions standing clear of events. When England becomes the setting, they blend.
There are digressions on life’s meanings, if any, and mutabilities. Personal reminiscences. On individuals: Washington, Milton, Wilberforce, Daniel Boone, celebrated as non-selfserving enemies of oppression; on Wellington and ‘that long spout / Of blood and water, leaden Castlereagh’, who harm the world and Byron would discredit. On Southey and Wordsworth, as bad poets and political turncoats • satirised with a comic gusto which becomes an end in itself.
And Byron on English life, in the later cantos illustrated by direct presentation of the vacuous rituals of the aristocracy. And their manipulations, such as the chicaneries attendant on women until,
'… when at last the pretty creature gets
Some gentleman, who fights, or writes, or drives,
It soothes the awkward squad of the rejected
To find how very badly she selected.'
The tone is bantering, but plainly Byron hates it all. Our reaction to the feast it lays on, lines on which I have quoted, is: What a bunch of shams and mugs! what pointless flummery! As for their performance as ruling class, here is Lord Henry’s notion of himself:
'He was as independent - ay, much more -
Than those who are not paid for independence,
As common soldiers, or a common - shore
Have in their several arts, or parts, ascendance
O’er the irregulars in lust or gore,
Who do not give professional attendance.
Thus on the mob all statesmen are as eager
To prove their pride as footmen to a beggar.'
This nails its target: Henry, in his aristocratic complacency, is nothing more than a hired flunkey. He, we read, ‘gloried in the name of Englishman’. In the Government, fixer of elections, a negligent Justice of the Peace, he is, grumbling that his breakfast muffin is incorrectly buttered, a hugely representative figure.
Byron’s ‘loose and baggy monster’ - his poem knows nothing of Henry James’s pleas that every part of a work must serve one overall theme - is a wonderful predator of cant. But not only that. I’d end by claiming that in the final cantos, at the Amundeville’s country estate it enables Byron to achieve one of the finest things in our literature. The narrative - stalled since Juan’s immersion in battle carnage and sexual servitude to Catherine, the Empress in whom life-energies and destructiveness, hitherto opposed, merge - revives, with a shift from its previous adventure-romance mode to something more novelistic, with interplay between several characters within a stable setting. And with astonishing new resonances. Against the secular daytimes of aristocratic routine is invoked the abbey their forebears seized - which persists in the wind’s music in the ruined choir, the nocturnal pacings of the ghost of the ‘Black Friar’. The new dimension is embodied in Aurora Raby, herself a Catholic, a pure being immune to the fatuity around her. She reminds Juan of Haidée, the love of his innocence. But with a radical difference: that idyll belonged to an irrecoverable Eden. Aurora, we read, seemed ‘as if she sat by Eden’s door, / And grieved for those who could return no more.’ For the fallen human condition. Adeline disparages her to Juan; but he, watching his hostess 'play her grand role', 'began to feel / Some doubt how much of Adeline was real'. He is drawn to Aurora. After what has gone before, only through some spiritual opening-up can he, and the poem, recover faith in life. And then - the ghost’s second visitation turns out to be ‘her frolic Grace’ the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke hoaxing her way into Juan’s bedchamber. Mingling seriousness, fear, satire, farce, never losing lightness of touch, Byron demonstrates the full range of his ottava rima, of his ‘versified Aurora Borealis, / Which flashes o’er a waste and icy clime’.
But freighted with facts, for which Byron had a passion. Geographical, historical - and social: of dress, furnishings, and behaviour. As he claimed writing to Douglas Kinnaird, ‘It may be profligate, but is it not life?’ Which his compatriots didn’t want to give living-space, let alone space in literature.
from SOUNDINGS ALONG THE LINES
(Published in Visible Language, vol. XXIII no.. 1, Wonter 1989 (USA), pp. 123-133)
A poem begins not from ratiocination but from experience • with a fermenting in one’s mind of something, perhaps overtly trivial, one has in some sense lived through. It may be a landscape, an incident in a supermarket, a gesture or a conversation witnessed or recalled, a personal relationship, a dream, or an attunement to some historical or geographical elsewhere; even such an abstract concept as relativity theory, which has metaphoric suggestiveness. And very often an uncalculated collision and fusion in one’s imagination of more than one such detail, probably scattered in real life, triggers things off. A pressure generates, that nags one into taking out pen and paper • and only the actual writing, altering, deleting, redraftings, verbally exploring possibilities, holding yourself alert to further sleights and glints, discovers what, if anything, can be won into a poem, and what the poem needs to be. The whole process is analagous not to constructing from a blueprint, but to extricating a tenuously conceived sculpture entire from the given mass which is its raw material. • and at the end a rubble of discarded phrases and details litters the draft sheets.
In all this, technique and style are not things extrinsic, respectively applies like spanners and chisels to the matter in hand and spread on the poetry’s substance like jam, but are integral to vision; and crucial to getting a poem under way is sensing its appropriate form, rhythms and movement, voice • vital determinants of its perspective and texture.
