Poet who reworked The Iliad for a modern age and was a long-serving contributor to Private Eye
Published 11/12/2011 | 05:00
CHRISTOPHER Logue, the poet, who died last weekend aged 85, made a notably varied contribution to English literature.
As well as more than 30 volumes of verse, Logue wrote a number of children's books, several plays, two screenplays, one pornographic novel, a long-standing column in Private Eye and versions of Homer which are considered by many to be the best of their kind since Pope.
Logue's association with Homer began in 1959 when he was invited to contribute to a new version of The Iliad that Donald Carne-Ross was commissioning for the BBC's Third Programme. He was to work intermittently on the epic poem for the rest of his life.
Carne-Ross decided that Logue should attempt Book XVI, the Patrocleia, which -- as it contains a quarrel and reconciliation, several battles, the death of a leader, disagreement in Heaven, a human cheating the gods, the death of that human, irreversible change and a crucial twist -- is like a miniature version of the entire work.
Logue, who had no Greek, began by studying the same passage in the translations of Chapman, Pope, Derby, Murray and Rieu. He was relieved to discover that each version gave a markedly dissimilar impression of the original work. Logue was also inspired to read Chapman's 1611 dismissal as "envious wind-flickers" of those who had accused him of using a French crib, and decided to treat his allotted section without reverence.
He retained the basic story-line, but felt free to cut, amplify or add to its incidents, to replace extended similes with local counterparts and to omit most of Homer's ever-recurring compound epithets. Logue said that his reading on translation had yielded "one important opinion", Johnson's as related by Boswell: "We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation."
By this measure, Logue's translations were thought highly successful, remarkable for the cinematic fluidity of narrative. "Never was blood bloodier or fate more fatal," observed Louis MacNeice.
Logue's version of Book XVI was in time incorporated into War Music (1981), an account of Books XVI-XIX. This was followed in 1991 by Kings (Books I and II) and, in 1994, by The Husbands (III and IV). The whole was collected into War Music in 2001, and the work later continued in All Day Permanent Red (2003) and Cold Calls (2005).
Christopher Logue was born at Portsmouth in England on November 23, 1926, the only child of a post office wages clerk. From his earliest days Christopher was bookish and rebellious. Aged eight, he held up a little girl with a toy pistol, making off with her ice cream. When he was 14, he was charged with theft having been caught stealing adult magazines; he was freed on probation.
After Portsmouth Grammar School and Prior Park College, Bath, he served as a private in the Black Watch from 1944 to 1948, mainly in Palestine. He was sentenced to two years in Acre Central Prison after boasting that he had stolen pay-books in order to sell them, and on his release was discharged "with ignominy". During his service he also lost the sight in his left eye in an accident.
Back in London, Logue worked as a park keeper, dentist's receptionist and as a clerk at J Arthur Rank. Then, in 1951, he moved to Paris, where he worked at the Berlitz Language School and in 1953 published his first collection of poetry, Wand and Quadrant. The next year he wrote his novel Lust, under the pseudonym Count Palmiro Vicarion. This was published in Britain in 1957, as were the Count's Book of Limericks and Book of Bawdy Ballads.
Logue returned to London in 1956 and wrote such plays as The Lily-White Boys, The Trial of Cob and Leach and Antigone for the Royal Court. He was also involved with the fusion of poetry and jazz; his record from this period, Red Bird, based on his adaptations of Neruda's Los Cantos d'Amores, remains a collectors' item.
He became friendly with the drama critic Kenneth Tynan and the film director Lindsay Anderson, fell in with Arnold Wesker (whose cottage in Wales he borrowed for weekends) and fell in love with Nell Dunn, soon to be acclaimed as the author of Poor Cow and Up the Junction. His affection was not reciprocated. In 1958, Logue, disdainful of categories, started to make his poems into posters. Asked whether this was merely a publicity ploy, he mused: "One doesn't always know one's own motives. A poster seems two things: both a means to an end and an end in itself. The Iliad would go marvellously on a poster except that it would be a very large poster."
Logue's collection of lyrics, Songs (1959), with its elegantly phrased and bitter attacks on imperialism and capital punishment, earned him a certain cult status.
Logue always maintained that art had a moral as well as an aesthetic responsibility. His own bohemian, often picaresque, existence resonated with an ethical enthusiasm that saw him join the Aldermaston March and suffer imprisonment for his anti-nuclear principles.
In 1962 he was jailed after he failed to reassure a judge that he would not break the law at an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Logue told the judge: "Your Worship, I came here to save your life. But having heard what you have to say, I don't think the end justifies the means." His month-long sentence was spent in Drake Hall open prison, where he and his fellow protesters were set to work ("Some wit allocated it") demolishing a munitions factory.
On his release, Logue, who had been writing songs for Peter Cook's Establishment Club, found a letter from Richard Ingrams inviting him to contribute to Private Eye. He had inherited from his father an obsession with newspaper cuttings, and Cook, who greatly admired Logue's "extraordinary talent for being non-commercial", suggested he edit a column of 'True Stories'.
Logue estimated that by the end he had read more than 20,000 real-life tales of zany happenings. The message of the column, he said, was that "what you read on page one of the newspapers is not life. It is what goes onto the inside pages that you have to deal with."
Logue also edited Private Eye's 'Pseud's Corner' for a number of years, a job which "did require a certain level of hatred for the pretentious idiots of the world. They never let me down with their mastery of self-deception. Over the years I was caught out by irony a couple of times. I got John Peel wrong, I think -- I felt rather ashamed of that."
In a lengthy career, Logue was widely active in other areas; he appeared as Swinburne in the film of Dante's Inferno (1966) and as Cardinal Richelieu in The Devils (1970). Both of these were directed by Ken Russell, as was Savage Messiah (1972), for which Logue provided the screenplay.
His work for children includes The Crocodile (1976), The Magic Circus (1979) and The Children's Book of Children's Rhymes (1993).
In 1999 he published a memoir, Prince Charming. Logue lived life on his own terms, never subject to concerns over money or status, and was able to conclude towards the end of his memoirs: "I have done more or less what I fancied doing, and the greater part of my time has been spent in the company of those who have done likewise."
Logue was awarded the Whitbread Prize for Poetry in 2005 for Cold Calls and appointed CBE in 2007.
A new generation of potential Logue admirers was alerted to his existence when his poem London Airport was featured on the London Tube in the 1980s as part of the Poems on the Underground series. It reads:
"Last night in
I saw a wooden bin
Is To Be Placed Herein.
So I wrote a poem
and popped it in."
He married, in 1985, the biographer Rosemary Hill.