Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: John Wain

“Unkind things”: the letters of Kingsley Amis

In a letter to me not long before his death, touching on the role played in the publication of his 1957 collection by poet and novelist John Wain, the poet Gordon Wharton came up with some harsh words for Kingsley Amis, who at that time had moved in the same circles:

“What else? Oh yes, John Wain was lecturing in English at Reading Uni when he was supervising/editing the series in which Errors of Observation appeared … Incidentally, Kingsley Amis absolutely loathed JW, and when John’s sight began to go, he wrote all manner of filthy things to Larkin and/or Conquest. If you can get hold of Amis’s collected letters, you’ll find he has some pretty unkind things to say about me, too. Never retracted, even though I was instrumental in earning him quite a lot of money on the Third Programme. I have postcards and letters from him nagging about money: how much, how soon and how often. Despite all his amusing ways and books, he was a pig!”

amis lettersSo just how unkind was Amis? Picking through The Letters of Kingsley Amis (a volume the size of a small breezeblock), we find that he would probably have been in the same room as Wharton at the January 1953 launch of G S Fraser’s Springtime anthology, in which they were both represented, but didn’t make contact for 18 months, until they met to discuss George Hartley’s Listen magazine, with which Wharton had been involved. In July 1954 Amis wrote to Philip Larkin:

“Had a good jaunt in London the other week. I met Gordon Wharton, a funny little chap with a cockney accent like mine … who looked about 14 and nice but has a wife and kid. When he wasn’t taking TWENTY MINUTES to tell me that ‘it’s a long way to tip a raree’ story in a bad Irish accent, or NEARLY STARTING FIGHTS at Leicester Sq Underground by ‘pretending to be drunk’ and lurching into negroes shouting , etc., he was telling me that LISTEN should have been out, was coming out, on 14th June, but he HASN’T HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT IT FOR WEEKS fuck and burgher. It seems that he’s turned it all over to Geo H[artley].”

Gordon (unlike Amis) didn’t have a racist bone in his body, so the suggestion that he deliberately provoked black people is unfortunate. His grandmother was Irish, and he collaborated poetically with Patrick Galvin, so the Irish accent may have been better than suggested. Amis (lower middle class) had some sensitivities with regard to social status, so for “cockney accent” read “self-educated working class intellectual”. At least they seem to have parted friends. But six months later Amis put the knife in well and truly, in his advice of January 1955 to Robert Conquest on the latter’s choice for his “Movement” anthology, New Lines:

“Your provisional list seems unexceptionable to me. About the 4 fresh people you name, my judgements (for what they’re worth) are:

Gordon Wharton: Snap judgement on what I’ve seen (not much):

P.P.P. (pretty pisspoor)

Though amiable and far from spineless”

On that casual basis Wharton was excluded from New Lines. By April 1956 this “amiable” man had become “that idiot Gordon Wharton.” In October of the same year Amis and Wharton appeared together, alongside Bernard Bergonzi and Geoffrey Warnock, on a Third Programme poetry discussion, The Moral Element. Amis was worried that he “sounded rather a ponce, but … less of a South Kensington coffee-party ponce than Wharton …”

How much of this abuse was also to the face? Or was it saved up for letters to chum Larkin? Much later, in October 1985, Amis commented to Larkin on John Wain:

“What was all that about him going blind a few years ago? Result of meths-drinking to save on drink bills? Or an excuse for his difficulties with the printed word, inability to find his way to the bar, trouble seeing what’s staring him in the face, etc. Takes me back over the years to the afternoon he read me bits of HoD [Hurry on Down] and I was filled with despair because I thought it sounded exactly like crap, which of course it couldn’t be.”

Twenty two years before he had written to Wain himself:

“I thoroughly enjoyed Hurry on Down and read it whenever I had a free moment till I’d finished it. It is very funny in parts and does succeed above all in getting across a grotesque and twisted view of life … I think a few parts are over-written: my only complaint.”

Similar treatment is dealt out to countless others in Amis’s 1200 pages of accumulating vituperation. The reader quickly grows tired of the mannered abuse, the fixed adolescent tone, the relentless “urine”, “bum”, “turdy” and so on, the sad efforts at pornography featuring 14 year old lesbians, the nudie pics enclosed to Larkin, the casual put-downs of women, blacks, Jews.

