Motion attacks failure to honour centenary of W H Auden's birth

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The Independent Culture

"Death," observed Wystan Hugh Auden, "is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic." Now more than three decades after his demise, an ominous rumble of discontent is emanating from the direction of the late poet's family, friends and admirers over how he should be remembered.

February next year marks the centenary of W H Auden's birth, but it is feared the date is in danger of passing largely unnoticed and unremarked in his native Britain. The BBC admitted yesterday that in contrast to the star-studded celebrations marking Sir John Betjeman's centenary this year, it had yet to commission any programming in honour of Auden.

And much to the dismay of the poet's niece, overtures to the Royal Mail to issue a stamp celebrating the life of the author of Night Mail and his work for the groundbreaking GPO film unit, had been turned down flat.

Even in York, the poet's birthplace, the city's inaugural literary festival is likely to go ahead without a mention of the local lad who went on to become one of the 20th century's greatest voices.

Leading the charge to rescue Auden's reputation is Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate. "They should be ashamed of themselves. If you think we do nothing for Auden and only this year we have a national nervous breakdown for Betjeman," he said.

Auden's poetry was brought to a new generation of admirers when "Funeral Blues" was included in the hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral. His poem "September 1, 1939" was adopted as the mourning song of New York in the wake of the terrorist attacks five years ago.

"Of course he deserves it," Motion said. "He is one of the three or four great poets of the 20th century. I don't wish to take anything away from Betjeman - he has wonderful virtues but he doesn't have an international reputation like Auden does. That is a very important point in his favour."

For Auden's niece, Anita Money, such high-profile support is especially welcome. She has felt increasingly defensive in recent years in the face of criticism levelled at her uncle - his patriotism and his attitudes to his homosexuality - and his work. "I do feel disappointed. It would have been a very interesting opportunity for people to re-look at him. There seems to be a very complex response to Wystan in this country. For a long time I have sensed a mixture of criticism and unwillingness to acknowledge his greatness," she said.

Mrs Money, 65, remembers her uncle and his "marvellously camp" partner, Chester Kallman, with affection from girlhood visits to them in Italy. "Whatever his faults ... he was a good person. He was very straightforward, not politically correct at all but there was a genuineness there," she said.

Peter Porter, a poet who helped organise Auden's memorial service at Westminster Abbey in 1973, believes his reputation is tarnished by the decision to go to the United States in 1939 with Christopher Isherwood, a close friend and sometime lover. Their flight drew criticism from Evelyn Waugh and others. "Wystan still suffers under the black cloud of having cleared off before the war. There was always this feeling that he buggered off to America and then off to Austria," he said.