Philip Hobsbaum (1932-2005): Ghosts in the archive – Martin Bell

 history remains first and foremost an encounter with death

Arlette Farge, The Lure of the Archives (Yale Univ. Press, 2013), 8.

It might appear somewhat obvious to be talking about ghosts in the archive, as archival collections by their very nature are perhaps the natural residing places for ghosts and as Arlette Farage noted ‘an encounter with death’.  After all, the normal route of a collection into an archive often comes with the death of the author, although not always.  Yet, what struck me while cataloguing the series of papers MS Hobsbaum B: Writers was the various types of ghosts that flitted about the files and how their presence not only tracks Hobsbaum’s career, but also demonstrates the various roles and responsibilities that Philip adopted throughout his working life.

MS Hobsbaum BB/2: Martin Bell

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In You’ve Had Your Time (1990), Anthony Burgess describes … his desire ‘to meet writers to whom, as for me, writing was an agony mitigated by drink’. Chief among his new ‘literary confreres’ was the poet and translator Martin Bell, who is described as ‘shabby, bad-toothed and doomed to die of drink and be posthumouslessly neglected’

Matthew Whittle, ‘The true literary experience’

Peter Porter described Martin Bell as “the father and tone-setter of Group discussions.”  Hobsbaum’s collection of papers on Bell are quite personal and intimate suggesting a close relationship between the two, and rather than the ghost of Bell in the papers, his death is something much more tangible and stands out like a tombstone.

Martin Bell was a poet and translator, who as a member of the London Group had six poems published in A Group Anthology.   He regularly attended The Group’s meetings until leaving for Leeds in 1967, and was influential in its workings.  In his essay ‘The Group: An Experiment in Criticism’ Hobsbaum recalled:

‘Peter Redgrave introduced his neighbour Martin Bell… whom he had met in front of the poetry section at Chiswick Public Library’ [p77]

‘Bell’s especial interest was the unexpectedly good minor poet and in his hands very often the poet, like Bell himself, proved not to be so minor as all that.  Bell was much older than the rest of us, and much the best linguist.  He had a particularly insistent stutter which he used as an oratorical device, stabbing his points home with a cigarette, covering himself in ash as he did so.’ [p. 83]

Bell’s contribution to the Group is also well documented in MS Hobsbaum C1: London Group Papers, which contain 15 distinct bundles of submitted poems and translations by Bell.  In Martin Bell: Collected Poems, 1937-1966 there is even a poem titled ‘Mr. Hobsbaum’s Monday Evening Meeting’:

Below the ceiling, guardian of the Grail

The ghost of Dr. Leavis floats.

A trim breeze stirs the fragile sails

Of Lucie-Smith’s expensive boats


Hobsbaum studied under F R Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge, and Edward Lucie-Smith was not only a member of the Group, but co-edited A Group Anthology and took over as host and chair when Philip left London.

Bell died in 1978 aged 60, and what I found surprising while cataloguing this collection were the copies of official documents to do with Bell’s death in Philip’s subject file, which led me to question why.  Why does Hobsbaum have a copy of Bell’s death certificate, his will, and a receipt for funeral costs?  Hobsbaum is referred to in one letter as being one of Bell’s literary executors along with Peter Porter. However, his name is not recorded in the will, which instead lists Porter and John Milne as Trustees and Executors.  Perhaps the documents were forwarded to Hobsbaum after he had placed an announcement in the Times Literary Supplement regarding the creation of the Martin Bell Society and the posthumous publication Martin Bell: Complete Poems.


Cataloguing of the Hobsbaum papers is ongoing. Please enquire in advance regarding access by emailing


MS Hobsbaum BB/2: [Vincent] Martin [Oliver] Bell (1972-1989) 2 boxes

Matthew Whittle, ‘The true literary experience’: Anthony Burgess and Martin Bell, Burgess Foundation, 27th May 2014 []

Martin Bell: Collected Poems, 1937-1966 published by MacMillan in 1967poem dated 1956 ‘Mr. Hobsbaum’s Monday Evening Meeting’

Martin Bell: Complete Poems, edited by Peter Porter and published posthumously by Bloodaxe Books in 1988

A Group Anthology, edited by Edward Lucie-Smith and Philip Hobsbaum [Oxford University Press, London, 1963]



Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library, Special Collections

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