Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lionel Birch

A few weeks ago I featured the rather lovely patterned paper on the outside of a book of poems by Lionel Birch called Between Sunset and Dawn, and one of the poems from the book as well. This above is the frontispiece design by Michael Stewart from the same book.

Birch is a figure who features in footnotes and small anecdotes here and there in literary history and in particular in gay literary history. He wrote a number of non-fiction books on such subjects as journalistic writing and the TUC, he married and had children, and yet, at the age of eighteen he was publishing these poems which begin with the David and Jonathan quote about the love that "passeth the love of women" and a number of which are clearly loaded with homoerotic undertones. And just two years later he also published a novel about schoolboy homosexuality Pyramid (Philip Allan, London: 1931) and then another the following year The System (Philip Allan, London: 1932) both of which are now very scarce. The first novel opens with two boys being summoned to see the headmaster who puts it to them, "It has come to my ears that you two are in the habit of kissing each other. Is that so?" We also know that, as a young man Birch was reasonably well connected to other gay writers: he was in correspondence with Edwin Emmanuel Bradford for example, reading and commenting on Bradford's books in some detail. And yet, Birch remains a slightly obscure character. So I was delighted to come across a copy of his obituary laid into one of his books the other day...

"Lionel Birch, a distinguished figure in Fleet Street, died yesterday aged 71. He had worked for The Sunday Telegraph since its first issue in 1961 and for more than 20 years he had edited the "Mandrake" Column.
"Bobby" Birch (as he was widely known) was a man of charm and unfailing courtesy and a writer with an urbane and entertaining style.
He was educated at Shrewsbury and he took a First in English at Cambridge, where he was a pupil of F. R. Leavis. While still an undergraduate he wrote a best-selling novel about public school life.
After service in the Army in the last war, when he attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, he joined Picture Post, the Hulton magazine, and subsequently became its editor.
Birch had struggled against illness for several years but insisted upon keeping up his work. He was at his desk only a few days ago.
He is survived by his widow and their daughter, as well as by children from an earlier marriage."
The Daily Telegraph, February 19th, 1982.


IA said...
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Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I have much to add about LB... except to say that I knew his daughter from his last marriage very well. In fact I went out with her for 6 years. She always spoke about her father with great warmth. I also knew her mother fairly well. I believe LB was married no less than 6 times (possibly 7 I forget).... he was in the Guinness book of records for being the most married man in Britain (at least that was the story.... always told with hilarity). One marriage (to Inge Morath) lasted only 3 weeks... however the final marriage (to my ex's mother) lasted over 20 years. Inge Morath was also married to Arthur Miller... but that's another story.

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