Alan Ross was born in India in 1922, and after spending his early childhood in Bengal, he went to Haileybury and St John’s College, Oxford.
He served in the Royal Navy from 1942 to 1947, after which he worked for the British Council. From 1953 to 1972 he was cricket correspondent for the Observer and he had been editor of The London Magazine from 1961.
He is the author of several books including Death Valley (1980), which was a Poetry Book Society Choice, Colours of War (1983), and two volumes of autobiography, Blindfold Games (1986) and Coastwise Lights (1988).
He died in February 2001 and I interviewed him in February 1999.
You were born in Calcutta and lived in India until you were seven years old. The first seven years are said to be the most important and to set the pattern for life. Did India do that to you, would you say?
Yes, certainly. I went back after the war in around 1960 and when I got off the aeroplane, I felt as though I was coming home. The smell of it and the look of it were absolutely enchanting to me. I used to think up every kind of excuse for going back, because it called me in some curious way. And it still does.
You were sent to school in England, aged seven – the first step, you say, in ‘an alienation from all family life’. This rather suggests an estrangement which has lasted throughout your life. Is that what happened?
When I was sent to England I was farmed out on various people who were very kind to me, first of all a farmer in Cornwall and then a clergyman in Sussex. I spent the whole of my adolescence with these people, so that when my family came back after the war, they seemed to me strangers. It wasn’t so much an estrangement, but I felt very shy with them, and they had a different outlook on everything. My father had been a soldier, and then he went on to be a very successful businessman and politician in India, but we had nothing in common, except the three things which I inherited from him – a love of cigars, whisky and racehorses.
Was your own son sent away to school or were you anxious to save him from that experience?
We did save him from that experience. He went to a prep school as a day boy and he was home all the time, but then he wanted to go away to school when he was older. Curiously enough, the same happened with my stepdaughter also, but she wanted to go at an even earlier age. I think if you give children a happy time at home they quite like the adventure of going away.
Do you think that the alienation you experienced at a young age was to have an adverse effect on your marriage?
No, I think marriage is quite difficult anyway. One turns one’s wives into friends, which I think is good in one way, but perhaps not in another way.
Would you say that you are a difficult man to live with as far as women are concerned?
No, very kind and gentle.
Then why do you think the marriages failed?
I’ve only had one proper marriage, and it went on for thirty years. I had other relationships at the time and they didn’t seem to conflict with the feeling I had for my wife, but of course in the end people want to have something different, and so they change.
Have women been important in your life?
Very important. They have given me great pleasure. Of course, they can give one a hard time, but I do love their company.
Your father’s Indian bearer cut his throat soon after you left for England. Was there any connection between these two events?
Not that I know of. He was an eccentric fellow who used to cover his lips with that red stuff which made it look as though he was bleeding all the time. He wasn’t a very pretty sight, and he was slightly mad – what they call puggle-wallah in India.
You say that during your time at boarding school it was the brown hands that you craved, not the alternately distant and crowding affection of your parents. Why did you feel so close to the Indian servants? Did they give you something your parents could not provide?
Yes. Most British children in India were brought up by Indian servants. The father would be away all day long, and the mother was possibly in England, so the rewarding thing in children’s lives would always be Indian hands, those of the ayah or the bearer who looked after you and treated you as an important person. They were always very kind, and you never forget that.
You describe yourself in the poem ‘A Wartime Present’ as ‘an exile, without family, without family feeling’. Do you still feel like that?
Well, my parents are both dead now, so I have to think of my own family and children, and we are all very separate. I see my wife sometimes, I see my son more, and my stepdaughter a bit, but we’re not a family in the normal sense. Of course, at the beginning of one’s life, one hoped to be close.
At one point you write with near contempt about Calcutta society in the 1920s ‘with its ignorance of almost everything to do with Indian history, religion, architecture and art’. Your mother’s family had been in India since 1790…were your grandmother and the aunts equally philistine, or was this a twentieth-century phenomenon?
Reluctantly I would have to say that the British were pretty philistine. I mean, they were mostly in trade or in the army, the exception being those who were in the Indian civil service who were extremely well read and aware of what was going on in India. But the generality of the British in India were not very cultivated people. They worked quite hard, they played a lot of games, they drank and they played bridge, but they never opened a book. This is a delicate point, and indeed the only row I ever had with my father in my whole life was when he was vice-consul in St Malo and I called in on him on my way back from Paris. We had an amusing evening but somehow – perhaps after too many drinks – I said in a most tactless way, ‘Of course, the only reason people went to India was never on behalf of the Indians; it was only on behalf of themselves.’ And this to a man who had spent his whole life in India, who’d been a minister in the government and head of the Bengal assembly for many years. He became absolutely furious, till I thought he was going to kill me. It struck at the root of everything he had done. At the back of his mind he must have believed that it was all for the Indians, which of course it wasn’t.
