Remembering Robert Conquest: A Symposium

Essays by Cynthia Haven, Dick Davis, and John Whitworth

Poetry and Politics

Robert Conquest’s first collection, titled simply Poems, in1955, opens with this stunning dedication: “In Memory of / MAURICE LANGLOIS / poet, / died in the hands of the /secret police of the occupying power.” The wording is cryptic, blandly opaque, Kafkaesque: Was it the Gestapo, or the Soviet NKVD? The pathology of the right or the left? In fact, Langlois appears to have been one of the last casualties of World War II. The dedication has the gravity of a tombstone.

He had been a close friend. When Conquest was returning to London through France, he telephoned Langlois to organize a reunion. His call was answered instead by Langlois’s weeping mother, who informed Conquest that her son and his girlfriend, both working for the Résistance, had been killed by the Gestapo. Yet by the time Conquest wrote his masterful dedication a decade later, he had already seen the work of the Soviet NKVD in Bulgaria, so the ambiguous wording makes another point. Nazis or Soviets? Robert Conquest opposed the systematic or offhand refutation of the truth, wherever and however it happened—along with the secret police and occupying powers. Hence, he is best remembered for his groundbreaking works that exposed the horrors of Stalinism, foremost among them The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) and Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986).

Aristotle sharply distinguished the domains of Clio and Euterpe. So did a Russian poet some centuries later. Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky once remarked that the only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o.” There are powerful exceptions, however—think of Dante. Surely Brodsky’s attitude had been shaped by his refusal to define himself in terms of the Soviet system both he and Conquest deplored, the system that would eventually exile him. However, at some point, politics intersect with reality, with what happens to real people when governments and policies go wrong. And history, on the large scale of people and events, is inevitably bound up with politics. It is said that Conquest’s revelations of the millions killed in Stalin’s regime did not influence his poetry at all—except for a few poems with overt political references, such as “Get Lost, Gulag Archipelago” and “Garland for a Propagandist.” However, both his muses were intertwined and informed each other, which would quickly move him miles away from the surrealist poems of his youth in the 1930s. World events would also move him far from the fashionable Communist Party of Oxford, where he had briefly been a member before deciding that it was not a place for grown-ups. By enlisting in 1939, he implicitly rejected the party’s line that the war was a capitalist and imperialist venture. His wartime experiences would bring their own understandings and leave their own scars.

In a long poem commemorating his friend, the poet Drummond Allison, who was killed in the fighting in Italy, he tells of his shattering disillusionment about just causes, after a death, as he wrote, “which no future can ever repay.” He listed the clichés—“He died in a good cause,” “We sacrifice our best,” “He lives in our memory”—which caused him to write, “All this is not untrue / But its irrelevance shakes me like a fever . . .” He could not reconcile the public need against the private loss, “the just war and the individual’s unjust / Death. . . .”

He was not going to write the great war poem; he knew that. While describing the war in verse was possible, it was not possible for him. In “Poem in 1944,” he wrote:

. . . I must believe
That somewhere the poet is working who can handle
The flung world and his own heart. To him I say
The little I can. I offer him the debris
Of five years’ undirected storm in self and Europe,
And my love. Let him take it for what it’s worth
In this poem scarcely made and already forgotten.

His pivotal time in Bulgaria began in 1944, when he was first a soldier and then served in the postwar Foreign Office in Sofia, where he watched the brutal Soviet takeover and the collapse of civil order. “And so no verse can ever / Express the essence of the deadly plague,” he wrote about Budapest, at the time it was also transitioning from German wartime destruction to Soviet occupation. He famously helped two Bulgarians leave their country. One would become his second wife; the first volume of the New Lines anthology is dedicated to Tatiana Mihailova. The other was Ivan Ronchev. But the case of a third man he didn’t help out, Ilya Kovachev, is at least as poignant.

Kovachev and Conquest

Kovachev (left) and Conquest (right), 1944.

The story was on Conquest’s mind in 2010, when I visited his Stanford home for the first time. Conquest had selected a few photographs to share. One portrayed two men in Sofia, 1944, in front of the statue of Tsar Alexander II. Both seemed to have the world before them, and all possibilities open to them: Conquest was the dapper soldier on the right; the journalist on the left with the handsome, furtrimmed coat was Kovachev.