[Retrospective note: This was written (shortly) before I got a word processor, the keyboard of which has since been, rather than pen and paper, the instrument a creative nag takes me to. The process remains essentially the same; but (libraries and others interested in seeing manuscript evidence of how a poem comes to be will lament this) the chipped-away details, discarded material, deletions and amendments and false tries, no longer all survive on paper drafts, but mostly get vaporised at a touch of the 'delete' key in the course of writing. Though not entirely, for I do occasionally print out pages to see what things look like on paper, as opposed to on-screen, at various stages of composition; also, of course, when I suppose I might have finished a poem which I then decide needs furhter amendment, sometimes radical.]
from WRITING POETRY
(Published in Critical Quarterly vol. 24 no. 1, Spring 1982, pp. 2-16)
'I believe in technique as the test of a man's sincerity,' wrote Ezra Pound about poetry in his essay ‘A Retrospect’. The impulse to find for something its most precise and telling definition is is a measure of its worth; one’s caring for worth intuited amid life’s disorderly occurrence triggers the effort.
* * *
Among the incoherences and contingency of daily life we all perforce slide towards lazy, formulaic or over-hasty utterance. I sit here at a cluttered desk attampting this, other awarenesses flickering like fishtails in my mind: thoughts on King Lear for an imminent class; administrative trivia, and letters to write; tonight’s chess fixture’ fragments of lunchtime’s conversation about historical studies; wondering whether I shouldn’t be marking essays instead of doing this now; not to speak of my personal life; and all this within the bewildering sea of life in general. Except that that was then, at first-draft stage, and some of the contextual details would be quite different were I to itemise them as I finalise this essay now.
Among and out of all which, when possibility shapes itself and one can for long enough retain imaginative perspective, one writes poems…
Poetry, then, an art expressing human vision and not some mere design of aural or visual wallpaper, utters matters central to life, is not a cosmetic upon it. Doing it, if a special activity, emerges from the non-specialist hankering at the core of everyone to sort from inchoate experience some pattern of significance however incomplete or transient. Writing is a special extension of the distinctive human process.
* * *
Imaginative literature is not immune to cliché, only more alert to it, aided by its distinguishing feature as utternce indicaated by Wallace Stevens: Apoem is the cry of its occasion, / part of the fes itself, and not about it.’
* * *
The impulse began for me when I was about fifteen. No thanks to formal schooling, where I recoiled from ‘classics’ prescribed by those who had designs on me… But I had otherwise been an omniverous reader, aged ten a local oddity jaywalking with a ball at my feet as well as a book open before my nose. The lush romantic sensations of adolescence topped things up to a point where I knew I ‘had to write’. And while fragmentary attempts upon my own experience helplesslyextruded lush romanticism, my fascinated discovery of how words variously shaped and coloured the world they apprehended in the writings of Thurber, Perelman, Runyon, Sellar and Yeatman, D.B. Wyndham Lewis, ‘Beachcomber’, and after I got clear of humourists Samuel Johnson’s prose, transfigured my school ‘compositions’ on run-of-the-mill set topics into a serial anthology of loving pastiches. Serious content I had a wise instinct to defer. Wordsworth could not phrase ‘the sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion’ when it was actually doing it in his adolescence. But verbal styles and idioms for escited trying-on presented themselves in richer array than fashions in the Croydon clothes-shops. Poetry came to matter to me intensely also:initiated by my excited discovery of Keats during the summer holidays after GCE O-levels. His ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ (first perused in Ashburton Park, where nightly promise of the arrival of certain girls infused the poem’s languorous narrative of romantic elopement) seemed to consummate our language’s possibilities for sumptuousness, and a line such as ‘And lucent syrops tinct with cinammon’ was scrumptious enough to eat. A hare was started, rapidly leading me through many other and different poetic satisfactions: ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many / I had not thought death had undone so many…’
The journal I then kept became a repository for notes on what to write and how. On effects and polarities of light: ‘light/dark; radiant/dull; refracting/absorbing; intermingling/contrasting; indistinct/vivid.’ And: ‘Notice textures, spaces, proportions, notion (Hills push and roll).’ And so forth.
Meanwhile, to get on with such serious stuff,… and wanting, as I then formulated it, to throw myself into the sea of life to discover if I could swim rather than sink, rather than be conveyor-belted to university I had quit school during my sixth-form course, and embarked on a reader’s equivalent of a solitary pub-crawl, while throughyears of bedsitter life working at a variety of clerical and manual jobs.
* * *
One hopes also that a poem may digest (just biting off is not enough) more than it chews; that words will be gifted to catch somethong beyond the words’ mesh. Something one cannot calculate, only collaborate with. I recognise such creative serendipity in poems as varied as Stevens’s ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, Hopkins’s ‘Spring’, Larkin’s ‘Money’. It was Shakespeare’s Midas touch. The effect arises from the fact that poetic language is not merely instrumental to theme. Its creative energies can loop out to encompass things beyond the declared content. In his poem ‘Snow’ Louis MacNeice, wanting to state that (a) life is hererogeneous and (b) that he feels exhilarated about this, magically comes up with, ‘I peel and portion / A tangerine and spit the pips and feel / The drunkenness of things being various.’ His phrasing, creating activity as image, fusing concept and response, blazes resononaces.
