BOOKS / Great Brain Spotter: The list of past members of Philip Hobsbaum's writing classes reads like a Who's Who of modern literature. How has he managed it?

Neal Ascherson
Sunday 28 February 1993 00:02 GMT

IF YOU peer long enough into the background of living writers - English, Irish, Scottish - you will often come across the same bearded face. When Jeff Torrington won the Whitbread Prize with his novel Swing Hammer Swing], there was the usual amazement that a working-class man from Glasgow had actually written an 'acclaimed' piece of fiction. A few people, better informed, discovered that Torrington had once taken part in Philip Hobsbaum's creative writing group in Glasgow. So that was it - Philip Hobsbaum, cultural missionary, had taught him to write . . .

But that is exactly what Hobsbaum does not do with writers. His portrait, hung in a place of honour or stowed away in a cupboard, belongs in the mental furniture of Seamus Heaney, Michael and Edna Longley, Peter Redgrove, Peter Porter, the late George MacBeth, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Alasdair Gray, to name only some of the names. But he did not 'teach them to write', although he is in fact a remarkable, unforgettable teacher when teaching is required of him. His main contribution to literature has been more like the contribution of ringmaster to circus or trainer to racehorse.

Most of his poetry came out in the late Sixties or early Seventies: powerful, first-person laments and curses and prayers whose impact has not faded. Coming Out Fighting, a cycle of love poems around one young woman, is unfairly remembered for the line 'Truth lies between your legs, and so do I' - a perfect example of a style which the next poetic generation rejected, but falsely giving the impression of Hobsbaum as a mere show-off. He is much more rude and versatile than that: 'When I come on earth again I want to be /A camelephantelopelicanary./ I'd fit in anywhere.' He is also a literary critic, and his A Theory of Communication has been violently debated. But it is the creative writing group which he has raised to something like his own personal art form. He has brought writers together and exposed them to one another's wits. And he has done so with writers at an early stage in their development, already working and formed but (as one put it) with 'the wax still malleable'.

Now he is 60 years old, a Professor in the English department at Glasgow University since 1985. His last creative writing group ended in 1975, but when his groups were active Hobsbaum made no compromises about the way he ran them. Edna Longley, who came from Dublin to Belfast in the early 1960s and joined his creative writing group there, says: 'It was very intimidating, run like a seminar in an autocratic way, which created a sense of occasion - and a sense of controversy.' The rules in Belfast and Glasgow were as they had been earlier in Cambridge and London. As Hobsbaum puts it: 'I am the chairman, notthe leader. It happens in my house, and I choose who comes along. I don't let in people with no talent, but I have to have an instinctive hunch about people. From 1952 onwards, scripts had to be typed out or duplicated and given to group members well before the meeting at which they were to be read out.'

Philip Hobsbaum was born into a Jewish family in Bradford (the historian Eric is a

cousin), and went to Bellevue Grammar School. Talent-spotted by a teacher, Ronald Bradshaw, who fished him out of boredom in the C-stream, he began to write and to act - 'hypnotised by the theatre', he might easily have been an actor. Then he won an exhibition to Downing College, Cambridge, and there became a pupil of F R Leavis. Hobsbaum insists that Leavis was not intimidating: 'I found him very open-minded. It was like being taught by Coleridge or Dr Johnson.' But Leavis and his books influenced him deeply: 'I felt then as I feel now, that literacy is under threat. And only Leavis was voicing that.' Hobsbaum has been a member of the Labour Party for 42 years, and his early hero was Aneurin Bevan, but 'I think of myself as a socialist who votes Labour with increasing depression.' He has also admired the late Scottish revolutionary Harry McShane, Dennis Skinner MP - and his own prize pupil, Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone was a squeaky-voiced 11-year-old when Hobsbaum met him at Tulse Hill Comprehensive, south London, in 1956. Hobsbaum had already dealt with a terrifying dead-end class by making them sit with their hands on their heads, like surrendered Nazis ('because of my acting I could exude terror, like Donald Wolfit did'). It was in a less savage class that he met Ken Livingstone and evidently changed his life. Livingstone remarks that if Hobsbaum hadn't left Tulse Hill, 'I would probably have stayed on for higher education and gone straight on to being a really boring Labour MP.'

