Hallam Tennyson

Descendant of the poet who had a distinguished BBC career and wrote a compelling autobiography
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The Independent Online

Beryl Hallam Augustine Tennyson, writer and broadcaster: born 10 December 1920; married 1945 Margot Wallach (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1971); died London c21 December 2005.

In his autobiography Hallam Tennyson wrote that, while the most important element in the life of his father, Sir Charles Tennyson, had undoubtedly been "his descent from the Victorian Laureate", the most crucial factor in his own was that his parents had hoped he was a girl. It was perhaps inevitable that vulgar headlines over reports of his murder in London before Christmas should refer to "Tennyson's gay great-grandson". Hallam Tennyson deserved to be remembered for much more than the manner of his death.

He once said himself that he had "a predilection for danger" and that he had on a number of occasions found himself through his own deliberate fault in circumstances entirely alien to the man who was, above all, non-violent, and who had spent much of his life doing what his great-grandmother called "good work for the world". He was altogether a surprising man - a prison visitor who was also not only a "demented" tennis player, but a Wimbledon umpire.

Hallam Tennyson was named after the poet's son and biographer, who had himself taken his name from Alfred's close friend Arthur Hallam, whose death is commemorated in In Memoriam. Young Hallam, as he may be thought of to distinguish him from his great-uncle, always maintained - whatever others might suggest - that there was no sexual element in that pre-Freudian friendship.

He himself was born a third son in December 1920. One of his earliest memories was of his mother saying, when he was about three and had been happily handing round a plate of sandwiches, "He's just like a daughter to me." He also recalled the "puzzled exclamation" of Mark (the fifth and present Lord Tennyson) when the little boys were being bathed together and he noticed that his cousin had the same "appendage" as the rest of them. Born in the same year as Christopher Robin Milne, he looked very much like him. In 1928 (he thought much later) he was one of the first seven-year-olds to weep at the end of The House at Pooh Corner: "It was a lament for childhood: a first experience through art of death."

In his compelling autobiography, The Haunted Mind (1984), which deserves to be reprinted, Hallam Tennyson told many stories he had previously "never told to anyone". He wrote of the sadness of someone who had "a physical need for men", but "an emotional commitment to women", and admitted that one of his "most damaging beliefs was that an intimate relationship can be founded on complete honesty".

He said he could do nothing to alter his sexuality any more than he could change the colour of his eyes, but at different periods of his life he had made strenuous efforts to be heterosexual - succeeding to such an extent that he had 25 years of what he himself called "a tremendously happy marriage" to a courageous German Jewish refugee, Margot Wallach. Together they produced two children, Rosalind and Jonathan, whose "character, intelligence and charm" left their father "gasping in pride and incredulity". He also had many close friendships with women, including a "passionate" one with the writer Iris Origo, almost a neighbour in the Tuscan hills where he spent a great deal of time after the end of his marriage.

As a boy, Hallam Tennyson had spent grey years at a prep school concerned only with processing boys for Eton - where he actually enjoyed his time when he duly arrived. He went so far as to say it would be an excellent school if only it could become part of the state system. It was there he made friendships for life (including one with the founder of Amnesty International), became a "pacifist-Marxist" and a hater of blood sports, and decided he would be a writer, if also a painter, an archaeologist and a museum curator.

He went up to Balliol when he was only 17. It was 1938. Two years later he registered as a conscientious objector, joined a Friends' Ambulance Unit and spent two years away from England, first in Egypt, where he found himself involved with Yugoslavian refugees (he would later write a book, Tito Lifts the Curtain: the story of Yugoslavia today, 1955), and then in Italy. He denied he had a particular gift for languages, said his facility came from "a grinding determination to study". It remains impressive that he added Serbo-Croat and Italian to his fluent French in these early years and then, after his marriage, mastered Bengali. (When I knew him, he was learning Japanese.)

In 1946 Margot and Hallam Tennyson went together to India, where for three years Hallam was Head of the Rural Development Programme in West Bengal - a post which would have been an extraordinary challenge to any young couple. They found themselves running a million-dollar project of reconstruction and social change, and remained fondly remembered in the area where they were based. In July 1947 they were manning an ambulance in the Calcutta riots and soon after had the chance to spend time with Mahatma Gandhi. One of Hallam's more successful later books would be on Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi's successor (Saint on the March, 1955). In 1969, the BBC published Talking of Gandhi, by Francis Watson and Hallam Tennyson, based in part on radio documentaries from the Fifties.

Sir Charles Tennyson, Hallam's father, was working on his life of the poet for 20 years before Alfred Tennyson: by his grandson was published in 1949. In it he acknowledged the help of his three sons: Penrose, killed in 1941, Julian, killed in 1945, and Hallam - to whom he paid particular tribute, thanking him for his many helpful criticisms and suggestions, and saying he felt his book would have been much better if Hallam's work in Africa, Italy and India had not kept him so much out of England. Though their temperaments were so different (the father was adept at sweeping things under the carpet), father and son became particularly close. Hallam would make his own contribution to Studies in Tennyson, editing this collection of useful essays in 1981.

I got to know Hallam Tennyson when I was working on a biography of his great-grandmother Emily, the poet's wife, in the 1990s. He seemed well aware that he had three other great-grandfathers, one indeed a butcher in Balham. (He was fascinated by his mother's complex history and difficult character.) But he had spent a lifetime with what he called "the gently corrupting beneficence" of his famous name. I remember his pleasure when he identified himself after I had been talking about Emily at the National Portrait Gallery and the audience responded to him with a round of applause.

He told stories, some typically self-mocking, about the reactions to his name in different places round the world. In his modest flat in north London he had showed me the huge dresser which had once stood in Emily's home in Horncastle and which had, in 1850, been part of Henry Sellwood's wedding present to his daughter and her poet bridegroom. Hallam was, I think, pleased to find that his own father's uncritical admiration for his grandmother was far more justified than he had himself believed, and he revised his own published judgement of her in the light of my research.

Hallam Tennyson's first broadcast had been as early as 1951. It was in Bengali for the Overseas Service. He joined the BBC in 1956 and it was there that he worked for most of his distinguished career, for many years as Assistant Head of Drama to the remarkable Martin Esslin. He remembered with particular affection his own six-part adaptation of Fielding's Tom Jones and recalled with wry regret that, like so much good radio, it vanished without trace.

Fortunately Hallam's own Tennyson comments and his readings of some of his great-grandfather's poems have already been recorded for posterity for a Tennyson Society DVD, which will in 2009 mark the 200th anniversary of Alfred Tennyson's birth.

Ann Thwaite

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