Hugh Gordon Porteus was a minor but engaging figure in London’s pre-war bohemia
I do like to listen to people who have been sidelined. Once they begin to talk, they have things to tell you that you won’t be able to get from anywhere else.
W.G. Sebald, The Emergence of Memory
In 1978-79, while living in London and writing the life of Wyndham Lewis on a Guggenheim fellowship, I frequently saw and formed a close friendship with Lewis’s charming, congenial and feckless disciple, Hugh Gordon Porteus. Born in 1906, he was a valuable source of information. A minor but significant presence in literary London from the Thirties to the Sixties, he was delighted to be unearthed and freely reminisced about himself and all his eminent friends, from Lewis and T.S. Eliot to Lawrence Durrell and Dylan Thomas. He made a cameo appearance in all their biographies, but was never fully described. His obituary in the Independent of February 8, 1993, called him “a flamboyant figure in London’s bohemia”. Eight days later in that newspaper Anthony Thwaite described him as “a rather hearty, ruddy-faced, almost tweedy man, with a slightly barking voice”.
I dined with him in my rented flat in Hampstead and the flat off Sloane Square in Chelsea of his sweet and affectionate companion, Barbara Dunell. She had trained under Roger Fry at the Courtauld Institute, nursed during the war, worked for the Times Book Club, ran an art gallery on Mount Street in Mayfair and looked after Porteus when he was ill. When I visited his place in Cheltenham, the once fashionable Gloucestershire spa, I was rather shocked by his poverty and squalor. With the help of the authors Francis King and John Lehmann I wrote to the Royal Literary Fund and we secured a four-figure grant.
Porteus never threw out anything in print. His half-century of newspaper clippings was piled three feet high in what he called his tel (the Arabic word for hill), a chaotic but potentially promising elevation which was difficult to penetrate or excavate. Isolated, lonely and ill, he was keen to talk and correspond with someone intensely interested in his hero. His rambling letters were amusing and entertaining. But I learned more about Lewis from my liveliest and most indiscreet informant in our three formal and focused interviews.
Like Chaucer’s Sergeant of the Law, he always “seemed busier then he was”. Restless and on the move, he had many different jobs but never settled down to a successful career. Writing in the TLS of March 26, 1993 shortly after Porteus’s death, Julian Symons, who knew him in the Thirties when he imitated Lewis in dress and manner, called him secretive and paranoid, and simplistically attributed his disappearance from the reviews to “his inability to write to a required length”. But when I knew him 40 years later, he was open and outspoken, friendly and engaging — perhaps because I was much younger and was not a literary rival. I think he fell into undeserved obscurity because he never collected in a book his scattered art reviews, literary articles, poems and translations of Chinese poetry, and never composed (though he planned to write) a memoir. He wrote to me: “I’ve had £100 advance for an autobiography but — as one of my more realistic girlfriends coldly observed — who on earth wd. be interested enough to read it?” He was too easily discouraged. His military adventures in the Middle East and friendships with distinguished writers would have been of great interest.
Porteus was short and blue-eyed, impish and good-humoured, shabbily dressed in a dark shirt and hairy tie, and unusually animated for a man in his seventies. He was interested in my background, education, writing and teaching year in Japan, and measured his co-operation while he subtly probed to see if I would be hostile or sympathetic to Lewis. As I gained his confidence, he was willing to portray himself in a negative light. He told me about Lewis’s keen interest in Porteus’s sexual affairs, and how jealous Lewis was of his own attractive and closely guarded young wife. When the young Porteus proudly showed Lewis his art work, he crumpled up the drawings, threw them straight into the dustbin and exclaimed, “I don’t want to look at that rubbish!” The first of their many quarrels occurred when Porteus refused to let Lewis interfere with his early study of the Master and Lewis complained, “When you began to piss against my leg I should have chased you away.” During his affair with a Jewish girl whom Lewis knew, Porteus suggestively quoted an ejaculatory passage in Tarr and said, “I only go to her occasionally to get milked.” Lewis, missing the allusion to his own novel, thought it referred to a more exotic perversion.
In Self Condemned (1954) Lewis satirised Porteus as “Rotter” Parkinson, who arouses the wrath of the autobiographical hero René Harding by reading out loud his article in fulsome praise of Harding. As the furious Harding takes his leave, Lewis turns the sexual into an intellectual metaphor: “His critical frenzy had one of its regular spasms. He tore his best friend to pieces and himself as well; so much devotion was embarrassing; how could one really feel at ease with a parasite, and with what ridiculous assiduity he had encouraged this man to feed upon his brain. He went there perhaps once a month, to be milked, as it were.” With bitter irony Porteus noted that he, the model for the fictional Parkinson, later contracted Parkinson’s disease.
