BOOKS / Fighting for life: To introduce six pages of this season's biographies, the strange tale of the poet, the publisher and the book that just wouldn't go away

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IN FEBRUARY 1990, a scrap of gossip popped up in the Sunday Times books section: 'I hear Fitzrovian enthusiast Hugh David has landed . . . the first full literary biography of Sir Stephen Spender. Spender's life is eminently worth writing but . . . he has never given permission for anyone to do it. How did David succeed . . ?'

It was a good question. Few English writers this century have relished revealing themselves in their work quite as much as Spender. His poems, his autobiography World Within World, the hefty, 500-page volume of his diaries, and most recently his roman-a-clef, The Temple, have all drawn on his life. They are self-absorbed, but also self-deprecating: 'I have known such remarkable people,' he has said. 'I have measured myself against them and it leaves one thinking one is nothing.'

But it is one thing to write selectively about yourself, quite another to have your crowded past picked over by an outsider - especially when you are still around to read it. This is why Spender has for years refused approaches from potential biographers: 'I couldn't face the boredom of sitting down with my biographer every morning. Besides, I'm always trying to write a good poem.' So why, as he puts it, 'of all the people in the world, would I want Hugh David to write my biography?'

David's book, Stephen Spender: A Portrait with Background, published next week, has provoked the 83-year-old poet into public rage over what he perceives as a monstrous, muckraking intrusion: 'It's really like calling a shoddy load of goods by a branded name,' he told the Observer a month ago. To add to his woes, Spender says he was denied even a glance at the proofs before publication.

Hugh David, meanwhile, remains impenitent: 'Spender has devoted much of his life to self-promotion; he can't have it both ways.'

How an ambitious young biographer and a reluctant biographee reached this impasse is a fascinating story. It raises the issue of how far a public figure such as Spender has, while he is alive at least, jurisdiction over his own life.

THE story goes back much further than the two years which Hugh David has spent writing his book. It begins in 1973, when - after training as an English teacher - he went on to take a one-year course at the University of London Institute of Education. Therein lies one of Spender's principal complaints: David claimed he had pulled off his coup because the great man had been his tutor during this time, but Spender has no recollection of him. The registrar's office at University College, London, where Spender taught, has no record of any student called Hugh David. David explains that the poet saw him 'maybe three times' about a dissertation he was writing on Auden.

In 1982, after a stint as a drama teacher and running a fringe theatre company, David turned his hand to full-time writing. Six years later, Michael Joseph published his book, The Fitzrovians, an entertaining if cliche-ridden history of London's bohemia in the 1940s.

How did he link up with Spender again? David says they met at a smart dinner - he is reluctant to reveal who gave it - after which the poet agreed to see him to clarify a story about Guy Burgess for another book, Heroes, Mavericks and Bounders, a history of the 20th-century English gentleman. Thus it was on a November afternoon in St John's Wood three years ago that the tenacious David first ventured the idea of a biography.

Perhaps Spender, with his languid charm, was too gentle in his rebuff: David swears he came away with the impression that, though Spender said he could not spare the time actively to co-operate with such a book, he was not against the idea. But after reading the Sunday Times story, Spender protested to Tom Weldon, the editorial director at Heinemann who had commissioned the book. Weldon's reply, enclosing a copy of David's proposal, put the poet into a flat spin. Apart from false claims to access to his family and friends, Spender pointed out to Weldon, the proposal included 'instances of total misapprehension, errors of fact and carelessness too numerous to mention - two to three a page . . .'

Weldon must have scented a doughty opponent, but he was also clearly reluctant to let a potential bestseller slip through his fingers. His next letter, dated 8 March 1990, set Spender's mind at rest: 'I have now had a meeting with Hugh David and his agent, Bill Hamilton, and the author has agreed that he should refocus his approach and write a book about the period. On that basis, we have decided to proceed.' Spender's solicitors sent Heinemann a letter denying David the right to quote from his writings. The poet then sat back, satisfied that his unwelcome predator had slunk away.

Far from it: backed up by Heinemann, Hugh David ploughed ahead with his project. Two years on, a friend of Spender's telephoned him with alarming news: David's book was announced in Heinemann's autumn catalogue.

Tom Weldon, who has recently crossed the Atlantic to work for Reed Books (part of the conglomerate that owns Heinemann) in New York, says that Portrait with Background is not a fully-fledged biography, even though the book is dressed up to appear so: 'Anyway, all the tension suggests there's a tremendous amount of interest in Spender, both as a poet and a man.' Though he was responsible for editing the book, Weldon adds, almost casually: 'Any factual errors can be changed for the reprint' - a bit like being told your plumbing will be fixed only after your sodden ceiling has caved in. Weldon also claims that Spender was offered an opportunity to see the work in progress, chapter by chapter. Spender denies this - and now he has seen a finished copy of the book reckons to have spotted 'about a hundred' errors and misunderstandings.

