WORLD-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2007-11 > 1194206735
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [WORLD-OBITS] MICHIE: James Michie
Date: Sun, 4 Nov 2007 20:05:35 -0000
Last Updated: 3:07am GMT 03/11/2007
James Michie: if he broke the rules, his fundamental good nature left him
James Michie, who died on Tuesday aged 80, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1995
for his Collected Poems, and was also an outstanding translator into English
verse; in addition he proved an extremely shrewd, if somewhat idiosyncratic,
Notwithstanding the Hawthornden prize, Michie was in general underrated as a
poet. Partly this was because he wrote comparatively little on his own
account. His first two books of poetry, Possible Laughter (1959) and New and
Selected Poems (1983), were both slim volumes, while further offerings in
Collected Poems (1994) brought the sum of his published verse to no more
than 80-odd pieces.
Perhaps Michie was never able to take himself quite seriously enough:
for long ago detecting / Nothing, I gave up the search for myself sadly. /
The apple, who longed for a stone, accepted a medley / Of pips in the end, a
dozen selves, all acting, / And came to terms with its heart.
Moreover, it hardly advanced Michie's reputation in progressive circles that
he was a master of form and prosody - albeit so discreet in his technical
brilliance that even his most piercing reflections unfold with perfect
clarity and an almost conversational ease. Thus, contemplating the prosaic
succession of events in a girls' school, he wrote:
The hours, pretending they do not know how to combine, / Walk up as charming
freebooters, unarmed, disclaiming / Allegiance to that remote and iron-grey
Michie never lacked for admirers among the true masters of his craft. WH
Auden included two of his poems - Park Concert and Arizona Nature Myth - in
his published commonplace book, A Certain World (1970). He also held the
highest opinion of Michie's verse translations.
"Horace has always been one of my favourite poets," Auden wrote, "and I have
often toyed with the idea of translating him. After reading Michie's
translation [of the Odes] however, I see that I must dismiss the idea. I do
not expect to read a better one." Michie's version, first published in 1964,
was several times reprinted by Penguin.
Michie also produced verse translations of Catullus, Virgil (The Eclogues)
and Ovid (Ars Amatoria). His lapidary style was especially well suited to
the sharp lubricity of Martial's Epigrams:
Chrestilla digs her husbands' graves,
Fabius buries his wives. Each waves,
As bride or groom, the torch of doom
Over the marriage bed. Now pair
These finalists, Venus: let them share
Victory in a single tomb.
In addition he translated Aesop's Fables, La Fontaine's Fables (among his
best work, he thought), Euripides's Helen (with Colin Leach), as well as two
anthologies, one from the Latin and the other from the Greek. The Collected
Poems also contain some translations. Altogether this added up to a
considerable body of work, giving the lie to any idea that Michie was a
It was independence, not idleness, which he sought. A wary hedonist,
resigned like his favourite Horace to the conclusiveness of death, Michie
meant to enjoy his day in the sun. And however fortune disposed, he followed
the prescriptions set forth in his translation of the Odes (Book II, No 3):
Maintain an unmoved poise in adversity;
Likewise in luck one free of extravagant
Joy. Bear in mind my admonition,
Dellius. Whether you pass a lifetime
Prostrate with gloom, or whether you celebrate
Feast-days with choice old brands of Falernian
Stretched out in some green, unfrequented
Meadow, remember that your death is certain.
Yet if Michie inclined to caution, he did not funk experience.
In his late forties he resolved to do three things which he had regarded
with especial dread: to attend an encounter group, to make a parachute jump,
and to answer a sex advertisement in person.
Disaster attended all these undertakings, though in the case of the
parachute jump failure fortunately proved no worse than landing in a marsh.
"Among other pleasures that he enjoyed," John Aubrey wrote of Richard, Earl
of Dorset, "Venus was not the least." Michie's sympathy, intelligence, wit
and understanding, allied to a certain steely determination, ensured him a
versatile love life.
These, however, were also qualities which won him many friends beyond the
range of Venus.
If he broke the rules of conventional morality, he was usually forgiven;
indeed his fundamental good nature left him more affectionately regarded
than many practitioners of household virtue. Above all he was blessed with
James Michie was born at Weybridge on June 24 1927, the son of an East India
merchant turned banker.
The family was copiously supplied with brains. James's elder brother Donald,
who died in July, worked with Alan Turing at Bletchley, and after the war
became the leading expert on artificial intelligence, among the very first
to divine the potential of computers as a universal means of communication.
Yet the family genes were by no means exclusively intellectual. James's
suave and beautiful mother taught him to dance brilliantly.
When, just before the war, the family took a holiday in Germany, his
brothers bet him that he would not dare to dance with a stunning frulein
who had seized the attention of a group of SS officers.
James took the wager, dazzled the girl with his skill on the floor, and
enjoyed the further satisfaction of reducing the SS men to sullen fury.
He was educated at Marlborough, where his brains were soon in evidence; he
was also captain of squash. He won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford,
in Classics; after taking Mods, though, he switched to English Language and
Kingsley Amis, who was at St John's, remembered how Michie and he used to
comment on each other's poems. They joined forces to edit Oxford Poetry
1949. Of their own contributions to this journal Amis observed in his
Memoirs: "James's poems were embarrassingly better."