Did your parents live to see the end of the British rule in India?
My father left India very suddenly in 1946. He has been offered a job by Mountbatten, who was Viceroy at the time, but he suddenly lost his nerve when two close friends with whom he’d spent his whole life in India died in the same week of amoebic dysentery. Within the space of forty-eight hours he had sold everything and left. I suppose he was a rich man, but the Indians allowed people to take only one third of their capital so he instantly became rather a poor man. He then announced to my mother that he would travel the world once before settling down. So he set off on his travels, and halfway round the world he wrote to my mother to tell her he had fallen in love with another woman and would not be coming back. ‘I hope you’ll forgive me,’ he wrote.
And he never came back?
He did, because this woman, who thought he was a very rich man, suddenly realized he wasn’t, so she wasn’t so keen on the idea and their affair lasted only three or four weeks. My father then wrote to my mother saying he was sorry, he’d made a bad mistake, and would she allow him to come back. Which she did. He never strayed again after that.
At Haileybury you became interested in the French romantic poets, but found them disastrous as an influence on the writing of poetry. Has any modern poet influenced you?
I was influenced by Louis MacNeice more than anybody. He was my kind of person, interested in sport, and fond of writing about women, and having affairs all over the place. Whereas there was a homosexual, austere background to Eliot and Auden and Spender, and so on, MacNeice was a jolly fellow who could see that modern poetry could be interesting about ordinary things.
You seem slightly defensive about your belief that sport is poetry in action. You were delighted, for example, to discover Auden’s ‘Odes to School Footballers’, as if these somehow legitimized your belief…
Yes, I think that is true. When I was at Oxford first of all I thought of nothing but sport; indeed the idea of poetry had hardly entered my head. I was obsessed by playing different games and trying to get a blue, and there was a slight feeling – not exactly of shame – but the feeling that sport was not quite right for a serious literary figure.
Is it because sport is often perceived as frivolous, whereas poetry is to do with serious matters like the soul?
It is to do with that. I don’t think about the soul too much if I can avoid it, but poetry in the end is about all sorts of things. When I was very young, however, poetry seemed to me a rather solemn, slightly effete activity which I couldn’t quite relate to my own life, and then gradually I found that the war gave me a subject to write about. Then I began to see that it could transform one’s whole life, just in the way music or painting can.
Do you think that the self-discipline you acquired in learning to play cricket well was any help to you in your wartime experiences? Was Wellington talking nonsense when he said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, or is there something in it?
When I was in the Fleet Air Arm we had to do sentry work when we were not learning to fly. This meant standing in a box with a rifle and guarding the aerodrome. On one occasion I was on sentry duty before going for a weekend leave to see a girlfriend of mine acting in a play up in Liverpool. I stood in this box till four o’clock, half past four, quarter to five, and still no one came to relieve me. My train was going at quarter-past five, so I went across the road to a call-box and rang up the main gate and told them my relief hadn’t come. In the meantime, the commander had arrived in a car, and when he saw there was nobody in the box, and moreover that my rifle was just lying there, he was furious and had me put under arrest. I had to appear before him the following Monday – this was called jankers – and he said to me that I had deserted my post in the face of the enemy, whereupon I replied that there wasn’t any enemy. He got very angry and told me I would go to prison, which would have been the end of my naval career. In fact, the next day a signal came from Lords saying I had been chosen to play cricket for the navy, and since the commander-in-chief of the whole shoot at Portsmouth was an old naval cricketer, he immediately took me off arrest, although I still had to do fourteen days running around with a rifle as a kind of punishment.
You say of Haileybury as you knew it in the 1930s that no anti-elitist could have taken exception to it, the boys being the sons of clergymen or army or naval officers. It was also philistine in that it gave little encouragement to art and literature, and you think this was probably true of most public schools. What is your impression now? Do you think they give value for money?
I suppose they do, but the number of people in society who are interested in music, painting or poetry is pretty small, and unless you have one or two masters who are exceptional, there won’t be much encouragement in any school. But most of the boys don’t give a bugger one way or the other.
The Oxford University Press closed its poetry list, presumably for reasons not unconnected with profit. Is there just no market for poetry in this country?
The market in general is very small, although what the Oxford University Press did was a disgrace. During the thirty-five years or so I was a publisher I suppose I brought out thirty or forty books of poetry, but none of them made money. On the other hand, they didn’t lose much and you would have to be a very miserable figure to feel you couldn’t go on with such an enterprise.