* * *
The close affinity I feel with Edward Thomas has its part in the history of my own writing. When I arrived at Oxford to take up a postrgraduate scholarship that had unanticipatedly been put in my way (having just completed a BA degree at Leicester I was working on the railways with no notion what to do), the University sensitively let me spend some time just browsing around while looking for a ‘subject’. Thus I chanced to read Thomas’s poetry for the first time, got intensely involved, and began a critical study of his work for my doctoral thesis. This never got finished. Having hitherto written mostly written prose fiction (shown to no-one, and discarded), I now started writing poems. The first I sent out, to the Anglo-Welsh Review, was titled ‘A Landscape for Edward Thomas’, and was published. At that time, though I was due for a third year at Oxford, having enjoyed a first holiday in Ireland in the summer of 1967, I applied for and was offered my present university teaching post in Coleraine in NorthernIreland. I felt the best justice I could do to Thomas was to follow the example he set (sadly so late in his war-truncated life, and in such different circumstances), and give writing poems priority over prose criticism. I wrote to Oxford and disenrolled myself.
I used the term ‘affinity with’ for the relationship I felt, and still do, to Edward Thomas’s poetry, not (though I am clearly acknowledging a debt) ‘influence by’… ‘Influence’ is a pet notion of academics,who busy themselves constructiong genealogies of it… But, as often happens withinthe hum range, it may be that poets just have something temperamentally in common with each other. It was a matter of recognition when I read Edward Thomas. I was twenty-six at the time, and already very much myself.
[Retrospective note. Some of the foregoing, and the way it is put, might in the twenty-first century strike some people as a bit grandiloquent in its assumptions that poetry and its responsibilities are important, and central to our human enterprise. I still agree with its substance. Historically, there has been an assumption among poets and readers that the essential aim and point of poetry is to enact and embody in memorable language exploration of human experience. This might vary hugely in scale and profundity; and of course ‘light’ and ‘occasional’ verse have their validity; but it has been what poetry is for, and it is from successful achievement in this enterprise that poetry’s satisfactions traditionally derive. Through the great Romantic, Victorian and twentieth-century poets, strikingly individual and different as they are in their themes and preoccupations, ways of going about poetry, and verbal textures (and of course one doesn’t have to be solemn to be serious), this assumption has held, a tacit consensus linking Wordsworth and Byron, Tennyson and Walt Whitman, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice; persisting more recently in Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney.
But in the cutural melt-down of recent decades (and it is the British Isles I focus on), all this can seem under threat. People want instant and easy gratification rather than challenge; often, to be 'performed' at by poets rather than to read them. There are versifying gagsters and anecdotalists, rarely much good even at being funny: were they billed as stand-up comics rather than under the raptness-inducing banner ‘Poetry’ they’d be howled off the stage. There are poets ‘in residence’ - in schools, supermarkets, prisons, banks, here in Norfolk some years ago in ‘refuse disposal’, even on trains. (Now, if on a train I’m deep in Yeats, and someone such creature jabs me in the chest insisting that I attend to him doing his thing, I could behave angrily…)
Poets want an audience; and I’m in favour of poetry reaching one - readers, and also people listening to a poet reading his or her work. Indeed, a poem completes itself in communication: its full responsive reception by others attending to it. But the instant knee-jerk reaction many contemporary poets seek neither courts nor allows this. Commonly, instead of poetry enlarging or challenging the assumptions of those it is delivered to, the poet sucks up to them, giving them what they want because they know it already. Especially when presenting his work to them live, face-to-face. (Poet (reading): 'So there I was sat in Mooney’s in Dublin / with a pint of stout and / a beef sandwich…' Audience (thinking, ‘Been there, done that, this is my life!): ‘You’re a great poet!’ All very cosy.)
One can set aside what dubs itself 'performance poetry' and whatever goes on at self-styled 'poetry slams' as a separated-off genre. But among those who regard themselves as, and are taken to be, 'mainstream' poets. there are nowadays very many of whom it can be fairly said that it is not that they are tryng to fulfil the old high aspirations and failing, as poets have always done, but that they are not even trying. They neither know nor care about all that. Theirs is an entirely different game.
Of course, there are current poets writing the real stuff. One can only trust that, as in the past, Time the great sifter will sort things out, its tides wash the detritus away. Yet our present differs from previous periods. 'The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace' - since Ezra Pound published these lines in Hugh Selwayn Mauberley in 1920, the affliction they identify has become almost overwhelming in our own age of dumbing-down and 'celebrity'-culture. Our new techniques and media enable and foster all this, and on a scale never possible, or even conceivable, before. And it affects our arts, as well as all other areas of life, pushing poetry towards being just another fashion-driven commodity, often intended to be disposable rather than durable. Digging into the human condition, even though this can be made funny, if that is what one wants, as for example by Philip Larkin, as well as searing or heart-stopping, isn't getting much of a look-in these days.
Yet even in an inimical context the central human longings, fears, joys, curiosities, the hankerings after eternal verities and to clarify particular experience and why certain things move us, continue. For such things are, above all else, what makes us human. And the impulse to shape them into memorable verbal contraptions, poetry which matters and lasts, will continue.
