Christopher Logue.
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Christopher Logue: "I don't think my life and my works are really connected, except that they both happened to me"

Christopher Logue remembered.

In the winter of 2004, I spent two frosty mornings in Christopher Logue's study. I was an English teacher at one of his old schools, and had been asked to write a monograph about his life and work. I was nervous. I'd been told he was a difficult, rude man.

I thought we'd talk about War Music first - the modernist translation of the Iliad which many feel is his masterpiece. How, I asked, could he write so powerfully about war given his own time in the army was, in his words, "outstandingly inglorious" (he ended up in a military prison after boasting about selling Army paybooks)?

He fixed me with a penetrating gaze - the result of his blindness in one eye - and answered in the clipped, beautifully enunciated tone I'd heard on so many of his recordings: "I don't think my life and my works are really connected, except that they both happened to me."

It wasn't a great start for someone hoping to write an all-encompassing study of an artist. It sounded more defensive than true - and it was. As time went by I established a rapport with him. He realised how enamoured I was by his work, and little-by-little we began to unpick his initial response.

In terms of his art, Logue's story began when he returned to England from serving in the Second World War. By his standards, little happened at first. He worked as a clerk in London, and half-heartedly attempted suicide. Then his father died, and he wrote one of the greatest and least-appreciated elegies of the Twentieth Century.

"For My Father" opens in terrible, plodding iambs, and the opening invocation is a powerful combination of grief and artistic vulnerability, as he prays, like Tennyson, that a higher power might allow him to do his subject justice.

A year ago tonight my father died.
Slow on the year, you bells;
slow on the year
and, Master Sun....
Bequeath
some brief alliteration of your radiance to glint this work in words
that speak of ghosts.

It's pure lyricism, retrospectively coloured by the way he brings in reality. If the enjambments suggest Logue's struggling to get his words out, they only set us up for the comfort of his father's certainty:

Write what you like,
Do something to make other people laugh.
And if at nothing else - at you.

As a poet, Logue's job is to be 'truthless' - to embellish, to expand experience - but it's the unflinching honesty that makes the poem so moving. It makes the end all the more painful, as the sun he yearned for at the start sets, and bathos gives way to catharsis.

Facts fail. The nave grows dim.
They buried him in rain.
It cost my mother £50...
In this first dusk
I am alone on earth.

The death of Logue's father persuaded him to move to Paris. The city at that time would have been thrilling to a middle-class Catholic boy from the sticks - in his memoirs he writes of the "shops full of good things - the girls inventing rough chic". With the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi, Logue would be involved in one of the most fascinating and important post-war literary publications: Merlin magazine.

The publication has gained retrospective significance - it published many of the last great names of modernism, among them Genet, Sartre and Beckett. The magazine brought in little money and was saved from extinction by a publisher named Maurice Girodias. In return he required a favour of Merlin's writers. From Logue's memoirs: "'Let me be candid,' he said. 'I require simple stories of a wholly pornographic kind...I want constant, heavy, serious fucking.'" Logue struggled with his novel, but his collection of bawdy poems, under the nom de plume of Count Palmero Vicarion, was a small success. It was full of lines like this:

Said the Nabob of Trincomalee
"Young man, do you far when you pee?"
I replied with some wit:
"Do you belch when you shit?"
I think that was one up for me.

I told Logue I thought these poems were important. "Just a book of obscene rhymes," he said. But they're the first time your humour takes centre stage, I replied: and ultimately humour is the thing that sustains your poetry. He liked this. "It's about my father. Not to have humour present in what you're doing, even if what you're doing is serious is, I think, a mistake. Otherwise literary objectivity vanishes. You are serious. Literature is serious. But it's only literature, and you are only you."

While the other Merlinites were subscribing wholeheartedly to Alexander Trocchi's dictum that there must be "a moral stance from which the reader sees... and perhaps, becomes converted to your coherent reasons," Logue was far more uncertain about the power of art, and even less so by 1953, when Merlin published two extracts from a declaration made by Dr Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian doctor, which explained in detail what happened in the Nazi death camps. They may have been the first versions published in English. Logue would later respond:

Beauty indeed it was
yet truthless beauty seemed,
after the oven door
closed on the worth in war [...]

Take Rudy Kipling's If:
think of its being read aloud to buoy the hearts of those
the ovens fed.

What were his thoughts on this issue now? War Music is a beautiful poem..."Yeah, maybe that's all it is. No. I don't think that. I think there's always a difference between what's happening on the page and what's going on between the reader's ears. Good art is always going to lead you back into people's lives, it's going to give you a framework that will make you think, make you act."

Logue's first collection of poems was poor and sold badly. Depression lead to a breakdown. He travelled to Perpignan and resolved to swallow some Tuinal capsules, having rowed a boat away from the shore. Trocchi hastily boarded a train and managed to stop him in the act. From Logue's memoirs: "The food on the SNCF's grandes lignes was cooked and served with style. Alex ordered fine wine...As we ate the tears ran down my cheeks. The food was so delicious, the movement of the train so comforting...I wished this moment would last forever."

Merlin died a natural death, and Logue moved to London in 1956. (In 2003 a novel Alexander Trocchi had "dirtied up" for Girodias, Young Adam (1954), was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor.)

Back in Britain, Logue soon became a friend of Kenneth Tynan - together they went to see Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre. He would later write: "It was extraordinary that in a theatrical world...where teas were served during matinee intervals and the national anthem was played...a loud-mouthed boor should be allowed to appear at all, let alone to rant about class, money and sex...The acceptance of poverty, class obedience, unquestioning loyalty to Crown and Church, the power of blind, bad patriotism...had been changed, for ever."

