Sir John Collings Squire

A most unreliable culture warrior

Not reactionary, just drawn that way


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

One of the strongest points in J.C. Squire’s favour is the well-nigh fabulous contempt in which he was held by the liberal intelligentsia of his time. F.R. Leavis declared he was the epitome of all that was meant by the word “philistine”. Virginia Woolf reckoned that the literary circles he inhabited were home to a “stinking undergrowth of hack writers”. “Damn his eyes,” Lytton Strachey fulminated, when Squire made the mistake of complaining about the lesbian scenes in D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow.

To the specimen 1920s highbrow on his upward march through the foothills of Bloomsbury, he was simply an obstruction, a moss-covered relic from the Edwardian era for whom the whole of the modernist movement could be written off as so much gibberish.

A kind of eternal puzzling over the laughter coming from the next room

Yet the popular notion of Squire as a reactionary ogre bent on marshalling the forces of conservatism against “cleverness” and verse libre is, as John Smart shows in this absorbing biography, rather misleading.

After several hundred pages of literary spats and arts-world mud-throwing have whisked by, the figure who emerges is less a cultural diehard than an exceptionally gifted man who had the misfortune to back the wrong side in practically every cultural controversy of his day — a proponent of soft-focus “Georgian” poetry when the smart money was on Ezra Pound, a fan of Arnold Bennett and J.B. Priestley when Bloomsbury preferred Woolf and Forster.

Shores of Paradise — The Life of Sir John Squire: The Last Man of Letters. John Smart (Matador, £20)

In the end, the role he played in the literary squabbles of the 1920s was, you infer, narrowly symbolic. It was not so much Squire that the highbrows hated as the things he was thought to embody — pastoralism, convention, reticence, and, above, all a refusal to admit that the world had changed.

A PhD student contemplating the prodigious career that Squire (1884-1958) carved out for himself in the 1920s could be forgiven for regarding him as a case study in the psychology of conservatism: the sort of critic who knows there is merit in The Waste Land but can’t see where it resides and whose output, consequently, is a kind of eternal puzzling over the laughter coming from the next room. But John Smart is a retired English master and Shores of Paradise is not that type of book.

He already seemed a figure from a vanished age

What it certainly is, on the other hand, is an attempt to undermine the caricature portrait of Squire that modernism’s victory in the cultural wars of the 1920s has handed down to posterity. Smart’s Squire may be a reactionary, and a caballer and a book-world fixer who sometimes seems to have stepped out of the era of George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), but some of his best work — the long, anguished poem “The Stockyard”, say — exists on its own terms in a queer, self-made hinterland where the usual critical tags don’t apply.

On one level, Smart’s biography is a demonstration of the extraordinary fluidity of the English literary scene in the early twentieth century. Squire did not quite come from nowhere — his father was an absconding West Country vet — but his early successes, the scholarships to Blundell’s and St John’s College, Cambridge, and his first job on the Western Daily News, relied on exam-passing, determination and unremitting hard work.

At this point he was a fervent socialist (the aristocratic hob-nobbing of which critics complained came later), whose leftist connections were sufficient to get him appointed to the editorship of the New Statesman in 1917. From here it was but a short step to the founding of the London Mercury, the literary monthly that made his name and gave him a platform for the controversy-mongering that became his principal occupation as the twenties wore on.

Squire once described himself as “a centipede with a foot in a hundred camps”, and Smart is good on the sheer scale of his involvement in the cultural world of his day — the environmental campaigning, the countless letters to The Times, the cricketing fixation — and the inevitable consequences of a professional life that became seriously over-extended.

Happily, there were always wealthy female admirers at hand

Come the early thirties, Squire had taken lavishly to drink, lost a lucrative reviewing contract with the Observer, abandoned his long-suffering wife for a succession of mistresses and could no longer keep the Mercury solvent. Knighted in 1932, for reasons nobody could quite fathom, he already seemed a figure from a vanished age — uneasily conscious that most of the judgments about art and literature on which he had staked his reputation were being called seriously into question.

All this made him erratic and unreliable, a past master of the unfulfilled commission and the unconvincing excuse. One of Shores of Paradise’s funniest — and most incriminating — paragraphs is a series of extracts from the apologies offered by Squire to contributors who had complained about late payment or mislaid manuscripts:

All right, we will return the 15s to her … we have not lost the poem … the charwoman must have tidied it from my table as there is not a trace of it… the manuscript blew out of the taxi window as I was bringing it to you … I am so angry about your March cheque … I made every effort but the horse would not go …

There is a consummate artistry in this — the same kind of bright, fantastical sparring that irradiates the parodies collected in Tricks of the Trade (1917) — and yet Squire would have been mortified had anyone suggested that his greatest talent was for dissimulation.

In the end it all went badly wrong. Relieved of his editorship, the enthusiasms swerving horribly out of kilter — his great 1930s hero was, almost inevitably, Mussolini — he spent the last quarter century of his life writing garrulous autobiographies and then, as the books and the poems dried up, scratching a living from a weekly reviewing slot in the Illustrated London News.

Legendarily out-at-elbow, he was once seen entering the Athenaeum dressed in white flannels, black evening slippers, a moth-eaten pullover, a wing collar and an Old Blundellian tie. Happily, there were always wealthy female admirers at hand to offer succour and his last years were spent in comparative comfort in East Sussex, angling for a Collected Poems, which appeared shortly after his death.

If Squire’s reputation is altogether beyond saving, then hats off to John Smart for making the effort. Astute, scholarly and in spite of the subject’s many absurdities, always managing to see his point, this is a terrific achievement — for all that Squire himself now seems as remote in time as a cloche hat or a jar of liquorice allsorts.

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