Christopher Logue: Bohemians and bloody heroes

Christopher Logue, poet, porn hack and scourge of pseuds, has been crafting his brilliant version of the 'Iliad' for over 40 years. Tim Martin finds out what's been keeping him
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The Independent Culture

The greatest war poet in England lives on a leafy street in South London, where the noise of the traffic is lost among the immaculate frontages of the Georgian houses and well-kept front gardens. At the top of one of these houses, Christopher Logue sits hammering away at a project he started more than 40 years ago: his Iliad, War Music, a raucous, bloody version that has the sweep of epic cinema and the cadence of epic poetry. When he answers the door, perhaps unsurprisingly, this Titan seems very small.

The greatest war poet in England lives on a leafy street in South London, where the noise of the traffic is lost among the immaculate frontages of the Georgian houses and well-kept front gardens. At the top of one of these houses, Christopher Logue sits hammering away at a project he started more than 40 years ago: his Iliad, War Music, a raucous, bloody version that has the sweep of epic cinema and the cadence of epic poetry. When he answers the door, perhaps unsurprisingly, this Titan seems very small.

Logue is 78 now, and a survivor of some of the most romantic episodes of the past artistic century. He was friends with Beckett in Paris, where he helped to found a literary magazine, Merlin. He wrote pornography for cash for Henry Miller's publisher, Maurice Girodias, under the name Count Palmiro Vicarion. In London, he was friends with the Tynans. He marched against nuclear weapons at Aldermaston with Arnold Wesker and Lindsay Anderson, and, like them, went to prison with the 87-year-old founder of the CND, Bertrand Russell. He is a socialist who thinks we've solved socialism; an anti-nuclear protester who's changed his mind.

I've been warned to be careful with him since he is known to be depressive, evasive, often brusque. So when he welcomes me effusively in deep, cultivated tones and rushes me outside to look at a huge marble sculpture of a human hand in his garden, I think I may have caught Christopher Logue on a good day.

Logue's great poem, War Music, has been appearing episodically since 1961, when he wrote a short treatment of a passage from the Iliad for a friend who worked on the BBC's Third Programme. With the Iliad - the work for which he will probably best be remembered - he chose for his subject something that many would feel to be unimaginably distant from modern experience. But, for all the masks and spears and sand, War Music is full of the contemporary. The Greeks sit in conference, "dark glasses in parked cars". The noise of helicopters whirls over the dunes. The Greeks' plans of attack are likened to Rommel's. So is writing war poetry an act of contemporary conscience, then?

"That's not a bad phrase," Logue says. He is one of those rare people who talk in paragraphs. "Unless it's very clearly love poetry or religious poetry, that is. There are times when the nation is so detached and at peace that you get groups like the Cavalier lyricists. Although of course they had wars to go to if they wanted. But I think everything changed in the 19th century, when conscription came in and the entire population was subject to bear arms. It's led to the present interregnum, when war is thought of as a bad thing. In the past it was rather noble. You could succeed, or get your name in the papers, or come to power. It's almost inconceivable these days that there should be a huge war, isn't it?"

Well, I point out, eyeing the books on military tactics ranged on his shelves, no one knows where the Iraq war will lead. He sighs. "Of course, I think that that war is disgusting. I mean, so many people killed, for what? No doubt we can get people from the state department and the Foreign Office to give us spiels about this and that, but it's bullshit. There is no excuse for going to war if you're not threatened by violence. Of course there's terrorism, but that will never, ever be controlled. And in the end - it's an intrinsically dreadful thing to say - it's trivial. Consider the first two days of the Somme offensive. Nearly 40,000 people died, and that was just the Allied losses." I lob him a question about whether it gets more difficult to write poems about warlike heroes when there are wars going on that you don't agree with, but he sidesteps it. "You take it for granted. You accept it. You show that heroism is one of the things that human males do; and it is mostly males."

But weren't the societies for whom the Iliad was written looking for lessons in the apt management of power - and isn't war poetry a means of passing on ideas about that today? "Well, yes, they were," he says. "And also for lessons in personal responsibility, and about violence, and yes, such poems were very important. But one is perhaps inclined to overstress the poets' influence. Then, as today, it was probably the businessmen and the politicians managing the economies who made a difference."

