Seamus Heaney’s letters confirm that he really was as nice as he seemed

Seamus Heaney wrote letters everywhere – waiting for his car to be repaired at a country garage, sitting over a glass or more of Paddy late at night, and above all in aeroplanes, ‘pacing the pages against the pilot as he takes us in to Heathrow or Shannon’, as he wrote to a friend in 1995. So many eloquent missives were dashed off at high altitude that his editor suggests he might have had notepaper printed with the heading ‘EI 117’, the Aer Lingus flight between Dublin and Washington DC. This airborne activity is significant because it indicates two characteristics illuminated by Christopher Reid’s riveting collection: the pressures of life

The making of a poet: Wilfred Owen’s ‘autobiography’ in letters

Here is the opening of a sonnet written by Wilfred Owen in the spring of 1911: ‘Three colours have I known the Deep to wear;/ ’Tis well today that Purple grandeurs gloom.’ Owen was 18 and had just been on a pilgrimage to Teignmouth in Devon, where his hero John Keats had once stayed. The kindest thing to say about this poem is that it is heavy with the influence of Keats. Six years later, in a seaside hotel requisitioned by the army and waiting to be sent back to the Western Front, he begins a poem like this: ‘Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.’ This

Frederic Raphael settles old scores with a vengeance

Last Post is a collection of reminiscences, anecdotes and a settling of old scores by Frederic Raphael in the form of imaginary letters to many of the people who have been part of his long life. You might expect a nonagenarian’s critical faculties to have ‘mellowed by the stealing hours of time’, but far from it. Raphael’s intelligence and acerbic wit are undiminished.  George Steiner suffers a sustained attack for being gauche, malicious and too obviously ambitious Those who have crossed his path will be aware of his ability to ‘verbalise easily’ and, as he himself confesses: ‘It is one of my failings that I know how to hurt people.’

Who needed who most? The complex bond between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby

These letters between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby cover 15 years of a remarkable friendship that began at Somerville College, Oxford in 1919 and ended only with Holtby’s premature death from kidney failure in 1935. Brittain went up to Oxford in 1914, but left to serve as a nurse in the first world war. She returned freighted with tragic experience, having lost both her lover and her brother and tended the wounds of horribly injured soldiers close to the front. She disconcerted younger undergraduates with her fiercely competitive and forthright views combined with fragile looks and a general air of suppressed trauma. Holtby, five years her junior, had also interrupted

A complex, driven, unhappy man: the truth about John le Carré

It is often said that the age of letter-writing is past. This forecast seems to me premature. I have edited three volumes of letters, in each case by writers labelled (though not by me) as ‘the last of their kind’. Yet here is another one, and I feel confident that more will follow. Few now write letters, but those who still do tend to take care what they write. And it will be some decades before we have used up the legacy of the living. John le Carré, who died almost two years ago at the age of 89, was one such. His work is likely to be reassessed over

The ‘delishious’ letters of Lucian Freud

Love him or loathe him, Lucian Freud was a maverick genius whose life from the off was as singular as his paintings were celebrated. He never really knew his famous grandfather, who left Vienna in 1938 only a year before his death, and one can only speculate what Sigmund would have made of his wayward and wildly gifted grandson on the strength of this effervescent collection of early correspondence. He certainly would have admired it on aesthetic grounds: a handsome quarto volume, cloth-bound and embossed, whose contents are a model of intelligent design. Every one of the missives – letters, postcards, scraps of paper – is reproduced in facsimile, with

As normal as blueberry pie: Oscar Hammerstein II, through his letters

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Picasso or Matisse? Lennon or McCartney? Impossible to call? No such quandary with Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein. There are those that laugh at the city smarts of the words Larry Hart wrote with Richard Rodgers. And there are those that weep at Oscar Hammerstein’s home-on-the-range cornpone lyrics. But there is nobody that loves them both. Over to the pros then: while the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett have all given us their takes on Rodgers and Hart, nobody but Bryn Terfel has seen fit to make a Rodgers and Hammerstein CD. Not that Hammerstein would have worried. As

