It would have been a grey September day in Melbourne 25 years ago, lunchtime, that I was sitting in a car outside the ABC’s Broadcast House, listening to Christopher Logue being interviewed by Terry Lane, a former Church of Christ minister, who was laying into Logue with an unholy fury. The onslaught culminated in Lane declaiming: ‘Did you, or did you not, Mr Logue, claim the Queen of England is the Anti-Christ?’ There was a long pause, after which Logue remarked: ‘Well, I don’t remember exactly, but it does sound like something I might have said.’
When he came out, Logue greeted the driver and owner of the car, Michael Heyward, the rather dashing co-editor of the literary magazine Scripsi, and then, with great ceremony, and in an accent that I had never encountered in life or on screen, an invention, surely – theatrical posh, you might call it – said: ‘August, it is a great pleasure to meet you. I’m so glad that it’s you that’s come and not John Ashbery.’
Lunch was a revelation. Logue was a gifted performer at table when he chose to be, and he seemed happy to perform for two dazzled young admirers. I was already a keen fan of his Homer translations. To my delight and confusion, not long after first looking into the Homer, I took a date to see Ken Russell’s The Devils and there was Christopher Logue as Cardinal Richelieu. Jeepers. I’d never been in the presence of such a grand personality before, who’d seen and known and done so much, in the more exotic realms of ‘culture’.
We deposited Logue after lunch at his hotel. Christopher, I quickly learned, needed his nap after lunch. Heward, along with his co-editor, Peter Craven, had conspired to bring Ashbery and Logue over to Melbourne for the inaugural Writers Festival. Ashbery had to cancel at the last minute and I was asked to step in. The catcalls from the back of the room we read in that evening, along with two Australian writers, went something like: ‘August who? What the hell kind of name is is that? Where’s Ashbery. We want John Ashbery.’ They were all poets, these piss-artists and larrikins, and we became friends soon afterwards, but immediately after my reading I sat down wretchedly next to Logue. He turned to me, looked me in the eye, and said slowly, with none of his theatrical baloney: ‘I enjoyed that, August. I enjoyed that very, very much.’
Logue was unsparingly kind and generous to me over the years I knew him. Once when he came to the Bay area, to visit a friend in Nevada City, we spent some time together in San Francisco. While he was out one evening I wrote a poem about him, which mentioned an attractive young woman he’d met at a laundromat and suggested she was perhaps not the brightest bulb on the block. I realise now that writing a poem about Christopher and then handing it to him was like tapdancing through a mine-field. But he seemed to rather like it. He objected to some phrasing near the beginning, but when he got to the characterisation of the young woman, he became very stern. ‘You must change this bit, immediately. I am going to insist. The girl was not stupid, not one bit; in fact, she was very, very intelligent. I remember that most clearly. You must change that part.’ Which I did, but not the first quibble. He liked the poem fine, except that first little bit.
It probably would have killed Christopher, if his heart hadn’t given out first, to hear himself described as ‘kind’. He certainly could be ‘difficult’. Years after Logue and I first met, Faber arranged a confab in London. I forget the occasion and I wasn’t there. Some chucklehead had seated Logue next to Thom Gunn at dinner. Had I been asked I could have warned them… I believe the argument was about professional actors reading poetry aloud, a notion Christopher favoured and Gunn deplored (I side with Gunn on this one). Gunn shied away from conflict of any kind. Christopher lived for it. The two men, both good friends of mine, had a low opinion of each other’s poetry (Gunn described Logue’s Homer as ‘too easy’). I think it was Hugo Williams that Thom said he turned to and pleaded: ‘Get me away from this man!’
At that first Melbourne Writers Festival, Logue and the actor John Stanton put together a dramatic presentation from portions of War Music. I’ve never witnessed a live performance of any kind that so thrilled me. The heat of it never relented, not for a moment, though it lasted well over an hour. The violence of the material seemed to course through the actors, Christopher especially.
I know, almost exactly, when Christopher began struggling with his memory. I received a phone call from him a day or two before we were to read together at the London Review Bookshop in November 2004. I hurried down to Camberwell Grove and we went off for lunch together at a local Mediterranean restaurant. I did my best to calm him but what was going on with him was real, and about to get worse. Regardless, Christopher agreed to give it a go and we had one final reading together. He was a bit tentative that evening, compared to his usual confidence and force, but he was fine. I doubt anyone in the audience would have heard or spotted anything off about his performance. At dinner that evening, someone mentioned ‘children’ and Christopher was off to the races. He ‘disapproved’ of children, boy children in particular. They grew into murderous young adults, soldiers, slaughtering innocents and so on. The girl children grew up to breed boy children, so they were to be disapproved of as well. A young mother, with small children, was very annoyed, if not outraged. Christopher enjoyed outraging people.
He would have had a rough go of it through the earlier part of his life. His rambunctious and contrarian temperament wouldn’t have helped. But the twenty years or so from the time I first met him were the happiest of his life. He had met and married Rosemary Hill and, shortly thereafter, moved into the house in Camberwell Grove. He had turned into a happy, productive, relatively stable householder and distinguished man of letters. It suited him.
I don’t remember the occasion, or what may have prompted it. It was not all that long ago. I’m certain it was in London, probably a pub or restaurant. I said to Christopher: ‘You’re lucky, aren’t you.’ The remark seemed to come out of nowhere and caught him off-guard. He paused a few moments, thinking, then turned to me with a rueful laugh, looking me straight in the eye, as he had done that first evening in Melbourne years before, and said: ‘Lucky? You must be joking.’