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"The poet reading to his children" (1948) by Barbara Hepworth: from left, Piers, Herbert, Sophie (with Rimbaud the cat) and Thomas Read (image copyright: Sophie Bowness/Hepworth Estate)

When my father, Herbert Read, died in 1968, my mother had inscribed on his gravestone "Knight, Poet, Anarchist" — words that reflected how she thought he would like to be remembered rather than the reality of his reputation at the time. That came from his writings on art. He was "the apostle of modernism" who had defended cubism, surrealism and abstraction against the scorn of his fellow-countrymen. But he was also a decorated soldier, a civil servant, a curator, an editor, a publisher, a novelist, a literary critic, and an activist in the cause of nuclear disarmament. He had devoted his life to many causes and had once proposed a more appropriate epitaph: here lies Herbert Read, killed by committees.

The church at Kirkdale in North Yorkshire where he was buried is only a mile or two from the farm where was born in 1893. His father was a farmer: in an exquisite memoir of his childhood, The Innocent Eye, my father recalled his "sensitive face, his soft brown eyes, and his close curly black hair". But these memories were few because in February, 1903, his father fell ill out hunting and died of pneumonia a few days later. He was 34 years old. His widow, Eliza, was a year younger with three sons aged nine, seven and five; and the personal tragedy was exacerbated by the inevitable impoverishment that followed the death of a tenant farmer with no son of an age to take on the farm. The farm hands and domestic servants were dismissed, the stock sold at auction and Eliza Read with her three young sons moved to a rented cottage in the nearby town of Kirbymoorside.

Since my father would have to live off his wits, it was clear to his mother and uncles that he should have a good education. There was no money to pay school fees but a place was found at a charitable institution, the Crossley and Porter School for Orphans, housed in a grimy replica of a French Renaissance chateau on the moors overlooking Halifax. Read would remain in this austere institution for the next five years, leaving the premises only on a Sunday to go to church, and for a holiday in Ryedale in the summer and at Christmas.

My father left Crossley and Porters at the age of 15 and was taken on as a junior clerk   by the Skyrac and Morley Savings Bank in Leeds. He lived with his mother who had moved to the city. Each evening, after work, he went to night school and in 1912 enrolled as a student at the University. He joined the Leeds Arts Club and the University's Officer's Training Corps whose summer training camp provided a free holiday in the open air. To the distress of his mother, he lost his faith, declared himself an atheist and secretly fostered an ambition to be, not a lawyer as his family supposed, but a writer, a journalist or even a poet.

In August, 1914, war was declared and, under the terms of his engagement in the OTC, Read joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards and after six months of training, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. His experiences in the war inevitably had a profound effect on the development of his personality and, fortuitously, provided him with a wider education than he had received at Leeds. He had developed exceptional powers of concentration reading in the rowdy play-room at Crossley's School and the list of authors he devoured as he sat in barracks or in the trenches is prodigious. He also wrote letters, not to his mother who had died of cancer in December, 1914, but to a girl he had met at the Students' Union, Evelyn Roff.

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