Anthony Thwaite obituary

Poet inspired by the remains of Roman north Africa, and tireless as an editor and lecturer

The poet Anthony Thwaite, who has died aged 90, was a mover and shaker in postwar English literary life. He was in turn literary editor of the Listener and the New Statesman, and co-editor of Encounter. He worked as a producer at the BBC, and was a prolific author, reviewer and lecturer, travelling across the world for the British Council.

Thwaite chaired the Booker prize panel in 1986, reading every one of the 128 novels submitted. In the depths of the cold war, he smuggled a manuscript by the poet Miroslav Holub out of Czechoslovakia. To mark his 50th birthday in 1980, his wife, Ann, brought together work by poets who provided handwritten manuscripts in his honour. Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney were among the contributors.

He was a longstanding friend of Philip Larkin and for many years read and commented on his manuscripts. To mark Larkin’s 60th birthday, Thwaite edited a tribute (Larkin at Sixty, 1983). After the poet’s death, in 1985, he served as his literary executor, along with Andrew Motion and Monica Jones, Larkin’s longterm partner. The executors agreed that Thwaite, knowledgable about every facet of Larkin’s publications, would edit the collected poems, and that he should also edit a selection of Larkin’s letters. Motion was Jones’s choice to write the biography, which appeared in 1993.

Thwaite’s desire to present the development of Larkin’s work meant he included both published and unpublished poems in the order of their composition. Getting wind of this plan, the Amis family, father and son, were not happy. Kingsley Amis vigorously opposed the inclusion of the text of The North Ship, Larkin’s 1945 collection, which Amis regarded as scarcely more than juvenilia. Martin Amis described the overall effect as “a looser and more promiscuous corpus, containing squibs and snippets, rambling failures later abandoned, lecherous doggerel”.

Thwaite did not agree. There were errors, however, in the transcription of some manuscript poems. The revised edition in 2003 gave him a chance to rethink the presentation of Larkin’s development, incorporating a chronological arrangement of Larkin’s books as they were published, with early poems cordoned off in an appendix.

As executors of the Larkin literary estate, Thwaite and Motion decided to hand responsibility for a comprehensive complete poems to the Boston University scholar Archie Burnett. When it was published in 2012, there were nearly 400 pages devoted to Larkin’s collected and uncollected poems, with a detailed commentary.

Larkin’s extensive correspondence with Jones, more than 1,422 letters and about 500 postcards, was edited for publication by Thwaite as Letters to Monica (2010). When The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985 appeared in 1992, the collection was reviewed with hostility, provoked mainly by Larkin’s attitudes on sex and race and his rightwing politics. Some of Larkin’s many admirers feared the unredacted letters would hurt the poet’s reputation, which indeed turned out to be the case.

Philip Larkin in 1973.
Philip Larkin in 1973. Anthony Thwaite was his literary executor. Photograph: Radio Times/Getty

As a poet himself, Thwaite was regarded as being in the spirit of the Movement, including figures such as Larkin, Amis, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, John Wain and DJ Enright, although he was widely travelled and no celebrant of provincial Englishness. He sought to disentangle his work from that of Larkin as, unlike his friend, he was open to foreign cultures.

Born in Chester, Anthony was the son of Hartley Thwaite and his wife, Alice (nee Mallinson). Hartley, a son of Methodist missionaries, worked as a bank cashier in the north of England, retiring as Yorkshire district manager of Lloyds Bank.

Whatever plans he and Alice had made for the education of their son were turned upside down when war broke out in 1939. At the age of 10 Anthony was evacuated to the US, where he spent four years with his mother’s sister, Nora, and her family near Washington. Returning to England in 1944, Thwaite sported an American accent and an eagerness for change. His parents were then living in Sheffield, and seemed to their Americanised son elderly and grey-haired.

Memories of searching for civil war relics in Confederate trenches in Fairfax County, Virginia, had deepened his fascination with the past. “Ever since I was seven,” he later wrote, “I have been almost obsessively devoted to the past and the things of the past. On my seventh birthday, my favourite uncle gave to me a Roman silver denarius, and from that time on I became an antiquarian magpie.”

He joined the archaeological society at Kingswood school, Bath (his father’s old school), and soon found himself organising a dig at a Saxon burial site. He had hoped to read archaeology at Oxford, but national service intervened. After basic training he was posted as acting sergeant to the Royal Artillery garrison at Homs (now Al-Khums) in Libya, arriving there on his 20th birthday.

For Thwaite the area’s great attraction lay in the extensive Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. Time spent “moseying about” engaged his imagination, and produced a haul of broken pottery, grit-encrusted coins, shards of glass and an ancient Greek dish.

At Christ Church, Oxford, on his return, Thwaite studied English; the undergraduate poets greatly admired Larkin. A small pamphlet from the Fantasy Press in 1953 was Thwaite’s first publication. As graduation approached in 1955 he successfully applied for a traineeship at the BBC but, newly married to a fellow student, Ann Harrop, he abruptly changed his mind and was accepted instead on a two-year lectureship to teach literature in Tokyo.

Thwaite acquired enough spoken Japanese to feel at home there, while understanding that he remained a gaijin, an outsider. (He had a similar experience, he said, when he and his family later moved to Norfolk.) His poems written in Japan appear in his Letter from Tokyo (1987).

A view of Leptis Magna
During his national service Anthony Thwaite was posted to Libya. For him the area’s great attraction lay in the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. Photograph: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

Larkin’s publisher, the Marvell Press, published Thwaite’s first book of poems, Home Truths, in 1957, the year he joined the BBC. He became acting head of the Far Eastern service, soon followed by a transfer to the talks department at Broadcasting House, where he shared an office with the Irish poet Louis MacNeice. From producing, in 1962 he moved to serving as literary editor of the BBC’s weekly journal The Listener.

