Humphrey Carpenter

Biographer who mapped the literary 20th century

Thursday 06 January 2005 01:00

Humphrey William Bouverie Carpenter, writer, broadcaster and musician: born Oxford 29 April 1946; general trainee, BBC 1968-70; staff producer, BBC Radio Oxford 1970-74; Programme Director, Cheltenham Festival of Literature 1994-96; married 1973 Mari Prichard (two daughters); died Oxford 4 January 2005.

Humphrey Carpenter was the master of the group biography. His best books were works of cultural history that yoked together the lives of a dozen or so literary figures, and examined how their lives intertwined and how their work shared certain themes and obsessions.

He wrote about the "lost generation" of American writers who gathered in Paris in the Twenties; the Brideshead collective of Waugh, Betjeman, Powell and their chums between the wars; the Inklings (a stolid gang of muscular Christians who gathered around Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in 1940s Oxford); the Angry Young Men of the Fifties; the television satirists of the Sixties. You felt he was mapping the literary century into which he was born, determined, like a society hostess running a weekend house party, to know where exactly everyone is, and what exactly they're all doing, at any one moment.

These books will remain invaluable records of literary history for future generations of readers, but they are not academic works. They are hugely enjoyable, and evidently written with huge enjoyment by a man who treasured gossip and "intrigue" (a favourite word) as much as he adored good writing and good music.

One could speculate why he should have devoted such time and energy, so much prodigious reading to these multiple lives. He himself believed that writers are better understood when considered in relation to each other. Like Hazlitt, he was a firm believer in the Zeitgeist, the spirit of an age. But the best explanation is the simplest: Humphrey, an only child who became the most clubbable of men, loved company, harmony, communion, the humming convivium of a party, the shared endeavour of musicians, the sight (and sound) of human beings working together.

With the single exception of Anthony Burgess, Carpenter was the hardest-working writer I ever met, knocking out biographies every year as if they were mere potboilers (as he sometimes described them, with his usual self- deprecation), turning out reviews for The Sunday Times and The Independent with faultless attention to deadline, judgement and choice of juicy detail, running book festivals and children's theatre groups, playing music with his jazz band, Vile Bodies.

However wild his multi-tasking became, I never heard him complain or seem stressed. Any low mutter of concern that he might be taking on too much would soon turn into his characteristic chuckle. At literary launch parties, he would listen entranced while book-circuit gossips told him of shocking developments at Random House, terrible reviews of the works of his rivals, sexual peccadilloes of clergymen and peers of the realm. Humphrey's eyes would blink faster and faster, his ant-eater nose would quiver and he would clutch his right elbow with his left hand, as if hugging the information. He seemed to want to clasp the world to his manly bosom, gleefully, greedily, to have as much going on simultaneously as one life could bear.

My favourite memory of him is at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, which he directed for three years in the mid-Nineties. I'd come to give a talk on Burgess, and I basked in the warmth of Humphrey's introduction and his seductive interview technique - then sat entranced in the audience at the Everyman Theatre later that evening, watching him swing through a musical tribute to Julian (Salad Days) Slade, declaiming, singing, thumping the piano like a pub entertainer, leaning back on his stool towards the audience, his face flushed, sweaty and ecstatic.

Humphrey Carpenter was born in Oxford in 1946 and lived there all his life, in Farndon Road. His father, Harry, was the Warden of Keble College, and later became Bishop of Oxford. His mother, Urith Trevelyan, had studied teaching under the Froebel method and never allowed her son the luxury of inactivity - something he took as a lesson for life.

Educated at the Dragon School, Marlborough and Keble College, where he read English, he got a trainee job at the BBC in 1968, aged 22. In two years, he'd become a producer at Radio Oxford, although he was a more natural presence at the microphone than the studio desk. For the next three decades, he was a regular on Radio 3 (especially Night Waves, which he presented from 1992), Radio 4 and the World Service.