The first creative writing group had already happened, in Cambridge. It was followed in 1955 by a London one, all poets. Journalists called them 'The Group', although nothing much yoked together the diversity of, among others, Peter Porter, Martin Bell, Alan Brownjohn, Peter Redgrove, George MacBeth and Edward Lucie-Smith. They met at Hobsbaum's place in Stockwell. Writing in British Poetry since 1960 (1972), Roger Garfitt defended them against accusations of metropolitan arrogance brought by non-Group poets: 'It seemed to provincial poets that a junta had captured the radio station and imposed control on the literary journals.' But its most fruitful reality was 'that it became a group of friends who influenced each other'.

Hobsbaum left London in 1959 for Sheffield, where William Empson, then Professor, offered him room to do a PhD. Some poverty-stricken years ensued until Hobsbaum's house in Sheffield blew down in a gale. He then made his way to Queen's University, Belfast, as a lecturer in English. It was 1962. The Troubles had not yet begun, and restive Protestant intellectuals from the North were escaping to find a bigger world at Trinity College, Dublin. But some returned to Belfast and were co-opted into the writers' group, where there was tension between their high Yeatsian sense of poetry and what seemed to them the 'philistine' attention to detail and data which Hobsbaum brought from England. Some, like Seamus Heaney, came from the Catholic-Republican cultural tradition in the North and, although these were relatively unpolitical times, the group's transgression of the sectarian boundary made informal meetings and friendships among its members all the more intense.

Most had published already, but - as Edna Longley remarks - 'it was important in cities like Belfast and Glasgow, where there can be cultural cringe before Dublin or London, that this man had come from England'. Derek Mahon called Hobsbaum 'a good-hearted ruffian'. Seamus Heaney wrote, more than 10 years after, that 'he was impatient, dogmatic, relentlessly literary: yet he was patient with those he trusted, unpredictably susceptible to a wide variety of poems and personalities . . . If he drove some people mad with his absolutes and hurt others with his overbearingness, he confirmed as many with his enthusiasms.'

Hobsbaum moved to Glasgow in 1966 where, as he says, he was 'stampeded too early' by the playwright Stephen Mulrine into starting a group. He found the writing - plays and prose as well as verse - 'polished without much content', until Tom Leonard broke into a new authenticity with his Six Glasgow Poems. This group lapsed after only two years, when its leading members drifted out of Scotland. But Hobsbaum was then persuaded to start a University Extra-Mural class in creative writing, which opened in 1969 with no fewer than 75 students, and he was able to take from it the members for 'Glasgow Group Mark II', which ran from 1972 to 1975. James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Jeff Torrington were recruited in that way; writers who taught the extra-mural class also joined, including the American poet Anne Stevenson, who was to be Hobsbaum's partner for several years. Aonghas MacNeacail came, writing in English and Gaelic, and Alasdair Gray read to the group early drafts of his novel Lanark.

In a sense, it is all history now. Philip Hobsbaum 'terminated' the Glasgow group, the last and most various and (in his view) best of the lot, because he says 'amateurs' from his public evening classes were beginning to drive out 'professionals': 'I had recruited from the class not only young professionals, like Kelman and Lochhead, but a number of gifted amateurs; and beyond a certain point the amateur, however gifted, is not likely to grow.' Hobsbaum 'graduates' in Belfast and Glasgow subsequently set up their own creative writing groups, and some are now read and honoured across the world. Jeff Torrington, whose novel was written so slowly and against such painful difficulties, is in fact a late arrival from the 1970s; Hobsbaum, in his Glasgow office, opens a box-file and shows (among first poems by Liz Lochhead and early typescripts of Lanark) manuscript sheets of Swing Hammer Swing] which have yellowed with age since they were first read and debated in his flat overlooking the River Kelvin.

Hobsbaum is an endearing and not particularly modest figure. His eyes twinkle, his beard is majestic and rabbinical and, like Leavis, he enjoys displaying himself as a thorn in the flesh of his department: 'I see all my pupils individually, and some of my colleagues don't like that.' It would be easy for him to swagger as the Great Teacher, to whom a whole generation of writers owes its standards. But he would never do this. Seamus Heaney has referred to his exhilarating freedom from jealousy, his disinterested appetite for work.

He is proud of the extraordinary things which began to happen from those comings- together in four different cities. But he is haunted, too, by talents wasted as well as found. He worries about three other bright boys in Ken Livingstone's class, about two young men in the Belfast group whose traces he has lost: 'They wrote little masterpieces. But where are they now, with all their spark? What happened to them? So much talent, so little opportunity.'

(Photograph omitted)

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