George Sutherland Fraser was a poet and critic, two roles often found together, who proved to be an influential taste-maker of British poetry, especially between the mid-50s and early 60s. He was also a fluent and well-informed literary journalist and cultural commentator; in his early career he had been a general journalist, competent sub-editor and on-the-scene reporter. Late in life he became a university lecturer of English Literature, with the title of ‘Reader in Poetry’.
Fraser was born into the Scottish professional class; his father, George senior, had read law at Glasgow University and went on to follow a legal career in local government. In 1915, the second year of the First World War, when George was born, his father was serving in France as a captain in the Highland Light Infantry. His absence meant that in his early years the boy was largely brought up by women; in particular, his mother and his paternal grandmother.
His mother had been a Miss Jones, of English and Welsh origin. His father was of Highland stock, as his speech and name indicated. George senior survived the war and rose in his career; in 1927 he was appointed Town Clerk Depute of Aberdeen. Young George attended Aberdeen Grammar School, an ancient foundation where Byron had once been a student. A large statue of the poet stood outside the school, a visible inspiration to a boy with literary interests and ambitions. Fraser did well at school; he showed a distinct facility in languages as well as a taste for philosophical debate. He also wrote poetry, some of it reflecting his attraction to the well-bred girls that he met at parties in Aberdeen. But Fraser’s early poetry did more than pursue adolescent daydreams. It showed a young poet who took writing seriously, who was interested in the world he was growing up in, and who learnt from the contemporary masters, Yeats and Eliot.
Fraser moved smoothly through his schooldays, and entered St Andrews University to read History and English. Student life enabled him to flourish as a poet, and brought him friends and useful contacts. One of these was a young poet, Nicholas Moore, whose father, G.E. Moore, was a distinguished philosopher at Cambridge. It was through Nicholas Moore, himself a prolific poet in the 1940s, that Fraser became associated with the ‘New Apocalyptic’ literary movement that briefly flourished at that time and included Dylan Thomas as a prized example. Fraser’s student years were overshadowed by international crises and wars in Spain and China. His ‘Birthday Poem’ marked Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday in April 1939. It showed both respect for Hitler as a maker of history and mild alarm at his dictatorial rôle.
After graduating Fraser became a journalist on the Aberdeen Press and Journal, where he learnt to be a reporter and a sub-editor. One of his reporting assignments was to write about a unit of the Territorial Army that was in camp near Aberdeen. This was Fraser’s first encounter with military life, which in time would become very familiar to him. One of his most striking poems from the 1930s is ‘Meditation of a Patriot’ which deliberately imitates Yeats’s ‘September 1913’. Yeats’s poem invokes Irish patriots of the recent past, and Fraser tries to do something similar for Scotland, and calls on two major figures of European Romanticism, Byron and the Russian, Mikhail Lermontov. But Fraser does not seem entirely convinced, regarding Scotland as lacking Ireland’s capacity for poetic mythology. The question of Scottish national identity greatly interested him, but he never resolved it to his own satisfaction.
In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, while Britain, in accordance with its treaty obligations, declared war. Fraser, following his father’s example in the earlier war, volunteered for active service and joined the Army. His background and education could have made him an officer, as his father had been. But his physical awkwardness and lack of co-ordination on the parade ground showed him to be unsuitable as officer material and he went through his military service as a Warrant Officer, the highest non-commissioned rank. The Army found suitable employment for Fraser as a military journalist, working on the official newspapers produced for the services, which provided news and commentaries on the progress of the war, together with items intended to inform and entertain the readers, with the aim of raising morale. Fraser, an experienced journalist, took to this work, which kept him out of the Front Line for the course of the war.
In the spring of 1941, after he had witnessed from a distance the heavy bombing of London, the Army sent Fraser to Africa. His initial destination was Cairo, the capital of Egypt, a country which was supposedly neutral but in effect a British protectorate and a potential – and sometimes an actual battleground, where the British Eighth Army fought the German Afrika Korps. Cairo is an ancient city of mythic significance, then occupied by a menagerie of expatriates from Britain and other countries. They included Army and Air Force personnel, administrators, journalists, teachers and diplomats. Fraser was based in Cairo when he arrived in 1941, and was there again in 1944-45. An article he published in Poetry London in 1944 showed his complex response to the city; its long history and accompanying mythology, and the poverty and deprivation that were so visible in modern Cairo.
Fraser met other writers in Cairo, some civilians, some in uniform, whom he saluted with his poem ‘Monologue for a Cairo Evening’. They included Lawrence Durrell, at that time known primarily as a poet, though later famous for his novel sequence The Alexandria Quartet; and Keith Douglas, a young officer who had fought in the desert war, been wounded and recovered, and would die in Normandy in 1944, now widely thought of as the finest British poet of the Second World War.
Another of Fraser’s Army acquaintances was the Scottish poet Hamish Henderson, whose Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, published after the war, remains one of the most moving tributes to the conflict. Fraser also came to know the novelist Olivia Manning, wife of a British Council official; her Levant Trilogy is a memorable evocation in fiction of an evocative time and place.
