Not that bloodlines
– family or otherwise –
have ever meant much to me,
but at forty one wants forebears
almost as much as heirs,
and even though the oblivion
we’re headed for is doubtless
total, it feels somewhat
lonely heading there orphaned,
or lonelier than not.

Of course every poet
appoints his own ancestors
but that’s one thing if you’re Auden
enlisting Byron, another
if you’re nobody claiming Auden.
Let me present, then
(like one of those not quite kosher
relations in Jane Austen),
my mite of collateral evidence
connecting me with Wystan.

First, prep school; first cell in that hive
‘whose honey is fear and worry’ –
and not just any old holding pen
for the immature British toff,
but St Edmund’s School, Hindhead, Surrey;
the school he and I both attended.
I doubt much had changed
in the fifty years between us,
from the stony puntabout
we waited on every third Sunday

worried our distant parents
might forget or not bother to come,
to the horsehair mattresses
we lay on, groping our way
to that potent formula
of pleasure, shame and repression
Freud had construed long before
as the jet-fuel of civilisation –
the energy-flight from Eros
to monuments, railways, war;

and that listless, indoor
golf course of a landscape’s
gravel drives and laurel hedges,
its buffed-to-a-gloss silver birches,
its insinuating mildness
that at best tamed us
into our bourgeois thrall to the ‘ever so comfy’,
not to mention our penchant for comfortable rhymes;
at worst so mimetically maimed us
as to make our – or anyway my –

utter loathing for it
a form of self-loathing . . .
Fast-forward twenty-five years
to my second exhibit:
a campus in New England –
old England on steroids;
the hills pumped up into mountains,
the little creosote potting sheds
swollen to ark-sized dairy barns anchored on meadows
big as counties.

I taught there in the Nineties;
Auden in the Forties.
Freshmen danced for him naked.
By my time the place
was a front-line in the battle
between the cerebral interest
and that of the, shall we say,
mailed fist?
Freedom – of thought, speech, dissent –
versus the President.

Freedom was losing badly:
tenure abolished, rumours
of impropriety spread,
eighteen professors fired;
the letter describing their protest
as vengeful and selfish;
you had to sign it
or risk being fired yourself.
Well, it wasn’t Berlin or Spain
and doubtless wouldn’t have merited

one line from Wystan’s pen,
though the ‘set mask of rectitude’
seems apropos – though again
the ‘important Jew’ who stripped it
has been all but stripped himself
from the approved shelf
by the professionally offended,
for putting (he might have put it)
the eros in generosity,
and though it isn’t Vienna either

(‘Anna bei Gestapo’)
there’s a certain chill in the air;

Mastema, god of hatred, back in business,
working with equal zest
in the oppressor’s uniform
and the rags of the oppressed;
you can track him by the bodies
dumped like a monster’s faeces
in unexpected places;
while the last big thing that isn’t yet ourselves,

out in the cold too long,
its face up against the glass,
window-crashes the party; and don’t get me wrong:
I’ve seen those self-pitying monster-eyes
staring back out of mirrors;
I’ve felt the mounting
voluptuous hatred, the swell
of violence surge and foam from the littlest wound
to liquidate, if it could, conjectured
enemy-comrades, classes, whole nationalities,

and I accept my latent
guilt in the future
necessary murder
of my dearest neighbours; my hand,
if not yet dripping blood, at any rate ink-stained,
having said which, it’s still Dame Kind –
unkillable Tellus Mater
I choose to think of
as I look out over this barn porch
where the old hollow-hearted

crippled apple, all dad – what’s the word?

daddock – all daddock and moss
and sagging, swirling-grained bulges,
stands like a fossilised
beggarwoman or sage:
dead, I’d thought, till I noticed
a cluster of green apples
like a branchful of underworld eyes
coolly regarding
my empty page.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences