09 April 2023
Lunch in the King’s Arms,
a literary pub in Oxford
with memories of poets
One of Oxford’s best-known literary pubs, the Eagle and Child on Saint Giles, remains closed since the Covid lockdown. Known affectionately to many as the Bird and Babe, it has many literary associations, including links with CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and the Inklings. But, despite many promises of an imminent reopening, the Eagle and Child remained closed last week when we were in Oxford for the Chrism Eucharist on Maundy Thursday in Christ Church.
Across the street on Saint Giles, the Lamb and Flag, which inspired many scenes in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, was also a meeting place for the Inklings in the 1960s. It closed on 31 January 2021, but it reopened in last October.
Charlotte and I were looking for place with literary associations for lunch, and an academic friend recommended the King’s Arms, on the corner of Parks Road and Holywell Street, opposite the new Bodleian Library building and close to Wadham College, Hertford College and the famous ‘Bridge of Sighs’, Brasenose College and Trinity College.
I had long associated the King’s Arms with stories of spies, but it too is a pub with literary associations.
The pub opened on 18 September 1607, and Thomas Franklyn named his inn after King James I (1603-1625), and later it was both a coaching inn and an hotel.
But it has been a nest of spies too – the Cambridge spies, of course.
Graham Greene, who went to Baliol College, Oxford, worked with both Kim Philby and John Cairncross, and his novels may have inspired naming the ‘Cambridge Three’ and the ‘Cambridge Five.’
In his interviews with his biographer Norman Sherry, Graham Greene identified the King’s Arms as the pub where he drank with Kim Philby and other intelligence officers around 1944. Philby’s recollections indicate Greene was a practical joker in the comfortable confines of the King’s Arms. Philby wanted to promote Greene, but the writer rejected promotion and resigned.
It is said that some dons held tutorials in the back bar as late as the 1970s. Until 1973, the back bar, known as the Don’s Bar, was not open to women, the last such bar in Oxford.
So it was there we decided to have lunch late on Thursday afternoon.
The walls of the Back Bar are lined with photographs and mementoes that are reminders of the many literary associations that the King’s Arms.
A framed tribute to Noel Worswick by the Revd Richard Smail, chaplain, fellow and college lecturer at Balliol College, recalls his friend as ‘a wonderful cross between Socrates and Dr Johnson.’ With humour, he recounts how Noel Worswick once harangued Christine and Neil Hamilton out of the King’s Arms.
The King’s Arms has particular associations with a group of angry young novelists and poets in the 1950s known as the Movement. Those gathered around them in the Back Bar included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch, Donald Davie, DJ Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, Robert Conquest and John Wain.
A framed cutting on the wall recalls that John Wain was ‘a gregarious and affable personality who had no interest in grumbling and complaining about society, or in the self-cherished gloom that surrounded his friend Larkin.’
It continuers that Wain’s ‘sociable, outgoing qualities were the most evident feature when Wain was an undergraduate. He got on extremely well with his tutor, CS Lewis, which might seem surprising since Wain himself had no interest in religion or in Lewis’s somewhat medieval attitudes to modern life. But they loved drinking beer and discussing affairs and literature together, for both of them had a robust Johnsonian curiosity and pleasure in many different books and subjects; and both were clubbable and convivial in disposition.’
Nevill Coghill considered Wain’s collections such as Weep Before God (1961) to be some of the best poetry to have come from a young poet since World War II. Wain was one of the ‘Angry Young Men’, a term applied to 1950s writers such as John Braine, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse.
His first novel, Hurry On Down (1953), has a good deal in common with Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, published the following year. But his book on Dr Johnson, Samuel Johnson (1974), is one of his best – both were from Staffordshire.
He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford for five years (1973-1978), and published a candid and searching volume of essays on the office called Professing Poetry (1977). He died in 1994.
We had lunch sitting beneath the original, handwritten version of his poem ‘Thanks for a Hat’:
Bought long ago in a snowy village street
to warm my head under the Alpine stars,
brought back to England and our soggy skies:
hung in my favourite inn where good friends meet
one Christmas when the yobs were in the bar:
pinched: gone for weeks: but then – O glad surprise! –
my friends, seeing me hatless, incomplete,
(adrift like a wrecked ship, no mast or spass)
searched : questioned: found it. I get a double prize –
my old hat back, the kindness in their eyes.
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For the synopsis see TheBurlingtonFiles website. This thriller is like nothing we have ever come across before. Indeed, we wonder what The Burlington Files would have been like if David Cornwell aka John le Carré had collaborated with Bill Fairclough. They did consider it and even though they didn’t collaborate, Beyond Enkription is still described as ”up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”.
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