John Gittings

Robert Gittings 1911-1992
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An appreciation by Christopher Fry

The Independent, 2 March 1992

At the beginning of 1929 the matron of the prep school I was teaching at lent me a copy of a literary magazine called The Bermondsey Book. In it were three poems by an 18 year old schoolboy called Robert Gittings, He had asked for criticism, but the editor thought printing them was comment enough.

I was 21, thought myself a schoolmaster, and wrote a letter to him about my poems. He took the letter to his English master, George Mallaby, and they decided the writer was a retired Oxford don of about 70. It took a few more letters and a brief visit on his way home from the St Edward's School OTC camp ("Having a ripping time" he wrote on the postcard giving the time of his arrival) to settle to a friendship which lasted for the next 63 years, and almost immediately made for exchanges of thought my schooldays hadn't provided.

The following Easter we made a walk together from Stratford-upon-Avon across the Cotswolds, calling on W.H.Davies, his wife Emma and their cat Pharaoh for tea at Nailsworth (I had met Davies the year before) and continuing through the Forest of Dean to the Wye Valley; where at Tintern Abbey Robert led me deeper into Wordsworth than so far I had ventured.

In 1930 he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, and won the Chancellors Prize for poetry with a poem called "The Roman Road", as Tennyson had done a hundred years before with "Timbuctoo". Quiller-Couch recommended it for publication to the Oxford University Press, with 30 shorter poems.

In the summer vacation of 1932 he was lent an empty Victorian rectory in Somerset and invited me to join him there, suggesting that a month trying to write something of my own was not really much riskier than the odd-job sort of life I had been leading since I gave up being a schoolmaster. He was correcting the proofs of The Roman Road and-writing a play about Aesop. This good example, his scholarly mind (he became a research fellow the next year) and the copy of The Waste Land which he had taken with him, all helped to give me the sense of direction I had lacked, though it would be another five years before t began to make anything of it. Meanwhile, quietly and clearly, he moved on his way, from supervisor of studies at Jesus after his marriage to Kay Cambell, to joining the staff of the BBC, where as soon as the war was over he directed a play of mine on the radio. By then I was also married, and a visit to our house in Wales produced one of his finest poems, "A Breath of Fresh Air."

There is only one serious difference of opinion I can think of in those 63 years. He said I introduced him to the letters of Keats. I am as certain he introduced them to me. Either way, it led in time to the publication in 1954 of The Living Year, a title speaking also of his own closeness to Keats. His concern for other people's troubles, his minutely detailed research and imaginative reconstruction meant that he was living the year, not simply writing about it. The inscription he wrote in my copy of the book begins. "At Wentworth Place I have often lingered in the garden hoping that Keats might appear round the corner"; And this recreation continued in the further books: The Mask of Keats (1956), The Keats Inheritance (1964), and the masterly John Keats (1969), and essay 'Keats and Cats'. Cat-liking was another thing he felt sympathetic with in the poet. Here we differed.

When a few months before the war my wife and I were looking for somewhere to live, Oxford was his suggestion, and this led to my directing at the Playhouse, where Pamela Brown was in the company. and later to my writing The Lady's Not For Burning for her. Indeed, if there are such people in real life as the "guardians" in Eliot's The Cocktail Party, Robert can safely be said to be one of mine.

In 1966, when he went as visiting professor to Vanderbilt University, he lent us his little house in West Sussex, and in 1967 we found a house of our own there. For the next quarter of a century we worked within hail of each other; for 17 years as Chairman and Secretary of the Village Hall Management Committee. These were the years when he wrote so searchingly about Thomas Hardy, and the biographies with his wife Jo Manton of Dorothy Wordsworth and, most recently, Claire Clairmont, a book he lived to see. The violin which he had scraped on in the empty rectory at Thorne 'St. Margaret he had long ago mercifully abandoned, but music still filled a great part of his life.

Each morning he would look in on me for 10 minutes; we would report on what we had done the day before; or I would ask him the name of a moth or a butterfly, which he always knew. Very recently he suggested that I should drop one word from a line of some verses I had written for a choral piece. It was the last of a long succession of useful thoughts he had given me.