‘I’ll crush you with my Daimler!’

A.N. Wilson

  • Prince Charming: A Memoir by Christopher Logue
    Faber, 340 pp, £20.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 571 19768 X

There’s a moment in this book – some time in the 1960s – when Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell have been asked to Hintlesham Hall in Suffolk to do a poetry reading. They ring the doorbell and a liveried footman tells them that they should go to the servants’ entrance. ‘I said, let’s leave. “No,” Adrian said. “We’ve come all this way. We’ll earn our money.” ’ They are given high tea in the servants’ hall: two pieces of Spam, sliced bread, margarine, an apple, a piece of seed cake. Water and/or tea to drink. When they are finally invited in to read, ‘Adrian and I decided to give our best ... We read. By best, we meant bluntest. I added a number of “fucks” and “cunts” to otherwise quite decorous poems. Then we left.’

At another point in the book, an ex-girlfriend tells Logue that he behaves as if he wanted people to hate him: ‘As if you thought that to be honest you had to be rude.’ There are some memorable examples. My own favourite is an episode, still remembered in some circles, which took place in the Royal Court Theatre in 1958. The Tynans have taken Logue to see a play about a man who found God while being tortured by the Nazis: The Tenth Chance by Stuart Holroyd. The hero is on stage, tied to a chair, being beaten by Gestapo officers while other members of the cast pace the stage, intoning: ‘Receive him into the kingdom of light! Receive him into the kingdom of light!’ ‘At which point, rather to my own surprise, I shouted out: “Rubbish!”... The cast froze. The chanting died away. Then, in the silence, the voice of Anne, the author’s wife, rang out with: “Christopher Logue, get out of this theatre,” which got the only laugh of the evening.’ Later, poor Mrs Holroyd came running into the King’s Arms, where Logue was sitting with Ken and Elaine Tynan, screaming: ‘I’ll crush you with my Daimler!’

Logue understates, to hilarious effect, the deep satisfaction he evidently derives from making other people angry. I once witnessed it for myself when I was the literary editor of the Evening Standard. It was during the Gulf War and my editor, John Leese, said that it would not be appropriate to hold one of the regular literary lunches, meant to be a celebratory occasion, on a morning when – for all we could predict – horrible news of slaughter might be coming in from the Desert. Instead, I organised a lunch at which three speakers would talk about war in literature. I invited Richard Lamb, an expert on the Second World War, to talk about Churchill’s war blunders, on which he’d written a book; and Martin Gilbert to speak about the fate of the Jews during the same period. No one would be able to accuse us of having a frivolous time. But, though I greatly esteemed Lamb and Gilbert, I realised that we still lacked a floor show for the punters. Admiring as I did Christopher Logue’s adaptations of the Iliad, I asked him to come and read from (I think) the volume entitled War Music.

Those who attend literary lunches are very easy to guy if you are a man like Logue – that is, a sophisticated bohemian who rejoices in the fact that he has never had a job, never wanted to ‘settle’ until late in life, never felt at home in his own perfectly respectable middle-class family and home. These are the themes of this autobiography. I didn’t really know Logue when I asked him to that lunch, didn’t realise how strongly he must have felt, as he looked at the audience, that he was seeing people like his own parents, his aunts and cousins from Hampstead Garden Suburb and Bournemouth.

Logue alludes quite frequently in his book to his voice – ‘La-di-da’ he calls it –which is loud and what some would call affected. When he joined the Army, the men called him Charlotte because of his camp mannerisms and his mincing gait. He is quite a short man – 5 ’7” he says here, but he seems smaller in life. Seeing him perform in public one has a sense of what it might have been like when Dickens portrayed Mr Quilp. Staring at the harmless Evening Standard audience he bellowed at them that they loved war; if a lot of young men got killed in the Gulf fighting Saddam Hussein they would be simply delighted.

In a childish way, I was convulsed with amusement at the performance. But then he started to talk about Homer. The audience, mostly middle-class suburban women who had shown no particular maenad frenzy for blood but who quite visibly loathed Logue, were hushed: then moved. He was extremely good at telling us about Homer – ‘putting us in the picture’, as they’d have said in his Army days. We felt as he read that the horrors of war, the cruelties of fate and the heroism of human beings caught up in it were of universal concern and importance. I’d admired Logue’s Homer translations before this, but I had always read them to myself, usually silently. They are finely crafted, intelligent, funny on occasion, incisive; they are poems in their own right, but they also send you back to Homer.

