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Gowrie (The Earl of Gowrie), Grey

Grey Gowrie (Earl of Gowrie)

Elected: 2003

Year of birth: 1939

Year of death: 2021

Image credit: Carcanet Press

Author of Obituary: Ferdinand Mount

Obituary :

Grey Gowrie was first and last a poet, but he was also a mesmerising English lecturer, sharp-eyed art collector and dealer, junior minister in Northern Ireland during the worst of the Troubles, and later Arts Minister and Chairman of the Arts Council. He fulfilled all these roles with a memorable flamboyance and charm, but also with a dedication and diligence that the flamboyance sometimes obscured.

From an early age, with his aquiline profile and great head of black hair, he stood out vividly. His voice too was unlike anyone else’s: mellow and warm but with a strange far-offness, as if a dear friend was calling you long-distance. His instinctive attentiveness to anyone he met made him irresistible, notoriously to women but also to men, so that his fiftieth birthday party at Sotheby’s while he was chairman had to be spread over several days to accommodate the crush.

He was born in Dublin on 26 November 1939. His father, Pat Hore-Ruthven, was killed leading a commando raid in Libya in 1942. His grandfather Sandy had won the VC in the Mahdi campaign in Sudan, and the ancient Gowrie title was revived for him in 1945 after he had served eight years as Governor-General of Australia. Grey was deeply fond of his grandfather, from whom he got his hawk’s profile, and with his younger brother, Malise, lived at Windsor Castle, where Sandy had come to rest as Lieutenant-Governor. Grey’s mother remarried and later spent much time in the Middle East helping refugees with her second husband, Major Derek Cooper. The boys’ grandparents injected some much needed warmth into their lives. All his life Grey felt the shadow of genteel poverty and the need to prove himself equal to his father and grandfather, but perhaps also a certain irreparable solitude.

At Eton and Balliol, Oxford, there was scarcely a time when he was not determined to be a poet. When he graduated with a near-first, which surprised only those who did not know how hard he was capable of working, he went to America, to teach English, first at SUNY Buffalo and then at Harvard, with his wife, Xandra Bingley, and their infant son, Brer, partly because of his enduring enthusiasm for American or Anglo-American poets, notably Auden, Marianne Moore and Robert Frost. At Harvard, he became a close friend and admirer of Robert Lowell, and also developed a taste for the difficult poets of the Black Mountain school, such as Charles Olson and Robert Creeley.

His own verse, though, was always direct and easy with a rueful lilt to it. His first collection, A Postcard from Don Giovanni (1972), with its rakish Hockney portrait of the author on the cover, found plenty of takers. The final couplet of ‘Outside Biba’s’ was picked out by Roy Foster as emblematic of the time:

No war now, no one poor under thirty,

All the Cold War babies dressed to kill.

Christopher Middleton was later to write of Grey’s verse as a whole: ‘I can hear in these unusually analytic and civil poems the voice of an intelligentry reaching back to Sir Philip Sidney. A direct, no-nonsense, witty clarity marks them, long or short, and there is no fright but an athletic grace in the face of brute fact, Chimera and Medusa.’

Partly to earn some money but also intrigued by the idea of political service, having inherited his grandfather’s title, he took up attending the House of Lords and, talent being as ever in short supply there, was swiftly promoted to a Conservative front-bench spokesman, then to Minister of State at Employment under Jim Prior. He followed Prior to Northern Ireland, where he became responsible for prisons and was the first minister to meet the families of the hunger strikers. He was instrumental in bringing the protests to an end. Among his endearing and occasionally exasperating qualities was his inability to say an unkind word about anyone, even if they had done him a bad turn.

It is true, though, that the sympathies kindled by his Irish heritage (he was to inherit Castlemartin, the lovely tumbledown manor in Kildare where he had spent part of his childhood, although he could not afford to keep it up) did lead him to push along the idea of ‘rolling devolution’ with its incremental power-sharing, which was the forerunner of the Good Friday Agreement years later.

His varied services in the arts sector were no less influential. He persuaded Margaret Thatcher to distribute more public money to the arts and John Major to put both public broadcasting and the National Lottery under the DCMS, thus helping to cement the secure position of both in national life. Kenneth Baker, Home Secretary in those years, has called Gowrie ‘the best arts minister we have had’. His relationship with Thatcher was warm, and he often went to see her after her fall from power. While his ministerial career left far more permanent marks than most, his achievement was a little underrated because he was seen as an exotic bohemian. Conversely, his poetry was not always properly appreciated because it came from a former Tory minister.

After his divorce from Xandra, he married in 1974 Adelheid (‘Neiti’), daughter of the Graf von der Schulenburg who was hanged by Hitler for his part in the 1944 plot. The marriage was to be happy and enduring. After he contracted a heart virus in 2000, he underwent a heart transplant at Harefield at the late age of 60. The operation was successful, but a fall in hospital meant that he was unable to walk easily again. With Neiti’s unwavering support and affection, he bore 20 years of remorseless ill-health without a hint of complaint, as he did the cruelly prolonged Covid-19 which eventually killed him.

Throughout, he continued to write verse of high quality, not least The Domino Hymn, written during the months while he waited for the transplant. Dennis O’Driscoll wrote in the TLS: ‘The Domino Hymn rages movingly against the dying of the light, covering heroic distances and charting epic struggles in the space of eighteen unflinching and atmospheric pages. Grey Gowrie’s poems – utterly free from any querulous or self-pitying role – touch the reader’s own heart as they give voice to the “poor, bare, forked individuals” who are enmeshed in the tubes and wires of machine-age medicine.’ Here certainly he showed himself the equal in courage of his father and grandfather.

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Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.