Andrew Porter: a personal memoir
I first encountered Andrew Porter — who died on April 3 — 62 years ago when I went to call on him at the tall, narrow house in Notting Hill Gate, west London, where he lived with the scholar and art historian, John Pope-Hennessy, then the formidably imperious director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The figure which greeted me in the hallway was that of a slim, slightly dishevelled, studious-seeming young man of extreme boyish good looks and a disarmingly shy and diffident manner.
The purpose of my visit was to try and persuade Andrew to join me at the FT as the paper’s first music critic. It was an invitation, I recall, that I had little authority to propose. It was only a few months before that I myself had been headhunted to become the FT’s first drama and film critic.
The idea of extending the FT’s coverage to include the arts was entirely the brainchild of the managing editor, Garrett Moore (then Viscount Moore, later Earl of Drogheda). Many, I think, including the FT’s singularly down-to-earth editor, Gordon Newton, believed Moore to be indulging an eccentric personal whim and so for a time it must have seemed. I had been recruited directly from the Sussex Daily News and Evening Argus, both published in Brighton, where, after being demobbed from the RNVR in 1947, I had been writing arts features and drama reviews. As I was later to learn, I had been recommended to Moore by his friend Laurence Olivier, and thus it was, that in April, 1953, I wrote my first drama notice for the FT.
I soon found the high-powered company in the FT’s canteen highly convivial, including, as it did, a youthful Shirley Williams, an already sonorous William Rees-Mogg, a future chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson and the pioneering Arthur Windspear, already shaping the Lex column to become a deeply informed insider’s view on City dealings. But I also felt I was ploughing a lonely furrow, a feeling not relieved by seeing my reviews incongruously juxtaposed between stark columns of share prices and company reports.
After a short while, however, Moore pronounced himself well pleased with his experiment and suggested an immediate search for a music and ballet critic. Determined that any incoming arts correspondent must also possess the qualities of a congenial companion and lacking any kind of musicality myself, I sought the advice of an opera-going friend. He told me that a young man, recently down from Oxford, was writing very cleverly as a third or fourth arts stringer on the Daily Express.
I do not exactly remember how Andrew greeted my offer but I came to learn that his typical response to personal confrontation was initially a baffling silence then a screwing up of the eyes with the spectacles riding ever higher up the nose, followed by an amused, deprecating giggle. I imagine his reply must have been somewhat along these lines but I interpreted it as an acceptance and went back to tell Moore that I had found him the ideal recruit.
Andrew’s debut was not lacking in tension. At the time Moore was chairman of Covent Garden Opera and had failed to anticipate that his new protégé was unlikely to stay his critical hand if he thought an operatic performance in any way below par or a production tawdry. Inevitably, these well-aimed shafts of criticism were interpreted at times as a direct personal affront. “Have you seen what that little bitch has written about the Opera House today?” Moore once exclaimed to me in an outburst of patrician pique and indeed as if I was in some sense responsible myself. At the same time he would make anguished calls to Andrew’s sister, Sheila, then working as a publicity officer at the Opera House, to demand that she, too, exert a restraining influence on her renegade brother.
But Moore was too shrewd not to realise that the seriousness of Andrew’s approach would never permit him to modify a critical opinion for the sake of expediency. Aware that his paper had landed something of a prize, he was also too fundamentally benevolent an employer to let a relationship with a young contributor sour irretrievably. A guardedly amiable relationship ensued with Andrew finding a particular ally in Moore’s glamorous wife, Joan, herself a distinguished pianist.
Meanwhile Pope-Hennessey was exerting his considerable influence as Andrew’s mentor, subjecting each of his notices to rigorous critical analysis.
Sometimes I, too, could be the object of his strictures. “John thought your writing just about adequate but your argument flaccid,” Andrew would inform me next day.
