Obituary: John Whitehead

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JOHN WHITEHEAD had to wait a long time to do the work he most enjoyed, scholarly commentary on literature. He was over 60 when his book Maugham: a reappraisal appeared in 1987.

The work that flowed from his pen after that, during what must inappropriately be called his retirement, revealed someone determined to make up for lost time. There was a steady stream of elegant and concisely written books, all of them prompted by his literary admirations; one, for instance, on "MacSpaunday" (as Grigson dubbed the early Auden group - A Commentary on the Poetry of W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender, 1992), another entitled Eight Modern Masterpieces (1994) and a third, Hardy to Larkin: seven English poets (1995). Tucked neatly inside Whitehead's appreciations of his favourite modern writers there was always new information and rich illumination of their work.

Whitehead was educated at Winchester College, from where in 1942, at the age of 18, he went into the Army, serving with the Mahrattas in Burma. He eventually became training officer to the Chin Hills Battalion. Off duty he wrote poetry, publishing three slim volumes, two of them with the Fortune Press. He stayed based in Burma until 1948, travelling widely. This experience was reflected in his Far Frontiers: people and events in north-eastern India 1857-1947 (1989), Himalayan Enchantment: an anthology of the writings of F. Kingdon-Ward (1990) and Thangliena (1992), a deeply researched biography of a forgotten Victorian military hero, Lt-Col T.H. Lewin, and his encounters with the wild tribes of the south-east frontier.

Back in civilian life in England Whitehead became articled to his father's firm of solicitors, but after a few years the lure of the East proved too strong and he returned there to pursue his legal career. In 1951 in Chittagong he married the Australian Anne Ball. She died in 1957. Whitehead then moved to New Delhi where he met and married Ella Yates in 1961. He returned to England the following year and the couple settled in Kent. Whitehead then joined the Regent Oil company (later Texaco) as a staff lawyer and was eventually made a director, retiring in 1983.

Freed at last from the shackles of the law, he could apply his acute mind to the work of, among others, Auden and co, Kipling, Larkin, Maugham. Maugham had had in mind a final book made up of his scattered, not previously reprinted pieces during 60 years of writing. It was a book Whitehead wanted not only to read but to have permanently in his possession. Unhappily Maugham died before compiling it. Whitehead then did the job himself, much more comprehensively one suspects than Maugham would have done, and it was published in 1984 under the title A Traveller in Romance.

Three years later Whitehead and I jointly edited the Maugham volume for the Routledge Critical Heritage series. Whitehead as a co-editor turned what easily might have become a chore for me into a joy. We communicated by letter, he in Kent, I in London. The complex chronological framework of the volume owes its orderliness entirely to him. After the task was completed, his work-in-progress letters, concerning various other projects, continued at regular intervals. I discovered that he was in communication with scholars all over the world, generously sharing his strenuously acquired knowledge with them.

Sometimes Whitehead's letters would contain an enclosure, a poem he had read somewhere and particularly admired by (say) Sheenagh Pugh, or a list of quotations and allusions that had defeated even him, as for example, when he was working on his centenary edition of Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads (1995) or his round-up, with an equally brilliant introduction, of the same writer's Mrs Hauksbee & Co: tales of Simla life (1998).

The editing he so energetically pursued became in its final phase a shared experience, not least with his devoted wife Ella who, as a professional cataloguer, brought her own rare skills to support his love of order in literary matters and who published several of his editions at her own aptly named Hearthstone Press. The index volume they made together of John Lehmann's New Writing (published in 1990) has become an invaluable tool for researchers investigating Second World War literature.

The Whiteheads moved house in 1986, going from proximity to Samuel Palmer's Shoreham to a dwelling in the heart of A.E. Housman's Shropshire. My wife and I went to see them there in 1998. We found their house by following "the deep lane [that] insists on the direction / Into the village" - of Munslow. After admiring the garden - Ella's realm - I went on a conducted tour of Whitehead's bookshelves. As I studied the glowing, marshalled ranks of first editions in their original dust-wrappers including many rarities, Whitehead made me understand that the true collector concentrates on comparatively few authors but he has those chosen few in their pristine entirety.

We went for a glorious sunlit walk through the fields and then by car to St Mary's Church, Pilleth. After a fire it remained a shell until 1905 when Whitehead's grandparents had it restored. It had become necessary, Whitehead explained, for the work of restoration to begin all over again. His grandparents were buried in the churchyard and now it is the final resting-place of a dedicated literary scholar and a true friend.

John Randolph Whitehead, lawyer and writer: born Esher, Surrey 20 December 1924; married 1951 Anne Ball (died 1957), 1961 Ella Yates; died Munslow, Shropshire 1 November 1999.