The big Spender I have in mind is Stephen, poet and man of letters, international conferencer and literary big wig; and I call him big Spender, not because he ever had much money, apart from a modest private income on which he seemed to get by without paid employment as a young man, but because of his stature, 6 foot 3 – not so very tall these days, but exceptionally so when he was young. In the famous pictures of him with his contemporaries, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, he towers over them. My first sight of him was in June 1965 in the foyer of the Globe Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, London (not to be confused with the modern replica of Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank) at a commemoration of T.S. Eliot who had died in January of that year. It was an extraordinary theatrical homage, involving music by Stravinsky, poems chosen by Auden, Groucho Marx reading from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Andrey Voznesensky reading his own, Henry Moore represented by an immense marble sculpture creaking around on a revolving stage, Cleo Lane and Johnny Dankworth doing Sweeney Agonistes, readings of Eliot poems by Peter O’Toole, Paul Scofield, Laurence Olivier... And there in the foyer was big Spender, his rather fine head above the crowd.
I stared at him because he had figured in my consciousness since poetry had made its surprising intrusion into my life while I was still a Grammar school boy. Not that I thought of Spender, in 1965 or even earlier, as one of ‘the truly great’ (to use the phrase a poem of his had made famous, and slightly infamous); but he had mixed with them, thought about them (he told us) ‘continually’, had figured in their lives, had always and everywhere seemed part of the contemporary poetry scene; and so it was not just unsurprising but right that he should be present at this ‘momentous occasion’. And that’s what the death of Eliot was said to be – ‘momentous’, ‘the end of an era’. Eliot had dominated the Anglophone literary world for three or four decades, both as poet and as critic, and there was no one of similar stature to replace him.
As a student I had bought Spender’s autobiography, World within World (which typically he had written at the age of 42); and I had even bought a book of his poems (I could ill-afford either) Ruins and Visions, which recounted the painful ending of his first marriage. He had a talent for representing his own shames and failures, which appealed to a young, shy and constantly embarrassed poet; and humiliation was what he had suffered constantly in the presence of the magisterial young Auden, his contemporary at Oxford. In World within World he describes showing some of his poems to Auden and being told that he was now ‘one of the Gang’ and that he must write ‘nothing but poetry’.
This remark produced in me a choking moment of hope mingled with despair in which I cried, ‘But do you think I am any good?’ ‘Of course,’ he replied frigidly. ‘But why?’ ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation.’
The autobiography was also unusual in that it was frank about his emotional attachments to men, but without ever suggesting (or denying either) that these might involve physical love-making. So Spender was generally thought of, when he was discussed among literary people, as ‘bi’, having a foot in both camps – and with his second marriage to the pianist Natasha Litvin and the birth of their two children, Matthew and Lizzie, the ‘gay’ phase was supposed to be over. That, anyway, was the story that Natasha promoted and Stephen did not discourage, while unsubstantiated gossip constantly suggested otherwise.
Stephen’s early fame came as one of the group of new young Leftist poets of the 1930s – the MacSpaunday group the South African-born poet Roy Campbell mockingly called them – Auden, Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. They were also known as the Pylon Poets because of their very conscious inclusion in their poems of the ‘unpoetic’ features of modern industrial landscapes and cityscapes. It was clear to me early on that Spender’s talent as a poet was rather fragile, and that the more (in differing ways) robust Auden and MacNeice were more notable. But Spender had that talent for always being a part of the significant scene; and a fellow student and I used to play her 78 rpm disks of him reading some of his early and famous poems – ‘I think continually of those who are truly great’, ‘Landscape near an aerodrome’, ‘The Express’, ‘Thoughts during an air raid’. I liked his delicate, rather posh voice. He lacked the authority of Auden or MacNeice, but he had sensitivity, and sounded like someone you might like in person.
Many years later I did meet him. First it was at lunch with Alan Ross, editor of the London Magazine, and later through the Australian comic actor Barry Humphries, a friend of many years, whose fourth wife was Stephen’s daughter Lizzie, who had her father’s blonde hair, blue eyes and stature. In those years I was a visitor to London, but a frequent visitor, and after the late 1970s a year never passed without my being there for a month or two, sometimes more. The lunches with Alan Ross were very literary, very civilised, pasta usually, and always with an Italian fizzy wine, Lambrusco, which Ross favoured. Two or three times Stephen came too, and Alan asked me to write an essay about him for the magazine. I did that, but found it difficult. How did one convey (to put the difficulty with less subtlety than was called for) that a poet was important even though none of his poems was very good?
What I did was to first tell a (true) story. I described finding myself in autumn in Germany, in the peculiarly redolent literary atmosphere of the forest-park around the tower where the poet Hőlderlin had been incarcerated for 35 years, and being invaded there by the feeling that I was ‘inside literature’. At first I was not able to pin-point what this feeling meant.
Then it occurred to me that what I was feeling was that I was inside a poem by Stephen Spender, one which, like the very best of his poems, has never been written.
To this I added a reminiscence of walking in a London street with Christopher MacLehose and being stopped by Christopher’s friend, the Liberal Peer Mark Bonham-Carter, who wanted to show us a little book he had just acquired. He put the book down on the nearest car bonnet which at once set off its alarm; but Bonham-Carter, undeterred, simply moved on up the street, away from the racket, and tried again. The book was the list of people, drawn up by the German SS, of those who were to be summarily dealt with when England was invaded; and there, among the names marked for death, in black German Gothic, was Steffan Spender. It seemed to mark out his importance – that even the potential invader should know about him and want to be rid of him. What we learn now, from his son Matthew’s book (see below) is that Stephen had anticipated this and had a suicide plan: if the Germans occupied England he would simply swim out to sea until exhausted, and drown.