With the Soviet takeover, the fates diverged. Nearly fifty years later, in 1992, both men posed again in front of the same statue in Sofia. By then, one man had become a well-known historian and poet, with a life in full flower. The journalist had been interrogated and tortured in the first years under Communist rule. His hands had been broken, and the joints in his fingers healed so that they twisted in a way that must have made a keyboard difficult. He became head of the writers’ union, but it was overall a blighted life. He broke down and wept when he had to say farewell to Conquest at the airport for the last time. Two very different lives provide a practical demonstration of what happens when politics fail.

Conquest was recalled to London in 1948 after he had helped the two Bulgarians. In London’s Foreign Office, he was a leading figure in the semi-secret Information Research Department (IRD). As Timothy Garton Ash writes, its purpose was “mainly to collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anti-communist publications.”

George Orwell, who had some links with the IRD (both men had fallen in love with the same woman, Celia Kirwan, who would become Conquest’s assistant there), would have a strong influence on the younger writer. Conquest once said that the trait he admired in Orwell was his honesty, but there was more common ground than that. Certainly they shared a view of the power of language to corrupt politics, as much as the other way around. Conquest’s poem on Orwell forms a sort of ars poetica and describes the poet as much as it does Orwell—his insistence on the specific, the individual, the real:

Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly
Betray the influence of his warm intent.
Because he taught us what the actual meant
The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly. . . .

We die of words. For touchstones he restored
The real person, real event or thing;
—And thus we see not war but suffering
As the conjunction most to be abhorred.

Conquest led a double life during these years: he worked by day at the Foreign Office, while he also had a growing reputation as a poet. As editor of the renowned 1956 New Lines anthology, he promulgated and defined a new kind of poetry, one that would eschew rhetorical flights, teleological systems, utopias. As he wrote in the introduction to the anthology.

If one had briefly to distinguish the poetry of the fifties from its predecessors, I believe that the most important general point would be that it submits to no great systems of theoretical constructs nor agglomerations of unconscious commands. It is free from both mystical and logical compulsions and—like modern philosophy—is empirical in its attitude to all that comes. This reverence for the real person or event is, indeed, part of the general intellectual ambience . . . of our time.

Clearly, the influence of Clio on Euterpe was beginning to show, in his work as critic as well in his role as an editor. About the same time, he attacked the work of Inkling novelist, essayist, and poet Charles Williams in a 1957 essay, “The Art of the Enemy,” claiming “the psychology of totalitarianism—of hierarchy and of sadism—is the essential of his work and ruins it irretrievably.” In Williams, “we find what is so difficult to track down in the totalitarian states—a genuine writer who has fully accepted a closed and monopolistic system of ideas and feelings, and what is more, puts it forthrightly with its libidinal component scarcely disguised.” Williams manifests “the full pathology of the infection.” He condemned Williams for the “clearly marked” tendency to terrorism. “Humanity is treated as simply subject and subordinate to dogma.” Conquest’s essay considered only Williams’s dense and obscure Arthurian poetry, rather than the novels for which he is best known. Spirited and lengthy replies followed in subsequent issues of the journal, and while Conquest landed some blows, his vehemence and hyperbole arguably reveal more about himself, and what he had witnessed, than they do about Williams’s corpus.

So much for Conquest’s work as an editor and critic. The effect on Conquest as a poet took a more camouflaged form. Auden summarized what he looked for in poetry during his 1956 inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford: “Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: ‘Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?’ The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: ‘What kind of a guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?’” His words are a useful blueprint for considering Conquest’s oeuvre.

In his poems, Conquest worked towards order and intelligence, and as one might have guessed, he was a defender of formal rigor against verbal chaos. He complained about the long, aimless poems in The New Yorker. One could read a whole page of some of them, he said to me, and not take in anything. He added that at least with rhyme and meter one could tell how the “verbal contraption” was put together. He once claimed he’d rather read Scientific American than any of the current literary journals. And he thought the best American living poet was Richard Wilbur.

Certainly rhyme and meter support making verse into “memorable speech”—and they are their own argument against disorder. But we remember poets not just for their prosody but their sensibility—or what Brodsky would have called the “plane of regard.” And maybe that’s where the history comes in, too. As his work on the grim terror and genocides of Stalin’s Russia deepened, so did his work on light verse and even limericks, perhaps the most irreverent and anti-authoritarian poetic form we have. Of course, many Oxford students write limericks as he did. But most leave them at Oxford, and do not work to perfect the limerick as an art form, which he called “a serious game,” with verse “polished and cut like a five-line gem.”

