BOOK REVIEW / A double life at the Woolwich

War poet and suburbanite, Roy Fuller made the ordinary peculiar. By Peter Parker; Roy Fuller: Writer and Society by Neil Powell, Carcanet, pounds 25
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Although Roy Fuller was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1968, he apparently made the "frequent, ironic-rueful complaint that he was a poet who never quite caught on". Too young to be a Thirties Poet, too old to be a Movement Poet and too subsequently prolific to be considered a War Poet, he defied the easy categorisation that critics like. He spent his working life as a solicitor for the Woolwich Building Society, lived in suburban south London and remained married to the same woman from the age of twenty-four until his death.

Defying the widely accepted belief that scandal and sensation are the principal ingredients of biography, Neil Powell has fashioned from this ostensibly unpromising material a book that is both finely discriminating and wholly absorbing. This reflects Fuller's own sense that "ordinary" life has its particular value and fascination. "I suppose for me everyday life has never ceased to seem poetic life," he wrote in 1980, in what sounds like an echo of Edward Upward's alter ego, the Marxist poet Alan Sebrill, and Fuller's later volumes of poetry are almost exclusively concerned with the quotidian, more often than not derived from observations jotted down in notebooks.

Fuller was born in Lancashire in 1912, and spent much of his childhood, after his father's premature death, in rented rooms in Blackpool. He read widely, but left school at sixteen to become an articled clerk with a local law firm. He subsequently moved to London to study law and, like most young men with literary aspirations, was influenced both poetically and politically by the Auden Generation, expounding Marxist manifestos in letters to friends. An early poem appeared in the Sunday Referee and earned him a penknife, but more orthodox payment came from editors such as Julian Symons (who became perhaps his closest friend) and John Lehmann. Fuller later described his first volume of Audenesque Poems as "satisfactorily rare'', but at the time it received praise from Stephen Spender (whom he greatly admired) in the New Statesman.

Fuller's experiences during the war, in which he served with the navy, were thoroughly disillusioning. Unlike the poets of an earlier war, whose socialism was moulded by their service with the rank and file, close contact with 4,000 men crammed into a troopship led Fuller to the "appalling discovery that he had been mistaken about the essential nature of human beings; it was the most traumatic moment of his adult life, and it permanently affected his political philosophy". In later years Fuller, who was given to teasing, cultivated an old buffer persona (particularly in his Establishment duties at the Arts Council and the BBC), but Powell suggests that the real shift that took place was that of "faith in a culturally enabling socialism giving way to a politically uncommitted faith in culture."

After the war, Fuller found it difficult to recreate himself as a poet, and Powell is a severe judge of the first post-war collection Epitaphs and Occasions (1949). "Something has clearly gone wrong with the register of these poems," he writes, and one suspects that, like Sassoon after the First World War, Fuller was floundering around in search of a new voice. He had begun to write novels, and Powell's lucid discussion of Fuller's fiction will undoubtedly send readers in search of these volumes. The ambiguities in Fuller's character, which were never wholly resolved and perhaps explain the fence of irony he threw up around himself and his work, led to a preoccupation with "the idea of the double man, the divided self", claims Powell. Many of the novels, cast in the form of psychological thrillers in the Greene-Hitchcock tradition, seem to show Fuller exploring the contradictions he found in his own life.

His attention to the oddities of the everyday ("pedestrian peculiarities," as he called them in one poem) and his habitual mode of defensive irony make Fuller a very English writer, and thus in danger of being underrated. But a great deal is going on beneath the surface. The sudden notes of unmediated feeling are all the more powerful for emerging from the immaculately groomed, neatly moustachioed facade.

In this eminently equitable life, Powell never attempts to make larger claims for Fuller than he is able to sustain by example and analysis. His criticisms are sharp, terse and often very funny, and his tone throughout is a perfect blend of affection and scepticism.