After several months in Cairo Fraser was transferred to Eritrea in East Africa, which had been an Italian colony but was occupied by the British after Italy entered the war in 1940. His task was to start up and edit a newspaper, primarily for the British soldiers but also for any of the local population who could read English. At the same time Fraser was learning Italian, the language of the former occupying power and still in common use there. He applied this knowledge by translating Italian poetry, including the masters of the medieval era, Dante and Guido Cavalcanti. Fraser was an active translator of poetry, from Latin and the descendants of Latin: French, Italian and Spanish. Like Ezra Pound, Fraser saw the capacity to translate poetry as a necessary part of a poet’s equipment, and regarded Chaucer as an example.
In 1944 Fraser returned to Cairo but the military situation was quite different. The Germans had been driven out of Africa and Cairo was no longer a front-line city. The end of the war was in sight and the British military establishment was being run down. Soldiers were sent back to Britain, and Fraser’s thoughts, like those of his comrades, turned to home. Significantly, his second volume of poetry, published in England in 1944 and including much of his pre-war work, was called Home Town Elegy. In 1945 the army released Fraser and he travelled to London, a city that had recently celebrated victory while yet bearing the scars inflicted by the Blitz of 1940-41, the flying-bomb and rocket attacks of 1944-45, and many kinds of shortage and decrepitude. In London Fraser joined his widowed mother and his sister who had moved there from Scotland. His literary contacts, supported by his two volumes of poetry, proved helpful and he was able to find sufficient free-lance work – including a useful connection with the Times Literary Supplement – to earn a modest living as a reviewer and translator. Fraser’s sister was a civil servant in London, and she introduced him to a colleague, Eileen Andrew – always known to her friends as ‘Paddy’ – a Yorkshire girl with an Oxford degree in English. The acquaintance rapidly developed, and within a year George and Paddy were married. It was to be an enduring and fruitful relationship. Paddy supported it by her work as a teacher and administrator and occasionally as a free-lance writer. The Frasers lived in a large comfortable flat – previously occupied by his mother – in Chelsea, near the Thames, and within easy reach of the rest of London.
At regular intervals the Frasers entertained other poets, who came to read and discuss their recent work. They were an hospitable couple and did what they could to engender younger writers. Fraser’s friend Kathleen Nott, reviewing his autobiography A Stranger and Afraid in 1983, affectionately recalled his intellectual and personal qualities: ‘he and his wife Paddy…maintained, during the Fifties and early Sixties, a Bohemian salon which was a very welcome social centre’. Her memory of Fraser will be familiar to those who knew him: ‘In life he had a precise, rather pedantic way of speaking, faintly fringed with tartan, …a faraway but piercing pair of eyes, and a very good sense of humour, which emerged in genuine snorts of laughter, occasionally convulsive’. The Frasers seemed settled in a precariously rewarding way of life. They had three children, a boy and two girls, the elder of whom, Helen, was to become a leading figure in British publishing.
London was changing, in ways that caused an upheaval in the Frasers’ quasi-Bohemian life. Their flat had had its rent controlled by wartime regulations, which were now being removed. The rent rose to what was regarded as appropriate to the situation and market value of the property. This was beyond what the Frasers could afford and they had to face moving. A threatening dilemma was resolved by one of Fraser’s acquaintances, Arthur Humphries, Professor of English at Leicester University. He asked if Fraser would be interested in an academic post. He had a good first degree from St Andrews; he had a growing reputation as a poet and had written extensively on modern literature. He was used to lecturing on part-time courses, and had the necessary qualities to become a university teacher of English Literature. The transition was worked, and Fraser was transformed from a metropolitan intellectual to a ‘provincial don’, a phrase that was common to the time. He was to remain at Leicester for the rest of his life, active both in the academy and the cultural life of the city. At the same time Leicester was close enough to London for Fraser to maintain his metropolitan contacts and activities. The Frasers established a secure and outgoing way of life, which, as in London, involved hospitality to visiting poets and writers. A valuable opportunity to travel came in 1963, when Fraser, accompanied by his family, went to the USA for a year as a visiting professor at a university in New York State. While they were in America President Kennedy was assassinated, an event which Fraser marked with a moving poem.
Fraser retired from academic life in his sixties but continued to write poetry, not copiously but sufficiently to show that he was still a poet as well as a critic. Among his late poems is a sequence of sonnets in memory of the gifted scholar and poet, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, who had died in her twenties, following an overdose. In a happier vein, Fraser wrote a number of poems for Paddy, marking their many years of marriage. Though Fraser admired and wrote about the great Anglo-American innovators in modern poetry, Pound and Eliot, he was himself a more traditional writer. One quality he admired, and manifested, was the capacity to combine formal verse with the register of a speaking voice. He found it particularly in Alexander Pope, on whom he wrote a short book. Fraser’s retirement was short; his health declined, and he died in January 1980. He was given an Anglican funeral service, in accordance with a return to the Christian belief of his latter years. He was mourned by those who knew him, and by those who knew him only through his work as critic, teacher and poet.
Bernard Bergonzi, 2015