Italo Calvino, who had refused military service in Mussolini’s Italy and gone into hiding, was something of a kindred spirit in aesthetics. The Italian writer limned a theoretical basis for Conquest’s practice when he described his own literary evolution: “Maybe was I only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world—qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.” In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino writes, “At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies on winged sandals . . .” One could see much of Conquest’s poetic corpus as his own winged sandals, in a sense, a refusal of weight, a refusal to let the brutes determine the rules of engagement, and certainly a refusal to let the contagion infect him. His answer to what he saw was not to try to replicate the unspeakable in words, but rather to address it through a kind of averted vision. Keats said that “we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us.” Bob Conquest’s never did.

His clearest protest in an inhuman age where, as he wrote, “Shiva walks on and on / Down Coventry Street,” of the governments he saw as “The organization of absence of love” was this one: love poetry, erotic poetry, and even his limericks, which asserted a stubborn humanity of their own. He insistently returned to the human, including some of the most tender and intelligent love poetry written in recent years— perceptive, precise, witty, as well as sensual. Some criticized the poets of the New Lines anthology for hewing to small and quotidian themes. One might also call them personal, intimate, particular, against a global backdrop where the private had become suspect. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago had to be published first in Italy, 1957, for that reason.

Conquest stayed with this aesthetic choice to the end of his life: “What’s left of love and beauty just survives,” he wrote in his last collection, Penultimata (The Waywiser Press, 2009). And what, after all, could be more human than the act of making love, or more warmblooded than the human touch, as he wrote in his last major poem, “Stroking so little, striking too much”? Or this remarkable passage in which two lovers exist “in the mere now, the extreme now,” and even the planets envy them, a thought that might have been mawkish in a lesser poet, but is here handled with consummate skill, with perhaps a nod to Dante:

And the day dwindles. But still love
Glows through the globe’s turning
An unappeasable yearning
For what they already have.

—Cynthia Haven

The Minds of Poets

Within the relatively small but vociferously factionalized worlds of 20th- and 21st-century poetry written in English, attempts have frequently been made to link poetic practice with political affiliation, or with at least implied political “tendencies.” In 1949, in an article in The American Scholar, the at the time leftist literary critic Robert Gorham Davis attempted to link Yvor Winters’s resolutely formal poetic practice with “fascist” sympathies, a claim to which Winters made a pained reply in which he set out his impeccably non-fascist affiliations. An obvious problem with claiming that fascists favored formal poetic practice was that the most notorious poet-fascist of the period, Ezra Pound, was also one of its most notorious proponents of free verse; for every formalist poet with fascist sympathies (Roy Campbell, for example) one could produce a free verse fascist-sympathizer like Pound on the other side; and, of course, for every free verse fascist-sympathizer like Pound one could also produce a free verse leftist democrat like William Carlos Williams. The equation “metrical poetry equals fascist sympathies” was no more tenable than the equation “free verse poetry equals democratic sympathies”; one could find both kinds of political affiliation, and no political affiliation at all, on both sides of the formal verse/free verse divide.

This being the case, I offer with some caution the suggestion that there is a continuity of concern and emphasis, of worldview I think we can say, between the two public aspects of Robert Conquest’s career, that of poet and that of historian. Despite this caveat, there is I think a recognizable congruence between Conquest’s practice as a poet and his practice as a historian, and it is this congruence to which I wish to draw attention.

To begin with the poetry: Conquest came to public notice as a poet, and as a mover and shaker within the world of poetry, with the publication in 1956 of his anthology New Lines, which included work by the group of British poets who were beginning at that time to be known collectively as “The Movement” (a designation almost all of them were quick to repudiate, but which nevertheless stuck). As has been the case with many poetic “movements,” the poets who made up the group were drawn together as much by what they didn’t like in the previous generation’s poetic practice as by common sympathies; as Conquest put it, the poets were united mainly by “a negative determination to avoid bad principles.” The Movement grew out of a rejection of the poetry that preceded it, that by the poets known as the “Apocalyptics” (or sometimes “New Apocalyptics”), who had come to prominence in the 1940s, and favored highly extravagant rhetoric, surrealist subject matter, and expressionist grandiloquence. The tone of much of their poetry can perhaps best be summed up by the title of a book by one of its chief members, George Barker, which was Calamiterror. Apart from Barker himself, and the best-known poet associated with the group, Dylan Thomas, most of the Apocalyptic poets have now virtually disappeared from literary history, which is perhaps an indication of The Movement’s success in rerouting the course of British poetry during the 1950s. The Movement became a large part of the poetic “canon” of their period, at least in Britain, as a roll call of some of their names indicates: Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Kingsley Amis (as famous as a poet as he was as a novelist when he was a young man), Donald Davie, as well as Conquest himself.

