Patrick Howarth

Writer, traveller and poet

It was a guiding principle of Patrick Howarth's long and colourful life that he should do what he enjoyed doing. This took him on a journey through more careers than most people dream about: soldier, journalist, diplomat, biographer, historian, traveller and poet. The last was the most precious to him and poetry the talent for which he would most have liked to be remembered. Yet he suppressed it for more than 30 years.

Patrick John Fielding Howarth, poet, writer, public-relations officer and soldier: born Calcutta, India 25 April 1916; three times married; died Sherborne, Dorset 12 November 2004.

It was a guiding principle of Patrick Howarth's long and colourful life that he should do what he enjoyed doing. This took him on a journey through more careers than most people dream about: soldier, journalist, diplomat, biographer, historian, traveller and poet. The last was the most precious to him and poetry the talent for which he would most have liked to be remembered. Yet he suppressed it for more than 30 years.

Born in 1916 in Calcutta - his father was manager of the New Zealand Insurance Company - Howarth had visited every continent before he was six. His literary development began at Rugby School, where he fell for the poetry of Housman and Blake and began to write verse himself.

When Siegfried Sassoon came to talk to the school literary society, the 17-year-old Howarth presented him with some early work and got a distinctly favourable reaction. Two years later, in his first year at St John's College, Oxford, he entered for the Newdigate Poetry Prize, failing to win it, but getting a letter of praise and an invitation to dine at the High Table in Magdalen from one of the judges, C.S. Lewis.

Howarth's father had a business career in mind for his younger son, but Howarth at 22 had other ideas. A love of languages and a taste for travel took him to Poland where he edited a political quarterly, aimed at the Baltic and Scandinavian worlds, part of Poland's attempt, on the eve of the Second World War, to create a cordon sanitaire between Germany and Russia.

He also managed to play tennis for Britain, since the British Davis Cup team was prevented from attending the Polish national championships by the possibility of war. When it came, Howarth got out by the skin of his teeth and joined the Army in time to defend Bognor beach from invasion, moving on to Gibraltar and his only stab at pantomime. He wrote the lyrics for the Christmas 1940 production of Aladdin, directed by Lieutenant Anthony Quayle, who was to read one of Howarth's narrative poems on radio 40 years later.

Things then got a great deal more serious as the young soldier was recruited into Special Operations Executive (SOE) where, for several years, he was official controller of some of the most daring British agents in occupied Europe, including the gallant and glamorous Christine Granville.

After the war, Howarth was back in Poland as Press Attaché at the British Embassy in Warsaw, observing at first hand the descent of the Iron Curtain and working for an ambassador he much admired, Bill Cavendish-Bentinck, whose biography he afterwards wrote ( Intelligence Chief Extraordinary: the life of the ninth Duke of Portland, 1986).

Warsaw in 1945 was a ruin comparable with Hiroshima and the British Embassy at first operated from the fourth floor of a former railway hotel. In spite of this, spirits were high, drink flowed and a succession of distinguished visitors came and went, including the composer Constant Lambert. Howarth had a vivid memory of standing with him among the ruins in a snow-storm, arguing furiously about the correct wording of a limerick.

It was on the same streets that he had a close encounter with death, knocked down and run over by a Red Army lorry. Although not expected to live, he was saved by the skill of a Jewish surgeon, who had somehow survived the Holocaust. Howarth never worried about death again.

Howarth left Warsaw abruptly, having married a Polish woman with - from the point of view of British Security - dubious family connections. The marriage was a disaster and soon collapsed. Almost as brief was his first job back in England with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning - Howarth had little time for the post-war urban vision of both left and right, lampooning it in his 1952 civil service satire, A Matter of Minutes.

A series of unrealistic career moves - banana-growing in Fiji, parachute expeditions to the North Pole - came to nothing, but in 1953 Howarth found the perfect job and held it for the next 27 years: public relations officer for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Travelling round Britain, "honorary member" as he himself put it "of 150 of the best coastal clubs" and campaigning - unsuccessfully - for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to the life-boat services of the world, gave him enormous satisfaction and the security to settle down to his biographies, histories and travel books, 17 of them, including a study of Attila the Hun ( Attila, King of the Huns: man and myth, 1994), the history of SOE ( Undercover, 1980), a portrait of the French Riviera ( When the Riviera Was Ours, 1977) and a scholarly account of the treasures of Denmark. Private happiness came to him too when he met and married his third wife, Eva, a Hungarian art historian - a second marriage having proved as unhappy as the first.

Meanwhile the poetry had begun to bubble again. In the 1960s he started writing a verse memoir, Playback a Lifetime, which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 1974, and a flood of poems followed, some of them heard on the same network in the 1980s. By now the Howarths had moved to Sherborne in Dorset, enjoying a golden period of travel and literary collaboration, until Eva's unexpected death in 2001. Shortly afterwards, Howarth himself was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Most people would have given up but he amazed the doctors and his friends by living another three years and producing a stream of poetry, often at the rate of one a day. It was as if the poems were keeping him alive and a broadcast on Radio 3 of some of them this August brought him immense pride and peace of mind. He wrote the last one a few days before he died. It was called "Lie Back in Wonder".

Piers Plowright

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