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Missing Louis MacNeice (October 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

The first casualty of the 1930s poets became the great survivor, but MacNeice's province-metropolitan compromise ran out of road.


I was set to meet Louis MacNeice in 1963. My English teacher, Hector MacIver, was his friend, the dedicatee of I Crossed the Minch which in 1938 launched the ribaldries of the poem Bagpipe Music while recording, though rather discreetly, how MacNeice ran off with the wife of the painter William Coldstream and had liberating sex with her in the black, Calvinist houses of the Western Isles at the pit of the 1930s slump: surely deserving a Nobel Prize for libertinism.

I had been set to meet MacNeice because Hector was due to put him up in the autumn. But, in London that September, waiting for the boat-train to France, I read that MacNeice had died, at only 55: a chill after recording for the Third Programme in a Somerset cave.

After 1969 at the BBC, I was scripting and recording programmes for the Open University, while the old gang from Features and the Third was still around - Garrard Greene, Gary Watson, Jill Balcon, from Agamemnon, Christopher Columbus, The Dark Tower, Faust - an amazing, adaptable team. A weekend teaching with R D Smith, his friend and fellow-producer, in an Irish hotel - ideas, jokes, arguments weaving their way round the bar - almost conjured the man himself up.

For this reason an elevated image of Reith's magisterial, mutinous BBC hung about until a few months ago, when on an Islington street a slobbish unshaven crouton stuck a mike in my face and asked me what I thought of Chris Moyles, cackled and fled. Moyles - for it was he - and his gang have profaned the temple and earned millions for doing so. It's 40 years since the Third Programme was ended to accommodate pop and disc-jockeys, so honest ill-will is in order.

I didn't even know MacNeice's centenary was coming up until I read a piece in the Islington Tribune, an islet of literacy in a capital of pap. There had been a biography in 1995, by Jon Stallworthy, who did not always seem best pleased at Macneice's ‘tangles’ and occasionally formidable thirst. But once you read one of his lines, you'll never forget it. "Time was away, and she was here/And somebody stopped the moving stairs." ... "The sunlight on the garden/Hardens and grows cold." ... "By a high star our course is set,/Our end is life. Put out to sea."

Grim Gordon [Brown] has been going on much about Britishness, and the protestant home-ruler MacNeice got somewhere close to the once-possible reality of this in An Eclogue for Christmas or The Kingdom. The first casualty of the 1930s poets turned out the great survivor, but MacNeice's ausgleich - his province-metropolitan compromise - has long run out of road.

MacNeice had defined the public sphere of the poet with a classicist's precision. He should be "able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions".

MacNeice had matured as part of the cultural renaissance of Birmingham - of all places - where in the late 1920s and early 1930s writers like Auden, Walter Allen, R D Smith, E R Dodds were found in the excitement around Oswald Mosley, then the Labour Party's coming man. This was set against a Horatian pastoral element, drawn from his Gaelic-speaking father's origins in the Irish west, and his Oxford first in Greats.

His first marriage broke up, and he went south to London's Bedford College and in 1941 to the BBC, where for 20 years his radio dramas, punctuated by film and reportage, helped create a new genre straddling symbolism and practicality. As well as plundering his classical myth-kitty, technology metaphors were set up to mediate between the two: trains, which were benign and connective; and ships which were usually ‘other’: fateful and ultimately fatal, as in Alcohol (1942):

A bottle swings on a string.
The matt-grey iron ship,
Which ought to have been the future, sidles by
And with due auspices descends the slip
Into an ocean where no auspices apply.

Young Louis had been an impressionable five years old when the Titanic steamed past Carrickfergus to her doom. Her image, an industrial-age drowned cathedral, never left him.

Was he British, or was his Fitzrovia a sort of gipsy encampment in the metropolis, where the Celts - Dylan Thomas, Julian MacLaren Ross, W S Graham, the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, Bertie Rodgers and countless reviewers and journalists - lived off the surplus capital of Beaverbrook or Reith? Part of him, London or Irish, was always the solid citizen who favoured home rule:

Because one feels that here at least one can
Do local work which is not at the world's mercy
And that on this tiny stage with luck a man
Might see the end of one particular action.

In wartime England his vision was of a informal democracy, ‘a kingdom of individuals’. George Orwell's England was far more contested: a family quarrel, but inside one of those frightening nuclear families which ‘go critical’: no-one speaking and glares all round.

It was amazing that he survived in the BBC as late as 1961, to be confronted by the new age in the form of the McKinsey consultancy:

McKinsey: "Mr MacNeice, you have not produced a programme for a year. What have you been doing?"

MacNeice: "I have been thinking."

The tensions of broadcasting and long lunches took their toll, the poetry had become routine, his marriage was on the rocks. Then, in the last few years, the vision came back. He was, on re-reading them, impressed by his poems' dark tone: ironic, subversive, paraded with omens and a cityscape that frightened and foreboded. What "the born martyr and the gallant ninny; the grocer drunk with the drum" would do, in a few years, to his Belfast? Or the subtler, more damning future awaiting the London which had once charmed William Dunbar:

From which reborn into anticlimax
We endured much litter and apathy hoping
The phoenix would rise, for so they had promised.
Nevertheless let the petals fall
Fast from the flower of cities all.
And nobody rose, only some meaningless
Buildings and the people once more were strangers
At home with no-one, sibling or friend.
Which is why now the petals fall
Fast from the flower of cities all.

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