A Life of Henry Reed

Jon Stallworthy

The author of ‘Naming of Parts’, probably the most anthologised English poem of the Second War, has too often been held to be that and that only. Like Julian Grenfell, author of ‘Into Battle’, he is seen as the saddest freak of the literary fairground: the one-poem poet. The publication of his collected poems will give the lie to that gross misperception.

Henry Reed was born, in Birmingham, on 22 February 1914 and named after his father, a master bricklayer and foreman in charge of forcing at Nocks’ Brickworks. Henry senior was nothing if not forceful, a serious drinker and womaniser, who as well as his legitimate children fathered an illegitimate son who died during the Second World War. In this, he may have been following ancestral precedent: family legend had it that the Reeds were descended from the bastard son of an 18th or 19th-century Earl of Dudley. Henry senior’s other enthusiasms included reading, but the literary abilities of his son Henry seem, paradoxically, to have been inherited from a mother who was illiterate. Born Mary Ann Ball, the eldest child of a large family that had migrated from Tipton to Birmingham, she could not be spared from her labours at home during what should have been her schooldays, and when, in her late middle age, her granddaughter tried, unsuccessfully, to teach her to read, she wept with frustration and shame. Mary Ann Reed had a remarkable memory, however, and a well-stocked repertoire of fairy-stories – told with great verve – and songs to enchant her children and grandchild.

A daughter, Gladys, born in 1908, was encouraged to make the most of the schooling her mother had not had. She was a good student and in due course became a good teacher, discovering her vocation in teaching her younger brother. Gladys played a crucial role in the education of Henry (or Hal, as he was known in the family, a name perhaps borrowed from Shakespeare’s hero) and was to become and remain the most important woman in his life. He was not an easy child. On one occasion dismembering his teddy bear, he buried its head, limbs and torso around the garden and went howling to his mother. She was obliged to exhume the scattered parts, and to wash and reassemble them for the little tyrant. At the state primary school in Erdington, he clashed with a hated teacher who pronounced him educationally subnormal. A psychiatrist was called in and, having examined the child, claimed to have detected promise of mathematical genius.

Moving on to King Edward VI Grammar School in Aston, Reed specialised in Classics. Since Greek was not taught, he taught himself, and went on to win the Temperley Latin prize and a scholarship to Birmingham University. There he was taught and befriended – as were his Birmingham contemporaries Walter Allen and Reggie Smith – by a young lecturer in the Classics Department, Louis MacNeice. Reed had a remarkable speaking voice and a gift for mimicry (and for assuming the accents of a class not his own), and as an undergraduate he acted in and produced plays, which may have led to his career in radio; in any case, for the rest of his life he delighted in the company of actors – partly perhaps because he was acting a part himself: that of the debonair, even aristocratic, literary man about town.

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