The disease interfered with his self-taught but elegant Chinese calligraphy, of which he was justly proud. After reading Ezra Pound’s Cathay, Porteus taught himself Chinese and drew Chinese characters for the reprint cover of Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, edited by Pound. Before publishing his Chinese Cantos, Pound asked Porteus to check the ideograms for accuracy. His essay on “Ezra Pound and His Chinese Character: A Radical Examination” in Peter Russell’s 1950 volume, criticised the radical defects of Pound’s Chinese but praised the beauty of his imprecise translations. He also accurately predicted, “The significance of China for the future of the world cannot be over-estimated.”
As our conversations and correspondence progressed, Porteus gradually revealed his background, multifarious vocations and, to quote D. H. Lawrence, his “absolute necessity to move”. He was born in Leeds, the oldest of three sons of a Factories Inspector who moved about frequently. “My parents were poor but well educated: and musicians, eldest each of families of seven . . . My Father began under Socialist and Methodist influences, and joined H.M. Factory Inspectorate initially to ameliorate the lot of the underpaid proletariat . . . My Papa was a kindly man. As a Civil Servant of a type rare today, he refused bribes, and kept his mouth shut about anything but his work among police and doctors about industrial diseases such as asbestosis (a pioneer there) and other poisons.”
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.”
The saga of Porteus’s marital relations took a strange twist with a wild assertion by the author Derek Stanford in Inside the Forties (1977). He was astonished by “the frank open manner in which Porteus could speak of his ruined marriage, his wife having gone off with Geoffrey Grigson . . . Confronted with our evident sympathy, his verdict on Grigson — ‘he was the better man’ — evinced a magnanimity of mind beyond the average run of humanity.” But this scandalous story was not true. The outraged Grigson sued for libel and settled with the publisher.
Porteus had been living on and off with Barbara Dunell since Zenka left him in 1944. He frankly revealed that “Barbara is a nice placid girl for another OAP. I’m not myself queer or given to the contortions of the Kama Sutra. The Missionary position is OK with me.”
From 1946 to 1950, sponsored by Eliot, Porteus worked in the Ministry of Information and wrote press summaries. In the 1950s he worked for a time in the Chinese section of the BBC. While continuing his journalism, he began to do some gardening for £4 a week. In the 1960s he became art critic for The Times, the last and best job he ever had, and wrote an article once a fortnight for 20 guineas. But, always contentious, he clashed with the prevailing views on art and was paid off with a trip to Tunisia. He left London after the Times job ended, and had been stuck in his seedy Cheltenham flat ever since. He self-critically concluded, “I had moved, rather than advanced, from being an unemployed art student to advertising jobs whence I had switched to copywriting and (in the year 1932 of the universal slump) to art criticism and book-reviewing. I was too busily curious about everything.”
Porteus sent me 28 long, fascinating letters, a total of 140 pages, from October 1977 to August 1985. Mostly handwritten in different coloured inks, they contain puns, limericks, unpublished poems, Chinese characters and one haiku. Some are 14 pages long, others are scribbled around Xeroxes of folio-size newspaper articles and many have extensive marginal notations. He loved sexual gossip, revealing the perverse tastes of a royal duke and the all-too-lively activity in Selfridges: “The lifts were operated by handchosen beauties, some tarts, some not. A scandal ensued because the lifts kept stopping between floors. So an order was issued to ensure that in future lift-girls shd. discard their skirts and wear jodhpurs.”
Porteus frequently described, with bitter irony, the cruel physical changes around his flat in Cheltenham: “I am not destitute, but I have such domestic problems that I cannot find time to write. Harassed by landlords, and the din of traffic in what was once a country lane, with the tinkle of a forge where garages now roar, and the meadow opposite my bay window overlooking a sports centre where Rugby is played at night by arc lamps — waal, I guess this is progress, eh?”
Six months later he gave a grimly humorous account of the latest cataclysmic events: “The flat here is threatened by Squatters. The mezzanine has the village drab living with the village idiot, whose Romeos climb my kitchen roof over barbed wire, climb over balconies, reproduce keys, leave the front door open to the new riff-raff coming up from Gloster as gatecrashers, and misuse my loo, fouling it up, and come in and out day and night, screaming and playing pop.”