This polite, evasive modesty makes it quite clear that Logue no longer thinks of himself as a legislator. Feed him a political line and he will talk about the poetical tradition; ask about politics, and he disclaims responsibility. It's disconcerting. "I'm afraid my political thinking is very shallow, and can't be taken to mean very much," he says. "I think we on the left have put a lot of things right."

The fifth and penultimate volume of the series, Cold Calls, came out earlier this year. How's he getting on with the final book? "It's pretty much new," he says, sitting forward in his chair. "This bit isn't in the Iliad at all. It's the assault the Trojans make on the Greek camp. Suddenly" - a faraway look - "things have turned against the Greeks with the withdrawal of Achilles, and the Trojans think of this as an opportunity to get rid of them. When Achilles comes in and saves the day for them all, it's got nothing to do with anything except himself. He's quite happy for his own side to go down - let them die. He wants vengeance." Then he practically shouts: "I think that's WONDERFUL! It cuts through all that stuff about patriotism and so on; this person is doing it all out of his own will, and for vengeance. Talk about it being modern - pah! - it's more modern than modern!"

One hates to ask, but has he seen the film Troy, which managed somehow to crossbreed the Iliad with Toni & Guy? "Oh, yes. Silly. They didn't spend enough money, did they? You need someone like Cecil B De Mille to come along and do the Iliad. But I always go to see them. Apart from reading, I think the cinema has been the principal aesthetic influence on my life."

Once we get on to the anecdotes, Logue's earlier diffidence disappears. He remembers his time at the satirical magazine Private Eye, where he collated the True Stories column before moving on to curate Pseud's Corner. "Oh God," he groans. "People would write in and try to say that their comments were forgeries. And they'd send their wives round for a spot of special pleading." He is joyous. "All kinds of bullshit!"

He obligingly retells a wonderful story about meeting Artie Shaw, the bandleader and famous womaniser. "I was off to stay with friends in Spain," remembers Logue. "So I arrived at the station and there was Artie Shaw, waiting for me! I couldn't believe it. He was apparently living next door to my friends. So he took my pack and put it in the boot, then we got into the car, and then he took out his cock. And he said, 'I want you to look at the cock that's fucked Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Just so you know you're in the big time.'" He laughs. "I was of course incredibly impressed by this. I thought, Wow, I've really struck lucky with this lot."

Since we seem to be on a roll, perhaps he could tell me, I suggest, about Count Palmiro Vicarion. "Oh, Girodias gave me that name. The great pornocrat and publisher of the Olympia Press." Girodias employed a stable of struggling bohemians in Paris to bash out the erotic novels for his Traveller's Companion series, which were sold to the men at the front to subsidise the publication of Beckett, William Burroughs and Nabokov's Lolita. "Fodder for the masturbating armies of the West!" says Logue. "The novel I wrote is bad pornography. I just needed the 200 quid." But it still appears in his eight-line biography for Faber. "Yes, I'm not ashamed. Someone came up to me at a reading about five years ago and asked if I'd sign their copy. I was quite glad to see it again." He winks. "Of course, that kind of item... attracts sticky fingers."

That novel must have been the most Logue has ever written in one sitting. His poetic output, by his own admission, has been famously slowand only sped up once he got to Faber in the late 1980s. "I was thinking all this the other day," he says. "But then I thought - well, it comes to about 200 pages. And then you think, well, some of them must be no good, because in the history of English poetry to write 200 good pages is quite something."

One final question. Does he feel like one of Britain's most august poets? Logue suddenly looks sad. "No. Of course I just feel how second-rate I am, compared to people like..." Like? "Milton. Pope. Shakespeare." I suggest that this may be one of the drawbacks of writing in English. "I know," he says. "Imagine if Shakespeare was French. We'd never hear the bloody end of it. There'd be streets named after him, and the Grand Shakespeare Prize, and the President of the Republic would quote from him all the time... it'd be a scream!" He pauses for a minute at the door before saying goodbye. "And imagine being a Greek poet," he says. "And being saddled with bloody Homer."

'Cold Calls: War Music Continued' by Christopher Logue is published by Faber at £8.99. To order a copy (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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