MONICA JONES'S LEICESTER
Following the publication of Philip Larkin's Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite, in late 2010, I was asked by the editor of Able Muse, who had gathered that in the 1960s I was taught by Monica Jones and others on the University of Leicester Eglish staff metioned in Larkin's letters to her, if I would write up the experience, and given a free hand about how I went about it. I had fun doing this. While my memoir foregrounds Monica and colleagues of her I had dealings with, it ranges beyond campus goings-on to encompass to encompass something of the texture of life in the city of Leicester in those days. Able Muse published the piece in 2011.
Reading Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite who in 1992 had edited Philip Larkin’s Selected Letters, I grinned when I came across Larkin writing on 13 October 1964 to Monica Jones, who had evidently told him of her newly appointed colleague on the Leicester University English staff,
'I’ve heard the name Paris Leary before – isn’t he some vile expatriate littérateur?… I seem to remember him asking me for poems about 10 years ago. Some no-good bum, desperately leaping from log to log in the Fulbright timber river. Where did ARH pick
Paris Leary as I recall him was worse than that: a fat, red-faced American, author of Jack Sprat’s Cookbook and some uncompelling poems, rarely doing anything he’d said he’d do, or turning up to take his classes, seldom to be found on the campus, toting a comprehensive portfolio of professional uselessness.
I was an undergraduate at the University of Leicester from 1963 to 1966, and around the place during much of the following two years because I had a girlfriend still studying there. Arthur Raleigh Humphreys (the ‘ARH’ of Larkin’s letter) was Head of the English Department, Monica Jones and others referred to in Larkin’s letters to her were among my teachers. The institution to which she and Philip Larkin were both appointed in 1946, in his case as an Assistant Librarian, was Leicester University College, awarding London University external degrees. The place had been founded in 1921 when a Leicester textile manufacturer, Thomas Fielding Johnson, donated the site for educational purposes. The main building, substantial and elegant, with ivy trained around it to give it an academic air, had been built in 1831 as the Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum. Larkin left in 1950, to Queen’s University Belfast, and four years later became Librarian of the University of Hull. His relationship with Monica continued until his death in 1985, by when, having retired from Leicester in 1981 and subsequently suffered a serious fall, she was living with Larkin in the house he had bought in Hull. In 1957 a Royal Charter had elevated Leicester to a full University awarding its own degrees. In my day the Fielding Johnson Building, with the expansion of higher education becoming escorted by new concrete structures, as well as the University’s administrative offices (I still possess the half-metre plastic strip emblazoned ‘CHIEF SECURITY OFFICER’ I unscrewed from that official’s door while he dozed within) housed most of the English staff. Humphreys had a commodious, well-furnished office, those of junior staff such as Monica Jones were tiny and spartan; though any padding which may once have decked them had been stripped away, they had obviously been the cells in which lunatics were confined.
Relations between Town and Gown were poor. Leicester is in the heart of England: aim an accurate dart at the country’s centre of gravity, and you’d hit the city’s clock-tower. Typically, the citizens either affected not to know that they had a university, or muttered about ‘the loony-bin up on the hill’, bemoaning its students as drunken layabouts parasitic on public funds. (In those bygone days students’ fees plus a term-time cost-of-living grant were paid by their local authorities.) The daily newspaper the Leicester Mercury frequently editorialised along these lines. Students derided Leicester people as philistine and complacent, hearing them boast that theirs was ‘the second richest city in Europe’ (after Amsterdam and its diamonds), as if this were a result of virtue rather than of the availability of well-paid employment for women in the textile factories, and that Leicester girls were ‘the best-looking in England’, a ‘well-known fact’ unfamiliar to those arriving from elsewhere. The view from in front of the Fielding Johnson building has been described thus:
'An ill-kept lawn ran down to a row of railings, beyond which was College Road and the town cemetery, a conjunction responsible for some popular local jokes. Lecturers were fond of lauding to their students the comparative receptivity to facts of ‘the Honours class over the road.'
This is from Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim; except that by my day the lawn was well-kept, and with the institution’s upgrading the road running past it had become University Road, it exactly fits, including the cemetery jokes.
The university in which Amis’s Jim Dixon works is not a portrait of Leicester, but his creator records in his Memoirs that the genesis of his novel occurred during a visit to see Larkin in Leicester when his friend took him into the common room:
'I looked round a couple of times and said to myself, ‘Christ, somebody ought to do something with this.’ Not that it was awful – well, only a bit; it was strange and sort of developed, a whole mode of existence no-one had got on to from outside, like the SS in 1940, say. I would do something with it.'
When I was at Leicester anyone interested in contemporary literature was aware that Monica Jones, as well as being the dedicatee of Larkin’s first mature collection The Less Deceived in 1955, had been the model for Amis’s toxic character Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim. It was also, less accurately, supposed around the University that Humphreys was the basis for the egregious Professor Welch in the novel.
