Philip Hobsbaum - poet, critic and servant of the servants of literature in Belfast and Glasgow - died last week, a day before his 73rd birthday. His ancestors were among those adaptable, intelligent people driven out of Eastern Europe by anti-Jewish laws and prejudices around the end of the 19th century. His father, an electrical engineer in the East End of London, had Philip taught boxing at an early age, to cope with the bullies he had suffered from himself. A GPO management job took the family to Bradford where Philip, after doing badly in his first four years at Belle Vue Grammar School, suddenly did so well that a scholarship took him to Downing College, Cambridge.
Here, reading English under F.R. Leavis, he learned the close reading which is good literary criticism's only foundation, learned to regard excellent novels and plays as forms of poetry. He studied elocution, acquiring the clear, resonant voice perfected by generations of Shakespearean actors: Donald Wolfit, Laurence Olivier, Dylan Thomas had it. He gained a nose for new, original writing which was his main talent, editing a small magazine that printed the first published poems by Ted Hughes, then a student of anthropology.
After Cambridge he worked freelance for a London theatrical agency, then taught full-time in a progressive London secondary school. One of his pupils, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, says that Philip Hobsbaum was the teacher who taught him about politics. These were the years of "The Movement" when Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and others were demonstrating cooler, more everyday poetic forms. Hobsbaum met regularly with a different group containing Peter Porter, Peter Redgrove and Martin Bell. He married, worked for three years at Sheffield University under William Empson on a PhD (gained in 1968 for the thesis "Some Reasons for the Great Variety of Response to Literature among Modern Literary Critics"), and in 1962 became a lecturer in English at Queen's University, Belfast.
In this foreign city without his familiar circle of dedicated writers he began forming another. In his 1978 Honest Ulsterman article "The Group", Seamus Heaney tells how original Belfast writers once knew of each other, but stayed apart or kept leaving the place because they had not much confidence in it. He says:
That state of affairs changed by the mid-Sixties and one of the strongest agents of change was Philip Hobsbaum . . . he moved disparate elements into a single action. He emanated energy, generosity, belief in the community, trust in the parochial, the inept, the unprinted. He was impatient, dogmatic, relentlessly literary: yet he was patient with those he trusted, unpredictably susceptible to a wide variety of poems and personalities, and urgent that the social and political exacerbations of our place should disrupt the decorums of literature. If he drove some people mad with his absolutes and overbearing, he confirmed as many with his enthusiasms. He and his wife Hannah kept open house for poetry and I remember his hospitality and encouragement with the special gratitude we reserve to those who have led us towards confidence in ourselves . . . Hobsbaum . . . allowed us to get to grips with one another within the group, to move from critical comment to creative friendship at our own pace.
This generous tribute was earned in only four years. In 1966 he became Lecturer in English at Glasgow University. His marriage to Hannah had ended and he had other reasons for finding the change dismal at first. The primary lesson taught in most Scottish schools until recent years was THOU SHALT NOT TALK IN CLASS. Many students carried this lesson into their university courses and too many lecturers approved. To Hobsbaum the essence of teaching was discussion of several viewpoints, which could lead, without acrimony, to intelligent disagreement. His request for opinions often induced dumbstruck terror in youngsters who only wanted to know their teacher's opinion - they believed diverging from that would lead to failure in exams. But among his mature students was Tom Leonard, who talked back and showed him his poems. Most were in Glasgow patois but Hobsbaum saw they were poems indeed, got them printed and put them on to his teaching curriculum.
Through my friendship with Tom I met Philip socially in 1970 or 1971, knowing only that he was that rarity in Scotland, a lecturer who drank in pubs with students. Our first meeting was unhappy. In ordinary chit-chat he sometimes took offence at what a speaker thought a commonplace remark and exploded like a big firework in a narrow room. I left his company feeling I had met one of the few people I actively disliked. A few weeks later we coincided in a different pub and, as if nothing disagreeable had passed between us, he said, "I hear you have written a good play. Would you lend me a copy?"
I posted him one. He wrote back that it was the best Scottish play since J.M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows, and invited me to join a circle of writers who met once a fortnight to read and discuss their work in his Wilton Street flat. I thus became friendly with James Kelman, the poets Donald Saunders, Aonghas MacNeacail, Catriona Montgomery and Anne Stevenson - the last then living with Philip - also Angela Mullane, who I later worked with on a short-lived publishing house. At each meeting one of our works was read aloud then technically analysed as a successful thing or one capable of improvement. We were neither a mutual admiration society nor mere debating club. Philip was an excellent chairman.
We went on to do many different things but never lost touch with him, and until his retirement from Glasgow University, in 1997, he remained a healthy troublemaker. In a public lecture on modern Scottish literature he said that this small nation was producing a surprising amount of good literature, mostly by writers who had not been to universities or dropped out of them. This was because students were taught to write little more than second-rate critical essays. He suggested they be asked to write poems, plays, stories or factual reportage. Such things would be hard to mark, but the results could not be worse than the present state of things.
The audience of Strathclyde and Glasgow university lecturers who heard him were not amused, but it is not surprising that his efforts led to the founding of Creative Writing departments in both institutions shortly before he retired, with Tom Leonard, Jim Kelman and me as professors for a couple of years, before we found the weight of modern academicism too crushing.
In 1976 Philip had married Rosemary Singleton, who brought him two young stepdaughters. This made him personally happier and mellower, for he had regretted his lack of children. The daughters married and brought him dearly loved grandchildren. Diabetes and a bad leg infection then brought him a lot of pain, so despite intervals of cheerful erudite conversation he was glad to go at the end.
Philip Hobsbaum published four books of poems in the 1960s and 1970s: The Place's Fault (1964), In Retreat (1966), Coming Out Fighting (1969), Women and Animals (1972). All are witty, several wise and passionate. A few show his least likeable side. Alas one such was chosen - not by him - for a notable Oxford anthology, but the lightest are very funny. The best should be gathered into a fine posthumous collection.
"My next book," a book of poems, he said in an interview with The Dark Horse magazine in 2002,
is called North Kelvin, after this very agreeable district where I live. The epigraph comes from Stevens: "Death is the mother of beauty." I don't think I've got 10 more years, I may have five, probably less; but I'll tell you this, a feeling that the tumbril is approaching makes one very well aware of one's immediate whereabouts.
Alasdair GrayReuse content