What’s the future of poetry in this country? Do you think people are becoming more aware of poetry?
They have never been aware of it. There are always some people who will take it very seriously and feel passionately about it, and we have produced great poets in this country and continue to do so. But none of this affects the generality of people at all. It’s actually quite hard to read poetry.
I have read that you have a dislike of literary criticism…
Well, I don’t think literary criticism has done much for literature. It seems to me a rather dead hand on it, and I don’t like reading it very much.
You have edited the London Magazine for over thirty years, and it has been entirely shaped and nurtured by you in form and content. It is perhaps the last literary magazine in the old style…do you feel very much as if you’re swimming against the tide?
I don’t know what you mean by the tide. I consider the London Magazine to be absolutely a magazine of the time. It’s the best magazine in the world of its kind, and the only thing that we’ve never managed to do because of lack of money is promote it properly, and I’m very sad about that. If one had a patron of some kind, then instead of having two or three thousand subscribers we could have ten thousand, and then we could pay people better. At the moment we pay them appallingly; my partner gets only two thousand pounds a year for a full-time job, and I get nothing at all. Well, this is disgraceful, and one can’t go on like that really, although we have gone on like that. But even if we had a million pounds given to us the actual contents wouldn’t change – the quality would remain the same.
Kathleen Raine believes that poetry is irreconcilable with tranquil, stable love relationships. She says that very few poets have been happily married…do you have a view on that?
Their relationships may not last all their lives, but I don’t think one can read into that more than you would read into anybody else’s experience. I mean, do lawyers have happy marriages, or sportsmen, or dentists? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
I suppose we think of poets leading tortured lives…
That’s a romantic idea. Eliot wanted poets to be like bank clerks, and I think the better poets are nearer to the bank clerks than rough and ready scoundrels who get drunk every night. The romantic figure – always drunk, dying at twenty-five – is not really relevant. A poet’s life does not need to be dishevelled. A good writer is a good writer.
In your account of service with the occupying forces in Germany after the Allied victory, I was struck by your compassion for the defeated enemy. This, of course, was a truly Christian attitude. Would you call yourself a Christian?
I have no great belief, but I believe in justice more than anything. Any kind of injustice upsets me a great deal, and in Germany you saw a great many people suffering appallingly through no great fault of their own, and that was very moving. The dispossessed people of the 1940s, moving with their carts through Europe, that was a heartbreaking sight.
Has religion played an important part in your life?
No, although I was brought up by a country clergyman and I used to enjoy going to his church. He was so boring he used to fall asleep in his own sermons, but when he actually dropped off his little dog would rush up to him and wake him up. Having said that he was a very good priest for all the people in his parish, and it was all very nice and calm; but exciting it wasn’t.
But do you find yourself turning to God when things go badly?
Yes, I do. I’ve had two very bad illnesses in my life, and the last one was a very severe depressive illness lasting five or six years, and I was on my knees practically every night. Out of weakness one flies to God – not a very noble thing, but one does. The trouble is, I can’t believe it’s really true, although I would like to. And I’d prefer to die a Catholic because it’s so much more romantic to have incense all round you, but until that moment comes…
After the war you could hardly bear to look at old school photographs, so many of your friends were dead, as are so many friends of later years. Has this caused you to reflect on death a great deal?
As you say, in the wartime days a lot of people died, and then twenty or thirty years seemed to go by with very few people dying, and now suddenly they all seem to be dying all over the place. You begin to ask yourself how many years you’ve got left. Death is this tiny little moment between living and dying – you’re there one minute and gone the next. One hopes it happens very quickly. Of course, I would be rather annoyed not to have a little bit more life left. There are a lot of things I like doing and I don’t relish the idea of them coming to an end. For example, I would like to know what Tottenham Hotspur are going to do next year.
As well as your lack of rancour towards the Germans, I notice that there was none towards the people who featured in your memoirs, with the exception perhaps of the boy who bullied you at school. Is your nature exceptionally benign, would you say, or have you been fortunate in your life?
I’ve been fortunate except for two appalling nervous breakdowns. As a young man on a ship on the Arctic convoys when we were set on fire and people were being killed, I thought that was about as bad as it was ever going to get, and nothing would ever be as bad again. But in fact my breakdowns were far worse than anything I experienced in the war. I’m sure everybody who has had bad depression would agree with me.
Would you like to be remembered chiefly as a poet?
I’m rather uncomfortable with the word ‘poet’ since it is hard to think of oneself in those terms. I would rather be remembered as somebody who made his friends happy and wrote reasonably well about different things, and for forty years kept a magazine going which did a great deal for a lot of writers.