Philip Hobsbaum (1932-2005): Ghosts in the archive – Francis Berry

 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/3: Francis Berry

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His pullovers were embroidered with runes (“Anglo-Saxon laundry-marks” he called them) but pipe dottle – Berry scattered ashes and sparks as if he were Shelley’s West Wind – and much else provided abundant evidence that these garments rarely went near a laundry.

Warwick Gould, 2006

After the frustrations of trying to teach in London, Philip was persuaded to pursue his ambitions of working on a PhD with William Empson at the University of Sheffield, and it was here that Hobsbaum first met our next writer, Francis Berry.  Warwick Gould characterised Berry as ‘A great dramatic poet, a creator of ‘ghostly presences’ and a professor of English.’  Hobsbaum who wrote the forward for Berry’s Collected Poems (published by Redcliffe Press in 1994), also noted that he was one of the great dramatic poets.

This ghostly presence and notion for the dramatic is perhaps also reflected in the correspondence within MS Hobsbaum BB/3: Francis Berry.  In a letter to Hobsbaum dated 29 October 1997, written by Berry’s wife Eileen, she first comments on how pleasant it had been to meet Philip and his wife Rosemary in Glasgow, before going on to state:

But let me address what is now a major concern of Francis.  He wonders if and wishes that you might compose his obituary to be lodged with The Times in the event of his death.

Berry lived for almost a decade longer, passing away in 2006, and one can be quite confident that Hobsbaum did as Berry requested.  Although the obituaries lodged with The Times remain uncredited, the second paragraph opens ‘In the opinion of Philip Hobsbaum, Berry’s collected poems were unsurpassed among those of the later 20th century.’  There is no suggestion of a quote here from something Hobsbaum might have written elsewhere, which perhaps supports the theory that Hobsbaum was the author.  Then there is the personal aside regarding Empson’s annual bath, which might be an event remembered from Hobsbaum’s postgraduate years at Sheffield when he studied under Empson.

When Empson visited the Berry household for his annual – or possibly biannual – bath, this exchange enshrined their interest in the material world.  Empson: “I don’t think one needs a bath in winter, do you, Berry?”  Berry: “No, I don’t think so.”

Having spent a lot of time working on his papers I get the impression that being acknowledged as the author of Berry’s obituary would have had less significance for Philip, than being asked by Francis to write it.


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


MS Hobsbaum BB/3: Francis Berry (1969-1997) 2 files

Warwick Gould, ‘Francis Berry Obituary’, The Guardian 31 Oct 2006 [

Francis Berry: Collected Poems (Redcliffe Press Ltd, Bristol, 1994)



Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library, Special Collections

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