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Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Robert Ford
Anthony Rudolf



R. A. D. Ford

from SILENT CONVERSATIONS: A READER’S LIFE by Anthony Rudolf (Seagull Books/Chicago University Press)

Robert Ford, Canadian poet, translator and diplomat, who died in 1998, had muscular atrophy from the age of nineteen; he was not expected to live long. Ford was the most extraordinary person I have known in my lifelong role as a go-between. I made contact with him in 1982, during the days of my involvement in the struggle to educate myself and, by extension, the constituency of concerned and frightened people who had been reading the Menard Press pamphlets about the nuclear threat, which I published between 1980 and 1985. Back then, I wrote about my three political gurus or mentors, Sir Martin Ryle, Lord (Solly) Zuckerman and E. P. Thompson. The twenty pamphlets included three by Ryle and two by Zuckerman. Thompson went out of his way to publicize Ryle’s first pamphlet Towards the Nuclear Holocaust as the best account of our fearful dilemma. Thanks, in part, to his intervention, it sold fourteen or fifteen thousand copies, easily Menard’s top selling book.

In my political publishing heyday, all kinds of ‘moderate’ and mainstream people were, along with radicals, in touch with Menard, because as a poetry publisher the press was understood to be independent of supposedly dangerous extremists like CND—the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. At one point, I was asked to attend a meeting at MI5 after a Soviet diplomat visited me to buy pamphlets. Not long after, in a separate incident, I found myself on the line to or from the Ministry of Defence security police, when I had not phoned them or been phoned by them. I reported this to a privy councillor friend, the former Housing Minister Reg Freeson, who made enquiries. The ensuing meeting with MI5, near the British Council offices in Trafalgar Square, was so interesting that I asked if I could come back. I made my usual speech about loyal opposition blah-blah. I was struck how young and pretty the intelligence officer was: a deliberate choice to disarm me?

By the time I met him, Robert Ford was special adviser on East–West relations to the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, having retired as ambassador to the Soviet Union. One of Canada’s, indeed the West’s, most important and influential diplomats since the war, Ford had sub-ambassadorial postings in London, Sao Paulo and Moscow followed by ambassadorial stints in Colombia, Yugoslavia and Egypt, before returning to Moscow for sixteen years (1964–1980). He ended up as doyen of the diplomatic corps. Such a long stint was rare, if not unique, because of fears that ambassadors left abroad for too long may go native in the bad sense. There was no danger that Robert the diplomat would succumb, precisely because going native was the province of Robert the poet. He told me that, because of his disability, he was the only foreigner or maybe even non-member of the politburo allowed to use the lift in the Kremlin. He was, too, the only Western diplomat to have met all Soviet leaders from Stalin to Gorbachev, although the meeting with Stalin was more like observation at close quarters. Robert was already in a wheelchair when I first met him. He never complained, never admitted to pain, always behaved as if nothing was wrong.

Ford and his wife Thereza, a brilliant and charming Brazilian heiress, retired to a small castle near Vichy, where I stayed with them. They had met in London in 1946 at the first General Assembly of the United Nations: ‘At the opening reception in the House of Lords given by Clement Attlee . . . I heard an attractive member of the Brazilian delegation making amusing remarks about the Canadians. I could not resist the temptation of saying in Portuguese that the latter was not a secret language. This led inevitably to marriage.’ (I like his deployment of the word ‘inevitably’, with the erotics of the interaction left entirely unspoken and buried between the words of the short sentence.) The castle, La Poivrière, which had been the residence of the German ambassador to Petain’s regime, was beautifully decorated with Russian folk art, including butter dishes, gifts from their close friend Lili Brik, the elegant and talented Jewish mistress of Mayakovsky and sister-in-law of Louis Aragon. The Fords owned wonderful works of art, including a Kandinsky painting on glass. Over dinner, out of the blue, Thereza said: ‘Anthony, everybody thinks Robert depends on me and will be helpless if he outlives me, but the opposite is true. I need him more than he needs me. I want to die first.’ I looked at him in expectation of some kind of reaction, but he sat there impassive, like the Buddha or a rocky mountain (goat) or a figure in a Poussin painting. Like Pope’s Gainsborough, he was ‘a man who had a rare capacity / to snatch a grace beyond the reach of art’. After a short illness, Thereza’s ambition was fulfilled in 1983: Robert outlived her, producing sad true lyrics to her memory and, as such, to his own memory.

