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).

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