Monday, 12 November 2012

Valerie Eliot has died.

T.S. Eliot's widow has died

While she and Fidel Castro lived I still felt young. Now there is just Fidel. All I remember about Mrs Eliot is that she was a secretary at Faber & Faber, idolised the poet long before meeting him and that Alan Bennett's parents knew her mother. I saw a documentary on television about Valerie Eliot and suppose she is a happy augury for getting married late. She made her husband very happy

Charles Moore in this week's Spectator has this footnote to Mrs. Eliot's life:

How one admires Valerie Eliot’s ferocious protection of her husband for the nearly 50 years that she survived him. The composer Robin Holloway once sought her permission to quote from ‘The Waste Land’ in a work of his own. She refused, because she did not like some of the other words in the composition. The words Holloway wanted to quote were, in full, ‘la la’.
I heard Alan Bennett tell this story two or three times on television, about the meeting between his mother and T.S. Eliot, he representing "Art and Literature and Culture and everything in the upper case, my mother indefatigably in the lower case to represent life". 

I was born and brought up in Leeds, where my father was a butcher, and as a boy, I sometimes used to go out with the orders, delivering the meat. One of our customers was a nice woman called Mrs Fletcher, and I used to go to her house and she had a daughter called Valerie. Valerie went to London and became a secretary and she got a job with a publishing firm and did well in the firm, and became secretary to the chairman, whom she eventually married. Now the publishing firm was Faber and Faber, and the chairman was T.S. Eliot. So there was a time early in life when I thought my only connection with literature would be that I once delivered meat to T.S. Eliot's mother-in-law. 

Some time after that, when we'd left the shop but were still living in Leeds, my mother came in one day and said, 'I ran into Mrs Fletcher down the road. Nice woman. She was with a tall fella, elderly, very refined. She introduced me and he passed the time of day,' and it was only some time afterwards that I realised that without it being the most seminal encounter in Western literature, my mother had met T.S. Eliot. 
I come from a not very dissimilar background to Alan Bennett, although my mother and father knew who T.S. Eliot was and my father had read him. In fact, my father as a teenage delivery boy for Sainsbury's once knocked down George Bernard Shaw, which is my own closest connection, alas, alas, with literature.

I have a mind which forgets names and faces but to which anecdotes always cling and I know so very many that it is hard to choose a favourite, but maybe this might be it. 

William Empson, the literary critic, was at a party and was introduced to a senior man from Lloyd's Bank who, when he knew what Empson did for a living, asked him if he had ever heard of T.S. Eliot.
Yes, of course.
Where would you place him?
Well, I should have to say that he is, without any doubt, the most significant poet to have written in English in the Twentieth Century.
(Momentary pause.) 
Oh. Eliot used to work for me at the bank. Always wondered if his stuff was any good.

The Lloyd's man went on to add:

Had he remained with the bank, he would certainly have become a director.


  1. A friend of mine told me Claude Lorrain began his career as a cook 'and a very good one'

  2. A pastry cook in fact, and a young one too. I think I helped sell a gramophone record to Valerie Eliot in Harrods once. I also met a man, friend of a friend, who as a boy bumped into GBS on the steps of the British Museum - clearly GBS was the sort of man who 'got in the way'. A.

  3. TSE worked for Lloyd's Bank, not Barclays, and certainly operated at a high level, especially in matters relating to 'foreign and commercial accounts' in which his knowledge of both languages and the cultural characteristics of 'foreigners' was highly valued. Valerie's brother, James Bruce Fletcher, was a relatively high-flying Chartered Accountant, and TSE had many conversations with him concerning investments.

    TSE was not particularly tall, and did not - by the time of his regular visits to Leeds - have the presence of a tall man; Valerie was quite tall and robust.

  4. Thank you very much indeed - of course it was Lloyd's.