The Independent London Newspaper
23rd April 2014

Letters

OBITUARY: Child of a literary family haunted by tragedy, George Hepburn exuded innocence and charm as an adult

George Hepburn
Malcolm Lowry

Pictured Top: George Hepburn
Pictured Above: Malcolm Lowry

Published: 26 April, 2012
by PAVAN AMARA

GEORGE Whelan Hepburn, who has died aged 92, spent a childhood around some of the country’s best loved literary figures, one of whom was responsible for the bizarre death of his pet rabbit.

Mr Hepburn, who died after a series of strokes in February, grew up in Parliament Hill with writers such as DH Lawrence, Dylan Thomas and Malcolm Lowry as family friends.

It was Lowry who killed the 12-year-old schoolboy’s rabbit. A heavy drinker whose Under The Volcano is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest novels, Lowry was a guest at the Hepburn family home.

“Malcolm was stroking it apparently, and accidentally broke its neck,” said Patrick Guttridge, 60, partner of Mr Hepburn’s daughter Jessica. “He then completely panicked and didn’t know what to do. So, still quite drunk, he stuck it in his briefcase hoping that no one would find out.”

The writer, who died aged 47 in 1957, went off to a literary lunch with George’s rabbit stuffed into his case.

“When he got there he still had no idea what to do with it,” said Mr Guttridge. “It must   have been fairly uncomfortable sitting there with a dead rabbit stuck in his briefcase. Eventually, he pulled a waiter aside and asked him to discreetly dispose of the body. It all came out a few years later. But at the time, George had no idea what had happened to his poor pet rabbit.”

Born and raised at 68 Parliament Hill – the house where he died – Mr Hepburn was born in 1919, the youngest of four sons of the feminist poet and modernist writer Anna Wickham and London solicitor Patrick Hepburn.

His daughter said that as a boy he was deeply unhappy at a boarding school in Bushey, Hertfordshire.

“He used to write letters in poetry to his mum telling her how he felt,” said Jessica, 41.

“He grew closer and closer to her as he got older. When he was nine his father Patrick died in very mysterious circumstances while out walking in the Lake District on Christmas Day.”

As a 20-year-old, George joined the veterinary corps during the Second World War, and looked after camels and horses in Jordan and Egypt.

He returned home in 1945 at the age of 26.

One afternoon two years later George’s mother sent him out to run some errands.

When he returned he found Anna had hanged herself.

“He used to tell me he was so overcome with pain that when he found her he ran into the street and began howling like a dog,” said Jessica. “I have often thought that Anna must have known George would come back home and find her body, so in some respects it was a selfish move on her part.”

Despite these tragedies, Jessica says her father had a “very innocent quality about him”.

“I don’t think that’s unusual though,” she said. “I think he cut off as a child because of everything that went on around him, so he never lost that childhood innocence. It came across as very charming to everybody around him, because he seemed so harmless.”

In later years, George took odd jobs around London, in bookshops, estate agents and short stints doing labouring work. “He was bumbling through life in his typical laidback fashion,” Jessica said. “He tried writing some of his own poetry, and even though he could write a good rhyme, it was his mother’s poetry he really loved. He performed it wherever possible.”

He met Jessica’s mother Louise in 1964. “She was very attractive, and she was Dutch so he found her quite exotic,” Jessica said.

Six months ago George suffered the first in a series of strokes, and went into St John’s Wood Care Home. “He could be quite funny though,” said Jessica. “He had a habit of asking the nurse: ‘Am I dead yet?’ in a very loud voice. She’d say: ‘No’, and he’d go: ‘Oh, OK then’.

“Towards the end, he’d also started to recite poetry spontaneously in a very loud booming voice, especially The Owl and the Pussycat, which was his favourite. But he never forgot his mother, and even at the end he was reciting her poetry.

“He never left that house he grew up in. I think part of it was symbolic.

“He didn’t want to let go off who he was. Those Hampstead streets became a part of him.”

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