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Hugh Gordon Porteus, photographed by Jeffrey Meyers in London, c.1977 (Courtesy of Jeffrey Meyers)

I do like to listen to people who have been sidelined. Once they begin to talk, they have things to tell you that you won’t be able to get from anywhere else.

W.G. Sebald, The Emergence of Memory

In 1978-79, while living in London and writing the life of Wyndham Lewis on a Guggenheim fellowship, I frequently saw and formed a close friendship with Lewis’s charming, congenial and feckless disciple, Hugh Gordon Porteus. Born in 1906, he was a valuable source of information. A minor but significant presence in literary London from the Thirties to the Sixties, he was delighted to be unearthed and freely reminisced about himself and all his eminent friends, from Lewis and T.S. Eliot to Lawrence Durrell and Dylan Thomas. He made a cameo appearance in all their biographies, but was never fully described. His obituary in the Independent of February 8, 1993, called him “a flamboyant figure in London’s bohemia”. Eight days later in that newspaper Anthony Thwaite described him as “a rather hearty, ruddy-faced, almost tweedy man, with a slightly barking voice".

I dined with him in my rented flat in Hampstead and the flat off Sloane Square in Chelsea of his sweet and affectionate companion, Barbara Dunell. She had trained under Roger Fry at the Courtauld Institute, nursed during the war, worked for the Times Book Club, ran an art gallery on Mount Street in Mayfair and looked after Porteus when he was ill. When I visited his place in Cheltenham, the once fashionable Gloucestershire spa, I was rather shocked by his poverty and squalor. With the help of the authors Francis King and John Lehmann I wrote to the Royal Literary Fund and we secured a four-figure grant.

Porteus never threw out anything in print. His half-century of newspaper clippings was piled three feet high in what he called his tel (the Arabic word for hill), a chaotic but potentially promising elevation which was difficult to penetrate or excavate. Isolated, lonely and ill, he was keen to talk and correspond with someone intensely interested in his hero. His rambling letters were amusing and entertaining. But I learned more about Lewis from my liveliest and most indiscreet informant in our three formal and focused interviews.

Like Chaucer’s Sergeant of the Law, he always “seemed busier then he was”. Restless and on the move, he had many different jobs but never settled down to a successful career. Writing in the TLS of March 26, 1993 shortly after Porteus’s death, Julian Symons, who knew him in the Thirties when he imitated Lewis in dress and manner, called him secretive and paranoid, and simplistically attributed his disappearance from the reviews to “his inability to write to a required length”. But when I knew him 40 years later, he was open and outspoken, friendly and engaging — perhaps because I was much younger and was not a literary rival. I think he fell into undeserved obscurity because he never collected in a book his scattered art reviews, literary articles, poems and translations of Chinese poetry, and never composed (though he planned to write) a memoir. He wrote to me: “I’ve had £100 advance for an autobiography but — as one of my more realistic girlfriends coldly observed — who on earth wd. be interested enough to read it?” He was too easily discouraged. His military adventures in the Middle East and friendships with distinguished writers would have been of great interest.

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