Writer Remembered: Henry Reed

L.W. Bailey (1995)

In the autumn of 1943 I was discharged from a military hospital and transferred to the Intelligence Corps Depot, from which I was posted to the Code and Cypher Station at Bletchley, and placed in a civilian billet at New Bradwell (both places are now buried in Milton Keynes).

The main building at Bletchley Park, a country home now under threat of demolition, contained the canteen, at that time shared by military and civilian personnel, where I was surprised to see Henry Reed. We had known each other in Birmingham at the University and afterwards, among a group engaged in producing the annual Carnival Revue and various cultural activities. I think we were pleased to meet in these circumstances, each finding in the other a connection with pre-war life. I had last seen him on a train from Birmingham to London, the first stage (for him) of a runaway journey to Italy with a male friend against his parents' wishes, a subject of scandal amongst mutual acquaintances. This seems to contradict Jon Stallworthy's statement, in his introduction to Collected Poems, that Henry's father had subsidised his trip to Italy; but perhaps it was a different trip.

Over the next two years we met regularly and spent evenings in conversation at his lodgings (I had by then been moved to a military camp specially constructed to prevent army personnel getting too many civilian comforts). Henry, however, was a civilian ('on loan' from the army) having originally been recruited to Bletchley because of his intimate knowledge of the Italian language; but when Italy was knocked out of the war he was set to learn Japanese, a task which he endured with more fortitude than enthusiasm. He told me that when he first arrived at his lodgings, his landlady (or 'billetrix' in the civil service jargon employed there) watched him unpack the large number of books he had managed to bring with him, and then solemnly pronounced 'Books are a thing I never read'. Later I gathered that this story became part of Henry's regular post-war repertoire.

Earlier in the war I had met a mutual acquaintance who had told me that in the army Henry had been appointed a drill instructor, a piece of information that was met with incredulous mirth by other mutual friends to whom I retailed it. However he now informed me that it was perfectly true; he had at one time trained as a ballet dancer which gave him a precise control of physical movement. The drilling experience may have been the first inspiration for Naming of Parts.

The work done at Bletchley has in recent years been made so well-known by many books on the subject and one play, that I do not need to refer to it, and so can avoid the danger of being sent to the Tower or elsewhere for breaking the solemn oath which I and others were made to swear on leaving, never to reveal it to others. Of course the individual work was mostly very boring unless one was high enough up to have an overall picture; but like Orwell's first world war narrator in Coming Up For Air we were very comfortable compared with those enduring hardship and danger elsewhere. This did not inhibit the traditional service habit of perpetual grousing.

The reviewer in The London Review of Books of Collected Poems by Henry Reed, published in 1991, described Henry accurately as a 'funny but sad man'. It was the funny (meaning light-hearted and witty) side that was uppermost in the Bletchley years. He had a spontaneous gift for verbal wit and the facility for inventing outrageous puns which often accompanies it. I mentioned once that penicillin (recently discovered) was being used in the treatment of syphilis; he responded immediately with an advertising slogan: 'Use penicillin for penis healin'.' At a party he was cornered by an intense ATS lady who was saying 'I think a woman should be placed on a pedestal, looked up to, worshipped' (people still talked like that at that time) at which Henry murmured 'Embalmed, I would say'. At the same party somebody quoted the saying about the Lord Privy Seal being neither a lord, nor a privy nor a seal, on which Henry commented that he was sure the speaker combined the best features of all three.

