Monday, 8 February 2010

Walter Allen

Walter Allen 1911-1995 

It is thanks to Walter Allen that we can spy in on some of the literary and artistic life of Birmingham in the 1930s. His Memoir of a writing life, As I Walked Down New Grub Street (1981) draws a picture of a city far from culturally stagnant, but one where the themes and concerns of the era are acted out, contemplated and reflected.
Born on Anglesey Street in the working-class Lozells district of Birmingham, Allen won a scholarship to King Edward's School, Aston before entering the University of Birmingham to read English. He was fortunate to have been taught by Annie Dodds (wife of E.R. Dodds), A.M.D. Hughes and Louis MacNeice, as well as the head of the Faculty, Ernest de Selincourt, though he bored Allen rigid. The Arts Faculty was then still based in the city centre in Mason College which stood where the Central Library currently stands. I write 'currently' as quite recently the library building, one of Birmingham's great architectural icons, has scandalously failed to be listed and will be demolished in 2013.
Mason College, Chamberlain Square
University was not just a place of learning for Walter Allen. Throughout his time there he also immersed himself in editing the university magazine, The Mermaid, joined the dramatic society and attended meetings of the Birmingham Film Society. Consequently he was befriended by E.R. Dodds.

Allen also had a short and disillusioning experience in student politics; an episode he would later describe as a farce, but it does shed some light on the rise of divisive politics at the beginning of an age of 'ferocious theologies.' This was in 1931 when many were disillusioned with the Labour Party after the General Strike and at the start of the Great Depression. Oswald Mosley, that most hated of British politicians, had a previous life as a Labour MP for nearby Smethwick (and a Conservative before that) but resigned in February 1931 in protest of Labour's inability to tackle the problem of unemployment. He immediately formed the short-lived New Party which set out to attract those who wished to split from Labour. Walter Allen was one of a small group of Birmingham University undergraduates who joined the local branch, chaired by former Labour MP for Aston, John Strachey who later became Minister for Food in the Attlee post-War Government. So when Mosley came to Birmingham Town Hall in September to make a speech at the invitation of the Communist Party, Walter Allen witnessed Mosley's journey into Fascism. The most shocking revelation of the New Party at that meeting for Allen was the presence of Mosley's "Biff Boys", his own militia led by the boxer Kid Lewis. It was not something that Allen could possibly tolerate, and so he and his fellow undergraduates headed to the Trocadero on Temple Street to drown their sorrows of naivety and foolishness as fighting erupted on New Street. 

After graduation Walter Allen continued with his ambition to be a full-time writer which was no small feat during the Great Depression. Although he was working on a novel in the background, he was a prolific writer of articles and essays  - a real jobbing writer. He contributed regularly to the Birmingham Post, the Birmingham Gazette, the Bookman, the Radio Times and the BBC Midlands service. For the latter Allen wrote and broadcasted a series of children's stories but as it did not pay well, he suggested a programme on Midlands authors which was accepted. The research brought him into contact with his subjects - W.H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis, John Hampson and Henry Green - and helped cement relations between them. Of these, it was John Hampson who became the closest friend. In 1936 when Hampson was persuaded by Auden to marry Therese Giehse, Walter Allen took the role of Best Man. For those in attendance it was a fondly remembered and often recounted event, mostly for the surrealism. 

In 1938 Walter Allen's first novel, Innocence is Drowned, was published by Michael Joseph. It was the culmination of everything he had been working towards. Despite respectful reviews, it did not sell well, but Allen was following his dream of a life of a writer, and so he did what talented and ambitious creative people have done from the beginning of time - he moved to London, to a flat on the edge of Bloomsbury. However, he did not leave Birmingham totally behind him as the successors to his debut - Blind Man's Ditch (1939) and Living Space (1940) continued to draw on his own Birmingham upbringing, and this theme climaxed with what is generally regarded as his best novel, All In A Lifetime (1959).

'Mr. Walter Allen displays a rare appreciation of working-class life. He has a gift for terse, elemental writing not usually found outside the pages of American novelists.' 
Birmingham Gazette, 10 February 1938

Letter from Walter Allen to Annie Dodds, 1950

Walter Allen being interviewed by David Lodge for 'As I was walking down Bristol Street',
a documentary for TV reflecting on the Birmingham Group (dir: Jim Berrow, 1983).

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Gordon Herickx

There is treasure hidden in the walls of Birmingham's Barber Institute of the Arts - four stone carvings by the sculptor and stonemason, Gordon Herickx (1900-1953). These are collectively known as The Symbols of the Arts. They fit well with the Birmingham style of public sculpture during the 1930s, and with good reason. Herickx was a pupil of and assistant to William Bloye, the city's number one unofficial municipal artist. And Bloye was pupil of Eric Gill. I think the lineage shows rather well.

Herickx's work greatly impressed those fortunate to come into contact with it during Herickx's short life. Louis MacNeice strenously bundled the Herickx sculpture Cyclamen into the back of his little car and drove it all the way to Cambridge in an effort to flog it to his mate Anthony Blunt. Unfortunately Blunt's taste had changed from the abstract by that time, and the hard-up Herickx family were no better of for Louis's effort.

In July 1953 Herickx had his first one-man show at the Kensington Gallery, London. It seemedto be  a success and his Birmingham friends who had moved to the capital insisted on throwing him a party. But Herickx was adamant to return to his family and headed back to Birmingham. That night he died in his sleep. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery held a memorial exhibition the following October. On display were twenty of Herickx's sculptures which was nearly his entire output. One of his works, Unemployed Man, had been shown in Moscow but had failed to be returned.

