Charles Hobday

Biographer and editor of Edgell Rickword
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The Independent Online

Charles Henry Hobday, writer: born Eastbourne, Sussex 9 September 1917; married 1950 Inez Gwendolen Beeching (née Matthews, died 1972), 1983 Helen Strauss (died 2000); died London 2 March 2005.

Charles Hobday was one of the last surviving members of the group of radical writers gathered round the Communist cultural magazine Our Time in the late 1940s.

Named for the pub on St Martin's Lane where they drank, the Salisbury Group brought together senior Communist Party writers from the 1930s like Randall Swingler, Jack Lindsay, Montagu Slater and Edgell Rickword, and a younger generation of writers including Hobday, Arnold Rattenbury, David Holbrook, Mervyn Jones, Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson. Doris Lessing joined when she arrived in London.

Their lively, beery debates were a late attempt to sustain the open artistic culture of the Popular Front years in the deteriorating intellectual climate of the Cold War. Hobday took part in poetry readings and gave lectures on Jonson and Shakespeare. But they also represented the beginnings of a "cultural opposition" inside the Party. "We never met at King Street [CP headquarters]," recalled Hobday. "One thing we all agreed on was the importance of giving King Street the widest possible berth." Almost all the group - including Hobday - left the Party after 1956.

Hobday was born in Eastbourne in 1917 into a family he described as "working-class, Conservative and Low Church". His father, a regular soldier who had served in India, died before he "could be shipped to France for slaughter", six months before his son was born. His mother named the boy after two uncles who were killed in the First World War and brought up her three children on a War Widow's Pension.

Charles attended a Strict and Particular Baptist Sunday school, which exposed him, as he later wrote, to both "the rich prose of the Authorised Version" and "the heroic egalitarian traditions of Dissent". Reading William Morris introduced him to socialism, Shaw to pacifism and Shakespeare to poetry. "I worshipped three gods at fifteen, / Jesus, poetry and revolution."

He won a scholarship to Eastbourne Grammar School and then a place at Queen Mary College, London, where he took a First in English. Living in the East End brought him into contact with the Communist Party, then active in rent-strikes and opposing Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts. In 1938 he joined the Party.

Rejected for military service on medical grounds, Hobday spent the Second World War working for an MA in Cambridge and then teaching in London. His first poems were published in Our Time, edited by Rickword and selling 18,000 copies a month. But, after the war, declining sales and rows with King Street led to Rickword's resignation. An editorial commission of "young Turks", including Hobday, took over the magazine in 1947, with the intention of turning it into a weapon in the Cold War "Battle of Ideas". Our Time folded in 1949.

That year Hobday moved to Bristol to work for Keesing's Archives. He stayed there for over 30 years. His first wife died in 1972. In 1983 he married Helen Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany with whom he shared a love of Italy and Italian literature. Helen died in 2000.

In retirement Hobday wrote the three books for which he will be remembered. In 1989 appeared his Edgell Rickword: a poet at war, a biography of his old comrade and a major contribution to scholarly understanding of the literary life of the Communist Party of Great Britain. His edition of Rickword's Collected Poems followed in 1991. A Golden Ring (1998) was a study of the impact of Italy - specifically Florence - on English poets from Milton to Lawrence.

Charles Hobday also published several collections of enjoyable and well-crafted poems which demonstrated his belief that poetry is not a means of self-expression, but of communication. His last book, Elegy for a Sergeant, about the death of his uncle during the First World War, was published in 2002. How Goes the Enemy?: selected poems 1960-2000 (2000) was a wry tribute to the disappointed hopes of his youth, "the days when innocence came easily" :

At seventeen I'd got my future planned.

I was the young man with the musket and the topper

Delacroix noticed on the barricades,

The Byron, Shelley, Mayakovsky

Of the coming revolution

Who in one delirious night would write a song

That would travel from Madrid to Moscow

Bulldozing palaces en route.

I'd die, of course, at twenty-five or so

Spitting blood like Keats

Or preferably on some barricade

Whence my sorrowing comrades would bear me

Hurling my last defiance at the heavens

In a red flag dyed redder in my blood.

Now I'm (shall we say?) middle-aged

I take a modest pride in having

After only eighteen months

Of discussions, resolutions, correspondence

Persuaded the authorities to move

A bus stop to a more convenient spot.

Andy Croft