Sixty-five years ago Cyril Connolly reviewed Stephen Spender’s sexually candid and politically unsettling memoirs of his early manhood, World within World, with the intimate knowledge of a literary collaborator. ‘An inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic – living for friendship and beauty, writing miraculous poems’ was paired with a ‘shrewd and ambitious, aggressive and ruthless’ character, ‘a publicity-seeking intellectual full of administrative energy and rentier asperity, a young tiger sharpening its claws on the platform of peace,’ wrote Connolly in his matchless summary of the double Spender.
Despite drawing on Spender’s voluminous journals, which he himself called ‘the Secret History of our Time’, John Sutherland’s official biography of 2004 could not satisfy all the conflicting expectations of Spender’s family, groupies, ex-colleagues and detractors. Now Spender’s son, Matthew (who was born in 1945), has produced a disarmingly eccentric book, uneven but endearing, which combines a memoir of his parents, and of his interaction with them, with ruminations on the gilded world in which they disported. A House in St John’s Wood covers their unhappy upbringings, their tense marriage, the milieu of Astors, Dufferins and Rothschilds, the affinities with Auden, Berlin, Hampshire, Stravinsky and other high-cultural neiges d’antan, Matthew’s perceptions as a London child nicknamed ‘Smashy’ and his escape from parental leading-strings.
Stephen Spender’s poetic good works and virtuous causes were numerous. He cofounded two excellent magazines, Horizon and Encounter, toiled for UNESCO and PEN, and started Index on Censorship. But attention will concentrate on Matthew Spender’s depiction of his parents’ troubled marriage, which survived more than half a century. Stephen’s primary