Monday 2 April 2018

J.C. Squire and T.S. Eliot: Strong Views on Cheese

Born on this day in 1884 was J.C. Squire, a once highly influential man of letters – poet, editor, critic and formidable networker – who is now one of those all but forgotten names of the interwar literary scene. He and his friends, who inevitably became known as the Squirearchy, were (as John Gross writes in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters) 'associated with everything that an intellectual of the day was liable to wince at most – cricketing weekends, foaming tankards, Sussex-by-the-Sea, pale green pastorals, thigh-slapping joviality'. Squire founded a literary cricket club, the Invalids (which survives to this day), and was even an early radio commentator on the Boat Race and Wimbledon. Virginia Woolf described him as 'more repulsive than words can express, and malignant into the bargain' – so he can't have been all bad.
  Squire was also, according to an arresting sentence in Wikipedia, 'an expert on Stilton cheese'. Indeed he was at one time chairman of the Stilton Memorial Committee – and this brought him into conflict, not for the first time, with T.S. Eliot. In the latest volume of Eliot's letters is one to the editor of The Times in response to a 'spirited defence of Stilton cheese' written by J.C. Squire. Squire had proposed that a statue should be erected to the supposed inventor of Stilton cheese, a Mrs Paulet of Wymondham. Eliot questioned whether it was worth going to such lengths: 'In a few years' time the Stiltonian monument would be just another bump in a public place, no more inspected than the rank and file of statesmen, warriors and poets.'
  Eliot himself favoured the founding of a Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses, in order that cheese might be 'brought back to its own in England'. The Society could, for example, 'visit all hotels and inns in Gloucestershire, demanding Double Gloster'. Eliot's own cheese preference was for the 'noble old Cheshire', though he also described Wensleydale as 'the Mozart of cheeses'. Clearly he was, like Squire, a man who took his cheese seriously.
  Alas, Squire's latter years were, as Gross puts it, 'a sad affair, with something of the macabre overtones of an Angus Wilson short story'. Drinking more and more heavily, he drifted into a semi-vagrant existence amid 'a chaos of unpaid bills and unfulfilled commitments'. Having grown a straggling beard and taken up residence in a suburban hotel, he took to calling himself 'the sage of Surbiton' (though he insisted on being addressed as 'Sir John'; he was knighted in 1933). On one occasion, he turned up at the Athenaeum wearing 'white flannels, black evening slippers, a badly moth-eaten, blue, high-necked pullover, a wing collar and an Old Blundellian tie'. But at least he died knowing that Macmillan's were planning to publish his collected poems. They came out in 1958, shortly after his death, with an introduction by John Betjeman, whose work Squire had been among the first to publish.
  Squire was certainly a clever parodist and achieved some of his earliest successes in that form. So, to wind up, here's a curiosity – his double parody of Gray's Elegy and Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Surely this is the strangest fruit of Thomas Gray's great poem.

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