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

Illustration by James Albon
Show Hide image

The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle