Stephen Spender’s Unmet Friends


It’s said that to know a person, one has to know his friends. Sir Stephen Spender, who passed away on July 16 in London at age 86, counted some very distinguished company in his social coterie: Cyril Connelly, Malcolm MuggeridgeH. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

But to really know this preeminent British poet and essayist, one would have to know about the thousands of lesser-known writers and journalists whom Spender befriended over the years, most of whom he never met.

In 1972, Spender started a magazine, Index on Censorship, to publish the work of writers banned in their own countries and to highlight the plight of those who had been threatened or jailed because of what they wrote.


Index published stories by South African writer Nadine Gordimer long before she won the Nobel Prize. When communism fell in the former Soviet Union, the magazine sent a researcher to Moscow to rescue a library of manuscripts from the vault of the KGB. A number of those long-suppressed works were finally published in the pages of Index.

For two decades, writers who had been banned anywhere from Argentina to Zaire found an outlet for their work in Index.

The magazine takes its name from the index of emergency cases it publishes in every issue. It is a grim litany of arrests, death threats, beatings and murders from around the globe. To compile it, the magazine works closely with Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Writers in Prison Committee of P.E.N. and Journalists Without Borders.

Spender sank a considerable amount of time, effort and money into just keeping the magazine afloat, importuning friends to write for it and using his Old-School-Tie connections to raise money for it.

In the 20th-anniversary issue of the magazine in 1992, he wrote: “In the 1880s, Matthew Arnold defended poetry on the grounds that it was ‘criticism of life.’ The lesson of the 20th Century seems to be that ‘life is criticism of life,’ and that where criticism is suppressed by absolute government, there is only death.”

The dapper, Oxford-educated writer was a lifelong enemy of totalitarianism. He went to Spain in the late ‘30s to support the Republican cause against the Franco-led fascist forces; what he saw there led him to write “Poems for Spain,” which was published in 1939. With the rise of Stalin in the Soviet Union, Spender’s early association with the Communist Party ended and he poured out his disenchantment in his celebrated book, “The God That Failed.”


Starting Index in 1972 was the next logical step for a man who believed fervently in an individual’s right to speak his mind without being jailed or murdered.

Spender is gone now. One can only hope that his legacy--in the form of his magazine--lives on.

Subscriptions to the Index are $48 a year from the Index on Censorship, c/o Fund for Free Expression, 485 5th Ave., New York, N.Y. 10164-0709. For further information, call (212) 972-8400 or contact the Index on Censorship, c/o Writers and Scholars, Lancaster House, 33 Islington High St., London N1 9LH, England (Phone: 011-44-171-278-2313/Fax: 011-44-171-278-1878).