One Saturday morning as I lay in bed, dying of flu, William Empson burst into my room, very sprightly, saying: ‘Now come along Jones, you must get up and come to Stonehenge.’ I croaked an apology and claimed an imminent, prior appointment with the Lord God Almighty. ‘Oh dear. I am sorry,’ he said. ‘But you would do much better to come to Stonehenge.’
This was Empson at 68, shortly after I had got to know him. My initial acquaintance with him was brought about by an overlap of social circles, and, to my shame, I did not know who he was. As a former chemist turned translator and playwright, I had never had much time for literary criticism or for Thirties poets, nor had I suffered the ‘ruination’ of a university Eng Lit course, a mark in my favour with Empson. I soon discovered his reputation, but had no idea of his stature; and his own manner was sufficiently disclaiming of any personal distinction that one could be excused for failing to regard him as anything more than a most interesting person. So I did not come to him as an Eckermann longing to serve at the feet of greatness, far less did I record our conversations. Indeed it was some time before I could understand much of what he said; quite apart from its occasional gnomic quality, he had a tendency to intone his words and, when he was passionate, to roll his head as he spoke so that what sound there was streamed off in sundry directions, as from Socrates in a basket. He was nonetheless totally engaging.
The Empsons lived in a large, detached house, built in 1880, and set at an angle to the main road from Hampstead into town, on the corner of Hampstead Hill Gardens, one of those circuitous side-roads designed to fit buildings into an existing road network and acting as a short-cut to nowhere. The front is Victorian Gothic, in creeper-strangled red brick, with a pointed, many-faceted, slate-tiled roof which would have served well on Gormenghast, of which there was more than a touch about Studio House. Down below, on a level with the basement windows, was a small front garden separated from the main road by a knee-high wall from which the railings had been removed during the war. Here William’s green-fingered wife, Hetta, had made a verdant brief oasis of multi-coloured shrubbery: japonica, Japanese tree peony, clematis, forsythia, almond blossom, euphorbia, a rustic arch of rambling roses, all manner of bulbs, and a dwarf oak cut like a mushroom, a summer parasol for a marmalade cat. There reposed the ashes of a former gardener.
There was a much larger garden at the rear, adequate for a garden party with a marquee, and here in good weather family and friends would eat al fresco while children played on the antique swing beneath the black poplar or tumbled in Hetta’s hammock amidst laburnum and laurel. Here, too, on sunny days, William would sit and read, stripped to the waist: he loved the open air. Early on (they had bought the house in 1960), Hetta had made a shallow, kidney-shaped pond amongst the flags and species iris at the back of the lawn, and here, to William’s delight, toads came each year to spawn.
The back of the house loomed up sheer, reminiscent of the superstructure of an ocean liner, looking as if it might well be afloat. This was the part occupied by the Empsons, the whole front being let out as rooms and flats under Hetta’s management, a task which she undertook dutifully and with loathing: ‘I’ll die if I ever have to see another plumber’ – or words to that effect. Letting was a necessary business as the Empsons were never rich and there had been sons to raise and the house to pay for. The tenants were carefully chosen; they needed to be hardy, resourceful, likeable and interesting, as indeed they mostly were. At the top, virtually in the roof, there was Peter Cadogan, left-wing humanist and champion of lost causes; a typographer, a batique artist and a dress designer, inter alia, occupied the middle floors; and in the basement there lived the late and much lamented Barry Carman, Australian-born author and writer of radio documentaries, a great traveller (Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society), the most entertaining raconteur I have ever met, and a very close friend of the Empsons for a great many years. But the geniality, the warmth of the Empsons, Hetta and William, and their sons, made them a focus for friendship and it was scarcely possible to live as their tenant, as I did, without being drawn into this extended family circle, sharing their wonderful hospitality, their lack of reserve, their fullness of living.
Hetta and William complemented one another in a most remarkable manner: fire and water were they both, unpredictable, relentlessly enthusiastic, still and concentrated, effecting slow, planned labours, lashing into flame. Hetta is an accomplished and talented goldsmith and they shared an interest in the graphic arts, yet essentially they inhabited different planets. William was the centre of Hetta’s life, but William’s centre was his own mind, a place apart to which he had constant resort and where he was to some extent imprisoned. He was emotionally reserved. That they loved one another deeply is beyond question, yet explicit demonstrations of affection were rare. But there was as much love in their breakfast bickerings (better than a sitcom) as in any amount of turtle-dovery.
