After the Woolwich

Frank Kermode

  • Spanner and Pen: Post-War Memoirs by Roy Fuller
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 190 pp, £16.95, February 1991, ISBN 1 85619 040 4

Seven years ago Roy Fuller published the third volume of his memoirs, which covered his life up to the end of the war. Reviewing it in this journal, I lamented his decision to stop there and called for a continuation, ‘all about the Woolwich, the Arts Council, the BBC and Oxford, with incidental observations on the conduct of the young, the remembered follies of youth, the tiresome defects of old age, and so forth’. Mr Fuller, apparently deaf to this plea, merely gestured finality by publishing the three books in a single volume. However, he has relented, and this new book attends to all the requirements listed above.

Fuller at 79 finds himself in ‘the state anticipated by my verse for a good few years’: that is, he is old, not just growing old. He dwells, sometimes specifically, never self-indulgently, on the attendant disadvantages. Yet the tone and style are, very agreeably, much as they were when the author was merely senescent – quietly distinctive, largely resigned, a bit grumpy. The locutions are occasionally a touch arthritic, as when something is said to be ‘not unendearingly symbolical’ or there is a dismissive allusion to ‘the amatory side of life’, or, as a slightly more urgent preoccupation, to death as ‘the inevitable pit’. The diction is generally plain enough, but from time to time it is, in a manner familiar from the earlier volumes, invaded by surprising posh words like ‘osculation’ and ‘tergiversation’ and ‘enure’ (which the OED – henceforth, it seems, inaccurately – describes as ‘now only in form “inure” ’, giving its latest example of the Fullerian version as 1837).These erudite forms share the pages with demotic archaisms like ‘beano’, which suggest a more raffish side of the poet, as did his memories, recorded earlier, of domestic in-jokes and the catch-phrases of uncles and schoolfriends. Here he confesses his affection for Sid Field; it would not be easy to name more recent comedians likely to win his approval.

He quotes a letter from Robert Graves which, although it is about the poetry, gives an accurate representation of the way Fuller often sees his personality: ‘oppressed, stoical, humorous’, and not given to ‘chancing his arm’. There are various asides in which he speaks of a diffidence, even of an indolence, that have prevented the development of opportunities or friendships; and of ‘a lack of genius’. He even calls himself ‘gormless’. Yet by most standards Fuller has led an exceptionally intelligent and productive life, made many friends, written many books, and given much voluntary service on committees, as well as running a successful full-time career as a solicitor, eventually the Solicitor, of the Woolwich Equitable.

Robert Graves allowed himself to suggest that the job at the Woolwich couldn’t have been very thrilling, and Fuller shows slight signs of regret that he did not chance his arm, drop the spanner and risk living entirely by the pen. His readers may feel some doubt about this. Life at the Woolwich, eventually near the top of the organisation, very likely gave him certain satisfactions hardly accessible to the full-time writer. For example, we have here a description of his Augean struggles when the deeds of many mortgaged properties were badly damaged in a fire – it fell to Fuller to sort out the complicated business of restoring the titles, and it must have been very satisfying to bring that off.

He was doing something he believed in for an organisation he believed in, and he deplores the change of status of the Building Societies: what used to be ‘the movement’ is now ‘the industry’, and societies can become public companies with shareholders requiring profits, not just members paying for their houses. ‘As with so many things in one’s lifetime – bread, schooling, dress, manners – the enviable friendly society status, invention by British genius of a fair institution for spreading home ownership, was laid open for destruction.’ Long an ‘old bull of the right’, he now finds much to deplore, not all of it the work of the Left to which he gave impassioned adherence in his youth.

In addition to his professional satisfactions, Fuller, though disliking most kinds of social intercourse, evidently valued the camaraderie of the society – the banter, ‘the jokes and beefs’, the idiosyncrasies of the other top men. He speaks of the ‘honourableness of lawyers’, and evidently enjoyed legal practice, including advocacy. In a slightly different way he clearly got a lot of pleasure from his terms as a governor of the BBC, and as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, though his time on the Arts Council was rather spoiled by the discovery, apparently surprising to him, that most of the other members actually believed it right to give financial support to the arts. Since he did not, he found himself in painful disagreement with some, one might have thought almost all, of their decisions, and left.

We hear more about all this than about literary matters, though the avowedly unsociable author has known a lot of writers. He has a chapter on Blackheath (and Greenwich) poets, including Cecil Day Lewis, John Pudney and G. Rostrevor Hamilton, as well as his close friend Julian Symons, the dedicatee of this book, and the poet’s poet son, John Fuller. There are some sympathetic pages about another neighbour, Bonamy Dobrée. But the extent of Fuller’s writerly acquaintance is much wider than this suggests; many a poet drifts in on an anecdote. Certain slightly weird scenes have stayed in his memory, such as the routine hauling of John Hayward in his wheelchair up the stairs at the Arts Council offices in St James’s Square, and also of getting out of the chore by pleading a hernia. ‘John’s personality,’ we are informed in a characteristic sentence, ‘was such that only service seemed to confer his neutrality let alone benevolence.’

One of his friendships I take leave to dwell on. I hadn’t known that the American poet Allen Tate, a friend of mine, was also a friend and correspondent of Fuller’s, and I was interested to learn that Allen’s widow, Helen, wrote to him saying that Tate died not of emphysema but of brain damage caused by stubborn immobility in his last years: this he found a ‘mysterious twist to events indeed, quite against the consistency and rationality I (no doubt naively) expect life to show’.

It happened that I went to see Tate in Nashville not long before he died. He was certainly being accused by his wife, a trained nurse, of using too much oxygen and spending too much time in bed. Even when he did consent to get up he wheeled an oxygen trolley in front of him as he walked from bedroom to living-room. He was irritable and demanding, couldn’t put up with the noise of his young sons, and was beyond doubt an exasperatingly difficult and disobedient person to look after. But there was nothing very obviously wrong with his brain. He had been a very heavy smoker and must surely have had emphysema; his eyes were giving him a lot of trouble and although obliging students came from Vanderbilt to read to him, he couldn’t find one whose reading he could tolerate. Tapes and records of actors reading verse he simply removed and pitched across the room.

Walter Sullivan in his reminiscences of Tate says that in these last days Allen was inclined to repeat himself and to be forgetful of names and places: ‘even so, his mind was still impressive... His manners were still good and his powers of vituperation were barely diminished.’ That was my impression also. He was a celebrated gossip, but I had not previously known him to be as slyly inventive, as shocking and unrepeatable, as he was on the two or three visits I made during that week in Nashville. Nor, even at that late stage, would one have thought he was so completely immobile as to contract brain damage. I have no right to a diagnostic opinion – I simply agree about this being something of a mystery.

Sullivan’s memoir makes it clear that Tate’s private affairs were in his latter days, as in his earlier, very confused; a consistent and rational man like Roy Fuller might well suppose that they ought to become less so as the victim approaches eighty, but Tate’s quite simply didn’t, and perhaps in some sense he used his illness to retreat from troubles even less tractable. I have gone on a bit about this, though Fuller devotes only a page or so to Tate, because I agree it would be interesting to have more testimony, however indecisive. My Nashville anecdote is just the sort of episode Fuller would have handled with amused and sympathetic detail. He has known and liked many people far less rational and consistent than he is, and it makes him a good judge.

He likes to live like a retired solicitor, which he is: but the consistently rational, sometimes gloomy, sometimes amused sobriety of his memoirs can remind one of some good poems, and so testify that the writer has not, one hopes will not, retire. It is hard to believe that he has to engage in what he calls ‘the lowering searches for a publisher forced on many of us aged and unfashionable poets’.