How we met: Stephen and Natasha Spender

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The Independent Culture
Sir Stephen Spender (83) was born in London, one of four children of an author and political journalist. Emerging as a gifted poet while at Oxford, he became a lifelong friend of W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood. He has been at the

centre of literary life in Britain and America for more than 60 years, producing volumes of poetry, journals and an autobiography. His second wife, Natasha Litvin (73) is the daughter of a Russian emigre actress and performed as a concert pianist until the Sixties. They have two children and live in St John's Wood, north London, and France.

STEPHEN SPENDER: My first marriage collapsed in 1937. Then, a couple of years later, in October 1939, I helped start up the literary magazine Horizon, with Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson. Our office was in my flat in Lansdowne Terrace, Bloomsbury and my bed was moved into a tiny room. A year later, an actor called Ian Lubbock, arranged that Natasha and I should meet. It was a strange time: there was a sense of urgency during the war which brought people together. My first impression was that she was very beautiful. I remember a party where Natasha played Chopin on the piano and several of us sat under it, as it was the beginning of the Blitz.

Shortly after that, I left Horizon and accepted a job as a teacher at Blundell's School in Devon. I absolutely hated being a teacher and missed Horizon and all my friends in London. I was extremely lonely and unhappy - a bit like a homesick boy. Natasha would come and visit me. I wanted to get married again, I was in love with her and so we became engaged while I was still at Blundell's.

When Natasha became pregnant, we started renting a house in St John's Wood for pounds 155 a year. It had virtually no furniture, save a large glass jar with a solitary flower growing in it. That was in 1945, and we've lived there ever since. We were extremely happy with our baby when he was born. Then, in July that year, I had to spend some time with the occupying forces in Germany, working for the Allied Control Commission. Everything I could remember was in ruins, and I had to report on the attitudes of German writers and thinkers during the first months of defeat. I was also responsible for opening libraries which had been closed as part of the process of denazification. One librarian said to me: 'I understand exactly what you want me to do: you want me to take all the Nazi books down to the cellar, and bring up the ones by Jews.' I replied, 'Well, that's just about right.'

I've always found the idea of the bachelor menage hateful. It only works if you're terribly tidy. I'm terribly untidy, which is a great strain on my wife. Sometimes I just take off my trousers and get into bed. Then Natasha persuades me to take my sweater off after I've been asleep a couple of hours and I'm all warm. In addition to her own work, she really does spend all day looking after me. It's very difficult to persuade her not to make every meal an excellent one.

It always seems to me that divorce is a polite form of murder. If you know someone intimately, you enter their past and come to have some understanding of their reality, their innocence - provided, of course, that your love is not based on mutual deception. But, if you do understand someone on that deep level, then to abandon them is a terrible betrayal. I admire John Osborne a great deal, and I think he is a wonderful writer. But I find that to have written about his wife, Jill Bennett, in the way he did is a most terrible, shocking thing.

You are peculiarly isolated if you are a poet - especially as you get older. I think a poet writes about things which are outside the range of any particular relationship. But we are all terribly alone in life, and a relationship such as marriage is just an attempt to Sellotape over that void. So I suppose you could say my relationship with Natasha has been an extraordinarily good Sellotaping job.

NATASHA SPENDER: I learned that Stephen and I were getting married when an Oxford undergraduate came up to me saying, 'Congratulations.'

'Oh, did you enjoy it?' I replied, thinking he was talking about a recent recital I'd given.

'What? I was congratulating you on your engagement.'

The next time I saw Stephen, I related this extraordinary incident to him and he said: 'Oh, didn't I tell you? I've told everyone else.'

A few days later, we were having dinner in a restaurant in Oxford, going through the engagement book about our plans over the next few weeks, and I noticed that Stephen had pencilled a ring around 8 April. 'Well, I had thought we might get married on the 8th,' he explained, 'but I'm having lunch with Cecil Day- Lewis, so we'll make it the 9th.' That's how we got married and it's been wonderful ever since.

I first met Stephen when I used to practise the piano in the house of a young actor called Ian Lubbock, whose wife Lys was a friend of Stephen's. One Sunday they said to me, 'Let's go to Horizon.' I was so ignorant that I thought that Horizon was a pub. But I was taken to the magazine offices in Stephen's flat, where there was quite a large lunch party. I thought he was incredibly beautiful and was immediately drawn to him.

After lunch, everybody seemed to disappear, and Stephen and I were left to do the washing-up. We spent half the afternoon doing that and then we dined out. Then we started seeing each other every day. Just one week later, the Blitz started. I'd been lunching with friends in Essex Street, after which we went and stood on the Embankment and watched the planes coming up the estuary like a shoal of silver fish in the sky. We didn't go to a shelter. We must have been mad. That night, I couldn't get back to my own house. So I took shelter in the cellar of one of the big newspaper buildings in Fleet Street. A watchman came down at about three o'clock in the morning and said, 'Come and see a sight you'll never forget.' All I could see was the dome of St Paul's silhouetted against the fires.

I telephoned Stephen, who was down in Wiltshire, telling him it was too dangerous for him to return. But he was back in London the following week. We saw each other constantly. Stephen then left Horizon, because he wanted Cyril (Connolly) to have his own way with the magazine, without interference, and went to teach at this school in Devon.

When Stephen started doing academic jobs in America after the war, I was sometimes parted from him for weeks, even months at a time. But I think I suffered less than others might have done, because in those days I was so immersed in playing the piano.

One thing you have to learn if you're married to someone like a poet is that a large part of their interior monologue is to do with their work. When we first used to start motoring to our house in southern France in the Sixties, I noticed on one occasion that we hadn't said anything to each other for well over two hours. But that sort of silence has never worried me, because I can feel what's going on. He's writing something.

Of course, there have been a few domestic problems that have arisen from the kind of abstraction that comes from being highly creative: I've just had to accept that I've had to attend to the practical side of our life together. When we were first married, Stephen came in one day and dropped his coat in a pool just inside the front door. He still does it after 50 years of marriage, and I always pick it up.

I hope Stephen and I go together. I had a sort of figure in my childhood I called Uncle George, who was like a guardian. When Stephen and I had been married for about 10 years, we went to stay with him and his wife Margie. One day, we all prepared to go for a walk on the downs as usual - there were about eight or nine of us, including our children Matthew and Lizzie. At the garden gate, Uncle George, in his porkpie hat, suddenly said: 'If you don't mind, I'd rather go with Margie.' So the two old people turned round and walked off in the opposite direction. I remember thinking, 'That's how I'd like it to be with us.' And so it has.