What I’ve learnt from editing a newspaper letters page

Letters to a daily newspaper have a curious power to gain an impetus of their own. ‘I owned a Triumph Herald many decades ago,’ wrote Robert Brown of Crosby to the Telegraph in January. ‘She was my first love. On cold winter nights I would keep her warm with an old mackintosh thrown over her engine under the bonnet. Perhaps it was this that protected her from a thief one night. She was driven off our drive on to the road but steadfastly refused to go any further.’ It soon became clear that we’d hit a seam of experience in recent history, when lives and loves were expressed through small

The sad, extraordinary life of Basil Bunting

Funny old life, eh? Small world, etc. In one of those curious, Alan Bennett-y, believe-it-or-not-but-I-once-delivered-meat-to-the mother-in-law-of-T.S.-Eliot-type coincidences, it turns out that Mark Knopfler once worked as a copy boy on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle when Basil Bunting was working there as a sub-editor. Knopfler being Knopfler, he eventually wrote a sad sweet song about it, ‘Basil’, in which he describes England’s most important modernist poet sitting stranded in the newspaper offices, surrounded by up-and-coming Bri-Nylon-clad jack-the-lads, wearing his ancient blue sweater, puffing on his untipped Players, clearly ‘too old for the job’ and ‘bored out of his mind’. ‘Bury all joy/ Put the poems in sacks/ And bury me here

You’d never guess from her art how passionate Gwen John was

‘Dearest Gwen,’ writes Celia Paul, born 1959, to Gwen John, died 1939, ‘I know this letter to you is an artifice. I know you are dead and that I’m alive… But I do feel mysteriously connected to you.’ And well she might, because the parallels between the lives of the two painters are legion. To take the most obvious: both were students at the Slade, both had relationships with much older artists and both came to be seen, for a time at least, through the prism of their association with men. Gwen John was the older sister of the once more famous Augustus and model and lover of the French

T.S. Eliot’s preoccupations in wartime Britain

In her essay ‘A House of One’s Own’, about Vanessa Bell, Janet Malcolm says memorably that Bloomsbury is a fiction, and that compared with letters and first-hand material, biography is like canned vegetables compared with fresh fruit. We read the letters of writers because they are informal, unguarded, unbuttoned, intimate and candid, revealing not only the secrets of composition but, we hope, glimpses of the writer in the flesh, with his trousers down. This is T.S. Eliot, on 26 December 1941, thanking the editor and critic John Hayward for a gift of toilet paper: BROMO is, as you know, and as the manufacturers state, so well known that lengthy description

Sun, sex and acid: Thom Gunn in California

San Francisco is a fantastic place… it’s terribly sunny… I am having a splendid hedonistic time here… I find myself continually going to marvellous orgies where I meet unbelievably sexy people… I dropped acid for Christmas Day… had sex for SIX HOURS… Then to New York, which I’ve never enjoyed so much… Some of the people I met introduced me to cocaine (one of the people was a singer for a pop group called Looking Glass), and that is a fine drug… Life is such fun here… I had an extraordinary three-way with two guys I met in a bar… I am really pretty happy… I’ve been doing a lot

Suicide was always a spectre for John Berryman

‘A matter that hurts me is that I have made many hundreds of people laugh, in various cities, during the last year or so, but not you — and your father is thought to be a wit.’ This was the poet John Berryman to his nearly-estranged son Paul in 1964. The hurt, off-kilter tone and the humble-brag speak to the Berryman one encounters in this capacious Selected Letters. One of the great extremists of a brilliant generation, which included Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Bishop, Berryman’s entanglement of art and risk, his view of poetry as a ‘terminal activity’ and the artist’s life as one of self-annihilating labour, is

A literary scoop: the passionate correspondence between R.L. Stevenson and J.M. Barrie

