A Life of Henry Reed

Jon Stallworthy

The author of ‘Naming of Parts’, probably the most anthologised English poem of the Second War, has too often been held to be that and that only. Like Julian Grenfell, author of ‘Into Battle’, he is seen as the saddest freak of the literary fairground: the one-poem poet. The publication of his collected poems will give the lie to that gross misperception.

Henry Reed was born, in Birmingham, on 22 February 1914 and named after his father, a master bricklayer and foreman in charge of forcing at Nocks’ Brickworks. Henry senior was nothing if not forceful, a serious drinker and womaniser, who as well as his legitimate children fathered an illegitimate son who died during the Second World War. In this, he may have been following ancestral precedent: family legend had it that the Reeds were descended from the bastard son of an 18th or 19th-century Earl of Dudley. Henry senior’s other enthusiasms included reading, but the literary abilities of his son Henry seem, paradoxically, to have been inherited from a mother who was illiterate. Born Mary Ann Ball, the eldest child of a large family that had migrated from Tipton to Birmingham, she could not be spared from her labours at home during what should have been her schooldays, and when, in her late middle age, her granddaughter tried, unsuccessfully, to teach her to read, she wept with frustration and shame. Mary Ann Reed had a remarkable memory, however, and a well-stocked repertoire of fairy-stories – told with great verve – and songs to enchant her children and grandchild.

A daughter, Gladys, born in 1908, was encouraged to make the most of the schooling her mother had not had. She was a good student and in due course became a good teacher, discovering her vocation in teaching her younger brother. Gladys played a crucial role in the education of Henry (or Hal, as he was known in the family, a name perhaps borrowed from Shakespeare’s hero) and was to become and remain the most important woman in his life. He was not an easy child. On one occasion dismembering his teddy bear, he buried its head, limbs and torso around the garden and went howling to his mother. She was obliged to exhume the scattered parts, and to wash and reassemble them for the little tyrant. At the state primary school in Erdington, he clashed with a hated teacher who pronounced him educationally subnormal. A psychiatrist was called in and, having examined the child, claimed to have detected promise of mathematical genius.

Moving on to King Edward VI Grammar School in Aston, Reed specialised in Classics. Since Greek was not taught, he taught himself, and went on to win the Temperley Latin prize and a scholarship to Birmingham University. There he was taught and befriended – as were his Birmingham contemporaries Walter Allen and Reggie Smith – by a young lecturer in the Classics Department, Louis MacNeice. Reed had a remarkable speaking voice and a gift for mimicry (and for assuming the accents of a class not his own), and as an undergraduate he acted in and produced plays, which may have led to his career in radio; in any case, for the rest of his life he delighted in the company of actors – partly perhaps because he was acting a part himself: that of the debonair, even aristocratic, literary man about town.

He gained a first-class degree at Birmingham in 1934 and wrote a notable thesis on Thomas Hardy, leaving the University two years later as its youngest MA. Like most of his Birmingham contemporaries, he had so far lived at home, but was not a happy member of the household. Hal was ashamed of his parents, or so they felt, and only his sister Gladys had much sympathy for the elegant butterfly struggling to break free from the Brummagem chrysalis. There was another factor, though how much Reed’s parents knew of this is uncertain: he had had his first sexual, homosexual, experience when he was 19 and later had a tormented affair with a boy who developed paranoia. It was clearly time for him to leave home.

Like many other writers of the Thirties, he tried teaching – at his old school – and, again like most of them, hated it and left to make his way as a freelance writer and critic. He began the research for a full-scale life of Hardy, and his father financed a first trip to Italy. There he was taken to the ample bosom of a Neapolitan family he found more congenial than his own and would later celebrate in a radio play, Return to Naples (1950). Before he could himself return, Mussolini had to be overthrown, and in the summer of 1941 a Hal much less heroic than Shakespeare’s was conscripted into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. On 10 July, he wrote to his sister (now Mrs Winfield and the mother of a daughter, Jane):

We have begun our departmental training – which means that army training has to be concentrated into 5/8 of the day, and is therefore increasing in savagery. This blitztraining is, to my mind, anabsurd. The RAOC lost 10 per cent of its personnel in Belgium, through being noncombatant. They aim, therefore, at making us combatant, in nine weeks; at the end of that time we are expected to be able to shoot accurately, to manage a bren gun, an anti-tank gun & various other kinds, to use a bayonet, to throw hand-grenades & whatnot and to fire at aircraft. I do not think the management of a tank is included in the course, but pretty well everything else is.

