BOOK REVIEW: The 5 Heads of Humbert Wolfe: Poet, Wit & Civil Servant

The 5 Heads of Humbert Wolfe: Poet, Wit & Civil Servant. By A.D.Padgett. ADP Publishing, 2014. 181pp. £9.99. ISBN: 978-0-9572919-6-6

Humbert Wolfe

Humbert Wolfe was born in Bradford in 1885 and educated at Bradford Grammar and Wadham College, Oxford. He then worked for the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour, making ‘a significant contribution to the war effort as controller of labour regulation in the Ministry of Munitions during World War One’ (p.11). He became a CBE in 1918 and a CB in 1925. In 1938 he was appointed Deputy Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and responsible for equipping the country’s labour force for war. He died in 1940.

He was also a poet; a poet of considerable standing, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and one of the favourites to become Poet Laureate in 1930. In the Bibliography to this anthology of Wolfe’s work, compiler Padgett lists 26 published volumes of poetry, five of prose, seven poetry translations, ten of poetry criticism, seven poetry collaborations, and three ‘other works’ including the unpoetical, though lucid, Labour Supply and Regulation (1923) – two given! Also listed are three writings on Wolfe, six texts referring to him, and three texts inspired by Wolfe. This bibliography alone is a useful contribution to Bradford’s literary history.

Anthony Padgett is an award-winning sculptor and the great great nephew of Humbert Wolfe. In 2014 he sculptured five busts of Wolfe to represent five different phases of his life, cold-cast in bronze, pewter, copper, marble and granite to go in key cities associated with his life and work: London (two), Oxford, Bradford (located in the City Centre library) and New York. The impressive 153 selections of Wolfe’s literary output presented in this book is similarly divided, though some alchemy has transmuted pewter and copper into silver and gold!

  • Marble – Birth and International Career
  • Bronze – Youth and Bradford
  • Silver – Oxford and Literary Criticism
  • Gold – London and Literary Creativity
  • Granite – London Civil Service and Death

I focus here on Bradford and select just a few snippets:

There is an old loom, an old warp and woof,
older than the knitting fingers of the roaring machine,
older than the bales of cloth ranged in the dim warehouses.

(‘Bradford’ from Out of Great Tribulation, 1939)

The Grammar School building stands (or stood) at the bottom of Manningham Lane. … Its back loured over a large mud playground upon the railway-lines, and its two sides outfaced two rows of slum-houses. (‘On the Grammar School’ from Now A Stranger, 1933)

I heard two men in bowler-hats and leggings discussing not worsted nor shoddy but the misdoings of a bailiff. Sweeter far to me that talk than any adventure story in the world. The town-child was for a bewildering instant in the real, living, practical, winter country. But all too brief because he was hastily recalled by a snowball in the neck to life as it really is. (‘On Saltaire’ from A Winter Miscellany, 1930)

Walmer Villas is a grey street of semi-detached houses sloping up sharply from Manningham Lane. There used to be a certain grim quiet about it, as though stillness had been trapped between buildings that held hard onto anything they caught. You could, of course, hear in those days the rumbling of carts along the uneven stones of the Lane, and the occasional screaming progressions of the steam-tram. But the street was marked by that fierce reticence, which in Bradford, at least, converted the Yorkshireman’s home into his dungeon. (‘On His First Poem’ from Selected Poems by Swinburne, 1928)

The business-man opposite had lowered his Bradford Observer and was watching him with an amused grin. “It’s bright and early,” he said, “to be talking to yourself.” “I wasn’t talking,” he replied loftily, “I was reciting.” “Ay,” he answered, “but it’ll do you no good among them chaps at Oxford if they think you’re a softie.” “How did you know I was going to Oxford?” he enquired. “Seeing that you’ve had your ticket out ten times and asked porters at Laisterdyke and Halifax where to change, it was easy guessing. You’re Boogs Wolff, aren’t you?” “Yes,” he replied defensively, with an air of one who added, “ and why not?” “Well then, young Boogs,” he said, “don’t give yourself away. Sell yourself.” He saw at a glance that this was no mean commercial advice, but he could find no answer. The man still watched him. “You’ll have to try hard,” he said, “It won’t be none too easy for you.” “They don’t expect me to get a Scholarship,” he replied. “It’s not Scholarship I’m meaning,” he answered. “You’re clever enoof, they say. It’s being a Bradford Jew and thinking yourself a nob. Nay,” he said, seeing a movement of wounded pride, “Ah’m not meaning to offend you. Just warn you to go slow-like.” (‘On Leaving Bradford for Oxford’ from The Upward Anguish, 1938)

I wish that I could go back
to Spring Wood below Hawksworth – yes!
I wish I might sleep, and wake
under the branches of those loved trees.
But Bradford lies far away,
and the wood beyond Bradford far;
and never between night and day,
not under sun, nor cool star,
shall I go back to Bradford,
to Spring Wood below Hawksworth Hall.
There is no way back at evening;
there is no way back at all.

(‘Spring Wood’) from This Blind Rose, 1928)

The book also contains brief chapters on the life and work of Wolfe. The author’s prose could have done with editing, but I’m grateful for his wide selection and for bringing us an introduction to a neglected ‘son of Bradford’.

Bob Duckett

Review reprinted from the Bradford Antiquary, 2016, courtesy of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.

Copies are available in Bradford Libraries

 

Note: Readers of our blog may recall that in December 2015 a sculptured head of Humbert Wolfe was presented to City Library by Anthony Padgett. This is on display on the first floor of City Library.

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