(The following article appeared in the November issues of The London Review of Books.)

Alan Bennett writes about his new play

By the time Auden came to live in the Brewhouse, a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church, in 1972 I had long since left Oxford and in any case would never have had the nerve to speak to him. I’d first heard his voice in Exeter College hall some time in 1955. The lower end of the scholars’ table where I was sitting was only a yard or two from high table where the dons dined and, hearing those harsh, quacking tones without knowing whose they were, I said to my neighbour that it sounded like the voice of the devil. Someone better informed put me right. It was Auden, at that time still with blondish hair and the face yet to go under the harrow.

I don’t think I’d read much of his poetry or would have understood it if I had, but when Auden gave his inaugural lecture as professor of poetry the following year I dutifully went along, knowing, though not quite why, that he was some sort of celebrity. At that time I still harboured thoughts of becoming a Writer (and I thought of it in capital letters), so when Auden outlined what he took to be the prerequisites of a literary life, or at any rate a life devoted to poetry, I was properly dismayed. Besides favourite books, essential seemed to be a literary landscape (Leeds?), a knowledge of metre and scansion and (this was the clincher) a passion for the Icelandic sagas. If writing meant passing this kind of kit inspection, I’d better forget it. What Auden was saying (and he said it pretty regularly) was ‘All do as I do,’ which is what unhelpful writers often say when asked about their profession, though few with such seeming conviction and authority as the newly inaugurated professor of poetry.

He used to hold court in the Cadena, but it wasn’t a café I cared for. There were undergraduates I knew at whom Auden made passes, though I was still young and innocent enough to find a pass as remarkable as the person making it.


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