Brian Waltham: a biography

Brian Waltham was born in Plymouth on 29thSeptember 1925. His father was a policeman, and the family soon moved to Lewisham, where Brian went to the local primary school, then to Colfe’s Grammar School. The whole school was evacuated to Tunbridge Wells during the war, and the boys were housed with local families; Brian was very happy in his foster home. He was a serious student: ‘discovered’ TS Eliot, started writing poetry and even composed music, making connections with Michael Tippett at Morley College. However he also had a cricketing reputation as a demon left-hand bowler.

He won a languages scholarship to Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, and went up in 1944. He had only been there a year when he was called up for national service, becoming a candidate for commission in the RAF. He had nearly completed his training when it was decided that there were too many recruits for the number of planes available and, as he liked to put it, ‘they were running out of war’. He was told to join either the Merchant Navy or the coalmines. Opting for the latter, he became a Bevin Boy and was sent to Linton colliery near Durham where he worked night shifts, 6.30 pm to 1.30 am. His job was to re-site the pit props as the coalface was hacked away, but he had an enlightened foreman who allowed him to spend time – sitting in an underground room – helping the miners with their written English so that they could pass various exams. In the day he went to Philosophy and French classes at King’s College, Newcastle, which is where he met his first wife Sheila Campbell. He returned to Cambridge in 1947, graduated in History, then tried two theological colleges, but his unorthodox, non-conformist approach removed him from both. He also, briefly, tried prep-school teaching.

He and Sheila married in 1950; their first son, Christopher, was born in 1951, their second son, Andrew, in 1954. They lived in Kent: first in Bromley, later in Beckenham.

Brian decided to become a lawyer, reading first for the Bar, then articled to the firm of Batchelors in Bromley, earning £1 a week. The senior partner recognised Brian’s ability and generously recommended him to the City firm of Ince & Co, pre-eminent in the field of maritime law. Brian joined Ince in 1953, was soon made a partner and became a distinguished lawyer, travelling abroad a great deal – but still finding time to read widely and play his cello. He attended many international conferences and was associate editor of two law books: The Law of Tug, Tow and Pilotage (1982) and The Law and Practice of Marine Insurance and Average (1988).

Having separated from Sheila in the 1960s, he married Caroline Cooper in 1975; their son Nicolas was born in 1979. They lived in Islington, then Primrose Hill. But, fed up with foreign business travel, and wanting a restful place for holidays, Brian also bought a house in France in 1973. This house (in Tarn-et-Garonne) is still in the family. [See his Memo ‘Bétou: an Epitaph’ and Caroline’s history of the hamlet.]

In 1987 he retired to concentrate on writing, and established long, thoughtful correspondences with several friends, including fellow poet John Mole. John and Brian would regularly send each other work in progress for comment, expecting and receiving a rigorous, detailed response. Their letters are held in the archives of Cambridge University Library and can be accessed by following this link. He also wrote two novels: Wintour Scene (a campus novel) and Scuttle (a thriller set in the world of Mediterranean shipping skulduggery which he knew from his professional work). These were accepted by a distinguished literary agent, but were unfortunately not published in his lifetime. (Scuttle was pronounced an exciting page-turner, but was considered unclassifiable as a ‘thriller’ because it had no sex or violence. Retitled C.H.A.S.E., it was finally published in 2019.)

His main energy went to writing the poetry for which he wished to be remembered. His first poem to be published, ‘My Father‘, appeared in The Listener, which paid him £12 for its publication, enough for a good Indian dinner for him and Caroline. He was more pleased by this sum than with all the money he made in litigation.

The original ‘soldier on the pier’

Peterloo Poets published three collections of his poetry : Music for Brass  (1990);  Masterclass (1994); and The Soldier on the Pier (2002). In May 2002, only a few weeks after the launch of Soldier, he died of liver cancer. A posthumous collection of unprinted poems, The Hang Of It, was published in 2011.

Much of his energy in his last years went into the prose essays, which he referred to as ‘memos’ and collected in a folder labelled ‘Commonplace Book’. [See his memo ‘Elderly Poets’.] These are made publicly available for the first time on this website.

Brian Waltham 1925-2002

See also:

Brian’s own account of his life up until retirement

A fascinating mini-pen portrait of his younger self here

Brian’s obituary by John Mole

Brian’s retirement speech from Ince and Co in 1987: facsimile of his own notes, complete with pencil notations