This book has appeared with no fuss or fanfare and yet by any account it is something of a scoop. For here, published for the first time, is the correspondence between J.M. Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, revealing one of the most intriguing literary bromances of the 19th century. The existence of the letters is well documented. In the early 1890s, gossip columns were agog with the news that two of the most popular writers of the day were corresponding, with Barrie reported to be writing ‘reams of letters’ to Stevenson. But while Stevenson’s letters to Barrie were published after the former’s death, Barrie’s letters to Stevenson never surfaced. It

A passionate wartime love story is rescued from oblivion

Once in a while, just at the right moment, a truly gorgeous real-life love story appears out of the blue, or in this case out of a chance purchase on eBay. Thanks to a serendipitous sequence of connections, including a perspicacious dealer and a fast-moving literary agent, the wonderful (and super-latively edited) seat-of-the-pants romance of Eileen Alexander and fellow Cambridge student Gershon Ellenbogen has been saved from oblivion. Having survived a serious car accident on the eve of the second world war with her only-just-platonic friend Gershon at the wheel, Eileen begins writing him some of wartime’s funniest, most unexpected and possibly unintentionally sexiest letters as she reports on her

The marvel of Mozart’s letters

It’s 1771, you’re in Milan, and your 14-year-old genius son has just premièred his new opera. How do you reward him? What would be a fun family excursion in an era before multiplexes or theme parks? Leopold Mozart knew just the ticket. ‘I saw four rascals hanged here on the Piazza del Duomo,’ wrote young Wolfgang back to his sister Maria Anna (‘Nannerl’), excitedly. ‘They hang them just as they do in Lyons.’ He was already something of a connoisseur of public executions. The Mozarts had spent four weeks in Lyons in 1766 and as the music historian Stanley Sadie points out, Leopold had clearly taken his son (ten) and

A sublime lyricist, but no letter writer: Cole Porter’s correspondence is sadly wit-free

‘In olden days, a glimpse of stocking/ Was looked on as something shocking’, carolled the company of Cole Porter’s 1934 Broadway smash musical Anything Goes. Eighty-five years on, in this age of Love Island and Naked Attraction, what wouldn’t you give for a retooled version? Not that the song is wholly out of date. When the show opened at the Palace Theatre in London the following year, the lyric to ‘Anything Goes’ was nationalised. Out went Porter’s lines about Rockefeller and Max Gordon and in came two couplets on current parliamentary antics: ‘When in the House our Legislators/ Are calling each other “Traitors”/ And “So and So’s”/ Anything goes’. Hmmm.

Loving in triangles

Dora Carrington (1893–1932) was at the heart of the Bloomsbury story. As an art student, she encountered the love of her life, the homosexual biographer Lytton Strachey; and this pair of Edwardian virgins actually managed to consumate their relationship in 1916. She loathed her given name, and insisted on her new friends, such as Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant and the entire large clan of Stracheys using her surname alone. Whatever her merits as an artist, the dramatic story of her life with the Bloomsbury group, and death by her own hand, is so enthralling that it was made into a film, in 1995, with Emma Thompson playing the

Love at first sight | 30 November 2017

The novelist Mary Wesley never forgot the night of 26 October 1944. She was then 32, locked in a loveless marriage to ‘a perfectly nice but remarkably boring’ barrister, Lord Swinfen, and was dining at the Ritz with a friend from MI6 — she had worked there in April 1940, decoding the positions of German regiments — when she looked up and saw, seated at another table, the Royal Marines captain whom she had met only a few hours earlier at Les Ambassadeurs. ‘He kept sending me notes through dinner saying, “You can’t stay with that old bore. Come dancing.”’ Which she did. After he had escorted her back through

Dear Mary | 5 January 2017

Q. I have bought a second-floor flat which comes with a bow-shaped balcony which overlooks a communal garden. My problem is that I will want to go on to the balcony to smoke but I won’t want my neighbours to see me doing this. Nor will I want them to be able to see who is standing on the balcony smoking with me. Solution? — Name withheld, London W11 A. Why not take a tip from the late Lucian Freud? When the reclusive painter had his own bow-shaped balcony, he concealed his doings from neighbours with a 7ft high wall of tightly packed Chinese bamboo. This device allowed Freud to