OVER coffee in his flat in Stockwell, where, his cv tells us, he lives with 'Cal, a second-hand Maine coon cat', Hugh David denies any malicious intent. 'I've always been a great Spender fan, though as a poet he's not in the same class as Auden. I haven't gone into prurient details or done a hatchet job, partly because of Spender's antipathy to the book.' Ill at ease, parchment-faced, looking as though he would be happier with a cigarette holder to flourish, he admits he drew mainly from the poet's own writings and Isherwood's book, Christopher and his Kind. He spoke to few of Spender's old friends, assuming that they had closed ranks. 'What I've attempted to do is paint a portrait of him in the context of the Twenties and Thirties . . . and I believe he unwittingly gave me permission to do so.'

Nonsense, protests Natasha Litvin, Spender's formidable wife of 50 years, at their lopsided, blue-painted house in St John's Wood. Upset that I would even consider speaking to Hugh David, she hands me her typewritten 'Chronology of Events', a blow-by-blow account of the Spenders' resistance efforts. The tall, stooping poet, dressed in a brown shawl- collared cardigan, sits down opposite with a diffident smile: 'There's a sort of tedium about the idea of reading about oneself, though I loved it when I was younger. Besides when I met Hugh David, I did not consider him an appropriate person to write my biography.'

But David continues to insist that a man who has lived his life so publicly has no right to take offence in this way. He made the point again last week, in an article about Granada's unauthorised dramatisation of the life of the Beirut hostages. Their case, he argued, was weakened by the fact that the hostages were all writing accounts of their experiences and were thus de-privatising themselves. 'Can Spender, or Waite, McCarthy and Keenan call themselves branded names? Can they - can anyone - have copyright on their names?'

Natasha Spender, however, believes that a man's view of himself and his life should be the accepted one: 'There's an argument along the lines of 'whose life is it anyway?', but I switched off the hostage drama after a couple of minutes because I knew it wasn't accurate . . . I will get the only authentic account from the people who have lived the experience.'

Up to a point she may be right. But only a very brave man or woman would not be tempted to tidy up the younger self or, at least, change the emphasis here and there.

IS IT POSSIBLE to write good, unauthorised biography? Of course. Eight years ago, Peter Ackroyd published a badly needed book on the life of T S Eliot. The Eliot estate had refused to allow him to quote any of the poet's work or letters; yet Ackroyd clambered over this obstacle, writing a balanced, scholarly book that won prizes - including the Whitbread award for biography. Spender himself at the time noted approvingly in the Observer that the book was 'scrupulous in maintaining the principle that what we are told about the life must increase our understanding of the work'.

You get the feeling that Spender would have smiled more sweetly on a biographer such as Peter Ackroyd - or Michael Holroyd. Certainly a small part of his initial distaste for David may have unfairly stemmed from a feeling that someone of his background would not be up to the job. But it is also true that many of Spender's fears have been realised. David's book is sloppy and strewn with factual errors: even the very first sentence contains one - Spender is described as being one-eighth Italian, even though David himself tells us in the prologue that the poet's maternal grandmother was the daughter of a Spaniard, Ferdinand de Medina. 'My son Matthew lives in Italy, so maybe that's how David got a bit confused,' sighs Spender.

It is also a very partial book, focusing only on Spender's life up until the end of the Second World War, with particular emphasis on his left-wing politics and self-confessed early homosexual experiences. Whether or not David's views were informed by Spender's rejection, his book is mildly camp and insinuating, portraying the poet as man whose fame stems largely through his gift for friendship. One example: Spender's relationship with Gabriel Carritt, the son of a philosophy don at University College, Oxford. Hugh David conjures up a scenario in which Carritt repels Spender's naive sexual advances: 'I'm sorry. Stephen. I like you terrifically, old man. We can still be friends. Actually, we're very much alike.' David then asserts that Spender clung to the friendship only in the hope that Carritt would introduce him to Auden, whom he was desperate to meet.

'David implies that I was incapable of friendship without self-interest or a sexual motive,' says Spender sadly. 'The whole story about Carritt is wrong. I could have met Auden at any time through my brother, Humphrey, who was at Gresham's school with him.'

Spender's best bet would probably have been to remain silent - rather than dignify Hugh David with a passionate response which has only generated publicity for a book which might otherwise have faded away. As it is, he has found himself thrust into the limelight - this time unwillingly.

'I've never considered approaching someone about writing my biography,' he says. 'It would be presumptuous and I'd be faintly afraid of being snubbed.' But now he plans to do just that.

'Stephen Spender: A Portrait with Background' (Heinemann pounds 17.50) is published next Monday

(Photographs omitted)