Myers Literary Guide:
The North-East
 

MICHAEL (WILLIAM EDWARD) ROBERTS (1902 - 1948)

Roberts was nicknamed Michael from 1924 after the 18th century Russian polymath Mikhail Lomonosov. Born in Bournemouth, Roberts was a man of appropriately wide interests. He had graduated in chemistry and mathematics, but was strongly drawn to literature, and also worked for the Communist Party in Cambridge. Roberts taught at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle for 16 years after 1925, with an interval in London in the early 30s. Famously, he was appointed physics master after a two-hour interview mainly about Elizabethan poetry. Oddly enough, one of the fellow-boarders in his Jesmond guest-house c. 1925 was Captain W.E. Johns (q.v.). Later, Roberts lived at Red Lodge in Longbenton, where he papered a wall up to the ceiling with rejection slips.

Roberts' unconventional views and appearance were seen as shocking at the RGS, but undeniably stimulating. In 1930, he produced a slim volume of poems These Our Matins. He left to join Mercers' School in London, but found a less tolerant ambience there. In February 1934, his outspoken left-wing views led to his dismissal in mid-term. E.R. Thomas, Head of Science at the RGS (and with whom Roberts had collaborated on a book, Newton and the Origin of Colours) immediately offered him a job, and eventually Roberts rejoined the school in September, teaching mathematics, physics and English. In London, his influential New Signatures (1932) and New Country (1933), containing work by Empson, Auden, Spender, Day-Lewis and others had made him in T.S. Eliot's phrase, 'expositor and interpreter of the poetry of his generation'. Roberts also edited the influential Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936).

In 1935, he married Janet Adam Smith (1905-99), also a gifted writer and anthologist. She edited the Faber Book of Children's Verse (still in print) and was the literary editor of The Listener in 1933, when she incurred the wrath of the formidable Lord Reith, the BBC Director General, by having Auden's poem 'The Witnesses' printed in the magazine's poetry supplement. Reith found it incomprehensible. Later in life she was literary editor of the New Statesman and Nation (1952-60) and a frequent member of 'The Critics' on the BBC. The couple lived at 13 Fern Avenue, Jesmond, from June 1935 to April 1939, then at 73 Fern Avenue for the birth of their second child (and still later at 49A Wordsworth Street in Penrith 1939-41, when the RGS evacuated. They shared the house with Kathleen Raine). Janet Adam Smith writes of those Newcastle years as 'a tale of poems, children, books, anthologies, reviews, climbing, ski-ing, school camps and holidays in Lakes, Highlands and Alps.' Roberts was also a committee member of the Newcastle Lit and Phil.

W.H. Auden (q.v.) had written to Roberts for advice on his teaching career, and, later, about the climbing aspects of his play The Ascent of F.6. On 27 September 1937, he came to dinner at 13 Fern Avenue, when the couple's first baby was three weeks old. Always fascinated by medical matters, he talked much with the midwife in attendance, Nurse Laverick, and elicited a fund of stories drawn from her Newcastle experience. Janet Adam Smith announced to baby Andrew: 'Remember you once saw Auden plain'.

Michael Roberts' own poetry is often about the mountains where he and his wife were very much at home, but 'HMS Hero' and 'Temperance Festival: Town Moor, Newcastle' have local interest - and 'Hymn to the Sun' begins:

'Voy warm' said the dustman
one bright August morning -
but that was in Longbenton,
under the trees.

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