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From the Observer archive, 25 March 1979: Stephen Spender on the art of name-dropping


The poet and novelist considers the awe he inspires in others – for having met the likes of Eliot, Woolf and Sassoon

If in company, I mention the name of a famous friend or acquaintance, dead or living, I know that I may be an involuntary player in a game at which someone present is scoring marks against me. Supposing, for example, I let fall the reminiscence, "When I was 21, in Sybil's drawing room, Harold pointed out to me a lady with purple hair who was standing between Vita and Virginia, and said, 'That is Ottoline'," my malicious invisible opponent will have put me down five points: (1) Lady Sybil Colefax; (2) Harold Nicolson; (3) Vita Sackville-West; (4) Virginia Woolf; and (5) Lady Ottoline Morrell.

This makes me miserable. Yet in old age I discover that, for the young, my chief interest lies in the fact that I have met the great. Students, especially in America, regard me as a kind of satellite dropped from outer space of death and coded with messages from immortals. As a youth remarked ingeniously to me the other day, regarding me with a detached air of blank curiosity: "Isn't it extraordinary that I am alive standing beside you who are surviving and who knew all those people? You might so easily be dead, and I would have missed them."

And only a week ago at a college in the Bible Belt part of Texas, an earnest English teacher trapped me into her office and started a routine examination: "You knew TS Eliot, did you? Was he cold and callous? You knew Virginia Woolf, did you? Did she ever snub you?"

Relieved that at least we were alone and that there were no eavesdropping name-dropper-watchers present, I manfully pulled out anecdotes from the dusty cupboards of memory to oblige her. When after an hour or so I fell silent, utterly exhausted, she looked at me out of her great Biblical eyes and said: "Come to think of it, there must have been some relations of Noah who had met Adam. That's what you remind me of." In the Bible Belt they are not ironic.

Although easily shamed and embarrassed, I don't really feel apologetic for telling people what they want to hear from a fossil who happens to be impregnated with the sight and sound and touch of those who, to them, seem gods and goddesses. The dead poets disappear into their names, and their names on the lips of those who happened to know them seemed winged messengers. "And did you once see Shelley plain/ And did he stop and talk with you?" is an eagle's feather thrown in gratitude to some name-dropper. Browning himself, it seems, was not so thrilling to know as Shelley; still, his name on the lips of Henry James (if I had met James when I was young) would have been magic to me. I did meet Hugh Walpole and, as far as I am concerned, he could not drop the name of Henry James often enough. Being a generous, amiable and modest man, he did so, again and again, to please me, even recounting the story of the day when he offered his young body to the enamoured Henry James, and was gaspingly rejected.

Of course, names must not be dropped for their own sake, or just to add lustre to the drooping figure of the dropper. They must be the specks of sand that have turned into anecdotal pearls. That is what they are in The Divine Comedy– Dante dropping names over the fiery abyss. Ben Jonson, Pope, Shelley (in his "Letter to Maria Gisborne") and Yeats were marvellous name-droppers in their poetry.

The modest name-dropper – Hugh Walpole's kind – drops names because he thinks they are of people more interesting than himself. The man who refuses to drop names may do so because he resents anyone being discussed in his presence but himself. When I was an Oxford undergraduate I was taken by a friend to meet Siegfried Sassoon (here I go again!). Before I had drunk one drop of the champagne he provided, I had already blurted out: "Mr Sassoon, what was Wilfred Owen like?" Sassoon drew himself up and replied icily, "He was embarrassing. He had a grammar school accent." From which I deduced that Siegfried Sassoon did not really like to hear any name dropped but his own.

While I can sympathise with his resentment at the idea that he was, to me, only the hem of the garment of the spirit of Wilfred Owen, yet I thirsted for memories of his dead friend's still more living name.

For the young, or Americans, I am happy to drop names, if to them that is the refreshment I can offer.

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