John Henry Jones

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.

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