BOOK REVIEW / Ingrained habits and invented music: 'Hindsights: An Autobiography' - John Heath-Stubbs: Hodder & Stoughton, 25 pounds

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The Independent Online
IF EVER there was a poet who impressed himself on his time by dint of monumental presence as much as by literary prowess it has been John Heath- Stubbs, the lantern-jawed giant whose person - Homeric in its stature and in its sightlessness too - has galvanised Bohemian gatherings these many decades. Recalling their Oxford student days together, Heath-Stubbs's friend and fellow-poet David Wright wrote of a 'lanky, almost disarticulated figure flitting along the pavements of the High like a heron or a flamingo about to take wing . . . an immense storehouse of information on matters vegetable, animal, and mineral'.

In later years he was termed a 'Johnsonian presence with a Miltonic disability'. He must have shaken the famous unflappability of the Queen herself when he towered up over her to receive his OBE. She asked him if he was still writing poetry. 'It becomes an ingrained habit, Ma'am,' he replied, and as he reports in his autobiography, 'she was observed to smile'.

Hindsights, recounting the author's life from his birth 75 years ago through his ordeal of total blindness after 1978, eschews any intimate self-revelations in favour of relating his career adventures as student, writer and teacher in Britain, America and Egypt. The book is hardly blessed with the delicate artistry of his verse, where erudition and benignity are blended with wit and a playful sense of modern vernaculars; the whole rendered with tautness and concision. By contrast, the prose book is surprisingly slack and flat, faltering on occasion into a banality unworthy of this fastidious wordsmith.

Not that even the best of his poems have the force associated with the modernist masters preceding Heath-Stubbs's generation. At his angriest over present-day folly - as in the lament for 'sweetapple earth' which provides the title for his latest verse collection (Carcanet, pounds 7.95) - he falls short of, or avoids, savage indignation. Indeed, the poems suffer from a dearth of what Pound called 'voltage'. But they can be moving, whereas Hindsights conveys something less than a steady sense of the involvement Heath-Stubbs must have felt with the turbulent world he lived in. His account of wartime Oxford, highlighted for him by friendships with the doomed poets Sidney Keyes and Drummond Allison, is curiously remote from the cataclysm then unfolding beyond the Cherwell.

Yet the turbulence of the times does impose itself on the chapter dealing with the poet's stint as a university professor in Alexandria during the Fifties. The Suez War, which he abhorred, meant police harassment, but this did not stop him being bewitched by the exotic melting pot shortly to be celebrated by Lawrence Durrell.

Heath-Stubbs is, though, cuttingly critical of The Alexandria Quartet. And a defiantly civilised voice resonates through his aspersions on the prominence given to 20th-century writing in Western universities. 'I have considerable doubts whether the teaching of contemporary literature in universities is a good idea at all'.

Coolly delineating the impact of blindness, he sets out his own experience, and explanation of 'blind sight'. But in recounting life in that post-war playground of the highbrows, Soho, he deals excessively in already-familiar lore.

The book teems with literary stars who have been associates of Heath-Stubbs down the decades, from George Barker to T S Eliot and beyond. None of these friendships has more piquancy than that with David Wright, whose deafness matches the affliction Heath- Stubbs so stoically describes here. But, as with so much else in Hindsights, it is to the poetry we must look for the full poignancy of this link, the deaf man and his blind comrade forging on 'till all the silence suddenly is ringing / With new invented music, the darkness thronged / With forms concealed in their own radiance'.