Rory McTurk, Professor Emeritus of Icelandic Studies, University of Leeds
My friendship with Seán Haldane, I am proud to say, was a long-standing one, which we kept up for over sixty years. For much of that time, however, we lived in different countries, and although we kept in touch by letter I never saw as much of him as I would like to have done. I can best write about him by concentrating on what I personally remember of him, so that readers of this account who knew him will inevitably find gaps in it which they are encouraged to fill with memories of their own.
Seán and I first met and became friends in 1961-62, during his first year of reading English at Oxford, when I was in my second year, also reading English. When I advised him somewhat officiously to read all the books on the syllabus in good time for his Finals (which I had given up all hope of doing), he replied that he had read them all already! This came across as quiet confidence rather than arrogance, and was in part a tribute to the school he had attended, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, known as ‘Inst’, his happier memories of which included the accessibility of its library, and the high teaching standards and enjoyable eccentricity of some of its masters. As a non-Catholic he must have been unique among his mainly Protestant schoolfellows in following up his interest in early Irish history and mythology by taking weekly lessons in the Irish language from a Catholic priest.
Seán claimed that he usually ‘felt’ English, but often thought of himself ‘hopefully’ as Irish. He was born in East Hoathly, East Sussex, but was brought up mainly in Belfast. His father, Major Desmond Haldane, was in fact Scottish-Irish, being related to the Haldanes of Gleneagles, but spoke with a southern Irish accent and considered himself Irish, while his mother, Joan Riley, was English but of partly German descent. Seánʼs two younger brothers, Robin and Niall, both born in Belfast, live to this day in the north of Ireland, in Belfast and Ballycarry respectively. At Oxford Seán gave full emphasis to his Irish background. He complained of ‘the disgusting English habit of mashing potatoes’ and spoke alluringly of the fact that in Ireland the pubs were open in the afternoons, which was not the case in England at that time. During his first year at Oxford he met Robert Graves, who was then Professor of Poetry and whom Seán greatly admired, and during his second year he met and made friends with the poet James Reeves, with whom he was later to edit a selection of poems by the American poet Trumbull Stickney, published in 1968.
Our ways parted in June 1963, when I left Oxford after taking my Finals and Seán decided to take a year out before taking his. He spent much of that year in Italy, where he met his first wife, Katharine (‘Katy’) Wolff, of Cambridge, Mass., whom he married in September 1964. He returned with her to Oxford for his final year and I noticed in Seán, on visiting them there in May, 1965, when his Finals were looming, the same confident, relaxed approach to academic work that I had come to regard as typical of him. Sure enough, he graduated in June 1965 with First Class Honours in English, after seeming, at least, to have done very little work.
By the summer of 1966 Katy and Seán were divorced, and Seán was living in Sussex, working with James Reeves on the edition of Stickneyʼs poems. My wife and I visited him there and met with him the American poet Marnie Pomeroy, with whom Reeves had put him in touch and who was to become Seánʼs second wife and the mother of his daughter Maeve. Although this marriage also ended in divorce, Seán later paid tribute to Marnie’s partnership with him in founding and running from 1968 to 1973 The Ladysmith Press in Québec, Canada, which published over twenty books by young poets, including some of their own.