No doubt it’s been said many times before, but however much of a soft spot one retains for Lucky Jim,  it’s still immensely sad and sobering to follow the steady collapse of this overblown schoolboy with radical inclinations into the ageing, boorish (and boring) reactionary, his gratuitous offensiveness the only remaining echo of an original and authentic dissent. Sad, but somehow oh-so-British.

Or is this an instance of the problem of a particular type of literary personality, one who finds it possible to be humane only in a fictional setting? What kind of dislocated soul is it that mistakes the habit of insult for the discipline of right judgement? And what might this tell us about the urge to write and the yearning for compensation?

Dreaming to a questionable purpose: Colin Wilson’s hazy day with Burns Singer

As an impressionable teenager I was quite impressed by Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Since those distant days, of course, Wilson has slid from existentialism to murder mysteries to the mystical-wystical; in support of his busy publishing schedule he hasn’t, it seems, allowed either a degree of repetition or the uncertainties of memory to hinder a good story.

The Outsider had a mixed reception at the time. One prominent review, in the Times Literary Supplement, was written by the poet Burns Singer (subject of my last but one post and of the “Transparent Prisoner” page above). Singer was clearly troubled by impostor syndrome all his life, and would have had a ready interest in anything claiming to deal with outsidership. The TLS had published only a few poems by him, and this was his first chance as its reviewer, courtesy of G S Fraser. Shortly before The Outsider appeared, Wilson happened to run into Singer; his brief report of this encounter appeared in 1997 in issue 4 of Rain Taxi review:

“I was at a party and met a young Scotsman who said he’d read The Outsider and thought it was a wonderful book; I said, how did you manage to read it, and he said he’d got hold of a proof. His name was James Burns Singer and he was a poet, and he invited me the next day to go with him when he went down to the magazine Encounter to pick up a check, which he then cashed, and he went out on a binge taking me with him. It was the first time I’d seen the Scots’ capacity for consuming alcohol. He was a brilliant poet but died a few years later.”

The stereotyping of “the Scots” is bit casual, but the final sentence is generous enough: Singer is “a brilliant poet”, and his early death is presented as a regrettable fact. (No mention of the review, oddly.) But when this anecdote is re-run (shortly after?) in issue 13 of Abraxas (the Wilson mouthpiece magazine), not only has the “wonderful” Outsider become “a masterpiece” in Burns’ eyes, but, more worryingly, Wilson conflates Singer’s early death with the payday binge to come up with the creative assertion that the poet “was to die of alcoholism”.

By the time we reach “A day with Burns Singer” in chapter 8 of Wilson’s 2004 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, the story is well fleshed out:

“Two weeks before publication day, I went to another party … and there met a young, good-looking Scot named James Burns Singer, whose fine blond hair and delicate features gave him a girlish appearance. To my surprise, he had read The Outsider in proof, and told me had had reviewed it for The Times Literary Supplement. He mentioned that he had written an article about the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and intended to collect his fee from the Encounter office the next day. He invited me to join him and have a drink afterwards.

I met him at eleven, and we went to the office of Encounter in Panton Street, where he got an open cheque for £40, then went to a bank around the corner and cashed it. And as it was nearly midday, he dragged me into the nearest pub, and there proceeded to drink the money. This carried on through most of the afternoon, although I took care to drink less than he did, and to eat sandwiches to soak up the whisky.

Although a poet, Burns Singer claimed he was able to make a great deal of money from his work. The secret, he said, was simply to write enough. He explained he had just sold a sequence of a hundred sonnets to a literary magazine called Bottega Oscura [sic], edited by an Italian millionairess, and after his fourth whisky, he proceed to recite some of them. (I was to note in the coming years that this is a habit that seems to be common to Scottish poets.)

That evening I had been invited to the flat of Maurice Cowling … John Wain … was to be there. And since Burns Singer wanted to meet Wain, he came too. But by that time he could scarcely speak, and before Wain arrived, he had fallen asleep on the settee, and only grunted when our host tried to wake him.

… I left Burns Singer asleep on the settee – he was quite unwakable … (In due course, Burns Singer would drink himself to death – he was found dead in bed in September 1964.)”

Shelley lookalike Burns Singer

Wilson carefully tells us that he meets Singer not at ten thirty or ten forty-five, but at eleven. (I’m disappointed he doesn’t tell us what was in the sandwiches with which he soaked up the alcohol.) This level of clarity might encourage us to trust his statement that Singer “drank himself to death”. Clearly, anyone who (a) drinks and (b) dies in bed should be suspect in that regard.

