James Michie

Inventive poet and translator


James Crain Michie, poet and translator: born Weybridge, Surrey 24 June 1927; married 1950 Daphne Segré (marriage dissolved 1960), 1964 Sarah Courtauld (marriage dissolved; two sons, one daughter), (one son by Clare Asquith), (one daughter by Tatiana Orlov); died London 30 October 2007.

There can never have been much doubt that the world was going to miss James Michie, but it seems fitting that, in the week he was buried, rumours of a government search for a "national motto" should once again have surfaced to remind us what we have lost. For almost 30 years, under the pseudonym of "Jaspistos", James Michie set and judged the Spectator's literary competitions, and the call for a motto to sum up the country in just five words was precisely the sort of appeal to his sense of the absurd and rather under-developed feel for "civics" that he would never have been able to ignore.

Michie was born in Weybridge, the son of a banker and the younger brother of Donald, who became a pioneer of artificial intelligence. In later years James Michie would claim kin with a Chicago undertaker in a bid to dilute all this respectability, and throughout his life he followed his own unconventional lights, content to be his own imperturbable and unmistakable self whether in Eaton Terrace or Kensal Rise, in a taxi cab or on the number six bus, single or married, at the Chelsea Arts Club or on the prowl for Oddbins' or Threshers' latest offer on Côte du Rhône.

It must have been a mercy to the Michie parents to have a third talented son, Ian, able and willing to continue the family's banking traditions, but while Donald disappeared into Bletchley and chess with Alan Turing, James departed for war-time Marlborough College to inaugurate his career of civilised dissent. From Marlborough he went up to Trinity College, Oxford, with an Exhibition in Classics, and after taking a degree in English and two years as a conscientious objector with the International Voluntary Service for Peace and hospital portering, migrated by way of John Lehmann's London Magazine and the Workers' Educational Association to a career in publishing.

Everyone who ever worked with him at this time has their favourite anecdote – "I don't in the least mind James doing the crossword on my time," Max Reinhardt was once heard to say, "but I do wish someone would ask him to keep his door closed while he's doing it" – but no one has ever questioned his eye for talent. He was always proud to have published Sylvia Plath's first book of poems, The Colossus, in 1960 and originally at Heinemann and then, at Graham Greene's instigation, at Bodley Head as Editorial Director, Michie could count Sebastian Faulks, Anthony Burgess, Paul Theroux and Robert Pirsig among a remarkable and eclectic list of young authors he championed.

The Long Lunch and an elastic attitude to the working week were probably always going to militate against a lengthy career in publishing, but an office always seemed a terrible waste of Michie's real talents as a poet and translator. While still at Oxford he and Kingsley Amis used to exchange their poems for criticism, and if three slim volumes – Possible Laughter (1959), New and Selected Poems (1983) and Collected Poems (1994) – might seem modest in terms of bulk, their wit, humanity, inexhaustible inventiveness and lightly worn profundity were enough to win him the 1995 Hawthornden Prize.

And if that prize was a "lifetime achievement", one only has to add in his translations to recognise just how formidable an achievement it recognised. Michie is probably best known now for his 1964 translation of Horace's Odes, but there was nothing narrow in his range, and he was as much at home among the pimps, prostitutes, flatterers, politicians, layabouts, corruption and sexual mire of Martial's Rome as he was in the Corot-like landscape of Virgil's Eclogues.

Underpinning all his translations – Martial's Epigrams, Ovid's Ars Amatoria, Catullus, Euripides' Helen, and, above all, a matchless version of La Fontaine's Fables – was the same technical virtuosity, the same command of rhyme and metrical forms that distinguished his own poetry, but one simple reason why he was such a good translator was that he was such a generous and receptive reader. In his translations he naturally gravitated to those authors whose temperament he found most sympathetic, but he seemed to have read and retained everything, and was never so happy, nor so characteristically himself, as with a glass of red in one hand and a Shakespeare play – text, notes, emendations, alternative readings, Pope, Johnson, Theobald and all – in the other.

For all his love of anagrams and crosswords, though, and an erudition that would have sunk a Casaubon, there was never anything donnish about him. One of the few grudges of his life was against the man who had dropped him from the Marlborough side the week before the Lord's match, and he was a good and opinionated all-round sportsman, a devious tennis player from all accounts, a great walker, and a fine golfer who, in his prime, played off a handicap of six.

Just over a year before he died, he came out of golfing retirement at Gairloch for one shot, to remind his youngest son, Edward, how the game should be played. He imperiously rejected the safety of a mid-iron, and demanded the driver. The eye and power might have gone – to general satisfaction, the ball remained more or less unharmed – but the old swing was still there, marvellously graceful, technically flawless and deceptively simple-looking.

It was signature Michie. In "Bath Death-wish" (Collected Poems, 1994), he had confronted his own mortality with the unblinking eye of a Lucian Freud and that wry poise and balance that was all his own.

Five foot eleven, twelve stone, sixty-three,

I lie in the bath and look at the apple tree

And the apples dawdling into rubicundity

To blend with the old brick wall's well-weathered red

Already, and all ready, I feel dead.

He was as good as his word. Sixteen years later, when cancer was diagnosed, he met illness with a grace and dignity that let his friends off very lightly. And there remained a great many of those. He was a distinguished publisher, a remarkable craftsman – incapable of writing a bad line in prose or verse – and a great translator. He had his pride – a poem was worth the price of a lunch was an inflexible gold-standard with him – but he was as devoid of envy or literary vanity as any man can be. He married and divorced twice, first Daphne Segré and second Sarah Courtauld. And if that perhaps says something about his powers of domesticity, he had five children of whom he was very proud and in whom he was very lucky. They were with him at the end, as was Clare Asquith, the mother of his youngest son, and the great companion of his last years.

He is buried at Kensal Green, just a stone's throw – an irony he would have enjoyed – from the grave of that princess of parallelograms and favourite bête noire of his, Lady Byron. She would not be amused.

David Crane

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