In 1976 Seán met Ghislaine Lanteigne, a sociologist and later a lecturer in law, from Caraquet, NB, Canada, and with her found lasting happiness. They had two daughters, Christina and Jessica, and became so settled in family life as to marry almost as an afterthought in 1991, long after Seánʼs second divorce was complete. From 1976 to 1995 they lived variously in Ottawa, in Vancouver Island (twice), and Prince Edward Island, before moving to England. Awarded a doctorate in Psychology by Saybrook University, San Francisco, in 1977, Seán worked in Canada as a psychotherapist in private practice until 1987, and then, until 1994, as a consultant psychologist and consultant neuropsychologist in Prince Edward Island and Vancouver Island respectively. In Britain he worked from 1995 to 2012 for the National Health Service as a consultant clinical psychologist and consultant neuropsychologist, initially at Solihull and from 2001 in London: the family lived first at Balsall Common in the West Midlands and subsequently at Wanstead, East London, while keeping in close contact with Canada through frequent visits. From 2007 to 2018, it may be noted, Seán became more and more of a grandfather, and one of his great pleasures was telling stories of his own childhood to Maeveʼs and Jessicaʼs children, as he had done with his three daughters. He had not yet retired from professional work: from 2012 to 2020 he had a private practice in London in clinical and forensic neuropsychology. He naturally never discussed his patients with me or with any unauthorised person, but I did happen to meet one of them once, who said: ‘the great thing about Seán is that he sees round corners.ʼ
All this time Seán was writing and publishing. His work as a psychologist and neuropsychologist is represented by his two books on practical psychology, Emotional First Aid (1984) and Couple Dynamics (1985), and by Pulsation (2014), a study of the work of Wilhelm Reich in the light of neuroscience. It was poetry that was most important to him, however, and this is reflected in by far the greater number of his publications.
In 2013 he and Ghislaine founded the Rún Press (later renamed Rune Press), which published the ‘Pocket Poems’ series of complete poems by poets whose work had not previously been fully collected: the poems of Valentin Iremonger and Martin Seymour-Smith were published in 2014, followed in 2016 and 2020 by those of the Scottish poet David Cameron, ‘the real David Cameron’, as Seán was happy to call him. As a poet himself from an early age, Seán had resolved never to make a living from poetry, and that any earnings from his poems would go towards publishing poetry by others as well as himself. He believed that love and mutability were the fundamental concerns of all true poetry, and this is reflected in his own poetry, if not always directly. The main published books of his poems are: Skindiving (1972), Desire in Belfast (1992), Lines from the Stone Age (2000), Always Two (2009), The Memory Tree (2015) and The Hugger Mugger (2020). He also wrote two books on the nature of poetry: What Poetry Is (1970) and Time / No Time – the Paradox of Poetry and Physics (2013); a biography of Trumbull Stickney (The Fright of Time, 1970), whose work he had edited with James Reeves; student guides to John Donne (1996) and Thomas Hardy (2002), dealing in the latter case with Hardy’s novels as well as his poetry; and occasional poems, reviews and critical essays in various journals. Two cycles of his poems, ‘The echo cycle’ and ‘Poems of absence’, printed in The Hugger Mugger, pp. 158-66, have been set to music by the Canadian composers David Jaeger (in 2017) and the late James Moffet (in 2019) respectively, and both beautifully sung in performance by his daughter Christina, a professional soprano.
In relatively recent years Seán began to write novels. Some four or five of these exist as yet only in typescript, one of them featuring the seventh-century Irish woman poet Liadain and reflecting his early interest in Irish history and mythology. The two that have so far been published, however, are detective mysteries, of which the first, The Devil’s Making (2013), won the Canadian Best Crime Novel award in 2014, and the second, its sequel, An Evil Tale I Heard, appeared in 2022. They are set in the nineteenth century in Vancouver Island and Prince Edward Island respectively, and feature the same English police detective, Chad Hobbes.
In October 2021 Seán was diagnosed with a condition which, despite treatment, steadily worsened during the remainder of his life. He bore this with great courage and was cared for with utter devotion by Ghislaine, who like Seán remained optimistic that he might recover, but sadly this was not to be. During his last weeks his three daughters, all of whom now live in Canada, came to visit him, which gave him great joy and Ghislaine much-needed support. I last saw him in late November 2022, when he kindly gave me a copy of An Evil Tale I Heard, a much-treasured addition to the many signed copies of his books in my possession. I read it in December and was able to tell him in January of this year how much I had enjoyed it. I recommend it, as I also recommend any book that bears his name. Anyone reading any one of his works, whether in prose or verse, will understand how proud I am to have been his friend.