I don’t know what Spender thought of an article which praised him for the poems he had not written rather than those he had, but much worse had been said about him, and my article also acknowledged his affirmative temperament, his humour, above all his honesty and accuracy, equally in describing what he saw and what he felt. Not a great poet, I implied, but an important observer, an identity and a presence for poetry in the world.
The reason for the second half of my title is that ‘little Matthew’ has long since grown up and is the sculptor Matthew Spender who lives and works in Tuscany, has written an excellent book, Inside Tuscany, and has now published a book about his parents, A House in St John’s Wood. It is a subject which interests me especially because Kay and I spent a few weeks in that house, 15 Loudoun Road, as house sitters. It was in 1992 when an unwelcome biography of Stephen by Hugh David was published and Natasha rang saying, ‘We’re having a besiege!’ and asking would we occupy the house and keep it safe while she and Stephen escaped to their retreat in rural France. The rather dilapidated rented house in Loudoun Road, which they had occupied for decades, had many valuable works of art and famous archives. It had an alarm system linked to the local police station (as I discovered when I accidentally triggered it), but they felt it was safer if there were people in constant occupation, and their usual house-sitters were away. We were glad to fill this role. In fact it was to be my joke that I’d spent the night of my 60th birthday in Stephen Spender’s bed, but with Kay not with Stephen.
The ‘besiege’ Natasha spoke of was by journalists wanting to ask them about this new biography which the Spenders, Natasha in particular, thought had unfairly focussed on the homosexual aspect of Stephen’s life. In fact Natasha wrote a long complaining piece about this in the TLS – a mistake, I suspect, because it only drew more attention to the subject she wanted swept under the carpet, increasing the intensity of the besiege; also because the book itself is surprisingly cautious on that subject and pays fulsome tribute to Stephen’s family life with Natasha.
Matthew Spender’s book is not a defence of family honour on this question, nor an upholding of Stephen’s heterosexuality. It is, rather, a truthful account of growing up in a family where the father’s more or less continuing homosexuality is denied by the mother, and not to be spoken about. ‘Willpower on her part,’ Matthew writes, and ‘good manners on his, papered over the cracks’. Stephen’s sexuality is not the sole subject of the book, which is a broad and honest account of a childhood that was by no mean blighted or unhappy, but was, at least in this respect, distinctly odd. There is much in it that is colourful and full of interesting people – Auden for example, ‘oracular’ at the dinner table and smoking between courses; Stephen in argument with William Empson and throwing a glass of wine over him; Natasha’s ‘non-sexual’ love affair with Raymond Chandler; Louis MacNeice, ‘tall and pale’, arriving at the house to meet Auden, who had been waiting for hours; Chester Kallman’s ‘disbelief in heterosexual love’ and its consequent absence from the libretto of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress; Auden weeping as Chester went off in pursuit of a beautiful young man.
The book also reveals a lot about Natasha’s life as a concert pianist, its slow decline and gradual replacement, in later years, by her studies in the theory of aesthetic response (aural perception in particular), a subject she became expert in and taught at the Royal College of Art. She also turned their French rural retreat, Mas St Jerome at Maussane-les-Alpilles, into a thing of beauty and wrote an excellent and beautifully illustrated book about creating the garden there with the necessary assistance of a very deep well and consequent water supply. Matthew reveals how little Stephen noticed or interested himself in these accomplishments. He was the poet and man of letters, and their public world revolved around him while in private he still fell in love with younger men.
Matthew has had access to Natasha’s journals as well as Stephen’s; and what emerges early is Natasha’s naïve idealism about their future together despite all that Stephen had told her about his past. This is not so odd in itself as is her persistence with the fiction right through to their old age. Stephen was not gay; or if he was, you shouldn’t say so. Primarily he was a loving heterosexual husband and father.
There are also glimpses, and sometimes details, of Stephen’s involvement in matters of literary and publishing politics – his editing of Encounter, for example, and the scandal when it emerged that it was secretly funded by the CIA as a cultural weapon in the Cold War. Had Stephen known – or not? Matthew appears undecided about this. And the power of Stephen’s influence: ‘all he had to do was pick up the phone to a publisher,’ an aspiring writer told Matthew, ‘and a contract appeared.’
The boy Matthew agonised over the question of whether his father was, as his school mates said, a member of the British Establishment. Clearly he was, but the young Matthew disliked the idea and wrote Stephen ‘a bitter letter’ from school when he accepted a knighthood. Stephen wrote ‘an extraordinary reply’. Life, he told his son, was ‘very much like school. Sooner or later one had to join the Sixth Form. Most of his friends were in the Sixth form already.’ And he listed various friends who were knights, and asked, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ – adding (cunningly Matthew says) that the boy should ‘think of the pleasure it would give’ his mother.
Matthew was still very young when he began living with Maro, daughter of the painter Arshile Gorky, and they moved to Tuscany, so his separation from his parents – from Natasha particularly, who could not get on with or approve of Maro – was considerable. This book is his way, I suppose, of reclaiming them.
I last saw Stephen the Sunday night, 9 July 1995, exactly a week before he died. I had dinner, at a restaurant called Caprice, with Stephen and Natasha, Barry and Lizzie – just the five of us. I was in London on my way to an Ezra Pound conference in the beautiful little medieval town of Brantome in France, where I would see Pound’s opera Le Testament de Villon performed in a cave. When Stephen died, suddenly and unexpectedly, Barry rang my daughter Charlotte, who was living in London at the time, asking her to pass the news on to me and suggest I call him, which I did. He no doubt had many people to call, but it was clear he thought I would want to know and to come back for the funeral. I pleaded conference commitments – there were things I didn’t want to miss.
Opera or obsequies, Ezra Pound in a Brantome cave, or the funeral of big Spender – it was difficult, and on reflection I think I probably made the wrong choice.