A conscientious objector, Michie was spared National Service; the prescribed
alternatives, however, were far from a soft option.
He spent a year as a hospital porter at Guy's, and then, under the auspices
of the International Voluntary Service for Peace, was dispatched to Bavaria,
where he built houses for refugees in company with ultra-tough Germans who
had fought on the Russian front.
Subsequently the IVS sent Michie to Jamaica, where he laboured on further
houses, this time for the YMCA in Trenchtown, a suburb of Kingston, before
finding more agreeable work as a schoolmaster.
He returned to London with a Jamaican girl, and reckoned it prudent not to
communicate the news of their marriage to his parents.
He found lodgings with Joan Wyndham in Wellington Square, off the King's
Road, and kept the wolf from the door through miscellaneous literary work,
notably for John Lehmann at The London Magazine.
He also lectured for the Workers' Educational Association.
In the mid-1950s Michie landed a job at Heinemann's and, though always the
antithesis of the corporate man, soon established a reputation as one of the
leading editors of the time.
If his style was decidedly laid-back, with a penchant for long lunches, his
judgment was invariably outstanding.
It was Michie who published Sylvia Plath's first book of poems, The Colossus
(1960). After the contract had been signed in the French pub in Soho, Sylvia
Plath wrote home excitedly: "My obliging editor at Heinemann said to tell
him my birthday and he will try to get my publication as close to that as
possible. The gallantry of the British!"
Michie was as good as his word, and followed up by publishing Sylvia Plath's
autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963), under the pseudonym Victoria
Anthony Burgess was another hopeful young writer with whom Michie dealt at
Heinemann's. He also commissioned Michael Holroyd to write a biography of
Lytton Strachey, securing him an advance of 50 for a book of 70,000 words,
to be delivered within 12 months. Many years later Heinemann published the
biography in two volumes amounting to some 500,000 words.
The first English editions of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and
of JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey (1962) were also coups for Michie.
And he took especial pride in The Rack (1960) by AE Ellis, the pseudonym of
This novel, which is to be republished next spring by Elliott & Thompson,
describes the ghastly treatments meted out to sufferers from tuberculosis at
a sanatorium in the Alps. Both Graham Greene and Cyril Connolly considered
it a masterpiece.
In 1962 Michie was suborned by Graham Greene to go to Bodley Head as
At an interview with Max Reinhardt, he suggested that he might be able to
bring Anthony Powell or Olivia Manning with him. "That's not the reason for
the offer," Reinhardt insisted, "it's you, James, whose talents we are
And indeed Michie continued to show a sure touch at Bodley Head. He became
an early protagonist for William Trevor.
He obtained prior intelligence of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward,
information gathered while playing roulette. Bodley Head duly published
Cancer Ward in 1968, and acquired world rights in Solzhenitsyn.
Michie brought Muriel Spark to the firm with Loitering With Intent (1981),
and launched the novel-writing career of Sebastian Faulks with A Trick of
the Light (1984).
Paul Theroux was another young novelist whom he published, although, with
typical indifference to that writer's budding reputation, he did not
hesitate to turn down The Black House, which he considered not up to the
mark. Besides, the fellow wrote of "Dorsetshire".
Michie showed a keen eye for more offbeat offerings, notably Robert Pirsig's
philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), which
achieved an unlikely, but huge, commercial success.
He compiled two anthologies: The Bodley Head Book of Longer Short Stories
(1975), and, with P J Kavanagh, The Oxford Book of Short Poems (1985). He
also edited, with Rosalind Caldecott, A Country Parson: John Woodforde's
Diary 1759-1802 (1985).
Michie was the only poet permitted to display his art in the pages of The
Oldie; and during a short period at that magazine he initiated the "I Once
Met" column, such a boon to obituarists.
His verse also appeared in The Spectator, in which for 30 years he ran the
Jaspistos literary competition, showing apparently inexhaustible resource in
thinking up new challenges.
It was at The Spectator that he met Clare Asquith, who brought such joy to
his later years, rekindled his muse and looked after him to the end.
They had a son, Edward.
Once, at Mells, Clare's mother asked him if he had done the crossword. Yes,
James replied, it was quite an easy one. But there is nothing filled in, his
hostess returned. "I did it in my head," James explained.
He always had a weakness for Catholics, notwithstanding his professed
And no Christian, however sure of his place in heaven, could have died with
more bravery and style than he showed when cancer laid him low. He produced
a final couplet, Cancer, or the Biter Bitten.
I used to fancy crabmeat as a treat: / Now Crab's the epicure, and I'm the
James Michie married first, in 1954 (dissolved 1960), Daphne Segr. He
married secondly, in 1964 (dissolved 1982), Sarah Courtauld; they had two
sons and a daughter. In addition he had a daughter by Tatiana Orlov.
|[WORLD-OBITS] MICHIE: James Michie by "Peter McCrae" <>|