  Our departmental training, some of which is an official secret, known only to the British & German armies, has consisted mainly of learning the strategic disposition of the RAOC in the field: this is based, not, as I feared, on the Boer War, but on the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. It is taught by lecturers who rarely manage to conceal their dubiety at what they are teaching. But it is restful after the other things, & we are allowed to attend in PT ‘kit’. This is nicely balanced by the fact that we attend PT wearing all our ‘kit’, except blankets. (I will never call a child of mine Christopher.)

The same letter gives, incidentally, a clear view of the left-wing political position that Reed, for all his aristocratic fantasies, was never to abandon: ‘I hope,’ he wrote, ‘a good deal from Russia, of course, but rather joylessly: the scale of it all is beyond my grasp, & it is terrible to see a country which, with all its faults, has been alone in working to give the fruits of labour to the people who have earned them, thus attacked.’

Reed served – ‘or rather studied’, as he preferred to put it – in the Ordnance Corps until 1942 when, following a serious bout of pneumonia and a prolonged convalescence, he was transferred to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley. At first he was employed as a cryptographer in the Italian Section, but was subsequently moved to the Japanese Section where he learned the language and worked as a translator. In the evenings he wrote much of his first radio play, Moby Dick, and many of the poems later to be published in A Map of Verona. It was not a life he would have chosen, but it had its compensations: security, time for his own work, and the start of an important – perhaps his most important – friendship.

Michael Ramsbotham was also a writer, five years younger than Henry Reed, and from a more privileged background. After Charterhouse, from which he was expelled, he went up to King’s College, Cambridge. At the end of his second year, in June 1940, he was called up and given a commission in the RNVR. His active service ended in September 1941, when he was posted to the Italian Section of Naval Intelligence at Bletchley. In 1943, he and Reed would sometimes escape the monotony of the canteen for a civilian lunch in Leighton Buzzard. The following year, they went on leave together twice to Charleston, a little fishing harbour near St Austell in Cornwall. Reed by this time had lost all trace of his Birmingham accent and acquired a somewhat Sitwellian manner. A quick wit and a staggering memory – especially for Shakespeare – made him an engaging companion.

On VJ Day 1945, he was demobbed. A few weeks earlier, Ramsbotham had suffered a nervous breakdown and went absent without leave, taking himself off to North Cornwall where, after a month or two, Reed joined him. Later both men were recalled to the Service. Reed, adopting Nelson’s tactics, declined to see the signal, and the Navy let the matter drop. Ramsbotham was posted to the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, and during the following autumn and winter commuted, whenever he was off duty, from Portsmouth to Dorchester where Reed was living at the Antelope Hotel, continuing his research for the Hardy biography.

In April 1946, Ramsbotham was demobbed and they celebrated with a holiday in Ireland, the highlight of which was a happy fortnight as guests of Elizabeth Bowen at Bowen’s Court. Returning to England in July, they briefly rented a house in Charleston, but soon moved to another rented house, Lovells Farm, in Marnhull, Dorset – Hardy’s Marlot – where Ramsbotham worked on a novel while Reed reviewed fiction and poetry for the Listener and the New Statesman and worked on Hardy. His first and only collection of poems, A Map of Verona, dedicated to Ramsbotham, was published in London that year (1946) by Jonathan Cape, and in New York the following year by Reynal & Hitchcock. In January 1947 the two-hour radio adaptation of Melville’s novel Moby Dick was produced by the BBC, and published the same year, again by Cape.

By February 1948, however, the atmosphere at Lovells Farm had become too emotionally claustrophobic for Ramsbotham and he walked out – leaving a note – but by April he had returned, and the two set off for a long holiday in Cyprus. The following February, Reed rented Gable Court, a large 16th-century house with Victorian additions in the Dorset village of Yetminster, where Reed continued his research for the life of Hardy and wrote two fine verse plays about another poet whose work he was translating and with whom he identified strongly, Leopardi: The Unblest (1949) and The Monument (1950). The year at Gable Court, for Reed the best of times, was followed by the worst of times. In February 1950 the couple split up, Reed leaving his Eden (as it would, increasingly, seem to him) for London, where he was to live for the rest of his life, apart from terms as a Visiting Professor of Poetry at the University of Washington, USA, in 1964, 1965-6, and 1967, and occasional trips to Europe.

