Memories of Henry Reed
Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
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Allen, Walter. Memories of Henry Reed. Unpublished and uncorrected typescript. University of Birmingham, Cadbury Research Library, Special Collections. MS2/6/1/3. Birmingham, England.


HENRY REED

Apart from his distinction as a poet, Henry Reed was the most sheerly clever as well as the wittiest, most precocious and the most melancholic man I have known. He was three years younger than I, and how I came to know him I don't remember but by the time I left school we were friends. His birthday was the day before mine and this seemed to bring us closer together, and it seemed an added bond between us that Wystan Auden, whom we both admired, had his birthday the day before Henry's. By the time he left school Henry, along with his closest friend George Painter, was reading Proust.

I never met his parents, though I knew his sister, who was older and had been a schoolteacher until her marriage, Henry's father was a foreman bricklayer at Fort Dunlop, which struck those who knew as odd since Henry had made himself the most elegant man imaginable. He had a brilliant career at Birmingham University, got a brilliant First in English and went on to write an equally brilliant M. A. thesis on Thomas Hardy. When a vacancy for an English lecturership came up it seemed that the post would go to him, but everything went wrong. He had fallen in love with a younger man and their behavior became a public scandal; the love that dared not speak its name positively shrieked it.

Henry had been introduced to homosexuality some years earlier. His father had put up the money for him to go on holiday in Italy, he learnt the language and among other things was seduced by an Italian waiter. Deprived of the University post that he had believed was his, he became a freelance journalist, as I was. He was also educating himself. A good Latin scholar, he taught himself Greek, and Greece was added to Italy as a country he loved.

The War broke out and Henry was called up. Despite what might have been expected, in his own way Henry had a good war. The first six weeks of initial training gave him his famous war poems, poems witty and essentially those of the civilian soldier. Then, and this defied prediction, he, who played no games, became a drill-instructor. How?

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Because it had once been his ambition to become a ballet dancer the exercises he'd done had made all his movements graceful and coordinated. However, he wasn't to be a drill sergeant for long, since some intelligent Army officer spotted unusual talent, not for teaching drill, put him back in civilian clothes and had him transferred to Bletchley, which, filled as it was with scholars of all kinds, he found a most agreeable alternative to a university senior common room. Bletchley is famous in these days for its prestige as a centre of intelligence in the military sense, but Henry's work was not in codes and cyphers but in learning Japanese and then teaching it to Wrens. The first thing he told me after being demobbed was that his ambition was to forget another word of Japanese for the rest of his life. The years Henry spent at Bletchley were probably the happiest of his life. It was there that he met and fell in love with a young naval officer, like himself an incurable civilian, who came of a wealthy family distinguished in British public life. They lived together for several years. Within a year or so the war's ending, A Map of Verona, his first and indeed the only volume of verse he published, appeared and he'd signed a contract for a projected biography of Hardy. The further to steep himself in the Hardy country he and his friend went to live in Marnhull, the village, the name sinisterly changed to Marlott in the novel, where Tess was born and brought up. He made a living by reviewing for the New Statesman and the Listener and translating from the French.

Though he worked on the biography for many years and probably knew more about Hardy than any other man in the world but one the life was never finished, I suspect because Henry was in love with perfection, which is fatal for a writer without a private income or a patron of the kind that Joyce acquired. From this defeat, however, he retrieved something. He turned his failure into the comic masterpieces for radio, A Very Great Man Indeed and The Private Life of Hilda Tablet, which are wry comments on the art of biography. The most famous and most often repeated of his radio plays, he also wrote the memorable Italian plays The Streets of Pompeii and Return to Naples.

The plays are public poetry of an unrivalled kind. But they

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didn't satisfy Henry, for whom they were substitutes for the real things, which were poetry and plays written for the stage. Whether he ever attempted a play for the theatre proper I don't know but his translations from the Italian dramatist Ugo Betti appeared in the West End.

He broke with his friend and returned to London, where he lived alone. The center of his life was the Savile Club, where night after night he played bridge. In the late Sixties he taught at the University of Washington, in Seattle, as Professor of Poetry, in succession to the distinguished American poet Ted Roethke, who died suddenly. I saw him briefly in Seattle in the autumn of 1967, since I had been invited to be a visiting professor of English at the summer session of the University. He was about to return to England and we could do no more than have dinner together. He had enjoyed himself at the University, though I gathered that his chairman had been in constant fear of Henry's disgracing himself and the University.

On his return to London he went into a decline. The impulse to poetry seemed to have dried up, and though he was frequently asked to review he seemed unable to write his piece and he'd telephone the literary editor to make his apologies for not delivering the review, at the same time talking brilliantly about the book, which he'd always read. What he lived on it's impossible to know, though I guess that he got by on the money he'd earned at the University of Washington. His life seemed to have degenerated into playing bridge night after night and drinking. He was now an alcoholic and very lonely. Most Saturday nights he came round to us for dinner. he never wanted to leave and at one in the morning he more or less had to be thrown out, and then one was ashamed of oneself, for one feared that in his condition he's never reach his flat, which was three or four miles away. One needn't have worried; the providence that looks after drunks looked after Henry.

He died in the late Eighties, to some extent the victim of his talents, talents that had forced him to deracinate himself all too successfully from his past. He was, I think, the most selfish man I've known, as well as the cleverest. His tragedy was that he could never

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come to terms with his homosexuality.

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Page last modified: 01 October 2016