A former Gresham’s School teacher’s 11-year mission to write the biography of a famous Old Boy is finally fulfilled this month.

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Though little-known today, the literary talents and wit of John Hayward were widely admired and feared in the post-war years.

Hayward’s life, and in particular his close friendship with leading 20th-century poet and playwright TS Eliot, are recorded in Tarantula’s Web, officially published on January 27 but launched close to the school, at The Holt Book Shop, on January 11.

Author John Smart first became aware of Hayward’s name on an honours board at Gresham’s, where Mr Smart taught English until retiring six years ago.

His attempts to finish the biography were stalled by his teaching commitments before retiring, and by the long quest to track down information on Hayward, including a trip to America where Mr Smart eventually managed to find the daughter of one of Hayward’s girlfriends. She had kept love letters between Hayward and her late mother.

Hayward, who edited the Penguin Book of English Verse, a best-seller for some 50 years, shared a flat in Chelsea with Eliot from 1946-1957.

Eliot gave him drafts of his Four Quartets to read and would make changes based on Hayward’s comments, according to Mr Smart, 66, from Thornage, near Holt.

The biography’s title is based on Hayward’s own description of himself as a tarantula, at the web of a network of friends and with a dangerous sting.

Hayward, who suffered from muscular dystrophy and used a wheelchair from his mid 20s, was renowned for his barbed remarks which occasionally lost him friends, including surgeon Geoffrey Keynes, who used brown ink and took exception to Hayward asking why he always wrote in the blood of his patients.

“Hayward was known as the most malicious man in London because of his cutting tongue. He loved to gossip about his friends, but he was also a very good friend and very fond of women,” said Mr Smart.

Eliot had pushed Hayward’s wheelchair at Buckingham Palace when Hayward was awarded the CBE for services to literature.

But Hayward’s friendship with Eliot ended dramatically when the poet, then 68, left to marry his 30-year-old secretary Valerie Fletcher, only telling Hayward of his intentions the day before. The rift and hurt were never healed. Both men died in 1965.

“He was an old-style ‘man of letters’ and if I’d known him I think I would have respected him enormously,” said Mr Smart. “He was very funny, imperious and very brave.”

● Tarantula’s Web is published in hardback by Michael Russell at £20.



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