Perhaps in search of an earlier happiness, Reed returned to Italy in July 1951, heading for Verona, ‘the small strange city’ lovingly imagined in the title poem of his first book. A letter to his parents suggests that his prophecy had been fulfilled: ‘It is a most lovely city,’ he wrote, ‘small enough for me to walk right across it in less than an hour; I had a letter of introduction to a friend of a friend & was in consequence well looked after & made much fuss of. My arrival was even announced on the radio, I learned with much delight later on.’ It was a successful holiday and resulted in one of the best of Reed’s radio plays on Italian themes, The Streets of Pompeii, awarded an Italia Prize in 1951. Much of his work for the BBC Features Department was commissioned and produced by Douglas Cleverdon.

In the mid-Fifties, Reed made a major liberating decision: he abandoned the biography of Hardy, which for years had burdened him with guilt like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross. That failed quest – perhaps related to the failure of his earlier quest for lasting love – played out a dominant theme of his radio plays. From failure as a biographer, he turned to triumphant success in a radio play about a nervous young biographer, Herbert Reeve, engaged on just such a quest as he had himself abandoned. Reed’s hero (whose name owes something to that of Herbert Read, the poet and critic, with whom he was tired of being confused) assembles a mass of conflicting testimony about his author, the novelist Richard Shewin. His witnesses include a waspish brother, his wife, two spinsters of uncertain virtue, and (the finest comic role he was to create for radio) the 12-tone composeress Hilda Tablet. The success of A Very Great Man Indeed (1953) prompted six sequels, the best of them The Private Life of Hilda Tablet (1954), in which Reeve is brow-beaten into switching the subject of his biography from the dumb dead to the exuberantly vocal living composeress.

The modest income that Reed’s work for radio brought him he supplemented with the still more modest rewards of book-reviewing and translation. The reviewing was to result in a British Council booklet, The Novel since 1939 (1946), and his published translations include Ugo Betti’s Three Plays (1956) and Crime on Goat Island (1961), Balzac’s Père Goriot (1962) and Eugénie Grandet (1964), and Natalia Ginzburg’s The Advertisement (1969).

Several of his translations found their way into the theatre, and in the autumn of 1955 there were London premières of no less than three. His own poems and translations of those by Leopardi continued for a time to appear, usually in the pages of the Listener. Douglas Cleverdon published a limited Clover Hill Edition of five Lessons of the War in 1970, and The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio and Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio were issued together by the BBC in 1971. In 1975 the BBC broadcast his anthology of Leopardi’s poems in his own translations; a last relinquishing of work long pondered over resulted in 1974-5 in the publication of a handful of his poems in the Listener, with the elegiac love poem ‘Bocca di Magra’, perhaps written in the Fifties, as a final word.

Over the years he had worked on (and seemingly completed two acts of) a three-act verse play about the false Dimitry; a long poem, called variously ‘Matthew’ and ‘In Black and White’, perhaps set during the American Civil War; a dramatic monologue, ‘Clytemnestra’, possibly as a pendant to his Sophoclean ‘Triptych’ in A Map; and a commissioned translation of the Ajax of Sophocles. He had drafted and all but finished polishing a translation of Montale’s haunting Motetti. Reed’s Who’s Who entry for 1977 listed The Auction Sale and Other Poems among his publications, but no such collection ever appeared. Talk even at the end of the Seventies of a collected edition came to nothing. As a perfectionist, he could not bring himself to release what he must have recognised would be his last book until it was as good as he could make it, and it never was.

Reed greatly enjoyed his fifteen years with the BBC, his membership of the Savile Club, his London life and his frequent journeys to Italy (often on a BBC commission). But in his last decade, drink and self-neglect (his staple diet was Complan) increasingly undermined his always fragile health. His notebooks record a continuing and courageous struggle. On 10 March 1985 he notes: ‘After the horrors and the reliefs of the last terrible weeks I have “resumed” what seemed like a period of hopeful convalescence (though God knows it is very painful to move about & eyesight is at rock-bottom). The Income Tax, and my all but paralysed will about it, stand in the way. Yet prowling round the three or four poems from the Fifties I still want to finish occasional jerks forward do occur.’ He became increasingly incapacitated and reclusive but devoted friends never ceased to visit him in the Upper Montagu Street flat he continued to occupy, thanks to the generosity of a long-suffering landlady, until, removed to hospital, he died on 8 December 1986.