Captain Moonlight: Rained off at Faber

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WELCOME to Poets' Corner. First up, Craig Raine, Fellow of New College, Oxford, founder of the Martian school of exotic metaphor (from his A Martian Sends A Postcard Home) and, for 10 years, poetry editor at Faber & Faber, whose acclaimed list includes such titans of the metre game as Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

F & F nurtured, employed and published Raine, including his prose collection, Haydn and the Valve Trumpet (unkindly referred to by some as Blowing Your Own Trumpet). His leading protege, Christopher Reid, is now poetry editor there. Not unnaturally, then, F & F rather expected to be publishing his latest work, History, The Home Movie, an epic novel in verse.

But now, I hear, this will not be the case. Sensitive rhymers should read no further: I am about to talk money. For Raine and History have been lured to Viking Penguin for a fee not unadjacent to pounds 60,000. There is New Yorker serialisation and Booker Prize talk; there is also much tutting and fluttering about loyalty and gratitude.

'Loyalty comes under a bit of strain where money is involved,' says Matthew Evans, F & F chairman. 'I could be quite nasty about it, but there's no point because he's a friend.' Anyway, Evans went on to confide, Raine had always been a bit uneasy at F & F, surrounded by 'megastars' such as Heaney and Hughes. Ooof. Roughhouse in Bloomsbury.

Next, another F & F man, Sir Stephen Spender, 85 tomorrow. A difficult man to get the measure of, Sir Stephen, as various profiles have and will make clear. There is the affection the British always bestow on a good innings, and relief that his new collection of poetry, Dolphins, has in it as good as he has ever done. There is, too, the usual hesitancy about what exactly it is that he has done, particularly since 1939. If it is not now fashionable to sneer at his poetry, it is not quite done to acclaim it.

This fuzziness, as Ian Hamilton points out in the current New Yorker, has a lot to do with there being two Sir Stephens: the clumsily charming holy fool taken up by Auden; and the ambitious, energetic fellow who has ensured the survival of both. When I interviewed him for his 75th, he gave me a copy of The Generous Days, crossing out an infelicitous couplet with a pencil as he did so.

In my piece, I quoted Evelyn Waugh's famous remark that watching Spender fumbling with our rich and delicate language was to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee. Spender wrote to thank me and praise the use of the quote, promising to make a big effort to write less like a chimp in the future. I still feel guilty, which he may, or may not, have intended. Happy birthday.

(Photograph omitted)