A so-called ‘mature student’, aged 23 when I arrived after years of miscellaneous clerical and manual jobs, it happened that during the five years I was around Leicester I formed friendships with members of staff, in various departments, as well as with other students. Monica Jones was not among these, but she was a vivid presence. The adjectives which spring to mind are ‘dashing’ and ‘gushing’. I attended her lectures on Elizabethan poets. She had long blonde hair, and dressed flamboyantly: brightly-coloured blouses or a black sweater, dirndl skirts, and sometimes fishnet stockings. She was highly made-up, with black-rimmed glasses. Her words flowed; and the lectures struck me as well-prepared and intelligent. Her abilities and enthusiasm in relation to literature did not do her career any good: Monica Jones never published a word, so was never promoted. In his Introduction to Letters to Monica, Anthony Thwaite offers as explanation, ‘Monica regarded publishing as a bit showy.’ It seems, as refracted through responses Larkin makes to her comments, that she despised many of her colleagues. On 14 October 1950, soon after his move to Belfast, Larkin wrote to her, ‘As for the Crabbe chapter, it’s quite a dilemma… I see your point about being associated with A.R.H..’ Humphreys had suggested to Monica that she contribute this to volume 4 of the Pelican Guide to English Literature, which he was editing and would cram with five chapters by himself and others by Leicester colleagues. He didn’t get one from Monica.
Monica’s panache was marred by an upper front tooth which waggled back and forth as she ‘gushed’ about the mellifluousness of Sidney’s ‘Astrophel and Stella’ or whatever it might be, and if one sat near the front it was difficult to appreciate ‘With what sad steps, O Moon’ while fearing that the thing might fly out like a bullet and pierce one’s throat.
While writing Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis sent Larkin drafts and requested and received detailed advice on the handling of plot, scenes and characters from his friend, who can be described as the devoted editor who brought Amis’s novel to its successful birth in 1953. Among which, it is clear that while in Larkin’s letters to Monica he is loving and respects her intelligence, he was concurrently feeding Amis details about her extravagant attire, mannerisms and speech-habits. In a letter to Larkin of 24 September 1956, referring to both Monica and Larkin’s previous girlfriend Ruth Bowman, whom Amis had also disliked, Amis writes, ‘…hope you didn’t tell those poor girls the awful wounding things you told me.’ What in particular makes Amis’s Margaret Peel a cruel caricature of Margaret Monica Beale Jones is not just such details as her ‘green Paisley frock’, ’quasi-velvet shoes’, and affected laugh ‘like the tinkle of tiny bells’, but that Amis’s Margaret is a dangerous neurotic battening on Dixon who finds himself in a predicament he scarcely knows how he has stumbled into. Although Jim Dixon is not a portrait of Philip Larkin, biographical evidence shows that this is the situation Amis believed his friend was entangled in. Larkin himself, balancing conflicting loyalties, aware that Monica did not care for Amis, often disparages the latter in his letters to her.
On 2 December 1957 Larkin wrote to Monica that ‘the shabby Xtian ferret’ (a colleague at Hull) had 'told me that Guzzling George had got the job… I am sorry & annoyed, the s.X.f. said that Hoggart had "got the impression" that Arty Rubbish was rooting for G.S.F.'
‘Arty Rubbish’ is Arthur Humphreys again, ‘Guzzling George’ is George (G.S.) Fraser, who had been appointed to the Leicester English staff, and whom I would come to know well. Other references to Fraser in Letters to Monica suggest a somewhat ludicrous figure over-given to conviviality. Again, there may be an element of appeasing Monica here. Fraser had not been an academic, but an influential man of letters, a prolific reviewer, an editor, anthologist and broadcaster, and a poet. Free-lancing doesn’t stack up a pension, so George had sought a university job to muster one. Anthony Thwaite has told me that Monica resented Fraser because Leicester gave him a Readership while she despite years of teaching, remained unpromoted.
George Fraser was sociable. I recall him, in his house kneeling bulkily, as was his habit, in an armchair, a raised glass in one hand, discoursing in his ‘vairy’ Scottish accent on some literary topic, while his wife Paddy leant across at intervals to brush from his front the cigarette-ash drizzling from above. He knew pretty well everyone on the literary scene, and got William Empson, a particular friend, to come to Leicester and give a talk. The large lecture theatre was packed – even Paris Leary had ventured into his place of employment for this. Well after the advertised time, Empson and George, who was to chair things, entered from the back, both obviously the worse for wear, and ambled along the central aisle towards the platform, Empson cradling a mighty stack of books, from which jutted markers inserted in pages from which he intended to quote. He stumbled, and dropped the lot with a crash, the markers flying out. There was a long pause, as Empson stared down, his face above his strangely transparent oriental-sage fan of a beard enacting a charade rendition of his most famous book-title, Seven Types of Ambiguity. Was he going to pick them up? Kick them in disgust? Summon assistance? Flee?… George stood idly by. Eventually, Empson stomped on to the front, and delivered his talk, of which I remember nothing, not even its subject.
But George Fraser was genuinely perceptive about literature, and a very kind man. In those years, my main creative aspirations were not poetic, but to write a novel. Various drafts had reached many thousands of words before I decided I had outgrown what I’d done, and began afresh. Among all this I had written poems, and although I’d sent none to any national magazine, some had appeared in the Leicester student magazine. George asked if he might see a folder of my poems, so I passed him some. He sent them, with his recommendation, to Charles Monteith at Faber (Larkin’s editor there). A reply came (the point at which George told me what he’d done), interested and encouraging, but concluding that my stuff was ‘not quite there yet’ – fair enough.
