Magazine article The Spectator

A Fusion of Books and Boys

Magazine article The Spectator

A Fusion of Books and Boys

Article excerpt

A fusion of books and boys

David Hughes

JOHN LEHMANN by Adrian Wright Duckworth, 20, pp. 308

To the irritation of my parents, who in 1947 thought their teenage son well enough turned out in utility serge, John Lehmann threatened to buy me a jacket. I thought it contrary on his part to offer me clothes if his object was to take them off. The jacket never materialised, but, after I duly outed myself as a heterosexual, a job did, my first: two enjoyable, infuriating, rigorous years as editorial assistant on his London Magazine, postwar successor to Penguin New Writing.

If Lehmann's paternal origins were German, his name as a great English editor sprang out of the conflict with Germany. Into 40 issues of PNW, the monthly package which fitted a battledress front trouser-pocket, Lehmann stuffed the whole of war-torn Europe: poems, stories, documentaries, anything that contained the essence of the civilisation its readers were fighting for, indeed the evidence that Europe as an idea still existed. While Connolly in Horizon was levitating literature beyond the reach of the masses, Lehmann edited elitism out of the war.

At last, to put it vulgarly as this admirable book often does, John has found his Mr Wright. On paper Lehmann did scant justice to his life. In three volumes of memoirs (1955-66) so stiff in tone as to be almost posthumous, he mummified his days in the bandages of discretion. Nor could any of his lovers unwind him for long, whether a boy star of the Polish ballet, the whippy wife of a French ambassador or the servicemen he beckoned into his ivory tower in South Kensington or suburban Sussex. But Mr Wright strikes an affecting balance between Lehmann's sexual needs, rarely satisfied, and his literary passions, hardly fulfilled. His story is an epic of a failed attempt at a fusion of books and boys.

Insecurity wobbled John's infancy. A Punch man who mastered doggerel of more humour than his son could muster, Lehmann's father lost his family fortune a few hours before John's birth. John's own poetry was ever to seek a childhood lost in the soggy romance of a garden by the Thames, hounded by the dogs he loved as loyally as people. His first poem, at aged six, evoking Maidenhead and his mother in eight dry syllables, was among his briefest and best: `Shopping Shopping Never Stoping'. His sense of not belonging was early cultivated. He gave Eton the elbow: 'a philosophic darkness that swallowed me up.' At Cambridge he was described bv Dadie Rylands as 'a romantic old ninny, who loved suffering, meaning that he was making a passionate ass of himself with Michael Redgrave. He was already dealing in false antitheses: `sexual attraction versus the wonder of nature', as Wright puts it, `the prospect of carnal enjoyment against aesthetic appreciation'. By no great effort of will most of us manage to reconcile these non-opposites.

He persisted in staying rebelliously aloof, except in the laxity of pre-Anschluss Vienna where he wallowed in freedom. Despite joining the Woolfs as their prewar conjuror of young writing at the Hogarth Press, bringing in Isherwood among other notables, he longed to `blow the spunkless complacencies of Bloomsbury sky-high'. As poet, he soon guessed he was no match for such contemporaries as the Thirties quartet who made up MacSpaunday, in particular Spender whom among other names he dubbed `that Shelley of the Depression'. …

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