I went up to my bedroom and opened my suitcase. It was empty. I was perplexed until it dawned on me that one of the two servants must have put my stuff away—and there the gear was, in the en suite bathroom and in the wardrobe. The next morning, after breakfast, we faced each other in the sitting room and Robert, notebook and pen at the ready, asked me about the peace movement and whether it was infiltrated by the Russians (yes, I said, and infiltrated by the Americans and the British too) and the politics of disarmament. I spoke honestly and carefully, perhaps for fifteen minutes. Thank you, he said, I shall be writing a memo to Pierre Trudeau. That felt good: for almost the only time in my life I had a direct if minuscule input into politics at the highest level, although a few indirect inputs—for example, Martin Ryle’s pamphlet was the subject of a widely circulated unofficial refutation by the Ministry of Defence—suggested that Menard must have been doing something right. One other direct and verifiable input: I sent a phrase I coined (‘unilateral nuclear rearmament’) to Neil Kinnock, then leader of the opposition, enabling him to use it in a speech and briefly turn the table on the Tories, since ‘unilateral disarmers’ was their term of abuse for CND and its supporters. Although the great campaign was a coalition of nuclear disarmers, unilateral and multilateral, the unilateral aspect was always and mistakenly to the forefront. When Kinnock went to Moscow he already knew about Byron’s poem ‘Darkness’ which was quoted at him by Russians, because he had a copy of my Menard pamphlet about the circumstances of the poem’s writing.

Over the years, in correspondence and on the phone, Ford and I continued discussing security issues, Israel (which fascinated him and generated many questions), poetry (he gave me his books as listed in the bibliography) and translation. Although not a reactionary and not a professional cold warrior, he was conservative, but on the nuclear issue he, like Zuckerman, had no doubt that a new approach was needed. Thompson and Ryle were more radical than Ford and Zuckerman. I was privately torn, settling eventually on the ‘freeze’ as common ground between unilateralists and multilateralists (the freeze was a position which many members of both camps, wrongly, rejected), which belongs in a political book I shan’t be writing. Zuckerman, Ryle, Thompson and Ford were highly cultivated men, influential in their fields, and immensely powerful personalities of a kind I have been drawn to, if not actually sought out. They were all married to remarkable women, who matched them in depth and range. Long marriages between equals interest me, but this too is a topic for another occasion and, perhaps, a different genre, namely fiction. Robert Ford was the only one of the four with whom I had a literary as well as a political dialogue, and that brought me close to him, although Martin Ryle too was a good friend. On the other hand, Solly Zuckerman and Edward Thompson were my colleagues in a common cause and friendly acquaintances, much as I would like to claim them as friends.

In 1983, I arranged three events for Ford in London: the first was a lecture at the now-defunct GB–USSR Association, then run by my old friend John Roberts. The meeting was chaired by the former foreign secretary, David Owen, Ford’s colleague on the Olaf Palme Commission. Ford’s UK buddies, retired top diplomats, showed up. Earlier that day, the Canadian ambassador had made a lunch for him. All I remember, thanks perhaps to good wine, was the presence of Carmen Callil and John Mortimer. The other events were a poetry reading at Canada House and a Russian translation reading at the old Poetry Society in Earls Court. Robert Ford was a meditative poet, hibernal rather than aestival; Norwegian rather than Italian, if you like. Perhaps this is a roundabout way of saying the matrix of his poetry is Canada, which, after all, is situated in North North America, the Arctic and Russia not that far away. Ford himself said that the ‘Russian landscape, so much like that of the Ottawa Valley, has been an important factor in shaping my verse.’ The firs, the pines, the birches, the snow reminded him of Canada, of home. Naturally, he translated some of the Zhivago poems. Autumn, however, is different, greyer and more melancholy in Russia than in Canada. Two Canadian poets, friends of mine, Sharon Nelson and Seymour Mayne, tell me Ford is no longer on the literary radar in their country, though Mayne himself is personally an admirer, and his wife Sharon Katz drew portraits of Russian poets for Ford’s personal and beautifully translated selection, Russian Poetry.

