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Lieutenant Robert Conquest, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, in June 1940 (©Elizabeth Conquest)

“The poet is a hardy life-form . . . ”
— Robert Conquest, in the Introduction to New Lines

Why do some creative people continue to write, while others retire from the field? Part of the reason is simply that people age at different rates. Kingsley Amis, complaining to Philip Larkin that he was getting ugly, old, and fat, wrote: “What was that quote about free from care? Certainly applies to ole Bob. He just goes on and on, as if nothing has happened.” And so he did, possessing characteristics of successful people noted by Diane Coutu in her Harvard Business Review article “How Resilience Works”: a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly-held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise.

Bob was physically resilient as well. On the morning of May 28, 2008, after an 11-hour flight from San Francisco to London, we fell into Bev Cohen’s welcoming arms for a short nap at Perrymead Street, after which she and Ken Minogue gently conveyed us to the Wallace Collection to celebrate the launch of Standpoint. We found the courtyard brimming with the great and the good, waiters swirling around potted trees as they plied guests with champagne. Tom Stoppard gave a witty speech about the magazine’s raison d’être — to “defend and celebrate Western civilisation”. Clive James emerged from the throng calling, “Bob! I didn’t know you were in town. When did you arrive?” A mischievous smile accompanied the reply, “This morning.” Perhaps not what one might expect from a 91-year-old, but then Bob’s first words to others was inevitably “What’s new?”, and what better way to find out than to be in Manchester Square that night.

Seven years later, the week before he died Bob was hard at work editing final chapters of Two Muses — his memoirs — and also writing a poem. At the same time, with the aim of publishing a final collection of his verse, he’d been going through his earlier collections correcting misprints, and in some cases making minor alterations. After his death, as his literary executor I was tasked with sorting through his papers (a vast undertaking with an inventory running more than 120 pages); editing a comprehensive volume of Bob’s poetry; pulling together the last chapters of his memoirs from the bits he’d written (but not put in final order); and editing a selection of his letters.
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