OBITUARIES : Sir John Waller Bt

Oasis: the Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces was launched in August 1943 in the Cairo Turf Club with half-pint tumblers filled with 90 per cent gin and 10 per cent tonic water. The hand that poured it, and topped it, wrote the lyrical verse of genius that would later win the Keats and Greenwood prizes. John Waller's hand was rarely far away from a glass. In just over a decade it dried the poetry.

The Oasis launch was my first encounter with Waller. The man I saw was immaculate - Sam Browne gleaming, shorts pressed, socks correct. Clearly Captain Waller had a good batman.

Waller was a co-founder of the Salamander Society of poets and writers, along with Keith Bullen, headmaster, and John Cromer Braun, intelligence officer. The society had rescued our poetry when we had been posted to all points in the Middle East and published it in a 5,000-copy edition - which, incidentally, sold out in six weeks.

I recall little of that launch. My tumbler could not empty. I could only think that in two hours' time I was to escort a senior ATS officer to a camp two hours' drive away. John Waller drank. But, more, he was generous, so generous he blew an inheritance, helped those who then conned him and mercilessly robbed him.

John Cromer Braun always felt that Waller never left his Oxford undergraduate days behind - especially the parties - when he served in the Middle East. I would add that, in 50 years since, John still lived in Cairo and its wartime freedoms. The Middle East of the Second World War - paradise for eccentrics - was tailor-made for him. Historians, relying on documents, can convey little of the spirit and lan, that sense of freedom of the wartime Middle East. One had to have been there. Three months by boat from home, out of War Office reach, the Army wrote its own rule-book in an empty desert. This freedom of the desert was matched in the Cairo base. In a near peacetime setting, with the privileges of an occupying power, the Services, allied to civilian writers - Terence Tiller, Bernard Spencer, Lawrence Durrell et al - created the cultural centre of the Second World War outside Britain. The War Office in its wisdom posted writers to the myriad of ME intelligence agencies. They set up literary service clubs, founded magazines to which John Waller contributed.

Waller's poetic output was only limited by his prose, of which he had to write more when posted to the Ministry of Information. There he recruited as assistant the most unlikely sergeant-major ever, the poet G.S. Fraser. The Army must have felt better when Captain Waller, Royal Army Service Corps, joined the MOI. His greatest military achievement - as he often told - was to lose a convoy of 23 trucks between Port Tewfiq, at the southern end of the Suez canal, and Cairo. This ultimate destination varied in the retelling.

The early post-war years saw John Waller at his literary peak. The Merry Ghosts, Crusade, The Kiss of Stars - the latter in 1953 so well reviewed. He edited books. He became Information Officer in the Overseas Press Division of the COI. But haunting him was an ambition to set himself in Cairo. One day he would make an even greater fortune than his Cavalier poet ancestor Edmund Waller. John Waller's inherited income went; business ventures thrived and failed. Sadly it ended his writing - aside from a diary he kept.

In 1976 Waller joined us in setting up the Salamander Oasis Trust - all Middle East poets. Originally our intent was just to reprint Oasis. It cried out for a reprint. But then John asked a pertinent question. Where were the hundreds - thousands - of manuscripts we did not use in the Middle East, because of space? Paper was rationed. Could we see them - select and publish? Many at the time had been returned by army post - efficient and free. Others, I regretted, had been in a box lost between Alexandria and Taranto. So we began our appeals for poetry through the BBC and the press that drew thousands of manuscripts over the years, from all theatres of war, leading to four anthologies and soon five.

Before he moved to the Sussex coast, John Waller lived in Isleworth, where I conferred with him on our first anthology. It was an old house. It smelt old. A picture in oils of an ancestor General Waller looked into space. Unlike the last Waller baronet, the general would have preferred a parade-ground. Could the general have known that by an odd quirk - different Waller branches failing to produce a male heir - the baronetcy would pass to the son of Captain Stanier Waller, who died of wounds from the First World War leaving his son to be brought up by his widow, Alice - a barmaid before she married. His mother dominated John's early years and influenced his life throughout. For John also would not produce an heir - let alone a male heir. A failed marriage. He had other preferences.

John Waller somehow held on for his last years, looked after by his devoted carer, Robby, and his sister Elizabeth at their Ventnor home. He did not die in a bar but in bed, peacefully, the parties of Cairo left far behind.

A wasted talent? My answer must be yes. Maybe the clue to his life came in his long poem at Oxford in 1941, where he founded his magazine Kingdom Come. It is in the title, "Confessions of Peter Pan". It ends:

To live as for love

Carry the thunder of raging youth

Hopeful to the new building.

Live as for love.

Victor Selwyn

John Stanier Waller, writer, poet, journalist: born Oxford 27 July 1917; Greenwood Award for Poetry 1947; FRSL 1948; succeeded 1954 as seventh Baronet; Keats Prize 1974; married 1974 Anne Eileen Mileham (marriage dissolved); died Ventnor, Isle of Wight 22 January 1995.

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