Brian Howard (poet)

Brian Howard (poet) bigraphy, stories - English poet, whose work belied a spectacularly precocious start in life; in the end he became more of a journalist, writing for the ''New Statesman''

Brian Howard (poet) : biography

13 March 1905 – 15 January 1958

Brian Christian de Claiborne Howard (13 March 1905 – 15 January 1958) was an English poet, whose work belied a spectacularly precocious start in life; in the end he became more of a journalist, writing for the New Statesman.


He was born to American parents in Hascombe, Surrey, of Jewish descent, and brought up in London; his father Francis Gassaway Howard was an associate of James Whistler. He was educated at Eton College, where he was one of the Eton Arts Society group including Harold Acton, Oliver Messel, Anthony Powell and Henry Yorke. He entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1923, not without difficulty. He was prominent in the group later known as the Oxford Wits. He was one of the Hypocrites group that included Harold Acton, Lord David Cecil, L. P. Hartley and Evelyn Waugh.

It has been suggested that Howard was Waugh’s model for Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. But Waugh wrote, to Lord Baldwin: "There is an aesthetic bugger who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names — that was 2/3 Brian [Howard] and 1/3 Harold Acton. People think it was all Harold, who is a much sweeter and saner man [than Howard]."

At this time he had already been published as a poet, in A. R. Orage’s The New Age, and the final Sitwell Wheels anthology. He used the pseudonyms Jasper Proude and Charles Orange. His verse also was in Oxford Poetry 1924. His poetry was admired and promoted by Edith Sitwell in the late 1920s.

In the late 1920s, he was a key figure among London’s "Bright Young Things" – a privileged, fashionable and bohemian set of relentless party-goers, satirised in such novels as Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 "Vile Bodies" where the character of Miles Malpractice owes something to Howard. Apart from Waugh, Howard knew all this circle, including Nancy Mitford, Henry Yorke, Harold Acton, and especially Nancy Cunard with whom he shared artistic and political interests, maintaining contact throughout his life.

In 1929 he was famously involved in the "Bruno Hat" hoax when fashionable Hon Mr & Mrs Bryan Guinness promoted a phoney London art exhibition by an apparently unknown German painter Bruno Hat (impersonated by the German-speaking Tom Mitford, brother of Nancy and Diana Mitford – the latter a socialite, arts patron and friend of Howard, Lytton Strachey, Evelyn Waugh, Boris Anrep, Dora Carrington, John Betjeman etc, before her second marriage to British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley). Bruno Hat’s paintings were the work of Brian Howard.

Howard is credited with coining the phrase “Anybody seen in a bus over the age of 30 has been a failure in life”, wrongly attributed to Margaret Thatcher. According to Daily Telegraph correspondent and historian, Hugo Vickers, (writing in November 2006) the author was Brian Howard. The phrase came into wider use when used by Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, in her memoir, Grace and Favour (1961).

Subsequently he led a very active social life, tried to come to terms with his homosexuality, and published only one substantial poetry collection God Save the King (1930, Hours Press). He was active as a poet during the Spanish Civil War, but did not ultimately invest in his work with seriousness. He drank heavily and used drugs.

During World War II he was part of the little ships armada to Dunkirk and later worked for MI5 but was dismissed from the War Office in June 1942, after which he was conscripted to the Royal Air Force with a low-level clerk’s job at Bomber Command, High Wycombe, and an Air Ministry note on his file that he should never be given a commission. Transferred to another posting, where he referred to his commanding officer as ‘Colonel Cutie’ (a trait Evelyn Waugh gave his rebellious rogue Basil Seal in the novel "Put Out More Flags"), Howard was dismissed in December 1944, by which time he had formed a longstanding open relationship with Sam, an Irishman serving in the Air Sea Rescue.

After the War, Howard drifted around Europe with Sam, continuing to write occasional articles and reviews for the New Statesman, BBC and others, fitfully working on an uncompleted biography of the gay English writer Norman Douglas (of "South Wind" fame) and doing no substantial work. Indiscreetly promiscuous, drinking heavily, taking drugs and behaving outrageously, they were expelled in turn from Monaco, France, Italy and Spain, the French authorities noting their "moralité douteux" (dubious morality).

He suffered from bad health in the 1950s, and committed suicide after the accidental death of a lover. This American man died suddenly but naturally in Howard’s bath. Howard committed suicide by taking an overdose of sedatives some days later.

Evelyn Waugh wrote: "I used to know Brian Howard well—a dazzling young man to my innocent eyes. In later life he became very dangerous—constantly attacking people with his fists in public places—so I kept clear of him. He was consumptive but the immediate cause of his death was a broken heart.