Thwaite returned to Libya in 1965 to take up a two-year appointment as assistant professor of English at the University of Libya in Benghazi. His illuminating account of Libya in The Deserts of Hesperides (1969) portrayed a landscape and society with multiple layers of history, found literally at his feet. The Libyans he met detested the arrogant Egyptians, and seemed determined to obliterate whatever traces remained of the hated Italian occupation. The British were tolerated. The strict and intensely conservative Senussi movement over which the elderly King Idris then reigned would be overthrown by Muammar Gaddafi’s coup in 1969.

Libya fed Thwaite’s passion as an amateur archaeologist. He took part in a dig at Tocra, one of the last Byzantine fortresses in Cyrenaica. When he returned to the UK in 1967, three collections of poems, The Stones of Emptiness (1967), Inscriptions (1973) and New Confessions (1974), revealed how forcefully religion and archaeology had come to shape his imaginative life.

One poem, The Letters of Synesius, was a meditation upon Synesius (AD c373-c414), a learned Greek in Cyrene in the early fifth century, who had been a student of philosophy and a doubting and reluctant bishop, trying to defend the dying Christian community – dying then, and dying still, as Thwaite had known it.

Synesius tries and fails to understand the design of a world tumbling towards destruction: “God’s plan is hidden in monoliths on a wafer of bread.” Synesius offered Thwaite, in his most important poem sequence, the past seen through the eyes of the present, and the present speaking with the “proud, lonely, aristocratic voice” of the past.

Anthony Thwaite, right, in 2009, pictured with, from left James Fenton, Craig Raine, Zach Leader , Robert Conquest, Martin Amis, and Blake Morrison.
Anthony Thwaite, right, in 2009, pictured with, from left, James Fenton, Craig Raine, Zach Leader, Robert Conquest, Martin Amis and Blake Morrison. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Towards the end of 1971, while working on the poems collected in New Confessions, Thwaite was led from Synesius to the writings of St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430). New Confessions was intended to be a personal response to Augustine, with perhaps less attention paid to the layers of history that gave the Synesius sequence its perspective and ironies.

Thwaite’s meditations on Synesius and Augustine did not reflect the reassurance of grace, but a harsher truth that faith cannot be summoned:

The market is busy with cries and acquisitions
The workshops are quick with skills and intricate craftings
But everywhere nothing prospers
Unless the Lord wills it, of the house as of the city.

Back in Britain, Thwaite received a call in late 1967 from Paul Johnson, editor of the New Statesman, to come with his wife and four daughters for Sunday lunch. A replacement for Nick Tomalin as literary editor was needed, and Thwaite was offered the job. Soon enough, in 1970, a successor replaced Johnson – the Labour politician Dick Crossman. He seemed to Thwaite “just about the worst editor I’ve come across – a capricious bully”. In the summer term of 1972, Thwaite held the Henfield writing fellowship at the University of East Anglia, and while in Norwich he learned that he had been sacked by Crossman’s replacement, Anthony Howard.

His family’s move to Norfolk in 1973 was followed by an invitation from Melvin Lasky for him to join Encounter, where Thwaite remained as co-editor for 12 years. On one memorable occasion he threatened to resign if Lasky published one more article on “Was Alger Hiss Guilty or Not Guilty?”

In 1980 a new poetry editor at OUP disliked Thwaite’s Victorian Voices (which turned out to be his most popular and bestselling title), and he was invited to take his further books elsewhere. He was then published by Secker & Warburg, until Tom Rosenthal’s departure; by Tony Whittome at Hutchinson, until the poetry list was terminated; and by Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, until his firm went to the wall. Stephen Stuart-Smith’s Enitharmon Press published Thwaite’s later books, including a substantial Collected Poems in 2007, Late Poems (2010) and Going Out (2015). In 1990 he was appointed OBE.

Anthony Thwaite reading a selection of his poems

Thwaite was respected and praised for the clarity, precision and depth of his verse, but the underlying pillars of his work – his marriage, his faith and his love for archaeology – gave a distinctiveness to his poems that was unique among the writing of his contemporaries.

He and Ann had married after they graduated from Oxford, and their writing lives developed in close tandem. Ann’s career as an author and editor of books for children began in 1958 with The Young Traveller in Japan. She later published biographies of Edmund Gosse, AA Milne and Philip Henry Gosse. Her most substantial, Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (1996), placed someone who had been “often ignored, but sometimes betrayed” at the heart of a large and complex family story, overturning an earlier biographer’s notion that the poet had chosen an “invalid wife approaching middle age”.

When they first met, Ann was an Anglican. Though Anthony had attended a Methodist school, his interest in Christianity came late. He and Ann remained communicants and faithful churchgoers throughout their married lives. “I’ve found for years,” Thwaite wrote, “a steadiness, a firmness, in the consolations of religion … I do take seriously my belief in what I do believe, and regret my doubts, and for very many years have pottered away at the day-by-day, or Sunday-by-Sunday, duty of a Christian.”

Thwaite was not a tormented victim-poet, but a witty, charming companion, who had a phenomenally good memory. He knew, in an age of multiple uncertainties, who he was and what he felt. It gave his poetry and prose a rare clarity.

He is survived by Ann and by their daughters, Emily, Caroline, Lucy and Alice.

Anthony Simon Thwaite, poet, born 23 June 1930; died 22 April 2021


Eric Homberger

The GuardianTramp

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