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He then added two tantalising personal revelations about Eliot’s wives: “Eliot’s devotion turned gradually to hatred when he found Vivian (as he told my wife and myself at a dinner in our Pimlico attic) head covered with a satin cloth, after midnight, sniffing ether from a bowl. V. also paraded with [Oswald] Mosley in a black uniform.” After Valerie Eliot had visited Lewis’s widow Froanna in Torquay, “ambiguities in Froanna’s letters led me to believe that Eliot’s widow (Mark 2) was on the point of marrying Fred Tomlin!,” a distinguished British Council official and disciple of Lewis.

Signing his letters to Durrell “The Wombat”, Porteus, who had been digging latrines in the Egyptian desert, “was chagrined not to have found any artifacts” and turned his disappointment into verse: “O to toil in Tibet / Where there are no toilets yet.” He enthusiastically reviewed Durrell’s novel The Black Book in 1938 and his poems Cities, Plains and People in 1949. When the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet appeared in 1957, he encouraged Durrell by measuring him against the gold standard and stating, “You are now doing the best writing since the heyday of poor old Wyndham, and nothing should be allowed to stop the rich heady flow.” Durrell gratefully recorded that, apart from Eliot and one other friend, Porteus “was the person whose spirit and sensibility he admired most”.

Porteus also offered some intriguing revelations about Orwell. Lewis’s follower, the colourful poet Roy Campbell, falsely boasted that during the Spanish Civil War Orwell “had his vocal chords severed by a bullet from Roy’s rifle on the Franco side”. When I asked Porteus if he was the model for a similarly named character in Orwell’s novel of 1939, he replied, using Orwell’s real first name, “Certainly Orwell’s ‘Porteous’ in Coming Up for Air was based on Eric’s co-tenant Rayner Heppenstall’s view of me at that time — conflated with Eric’s Etonian contemporary, the Byzantinist Sir Steven Runciman.”

In January 1947, when Porteus listened to the radio broadcast of Animal Farm in Orwell’s flat, the author appreciatively wrote that Porteus, “who had not read the book, grasped what was happening after a few minutes”. Orwell also recommended Porteus to David Astor, the owner and subsequently editor of the Observer: “He was before the war a very interesting critical writer with some rather unusual specialised knowledge, such as, being able to read Chinese.”

Another provocative bit of misinformation (similar to Derek Stanford’s libel of Geoffrey Grigson) was disseminated when Orwell, absurdly misled when many writers were changing political sides, declared in the summer 1946 Partisan Review: “Wyndham Lewis, I am credibly informed, has become a Communist or at least a strong sympathiser, and is writing a book in praise of Stalin to balance his previous books in favour of Hitler.” (Only Lewis’s first book praised Hitler; his second book was a generally unrecognised recantation.) According to Porteus, the wild rumour that Lewis had become a Communist originated when Lewis said — as a joke — to the gossipy Roy Campbell, “Tell them I’ve changed my views and am now writing a book about Stalin.” Campbell repeated this in all seriousness to Porteus, who passed it on to Orwell. Delighted with this sensational news, Orwell did not check his source, published it in the prestigious American journal and damaged Lewis’s reputation as well as his own.

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