Born in London in 1909, Stephen Spender’s talent was recognised early on by T.S. Eliot, who published Spender’s first book, Poems, at Faber & Faber in 1933. Spender wrote the following diary entry six years later, a few days after lunching with Eliot and with the world teetering on the brink of war—a perilous moment in history that had left Spender, and countless others, struggling to be productive. The “book about cats” mentioned by Eliot was published the next month as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats; in 1981 it was set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber in the immensely successful musical, Cats. Stephen Spender eventually regained his creative spark. He was knighted in 1983.
The Diary Entry
I had lunch with Eliot a few days ago at the club. The stupid thing is that I can hardly remember anything of what we said. I remember that we had Port-Salut cheese, which he chose. We each had a half of draught beer, so we were very abstemious. He smoked his French cigarettes. He was very gentle and courteous, as he always is, and more than that he talked with a great deal of freedom, was not at all ‘the great man’. At lunch I said that it might be a good thing to start a new magazine now. He agreed, but asked whether I thought we could get any subscribers. I said, not till January, I suppose. He asked me what I was doing, and I said, I think, writing my posthumous works, and that I wasn’t taking an official job. He said, ‘I think it’s very important that as many writers as possible should remain detached and not have any official position.’ I mentioned that I had sent in my name to the Ministry of Information and the War Office, but had had no reply. He had done ditto to the Foreign Office and had also had no reply.
He said he had designed a cover for his children’s book about cats. ‘I don’t know whether it’s altogether successful. I find that in drawing it seems purely a matter of chance whether I get the expression I want on a cat face or not. So I have to make a great many drawings, and hope that sooner or later I’ll strike in the expression I want.’
About writing, he said that it was very important that one should, at all costs, go on writing now. ‘It doesn’t seem to me to matter very much whether one isn’t able to do anything very good. The important thing is to keep going. Probably it’s impossible to do excellent work while things are so disturbed.’
I mentioned that I hadn’t been able to work, so had started this journal. He said, ‘Yes, that’s an excellent idea. Just writing every day is a way of keeping the engine running, and then something good may come out of it.’
Stephen Spender’s papers, including his journals, live at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. Two editions of those journals have been published: the first in 1985 when he was still alive, titled, Journals, 1939–1983, edited by John Goldsmith, and the second volume, New Selected Journals, 1939–1995, in 2012, edited by Lara Feigel and John Sutherland, with additional entries covering the remainder of his life.