Henry wrote a little poem about himself, citing poets like Keats and Shelley who had died before reaching his age (30) ending 'You may think my development's tardy, But at least I am younger than Hardy'. At the time Hardy was much on his mind as he had written a thesis on the writer a few years before, and was contemplating the biography over which he agonised for so long before abandoning the project. He once quoted Hardy as writing somewhere that 'the tragedy of the heart is always the same tragedy', meaning that we always make the same mistakes with different love objects. Once we were discussing Somerset Maugham's Cakes And Ale and the general belief that the character of Edward Driffield was based on Thomas

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Hardy, both having had early marriages of which the details were unknown to the public, Henry (who admired the book and referred to it in his pamphlet on The Novel) remarked that he knew the facts about Hardy which were totally different from those of Maugham's character, and would reveal them in his biography. Eventually, of course, many years later, he was beaten to the post by Robert Gittings, with whom, according to the Times obituary of Gittings, he had an acrimonious correspondence. I suppose that as he spent several weeks over revising a single line in a poem, the time spent on revising a book would stretch into infinity; which in a way it did. He told me on one occasion that he had been invited by a leading weekly paper to be its dramatic critic, but had turned the offer down. Surprised, I asked him why; he said that he had friends in the acting profession and could not bear the thought of having to write unfavourably about their performances when he thought that was deserved. I suspect that another aspect was that continually attending theatrical performances, most of which would have bored him, was too dreary a prospect.

He did, however, review novels for a time, sometimes with considerable acidity, as in the following remembered passage (of a forgotten work): 'The characters in this story appear to spend most of their time copulating, excreting and urinating. This presumably gives satisfaction to those unable to achieve these objects in real life.' (This would apply to much contemporary work.)

The three months between the ending of the two wars was an odd period, in which people felt optimistic about the future; this feeling was enhanced by the Labour victory in July, which seemed to be welcomed by everybody one knew. The feeling of optimism was shattered soon afterwards with the news of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Henry was greatly upset by this, as indeed were many who later became hardened to Cold War confrontation. I recall entering the mess for breakfast on the morning that the news broke and feeling a dull silence instead of the usual cheerful chatter. The sort of celebrations that had greeted VE day seemed inappropriate, and the Japanese war ended with a bang and a whimper.

After VJ day Henry disappeared and was duly demobilised (having only been on loan from the army). One condition of his wartime civilian status had been service in the Home Guard, and he had been presented with a certificate stating that he had been willing to defend his country by force of arms and with his life if need be. This he gave to a mutual friend, having crossed out the words 'if need be' and substituted 'if absolutely necessary'.

Under the gradual demobilisation plan I eventually returned to Birmingham where Henry had been broadcasting weekly on the Midland Region about the films shown in local cinemas, which he did with his own special combination of wit and eccentricity, Reviewing a film about a 'wonder dog' of the kind popular at the time, he devoted the whole script to speculating why they never made similar films about cats (he was a great cat lover). Another time, reviewing a musical, he quoted a song of which the entire lyric consisted of the word 'Guadalahara' repeated four times Henry concluded: If you want to know the name of this song, it's "Guadalahara".'

I only saw Henry occasionally in later years, to my regret, but we followed different paths. Once he came to supper with my wife and me and spent the evening nursing the cat. Later, I read that he was to give a talk on P.G. Wodehouse on radio in connection with the latter's eightieth (or was it ninetieth?) birthday. Surprised, I asked him about this and was told 'He and Stendhal are the only novelists I read', adding that he would have to write the script as he had been paid for it. Apparently he never did and the BBC repealed an earlier talk by Evelyn Waugh—a pity; Henry Reed would have been, I am sure, more interesting and less conventionally eulogistic. I don't know whether he repaid the fee.

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The Poetry of Henry Reed: Critical and biographical information for the World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts."


Cite this journal:
Bailey, L.W. "Writer Remembered: Henry Reed." The Author 106, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 26-27.


A reminiscence of Bailey's time serving in the Intelligence Corps at Bletchley Park with Reed during World War II. » Link to .PDF

L.W. "Bill" Bailey (1914 - 2004) was an author and Holmesian scholar.

Cite this page:

L.W. Bailey. "Writer Remembered: Henry Reed." The Poetry of Henry Reed. Last modifed 15 Jan. 2011, accessed 15 July 2011 <http://www.solearabiantree.net/namingofparts/writerremembered.html>.