Highgate Woods, complained A.E. Housman, had been ruined by developers. In a letter to the Standard newspaper in 1894, ironic and disdainful, he wrote that only a few years ago so thickly were the woods overgrown with brushwood “that if you stood in the centre you could not see the linen of the inhabitants of Archway-road hanging to dry in their back gardens. Nor could you see the advertisement for Juggins’ stout and porter which surmounts the front of the public house at the south corner of the Wood.”
If one wanted to see the scarlet flannel petticoats much worn by the girls of Archway, he continued, one now had only to repair to the centre of the woods. A few screening trees still stood, Housman noted. Mightn’t the authorities cut those down, too, to give walkers a clear view of the railway lines and the new red-brick villas on the east side of the wood? He had all but given up on Highgate and was taking his daily afternoon walk on Hampstead Heath, though even there the developers were doing their worst.
Who were the middle-class upstarts moving to the new streets of Highgate and Hampstead? One of them was Arthur Waugh, prolific book reviewer — more than 6,000 in his lifetime — and publisher’s adviser, who in 1895, the year Housman was writing A Shropshire Lad, moved to 11 Hillfield Road, a Victorian terraced house in a cul-de-sac. Here he and his wife Kate got to grips with the craze of the decade: the safety bicycle. In July 1898 their first son Alec was born, followed by Evelyn in October 1903. “Oh good,” said the cricket-mad Alec, “now we’ll have a wicketkeeper.”
In 1907, the family moved to Underhill, a new-build suburban villa on the North End Road, on what had formerly been open fields. Evelyn later wrote that his father had been among the area’s first “spoliators”.
It was perhaps a mercy that by this time Housman had escaped the banging of Hampstead bricklayers for Pinner in Middlesex, where he lived with his landlady from 1905 until 1911 when he accepted the Chair of Latin and a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge.
It is curious that Housman wrote his Shropshire elegies — in “willy-nilly” order as they came to him — at 17 North Road, Highgate, hemmed in by rising brick terrace and banners for Juggins’ Stout, while Evelyn Waugh could only write his novels of London parties, clubs and society by escaping to Oxfordshire pubs and the country houses of sympathetic friends.
It is a mistake to think that the Housman of the thymy wold, the folded hill and hanging woods and hamlets, was a Country Mouse, and the Waugh of parties — “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in Paris” — was a Town Mouse. Not so.
Waugh, for most of his writing life, was a Gloucestershire squire, Housman a London lad. Much of what he knew of Shropshire, which had been the “western horizon” of his Worcestershire childhood, but which he did not know at all well, was culled from the 1879 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Shropshire and Cheshire. He confessed: “I know Ludlow and Wenlock, but some of my topographical details — Hughley, Abdon under Clee — are sometimes quite wrong.”
Two new biographies of Waugh and Housman take very different tacks. Peter Parker’s Housman Country: Into The Heart of England is less a life of Housman than an after-life of A Shropshire Lad. Parker traces the profound influence the poems had — both immediate and long-lasting. A Shropshire Lad gave solace to our boys in the trenches. Housman kept a letter from an American who had offered a wounded British soldier in France his copy of the poems. The British soldier “smiled and took from under his pillow a copy, all tattered, torn and blood-stained”. In America, the poems were invoked by the barrister Clarence Darrow to spare his clients the noose, and Yardley borrowed two lines of Housman’s poetry to advertise its Orchis perfume in the New Yorker in 1931.
At home, it kindled the enthusiasm for books of “literary vagabondage”, inspired many writers, E.M. Forster among them, to follow in what they thought were Housman’s Shropshire footsteps, and was set to music by 58 composers, most notably Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth. British prisoners of war working on the Thai railways would sooner sacrifice Bible pages for roll-ups than their Shropshire Lads. Touring motorists kept copies in the glove compartment along with Shell Guides and Highway Codes.
In an episode of The Simpsons, Krusty the Clown quotes “To An Athlete Dying Young” in his retirement speech. Inspector Morse kept a photograph of a young woman he had loved between the leaves of his copy of Housman’s Collected Poems.
By contrast, Philip Eade’s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited makes little of Waugh’s written work. The books are something secondary to be dashed off between Oxford parties, London parties, flings with lovers both male and female, neo-pagan caravan parties, marriage to his first wife Evelyn (“Shevelyn”), Bright Young Things’ parties, Black Velvet cocktail parties, dinner with Arnold Bennett, lunch with Cyril Connolly, plays at the Savoy Theatre (“I am Evelyn Waugh. Please give me a seat”), Venice parties, marriage to his second wife Laura, and “sticky” tea parties with the vicar. For much of his twenties and thirties Waugh could be found swaying home to Hampstead every morning “in crumpled evening dress among the navvies setting out for their day’s work”.