What the poets of the Movement most disliked about the poetry that preceded them was what one might call “unparaphrasable can’t,” especially self-deceiving unparaphrasable cant that claimed vatic or pseudo-mythical insight. They hated bombast, and the tone of their poetry therefore tended to be sober, common-sensical, exact, quotidian. This didn’t mean they didn’t take on big subjects (at times) but it did mean that they approached such subjects with caution and respect, and claimed no special hieratic insight into their nature. One can gauge the change perhaps by setting Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” beside Philip Larkin’s “Church Going”; both poems are about faith and its lack, loss, and death, both grope for consolation and hardly find it, both can leave the attentive reader emotionally drained and exhausted by the journey they are taken on, but their manner and rhetoric could hardly be more different.

It’s possible to cavil at some aspects of The Movement, which had the faults of its virtues, as it were. A very English whiff of anti-intellectualism was discernible in some of the Movement figures, notably Larkin and Amis, but a strong plus side of this was their nose for intellectual BS, and their contempt for it. The suspicion of cant and grandiloquence could easily become suspicion of what was outside its own immediate frame of reference, so that it could slip into parochialism and complacency; parochial and complacent could also mean a suspicion of anything “foreign,” and there is more than a whiff of “little England” about some Movement authors (Larkin and Amis again). The group tended to be implicitly anti-modernist, and had a particular distrust of two common aspects of modernist poetry, free verse, and the trope “arcane allusion equals profundity, so see you’re impressed” (as in the work of Eliot, Pound, Bunting, et al.). It wouldn’t be hard to demonstrate that some Movement poets were guilty of a kind of gender parochialism too, i.e. that they were fairly misogynist, but then so were their predecessors, and this was not a trait that set them much apart from many other mid-20th-century male poets.

Complacency and parochialism were of course not common to all of the Movement poets. Conquest, Davie, and Gunn all moved to the US, and thus implicitly rejected little Englandism, even if with somewhat differing results. Conquest’s father was American, which meant that the US was not the undiscovered country to him that it was to some British exiles, and he fitted more easily into American academic and political life than the others perhaps did. Gunn seemed to be equally at home in San Francisco and London, and one senses a welcoming generosity of response rather than strain in these dual allegiances. In his criticism Davie embraced modernism (Pound) and American west coast poetry (Winters) but he also maintained his Englishness often in a quite curmudgeonly way; Edgar Bowers told me that he once heard Davie say that most of what was wrong with America could be traced to the fact that it didn’t have an established Church (whereas I think most Americans would feel that most of what was right with America could be traced to this fact). We can find a similar precarious balance of attitudes to the US in Larkin’s love for pre-WWII American jazz and his loathing for post-WWII American jazz, and also in his contempt for the way US universities tended to see contemporary poetry in English as problematic and an object of scholarship rather than as a source of aesthetic pleasure (one can see this clearly for example in the answers he famously gave to his hapless interviewer from The Paris Review).

When it comes to his career as a historian I think there is a sense in which Robert Conquest’s opinions, tastes, and predilections were also to some extent an infuriated reaction to what he saw around him in the 1950s and 1960s. Not that this was where his historical insights and clarity came from of course, but that the writing down of what he had found to be true was partly motivated by an intense desire to show the foolishness of much of the self-deceiving political cant that was current at the time. His book on Stalin’s purges, The Great Terror, was the first to set out in such horrific detail the brutal nature of Stalin’s Russia, and it was written against a great deal of bien-pensant vague pro-Soviet and less vague anti-American sentiment that was current in (especially) British intellectual life in the 1950s and ’60s, a kind of knee-jerk groupthink leftism that meant giving the Soviet Union pretty much a free pass when it came to human rights issues. When a later, revised edition of the book was to be issued, by which time Conquest’s anatomization of the disasters of Soviet rule was coming to be widely accepted as accurate, Conquest jokingly suggested to Kingsley Amis that he title the book I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. And it was true, he had told us so, when far too many of us didn’t want to believe it.