In 1989, Ford sent me his book Dostoevsky and Other Poems. My thank you letter, preserved in a carbon copy, speaks rather formally of his ‘austerity of diction, the edgy and disturbed rhythms, the way the syntax plays against the lexicon: all the registers serving a vision where intelligence of the heart doubles the heart of intelligence’. After a conference in Arles in 1997, which brought together the translators of Yves Bonnefoy from across the globe, I returned to Paris via Robert’s house for what we both knew would be our last meeting. Now virtually paralysed by his lifelong condition, worsened by a stroke, he greeted me from bed with a movement of his little finger. By then the childless widower had moved with his household, a long service and devoted Portuguese couple, and possessions, from his small chateau, to a lovely house in the castle’s village, Saint-Sylvestre Pragoulin. With hindsight, I now read the scene at the bedside, especially when the manservant brought tea, as a gloss on Paula Rego’s painting ‘The Family’. How I wanted to free him from his affliction!, just as the children in her painting are trying to raise the male figure from near death—the original title of the painting was, indeed, ‘Lazarus’. I looked again at the Kandinsky painting on the wall facing his bed. Ford told me that the painter’s estate had recently written to him, withdrawing its certificate of authenticity. This, he said, was rubbish, and all the experts said it was rubbish, but he was in no position to fight the estate. I wonder what has happened to that picture, indeed to all his pictures and his library.

Robert Ford’s literary friendships and activities while in the Soviet Union were in a creatively dialectical relationship with his professional work, which is not surprising since he was a poet and translator of distinction and a profoundly thoughtful man of the highest intelligence. His diplomatic reports became famous, like those of Isaiah Berlin from Washington during World War II. The personal and political fed into each other, perhaps uniquely. Given Canada’s significant position within the broad western coalition and the importance of the country of his final posting, he is certainly the most influential poet diplomat from any country since Saint-John Perse and George Seferis. Nonetheless, he had no illusions concerning where main power lay, namely with Canada’s North American neighbour, and that Canada’s scope for independent initiatives was limited. According to one obituary, when George Schulz became Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State in the USA, he sought a briefing from Ford.

I do not claim that Ford is a poet in the league of those other professional diplomat poets, Perse, Paz, Neruda and Seferis—how many poets are?—but his elegiac oeuvre, though small and narrowly focused, is distinctive and, to my ear, beautiful. However, his understanding of the psyches and mentalities of individuals in the elites, political and artistic, of the country where he was posted, influenced his diplomacy more than it influenced his literary works, unlike Paz, one of whose most important books is Le Singe grammarien, The Monkey Grammarian, which could not have been written without his profound experience of India.

Here on my desk is the first of Ford’s two memoirs: Our Man in Moscow (1989, with a cover photo of him and Leonid Brezhnev) and the French edition Diplomate et Poète à Moscou (1990, sporting a photo of him with Andrei Voznesensky). These photographs of Ford as a young and middleaged man reveal a handsome, elegant, self-confident and self-possessed personality, reminding me of Clark Gable or Anthony Eden, when he was Foreign Secretary during the war. Although Robert came across as a reserved and highly cerebral man, classically opposite to his passionate and extravert Latin wife, the passion was there beneath the armour of the intense discipline of a man schooled in illness and diplomacy. In private, he always spoke his mind, and from the heart. He held strong views, and could be aroused to sharpness when one was naive or stupid, but he also wanted to learn from those, including myself, with areas of knowledge beyond his specialities. Reading these two memoirs, we realize that the diplomat was accredited to the Soviet Union, a country with many nationalities and literatures, whereas the poet was accredited to Russia, her literature, her poetry, her soul, as becomes clear in A Moscow Literary Memoir (1995), which tells of his life ‘among the great artists of Russia from 1946 to 1980’. Here he is off-duty, and not constrained by the responsibilities of the day job, although in that city, and in a country, as Mandelstam said, where poetry is so important the poet is sometimes killed, you could never entirely divorce art and politics, which is one of the major themes of this valuable record of a passion and a time. It is not, however, an ambitious literary work, in part because it had to be written and edited in the difficult circumstances of his final years.