More difficult to decide is whether we want to read more than 300 pages about his life. Logue has a wonderful eye for comedy – witness the long years when he collected ‘True Stories’ in Private Eye. (The habit of cutting out funny stories from the papers had been his father’s – a man who sounds rather lovable in this book.) Logue also edited ‘Pseud’s Corner’, a great national institution. But, much as I enjoyed the book in parts, I’m not convinced it was worth publishing. Presumably, some personal need required Logue to paint himself as so extremely unlovable – a snob, a social climber, a cruel son, a neglectful friend, a thief (jailed when in the Army for stealing pay-books), a layabout and someone who did not so much give his women a bad time, as refuse to give them any time at all. (There is also far too much about his impotence and masturbation.) All this might have a fascination for the author himself and for the more prurient reader but the self-portrait simply isn’t interesting enough to merit so much baring of the soul.

Another trouble is that some of Logue’s anecdotes are Pooterish in their absurdity. There is an occasion when a writer in the Times Literary Supplement accuses T.S. Eliot of anti-semitism. Eliot replies, saying he would like to know on what grounds he had been charged. Logue then writes in, quoting some of the famous passages which would seem to support such a view. Eliot replies to Logue’s reply ‘by saying that the passages I quoted were what those who shared my frame of mind usually produced against him. My frame of mind? Presumably I had such. Certainly Eliot did: a mind to restore the unity of thought and feeling through the reintroduction of religious concepts to art. I felt let down.’

But now comes the Pooterish bit: ‘I decided to discuss the matter with Beckett when he came over for the first British production of Endgame. I never had the chance. The Lord Chamberlain refused the Royal Court a licence to present the play.’ Does Logue not see how ridiculous this story, as told, makes him appear? Clearly not, for among the titbits we’re promised by the blurb is the story of how the author ‘offended T.S. Eliot’. There’s no evidence, however, that Eliot was offended and if Logue can’t see what he meant by ‘those who shared Logue’s frame of mind’, then any reader could tell him.

Apart from presenting himself as a pugnacious rudesby, Logue suffers from the classic disease of thinking that he is thinking when all he’s doing is spouting the left-wing platitudes of the mid-20th century. We have accounts here of his strong views on nuclear disarmament, homosexual rights, legalisation of soft drugs etc. The various black and working-class friends that he has managed to make in the course of his life are paraded as if they were trophies – which smacks of patronage. Yet, this man whose bosom melts with a Jellyby-like love of humanity in general is capable of behaviour such as this, described at a very early stage in the book. The scene is Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, where he has been asked to give a reading. Hilda is his considerably older half-sister who, we learn later, was extremely kind to him as a child.

The meal had begun – there must have been ten at the table – when through the door of the dining-room, more nervous than the assistant who accompanied her, came Hilda, announcing to one and all that she was my sister, and that she, too, had won a gold medal for reciting poetry when she was young, and that she had come to Cambridge from Felixstowe especially to hear her brother read – an event she had learnt of through the local newspaper.

  Instead of welcoming and offering her my place – as I saw from the manager’s look I might – I stood, eyes lowered, a graceless little fellow embarrassed by his awkward, desperate sister’s presence, praying for her to vanish. Which of course she did, escorted by that courteous manager, while I sat, silent, looking at my plate, remembering one of Hilda’s favourite sayings: ‘God gives you your relatives, but you choose your friends for yourself.’

Even as he hangs his head, Logue continues with his anecdotes. When he sets off for Paris, determined to sit at the feet of Beckett and in bars, striking attitudes and writing poetry which by his own confession is abysmal, you groan. This is a book which makes me think not merely that poets are shits, but that I really hate left-wing people.

I fell in love with Nell Dunn, whose mother. Lady Mary Campbell ... lived in the Ritz ... Nell was wearing jeans, a Peace For Me top under an Afghan waistcoat, her fine blonde hair tied up with luminous beads. I was carrying her Moroccan-carpet shoulderbag stocked with leaflets advertising a poetry-and-jazz event, a fundraiser for CND.

  Lady Mary occupied a suite overlooking Green Park. She received us in bed. No sooner were we through the door than she looked from me to her daughter and said: ‘Darling, how awful for you.’

Even this set-piece nearly misfires, not because it isn’t funny but because he is so crowingly pleased with himself, rejoicing in the fact that he’s bagged an upper-class floozy, but is so cool and left-wing that he can dress like a Charlie and be rude into the bargain. Better to remember how good ‘Pseud’s Corner’ and ‘True Stories’ were in Logue’s day compared with their present-day equivalents; and to reread his versions of Homer. But at the moment, I have too many images in my mind of him masturbating in rich men’s lavatories or striking silly beatnikish poses to be able to hold that admirable Logue in focus.