Obituary : Hugh Popham

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The Independent Online
Perhaps the only British poet of stature to reflect the experience of young flyers in the Second World War, Hugh Popham went on to write more then a dozen works of fiction and history, culminating in an acclaimed biography of one of the most remarkable admirals in Nelson's Navy.

He was born in Beer, Devon, in 1920, the only child of Sir Henry Bradshaw Popham, a Boer War veteran and colonial administrator whose final posting was as Governor-General of the Windward and Leeward Islands. Popham acquired a lifelong passion for the sea during childhood holidays in Cyprus. After schooling at Repton, he studied Law at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, but broke off in 1940 to join the Fleet Air Arm, where he trained as a pilot and was assigned to one of the first Sea Hurricane squadrons. He spent a year in HMS Indomitable, participating in the Malta convoy of August 1942, possibly the greatest battle ever fought by the Fleet Air Arm.

After breaking his back in an air collision and spending a year in hospital, he returned to first-line flying in a Seafire squadron in HMS Illustrious. He completed his sea service as batsman in escort carriers on Arctic convoys.

Popham devoted much of his spare time during war service to writing poems, and his first collection, Against the Lightning (1944), won the John Lane / Bodley Head Poetry Prize. Two more books of verse followed in quick succession, so that by his mid-twenties he had already published a substantial body of work.

One section from the long eponymous poem "Against the Lightning - a Poem from an Aircraft Carrier" was selected by Philip Larkin for The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse. Its selection perhaps says more about Larkin than Popham, for the tone is notably more colloquial and Larkinesque than most of Popham's verse. In spirit he was a Georgian: his masters were Hardy, Housman and Flecker, and there was a rhapsodic lyricism about his descriptions of the world as seen from the cockpit of a fighter that was unfashionable even when his poems first appeared, yet richly sensuous and full of charm.

The death in labour of his wife and twin babies soon after the war, and a coruscating lecture from a literary critic on the failings of his verse, sent his Muse into hibernation. He moved to Barbados when his father died, married again, taught English at a grammar school and designed and built houses.

Returning to Britain three years later, he relaunched his literary career: the first of four novels, Beyond the Eagle's Rage, appeared in 1951, followed by Sea Flight (1954), a vivid war memoir which has been in and out of print ever since. The most recent edition was published by the Old Ferry Press, the imprint set up by Popham and his last wife, Mary. It was timed to coincide with the restoration at Duxford Air Base of the last surviving Sea Hurricane, 27015 - a plane which Popham actually flew during the war.

A bewildering variety of books now sprang from his pen. In 1957 he published Cape of Storms, a gripping account of deep-sea trawling. A trip to Jamaica as carpenter on a 70ft fishing boat, which ended in a mutiny, inspired a splendid children's book, Monsters and Marlinspikes (1958), and provided the germ for another novel, Sea Beggars (1961), about the plight of sea- borne refugees unable to find a country that will take them in. When an almost identical incident hit the newspapers, Sea Beggars became a best- seller.

A journey around Spain on a moped provided the research for another novel, The Shores of Violence (1963), while a derelict house next to the family home on Richmond Hill suggested his last novel, The House at Cane Garden (1966). A humorous book about his second passion, gardening, Gentlemen Peasants (1968), failed to bring in the anticipated windfall when the cartoonist Thelwell trumped it with a book on the same theme.

But the sea and things nautical remained Popham's main preoccupation: when he was not flying about the Solent with his family in an ancient 18ft sloop or making tiny, immaculate models of tall ships (his model of HMS Victory is still displayed in the bowels of Cutty Sark) he was writing books on maritime themes. Into Wind, a history of British naval flying, was published in 1969, and 10 years later, with his fourth wife, Robin, he edited the sailing journals of Erskine Childers, under the title A Thirst for the Sea.

After the post-war hiatus, Popham resumed writing poetry, and continued to do so for the rest of his life. A recent example, "St Ives", appeared in the Independent in May. He was a skilful ghost-writer on numerous memoirs, notably Queen of the Head Hunters (1970), the autobiography of the last white Ranee of Sarawak. But Popham's most enduring literary achievement may well prove to be his last book. In the emotional vacuum that followed the death of his wife Robin, he quite suddenly set about turning himself into a "proper" historian.

Prompted by a casual suggestion, he began researching the life and career of a distant relative, Sir Home Riggs Popham, an admiral at the time of Nelson, who invented the flag-signalling system (enabling Nelson to transmit his famous message at Trafalgar), crossed the South Atlantic and seized Buenos Aires on his own initiative (for which he was court-martialled) and was an intimate friend of the Tsar of Russia and the first black King of Haiti.

John Keegan wrote in a foreword, "It is a great mystery why no life of Admiral Sir Home Popham has previously appeared" - but none had, so Popham was obliged to spend long weeks poring over primary documents in the British Museum. He found this task utterly absorbing. The book that resulted was both immensely authoritative and immensely readable. As Richard Ollard wrote in the Spectator, the fact that Home Popham's life had remained previously unwritten "turns out to be a fortunate dispensation of providence, as Hugh Popham has made a first-class job of it, bringing out with fairness, lucidity and wit, the virtues and talents . . . of a naval officer whose career is certainly stranger than fiction."

In the febrile climate of London publishing in the 1980s, however, Popham's biography, A Damned Cunning Fellow, failed to find a home. So he and Mary set up the Old Ferry Press, and published it themselves in 1991. The book was a runner-up for the Marsh Biography Award in 1993, is still in print, and is shortly expected to go into profit. Its eventual warm reception, and Mary's love and creative companionship, made the final years of his life happy and richly rewarding.

Peter Popham

Hugh Henry Home Popham, poet and writer: born Beer, Devon 15 May 1920; five times married (one son, one daughter, and one son and one daughter deceased); died Tywardreath, Cornwall 30 June 1996.