Although Ford lived on until late in the presidency of Boris Yeltsin (whose commitment to democracy he doubted), Our Man in Moscow was written during the high optimism of Gorbachev’s rule: for my money Mikhail Gorbachev, even more than Nelson Mandela, is the man of the (twentieth) century, since he managed the change, perestroika and glasnost, in such a way that war, nuclear war, was avoided. Despite the optimism of the times, and despite Ford’s admiration and respect for Gorbachev, whom he saw as a Kerensky figure, Robert Ford appears to agree with Vasily Grossman: ‘When will Russia ever be free? Perhaps never.’ As I said, he had gone native, not in the negative sense that requires ambassadors to move on before they succumb but in the Keatsian sense of negative capability. He had become the poets he loved, echt Russisch, one who knows that the Russian soul is something unique unto itself, like the Russian language praised by Ivan Turgenev in the prose poem I translated (see below). Although Ford writes that the proposition was and is debatable, part of him agreed with the poet Fyodor Tyutchev whom he quotes, in his own translation, at the end of the memoir:

Russian cannot be understood
Only with the mind—no normal
Standard can judge her
Greatness. She stands alone, unique.
In Russia one must only believe.

Ford died before George Bush and the neoconservatives came to power, and before we could have a conversation about my considered view that the project called democracy was in fact a project to promote capitalism, and deregulated capitalism at that. In his early days as Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, in a speech timed to second-guess or echo President Obama, struck me as naive in his unreconstructed promotion, if necessary by military means, of the admirable and essential concept called democracy, naive about its relationship to economics and climate change. What does Great Britain look like to normal Europeans like the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italians, the Germans, the French, who managed to dispose of their imperial pretensions along with their dictatorships? NATO and the USA (pre-Obama at any rate) have not been straight in their dealings with Russia. When will we (and Putin’s Russia too) learn that security in the modern world is not a zero-sum game? Ford predicted in the mid-1990s that Greater Russian nationalism would re-emerge, and that is surely correct.

Ford’s literary recollections, as he says, put the flesh on the skeleton of the country portrayed in the political memoir. A Moscow Literary Memoir tells of Ford’s friendships with the poets of the ‘thaw’: his closest friend Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, the prose writers Yuri Nagibin and Konstantin Simonov, the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya (‘Plisetskaya is the Tsvetaeva of ballet,’ wrote Voznesensky), Nina Kandinsky, the widow of the painter, and of course Robert and Thereza’s dearest friend, Lili Brik. ‘The inner tug of war between the eastern Slavophile and the western liberal is the eternal conflict in Russia . . . The whole of Russia today is an epic drama by Dostoevsky, being played out before our very eyes’.

There is a wonderful photograph of Brik with Mayakovsky, Pasternak and, am I imagining it, a haunted-looking Eisenstein, taken in St Petersburg in 1924. Lili looks very elegant in her cloche hat, reminding one that Lenin had only just died and Stalin was not yet fully in control. She explains to the Fords that her marriage to Osip Brik became platonic as the ménage à trois with Mayakovsky gathered apace. At a dinner party with the Fords and Voznesensky, she says: ‘I have no objection to falsehoods, but there is a big distance between honest lying and dishonest lying.’ As for Pasternak, she much preferred his poetry and The Childhood of Lyuvers to Doctor Zhivago, and Ford agreed with her. On Pasternak and Akhmatova, Ford writes that they [like Robert Lowell] appear to put his own art above other people’s lives, namely Olga (the model for Lara in Doctor Zhivago) and Akhmatova’s son, Lev. ‘It is an anguished question,’ writes Ford. He and Thereza visited Pasternak’s grave in Peredelkino, prompting a poem, ‘The Grave of Pasternak’:

The wind withers
At the windows of the voices,
Tapping gently, then lost
In the infinite space.
The snow is convent pure.
In the first light
Of Peredelkino
He lies alone with one
Paper flower, faded, wet,
Staining the snow.
The voices can be heard again.
And the windows reopen.

I take my farewell of Robert with the memory that I wanted to hug him when it was time to go, but didn’t, knowing it would embarrass him. I held his finger for a moment and left with tears in my eyes. He knew what he meant to me. Here is his translation of the final stanza of Yesenin’s poem on death:

I know in that other country
There are no fields golden in the haze.
That is why I cherish those who have
Spent on earth with me their days.

The Russian Tongue

In days of doubt, in days of painful reflections on the various fates
of my homeland, you alone are my support and mainstay, oh great,
strong, true and free Russian tongue! How can one not fall into
despair, seeing everything that is being done at home? But it is
impossible to believe that such a language was not given to a great