The domestic and social centre of their home was the long room one entered through a porch, directly from the street. At one end there was an open kitchen, looking out on the garden at eye-level, and here Hetta would cook delicious dinners and William his horrible soup. The main body of the room was dominated by a large rectangular table which was the communal ‘hearth’ and served for everything. Hetta presided at the top end, nearest the kitchen, and William had his reserved place on the side at her left. Breakfasting here in the middle of the room he could take full advantage of the daylight from a row of high windows behind him, and a single turn would enable him to welcome a visitor. ‘Ah, you have made your way,’ he would say, before launching into his perspective of some news item which had interested him, or thrusting a jammy Times at me with ‘I do wish you would finish off the crossword.’ (This was something he felt it was necessary to get done with before more serious matters could be broached.) His place would be littered with freshly opened correspondence, books and periodicals, amongst which condiments, sugar, chutneys and tea hid themselves and dispersed their riches.
Hetta and William rarely dined alone, even if there were no family at home. William would sparkle with good humour as the table-talk flowed arid arguments raged over matters as diverse as Papal pronouncements and the micturition of titmice. Occasionally there would be Huo Kuo (roughly pronounced ‘hogwar’ = fire-pot), which William particularly enjoyed. This would be a very special occasion and would take place in the vast studio directly above the kitchen and living-room. It involved a special copper cook-pot which Hetta had brought back from China: there was a central chimney for charcoal, surrounded by an annular bowl to be filled with seasoned water and some pieces of cabbage. This was placed in the centre of a round table and every guest was supplied with a plateful of raw lamb and liver cut into small pieces. When the liquor was boiling you skewered a piece of meat and immersed it until it was cooked, transferred it to your rice bowl and ate it. Then, when everyone had consumed all their meat, the liquor was served as a soup in the now empty rice-bowls.
Unless the dinner were a very special affair, and sometimes even then, William would retire from the gathering shortly after dessert. The length of his attendance at table was a measure of his interest in the company and their conversation; he couldn’t bear gossip or dullness and seemed particularly sensitive to a potential outbreak of one or the other. He delighted in active minds, his own being perpetually at work. He thought critically, in the positive sense, all the time. I never once heard him refer to anything that had been reported without illuminating some deeper or unconsidered significance, or demonstrating some stupidity. He was obsessed with thought, and this excluded him from much genial society. By the time I met him the friends of his youth were mostly dead and had proved irreplaceable. He shared Hetta’s friends, but though everyone loved William, he had, apart from his family, no great friends.
But he had no time for sentimentality and never complained of loneliness. He was often at great pains to be alone, particularly if he wanted a quiet drink in a pub. He felt himself hounded by bores (and Hampstead has several in the Olympic class) and would seek obscure anonymous haunts, a sequestered backyard, in which to take his pint and papers. I once found him sitting thus in the pouring rain, preferring a wetting to an ear-bending. If he was not visiting libraries, he would spend most of the day in his study bashing at his old Remington; it could be heard still rattling away at three in the morning. His work was his life. He had few recreational interests apart from reading, which he did constantly. He hated noise, displayed no great fondness for music, scarcely ever listened to the radio, and despised television. He distrusted the ‘hot’ media, knowing they were a con in a way the printed word could never be, for the print stood there to be answered while television led the eye and deceived the mind; television productions of Shakespeare diverted people from the text and delivered them into the hands of a director. Any semi-fictionalised historical documentary was equally suspect as it led to a confusion between known fact and conjecture. He stopped me reading Burgess’s reconstructed life of Shakespeare for that very reason.
For light reading he enjoyed pre- and early post-war detective-thrillers: his main joy was Rex Stout, whose books he would read again and again, until Nero Wolf assumed near-reality and figured as a quotable authority in his conversation. All these paperbacks (and many a hardback) suffered a singular fate in his hands, and if you loaned him a book it would be sure to catch the plague: he covered the end-papers, fly-leaves, all available space, with trigonometric algebra. It turned out to be a besetting problem from a degree-level rider-book that he used as a diversion, or a kind of patience, a test of his mental fitness. The morning after a serious gastric operation he applied this test and showed me the ten sheets of working with some pride in his recovery. ‘I didn’t trust myself to try the crossword,’ he said, ‘they might have put in a difficult one to fool me.’
He would write in the books he read, and edit them, marking them up with ‘sordid style’ in the margin. Any critical work he found worthy of attention he did to death with scribbles. If he lacked a slip (or the legendary breakfast kipper-bone) he would fold the page. The spine would soon go, folded back for convenient reading in bed. The pages were littered with crumbs and jam, stained with eggs and wine, loosed from their stitchings. The copy of Greg’s Doctor Faustus, borrowed from the London Library, was returned in such bad condition that he was forced to buy a new one. Keeping him supplied with library books while he was in hospital was not easy: I would take six at a time and on a good day he would only reject four. Biographies were best. Yet there were many books and writers he greatly admired: C.V. Wedgwood’s William the Silent, Garrett Mattingly’s The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, Koestler’s The Sleep-Walkers, and all of Christopher Hill.
