Obituary: Hugh Gordon Porteus
Wednesday 17 February 1993
HUGH GORDON PORTEUS was a genial, quirky, gifted, enigmatic man.
I saw a lot of him in the late 1950s and during the first half of the 1960s, when I was a BBC radio producer and then literary editor of the Listener. Porteus was for a time part of that clientele vaguely aligned towards Features Department, and therefore to be found in such pubs as the Stag and the George, handy for Broadcasting House. I think it was because he had written a radio programme Dog River for my colleague Terence Tiller that I first met him, and encouraged him to embark on translations of some of his favourite Chinese poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, to be broadcast on the Third Programme.
Porteus had taught himself Chinese before the war and perfected it as a member of the wartime Chinese Service (when he came to know William Empson). His calligraphy was particularly fine. But his best gift was to have found an idiom and a style for translating Chinese poetry which was utterly different from the gentle, ironical, wistful manner which Arthur Waley had made seem the only voice for this material. Porteus's translations, of which unfortunately very few have been published, were much more spiky, brilliant, intense.
In the 1930s he had been a precocious dnd prolific literary journalist, contributing reviews and surveys of current periodicals to TS Eliot's Criterion throughout the decade, publishing the first full-length book on Wyndham Lewis in his mid-twenties, and a book on Chinese art a little later. During the war he served for a time in Cairo, contributing to Personal Landscape and becoming a close friend of Lawrence Durrell. His writings, chiefly on poetry, were frequent for over a decade, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, in a variety of journals, from Poetry London to the New English Weekly. His approach was scholarly but not stuffy, amusing and amused, and quite unafraid of received assessments.
By the time I got to know him, in 1958, he had become less active, and rather ruefully cast himself in the role of back-number, though he was still only in his early fifties. The programme on Chinese poetry which he did for me seemed to give him a bit of a fillip; and, when I joined the Listener in 1962, I thought it a good idea to use him for a time as the journal's art critic, he and I having spent several pre- or post-lunchtimes enjoyably exploring the West End galleries. He took to this very well, bringing flair and wit to his fortnightly pieces. He also did a great deal of book-reviewing for me, everything from Ezra Pound (another of his enthusiasms, though a tempered one) to Oriental shamanism.
He had been married but his wife had left him for another woman and Hugh lived for a longish time in shabby but at the same time rather splendid bachelorhood in a block of flats just off Sloane Square in Chelsea. As the years went by, his habitual geniality seemed more often inflamed with some sort of conspiracy notion, direct against himself; thus my joining the New Statesman as literary editor in 1968 was somehow a left-wing plot, just as later joining Encounter was a right-wing one. His political affiliations, attitudes and sentiments, which seemed both rigid and capricious, were often hard to fathom.
Later, he took himself off to Cheltenham, where he had a small house, and seemed to go out of circulation again. I missed his very funny, elaborate letters, almost always written in an elegantly decorative style close to his notable Chinese calligraphy. I had often urged him to write his memoirs (so much about Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Durrell, Dylan Thomas and many others) and to collect together his translations of Chinese poems. But he did neither. He remains in bound volumes of periodicals, in footnotes and indexes. Those who knew him will remember a rather hearty, ruddy-faced, almost tweedy man, with a slightly barking voice (a bit like a long-ago regular officer), who could be an entertaining, sometimes absorbing companion.
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