Obtaining my degree in 1966 did not solve the problem of what ‘career’ I wanted. As in previous summers, I worked as a porter among the five great redbrick Victorian sheds, with their leaky hydraulic lifts and hoists, all now long-demolished, of Queen Street goods-yard. I had no telephone, but George got a message to me to ring him. I did so from a payphone. A few days earlier, he told me, he had met at a party a man named Donald Mitchell, Philosophy don at Worcester College Oxford. Mitchell had mentioned that the College had advertised nationally its Martin Senior Scholarship, to fund a postgraduate research student. George told me, ‘I told him we’d got this chap Waterman, newly-graduated, but just working on the railways. And so on. Are you interested?’ I was. ‘Then Mitchell said you should phone him.’ George gave me the Worcester College number. I phoned, and a few days later, bathed and changed after a night-shift heaving goods items about, travelled by train to Oxford, and found myself being grilled by a roomful of the College’s senior members, including Mitchell and the Provost Lord Franks, formerly British Ambassador to the USA. My chief interrogator was Christopher Ricks, then Worcester’s English Fellow. They were understanding: in the nature of the situation I had no research project formulated. Thus, through George Fraser’s agency, I went to Oxford. He was a man who bothered to do these things.
We now know from biographies and letters that the supposition at Leicester in my undergraduate days that Professor Humphreys had been the real-life original of Professor Welch in Lucky Jim was erroneous. Amis’s father-in-law, Leonard Bardwell, was that. In a letter to Larkin of 12 July 1949 Amis says of him, ‘I shall swing for the old cockchafer unless I put him in a book recognisably,’ and this he did, although in his biography of Amis Zachary Leader comments, ‘Daddy B apparently never recognised himself in Professor Welch.’
But Arthur Humphreys was a plausible candidate for the honour, not least because of his apparent near-total inability to notice things, whether the world around him or things right under his nose. A scholar of the Augustan writers, he had an air of living more in their century than in our own. A well-built man, with features of the sort whch used to be termed ‘finely-chiselled’ beneath a greying thatch, he never personally carried things he needed, such as a tape-recorder (admittedly bulky contraptions in those days) to his office or a lecture-room, but would summon a ‘man’ for this menial task. His lectures featured alliterative riffs and runs: the poetry of Dryden he told us, his gown swishing, was ‘cogent, congested, corrugated and quirky.’
A further impediment to literary discussion with Humphreys was his aptness to acclaim anything said, however banal, or indeed bleeding obvious. In my second year, I had tutorials with Humphreys together with Jenny Packer and Warwick Shipstone, who subsequently married one another. During one tutorial Jenny, screwing her face into the fervent expression of someone who has just discovered a cure for cancer, said, ‘Professor, I have been reading Wordsworth and Coleridge, and it really does seem to me that their poetry, its subjects and language, is somehow very different from their Augustan predecessors. Am I onto something?’ Humphreys was effusive: ‘Why yes indeed, Miss Packer, a most acute perception!…’
In June 1965 the English Department saw fit to award me their second-year prize, news conveyed to me in a letter from Humphreys. Tongue-in-cheek, I wrote him back a letter declaring my utter unworthiness, that I had that year read and done nothing, been wholly indolent. A childish spoof, I admit. He responded with a letter earnestly assuring me how fully my work had merited the award. The following year I was awarded the prize, named after some bygone Leicester dignitary I forget, for being according to them the best graduate in English of the year. My son Rory would win a similar award when he graduated in English at Leicester thirty-nine years later. He cannot match the dialogue I had in 1966 with the University’s then Vice-Chancellor, Fraser Noble as, after the degree ceremony, everyone shuffled around the lawn in front of the Fielding Johnson Building devouring strawberries and cream – Humphreys and Monica and other staff kitted out in gowns and mortar-boards, as were the new graduates (people I’d never before seen not wearing jeans not wearing jeans), proud parents beaming. Fraser Noble ambled across to me, and proffering what he might well have called a ‘fin’ enunciated,
‘Congratulations, Waterman, on winning the [whatever name it bears] English prize! Pray tell me, on what have you spent the prize-money?’
‘Boots,’ I replied.
‘Ah, excellent!’ said the Vice-Chancellor, ‘Pray tell me, what books were those?’
‘No, boots,’ I said.
This went on for some time. A week before, levering heavy goods such as aeroplane engines onto a railway hand-barrow, I’d ripped the heels off my shoes. The timely arrival of the prize-cheque enabled me to purchase a pair of stout workman’s boots.
The nine final examinations, from which one’s degree derived entirely – there was no coursework component then – had included a ‘General Essay’ paper. It offered a choice of topics. I passed over the attractions of ‘“Dear old bloody old England, / All telegraph poles and tin” (John Betjeman) – Discuss’, irresistibly tempted by ‘A University English Department’, and plunged into happy satire, focused on ‘Professor X’, endowed with all Humphreys’s exasperating attributes. I quoted verbatim his alliterative flow about Dryden, caricatured his incapacity to notice or grasp things. The culmination was a scene in which there irrupted into his office fictional characters from his favoured novelists Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, creations Humphreys relished, when they were safely on the page, as ‘robust, rowdy, raucous and rumbustious’. In my essay Squire Western, Parson Adams, and Humphrey Clinker (my personal nickname for our departmental head reversed this to ‘Clinker Humphreys’) burst in upon him bawling bawdy and clapping him about the shoulders, crying, ‘Let’s go down the Marquis and knock back a few pints, me old cock-sparrow!’ while the Professor, face riven with horror, scrabbles at the phone on his desk to summon a ‘man’ to eject them. I strolled out into the sunshine. Then the thought struck me: what if Humhreys happens to mark the General Essays? But then, being him, he would be the sole member of the English staff incapable of realising that what I’d written was a glaringly obvious lampoon of himself. Years later, at a University Teachers of English conference, I met Duncan Macrae-Gibson, who at Leicester had taught me Old English, then moved to Aberdeen. He grinned at me. ‘I’ve still got your essay,’ he said, ‘Spot on about Arthur.’ He had been its marker, had given it an alpha-plus grade – and, illicitly, filched my work.