He took a strong interest in subjects which intrigued him, notably dinosaurs and stone circles (Stonehenge in particular), cosmology and scientific matters generally (he was an avid reader of the New Scientist); and he was keenly interested in current affairs, both at home and abroad. He greatly admired the Queen, and would even cut a good picture of her from the paper. He was incensed that the Pope was to meet her, maintaining that he was not a fit person to do so, since he had failed to encourage or allow artificial birth-control in Latin America. His accolade (1979) pleased him enormously: ‘We must have a boasting party,’ and he made a happy progress into Hampstead village, where he was greeted with cheers.
He was fond of walking in company, but was difficult to walk with in town since he would proceed with a gentle bias alternately towards or away from the wall, so that his companion was either distanced to inaudibility or in danger of being crushed or forced into the street. This may have been due to defective vision. He was also obsessed with the directness of the route, which meant crossing busy roads at most awkward places. Seeing a car number-plate XYZ 729 he would point at the car and say, ‘There goes a perfect cube.’ In town he always used the tube: ‘People who travel by bus don’t know where they’re going.’ And he was mischievous to be with: one might say he had an escaping tendency. I was once drafted to accompany him to the Poetry Society at Earl’s Court, where he was to give a reading (Hetta was his normal ‘bear-leader’ – his term – but she was otherwise engaged). He wanted first to visit an exhibition of William Blake’s drawings at the National Gallery, so we set out early. I had barely begun to look at a picture when his inquisitive nose carried him off; after ten minutes anxious search (I was carrying all his poems), I eventually located him engrossed in a Boudin on the other side of the building. ‘Over-esteemed, I feel,’ he muttered, as if I had been constantly at his side. Hetta has similar tales of his walking off in the African bush.
In the spring and early summer, the garden pond provided him with much entertainment. I would get a phone-call on a blustery March afternoon: ‘Jones, the toads will be coming, we must clean out the pond.’ The ‘we’ here was purely diplomatic. I would don my wellies, gather up bucket and shovel, and we would trudge out into the wind like Lear and Fool. The pond would contain a foot of black sludge and decomposing autumn leaves. ‘Don’t stir it up, it will make a vile smell,’ he cautioned, but of course I did, and the first noseful of hydrogen sulphide would send him back to the house with a petulant ‘There. You’ve done it.’ Half an hour’s hard work and the pond would be clean and bright, sparkling with fresh water and perhaps a couple of early, eager male toads crouching amongst the stone ruins I had laid at the bottom. Then he would come out, sensing it was ready, and would be delighted: ‘You’ve done very well. You must have a drink.’
The great clumsy females, two or three, each carrying her consort, would straggle in about the first week of April and then there was great excitement and much argument about where they came from and what route they took. The pond would by now be highly populated, and turbulent with activity as the many supernumerary males tried their best to dislodge the incumbent mates, never successfully. They played for all the world like children in a swimming-pool and they were not at all shy of human visitors. If you placed two fingers in the water, one of the boys would mistake them for a female and embrace them tightly, and they would cling on fearlessly while you lifted them out of the water. But, cavorting quite elegantly in their first element, they really did seem to enjoy themselves enormously. Then the real action got under way and the females would take long spawning ‘flights’ from one end of the pond to the other, discharging the endless twin filaments, spiralled with black dots. Within a few days the now befouled and highly refractive waters were abandoned, except for some forlorn males who perhaps still lived in hope.
When the tadpoles developed William would find new zest. There was a slow leak in the pond, so the water had to be topped up each day, which William mainly attended to. He would hold the end of the hose-pipe high in the air and shake it so that the water fell in violent cascades, much of it over himself: ‘The tap-water is not good for them, we must get plenty of oxygen into it.’ And as the myriad black blobs grew, he began to worry about their food supply. Stealing a skewer from Hetta’s rotisserie, he spiked a cork and pushed it to the far end; then he attached some raw liver and floated it in the pond, very pleased with the invention and tickled by his domestic crime. The beasts enjoyed the liver, clustering upon it like gouts of blackcurrant jam, and waxed very fat. As they showed signs of transformation, William became worried about how they could possibly mount the steep sides of the pond. I could foresee no difficulty, but he went to the trouble of arranging a small plank, extending from the water at a gentle angle, as a ‘royal road’ for them. I don’t know if he envisaged a procession of miniature toads hopping their way to freedom, but if so he was disappointed. The entire population was consumed by a pair of mallards, which must have landed one morning and dined at their leisure, and one of the birds knocked on my window on a later morning, as if asking for more. In the years that followed we covered the pond with a net and managed to populate the lawn with so many tiny toads that it was impossible to cut the grass.
