Alexander McCall Smith on why W H Auden still matters

W H Auden, who died 40 years ago this month, is one of the most humane, loving, direct and affecting poets of all time, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

 
That unmistakable voice: grey, shambling and covered in ash, Auden the man found it was the effect of his words that mattered.
Photo: Jerry Cooke/Corbis
 
He wrote a poem in praise of limestone. He wrote a poem about Sigmund Freud. He wrote poems about cats and opera, about the minute organisms that live on human skin. He wrote an achingly beautiful love poem, a lullaby that stands among the gentlest and most forgiving poetry of the 20th century. Years after his death, when the World Trade Center towers were brought to the ground, traumatised New Yorkers faxed each other copies of a poem he had written for an earlier and greater crisis, “September 1, 1939”. They took comfort in his words even if many of those who received them must have had no idea who he was.
 
My own discovery of W H Auden came in the early 1970s, when I was living in Belfast and working at Queen’s University. I picked up an edition of his collected shorter poems – many of which are, in fact, rather long. It was done on impulse, as many of our personal literary discoveries are, but I immediately felt that the voice I heard in the poems was speaking directly to me. That may sound like solipsism, but it is just what a great poet often does: he or she is there in the room with you, at your elbow, addressing you in particular. You can hear the voice. For me, some of the attraction of Auden was the hint of the political in the backdrop to his earlier work; to read him in the midst of the Northern Irish Troubles seemed somehow right.
 
A few months later, when I was back in Edinburgh, Auden arrived to give a public reading in George Square. I was in the second row and watched as the great poet shambled in, flanked by committee members of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse. He was a terrible mess: a shapeless grey suit, stained and covered, as far as I could work out, in cigarette ash, complemented by a pair of ancient carpet slippers and that face, famously lined with what he called its geological catastrophe. The same face has been described as looking like a wedding cake left out in the rain. But there he was, and he mounted the platform to read – or rather to recite, as he needed no notes. And at that moment there was an involuntary intake of breath from the audience. His flies were undone.
 
Not that it mattered. Auden’s words, particularly when we hear them delivered in that curious mid-Atlantic accent that he developed after he left England for the United States, have an electrifying beauty and, in the case of so much of his work, profundity. It is this combination of lyricism and intellectual depth that makes him, I think, the most engaging of 20th-century poets.
 
From that early encounter with his work, I developed an increasingly strong interest in his writing. I began to travel with a collection of his poems in my suitcase; lines of his verse came back to me at odd moments; I started, I suppose, to look at the world through what might be described as an Audenesque set of spectacles. I taught our daughter, then aged four, to recite his ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening”. She enjoyed it. We are all pushy parents in one way or another, and may as well admit it.
 
When I started to write novels set in Edinburgh, the characters in these books – unsurprisingly, perhaps – began to show an interest in Auden. In particular, Isabel Dalhousie, the central character in my Sunday Philosophy Club series, thought about Auden rather a lot – and quoted him, too. A couple of years after the first of these novels was published, I received a letter from his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, who is a professor of English at Columbia University in New York. Unlike those writers who appoint coevals to look after their work, with the result that their executors either predecease them or do not last much longer, Auden made the wise move of appointing a young man to watch over his literary legacy.
 
Mendelson was then a junior academic at Yale – and this gave him the opportunity to devote much of a long and distinguished career to producing commentary on Auden’s writing. It transpired that he was a reader of my Botswana novels and he wrote to me to tell me that, in his opinion, Auden and Mma Ramotswe would have agreed on practically every subject. However, what particularly pleased him, he said, was the attachment my other fictional characters had to the poet.
 
The letter led to a friendship. I then wrote Professor Mendelson into an Isabel Dalhousie novel, creating a scene in which he comes to Edinburgh to deliver a public lecture on the sense of neurotic guilt in Auden’s verse. A year later, we translated fiction into reality by bringing Mendelson to Edinburgh to deliver before a real audience the lecture that he had previously given to a group of fictional characters. Such is the interest in Auden that almost 400 people came to hear him speak.
 
That is not bad for a poet who died 40 years ago this month. What explains the continuing appeal of his work? The language he used probably goes some way towards it. Auden had an ear for the rhythmic possibilities of English – at one time or another he used virtually every metre available to a poet writing in English. It is the syllabic verse, though, that he consistently used for so many of his later poems that has the strongest and most consistent appeal. It appears effortless – rather like the steady flow of a clever lecture – but it is really very skilfully constructed and has an extraordinary capacity to resonate with the reader. Yes, we think. This is exactly how it is. This is true.
 
There is also an intense humanity about Auden’s poetry. He comes across as a man of great sympathy, kindness and understanding. He is forgiving; he knows that we are rather weak, frightened creatures, afraid of the dark, but we need not be frightened, he says, because we can create for ourselves the just city for which we yearn. In his earlier work, he believed that this could be done by political engagement. He travelled to wars, to Spain and to China, witnessing the unfolding tragedies of fascism and militaristic aggression. Later, though, he eschewed politics and became something of a Horatian poet, celebrating the importance of the local, the domestic, the personal domain of culture. In that sense, there are several different Audens and one can take one’s pick according to one’s mood and needs.
 
For me, his most affecting poems are those in which he is talking, in one way or another, about love, even if he may not use the word directly. “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is about freedom and the ability to be ourselves, yet it is also about the corrosive and limiting effects of repression and hate. Even when he writes about water, as he does in the bucolic “Streams”, he ends up talking about how we all need something to cherish and love. That can be anything, he explains in another poem called “Heavy Date”. “When I was a child”, he writes in that poem, 
 
. . . I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you. 
 
There may be a sexual joke here. It does not matter: the point is that we can love anybody and anything – what counts is that we open ourselves to love.
 
It may be that the love is not returned. Most of us have experienced unrequited love – a bitter pill to swallow. But Auden has advice there, too. If equal affection cannot be, he writes, let the more loving one be me. Like just about everything he wrote, that helps.
 
Alexander McCall Smith’s “What W H Auden Can Do For You” will be published by Princeton University Press on 22 September 

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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