- Lipstick, Sex and Poetry by Jeremy Reed
Peter Owen, 119 pp, £14.95, June 1991, ISBN 0 7206 0817 1
- A poet could not but be gay by James Kirkup
Peter Owen, 240 pp, £16.95, June 1991, ISBN 0 7206 0823 6
- There was a young man from Cardiff by Dannie Abse
Hutchinson, 211 pp, £12.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 09 174757 0
- String of Beginners by Michael Hamburger
Skoob Books, 338 pp, £10.99, May 1991, ISBN 1 871438 66 7
The first page of Jeremy Reed’s ‘autobiographical exploration of sexuality’ finds him with ‘a red gash of lipstick’ on his mouth, pondering whether to take the ten steps down to a beach where men sunbathe nude. He is androgynous, 16, ‘looking for a new species’. James Kirkup also admits to androgyny and to a passion for make-up, from childhood when he experimented with his mother’s make-up box, through the time when, as head of the English Department at the Bath Academy of Art, he appeared in his own play for children wearing white tights and with gold sequins on his upper eyelids, right into middle age. Swinburne had a sympathetic line or two for androgynes:
Vol. 13 No. 17 · 12 September 1991
With all allowances made for the constraints of reviewing four books by as many authors in his piece ‘Making up’ (LRB, 15 August) and with nothing I can decently say to Julian Symons’s contention that my life’s work has indeed been a mug’s game – the title of the first version of the memoirs he reviewed – because in my poems I do not ‘use the language quite like a native’, I do feel compelled to break my rule of silence in such matters, only to correct one or two misreadings.
Mr Symons cannot be to blame for the title String of Beginners given to my book in the heading, when in his text he gives it correctly as String of Beginnings. Nor does it matter much that I was at Lancing College only because, very briefly, my school, Westminster, was evacuated to its premises during the war. But there is nothing in my book that warrants Mr Symons’s assertion that my father remained a ‘patriotic German’ after our immigration and British naturalisation. Not only did my father give up his medical practice in London after the outbreak of war to be available for bombing casualties elsewhere, as stated in the book, but the very opening page attests that his ‘German patriotism’ even at the outbreak of the First World War was qualified by the conviction – fairly rare at a time of war fever on both sides – that no good could come of any war and his hope that future generations would be spared that ‘barbarism’, as he called it in the letter to his family I felt it necessary to quote.
Mr Symons also writes that my book is ‘the autobiography of an outsider, and perhaps all the more interesting’ because I seem ‘not to realise that’. I can assure Mr Symons that I did not need his review to be fully aware of just how and why I have become a literary outsider in Britain. What is more to the point, though, is that my book is not an autobiography, for reasons repeatedly explained in the book, but the ‘intermittent memoirs’ as which its subtitle describes it – a documentary chronicle throughout, much of it not about me at all, but about friends and acquaintances, mostly dead. Several of these were poets in English who did not fail to match my ‘own severe cerebral and emotional intensity’, as Mr Symons thinks they did.
It would take too long to enter into the differences between Mr Symons’s judgment of those poets and mine; or only to correct his claim that I was ‘a little too late to be influenced by the commonsensical poetry of the Thirties’ – that of my immediate predecessors. I read some of those poets in the late Thirties or early Forties. If I was not influenced by them, that has nothing to do with lateness, much more with preferences and affinities about which I have no regrets.
Vol. 13 No. 18 · 26 September 1991
I am sorry that the words ‘patriotic German’ applied to Michael Hamburger’s father (who won the Iron Cross in World War One) should seem offensive (Letters, 12 September). Perhaps ‘good German’ would have been more acceptable, though it has a slightly canting sound I dislike.
‘An outsider’: the point is that from adolescence Hamburger was an outsider in England who wanted to become an insider – hence the charm of Soho drinking. Yet as his book makes clear, he was never, by temperament, one of the boys. This ambivalence gives his book (which is more autobiographical than he seems to think) its particular flavour and interest.