Another chance encounter with a writer was due to my friend Julian Pettifer, who was at St John’s (Cambridge). He said there would be a special guest in his rooms that evening, and asked me to drop in late for coffee. I climbed in and found to my delight the rumpled figure of W.H. Auden holding court. He was relatively sober and hugely entertaining, and I could see immediately why so many people found him charming. In later years he became a prize bore when drunk, which was most of the time, going on endlessly about who had sung the Third Lady in The Magic Flute in 1952. Happily, before that I was with him on a number of occasions when he was reading his own works, at which he excelled.
Once in Edinburgh, after a BBC recording, we went to the pub to have a drink with Stevie Smith at her eccentric best. Within twenty minutes Wystan and Stevie had started on a nostalgic journey through Hymns Ancient and Modern at a hideously out-of-tune piano. I rushed back to the BBC, rounded up a camera crew, and got back in time to film a few minutes of this priceless duet. It is often trotted out in commemorative programmes. Of course, in today’s BBC you would have to have it planned eighteen months in advance.
W.H. Auden was born on 21st February 1907. The story above is taken from John Drummond’s autobiography. Now take An Overgrown Path to Monteverdi in Cambridge
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