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Documenting the quest to track down everything written by (and written about) the poet, translator, critic, and radio dramatist, Henry Reed.

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I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
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«  The Diction of Brothels  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

18.6.2021


The Diction of Brothels

I'm ashamed to admit it, but while my mother lay in hospital, I went to the local library. It sounds bad when you say it out loud. Someone asks, "Hey, what are you doing here?" and you have to reply, "Well, my mom's in the hospital, y'know, so I had time to photocopy some citations."

I was looking for a biography of Joe Randolph Ackerley, a former editor of the BBC's magazine The Listener, author and memoirist. I knew from a collection of his letters that Ackerley and Reed were friends, so I felt sure that A Life of J.R. Ackerley (Parker, 1989) would probably turn up something. Boy, did I ever hit paydirt (practically an anthill)!

The Mary Jane and James L. Bowman Library is a branch of the Handley Regional Library system. It's a relatively new building, built on donated lakefront out in the boonies of Frederick County, Virginia. I'd never been, but from previous research I knew they had a copy of the biography. Since my mother was sleeping about 20 hours a day in the hospital, I pocketed all the loose change for the copiers that I could carry, and dropped by during a long lunch. It was well over 90° outside, and the library sat baking in its own parking lot, with nary a tree to shade a weary traveler (or a weary traveler's car, which currently is without a working air conditioner). In construction, the building reminded me strongly of an industrial chicken coop. Perhaps that was what the architects were going for.

Of course the book was on the shelf: BIO ACKERLEY. (Ah! Dewey Decimal, how I miss thee!) I cracked it open to the index, first thing. Reed is only mentioned on about six pages, and I wasn't hopeful. But right off, the first page revealed a juicy tidbit: Ackerley was forced to fight to get Reed's poem "Sailor's Harbour" published, because it contained the word "brothels":
We watch the sea daily, finish our daily tasks
By ten in the morning, and with the day to waste,
Wander through the suburbs, with quiet thoughts of brothels.
And sometimes thoughts of churches.
Which is exactly the sort of playful, irreverent humor that makes Henry Reed terrific. Ackerley probably thought the "churches" line was great fun. Listener editor A.P. Ryan, however, arguing that this was not the sort of poetic language they were seeking to publish, wanted Reed to change "brothels" to "movies" (pp. 185-86). As far as I know, the poem never did appear in the pages of The Listener, but Reed seems to have befriended Ackerley because of the row.

Later, Reed pops up again at Ackerley's farewell send-off from the magazine (which he refers to as his "funeral party"). Ackerley wrote in a letter: '...it was jollier than expected and went on until 8:30. The ebbing tide of distinguished guests had left behind them only a Corke and a Reed, and those I took off to dine. It was my last expenses sheet' (p. 352). The Corke can only be the poet Hilary Corke. It was October 29, 1959.

One disturbing fact cropped up, related to Reed only tangentially: apparently at some point, efforts were made to purge the ranks of The Listener of homosexuals. Geoffrey Grigson is quoted:
“Did I ever know a virtuous literary editor? Did I ever know one with an unfaltering conscience, a literary editor, a single literary editor, not given to compromise or betrayal? One. Joe Ackerley, of The Listener, whom some of his older colleagues in the BBC did their best now and again, to get rid of, in part, I imagine, because they knew him to be homosexual” (p. 182).
The footnote mentions that Ackerley was once 'saved only by E.M. Forster's direct intervention with the Director-General of the Corporation.'

Ackerley was certainly open about his sexuality in his memoirs, and his fiction also handles homosexual themes. I sometimes wonder about our friend Henry, and how overt or obvious he may have been, what troubles it may have caused him, and whom he trusted. I know of several stories in which people, strangers and acquaintances, didn't know he was gay. A fact which seemed to simply amaze him, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.


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Notation for "The Diction of Brothels":
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What is Henry Reed's first name?

1532. Vallette, Jacques. "Grand-Bretagne," Mercure de France, no. 1001 (1 January 1947): 157-158.
A contemporary French language review of Reed's A Map of Verona.



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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