The other Professor of English during my Leicester days, and a colleague of Monica for decades, was P.A.W. Collins. In his Introduction Thwaite pairs him with Humphreys as colleagues ‘reviled’ and ‘frequently gossiped about’ in the Jones-Larkin correspondence. However, the letters Thwaite has selected for the book contain nothing about Philip Collins, who figures solely in a couple of the notes Thwaite appends to letters.
Collins was a ‘Dickensian’, author of Dickens and Crime and Dickens and Education. What next, we wondered? – Dickens and Sex? Dickens and shoes and ships and sealing-wax? Charles Dickens poured huge energy into public readings from his novels. Collins, togged up in old-style attire, gave his own public readings from Dickens in a Leicester theatre, slouching and gesturing about the stage as he droned his way through the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, affecting different voices for the characters – ‘Then spare my life,’ gargled his Nancy, ‘for the sake of Heaven.’ The Mercury reviewer, recalling that Dickens’s powerful rendering of this had in its day been likened to watching the great Victorian actor McCready playing Macbeth, judged that ‘on that scale Philip Collins rates about one-third of a Fleance.’
It was possible with Collins, as it was not with Humphreys, to engage in meaningful cut-and-thrust literary discussion, during the tutorials I had in my final year under the pipe-smoke-kippered ceiling of his office, which like that of Humphreys was spacious, not one of the former lunatics’ cells. During the previous year, I had been good friends with a girl then in her final year, very bright and witty, thought likely to attain first-class honours. When she was awarded only a third-class degree, there was general shock. I was aware that a few days before her examinations commenced, the divorced Collins had told her he had had a ‘change of mind’, and was after all not going to marry her (their engagement had been kept secret from most people), but instead was to marry another student, whose first name I now forget, but the easily remembered maiden surname of the lady who indeed became Mrs Collins was ‘Dickens’.
My closest friend among Monica’s colleagues was Dipak Nandy. He is not mentioned in Letters to Monica, but Googling him I find, among other things, John Sutherland writing in his 2001 Guardian obituary of Monica Jones, ‘When the brilliant Dipak Nandy was appointed to the department, she gaily told one of her confidants, “We’ve appointed a coloured communist.”’ Dipak’s account of himself told of growing up in an aristocratic Indian family, with leopards as pets and servants doing everything for him, indeed becoming a Marxist (never in my experience of the narrowly ideological sort), and falling in love with English literature. In particular, he admired G. Wilson Knight’s interpretation of the mythic dimensions of Shakespeare’s plays. Dipak had come to England, and after living rough on London’s Hampstead Heath for a bit had got himself into the University of Leeds, where Wilson Knight taught; while a student there he had met his wife Maggie, who like myself had grown up in Croydon in South London. Confirming the aristocratic upbringing, on occasions when Maggie was away for a few days, Dipak in their Leicester flat was a forlorn figure, scarcely knowing what to do with a can-opener, or how to boil an egg. He was only a little older than myself, and his lectures, ranging from John Bunyan to Joseph Conrad, were the most incisive and lucid I heard at Leicester.
Nowadays Leicester has a combined ethnic minority population set to outnumber its white inhabitants. In the 1960s the number of people of Indian or Pakistani stock was already large, and there were many people of Caribbean origin. On the streets, relations between these ethnicities have been pretty untroubled, but when I arrived in the city UK law still permitted businesses to operate a colour-bar. Also landlords: one saw in newsagents’ windows scrawled advertisements along the lines of ‘Singel room us bath 2 mins busses suit gent no Blacks’. Notorious offenders were Everards, the local brewery: in their pubs, coloured people were not served.
In1964, after the Labour government led by Harold Wilson was voted into power, it seemed an opportune time to try to change, among other things, the law allowing such discrimination. With Dipak and Maggie Nandy and others I helped found the Committee for Racial Equality, and support mushroomed. We held marches and a big rally around the main gate into Victoria Park. I nerved myself to address the Leicester Trades Council on the issue, aware that among the grizzled male faces in the hall in front of me many, whatever they thought of blacks and Asians, were likely to be sceptical about anything emanating from the ‘loony-bin up on the hill’. In those days whatever private prejudices many might harbour, trades unions and the Labour movement had fundamental guiding principles, a sense of the difference between right and wrong, to which members gravitated. The Trades Council voted through a resolution opposing the Everards colour-bar, and such discrimination generally.