A confidence in a kind of bedrock common sense runs through Conquest’s poetry, his writings on poetry, and his historical writings, and this confidence goes with what can seem at times a magisterial impatience with those who would obfuscate such common sense by disdainful appeals to ideology, political posturing and blather, or vatic rhetoric that covers and tries to compensate for a simple lack of artistic or political integrity. But what sounds like magisterial confidence comes from a wholly admirable humility before the nature of quotidian reality, before what is demonstrably there in the world, and a preference for recognizing this reality over the comforts of bombast and self-deception. Much of Conquest’s best-known poetry is funny, even absurdly hilarious, but when it is serious it is continuous with the voice that wrote on history and politics. It can remind us of the title of one of Isaiah Berlin’s books of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and its epigraph from Immanuel Kant, “Out of timber so crooked from that which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” Utopian and inevitably murderous visions that try to make something “straight” out of humanity’s crooked timber earned his contempt; what his political voice advocates in his poetry is a pragmatic humanist compromise between absolutes. The absolutes are kept in view because they are what make man’s social life possible, but they can never be realized because they contradict one another (absolute freedom is anarchy with the strong preying on the weak; absolute order is the ultimate prison with no possibility of freedom). The meditative, moving seriousness of this vision is present in the closing section of one of his last and I think most beautiful poems, “The Idea of Virginia”:

The dogwood blooms, the cardinals perch, the lean hounds hunt
Where Pocahontas danced, where John Smith scouted, where Spotswood rode,
Where Washington marched to victory, Jackson to death,
By the slow rivers, the cool woods, the mountains, the marshes.

The Idea, never fulfilled, was never abandoned;
The free order only approaches its goal.
The land lived on imperfect in city and forest,
Its Form half-remembered; as it lay in the minds of poets.

—Dick Davis

The Extraordinary Robert Conquest

In the late 1970s, during the rule of the last Labour Government and the resulting last financial crisis, I was working in Bayswater close to the Parks, and after work I used sometimes to nip down to the public library at Royal Oak, a fine Victorian building full of fine Victorian books like the complete works of Dickens and Capital by Karl Marx in an early translation. Of course, budget cuts meant that the library closed, and I bought for a couple of shillings a book called The Abomination of Moab, by Robert Conquest.

I knew about Robert Conquest. He had edited a poetry anthology with Larkin at its center and the marvelous D. J. Enright at its periphery—an anthology attacked by Al Alvarez, so I knew it must be good. He had also written a novel with Kingsley Amis and edited a series of anthologies of science fiction (also with Amis). And he was a poet. I had a book of his poems.

What I didn’t know was that Conquest was . . . well, what? A historian? A controversialist? He had written the truth about the Gulags when we didn’t want to know anything about that, and was accordingly ignored by what Frank Johnson of The Spectator christened “The Chattering Classes,” people like me in those days, for I took The New Statesman and even won their crossword a few times. But The Abomination of Moab opened eyes that were perhaps ready to be opened.

How so? It is not a book of history. It is not a book of literary criticism, not the kind of professional literary criticism I, as a graduate in English Literature of the Second Class, had found myself reading for three years. It was more like Johnson or perhaps Chesterton—a man talking to men—than the Professor This or Doctor That I was used to. Conquest explains on the back cover that it is not Arnold’s Philistines he is against, but “the Moabites, who from their capital at Shittim . . . set the children of light whoring after strange doctrine . . . not Alderman Dagon but Doctor Chemosh.” And, if you haven’t got it yet, he goes on, “despotic or dogmatic attitudes to literature.”

I didn’t read the back cover until I had read a good deal of what was inside: a “Note on Kipling’s Verse” (why he is so good); the defining (for me) article on the limerick as an art form; and the (quite brilliant) “Done into English,” a series of increasingly absurd attempts to render Rimbaud’s two lines—“Ô saisons, ô chateaux, / Quelle âme est sans défauts?”—which demonstrate the impossibility of translation, its continuing attraction for a certain kind of mind, and the merit of Norman Cameron’s attempt:

O seasons! O palaces!
What soul’s transgressionless?

You might suppose this clumsy, before Conquest brilliantly lays out the difficulties. There is plenty more there, including some sideswipes at Eliot (pretty well untouchable in those days) and—for me at least—the total destruction of the ridiculous Ezra Pound as a serious poet and . . . well, anything really. As I have said, this book was seminal for me. It is up on my shelves and taken down quite often, more often than any other book of criticism except perhaps Johnson.

Of course what “this extraordinary man” (the phrase is Kingsley Amis’s) is best known for is his indefatigable opposition to the USSR and all its (abominable) works, at length in a series of books, and succinctly in the following limerick (slightly misquoted by Charles Moore in an otherwise very sound recent article in The Daily Telegraph):

There was an old Marxist called Lenin
Did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That Grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

Conquest’s seminal work The Great Terror was regularly dismissed by “brittle intellectuals” (the phrase is Kipling’s but Conquest concurred absolutely) until, after the fall of the Wall, he was proved right in every particular and his publisher reissued the book, asking Conquest if he would mind suggesting a new title. “Well, perhaps I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. How’s that?” he is alleged (by Amis) to have replied.