Herickx did not make a great deal of sculpture, though what he made was well regarded by his contemporaries. His studio was no more than the shed at the bottom of his suburban garden where he worked mainly in the summer because 'in winter he was too tired from hacking the frozen stone in the stone-cutter's yard.' He was also passionate about cinema, so perhaps it is not surprising that his name appears in the list of committee members of the Birmingham Film Society.

Chestnut Bud, 1935

'He read widely and discussed what interested him with wit and zest. He had an engaging gay seriousness and he seemed always to be seeing himself from a slight, half-comic angle.'
Walter Allen, 'As I Was Walked Down New Grub Street'

Gordon Herickx's study of John Hampson's head is currently [May 2018] on display in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.


Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Louis MacNeice & Highfield

"The front door of my own home in England has no knob or handle on the outside at all; it can only be opened from the inside after an enormous bolt has been shifted. It is a mid-Victorian house built for security and privacy. At the entrance to the drive there is a great wooden gate which is so formidable that I doubt whether I should have the temerity to go in myself if I ever found it closed."
Lella Secor Florence, 'Our Private Lives' (1944)

Between 1930 and 1936, the Irish poet Louis MacNeice lived in a former coachman's dwelling (below) in the grounds of a home in Selly Park called Highfield, one of the large Victorian houses built in the 1860s on Selly Hill but demolished in 1984. MacNeice's home was known as Highfield Cottage which he shared with his wife Mary, and later with their son Dan.


From 1929 until its demise, Highfield was the home of Prof. Philip Sargant-Florence, Director of Social Studies at the University and Professor of Economics, with his wife Lella who 'had a charming smile, violent red hair and vitality,' according to MacNeice. She worked in Birmingham promoting family planning, and seems to have spent the 1930s using Highfield (below) as the centre of Birmingham's 'alternative Bloomsbury'.

Philip Sargant Florence had indeed lived in Bloomsbury before moving to Birmingham. His sister Alix was even more connected to the Bloomsbury Set, having married James Strachey in 1920. Together, Alix and James made the standard translation of Freud into English.

Philip, Mary, Anthony, Noel and Lella Sargant Florence with Alix Strachey (nee Sargant Florence)

MacNeice writes in his unfinished autobiography, 'Two or three times a summer they would lend their garden for Labour Party garden parties and our doorstep would be littered with orange peel... Our landlady's friends had a gospel-tent enthusiasm and quivers of prickly statistics.'

'Most English Left-Wing intellectuals and American intellectuals visiting Britain must have passed through Highfield between 1930 and 1950.'

Walter Allen, 'As I Walked Down New Grub Street.'

 The interior walls of Highfield were decorated with murals by the artist Joan Souter-Robertson, making it sadder to hear of its destruction. The address was 128 Selly Park Road, but the land is now Southbourne Close, an exclusive, private cul-de-sac. Residents there have access to what little remains of Highfield - the Southbourne Close Pool, one of a number of lakes which once existed across Selly Hill, and the pagoda which can be glimpsed behind trees from Kensington Road.

There was a scheme for Highfield in 1939 with the intention of Isokon building flats on Highfield's land. But the war intervened and Isokon could no longer operate. Here's a picture of what might have been, the Lawn Road flats, in Hampstead, London:

In November 1935, Mary MacNeice left Louis and Dan to be with Charles Katzman, a former American Football star who the MacNeices had befriended. The month previously MacNeice was driving Katzman back from Oxford and was about a mile away from Selly Park, when he crashed his Austin 7, throwing Louis and Katzman out of the vehicle.

Although MacNeice was able to walk home, Katzman was hospitalised but released after a few days. He continued his recovery at Highfield Cottage where Mary nursed him back to health, but also fell in love with him. This Ballardian collision was a blow to MacNeice who was in danger of having a breakdown according to his worried friends, but it was a gain to Birmingham. After Mary's departure, Louis became more involved with the city, spending more time with its writers and artists.

The spell of the Enchanted Island was broken when Mary left. Louis instigated divorce proceedings immediately. Mary's mother sent a nanny for Dan, but her real role was to seduce Louis into undermining his grounds for divorce. A year after Mary's departure, a year of 'intrigue, spiritual squalor and anxiety', Louis successfully applied for the position of lecturer in classics at Bedford College, London. After a trip to Iceland with W.H. Auden, which became the basis for the collaborative Letters from Iceland, a 'spectacular' farewell party was thrown at Highfield Cottage in the autumn of 1936. Walter Allen recalls it in his memoir, As I Walked Down New Grub Street:

[It] began about nine of a Saturday evening and for some of us, Louis included, did not end until more than twenty-four hours later. My memories of the party are appropriately hazy. Professor and Mrs Dodds were there at the beginning and so was Auden... Those who came from London included Spender, Rupert Doone, the director of the Group Theatre, which had recently staged Auden's and Isherwood's The Dog Beneath the Skin and was soon to do Louis's translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, and the painter Robert Medley. I remember Doone, at one point during the night, sitting cross-legged on the floor and reiterating with great impressiveness, 'The theatre is like a basket of eggs: you take some out and you put some in.' I remember someone, for reasons best known to himself, throwing a glass of brandy on to the fire and a jet of flame shooting out and scorching the backside of the person standing in front of it, who I have always believed was Henry Reed. And I remember, as we woke up at first light from our impromptu beds on couches and blankets strewn on the floor, seeing Gordon Herickx standing at the window and surveying the grounds of Highfield, which must have been two or three acres in extent, and saying meditatively to himself: 'So this is how the poor live!'