Norman Hidden

Poetry Society chairman
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The Independent Online

Norman Hidden - editor, lecturer and poet - brought a mixture of vision and common-sense practicality to everything he did. It's not as rare a combination as might be thought in the arts world, but Hidden also had something rarer: a steady, amenable nature which encouraged trust and won friends. That served him particularly well during his years as Chairman of the Poetry Society between 1968 and 1971.

He never paraded his remarkable curriculum vitae, so the full extent of his experience in business, the Army, local government and teaching was really only known to close friends. Even some of those were unaware that his long and happy marriage to Joyce Collett was actually his third. The thread running through Hidden's life was one of intelligent, resolute decency of the kind many people of his generation expressed by supporting a range of humanitarian and left-wing causes, fostering creativity as teachers, and adhering strictly to humanist principles in work and personal life.

Hidden was born in Hampshire in 1913 to parents whose business energies provided a prep-school education - despite his father's staunch socialist beliefs. But later he needed scholarships to go to the Hereford Cathedral School (where he was hurt by exclusion from singing classes by a master who accused him of tone-deafness) and then Brasenose College, Oxford, taking his English degree in 1936. Obtaining a Postgraduate Certificate of Education, he went to teach at the King's School, Macclesfield. Around that time he met a German Jewish girl, Trudi Gerson, whom he married in 1937, enabling her parents to leave Hitler's Germany.

They went to the United States in 1939 when he secured an exchange teaching post in Ohio - followed by a lectureship in a college in Michigan. When war came they were stranded there, and Hidden found office work with the Ford Motor Co. He lectured vigorously on the British war effort throughout the Middle West, but the couple could only return to England (as passengers on a merchant vessel) in 1943, and by then the marriage had foundered. Enlisting in the Royal Artillery, he rapidly became - his American experience standing him in good stead - British Liaison Officer with the US Army HQ at Frankfurt.

In 1947, after a delayed "demob" (the Army had lost his records), he returned to civilian life contemplating a career in politics. In the general election of 1950 he fought as Labour candidate for Aldershot against the formidable Oliver Lyttleton (later Lord Chandos), a member of Winston Churchill's wartime Cabinet. On the ballot paper he was "manager of a commercial firm", being then in charge of the family enterprise, an agency buying and selling small businesses. This became dangerously overstretched with his father's desire to expand worldwide and Hidden had no compunction about taking it into liquidation.

Also in 1947, he had married Liesl Mullek, also German and Jewish, first met in left-wing circles in Oxford. This marriage was equally short-lived, Liesl leaving in 1952 and later moving to East Germany. In the 1950s and early 1960s Hidden occupied teaching posts at Goole (where he became a Labour councillor) and Hornchurch; from 1964 to 1973 he was Senior Lecturer in English at the College of All Saints, Tottenham. He met his third wife, Joyce, at Goole; they married in 1960 and were inseparable in a life of shared interests in teaching and literary activity.

Politics and literature had been parallel passions. But from the mid-1960s the encouragement of poetry was Hidden's principal extra-mural pursuit. To the readings he organised at the Lamb and Flag pub in Covent Garden came writers such as George MacBeth, Ivor Cutler and Andrew Davies, famous later for his television versions of classic novels. Hidden then started his New Poetry magazine (originally Workshop), which featured poets as diverse as John Pudney, Jon Stallworthy and Edward Lucie-Smith. He was much sought after as a committee man by organisations such as the English Association and the National Book League. But his most notable role was as Chairman of the Poetry Society, guiding it with firmness and tact through a phase when disputing factions and personalities could easily have lost it Arts Council support.

Tireless work for poets and for poetry (books about writing it, speaking it, persuading editors to accept it) brought him a Civil List pension in 1974. He did not himself manage to write as much as he hoped; but his fiction appeared in the annual Pick of Today's Short Stories, while poems featured in magazines, on radio, and at one large Paris exhibition of concrete poetry. Hidden Talent, an anthology of the Workshop poets "in celebration of the 80th birthday of the founder of the Workshop Press", appeared in 1993.

Norman Hidden's deadpan contribution in a radio programme about an imaginary avant-garde poet, broadcast one year on 1 April, fooled numerous people into thinking the character must exist if so patently serious and honest a man was sharing memories of him.

Alan Brownjohn