After Raymond Postgate left Tribune, Aneuren
Bevan became the nominal editor, I was assistant Editor and Jon Kimche was real
Editor. He was a fattish, superficially pleasant fellow from Switzerland and at
first got on well together - (I get on well with everyone at first, allowing
two months for misconceptions to be cleared up, so it doesn't mean very much)
Nor did I regret his power. I was very inexperienced, I knew nothing about him
except that he ran a socialist bookshop and was by repute an anarchist.
He soon began to irritate me, I felt he was
doctrinaire and had no idea of what made ordinary people tick. I was probably
influenced by the extraordinary fact that he was Military Correspondent for
Tribune. (I was never in a position to throw stones because I had before that
been Far East Correspondent and Postgate used to say it was much the best work
I did for the paper. But it didn't last long.) Kimche's Military Correspondence
continued week after week, month after month.
If he knew the difference between a Bren gun and
a Lewis gun it would have surprised me but it wouldn't have worried him in the
slightest. What he was exceptionally good at was deploying enormous masses of
men across the face of Europe and North Africa, helped by maps drawn by J.F.
Horrabin and containing great curving arrows indicating where Rommel and
Montgomery ought to go if they knew their business. One day I said to Bevan out
of the depths of my knowledge, "You know one of the most important things about
an Army is the commissariat. We never appear to take it into consideration in
our military articles." I was gratified to hear him saying to Kimche a few days
later, "You know, I think we ought to have something about the administration
of modern warfare...," I can't remember what happened after that but no doubt
those huge arrows got to work moving beef and bullets all over the place.
The tensions became sharper. He used to attack
me for being literary, I used to attack him for being doctrinaire. One day he
objected to a word used in a review, and out of exasperation I wrote a poem
addressed "To J.K., who was overwhelmed by a word."
When I found a copy recently this note was
J.K. was a familiar type. Only economic
research was valid for him. Scientific and psychological research was
"reactionary". The terns of such research aroused a furious resentment in him.
He was a political journalist and once objected to the term "supra-neural" in a
It went like this:
Ah Freud, ah Jung, ah Ernest Jones,
and your slighted epigones
Are ringed round by our new constabulary
hate the guts of your vocabulary.
You who looked where none had been
And with new words oiled the old machine,
Have roused a torrid
Spewed forth in fits of perspiration.
Damned and banned,
you martyrs lie
Exposed to the gaoler's questing eye.
What was your
crime? You introduced
Words that were new, weapons loosed
the walls of Ignorance;
But you forgot the arrogance
That always dwells
in the dunce's heed,
Decreeing no more shall be said
Than he can say;
these are hard times
For men who are guilty of your crimes.
for the victory of the Complex,
And Pavlov triumphed on the Reflex;
Your troops advanced; they took Neurotic,
Scattering the forces of
Tutors from their colleges,
Wrapped in their anthologies
Of men who'd been the public's guide
The year before Victoria died.
Vitamins next; then Chromosomes
(Hard struggle that, involving tomes
On sex and sexual deviation -
Things glossed in decent conversation)-
But now reaction takes its course
And harries you with double force,
Using the weapons you created -
What once was fresh is dehydrated,
Once innovation, now respected-
So you are trapped, spurned and
You crouch behind a bigger Ural,
The massive walls of
Ah Freud, ah Jung, ah Ernest Jones,
Here is your enemy:
"What's good enough for daddy is
Good enough for me."
I gave this to Kimche. He read it, smiled wanly
but said nothing. I think he was rather pleased by the dedication.
In the end I got fed up I went to Bevan and said
I couldn't work with Kimche any longer. I knew what this meant he was
more important to Tribune than I was. Bevan was rather upset because he admired
Jon. "He's a man of great integrity, you know", he said. "He's just refused a
very good offer from Beaverbrook."
Of course, integrity is an excellent moral trait
but it has nothing to do with human warmth. And besides, it didn't make those
damned arrows any more acceptable. Many years later my feelings about Jon
Kimche were in a way justified. The secretary at Tribune had been an unaffected
girl named Sally whom we all liked. On one of my returns to England I heard she
was running her own bookshop. I went to see her. It turned out to be a very sad
occasion as she was closing down, having lost most of her capital. She said
most of the old gang at Tribune - editorial, business, even the street-sellers
- had rallied round with help or sympathy but there had been one outstanding
It had always been that lack of human feeling
that irritated me.
