For the past week I have been kept up each night by a book I could not put down. Tarantula’s Web, written by one of my oldest friends, John Smart, is a biography of John Hayward (1905-1965). If you have on your shelves an old Penguin Book of English Verse, or - better still - the Nonesuch editions of the works of John Donne, or Jonathan Swift or the Earl of Rochester, you’ll have come across Hayward’s work as anthologist and editor. And if you’ve read Lyndall Gordon’s biography, T.S. Eliot – An Imperfect Life, or Helen Gardner’s still indispensable study of Eliot’s finest poem, The Composition of Four Quartets, you’ll know Hayward was one of the most important figures in Eliot’s life.
As friend, literary executor and collaborator, editor and mentor, Hayward encouraged, protected, and coped with Eliot for over thirty years. For eleven of those years, after the Second World War, they shared a flat together until out of the blue one evening in 1957, Eliot handed Hayward a letter, announcing he was going to be married in two days’ time, and walked out of the flat for good. The next day he duly married his secretary, Valerie, who was thirty-eight years younger than him, and lived happily ever after. Hayward didn’t.
‘Tarantula’ was what Eliot and his closest friends called John Hayward, and Hayward himself was happy to play up to the name. He had, as Tarantula’s Web reveals, the most extraordinary gift for making friends - and enemies too (F.R Leavis was one of the most implacable.) He was sometimes called the most malicious man in London, but others saw him quite differently: Graham Greene described him as the bravest man he ever knew, and the poet Kathleen Raine called him ‘that witty brilliant malicious tragic man who so heroically invented himself’.
Why was he tragic, and why did he have to set about inventing himself, as he did from a very young age? By the time he was a teenager, he was already showing signs of muscular dystrophy. But he always envisaged for himself a life in literature. At Gresham’s School in Norfolk, where he edited the school magazine, he had the distinction of being the first person to publish a poem by his younger contemporary W.H. Auden.
By the time he arrived at King’s College, Cambridge, he was already walking with difficulty and a stick, but this did not stop him acting, debating and becoming well known to the wider Bloomsbury circle: Virginia Woolf, Bunny Garnett and Dadie Rylands too. Later, Ottoline Morrell and Edith Sitwell would become good friends, so would William Empson, Stephen Spender and, eventually, Dylan Thomas and George Barker. Tarantula’s web drew them all in. But at the start it was Eliot who helped to launch his professional career by encouraging him to review for The Criterion.
Reviewing, editing, criticism and commentary – these became the main sources of Hayward’s income and reputation. To these he added bibliography, anthologies and literary journalism. For five years in the 1930s he wrote a fortnightly ‘London Letter’ for the New York Sun. By the start of the Second World War he was also writing regularly about the London literary scene for Spanish and Swedish newspapers too. After the war (which he had sat out in frustrating exile in Cambridge) he became the chief literary advisor to the Festival of Britain, curating major exhibitions of rare books in London and Paris. He was afterwards awarded the CBE: some thought he deserved a knighthood.
By this time Hayward had long been confined to his wheelchair, though he did his best to pretend it made no difference to his life at all. He was incorrigibly sociable and flirtatious. Gradually, inevitably, he came to rely more and more on friends to help him get around: taxi drivers knew him, and he was a familiar sight in London, even on one occasion being wheeled along by Eliot at the rear of a circus procession making its way through Chelsea. Hayward called Eliot ‘the Master’ and referred to himself as Eliot’s ‘creating critick’ – a precise description of his role, because his criticism became an indispensible part of the creative process enabling Eliot to develop the Four Quartets during the early years of the war.
Recovering, at least outwardly, from the shock of Eliot’s abrupt departure, Hayward became editor of a journal he had helped to establish, The Book Collector, again writing a wide-ranging Commentary at the start of each issue. His pre-war and post-war journalism, mixing literary gossip, criticism, bibliography and sheer love of books, was Hayward’s equivalent of writing a regular blog today. His dispatches from the literary frontline were a discipline and a pleasure. It’s no exaggeration to say that they were his particular creative achievement. He had, as it happens, once tried and failed to complete a novel; his poetry was for the eyes of family and friends only. But in his ‘Letters from London’, in his Commentaries and in his broadcasts, he declared the value of a life in literature.
John Hayward was, in the honourable if old-fashioned sense, a bookman and a man of letters. He believed in books as objects of historical and cultural significance and in literature as a source of pleasure and enjoyment. He cared about the literary health of the country. He admired the creative imagination and courage of the modernists (of Eliot above all) but he was at heart a traditionalist. As a rationalist who believed in the public role of literature, he would have been at home in the eighteenth century: John Smart likens him, justly, to Dr Johnson, surrounded by his circle of friends and acolytes; to me, however, he resembles most closely Alexander Pope. For with Pope, (who was also physically disabled) I think Hayward would have been happy to say
Yes I am proud, I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God afraid of me.
John Smart’s biography, Tarantula’s Web: John Hayward, T.S. Eliot and their Circle, is published by Michael Russell (ISBN 978-0-85955-324-7). I recommend it strongly.