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Documenting the quest to track down everything written by (and written about) the poet, translator, critic, and radio dramatist, Henry Reed.

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Henry Reed, ca. 1960


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I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
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«  Connections  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

26.11.2021


Connections

I returned recently to a book I first looked at back in October of 2006: London: City of Disappearances, edited by Iain Sinclair. A huge collection of stories about a London which no longer exists (or never was), it contains a small chapter by Richard Humphreys, "Death of a Cleaner," in which Humphreys attempts to discover something, anything, about his London house cleaner's enigmatic life, following the man's untimely death. 'Not everyone has a house cleaner who knew Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon,' Humphreys begins, 'and who was born into an aristocratic family and went to Wellington College and Cambridge University. I had one, called Mr [Antony] Ashburner, and he disappeared from my life as suddenly as, fifty years before, he had disappeared from the life of his own family.'

I was surprised, on re-reading the chapter, on how many connections and confirmations to the story I had uncovered in the last two years, in the span of a couple of paragraphs:

          I cannot follow them into their world of death,
          Or their hunted world of life, though through the house,
          Death and the hunted bird sing at every nightfall.
henry reed, 'Chrysothemis'

According to his sister, [Ashburner] went up to Cambridge in 1939 to read law. If he did go to Cambridge it didn't suit him and he transferred to Birmingham, where he probably read English. There is a mysterious and evocative poem by the Birmingham poet Henry Reed, called 'Chrysothemis',1 which gives an insight into Ashburner's life in the Second City. After his death, I found a galley proof of the poem in his untidy flat at the wrong end of Ladbroke Grove. There was a dedication, handwritten in ink: 'To Antony from Henry, December 1942'. The poem is darkly Eliotic and casts light on an important, if brief, relationship. It was published in John Lehmann's New Writing and Daylight that winter.

In a letter of 1965 — to Dorothy Baker,2 a BBC Third Programme script-editor — Ashburner recalls this acquaintance during a brief spell when he was living in the basement flat of a house belonging to Professor Sargent Florence, the left-wing economist and sociologist. This was Highgrove,3 a Birmingham house famous enough to be the subject of a short TV film by David Lodge.4 Ashburner's flatmate was Dr Bobby Case, a pathologist at St Chad's Hospital. 'I wondered then,' he wrote to Baker, 'and I have sometimes wondered since, how it was that Bobby Case managed to get hold of so much offal for our dinners — in view of wartime shortages. . .'

Highgrove, a large house, now demolished, was the haunt of writers and radicals, such as Auden and Spender, as well as the novelist and Birmingham University lecturer Walter Allen5 — whose name can be found in Ashburner's surviving address book. Highgrove was a Midlands bohemian hang-out unknown to most metropolitans. Perhaps, like Julian Maclaren-Ross,6 another acquaintance, Ashburner was one of the misfits and deserters incarcerated in the psychiatric wing of Northfield military hospital [Wikipedia] in the Birmingham suburbs, one of W. R. Bion's [Wikipedia] patients (guinea pigs).

What else did he do in the war? Reed went on to work at Bletchley Park. My mother-in-law, who was in the same section, remembers him taking a female colleague out for lunch. Reed's Bletchley Park friend, Michael Ramsbotham, has no recollection whatever of Ashburner. Was he a conscientious objector? In my more fanciful moments I imagine he was a spy, although I'm not sure which side he would have been on. By the end of the war he was living in Fitzrovia and working at Foyles bookshop. He wasn't keen on Christina Foyle [Wikipedia], he told me.

1. ^ Reed's poem, "Chrysothemis," is a monologue spoken by the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemestra, sister of Orestes and Electra. The poem is quoted at length in Gross's Sound and Form in Modern Poetry.

2. ^ Dorothy Baker shows up as part of Conroy Maddox's Birmingham entourage in Silvano Levy's The Scandalous Eye.

3. ^ Highfield Cottage (not "Highgrove", as Humphreys would have it), was the home of Louis MacNeice while he was a lecturer in Classics at the University of Birmingham in the 1930s. The house is one of the landmarks in this map of The Life and Times of Henry Reed.

4. ^ The television documentary in which Highfield figures prominently is As I Was Walking Down Bristol Street.

5. ^ Walter Allen was a schoolmate of Henry Reed's at King Edward VI Grammar School, Aston, and both men went on to the University of Birmingham.

6. ^ Henry Reed seemed to have a special hatred of Julian Maclaren-Ross, and wrote several negative reviews of his work for the New Statesman. In his book, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia (2003), Paul Willets quotes one review in particular, from March 2, 1946:

Like its predecessor, Bitten By the Tarantula attracted some scathing reviews. And, once more, the severest of his detractors was Henry Reed, whose hatred of Julian's work was fortified by a hatred of Julian himself. 'Mr Maclaren-Ross's book,' he wrote, 'is very well bound and generously, though not elegantly printed; but its last three pages increase their number of lines from thirty-four per page to forty-one, thereby giving a peculiar stretto effect to the narrative which is, in fact, its sole interest. [...] The point of Mr Maclaren Ross's novel is not obscure. It has none.' (p. 189)

In defense of his character, Maclaren-Ross had an ally at the BBC in producer Reggie Smith, also a Birmingham colleague of Reed's.

City of Disappearances is due out in paperback this fall.


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What is Henry Reed's first name?

1532. Vallette, Jacques. "Grand-Bretagne," Mercure de France, no. 1001 (1 January 1947): 157-158.
A contemporary French language review of Reed's A Map of Verona.



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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