He drank freely, sometimes a great deal, even to the point of unsteadiness, but he was no lush. He used alcohol as an essential concomitant to his work, especially when beginning a piece. Having done all the necessary reading and mentally formulated his thesis, he would deliberately make himself ‘tipsy’ before sitting at the typewriter and dashing out the first few pages (always foolscap): he wanted to establish a flow, to get a ‘gut reaction’. Then he would sleep until sober and retype from the beginning, expanding the material but striving not to disturb the line he had set up. More drink was required for each continuation, each new draft being corrected and reworked in sobriety. The labour was prodigious: the drafts accumulated by the quire (some parts of his Faustus essay were reworked as many as fifteen times). As a distraction which would not disturb his train of thought, he would sit on his bed and play patience or work on his algebra problem. Often he would read his work aloud to himself until he was satisfied it was cleared of any desk style. This was the slow and punishing process by which he constructed his lucid, mandarin-free prose.
He was kind and encouraging to young poets who sought his advice or judgment and would sometimes invite them to lunch. If Hetta were at home, the young swan would be sure of an excellent meal, but in her absence things were liable to be different. I might get a mid-day phone-call: ‘Jones, I have a young poet coming to lunch. I’d be very glad of your support.’ I would find him in the kitchen in the fawn dressing-gown which he habitually wore over his clothes as a comfortable house-coat, busily making last-minute preparation and turning a mess in a saucepan. This was ‘Empson soup’, a dish which almost defies description. It was concocted from a Heinz tin, to which was added sundry left-overs of vegetables he had tucked away in corners of the fridge, plus the left-overs of yesterday’s soup, so that one day’s soup would not be noticeably different from the next. There was a large quantity of solids – butterbeans, chunks of celery, slabs of cabbage and bits of boiled egg, and much reduced and recycled gunge, but one would not have been surprised to find anything in it, even false teeth. You could not stir it, you could only turn it over. He ate it every day and Hetta maintained it was the cause of his ulcer.
The young man would arrive, spruced up and serious in the presence of greatness. ‘Ah, you have made your way. Do come in. This is Jones. Now, you must have some wine and then we shall have some delicious soup.’ The shy fellow would be seated at table, where, smiling affably, perhaps fazed by his reception, he would be served with wine. Then, without pause, the saucepan was fetched and William began to dollop the soup into his visitor’s bowl. ‘Jones won’t eat this,’ he says, reassuringly, ‘but you will find it very nourishing.’ ‘I’m sure I shall,’ says the guest with dedicated avowal, eyeing his portion nervously and perhaps gaining courage from the evident relish with which his host filled his own bowl and sat down to eat. William’s lively conversation would be largely lost to me in my fascination with the poet’s discharge of his ordeal. Yes, there was the wooden smile of feigned enjoyment betrayed by a fearful expression of the eyes, the horror of fresh discoveries, the shock of recognition, the awful internal query ‘What is this?’, the urgent need for wine. I would do my best to keep his glass topped up while William kept a firm eye on his performance. When the bowl was empty, or acceptably depleted, William would compliment him: ‘Well, you have done very well. Now you must have a delicious fish-cake.’
William’s own ordeals were less trivial, and he showed a stoic endurance of pain and discomfort, trying hard to maintain the pace of his work even when seriously ill. Towards the end, he was reduced to dictation, which he hated for its lack of immediate control. He must have known he was dying: certainly the preface to Using biography, the last thing he wrote, contains intimations of death. With the final silence, the years, the marks of morbidity, fell away from him and he lay serene and quite beautiful in death: one would say seraphic but for the distasteful associations of the word. Lacking any belief in an after-life, he had never feared death while always battling against it. He was not an irreligious man, although he despised any god who was credited with torturing his creation, and any opinion held in the name of religion. His position came close to that of Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy, a book he had studied closely, with its belief in an intelligent ground for existence. I went to see him on the eve of his last operation; Hetta was to visit him later that evening, but she had been earlier that day and maybe he thought he would not see her again. After a brief pause in our conversation, and without any display of emotion, he said: ‘If I die, tell Hetta I love her very much.’ Then he squeezed my hand briefly and we parted.