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Humphrey Carpenter

Humphrey Carpenter is the author of books on Tolkien, Auden and Christ, and co-author of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Secret Gardens – a study of children’s writers – and a centenary history of the OUDS are due out next year. He is at work on a biography of Ezra Pound.

All together

Humphrey Carpenter, 7 December 1989

The first meaning of ‘band’ given in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘That with or by which a person or thing is bound’. This seems appropriate for the word’s musical connotations as well as its more literal sense. Anyone with practical experience in the jazz, rock or folk music worlds will know that bands are, first and foremost, bindings together of personalities, undertaken in the hope of producing something greater than the mere sum of the individuals. The term ‘band-leader’ is therefore really a nonsense. The mutual acceptance of musical bonds implies democracy, or, at its best, more than that – the annihilation of individuals’ will in one collective musical mind. One of the very few people to make great art out of band-leading, Duke Ellington, achieved this because the actual music the band made was as far as possible, in ensemble passages as well as solos, a fusion of individual musicians’ ideas and styles, rather than the imposition of a composer or arranger’s concepts. The other great leader on the Ellingtonian scale, Count Basie, seems to have taken a largely passive line to achieve the same fusion of musical interests – he simply left his musicians to work out riffs among themselves.’

Getting on

Humphrey Carpenter, 18 July 1985

‘My idea of what a novelist should do is an old-fashioned one,’ says a character in the title story in Isabel Colegate’s collection A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory. ‘I think that each work should be a step forward from the last, that he should never repeat himself, that he should only produce a book when he is ready to add to his own knowledge – why write down what one knows already? – he should address himself to his generation, applying himself with pure heart and humble mind to their legitimate question What Then Must We Do? … The novelist should write for his generation and his concern should be nothing less than How To Live, but I do not know my generation and I haven’t the faintest idea how to live.’ The character, you will surmise, is a failed novelist; Colegate herself can’t exactly be the speaker (she is, after all, the author of The Shooting Party), but there seems to be some real angst. Of course there are plenty of other purposes, other tactics, behind fiction. But one can’t exactly reject these criteria out of hand. And the words tend to haunt, as one turns the pages of Colegate’s new book, and of new fiction by other writers.’

Kiss me, Hardy

Humphrey Carpenter, 15 November 1984

Howard Jacobson’s first novel, Coming from Behind, was published last year, and made one think that a new exponent of the comic academic narrative had arrived. Jacobson’s hero, Sefton Goldberg, Jewish and highly suspicious of his Gentile surroundings, is aggressive towards the literature he’s supposed to be teaching, to a degree that makes Leavis seem like a nice auntie. He’s also racked by consciousness of his own literary failure. To his misery, he finds himself stranded in Wrottesley Poly, where the enfeebled Liberal Studies department is threatened with a twinning with the local football club in order to revamp its decaying image. Goldberg sits in his office, envying the World Out There, which he imagines in the form of a mansion in Hampstead called Bradbury Lodge, where celebrated writers meet to have a good laugh at his expense. Meanwhile he puts down his own hopelessness as a littérateur to his incompetence in the matter of Nature. It seems to him that all Eng Lit is really about country walks, so ‘what the fuck did it have to do with Sefton Goldberg who was Jewish and who had therefore never taken a country walk in his life?’ Wrottesley Poly, however, is as much Tom Sharpe territory as a part of the Amis-Bradbury-Lodge world, and it is in the matter of comic plotting that Coming from Behind seemed to me to fail. Jacobson’s portrayal of Goldberg is flawless, but he seems to have little idea what to do with him, and the book tails off without any great comic debacle. One therefore turns to Jacobson’s second novel in the hope that he may have learnt something about construction.’

Letter

Principal Source

28 September 1989

I must apologise to Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster (Letters, 7 December 1989) for what was clearly an inadequate acknowledgment of material from her excellent collection of memoirs of Brian Howard. My use of the ‘blanket credit of “principal source" ’, as she puts it, was merely an attempt not to burden the book with vast amounts of source-notes.

Angry Young Men

Frank Kermode, 28 November 2002

Humphrey Carpenter is a practised biographer; he can do groups as well as single persons, but he admits that this group set him a new problem, which was that he remained throughout unsure whether...

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Haley’s Comet

Paul Driver, 6 February 1997

If a serious radio channel is a success it can define the state of a culture. Looking back over old copies of the Radio Times, one realises with a keen nostalgia the extent to which the national...

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Child of Evangelism

James Wood, 3 October 1996

My childhood was spent in the command economy of evangelical Christianity. Life was centrally planned: all negotiations had to pass by Jesus’s desk. Language was religiously inflated. When...

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Darkness Audible

Nicholas Spice, 11 February 1993

Among the minor characters to appear in this biography, the least important (he only gets two sentences) is a manservant whom Britten employed early in 1950, just before starting work on his...

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The World of School

John Bayley, 28 September 1989

Dean Farrar, the theologian and Harrow schoolmaster who in 1858 brought out the best-seller Eric, or Little by Little, later produced the almost equally popular St Winifred’s, or The World...

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Ezra Pound and Evil

Jerome McGann, 7 July 1988

No English-speaking poet of this century has been the subject of as much biographical scrutiny as Ezra Pound. As in the case of Byron, Pound’s literary works and his personal life were...

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Exasperating Classics

Patricia Craig, 23 May 1985

Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of J.M. Barrie’s ‘Lost Boys’, in later life called Peter Pan ‘that terrible masterpiece’. Brigid Brophy, having reread Little Women and...

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Auden Askew

Barbara Everett, 19 November 1981

There is an academic myth (vaguely Victorian in feeling but probably, like most Victorian principles, dating back a half-century earlier) that scholars study facts whereas critics make it all up...

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Favourite Subjects

J.I.M. Stewart, 17 September 1981

It is probable that J.R.R. Tolkien was throughout his life a copious correspondent, but he appears to have been in his midforties before people took to preserving what he had addressed to them....

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Short Books on Great Men

John Dunn, 22 May 1980

To be truly a Master is to have authority. To claim to be a Master is to claim to possess authority. We can be confident that more persons claim to have authority than do truly have it. What is...

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