‘In my deepest friendships,’ Stephen Spender wrote in his wartime September Journal, ‘I have been conscious of being thus “taken with a pinch of salt”. Sometimes it is disconcerting to be laughed at when one is serious, but as long as it is done affectionately, one is grateful to people who enable one to see oneself a little from the outside.’ An exceptionally self-conscious writer and public figure, Spender was all too aware of how he was regarded – or disregarded – by the world at large. ‘Secretly I do not believe that anyone has read anything (apart from a few anthologized poems) I have written,’ he admitted in one of the spasms of self-doubt that pepper his journals. He was probably right about his poetry, but his autobiographical writings – of which New Selected Journals is the latest instalment, combining new and previously published material – deserve to be better known. They interlace literary gossip with an insider’s view of the cultural and political trends of the time; what makes them sympathetic as well as entertaining is Spender’s awareness of his own literary and intellectual shortcomings, and the comfort he draws from, in particular, his wife and children.
Reviewing Spender’s autobiography, World Within World, Cyril Connolly wrote of his old friend that he was a divided character: one half was ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic’; the other half was ‘shrewd, ambitious, aggressive and ruthless, a