One evening, eight of us, including Dipak, went to the upstairs lounge of the Admiral Nelson, an Everards pub. A couple of us, not including Dipak, went to the bar and ordered drinks for us all. We were under scrutiny as we drank. Then, as planned, Dipak went to the bar to buy the next round. He was refused service. He politely repeated his request; the barman asked him to leave. Dipak stayed put, the barman reached for his phone. Things happened fast: within minutes, a bunch of burly coppers stormed in, grabbed Dipak, hoisted him, carted him down the stairs, and threw him sprawling on the pavement outside. All this was covered in the Leicester Mercury. Meanwhile, we had gone to see Herbert Bowden, one of the city’s MPs, Leader of the House of Commons and an immensely powerful figure in the government.
Many years before, when I was about ten, my Communist Aunt Flo and Uncle Sid, who lived next door and owned the house my mother rented from them, had for a time had a lodger named George Bowden (first syllable rhyming with ‘woe’), a very Welsh Communist who would bemoan his brother Herbert’s defection from the True Cause to join the Labour Party. Speaking in 1965 to this renegade, who had no trace of Welsh accent and pronounced the first syllable of his surname to rhyme with ‘wow’, and who was known to be on the right wing of the Labour Party, I found a man entirely sympathetic to our campaign. He promised to use his influence to get the law changed by Parliament; and this happened fairly soon after. Of course, banning discrimination in public places does not necessarily change hearts and minds; but at least it meant that Dippy Nandy could never again legally be manhandled from a pub; or refused service in any commercial premises. I’ve always been glad that in Leicester I was part of bringing this change about.
The year I graduated, Dipak moved to a post at the University of Kent at Canterbury. But two years later, in 1968, he left academic life, to become Director of the newly founded Runnymede Trust, a think-tank for promoting racial equality in the United Kingdom.
I enjoyed Leicester. I lived in a sequence of tatty little bedsitters and flats, one under, but on the right side of, the daunting battlemented walls of Leicester Prison, a fearsome edifice castigated in the 1830s by William Cobbett. At Queen Street, I so often found myself unloading from goods-wagons shoulder-high spherical cheeses stamped ‘H.M. Prison, Leicester, that I wondered if those incarcerated therein were fed anything else. I rode double-decker Midland Red buses into the surrounding county, for long walks among the gentle hills scattered with redbrick villages.
On a couple of occasions I had a sighting of Philip Larkin and Monica Jones sitting together in the Clarendon pub on the far side of Victoria Park from the University, not a regular resort of mine. Larkin combined conscientious visits to his mother in the Leicestershire town of Loughborough with seeing Monica. Having heard of his shyness, I made no attempt to introduce myself. Some years later, Larkin would be the selector who decided that my first collection of poems should be a Poetry Book Society Choice.
It is obvious from Letters to Monica (including in excerpts Thwaite prints from her letters where these illuminate what Larkin is writing to her) that she was, from before his fame began, a perceptive and supportive reader of his poems as he composed them. About these, including some of the most famous such as ‘Church Going’, Larkin had doubts which he confides to Monica in terms suggesting genuine, not false, modesty. The dedication to her of The Less Deceived was not just a present to a girlfriend, but an honour thoroughly deserved. He continued to trust her in relation to his writings, and to confide his creative misgivings. On 13 June 1963, telling Monica he has sent the typescript of The Whitsun Weddings off to Faber, Larkin adds:
'It comprises 33 poems. Some are very thin… It is a poor harvest for 9 years, in fact I think it is infinitely worse than the L.D.. It has nothing like If, My Darling or Maiden Name, poems that give the impression of having plenty in hand. The poetic quality is diluted.'
Many readers consider The Whitsun Weddings Larkin’s strongest single collection.
Larkin also shares with Monica his literary passions, including his reasons for preferring Hardy to Yeats and, perhaps more surprisingly, a lifelong obsession with D.H. Lawrence. He tells her with extreme candour his feelings about relationships, about sex, and much else. He conveys his simpler enjoyments, including a delight in the beauties of nature as he cycles out from Belfast along the coast to Carrickfergus, or in later years drives around Yorkshire’s East Riding. He also retails quotidian things, cooking a pork chop for his super and suchlike – material Thwaite has included to give a true impression of the overall texture of the correspondence and the relationship.
It is a stroke of chance that Letters to Monica exists. In his Introduction, Thwaite tells readers that when he edited Larkin’s Selected Letters ‘Monica had searched and had found about twenty letters in the house she had inherited from Larkin at his death. I used thirteen of them.’ After Monica Jones’s death in 2001, a massive hoard of letters and postcards from Larkin to her came to light. For Letters to Monica Thwaite has selected rigorously: from 7,500 pages of posted letters and postcards he has published a mere 450 pages of print. Yet had the whole lot been available to him in 1992, I suspect that the length of the Selected Letters would have been augmented by only about 60 to 80 pages, and readers would have missed not only the pork chops and other mundane stuff, but also some of the more fascinating personal material, and certainly would not have got the full flavour of the relationship. People have asked him, Anthony Thwaite has told me, whether in her lifetime Monica concealed the existence of her vast cache of letters from Philip Larkin. He thinks not: ‘In her later years, Monica was very disorganised. Well – pissed.’
But Letters to Monica illumines her many positive qualities.