Obituary: Walter Allen

Christopher Hawtree
Thursday 02 March 1995 00:02 GMT

Even now somebody is writing another tribute to Walter Allen, unaware that he has died and perhaps with only the vaguest idea who he was. Best known for a Penguin paperback, The English Novel (1954), he became used to - and bemused by - arriving at another foreign institution and told by the welcoming official, "I've just been reading The English Novel - in a student's essay."

Such plagiarism is not to be entirely deplored. Walter Allen's enthusiasm for novels was one that revelled in their diversity; he never sought to reduce them to the Novel. "There was a continuity in what I was doing: reading novels old and new and trying to write them as well, I was conscious that I was tracing a tapestry still being woven."

He feared that he belonged to a dying breed, the man of letters. Ten years V.S. Pritchett's junior, he was brought up in Birmingham, the son of a silversmith's engraver whose passion for culture included such weeklies as the New Statesman: "papers to which, it seems to me, I owe as much as I do to my formal education", recalled Allen, who, true to Statesman tradition, subjected it to banter in his second novel, Blind Man's Ditch (1939).

"Even in the Thirties, if a young English writer had a university education, you more or less had to assume that the university was either Oxford or Cambridge," he recalled, although the figure of D.H. Lawrence stood above them all, Oxbridge or otherwise. In the Birmingham City Public Library, "the very look of the books, those dark-brown squarish Secker volumes, intrigued me. I would pull one out, peep inside it, read a page or two and put it back, as though consciously deferring the excitement I sensed in it. The Rainbow I came across in the most improbable place, a tiny commercial circulating library dedicated to women's romantic fiction housed in a shop near where we lived that sold knitting wool. I took it out as quickly as I could, furtively, rather as though buying a packet of contraceptives."

Sensing that it was forbidden stuff, he kept the author a secret until undergraduate years. Failure to get into Oxford (he had scarcely been taught half that was necessary) prejudiced him against the place - as he was the first to admit.

The ignominy that he sensed in the attempt - sized up straightaway by that astute figure, the scout - reappeared, directly transcribed, a decade later in his first published novel, Innocence is Drowned (1938). The earlier, unpublished Tomorrow is Another Day rehearses such themes but lacks the narrative control and unobtrusive symbolism which he soon acquired. This owed less to the English department at Birmingham University (under Ernest de Selincourt) than to others there, such as an assistant lecturer in Classics, Louis MacNeice.

Perhaps most important was a number of writers outside it who became known as the "Birmingham Group". They were not known to one another at first, but had been published in various magazines and anthologies edited by an American enthusiast for the short story, Edward O'Brien. He noticed that he had been printing a number of Midlands authors and, with a shaky grasp of English geography, assumed that they must all be acquainted. This, as a result, became the case. For some while they met weekly in a pub off Corporation Street.

Much the best-known was John Hampson, who had led a varied life on both sides of the law and was now in charge of the mongol son of a wealthy family, which work gave him time to write: Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931) had been one of the Hogarth Press's biggest sellers. Walter Brierley's Means Test Man (1935) is a harrowing indictment of the unemployment system, while the motor-cyclist Peter Chamberlain was praised by Waugh for his fiction, and Leslie Halward's stories of working-class life have yet to be fully appreciated: they deserve that overworked adjective, Chekhovian.

Except for Allen, none of them was able to adapt to the changing post- war world. His fiction, however, drew on the past in a way that did not prevent experiment and development within a traditional structure. The bombing of Paternoster Row destroyed most copies of Blind Man's Ditch, a sort of thriller which owes much to Graham Greene, and Dead Man Over All (1950) has yet to be appreciated as one of the most convincing attempts to come to grips with industrial life.

Allen's workload in the Fifties was tremendous. Not only was there The English Novel but unceasing journalism, teaching, broadcasting and - most importantly - his best novel, All in a Lifetime (1959), which explores something of his father's character. Whether it was this struggle with the past or pressure of other work, Allen stopped the writing of fiction that he thought a man's most important task. The man of letters continued non-stop, and it was a terrible blow in the mid-Seventies to be laid low by a stroke which ever after confined him to his Islington home in the care of his devoted wife, Peggy, whom he had married within three weeks of their meeting in 1944.

Under her care he was able to resume writing: a history of the short story and some "Memories of a Writing Life" modestly and perhaps romantically titled As I Walked Down New Grub Street (1981). A source-book for innumerable biographers, it is a spirited series of reminiscences, its eye as sharply amusing as he was in conversation, bringing to life the great and those who simply milled around the fringes. He and Louis MacNeice vied for the literary rights in John Hampson's marriage of convenience to Thrse Ghiese, the Berlin cabaret artist whose friend Erika Mann had been similarly rescued by Auden, who was now in charge of this ceremony: summary cannot do justice to the comedy of Walter Allen's account of such things as the mutual inability to speak the language and Auden's being prevented from playing piano in the pub afterwards because a corpse was laid out on the billiard table.

Two further novels followed and, if they did not match the earlier ones, they do not demean a life in which concern for the written word was paramount but never to the exclusion of the subject matter itself.

Christopher Hawtree

Walter Ernest Allen, writer, literary journalist: born Birmingham 23 February 1911; Assistant Literary Editor, New Statesman 1959-60, Literary Editor 1960-61; Visiting Professor of English, Vassar College, New York 1963-64, University of Kansas 1967, University of Washington 1967; Professor of English, New University of Ulster 1967-73; Berg Professor of English, New York University 1970-71; Visiting Professor of English, Dalhousie University 1973-74; C.P. Miles Professor of English, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University 1974-75; married 1944 Peggy Joy (two sons, two daughters); died London 28 February 1995.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in