In Paris, Logue had flirted with Marxism, but it had not infiltrated his poetry. Now his class consciousness was awakening. It's his wilfulness and commitment to artistic objectivity in spite of this that makes his work during this time so exciting. Take his response when the left-wing magazine Tribune asked writers to explain why they were going to vote Labour. Bored with his own idealism, Logue produced "I shall vote Labour", which contains the famous lines "I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour/my balls will drop off... I shall vote Labour because/there are too few cars on the road... I shall vote Labour because/deep in my heart/I am a Conservative."

A silly poem, I suggested to him, but serious - a critique of socialist idealism - given its historical context. "True to their word, Tribune printed it," he adds in his memoirs. Perhaps his grounding came from his personal life - he told me his neighbours and friends were London traders who did well for themselves in the post-war years. "Not right wing by political conviction...right wing by nature. Deeply small 'c' conservative. They weren't interested in the altruism of a white middle-class boy."

This is why their presence lends such beauty to his memoirs - just as art can transcend class, so the friendship between Logue and his neighbours extends beyond ideology. When the poet's left-wing tendencies land him in jail, they are quick to support him: "If your feet went in Burma, you fucking died. I look after my feet. You look after yours. Right?" At the very end of his memoirs we hear that one of his friends has died having buried his walking boots at his favourite spot in the Lake District. His last word is on how people behave: not their beliefs.

Yet at the same time, Logue was working with the likes of theatre director Lindsay Anderson on art which merged genres. He and his contemporaries genuinely began to feel their work could create a free and classless society. He told me: "Anderson had the biggest effect - his confidence that you could do things that could be acceptable in public. He put me on to read poems between films at the National Film Theatre - 600 people. They hadn't come to see me, but when Lindsay put me on they just thought it was normal."

One of his greatest successes at this time was Red Bird (1958), in which translations of Pablo Neruda's poems were set to the music of drummer/composer Tony Kinsey and pianist/composer Bill le Sarge. "Red Bird is good, isn't it?" he said. "I didn't realise how lucky I'd been."

It's more than good. Any literary analysis is hard-pressed to capture the understated, captivating effect brought to the poetry by a slow four-beat rhythm on a cymbal, a lumbering bass line and a mournful, wailing trumpet. Then Logue's weary voice over the top, painstakingly in time to the beat:

Love's not so brief that I forget her
thus. Nevertheless, I shall forget her, and,
alas, as if by accident, a day will pass in which
I shall not think about her even more.

On the sleeve of one his collections of recordings, Logue writes, "Being read to is one of life's pleasures." I pointed out that it was true, as long as he was doing the reading. He responded: "You've got to be able to read well, and so many poets pay no attention. They think they can just get up and do it, but they can't. I really think this is quite important - if you can't read verse well, then why bother with the verse?"

He did similar work for Peter Cook's satirical nightclub The Establishment, writing lyrics for songs delivered by Annie Ross. "A year's a long time for a nightclub show," he told me. "But just for a while there was that sort of energy of the eighteenth century coffee shop." And in 1969 Logue perhaps took his willingness to transcend form to its extremes, reading to 100,000 rock fans at the Isle of Wight Festival.

But Red Bird wasn't necessarily Logue's finest piece of writing. He was a member of Betrand Russell's "Committee of 100" who marched to Aldermaston. "To my Fellow Artists" is a poem about nuclear war but is also art as social action (it was printed and distributed on posters). Again, he returns to the impotence of the artist in the face of their subject matter:

Consider, my fellows,
how all the posh goodies inside our museums,
stones, books, things we have stolen,
think of them turned to instant dust
one dusk between six and six ten.

To the humanist we march through time, picking up things we have discarded, recycling and progressing as a result. The idea of a nuclear weapon is nightmarish. And so syntax is twisted, as is the abstract notion of patriotism into the specific, murderous and misogynistic.

Think desolation
and create desolation because of it,
is called mad.

Thus the Ripper and Christie
Thought of whores.
Thus they think of our country.

Today it might sound a little hysterical. But in 1961 Logue, with 32 others (including the elderly Russell), was given a month in jail as a "Civil" prisoner, for being in CND. In court, Russell said: "Your worship, I came here to save your life. But having heard what you have to say, I do not think that the end justifies the means."

During a discussion about War Music, I mentioned Logue's use of modern martial metaphors, such as Napoleon, Rommel and the bomb, to describe the action between the Greeks and Romans - at which point he interjected: "It's funny that you group those three together. Napoleon and Rommel, perhaps, but not the bomb." Why? "Because the bomb is strangely outside military things. It is the military who detonate these things, but it passes much more into the realm of politics."

In the 1960s, Logue was still years away from finding acclaim with War Music. He spent much of the next decade depressed - as he writes: "Then things improved. I met Rosemary Hill. She had a most beautiful smile. Open, friendly, sceptical." Without realising, he let slip a charming aside during our discussion on humour in literature: "Sometimes Rosemary reads Dickens to me - you just find yourself bursting with laughter. The description of music halls, of people struggling for the best seats - it's just wonderful."

I stayed in touch with Logue for a while after our meeting. I received a couple of beautiful hand-written cards and spoke on the phone a few times, but I got the impression he was already bored of me. Then one afternoon a postman knocked at my door with a large brown tube. I opened it and inside was one of Logue's poster poems from the 1960s, with a note of thanks inside.

That was Christopher Logue. Prickly, certainly. Highly impatient - by his own admission. And beneath all that, a kind and sympathetic man. It made him the artist he was.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets @aljwhite.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times