Christopher Logue, poet, died on December 2nd, aged 85
Dec 17th 2011 | from the print edition
PACIFISM was Christopher Logue’s creed. He marched to Aldermaston against Britain’s bomb in 1958, armed only with sandwiches. Three years later he served time in prison for inciting anti-nuclear demonstrations. By then, Homer’s “Iliad” had started to lodge in his head.
- ...a gleam
(As when Bikini flashlit the Pacific)
Staggered the Ilian sky, and by its white
Each army saw the other’s china face, and cried:
As a prisoner he was sent to demolish a munitions factory. The irony of that pleased him. All war was criminal behaviour in his eyes. Fighting was something he couldn’t do. He had joined the army briefly at 17, diminutive and shying from physical contact, mostly to avoid work. But when they did a bayonet charge in training, aiming their steel points at bags of straw, hideously roaring, his trousers fell down.
- Screaming, kicking, slicing, hacking, ripping
Thumping their chests:
‘I am full of the god!’
Blubbering with terror as they beg for their lives:
‘Laid his trunk open from shoulder to hip—
Like a beauty-queen’s sash.’
Violence, no. Impatience, yes. Jamming the scissors into a vacuum pack of salmon. Crashing his palms on the typewriter keys when he couldn’t change the ribbon. Panting to bring in the Marxist paradise at once in drab postwar Britain, though he hadn’t even got through the “Communist Manifesto”. Reading his poems aloud in the 1960s (a chorus of “Antigone” for the bicycle-makers of Nottingham) in the hope he could immediately culturise the workers. Fuming at his own timidity, political, intellectual, social, sexual. Especially sexual. That lonely twice-daily wank over Men Only.
- …in oyster silk,
Running her tongue around her strawberry lips
While repositioning a spaghetti shoulder-strap,
The Queen of Love, Our Lady Aphrodite…
Trojans with Uzis
Loafing around, he lived for poetry. He longed to write like T.S.Eliot, the best, but couldn’t. Nor like Keats (he wept over that). A sojourn in Paris in the 1950s produced a slim volume to hawk around the cafés, and a trio of dirty books. He wrote satirical left-wing ballads for the Establishment Club, mixed with Ken Tynan and Lindsay Anderson on the edge of London’s shocking 1960s theatre scene, set his poems to jazz, uncovered pseuds and bizarre news stories for Private Eye. All this put him among the Oxford boys at last. But, not having been to any university, he was never “in”.
Doris Lessing suggested he should look at the “Iliad”, Homer’s 15,000-line, 2,800-year-old epic of the Trojan war. Donald Carne-Ross then asked him to adapt a sliver for BBC radio. With no Greek, he worked from multiple translations and Carne-Ross’s word-for-word cribs. Soon, though, he knew it for himself. He could run each sequence backwards and forwards, take it from the top, add, subtract. Put in stuff from hoardings and headlines. Assured that there was no original text, he took his own careering way. “All Day Permanent Red”, an ad for Revlon lipstick, became his title for the first battle scene. And
- Blood? Blood like a car-wash…
He knew the music—“War Music”, as he called the work when it grew. More rhythmical and more alive than any version of the “Iliad” up till then. He sang it out himself: roughly the iambic pentameter, stopped dead for shouts of “Kah!” and “Yes!” and “Apollo!”. Redcurrant-haired Achilles, creamy-armed Hera, “Dribbler” Priam and Hector, eight feet tall, peopled his brain for 50 years. He lived on bits and bobs; sponsors, including Paul Getty, kept him going. And as Homer’s rewrite man, for the first time his poetry soared away:
- As sudden gusts
Darken the surface of a lake; or passing clouds,
A hill; or both, a field of standing corn,
- We flowed
Back through the ships, and lifted them;
Our dust, our tide; and lifted them; our tide;
Hulls dipping left; now right; our backs, our sea;
Our masts like flickering indicators now…
His opposing Greek and Trojan armies had Uzis and whumphing helicopters, rose as one to their feet like the retracting slats of a Venetian blind, inflicted “high-reliability fast-forward pain”. Yet above them were the immortal gods, ambrosia-slurping, irresponsible, their faces set “like NO ENTRY signs” against any truce. Beside them the fighters faded, “a match flame struck in full sunlight”. As a “Catholic atheist”, beaten into line by the Christian Brothers, naturally an unbeliever but unimpressed with his own atheism, he heard the relentless music of that Heaven:
- “In the beginning there was no Beginning,
And in the end, no End…”
No end to war, that also meant. All day permanent violence, because human males craved it and the powers-that-be decreed it. Now as then. But through the cinematic, strobe-lit lines of his “Iliad” came the great galvanising shout he had tried to raise all his life. Against war. For peace.