To get any writing done Waugh had to flee London: to the Abingdon Arms in Beckley to work on Rossetti: His Life and Works (1928), to Diana and Bryan Guinness’s house by the sea in Sussex, where he finished writing Labels, A Mediterranean Journey (1930), to a thatched farmhouse in Devon to write Black Mischief (1932), and to Diana Cooper’s house at Bognor to start Ninety-Two Days (1934):
I pretend to my London chums that I am going to hunt stags,” he wrote from Chagford in Devon, “but to you who are intimates and confidantes I don’t mind saying that I shall sit in my bedroom writing books, articles, short stories, reviews, plays, cinema scenarios, etc. etc. until I have got a lot more money.
From 1937, he had a country house of his own, Piers Court in Gloucestershire, where he made himself a library on the ground floor. Not one of his six children (there were seven in all, but Mary, the third, lived only a day) was ever allowed in. “Oh no,” the children reported to their grandmother, “but we have peeped through the window.”
Safely in Gloucestershire, parties were not such a constant temptation. But there was still the occasional sally up to town for dinners with friends, increasingly Tarnished Old Things, of gulls’ eggs, consommé, partridge, haddock on toast and nearly a bottle a head of Perrier-Jouët champagne.By January 1946, when Waugh was 42, he was refusing visitors. “Writers should be heard and not seen,” he explained. “Writers should stay in their burrows. I intend to anyway until the ferrets come for me.”
The Piers Court years were productive: Put Out More Flags (1942); Brideshead Revisited (1945); The Loved One (1948); Helena (1950); Men at Arms (1952); Officers and Gentlemen (1955); The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957); The Life of Ronald Knox (1959) (Knox, Parker tells us, marched to France with A Shropshire Lad in his haversack); Unconditional Surrender (1961); Basil Seal Rides Again (1963) and A Little Learning (1964), the first volume of Waugh’s projected autobiography. Remarkable what one can get done by not going to quite so many parties.
Housman needed not just solitude to write, but motion. A Shropshire Lad composed itself on walks in Highgate and Hampstead:
Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon — beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life — I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once, accompanied, not preceded by a vague notion of the poem which they were destined to form part of. Then there would usually be a lull of an hour or so, then perhaps the spring would bubble up again . . . Two of the stanzas, I do not say which, came into my head just as they are printed, while I was crossing the corner of Hampstead Heath between Spaniard’s Inn and the footpath to Temple Fortune. A third stanza came with a little coaxing after tea.
Housman’s nostalgia for old Hampstead and Highgate before red-brick sprawl and red-skirted girls is reflected in A Shropshire Lad’s mood of something stolen and never recovered. The loss of old Highgate was as much to be mourned as that of Wenlock Edge.
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
In Waugh’s writing, the regret for something lost is most potent in Brideshead Revisited. When Charles Ryder returns to Brideshead — his own “land of lost content” — he asks: “Did the fallow deer graze here still?”
Both Housman and Waugh went up to Oxford on scholarships, Housman to St John’s College in 1877, Waugh to Hertford in 1922. Neither fulfilled their early academic promise. “You want either a first or a fourth. There is no value in anything in between,” is Cousin Jasper’s advice to Charles Ryder. Waugh passed with a third; Housman failed finals altogether.
Parker explores the idea that Housman’s failure (after getting a first in Mods) was partly caused by his distracting infatuation with a fellow undergraduate, Moses Jackson. Parker is careful in writing about Housman’s sexuality, avoiding the traps of previous biographers, at least one of whom was overcome by a bad case of the Mills & Boons.
Eade has Waugh joining in with the Oxford set’s drunken revels. He quotes Waugh’s contemporary Tom Driberg’s account of the undergraduate Waugh rolling on the sofa with another man, “tongues licking each other’s tonsils”. Another of Cousin Jasper’s pieces of advice to the freshman Charles is: “Beware of the Anglo-Catholics — they’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents.”
Eade’s biography is vastly entertaining — a Perrier-Jouët book, frothy and fun. One has the sense of having had a very jolly time — and having forgotten everyone’s names the morning after.
Parker’s book is a bracing walk in good company — “By valley-guarded granges/And silver waters wide,/Content at heart I followed/With my delightful guide”. Parker, through Housman, makes you look with newly keen eyes at the English landscape — whether Shropshire, Gloucestershire or what’s left of heaths and woods in town. There should be a copy in every glove compartment. There is, however, one appearance of Housman’s poems that Parker has missed. When Charles Ryder unpacks in his college rooms, he has among his books Roger Fry’s Vision and Design, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and — no man should be without it — A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.