In addition to these Job-like trials, Porteus suffered natural catastrophes and personal illness: “I’ve been in great difficulties. . . . My place here was flooded in my absence . . . and I was so crippled with arthritis that travel, for more than a few hundred yards, was virtually out of the question.”
The condition of his book on Lewis — with the inscription “For my most devoted and more learned pupil Dr Jeffrey Meyers, with blessings from Hugh Gordon Porteus” — suggests the state of his library. It had no dust wrapper and badly needs one, and seems to have been carried through combat. It is irrevocably foxed and spotted, stained and smeared, mildewed and mouldy — though still precious, for all that, at least to me.
Unduly impressed by my doctorate, Porteus was generous with his praise. “You approached me like a KGB interrogator,” he wrote. But “I found you cheerfully stimulating . . . I enjoyed your company here v. much indeed. You are so jolly — a rare trait in academics — together with your brisk efficiency and amazing range of accurate knowledge.”
When I invited him to write a chapter for Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation (1980), which I edited for Athlone Press to coincide with the publication of my Life of Lewis, he thanked me formally “for your kind offer of the honour of contributing to the W.L. collection.” As the deadline approached he reported, “I made a list of subjects I wished to broach with you, but it’s mislaid under heavy accumulation of unanswered correspondence,” which helps to explain why he never wrote the long-awaited essay.
Instead, he enclosed as compensation, a delightful irregular haiku, with a pun on the last two words:
The turtle doves their lovey-doves
their lovey-doves pursue
still on his pine one (turning turtle) flew
out on a limb but now from clouds above
hurtling down a gracenote drops for you
to a p r o l o n g e d
As I was completing my biography he timidly pleaded, “Please do spare your punches when you mention me.” When the book appeared, he spared his own punches and concluded, “I must salute you for writing a very true life of WL, unlikely to be superseded; and for incidentally doing me proud.”
Porteus’s own work was significant and, as he justly stated, “I’ve been an art & lit. critic in all the quality papers — weeklies & sundaes — for over half a century.” Besides his book and 12 essays on Lewis, he wrote on Pound, Eliot, Durrell, Auden, George Barker and many others in hundreds of articles in the New English Weekly, Time and Tide, Twentieth Century Verse, Life and Letters, Nine, Agenda, Criterion, Scrutiny, Listener, Observer, Times and Encounter. Though usually generous, he could also be quite fierce. Reviewing a sympathetic study of Middleton Murry in 1934, he exclaimed, “It is difficult to see how anything of a wide and durable value can emerge from the labours of such an indiscriminate, submissive and parasitic” man. Using a similar phrase, he attacked Herbert Read’s Surrealist exhibition in 1936, declaring, “It is difficult to believe that the author of Reason and Romanticism actually is responsible for such an effusion as the prefatory note to the catalogue.”
Porteus’s Background to Chinese Art, a 60-page Faber pamphlet, was published in 1935 in conjunction with the First International Exhibition of Chinese Art at Burlington House. An expert while still in his twenties, he emphasises the culture, characters, calligraphy and painting of China. His brief work is studded with insights, such as “Chinese indeed seems to compensate for its poverty as a spoken tongue by providing in its script an intensely expressive miniature drama of gesture.”
In a creative surge in 1952 Porteus composed Dog River, a dramatic verse-fantasy for radio. The BBC’s Kubla Khan-ish description reads: “Dog River — the Nahr el-Kalb of the Arabs — is a Syrian river associated with Tammuz and also with the Egyptian Dog-God, Anubis. It runs for much of its course through underground caverns, in which part of the action of this programme takes place, and which are haunted by the Dog himself.” He also contributed “The White [Siberian] Tiger” to New Poems, 1952: A P.E.N. Anthology, which included verse by Auden, Day Lewis and Louis MacNeice. Porteus’s technically proficient and vividly impressive seven-stanza poem opens with:
Thud, pad, ripple of Mongol fur;
Breath, stars, glitter of teeth, spore;
Black frost of the tundra.
Spirits of air and water, fire and earth,
Open the dark with thunder, and make path
Now for the white tiger of the North.
A drinking companion of Dylan Thomas in the Thirties, Porteus met him in a pub (where else?) and was surprised and horrified by the grossness of the Welsh poet, who seemed stunned and barely conscious. More significantly, he summoned up remembrance of his friends — Eliot, Durrell, Orwell and especially Lewis. He recalled, “I saw a good deal of Eliot, less of Lewis, after my return from the Middle East. . . . Later I spent much time at the School of Oriental and African Studies, then opposite Faber’s, and often dropt in on Eliot for tea.”
