Books: Petty theft, pornography and pantomime subversion

Prince Charming: A Memoir by Christopher Logue Faber pounds 20
'Books were the thing. Portable, durable, inexpensive - free-spirited, subversive, difficult to police," as Christopher Logue said just halfway through this century while forming a Writer's Group in dim Fifties provincial England. It is perhaps as much of a description of the poet and punster as of a book, though it's unlikely the writer is quite as portable as he once was.

Certainly, the early years of the self-contradictory Logue (born 1926) show the absolute unexpectedness of talent when it descends on an unsuspecting family. Suburb, slum or castle; it is immediately identifiable from an early age. The triumph lies with the parents who do not seek to extinguish it, or, worse, punish the first manifestations of originality. For these are frequently criminal; and Logue confesses to lying and stealing at every possible opportunity. How, then, did the good-natured John Logue, who addressed his son Christopher as "Old John", react to this particular brand of cuckoo? It must be said, despite painful incidents of holidays with relatives and returned bags of toast found secreted in ledges and crannies by the toast-hating Logue - remarkably well. On the lower slopes of Hampstead Garden Suburb the child with the huge appetite - for reading, knowledge, power, mastery of the word - was respected and left alone for as long as he wanted in his room. This is probably all the budding prodigy wants, school and sharing being the worst fate ever devised. At least there were no siblings for this odd bird to push out. Neither spoilt nor neglected, this was a reasonably happy childhood.

Still, there can have been few less inspiring times and places than wartime - and postwar - England for a boy or youth longing for freedom and a sense of new beginnings. Logue, who both sends up and attacks himself in this spirited autobiography, often took a way out, the only way out for those whose lives are circumscribed: he made his own fun. Being found in possession, in the army at Haifa, of a consignment of paybooks, Logue wrote home to his parents: "You denied yourselves almost everything to keep me at a decent school and have my brain trained along the lines of human life and decency." When he was court-martialled, the reality of the consequences of a creative spirit gone haywire soon set in. Yet Logue was never far from trouble - often, fortunately in a more constructive role than petty thief.

It's possible to see Christopher Logue's translations of The Iliad - regarded as equal to those of Pope - as summations of the life and struggles of this funny, opinionated man, whose years as the Napoleon of Notting Hill had many gaping at the swagger and loud theatrical voice, the apparent arrogance. But war, as sung by Homer and rendered by Logue, comes from within - and without the self-contradictions there could probably never have been War Music, Kings and The Husbands, books containing lines that are indeed "free-spirited, difficult to police". The turmoil of the Trojan wars, the lives and hopes of the antique world are brought bang up to date, by Logue. This after a succession of equally contradictory episodes in life: going to Paris (as everyone wanted to in the 1950s) and writing porn for Maurice Gerodias while sleeping three in a bed and suffering from impotence, failing in love, most outstandingly, with another cuckoo's chick, the upper-class, beautiful and talented Nell Dunn. But he never found the reciprocity he craved in a world of "little magazines" (a photo shows a bunch of those leftwing editors and poets in Paris, with Logue in mid-shout and George Plimpton, handsome Urbane Plimpton of the Paris Review, beaming down at him) where there is nothing quite big enough to take Logue's attention for long.

Perhaps by reason of his nature, probably because of the feelings of the times, Logue's high spots included Aldermaston and Nuclear Disarmament, friendships with Doris Lessing and Ken Tynan, and all those who by virtue of their talent and insistence changed the face of Britain. Dissatisfied with the prospect of a poet's career - as Logue saw it, chumming up with other poets, getting good reviews, publishing a Selected Poems and going to the grave - he invented the poster poem and chummed up instead with the Establishment crowd and Private Eye. As often as not involved in controversy - he was the first to write openly of T S Eliot's anti-Semitism - he was never anything other than subversive and remains so to this day. Logue is, like the books he rates over all other technology, durable. He may look more like a revolutionary Buttons than Prince Charming (an ironic title) but his role in the pantomime of post-war Britain has been a significant one. And his memoir is refreshingly sharp and well-written.

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