To me, it will always be August underneath your arms

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The Independent Online
I ONCE went to a lecture by WH Auden at Oxford University, on the grounds that if I didn't go to see him now, I would never see him at all.

(Which reminds me of the very elderly American I was introduced to some years ago, who had grown up in New York before the First World War, when New York was rather different and you could walk down the middle of Fifth Avenue without too much danger of traffic, or so he said. 'I used to play with the Roosevelt children,' he told me, though I'm not sure which Roosevelt children that would be. 'Mark Twain was still alive in those days. Indeed, once I passed Mark Twain in the street when I was still a little boy. It was while my mother and I were walking down Fifth Avenue. She bent over to me and said, 'Don't look now, but here comes Mark Twain'. And I didn't look and I never saw Mark Twain'.)

So, not only have I met a man who didn't see Mark Twain, but I have seen WH Auden in the flesh. Of course, it was a long way off, as he was delivering his lecture on poetry on the stage of, I think, the Playhouse, and I was right at the back of the stalls, but I can still distinctly remember one thing he said, which was in more or less the following words:

'We must not make the mistake of thinking that poetry is only found in the work of poets. You can find it everywhere where words are creatively used. You can find it in a lot of advertising. Never underestimate advertisers. One of the most impressive lines of poetry I have ever come across was contained in an ad for a deodorant. This was the line: 'It's always August underneath your arms . . .'.'

It's always August underneath your arms. Strange how these things stick with you. It seems odd to me now that when you mention the name Auden, I think immediately of a line he never wrote.

It is even odder that I once heard a man on the radio who had had the same sort of experience. He popped up on a wonderful Radio 4 series called something like Britannia - the Movie, when they were discussing Night Mail, the Thirties Post Office film for which Auden wrote the verse soundtrack. This bloke had actually worked on the film and could remember with awe to this day the ease with which Auden wrote extra lines on demand to fill up bits in the commentary.

'We used to go to him and say, we need another couple of lines for the bit going through Scotland or Shap Fell or whatever,' he said, 'and he would just do them. He'd do lots of lines which they'd throw away and never use in the film. I couldn't get over that. Lovely WH Auden lines, just going in the dustbin.

'I can even remember one of them more than 50 years later. It was when he was asked to do a description of the Lake District, or at least of those hills you go through on the line up to Shap, those very smooth, enormous green hillsides, and he wrote down immediately, 'The hills on either side, like piles of slaughtered horses'. . . I always thought that was a wonderful description of the flanks of those hills .'

It's odd, the way these lines stick with us. There's a little cupboard in my mind full of them, full of 'Don't look now but here comes Mark Twain' and 'It's always August underneath your arms'. The other day Russell Baker in the Herald Tribune was recalling Barry Goldwater running for election under the slogan 'In your heart you know he's right', and Baker said that the anti-Goldwater faction had changed it to 'In your heart you know he's nuts', and a warning light came on in my head. The cupboard door popped open and out came the correct version of what Russell Baker was remembering, which was 'In your guts you know he's nuts'.

Right alongside it is another quote from those days, the chant that anti-Vietnam War protesters used to chorus after getting as near to the White House as they could. It was: 'Hey, hey, LBJ] How many kids did you kill today?' It must have been a brilliantly chilling slogan, because it has stuck with me and to this day whenever someone says 'Hey, hey]', I find myself instinctively adding 'How many kids did you kill today?' and I get a lot of funny looks from people who are too young to know.

And I have now discovered that I am not the only one. The other day I was discussing with my son whether his mother had been right to tick him off angrily for something, and this six-year-old suddenly said: 'I think she's splendid when she's cross.'

As you can imagine, this stopped me in my tracks. I mentioned it to him again later, slightly admiringly. He said: 'Oh, that. I got that from The Railway Children.'

Know what that means? It means the disease is hereditary.