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Grey’s elegy in a Welsh churchyard - ​Professor Roy Foster

Blog | By Professor Roy Foster | Jul 26, 2022

Grey Gowrie (1939-2021), then Chairman of Sotheby’s, in 1993

Professor Roy Foster gave this address at the Powys funeral of Grey Gowrie, politician, poet and blithe spirit

One of the first memorable conversations I had with Grey, when we came to know each other nearly 50 years ago, was while we were driving in his rakish BMW coupé to London from Dunstall, his then home in Kent.

He talked spellbindingly about the authorial voice in Henry James’s fiction, and the journey went very fast. The last conversation I had with him, via dictated email, was two weeks before he died; it was about the women in Anthony Trollope’s novels, a more recent passion.

As an aristocratic poet-politician, he himself could have starred in a novel by James or by Trollope; he was also like a figure out of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, or Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which he loved for its exact appreciation of the human comedy – a gift he shared, in spades.

He moved easily between many worlds, and zestfully inhabited them to the full: whether receiving red ministerial dispatch boxes in the yard of his Welsh farmhouse, sitting beneath an Andy Warhol portrait of Liz Taylor in his Sotheby’s office, ringmastering one of Drue Heinz’s conversaciones at Villa Ecco, giving the most ingenious and well-chosen of presents, entertaining at Riva in Barnes during truffle season, or joyfully consuming fish and chips with the barrister Jeremy Hutchinson in the Seashell Café on Lisson Grove.

As he enthralled a dinner table, the stories came and went, preceded, endearingly but not really accurately, by the announcement ‘NON SWANKS’, while featuring luminaries such as Peggy Guggenheim, a Royal Personage, Francis Bacon, Elton John or ‘my old boss Mrs T’, whom he always recalled with a kind of rueful affection. His mental energy burned up a room, and his brilliance remained mercifully undimmed to the end.

That was the private Grey. His public life was influential and valuable as well as high-profile. In the current era of political opportunism and short-term chicanery, the service he did the state stands out, notably regarding the two contrasting worlds of Northern Ireland and the administration and facilitation of the arts. Both subjects raised issues close to his heart which were established early in life.

Grey Gowrie, then Chairman of Arts Council England, at the inauguration of the Angel of the North, 1998

He was born in Dublin in 1939 and his youth was spent in counties Kildare and Donegal (as well as – NON SWANKS – Windsor Castle, where his grandfather was Lieutenant-Governor), and he could ‘read’ the complexities of Northern Ireland with insight and compassion.

His early apprenticeship to Robert Lowell cemented his enduring commitment to poetry, and working with Thomas Gibson honed his formidable eye for a painting.

Ireland and his own Irishness remained central to him, and one reason he loved Wales so much was its Celtic dimension. In his lovely poem Marches, he evokes the wind sounding ‘like Ireland/when pulled from the west’, and ends with the words, ‘to live, live, walking against a wind/in Wales, in the mind, that lets you live in Ireland’.

He never, alas, wrote the autobiography that many of us urged him to write, but many of his later long poems evoke and circle round youth, memory and the profound sense of being part of a generation born in, and shaped by, wartime.

Though a passionate and unabashed connoisseur of the good things in life, it was the life of the mind that mattered to him. Perhaps this accounts for the paradoxical but cheering fact that the last two decades, following his heart transplant in 2000, were probably the happiest of his full and rich life.

It’s significant that the themes of the powerful poetry he began writing while awaiting the transplant in Harefield Hospital concern resurrection and a sense of the miraculous. In the opening poem of his Harefield sequence, he refers to his wife Neiti and himself fighting his illness together – and they won battle after battle.

I once told him he was like the Knight in Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, repeatedly winning his chess games with Death, but that’s too gloomy an image. More relevant is an invocation in From Primrose Hill (a poem about family, dedicated to his beloved grandson Heathcote, a great support to him and Neiti in the last months).

In it, Grey quotes the doctor in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, telling Milly Theale, ‘Live all you can’. He himself embraced this mantra, and Neiti enabled it: of all the gifts that the fairy godmother had given him, of all those silver spoons, he knew their marriage was infinitely the most precious.

If you said to Grey, at any point during the last 20 years, that he was astoundingly uncomplaining, he would reply, with complete sincerity, that he had nothing to complain about. The many medical complications after Harefield, his lameness, even latterly the cruel deprivation of the ability to read – all were faced with fortitude and even insouciance. He liked to quote Lowell’s remark that his favourite poets were Hardy and Pound ‘because of the heartbreak’.

However, his own poems are not about heartbreak, but the reverse: a celebration, a new heart, a new chance, the miracle of life and enduring love. In December 2005, he wrote to me about a mutual writer friend who was suffering from depression, ‘I hope he can write his way up again – the Lowell pattern – the Muse in an annoying way likes depression: I’ve always been a bit blithe, temperamentally, for her.’

That is how we will remember Grey – a blithe spirit, as well as the most resourceful, generous, brilliant and lovable of friends. At this saddest of times, as we are faced with his loss, it’s nonetheless appropriate that at his funeral we heard a poem called Celebrate. You came away from visiting him in that room at Harefield oddly buoyed up, because he was a celebrant of life in all its vicissitudes.

I’d like to close with some lines from Gardener’s Tale, his eclogue poem about his beloved Powys home, Ty Bain, which beautifully make the point:

If big themes are tragic, happiness

blooms in small corners; sunlight on a dress moving in from shadow; flood water; a call to capture the unfolding sensuousness of white nymphaeas or purple iris; absurd pleasure at the steamy pile

of straw christened by horses and settling in to rot by the compost heap, good as a win at the races, and, best of all, the bright certainty that in the end sins are forgiven or rotted down themselves, season by season, and we have laughter while we have the light.