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.
Porteus recalled that Lewis introduced him to the press baron Lord Rothermere as “my biographer”, and he was unduly severe about his awkwardly titled first book, Wyndham Lewis: A Discursive Exposition (1932): “It is a v. silly book, written by a semi-literate art student over 40 years ago . . . The book I wrote on W.L. was pretty ridiculous. It was written, or scribbled, as a defence against the only worthy assessment, by Edgell Rickword” in Scrutinies, volume 2 (1931). But he had a daunting task and it was a creditable achievement to explain for the first time Lewis’s difficult works of the late 1920s, The Art of Being Ruled and Time and Western Man, and his massive satirical novel The Apes of God.
Porteus’s unorthodox book attempts to answer three questions: “What is this man trying to do? Does he succeed? . . . Is the result of interest?” He believes that Lewis is “supreme among contemporary filibusters of letters” and in Eliot’s words, “the most fascinating personality of our time”. The reviews of Porteus’s book precisely reflected the views of the editors who published them. F.R. Leavis disliked Lewis, Eliot admired him. In Leavis’s Scrutiny (March 1933) T.R. Barnes put the knife in: “Mr Porteus is a disciple . . . and bases his estimate mainly on Lewis’s style and his satire . . . He finds adequate praise difficult: Mr. Lewis’s satire is better than Dryden’s and his style is as good as Shakespeare’s.” In Eliot’s Criterion (July 1933) Michael Roberts recognised the merits of Porteus’s book: “His exposition is not only a valuable elucidation of the work of Wyndham Lewis, it is also a shrewd and entertaining comment on contemporary literature and an excellent essay on the place of visual imagery in poetry and prose.”
Porteus’s letters to me shrewdly analysed Lewis’s complex and abrasive character:
He was, not without reason, a difficult customer. I found him v. hospitable and agreeable whenever we met . . .
[But] Lewis certainly enjoyed being contentious. So did I! We had magnificent confrontations, always mended quite amicably. Always as poor as myself, he was a most generous host. But “difficult”? Oh yes! You had to sail him like a boat. Lewis, Eliot and Myself were all fair sailors. The worst squabble I had with Lewis was when I rashly observed about something or other that “I know what you are busy thinking!” That really got his goat: though in fact I was quite right. I cd. almost invariably predict his reactions to my often deliberately teasing remarks. . . .
Lewis had a masochistic wish to pin down his most amiable friends as enemies. Is it ironic that he shd. marry a masochistic doll? They were absolutely devoted to one another, and thoroughly enjoyed their merely verbal duels or duets. Froanna was a placid devotee, and a superb hostess. I had always supposed that W.L. wd. be oriental in his intense jealousy if males so much as glanced at Froanna. . . .
I can’t say W.L. taught me to write. I may be slipshod as a spontaneous writer. But he did teach me to see.
In his anonymous profile of Lewis in the Observer of August 5, 1956, celebrating the major exhibition of Lewis’s work at the Tate Gallery, Porteus was characteristically positive, but now more aware of Lewis’s limitations: “It is a perennial fault of Lewis the novelist that his characters and narrative seem to be kept in a semblance of life only by brilliant feats of intellectual manipulation.” In his last article on Lewis, a review-essay on Walter Michel’s Wyndham Lewis: Paintings and Drawings in Agenda (Spring l971), he wrote: “It is probably as true now as in his lifetime, I suppose, that Lewis affronts and leaves cold, by his own cool humour and detachment, more people than he attracts by his gifts of uncommon sense and intelligent mockery.” He then defends Lewis and explains his formidable achievement.
The versatile Porteus had been an artist, wireless operator, advertising man, journalist, map designer, book reviewer, magazine editor, RAF signalman, précis writer, sinologist, gardener and art critic, but he never achieved prolonged success in any of these professions. Though he modelled himself on Lewis and was a pale reflection of the Master, the two men had a great deal in common. Both were talented linguists (Porteus also knew some Turkish and Russian), wrote poetry and art criticism, endured long periods of poverty, had unconventional marriages, nourished right-wing political ideas and shared many friends, including Eliot, whom Porteus called “sepulchral and lugubrious”. He too, as he said of Lewis, had a wide-ranging curiosity and impressive virtuosity.
Porteus was not Prince Lewis nor was meant to be, but an attendant lord to provoke a scene or two. But many famous writers valued the friendship of their lively and stimulating, learned and devoted companion. Dedicated to art and literature, he clearly understood and was a passionate advocate of their difficult and provocative work.