Books: He makes Bruce Chatwin look like a sleepy stay-at-home

The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting by Keith Alldritt, Aurum pounds 19.95
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"One of Ezra's more savage disciples," said Yeats, wondering what the world was coming to when he met Bunting in Rapallo in 1929. He was alluding partly to Basil's reputation as a jail- bird - he was a bit of a bruiser, like his hero Francois Villon, as well as a conscientious objector in the First World War - and partly to his poems, which had gone to school at the Ezuversity and liked to give the pentameter a kick in its self-satisfied bottom.

Born in Newcastle to a doctor father and a doting mother, Basil was educated locally and at a Quaker boarding school at Ackworth in the West Riding. It was a schoolfriend, John Greenbank, who took him to see the ancient Quaker meeting house Briggflatts near Sedburgh, and who introduced him to his sister Peggy, dedicatee of the long poem that would make his name 50 years later.

He was 13, she was eight. Alldritt says they "fell quickly in love with each other that spring", and thereafter spent much of their holidays together until his schooldays ended. He flunked his scholarship exams, served six months in the Scrubs as a conchie and did a further year's hard labour at Winchester before going on hunger strike and eventually decamping to London. Shortly after, he set off for Russia to see how the Bolsheviks were getting on but got only as far as Norway, where he was so drunk and troublesome that he was shipped back home.

After a spell at the newly-opened LSE, Paris beckoned. Fitzrovia gave way to the Left Bank where he met Brancusi, Modigliani, Artur Rubinstein, Ford Madox Ford, Stella Bowen and Jean Rhys; helped out with Ford's transatlantic review (capital letters evidently signalled bourgeois complacency and middle-browism); and became a lifelong disciple of Pound, who had moved his headquarters across the Channel.

By now, Basil had embarked on the see-saw life that reads like a cross between Henry James and Henry Miller, with liberal dashes of Kerouac, Fleming's James Bond, Nabokov's Lolita and The Arabian Nights thrown in. One minute he was living in remote Northumbria, stalked by a wealthy American widow, the next he was in Berlin, or Venice (where he met his first wife), or Rapallo, or New York, or Tenerife, or Hampstead, or back home with mum in Throckly. One of Pound's instructions had been to learn Persian so that they could read Firdusi together. Thanks to that, Basil rose to the dizzy heights of Squadron Leader in the RAF during the Second World War, working for MI6. Later he became British vice-consul at Isfahan, chief of political intelligence at Tehran, and pursued his love-affair with all things eastern, including the poetry, the food, the medieval splendour, and the women.

At 48, he married the 14-year-old Sima Alladalian, half-Armenian, half- Kurd, who was three years younger than his own eldest daughter. They honeymooned at the Savoy. He returned to Tehran as a Times correspondent and probably with a roving brief from the spooks in the Foreign Office, which later took him to Italy as well. He lived like a grand vizier, wrote economic analyses by day and poetry by night, oscillated between pukka sahib and louche pasha, burnt boats faster than candles, and ended up penniless back on Tyneside working as a night sub on the Newcastle Journal. It's the sort of career any novelist would kill for, one that makes Bruce Chatwin or James Fenton look like sleepy stay-at-homes.

Money providentially arrived from a deceased aunt, followed by more penury. Enter Tom Pickard, in the late 1950s, a young Geordie Rimbaud who famously perked Basil up and got him writing again, which eventually resulted in Briggflatts, his masterpiece. Cyril Connolly said it was the best long poem in English since Eliot's Four Quartets. Sometimes I'm inclined to agree, sometimes I think it's too derivative to deserve quite such high praise. Pound's and Eliot's fingerprints are all over it, both in individual lines and in its juxtaposition of eras and registers.

The opening is wonderful: "Brag, sweet tenor bull. / Descant on Rawthey's madrigal ... / Every birth a crime, / every sentence life." Elsewhere it's a bit pontifical and highfalutin, as well as a toughly beautiful renewal of pastoral. Scarlatti is proposed in the poem as one of many mentors, "with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence, / never a boast or a

see-here". That last phrase puts its finger on what's wrong with a good deal of Bunting's other poetry, and with the weaker passages in Briggflatts. When he gets "free of our humbug", however, including that Poundian fondling of cultural icons which hopes to guarantee authenticity by proxy, he's as compelling as his own bull and shining river.

Fame brought him a spell on the British and American reading circuits and many new poet-friends, before he relapsed into dogged old age: "He died at the age of 85, and to the very last pursued his interest in poetry, poetic theory, malt Scotch and pretty young girls."

Alldritt's lightweight biography relies heavily on Basil's own memories and owes a barely acknowledged debt to Basil Bunting: A Northern Life by Richard Caddell and Anthony Flowers, published by Newcastle Libraries in 1997, which contains memorable photographs of Basil in all his Protean incarnations. His politics, like the rest of his life, like all our lives, were ultimately as opportunist as the Official Secrets Act which still bars entrance to the tomb of his record. The very best secrets, though, stare up at us out of his poems.