Singer’s “Sonnets for a Dying Man” contained fifty poems, not a hundred. Was Marguerite Caetani a millionairess? Didn’t the magazine fold partly for financial reasons? Singer had an income from reviewing, but “a great deal of money” from poetry? The Scots (poets specifically this time) are generalised again. The phrase “girlish appearance” strikes a bizarre note too; is Wilson implying that Singer was gay? (He wasn’t.)

But the pub crawl continues. Staggering on to The Angry Years: A Literary Chronicle of 2007, we find our host settled back in the full confidence of rehearsal, and get the whole story again with additional dramatic detail. Wilson is now “astonished” to learn that Singer has read a proof of his book, Singer consumes “an incredible amount” of whisky, recites “all his own poetry” by heart as well as “most of Hugh M’Diarmid and W S Graham”, is not only taciturn by evening but “hardly able to stand”, and is finished off by yet another “large” whisky provided at the flat.

John Wain turns out to be “aggressive … prickly, possibly with a touch of paranoia”, and looks “contemptuously” at Singer – not surprising, given that he is said to “detest drunken Scots”. The poet sleeps on, “looking rather like Shelley with his long blond hair and girlish features”.

Elsewhere in The Angry Years Wilson mentions again the periodical “Botteghe Obscura [sic], which paid top rates (and to which Burns Singer also contributed).” Botteghe Oscure was not an especially obscure literary periodical, but neither Wilson nor his proof readers seem to have found it necessary to check the spelling of the Italian.

Significantly, Wilson has by now dropped the unfortunate statement that Singer boozed himself into an early grave, though the Shelley imagery subtly provides a compensatory hint of premature and tragic demise for a doomed and “girlish” poet. (Was Wilson also thinking loosely of Henry Wallis’ painting of the Death of Chatterton?) It’s by no means self-evident that drinking contributed to the heart disease that killed Singer. But there are other missing elephants in the room.

We have it on good authority (Dr Eric Corner, Singer’s colleague at Plymouth, cited by Walter Keir) that in the last year of his life Singer visited several other writers in the South West, including the Cornish poet Charles Causley – and Colin Wilson, who had moved to Cornwall in 1957. If so, it’s strange that this second meeting is not mentioned.

Young Colin plays it safe with a mug of tea

Singer’s review of The Outsider, under the title “Chosen Few”, appeared on June 8 1956, but Wilson doesn’t say another word about it. A prominent review in the prestigious TLS by a reviewer who said he thought The Outsider “a masterpiece”? Modesty? Oversight?

In fact, Singer’s review hit the nail firmly on the head. A bag full of nails, in fact. Loftily casting Wilson (aged 24 at the time) as “a very young man who has written … a very ambitious book,” Singer (aged 27) faintly praises The Outsider as an honest, intelligent and “very interesting” but “desperate attempt to make sense of the conflicting views of life that have been thrown at [Wilson] by an immense variety of books.” About the best he can find to say is that “the charm of the book arises from its faults,” that it is “less portentous” than what it sets out to be, and “more human”.

“Mr Wilson’s reading has not been systematic enough, does not have sufficient structure, to bear the weight of awful generalizations that he seeks to impose on it.”

“… we have only a list of personalities … There is no obvious reason why a completely different assortment of writers, thinkers and artists should not be dragged together and forced to express the same concepts about the nature of the Outsider. Poor William Blake, in particular, is reduced to the status of a ventriloquist’s doll by the repetition of such remarks as: ‘The symbolism here is plain enough,’ and ‘In other words,’ and even ‘This is obvious.’ Whatever Blake was, he was never obvious in the sense that Mr Wilson means.”

And whatever Burns Singer was, he was never obvious in the sense that Mr Wilson means, either. He may have been a long haired poet, talking incessantly one half of the time and in a drunken torpor the other, but he had The Outsider down to a tee.

“Creatures of a sort of sterile headachy pseudo-intellectual heat”

Two more bits of ‘fifties poetic comment added to the William Empson page: another piece of Empson-bashing from the CIA’s Encounter magazine, in which poet Hilary Corke has a go at Empson’s followers; and G S Fraser’s sober view of the Empsonians and “The Movement”, in which the Empsonians appear to be the real movement, and “The Movement” a mere puff of smoke.

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