Eventually the pressures placed upon Andrew in covering both music and ballet became too onerous, particularly when there were clashes of major performances. It was then that Andrew and I persuaded Clement Crisp to join us as the FT’s ballet critic. Now for the first time, when all three of us were contributing articles simultaneously, did there begin to appear the glimmerings of a serious and sizeable arts page.
I often accompanied Andrew to the opera. Although congenitally unmusical, I was still capable of being swept up in operatic drama and while Andrew remained tolerant of my musical ignorance he would sometimes tap into my reaction to the quality of a production or the dramatic interpretation of the singers.
None of us could then have guessed the epic journey Andrew was to make in becoming, perhaps, the foremost critic in his field. The extent of his obituary coverage not only in this country but also in the US and Canada has been extraordinary and testified abundantly to the prestige and renown he acquired throughout his 60-year career. He was without doubt the most revered and celebrated music commentator of the second half of the 20th century and the recent tributes have justly acknowledged his extreme erudition, the depth of his insight, his encyclopaedic knowledge of operatic and musical history, his faultlessly expressive prose style and, not least, his considerable contribution to the cultural life of his times.
I am not competent to write in detail about his critical perspicacity but I think I cottoned on early to the reason why he so excelled. It was, quite simply, his consuming passion for his subject, his unswerving application to the critical matter in hand. The manner in which he conveyed those opinions was forged in a white heat of total dedication.
It was always hard to believe how someone who could write such immaculate prose, marshal such rigorous intellectual arguments and set out with such precision and elegance the historical context of any aspect of his given subject matter, could also live in such utter and spectacular chaos. No surface of any dwelling he inhabited was not covered, often piled several feet high, with papers, typescripts, manuscripts and scores, sometimes interspersed with an errant sock or two or even the odd pair of underpants.
With seldom anywhere to sit, visitors would be compelled to navigate a course through banks of accumulated intellectual detritus. Fond friends who attempted to bring about reform were all gently rebuffed with Andrew protesting that any form of tidying up would merely result in his losing all forms of ready reference to his material.
He once called me in the early evening sounding both perplexed and panic-stricken. He had asked a group of people to dinner including Ken Davison, the chief publicist of Covent Garden, and typically forgotten to make any provision for them. I reassured him that in the era of ready meals no one need ever know of his neglect and that I could easily arrive with suitable provisions within the hour. What I had failed to foresee was that his kitchen stove would also be heaped with music scores and manuscripts, its oven stuffed with a medley of yellowed newspaper clippings.
Later in New York, on a visit to his West Side apartment, I found myself sitting on the edge of his uncomfortably lumpy bed. Exploring beneath the counterpane I discovered several rounds of buttered toast and an open jar of runny marmalade.
Besides the dishevelment and disorder of his life style went a ferocious and countervailing fastidiousness in the matter of writing and grammar. Andrew’s fury at any attempt to change his copy, even the deletion of a comma or a colon, has been well recorded, including the famous incident when he risked a printers’ strike at the FT’s St Clement’s Press by upending a galley of type after a sub-editor’s unwary intervention. But I found it sad that, towards the end of his career and after his return from America and his long stint on The New Yorker, neither the Observer nor the Times Literary Supplement could contain his ferocious perfectionism and that in both cases editorial relationships broke down leaving Andrew without a major platform.
But both the havoc of his lifestyle and his stylistic exactitude were in a sense all of a piece. His friends learnt to accept them as they accepted his unworldliness, his fathoms-deep absorption in his work, his endless, restless questing after what art and music can reveal to us if only we can learn to apply ourselves deeply enough.
Most of us are an amalgam of jostling, different selves. Andrew seemed remarkably to possess one single essence: unique, undiluted, inviolable.
For all his eccentricity he was an enormously endearing companion and for those close to him he remained a deeply loveable friend. His aura of reclusiveness, his gentle diffidence and the depth of his intelligence could have made him perfect casting for that unlikely hero of Dostoevsky’s, the noble, otherworldly Prince Myshkyn. How rare he was.