BOOK REVIEW / A sight more interesting: 'Hindsights: An Autobiography' - John Heath-Stubbs: Hodder, 25 pounds and 'Sweetapple Earth' - John Heath-Stubbs: Carcanet, 7.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
JOHN HEATH-STUBBS, who was 75 this month, has a solid reputation as a poet. But what distinguishes him from other writers of his generation is, let's face it, that he's blind. We all want to know what that's like. Apart from occasional mentions of his deteriorating eyesight, however, we have to wait until the final chapter of his autobiography to find out. In the meantime he takes us on a gentle meander through his life, beginning with his ancestors and making frequent learned excursions into history, literature, botany, zoology and gossip.

He inherited from his father a type of glaucoma which led early on to the loss of his right eye and then, in 1978, to total blindness. His poor vision was the reason why his parents sent him to a dreadful school which specialised in arts and crafts. As well as standard public-school bullying and sadism there were food-riots and patchy teaching. He educated himself in the school library, largely from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, until his parents removed him at 15 for private tuition.

His ambition was to study biology but he found himself instead, after an eye operation, at Worcester College for the Blind, where he edited the magazine and discovered beer. The next step turned out to be Oxford, and English: Queen's College offered an Exhibition in that subject to a blind or potentially blind student. Here he formed close friendships with the poets Drummond Allison and Sidney Keyes - who were both to be killed in the war which was by then in progress. He also became moderately friendly with Larkin, although this wore off. (Larkin later disillusioned him by his malice and by telling their hostess after a tea-party 'I must piss off now').

After Oxford came London and an immersion in Soho pub life. All the predictable Forties characters are here. Among the poets Heath-Stubbs's particular friends were George Barker (his 'chief poetic mentor') and David Wright, but he also speaks with sympathy of Dylan Thomas, finding medical explanations (thyroid or diabetic conditions) for his drunkenness.

The search for a living took him first to Leeds, a city which he hated - it 'seemed to breathe an air of corruption' - and then to Egypt, as Visiting Professor in English Literature at Alexandria. While he was there the Suez crisis broke out. He stayed on - he was technically under house arrest - but slept with the Gospels and Homer by his bed, just in case.

Back in London the Sixties, with 'the hideous music of the Beatles' and too much Marxism for his taste, were wasted on him. He made more trips abroad, faithfully frequented Soho, although the area was now in decline, and began lecturing at a college in Chelsea. This was also the time when his remaining good eye became useless for reading print. (The fact that he continued to work, with the help of volunteer readers, says much for his memory and his determination.) The last 20 years are rather sketchily covered, but it is cheering to learn than he found them far happier than his earlier years, 'especially since I lost my sight and no longer had to put up a vain struggle'.

About his personal life he is profoundly discreet. Non-literary friends, apart from the London eccentrics who make walk-on appearances, scarcely feature. He mentions, in 1967, the 'tragic death of a close and much-loved friend' who is left anonymous. (Perhaps the dedication to his verse epic Artorius provides a clue?) This reticence will disappoint some readers, but there is much else to console and entertain them.

The subject-matter of his new collection of poems, Sweetapple Earth, reflects his life-long preoccupation with plants, insects and writers. An attractive sequence on botanical families mingles taxonomy with folklore and literary references. The book ends with a section of light verse. Some of this falls a little flat on the page, although no doubt it goes down well at readings, but 'The Limerick Opera Festival' - a series of opera plots in limerick form - is fun. He has not lost his touch.

(Photograph omitted)

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