This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Esme Smallbeer died young in 1938 leaving behind him four slim volumes of lyric poetry and a reputation that, as his Times obituarist tactfully put it, had been “somewhat eclipsed” by more fashionable contemporaries such as W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender.
And that might have been the end of Esme, his forty-odd years on the planet and Twilight in Wardour Street, the delicate volume of autobiography left unfinished at his death, had not a promising young graduate student named Barry Mole discovered his name in the index to Valentine Cunningham’s British Writers of the Thirties.
There were only four references, and one of them was merely a footnote about Evelyn Waugh’s mocking review of his first collection, Smitten by the Tarantula, but Barry was not deterred.
A wiser man would have stopped here
In fact, a little research disclosed that Smallbeer was an ideal subject for a thesis. Not only was he almost completely unknown; not only had scarcely anyone written anything about him in the 60 years since his passing; but there turned out to be an enormous cache of papers in the library of King’s College, Cambridge, which, according to the archivist, no one had looked at since it was deposited there by his son in 1953.
Smallbeer: A metrical analysis, with particular reference to the ‘Chilterns Sequence’ — this was a verse account of a walking tour Esme had taken at around the time of the General Strike — was duly submitted to the University of Uttoxeter’s examining board, earned Barry his PhD and eventually procured him a research post.
But Dr Mole was not finished with his long-dead protégé. An old college friend had since risen to the post of editorial director at the Oxford University Press, and with his encouragement Barry was not only able to publish a stout and authoritative volume entitled Smallbeer: Thirties Titan, but to introduce and annotate an edition of his Collected Poems.
Both books were well received. John Carey himself declared in the Sunday Times that it was to Dr Mole’s great credit that he had rescued a cruelly neglected poet from the dustbin of history.
A wiser man would have stopped here, but Professor Mole, as he had by now become, had got the bit between his teeth. The King’s College papers included copies of half-a-dozen letters sent to T.S. Eliot, together with Eliot’s replies. The latter were unusually concise, if not downright terse — one of them ran simply: “Dear Smallbeer. Thanks for yours of 24 inst. Noted TSE” — but by adding a certain amount of biographical material, Barry was able to produce a further volume entitled Smallbeer: Eliot: An Eternal Golden Braid.
All that was five years ago, after which it was the sad duty of Barry’s friend at OUP to inform him that the Smallbeer market was played out. Plans to publish an edition of his holiday diaries (Bridlington to Bognor: A Thirties Charivari) were put on hold.
Just now Barry is investigating the career of the little-known Alf Tubbs, a working-class writer of the 1950s once described by Kingsley Amis as “a talentless git with an obelisk-sized chip on his shoulder.” He is not Esme Smallbeer, but there is an enormous archive at Walsall Public Library and a garrulous widow, and Barry thinks he will do.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe