Hilary Topham Corke, writer, composer and mineralogist: born Malvern, Worcestershire 12 July 1921; Lecturer in English, Fuad I University, Cairo 1948-51; Lecturer in Medieval English Studies, Edinburgh University 1951-55; married 1957 Shirley Bridges (one son, three daughters); died Abinger Hammer, Surrey 3 September 2001.
There was a time, in the 1950s and early 1960s, when it seemed one could hardly pick up a copy of such periodicals as the Listener, London Magazine, Encounter, Spectator, TLS, Botteghe Oscure or the New Yorker without finding some contribution by Hilary Corke: poems, book reviews, stories, television criticism, pieces of polemic.
The poems were highly individual and very various, difficult to characterise: lyrical, satirical, elegiac, richly contrived, always well made. Several of them went into the anthologies of the time – Springtime, edited in 1953 by Iain Fletcher and G.S. Fraser, and also including the young Amis, Larkin, Gunn; Fraser's Faber anthology Poetry Now (1956); Kenneth Allott's revised Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1962). Five of Corke's poems were even included in Robert Conquest's second so-called "Movement" anthology, New Lines 2 (1963) – surprising, in that Corke had at an early stage poured scorn on the supposed merits and claims of this "Movement", in a contemptuous essay in Encounter (June 1955), "The Bad Old Style". The one full-length book of his own poems, The Early Drowned, was published by Secker & Warburg in 1961.
This book is divided into two sections, "Earlier Poems" (1953-57) and "Later Poems" (1958-59); and in a brief prefatory note Corke remarked:
Had the late book-world been "normal" I imagine that I should by now have published some half-dozen volumes, whose styles would show a progression if not a progress.
As things turned out, there were to be no more books of his own poems, though in 1969 his Corke's translations of Valéry's complete prose poems, Poems in the Rough, were published as the second volume of Jackson Mathews's edition of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry.
Hilary Topham Corke was born in 1921 in Malvern. He went to prep schools there and in Surrey, and won an entrance scholarship to Charterhouse. (Many years later he wrote an exasperated and very funny note for the Old Carthusian News: he was fed up with meeting Old Carthusians who assumed he had had a wasted life.) He won a Foundation Scholarship in Mathematics to Christ Church, Oxford, going up in 1940; but he in fact chose to read English, 1940-41, for a so-called Wartime Degree. He served in the Royal Artillery from 1941 to 1945, partly in the Orkneys and Shetland, and ended up as a Captain. He returned to Christ Church to complete his degree, 1945-47.
He then went to Fuad I University, Cairo, as a Lecturer in English, joining a staff which included the young aspirant novelists P.H. Newby and Robert Liddell. Another contemporary, Denys Johnson-Davies, recalls how they
first came to know each other better through being fellow paying guests of an eccentric Latvian painter in her roof-top flat in downtown Cairo. Here I first came to know Hilary's diverse interests and skills outside of literature when he was able to assist our landlady artist to fulfil an order she had from a local Pasha for glasses that were innocently decorated on the outside with roses which occluded the erotic scenes on the inside. I also remember Hilary constructing a ball made out of various pieces of wood which, he said, could be easily taken to pieces and reassembled by merely working out the mathematical principle on which it had been put together. It defied all attempts by his colleagues to solve its mystery.
In 1951 he was appointed Lecturer in Medieval European Studies at Ediunburgh University. It was here that he met Shirley Bridges (granddaughter of the former Poet Laureate), who was a colleague. They married in 1957, by which time Corke had resigned from the university and (in 1955) set out to work as a busy freelance writer. His wit and erudition, and his capacity for hard work, recommended him rapidly to a variety of editors: J.R. Ackerley, Stephen Spender, John Lehmann, Alan Pryce-Jones.
I first met him in 1960, when he and William Plomer and I were corralled together as editors of the annual Hutchinson/P.E.N. anthology, which became New Poems 1961. I was to begin with, I think, rather disinclined to like him: I was a sort of junior Movementeer-by-association, and I didn't forget those asperities Corke had written about "The Bad Old Style". But, after a few initial skirmishes, we found we got on very well, in shared literary enthusiasms (Stevie Smith, and even Larkin) and in Corke's passion for knowing about and collecting "objects" – everything from coins and medieval pottery to minerals.
We lived in the same county: Shirley and Hilary had moved to a 16th-century farmhouse in Abinger Hammer, my wife Ann and I were in Richmond. We each had four children; and soon there were visits in both directions, the Thwaite children fascinated by the marvellously untidy antiquarian jumble of the Corke house, yet even more by the fact that the Corke children didn't go to school but were taught everything, from maths to music, by their parents.
A little later, when I became literary editor of the Listener, I was happy to go on giving him a great deal of work. His fiction reviews, in particular, were sparkling and trenchant, provocative but good-tempered. But, some time in the 1960s, a bad depression overcame him, in a way hard to understand and therefore hard to explain. He needed to change his life. In 1964, he founded Hilary Corke Minerals, technical geological suppliers, specialising at first in Scandinavian minerals, then expanding to include the rest of the world. He had always been a keen traveller, often on his own and sometimes in difficult and remote places: he liked to say that he had climbed the Matterhorn and crossed portions of the Western Desert with one man and a camel.
As the depression lifted, Corke's activities as traveller and collector of minerals expanded. As a fellow collector commented,
His understanding of physics, chemistry and geology became invaluable when his interest in minerals grew to the extent that he became a knowledgeable and reasonably successful dealer as well as a collector, personally collecting much of the stock that he sold [in Norway, Sweden, Finland, many other parts of Europe, and Morocco]. His character came out again in his very fair pricing policy as a dealer, his pleasantly laid-back approach contrasting with the "money is everything" attitude so prevalent these days.
Corke had always been a knowledgeable musician, composing from time to time; and in the 1990s he composed several hundred songs, mainly settings of Tennyson, Hardy, Betjeman, Pound, and Andrew Young. A selection received their first public performance at the Purcell Room at his 80th birthday concert in July 2001.
In that same decade of the 1990s he began again to write poems, prolifically; he seldom attempted to publish them, but a few appeared in the Spectator and elsewhere – poems as sprightly, witty and moving as any of the earlier ones. He was also writing and revising his "Memoirs of my Military Life and Times" which, while purporting to be a conventional history of his time in the Army, is in fact a characteristically wide-ranging work.
It was an odd life, in its indirections, its firm emphases, and its occlusions. Hilary Corke was supremely happy – and fortunate – in his family life; a keen and active person in the life of Abinger Hammer too. His best poems (my own favourites are "Rosslyn Chapel", "Pompeii" and "Children Playing") deserve to survive.
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