Perhaps correspondence is the wrong word. That implies more than a simple exchange of letters. This is the letter which I got from the poet W. H. Auden in February 1967. It was in reply to a letter I had written and sent to him a month or so earlier. I cannot now recall what address I used for Auden but it must have been to his publisher because I did not have his home address at the time. Anyway, it got to him.
The postmark is the 24th of February 1967 (just a few days before his 60 birthday). There are a number of nice touches about the envelope. He has put his name on the front, as is the usage in America. He has started to address me as Mr Mason, but has changed his mind, to use the socially superior Joseph Mason Esq. Most effective, but only to those in the know however, is the address itself; for over 40 years earlier it had been his address, when he had been a schoolboy at Farfield in Holt.
In the letter he wrote me, Auden made an oblique reference to this fact. How nice, he says, to have a letter from Farfield. Despite what he wrote about living in a Fascist state while at school I am sure he found life at Farfield stimulating and rewarding. The comment about Fascism was one made by the young man Auden– the older Auden or the schoolboy (whose career we may glimpse in the pages of the Gresham, the school magazine) would have been more reasonable. From the references to his participation in school life in copies of the Gresham he entered into things with enthusiasm. His disparaging comments were about the “Honour System”, and were not wholly undeserved; nothing remained of this method of controlling the urges of youth by the time I was at Gresham’s. It had been essentially the creation of the headmaster Howson who created the school we know today in 1900; it was his way of imposing discipline without recourse to the cane. That was not a bad thing to attempt, but the problem with the “Honour System” was that it encouraged the young to inform on each other’s misdeeds. If it was unfortunate in its methods it was well intentioned. By the time I was a schoolboy the “Honour System” had gone and the cane had returned. I think Auden might have found the cane even more Fascist.
None of this intruded on his message to me. His letter was a thoughtful one to a boy whom he had never met. It answered my question about my future in realistic terms; the important thing, he intimated, was to choose a profession which would earn you a living. All considerations of artistic or literary activity were secondary to that. Not perhaps what an eighteen year old wanted to hear, but very true nonetheless.
I never wrote to Auden again, but my friend Bill Wragge did. Unfortunately he has mislaid the letter that he had in reply, but I do remember parts of it. In it Auden mentioned a member of staff who had taught him in the 1920s and whom recalled with apparent affection. This master was still teaching maths at Gresham’s when I arrived in 1959. Such things make the years fall away.
I now know how writers love to hear from their readers, for otherwise writing can be a very lonely experience. This must be true, even of very famous writers, so perhaps it is not surprising that I got my reply from W. H. Auden.