POSTCARD FROM PUTNEY
South-east England has enjoyed the warmest October on record. It’s been blissfully autumnal. Fruit trees are embarking on a second flowering, the swallows refuse to fly south, and our local house-sparrows are bringing up a very late second brood behind the outside hot-water pipes. I stubbornly go by the calendar year, wear my winter woollies, and point unerringly at the holly bushes, bursting with berries, as a sign of the terrible winter to come.
Most of us over 60 haven’t adjusted to global warming yet. Our minds are still marooned in the freezing smog-filled 50s, where we remain mentally crouched over a single glowing coal, toasting stale bread in our woollen mittens. Nature’s Keatsian tranquillity mellows our social scars but never completely heals them. Perhaps it’s just that the richness of “harvest home” brings with it that misty dark feeling of loss and mortality. (A peculiar mixture of loneliness and fading light that you get in the best late-Victorian and Edwardian landscape and genre painting.)
My friend and neighbour, the poet Gavin Ewart, has just died at the age of 80. He was among the most thoroughly humane, gentle and talented writers I’ve known. A master technician, with a wonderful ear for rhyme and scansion, he was also funny, irreverent and, at times, surprisingly visionary in his imagination.
Some weeks ago we lost Stephen Spender and, more recently, Kingsley Amis. Both seem much more like refugees from an early age than Ewart was. Gavin chose to write about the past rather than being stuck in it. Spender I admired more for his Journals than for his poetry. They’re full of the insights and observations of a self-questioning mind – fresh, intelligent and written in a highly entertaining and readable prose style.
Gavin, like Spender, was an Auden man, the last of that generation. Before meeting him in the late 70s I’d wrongly attributed a number of his funnier poems to Auden, including the famous “Miss Twye”: “... Miss Twye was soaping her breasts in the bath/ When she heard behind her a meaning laugh/ And to her amazement she discovered/ A wicked man in her bathroom cupboard.”
It was a poem Fairburn liked, and one that may have influenced his own Rakehelly Man. Who knows? That was one of the qualities of 30s poetry – it seemed to assume a world-wide audience and a commonly accepted public style.
As far as I know Gavin stopped writing after the war, but was encouraged to start again by Peter Porter (with whom he worked as a copywriter in a London advertising agency) and Alan Ross, editor of London Magazine, who had long admired his earlier work.
Certainly, Porter’s early 60s collections, and Ewart’s Pleasures Of The Flesh, were among the best things to come out of that Swinging London period. Both are full of a fine, irreverent, slightly flashy period flavour, sexy, colourful and technically inventive.
A traditionalist in terms of form and metre, Gavin loved language. As Fleur Adcock wrote of his work, “His technical inventiveness fizzled.” He was extremely chuffed when he became the first modern poet to be banned by the bookselling chain WH Smith.
Now, of course, I’m kicking myself for not seeing more of him. This was a man who’d swapped pints with Auden and MacNeice, who’d helped Dali put on his diving helmet at the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, who’d watched Hammond and Bradman hit centuries at Lords. I wish, like the swallows, he could have lingered.