Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Birth of the Birmingham Group

The Cabin, Union Passage, photographed in 1911

This week I received through the post, all the way from the Amazon, a copy of Leslie Halward's 1938 autobiography, Let Me Tell You. Unusually for an autobiography of a writer it was his second book and so it mainly focuses on Halward's growing up in Selly Oak, Birmingham. However, the later chapters are concerned with the beginnings of his writing career and in particular chapter XXI recalls the formation of the Birmingham Group of writers. Although the Group would sometimes be regarded as including WH Auden, Louis MacNeice, Henry Reed and even Henry Green, the core were those who met in a pub around Martineau Street in Birmingham's city centre during the 1930s - Walter Allen, John Hampson, Leslie Halward, Peter Chamberlain and very occasionally, Walter Brierley. I have often tried to ascertain exactly which pub it was and I am convinced it was The Cabin in Union Passage, seen above.

below are selected quotes from Chapter XXI of Let Me Tell You (1938) by Leslie Halward:

Now let me tell you about the "Birmingham Group," which, alas, exists no longer. The almost weekly meetings no longer take place in the upper room of a public-house off Corporation Street. Allen and Chamberlain have both gone to live in London; I am here in Malvern; only Hampson remains near the city.

In February, 1935, there appeared in New Stories a story by Peter Chamberlain called "Fanciful," and in the first sentence was a reference to the old Birmingham-Wolverhampton Road. I did not care much for the story, but the mention of the road, which I knew well, caused me to think that perhaps the author was a Birmingham man. At the same time I recollected that in his novel Saturday Night at the Greyhound John Hampson, also a contributor to New Stories, had written of the "good old Bull Ring." Perhaps he too lived in Birmingham. I decided to find out. I wrote to [Edward J.] O'Brien and he replied promptly, saying that certainly both Chamberlain and Hampson were Birmingham men, as also was Walter Allen, a story by whom had appeared in New Stories a couple of months before. O'Brien [editor of New Stories] was under the impression that we all knew each other.

On receipt of O'Brien's letter I wrote at once to both Chamberlain and Hampson and asked if I might meet them. Chamberlain's reply was very vague, intimating that it would not be a bad idea if we had tea together somewhere, some time. Hampson's was much more to the point. It began: "Do you know a pub off Corporation Street...?" went on to give very precise directions for finding the place, and stated that at seven o'clock on the following Thursday evening he and Walter Allen would be there. In order to avoid any confusion a copy of New Stories would be prominently displayed on their table.

I shall never forget the shock I received when I walked into that room and saw first the copy of New Stories and then the two men seated at the table on which it lay. My recollection of Saturday Night at the Greyhound and the opening sentence of Hampson's letter had caused me to expect to see a burly young fellow of thirty or so blowing the froth off a pint. I took one look at Allen, knew that he could not have written Saturday Night at the Greyhound, and found it almost impossible to believe that the other one could. A frail little gentleman he looked, at least forty-five years old, and he was toying with a glass that had a drop of whisky in the bottom. His hand was so small that my own enveloped it, wrist and thumb included, and as he made only a half-hearted attempt to rise I got the impression that he was an invalid or perhaps even a cripple. He introduced me to Allen and I sat down opposite them.

Well, that is how the Birmingham Group came to be formed. We four met more or less regularly at that public house and talked and talked and talked, as diverse a group of writers, as one newspaper has put it, as any part of the provinces can boast of.

Can it be wondered that we disagreed about a number of things, that arguments were inclined to be rowdy, that nearly always the lights were turned out on us before we realised that we were alone in the room and that it was time for us to go home. We never regarded ourselves as a group; it was left to O'Brien to so christen us; we were simply four young men who, having common interests and vaguely similar ideas, met periodically for the purpose of explaining each to the other where he was wrong.

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