09 April 2023

Lunch in the King’s Arms,
a literary pub in Oxford
with memories of poets

The King’s Arms claims it is the brainiest pub in Oxford … the literary associations include the Movement and the ‘Angry Young Men’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

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 in the King’s Arms are lined with photographs and mementoes of many literary associations (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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.

The Eagle and Child has been closed since the Covid lockdown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (1) 9 April 2023

The Resurrection window by an unknown artist in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Lent and Holy Week have come to an end and today is Easter Day (9 April 2023), bringing an end to all our fears and ushering in all our hopes and joys

I am hoping to take part in the Easter celebrations this morning in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford. But, even before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I was reflecting on the thoughts of Samuel Johnson, the Lichfield-born lexicographer. But during the two weeks of Passiontide, Passion Week and Holy Week, I was reflecting on the Stations of the Cross in churches in Stepney and Wolverton.

In these days of Easter Week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Short reflections on the stained-glass windows in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Two Easter scenes:

Two windows in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton illustrate two Easter themes, the Resurrection and the Supper at Emmaus.

The Resurrection window is a one-light window in the South Transept. It dates from ca 1870. Although the artist and studio are unknown, it is probably by Daniel Bell of the Daniel Bell and Richard Almond Studio.

The Supper at Emmaus is depicted in a one light window at the east end of the south side of the nave. It dates from the 1870s and was designed by Daniel Bell of the Daniel Bell and Richard Almond Studio, who designed the four windows in the nave.

The stained glass firm and partnership of Daniel Bell and Richard Almond was based in London. Daniel Bell, who was born 1840, was a brother of the better-known Alfred Bell (1832-1895), and worked for his brother’s firm Clayton and Bell before establishing a partnership initially with James Redfern (1838-1876) and Richard Almond (born 1841), and then with Almond alone from 1868.

Daniel Bell worked independently after 1875.

The Supper at Emmaus … a window by Daniel Bell of Bell and Almond in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 20: 1-18 (NRSVA):

1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14 When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”.’ 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Matthew 28: 1-10 (NRSVA):

1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

‘Do not be afraid’ (Matthew 28: 5, 10) … words on a gable end on Richmond Street in Portobello, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘USPG’s Lent Appeal: supporting young mothers affected By HIV.’ It is introduced this morning by USPG’s Fundraising Manager, Rebecca Allin, who reflects on the 2023 Lent Appeal supporting young mothers affected by HIV, and their children. She writes:

‘This Lent we have been praying for young mothers affected by HIV and asking that their babies be born HIV free (see ‘Good neighbours for a mother in need’, page 8).

‘Like the good Samaritan in Luke 10, we are called to support people who are suffering injustice in the world. Our church partner, the Anglican Church of Tanzania, is supporting HIV positive women and children in their local communities.

‘Every year, 8,600 children in Tanzania under the age of 14 are infected by HIV. If the virus isn’t controlled, they may grow up and go on to infect others. It is an endless, scary cycle that could be avoided. If a baby is born without HIV, the cycle is broken. A whole new generation could have a brighter future.

‘The Anglican Church of Tanzania’s prevention of mother-to-baby transmission programme is working with local women to ensure they have the information, support, and medical care needed to ensure their babies are born healthy.

‘This Lent, you might be thinking of ways you could love your neighbour. Please consider giving today. Your kindness will not only provide lifechanging HIV medication, but we’ll also make sure that any money raised makes a meaningful and permanent difference wherever it’s needed.

‘Donate to the USPG Lent appeal today at www.uspg.org.uk/lent.’

The prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (9 April 2023, Easter Day) invites us to pray:

Risen Christ,
break into our lives
and shatter our complacency.
Bring light to our darkness
that we may be born anew
and learn to love our
neighbour as you first loved us.


Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Post Communion:

God of Life,
who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son
to the death of the cross,
and by his glorious resurrection
have delivered us from the power of our enemy:
grant us so to die daily to sin,
that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his risen life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow<

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org