At Radio Oxford he met and (in 1973) married Mari Prichard, the daughter of Caradog Prichard, the Welsh poet. They had two daughters, Clare and Kate, and were a conspicuously happy family. Humphrey and Mari together produced a literary anthology of writings on the River Thames (A Thames Companion) in 1975, and Humphrey's first solo book appeared two years later. It was a biography of his Oxford neighbour J.R.R. Tolkien, written when The Lord of the Rings had spawned a thousand student-hovel posters but not the global industry it enjoys today.

In an odd move, a year later, he recycled the Tolkien life to include the rest of the Inklings clique and chart their joint fortunes and their meetings in Magdalen College and the Eagle & Child pub; The Inklings won him the Somerset Maugham Award. His prize-winning life of W.H. Auden followed in 1981.

Then, when his daughters were becoming young readers, Carpenter took a six-year sabbatical from biography to concentrate on children's writing. His The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (1984), again co-edited with Mari, became a classic work, as did Secret Gardens (1985), his study of the "golden age" of Lear, Carroll, Milne, Hodgson Burnett and their contemporaries. He also began writing a series of books for children starring Mr Majeika, a schoolteacher whose former status as a wizard keeps disrupting his classes; it was a kind of prototypical Harry Potter, though on a much smaller scale.

The flow of biographies restarted - Geniuses Together: American writers in Paris in the 1920s (1987), A Serious Character: the life of Ezra Pound (1988), The Brideshead Generation (1989), Benjamin Britten (1992) - and were well-reviewed but not especially lucrative. When Carpenter hit the jackpot, it was in the middle of a storm of controversy. Robert Runcie - The Reluctant Archbishop, his biography of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, came out in 1996 and was denounced by its own subject.

Although Dr Runcie had approached Carpenter as a willing subject, had met him on 25 occasions and willingly talked into a tape-recorder for five years, he objected to certain "very private conversations" being made public - such as his fear that gay priests would "stab him in the back"; that he thought Diana, Princess of Wales "a scheming actress" and that he knew about the Prince of Wales's affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles before it was general knowledge.

Runcie was mortified and asked the author to shelve the book. He refused and was abused in the press as "an absolute rat". A.N. Wilson called him a man of "hyper-energy and personal dirtiness. . . in every sense a stinker". Carpenter, who made at least £100,000 from serial rights, was unrepentant. About the money he said, "I regard it as a little windfall in the middle of what has, frankly, been a very hardworking life."

More controversy followed with his 1998 life of Dennis Potter, the televison dramatist, which claimed that Potter had made use of prostitutes. The Potter family, not surprisingly, complained. Once again Carpenter was unrepentant. He'd been through worse with the families of Tolkien and Britten. He developed, in these later years, a carapace of indifference to the cavils of interested parties, arguing that the events of a life are the truth of a life, no matter how inconvenient. Unlike many biographers, he could be judgemental about his subjects. About Spike Milligan, his last biographee, he muttered to me, "Not a very nice man at all".

Humphrey Carpenter, on the other hand, was an extremely nice man, the kind of life-enhancing enthusiast at whom you extend your hands, as to a radiator. Shambolic but intensely focused, industrious but lighthearted, he never stopped finding details of human behaviour that amused him, then passing them on for the amusement of all. He humanised the reputations of all his subjects. And he saw the world of literature as a gigantic Valhalla, at which he wanted to be not just a participant, but the impresario at the head of the table, leading the toasts. This paragraph, from the foreword to Geniuses Together, offers a hint of his dreams:

"I went to a marvellous party," runs the first line of a Noel Coward song, and evidently that was how it felt to have been a young American writer - or would-be writer - in the Montparnasse district of Paris after the

First World War. It is hard to read about life in "the Quarter", as they all called Montparnasse, without wishing to have tasted it oneself - to have bumped into Ernest Hemingway in a bar, to have drunk away the night with Robert McAlmon, to have been caught up in the intrigues of the expatriates and participated in their long fiesta.

It was far from being the most productive "movement" in literary history; but to live in Paris is always a delight, and to live there when life seems full of possibilities and tomorrow you might turn out to be a genius - well, to quote another song, "Who could ask for anything more?"

John Walsh

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