A historian. A critic and a controversialist. Also a poet, as you have already seen, if you count a good limerick (as you should) as a poem. Before I move on to his “serious” poetry, I cannot resist another limerick much admired by Philip Larkin who said, “A sure sign of genius. I knew it by heart after one reading”:

Seven ages: first puking and mewling;
Then very pissed off with his schooling;
Then fucks; and then fights;
Then judging men’s rights;
Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.

The book of Conquest’s earlier poems I thought I had on my shelves, now I come to look for it, I find has wandered away or been lent. I think I like Penultimata better. It comes already garlanded with praise (how do you do that?) from Clive James (well worth having); from Alan Jenkins, the estimable Poetry Editor of The Times Literary Supplement; and from Professor Zachary Leader, who wrote the authorized biography of Kingsley Amis. Here, in “serious” mode, is the last of a set of triplets about a sunset called “Last Hours.” You cannot write better than this, nor more seriously:

Dead in the water, the day is done.
There’s nothing new under the sun,
Still less when it’s gone down.

And (of course I’m sure I don’t have to say) it is not just about a sunset. “The Idea of Virginia,” a long (well, longish, thank God) poem about the early history of America which resists quotation, is a fine thing. And from among the light, and characteristically exuberant, pieces here, is “On the Solent.” If you like it, you will find others just as good.

I met her one day on the ferry
That runs to the Isle of Wight,
A girl who appeared to be very
In fact you might almost say quite.

But as it turned out she was barely
In fact you might almost say not:
She left me one day most unfairly
For a wealthy young man with a yacht.

But as a result I was highly
As I saw their wake streaking the sea
But I said to myself rather wryly
“There’ll be more on the mainland for me!”

Is it the journalist in him makes Conquest so good at grabbing your attention? A couple of starts:

Her fucking fool of a father
Was waiting when we got home.

And:

You live at your ballad-studying aunt’s.
She sneezes and wears men’s underpants.
The damned witch! How we hate her.

Often the verse has all the qualities of good prose, which may sound odd praise, but I might say the same of Samuel Johnson. There is always solid sense in Conquest, surely something we don’t want to be short of. But this is poetry, not prose, so what about Stevie Smith’s “foot off the ground” as well? I think Conquest does often get his foot off the ground, but, for my money, most often in the light verse I confess I prefer. That being so, where are the comic masterpieces you find in Amis’s The New Oxford Book of Light Verse over the pseudonyms Ted Pauker and Stuart Howard-Jones, the last the supposed author of a verse about the Irish so rude that Amis said he thought it politic to kill Howard-Jones off in 1974? And where are the limericks, some, but not all, obscene, which are attributed, without much disguise, to Victor Gray, anagram of G. R. A. Victory, not a million miles from George Robert Ackworth Conquest?

Where? I may possibly have the answer. When Conquest was good enough to speak to me at some length at the Traveller’s Club in Pall Mall (not really the sort of address I generally frequent) in June 2009 at the party to celebrate the launch of Penultimata, he told me that book would be followed by another book (Ultimata?), which would include “that stuff.” Blokelore & Blokesongs appeared from Waywiser Press in 2012.

Conquest was born in 1917 and died in August of 2015, at 98. He was softly spoken but not “tamed” as you might say. In the middle of our conversation a short dialogue took place, which I hesitate to repeat, but it showed, in little, that he continued to speak his mind and to have no respect at all for reputation. If a man is a “fucking fool” then, however celebrated he may be, that is just what he is. If you want to know more about this “extraordinary man” then you can read a very full biography on the internet. Or you can read his entry in Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs. I am told that the best story about him is there all right, but affixed to another person, now safely dead.

I cannot resist appending, as a kind of sign off, another limerick of Conquest’s. More can be found on the internet by the truly industrious. This one is easier. It is at the end of the essay on the limerick I alluded to previously, though on the article’s first appearance in the TLS, it was, perhaps not surprisingly, cut. Probably Conquest knew it would be, but he never could resist some judicious prodding. The rhyming here has a positively Byronic ingenuity and intricacy:

He was reading the Literary Supplement
When I asked what his: “Oh, stuff it up!” plea meant.
He said, “Two lousy bits
By prejudiced nits!”
But they all are. So who knows which couple he meant?

—John Whitworth

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