The poet Anthony Thwaite – who was in his day a university lecturer, a radio producer and one of Philip Larkin’s literary executors – has died at the age of 90 in a nursing home in his beloved Norfolk. He was the literary editor of this magazine, from 1967 until 1972, though film, theatre and music were also in his purview. The “back half” pages of the magazine under his tenure remain an excellent read: in one issue alone can be found pieces by Graham Greene, Leonard Woolf and Malcolm Bradbury. Thwaite was, too, a stalwart of the annual New Statesman/ Tribune cricket match.
Thwaite was the editor of Larkin’s Collected Poems, published in 1988, his Selected Letters (1992) and Letters to Monica (2010). The pair met in 1958 when Thwaite, then working as a radio producer for the BBC, invited Larkin to read for the Third Programme; an enduring friendship was formed. His connection to Larkin occasionally eclipsed his own work as a poet, yet he deserves to be far better known.
It is as poet – and as a family friend – that I remember him. For although I was a literary editor (at the Times) myself for many years, I did not come to know him and his remarkable wife, Ann – noted biographer of AA Milne, Emily Tennyson, and Frances Hodgson Burnett – on the book party scene. A cousin of Ann’s introduced her to my mother when I was very young; I grew up in New York, and Ann’s research would bring her to the States. My mother’s favourite kind of book was a juicy biography, so she was keen to meet Ann, but very soon my parents’ friendship with the Thwaites became one of the greatest and deepest of their lives.
When we travelled to England we would visit the Mill House, Ann and Anthony’s beautiful waterside home near Diss; we would go punting on the River Tas, Anthony and Ann both skilled with the pole. Their house was filled not only with books but with evidence of Anthony’s lifelong fascination with archaeology: “An archaeological dig and writing a poem have a lot in common,” he once wrote. “Both are searches for meaning, sifting through material that isn’t always certain and stable, apt to disintegrate.”
When I was a girl he treated me with just as much seriousness and interest as he did when I moved to Britain and became, eventually, someone who moved in his professional world. (He was, it should be noted, the father of four daughters.) I would see him treat my own son with the same seriousness and interest: Theo is now about to turn 21, but still treasures the Roman coin Anthony gave him for his tenth birthday.
An archaeological seam runs through his poetry, an acknowledgment that, despite the instability of time, some relics of our passing will endure. It can be seen throughout his Collected Poems, elegantly published by Enitharmon. His first book, Home Truths, was published in 1957, the same year as Ted Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain. Both men were born in 1930, and like Hughes, Thwaite spent his early years in Yorkshire. Unlike Hughes, Thwaite began, very early in his life, to set his work in a global context: his writing was strongly marked by his travels in Japan and Libya. At the BBC he shared an office for a while with Louis MacNeice, but was given two years’ leave from the corporation in the mid-1960s to take a job as an assistant professor at the University of Libya in Benghazi (Libya, as he knew, was full of Greek and Roman remains).
The poems Thwaite wrote there speak to that country’s complicated history; a sensitivity to such complexities was something he developed as a boy. Aged only ten he crossed the Atlantic alone during the Second World War, and spent four years in and around Washington, DC. The poem “Old South”, which describes meeting a friend’s grandfather in Virginia in 1940, draws on this experience: “Pa Abrahams, 90, old grandad, skinny in his rocking chair,/and then to see/out back, on a peg, a small shabby grey peaked cap,/the little Confederate drummer-boy’s, back in ’64.”
Pa Abrahams was just the age Thwaite was when he died. And this poem, written in the 1990s, is alert to the troubled, too-easily mythologised history of that region: “Old Hickory TV Appliances,/Old Timer Log Homes Marketing,/Old South.” But he was always aware of what could and could not be known: in “Sigma” he writes of sitting at his desk, unable to get on with anything, and as a distraction picking up a box of sherds, “a scattering of pottery I picked up/Among the Libyan middens I knew once”. This blending of the quotidian – the writer at his desk – and the sense of deep time is typical of the sensibility of Thwaite’s work. He finds, carved into the clay, a sigma, “a scratched ess”, a mysterious single letter etched more than 2,000 years before “by someone else who messed about like this/Unable to get on with anything,/But made his mark for someone else to see”.
Anthony Thwaite leaves behind the subtle, lovely monument of his work – and joy in the memories of his family and friends. His poem “Together, Apart”, written for Ann on their 35th anniversary, is as fine a portrait of the pleasures and complexities of a long marriage as I know. “With so much shared there is no need to say/So many things: we know instinctively/The common words of our proximity.” Certainly, he made his mark for all of us to see.
Summer of 2003
by Anthony Thwaite
Hearing Jack’s saxophone and Will’s guitar
This June evening, almost the longest day
So that up there a single star
Dissolves in distant sunlight, there’s delay –
If only for an instant – of the end
I must reach. In this music, they suspend
My life, and lift it up, and hold
Whatever has grown old,
And rinse it clean, and make it new and clear.
And yet their music is as far away,
Almost, as that midsummer star to me,
However well they play
This long light evening, spilling out their free
Syllables of skill and being young.
Some dull thing weighs me down, my tired tongue
Limps in its utterance, goes dumb
Where all the others come
Singing and dancing, growing, separately.
To hear Thwaite reading and discussing his poetry, visit anthonythwaitepoetry.wordpress.com
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas