You are here:   Civilisation >  Critique > The Devoted Disciple Of Wyndham Lewis
Porteus started school at St Cuthbert’s College in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, in 1914, and also attended Reading School, boarded in Huddersfield and studied at Huddersfield Art School. He travelled to France and Italy in 1927 to paint, but got distracted and painted very little. He met his first literary friend, the English Surrealist David Gascoyne, in the late 1920s.

Porteus went to a school for wireless operators in 1928, but got stuck on Morse Code and earned only a second-class certificate, which later proved quite useful. He then got a job in advertising, had the Bird’s Custard account and invented the catchy slogan “Cheep, Cheap.” He also wrote 200 limericks, some dirty, for Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. He worked at Odhams Press, which owned the Daily Herald, whose literary page was run by John Betjeman. He first read Lewis’s works and met him in the late 1920s, and began regular reviewing for the New English Weekly and Time and Tide in the 1930s.

After joining Imperial Airways (later BOAC) and drawing route maps, he left secret papers in an unlocked desk and — through his association with Lewis, the author of Hitler — was suspected of being a Nazi spy. He was one of seven founding members of the utopian, fuzzy-minded Promethean Society, which advocated eclectic politics, faith in science and pacifism. From 1931 to 1933 he edited and contributed to their short-lived journal Twentieth Century, and published Trotsky and Havelock Ellis, Lewis, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender.

Enlisting in the RAF as a private in 1940, he worked mainly as a wireless operator in the Middle East and learned some Arabic. He wrote, “During the war we were Signallers — Roy Fuller in the Royal Navy in West Africa, I in an R.N. ‘Stone Frigate’ [a naval establishment on land] — (part of a fascinating spell with the RAF in the M.E ., in small units from the Euphrates to Aleppo and Ankara) — in Ras Beirut,” an upscale neighbourhood in that city. He added, with a gruesome detail, “I was in a hush-hush Signals unit — Sinai, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Syria (and Turkey with the Egyptologist Walter Bryan Emery) . . . I planted secret radios on the banks of the Euphrates; meeting only occasional snipers, all caught and publicly hanged in Aleppo.”

He’d met his Jewish wife, Zenka Bartek, in 1929 and lived with her in an attic in Pimlico until 1944. She had always been a lesbian, and he found her with a girl when he returned home unexpectedly during the war. But, he said, “the decade of my life with her before we married was normal and (as agreed between us) perfect. She wrote to me when I was at the Tel Aviv airport to say — but not why — that she’d decided to leave me. I had a 2- or 3-day blackout at this news.” Zenka became a potter in the Maritime Alps.

Durrell had bluntly said that Zenka was ugly, and the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson had some sharp words about her in his Recollections: “Lewis had never met her and never wanted to meet her — admittedly she was an ugly, rather bug-like little body, her dress and look conveyed rather a hint of lesbianism . . . The little bug-like person chattered on about Spain, in a way all too knowing and too trivial. Lewis treated her with his usual fine courtesy, slightly exaggerated.”

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.