Alan Brownjohn obituary

<span>Alan Brownjohn in 1992. ‘Like Larkin, Brownjohn has spent much of his career pondering the contradictions between desire and obligation,’ said the writer Sean O’Brien.</span><span>Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian</span>
Alan Brownjohn in 1992. ‘Like Larkin, Brownjohn has spent much of his career pondering the contradictions between desire and obligation,’ said the writer Sean O’Brien.Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Alan Brownjohn, who has died aged 92, was a prolific and seemingly indefatigable poet and novelist. Although best known as a poet, a recipient of the Cholmondeley award in 1979, Brownjohn also wrote well-received novels – winning the Author’s Club prize for his first, The Way You Tell Them (1990), a satire set in the world of standup comedy – and two children’s books, collaborated on plays, and worked as a freelance writer and critic.

He was poetry editor for the New Statesman from 1968 until 1974, and later poetry critic of the Sunday Times for more than 20 years. He was also a diligent campaigner on behalf of poetry.

Brownjohn was chairman of the Poetry Society (1982-88) and worked on the Arts Council literature panel, drawing on a prior experience of, and appetite for, public service, first demonstrated when he and his first wife, the poet Shirley Toulson, were elected Labour councillors in Wandsworth, south-west London, in the 1960s.

In a long writing career Brownjohn was something of a rarity, arguably producing his very best work when already well into his 70s. Among an array of well-observed, various and spry collections, Ludbrooke & Others (2010) stands out as perhaps most successfully representing his blend of emotionally astute, rigorously downbeat and wittily rendered character dissection.

Written in 13-line “sonnets for the unlucky”, in the poet Peter Reading’s phrase, the suite of 60 poems show the titular Ludbrooke’s self-defeating attempts at seduction, titivation and a resentful brand of empathy, pitched somewhere between the metropolitan tone of the Robinson poems of Weldon Kees and John Berryman’s courtly, chaotic Dream Songs.

For all their possible influence from those two North American poets, Ludbrooke is a singularly English concoction: raffish and highly attuned to divisions of class and gentlemanly behaviour. The sequence of Ludbrooke poems speak to many of Brownjohn’s own concerns and foibles but ratcheted up for – at times poignant – laughter and a kind of wounded recognition.

The roots of Ludbrooke can be found in some of Brownjohn’s previous work, especially a proto-Ludbrooke known as “the Old Fox”, who first appeared in poems decades earlier, albeit with a cannier, more malicious edge.

Brownjohn’s early poetic life was inextricably bound up with the Group, a long-running workshop run by the poet and teacher Philip Hobsbaum, which fellow poets, such as the stylistically diverse Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter, would attend to discuss and dissect each others’ new work.

They were chiefly guided by a spirit of close reading, based on the “new criticism” of Hobsbaum’s Cambridge tutor FR Leavis. The Group had as its guiding principles “rationalism, democracy and humanity”; during Brownjohn’s time as a member, his work was most visibly influenced by the Movement, another loose grouping of associated poets, including Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, who came to be the dominating force in mainstream British poetry in the 50s.

Larkin would remain an enduring influence for Brownjohn, who later published a critical study of the Hull poet in 1975, as well as learning plenty about form, reticence and the sometimes inadvertent comedy to be found in attempts at navigating life in modern, secular, middle-class Britain.

Brownjohn was born in Catford, south-east London, the son of Dorothy (nee Mulligan) and Charles Brownjohn, and was educated at Brockley county school and Merton College, Oxford, where he studied history. Much of his working life was spent in education, as an assistant master at Beckenham and Penge boys’ grammar school from 1958 to 1965; a lecturer at Battersea College of Education (now London South Bank University); and a lecturer in poetry, and later in creative writing, at the Polytechnic of North London (now London Metropolitan University). His experiences as a teacher fed into his poems, sometimes directly as subject material.

He also demonstrated an interest in leftwing politics, and was actively involved in the Labour party. He was elected to Wandsworth Metropolitan borough council in 1962 and stood as Labour candidate for Richmond in the 1964 general election, but did not win the seat.

Brownjohn, in his early years, and bearing the trace of the Movement’s ordinary-blokeish sensibility, wrote poems out of seemingly mundane everyday life, usually in well-organised stanzas, regularly using rhyme and a colloquial, downbeat diction. His poems were, however, more interested – even from the start – than those of the Movement in leftwing ideals and shot through by a sense of the importance of doing one’s social duty.

As Sean O’Brien pointed out: “Like Larkin, he has spent much of his career pondering the contradictions between desire and obligation.”

He could also be formally innovative, playing with reported speech, song and ballad forms and more postmodern techniques such as footnotes and other forms of self-aware commentary. He had an astute eye trained on working life, the eco-systems of the office, particularly well rendered in one of his outstanding poems of the 60s, Office Party, in which “the girl with the squeaker / Came passing” and the cruelly ignored narrator ends on a note of wry despair: “I’d never so craved for / Some crude disrespect.”

Brownjohn proved adept at writing narrative sequences long before Ludbrooke’s travails, with other highlights including The Automatic Days, from The Observation Car (1990), in which the power struggles and jostling for a fair shake by the staff at a department store take centre-stage, and Sea Pictures from the same volume, its 40 snapshot-style lyrics building an atmospheric, sepia-tinted look at memory and escape.

Brownjohn’s life was, in many ways, an exemplary version of the contemporary person of letters – a dutiful committee-man and champion of other writers, looking towards Europe and the wider literary world for inspiration and to shine a light on neglected figures, as well as ranging across various art-forms for material. He also wrote obituaries for the Guardian.

When asked to name his favourite poetry quotes to accompany a recording made for the Poetry Archive, Brownjohn noted that (leaning on Matthew Arnold) “the poetry comes first”. For Brownjohn, despite his many other enthusiastically undertaken obligations and diligent acts of service, poetry was – and remained – the heart of it all, as a way of scrutinising and documenting postwar Britain as well as his own intellectual and emotional life.

He and Toulson, with whom he had a son, Steven, divorced in 1969. In 1972 Brownjohn married Sandra Willingham; they separated in 2005.

He is survived by Steven, and by two stepchildren, Ian and Janet, from his first marriage.

•Alan Charles Brownjohn, poet, novelist and critic, born 28 July 1931; died 23 February 2024