I wrote a book about Orwell. It was assumed by
the publishers and others that, as we had both worked on Tribune I knew him
well. But this is not true. I knew his work well, very well, certainly much
better than most of those who reviewed my book - but this is a familiar
complaint among authors. What I would like to establish before I go any
further, is that I never got to know him well nor did I make any effort to do
so. I have always felt very reluctant to press my attentions on the famous
because I feel this must be one of the major hardships they undergo. Whenever a
man makes a name for himself he attracts gangs of would-be disciples. With a
man like Orwell these people tended to be second-rate journalists and
third-rate hacks, I saw it happening in his case. I could name names but as the
guilty ones may have learnt a bit more sense in the meantime I will let it
pass. Orwell was sick and needed all the strength he could muster, without
having to ward off harpies. Still, they didn't help kill him, like some of
Dylan Thomas's cronies.
One has to take so much publicity with a pinch
of salt. As author of the first book on Orwell (Brander's appeared in the same
week) I was billed as his intimate, I wasn't. He used to call in once a week
with copy. Later one of Marion's "editors" wrote a blurb acclaiming my
"analytical" study. I scotched that one quickly, pointing out (you'd think the
"editor" would have noticed it for herself!) that my study was anything but
analytical, that I abominated analytical criticism, and that the adjectives she
should have supplied were "comprehensive" and "fair-minded".
And so, thirty-odd years later, I can only
remember two occasions when I was with him, apart from that weekly visit to
deliver his column, "As I Please".
The first occasion was the only one when I did
push myself, surrendering to the impulse to know the great writer. He invited
me to his flat, which lives in my memory as a huge and largely bare cellar. We
drank rum and chatted amicably. He was an easy fellow to talk to. At the time I
was trying to place a novel. I told him that it was about a Fascist group based
on sporting clubs that seized power in Britain. He immediately became alert and
said he would like to read it - it was certainly his line of country. But I
never did show it to him. In fact, I was extremely diffident about showing ay
work to others. I once asked Postgate if he would read it. He fixed me with his
eye and said, "Ye-es - so long as you realise that I am a professional reader."
I don't think he meant he wanted me to pay for a reading but was warning me
that I couldn't expect much mercy. I didn't show it to him but sent it to
Victor Gollancz, who sent it back with a personal note: "Surely you don't think
this will happen?
Returning to Orwells cellar, I asked him
if he had had much difficulty finding a publisher for his first book. He
replied that he had, adding that the first publisher he sent it to had rejected
it. He sounded genuinely aggrieved.
The other occasion I can remember meeting him
outside the office (or the BBC - I will refer to this later) was in a little
cafe with Ethel Mannin. I cannot remember what we talked about but I know that
Ethel and I disagreed with him. However, the abiding impression is of a very
tolerant, fundamentally kindly man.
Just before I left Tribune and he took my place
as Literary Editor I told him I was looking for a cottage in the country. He
offered me his croft on Jura, and gave an account of the rigours of life one
might expect there. They would certainly not have deterred me at the time, but
I knew that my wife, with her baby, would reject the idea out of hand. So I
declined and never saw him again.
Orwells fame is not in question. Some
years later I was to have unusual evidence of it. My daughter, the baby who was
shielded from Jura, was then at a school in Somerset. When she heard that I had
written a book on Orwell she told me that there was a monument to him in
Bruton. I was impressed, but sceptical. When I was in a position to look into
this I discovered that the monument was a single block of stone inscribed
One day a long poem in Byronic form arrived at
the office, signed Obadiah Hornbooke. It was a full-scale attack on our society
and its values and. by extension, the war effort. The author was Alex Comfort.
Bevan and Straus and Kimche read it and discussed it at length, and it was
finally decided to publish it. There was no doubt about its liveliness and, in
much of its argument, its accuracy. When you are fighting to maintain a
democratic system (even if imperfectly democratic) it is always a ticklish
business knowing whether to extend tolerance to those who give comfort to the
I do not mean to imply that Comfort supported
the enemy but his activities during the war were rather dubious. He was a
pacifist and had been excused military service on the grounds of conscientious
objection. This is a thoroughly honourable position acknowledged in English
law. What is not so honourable is to take advantage of the situation and launch
an attack on the system that permitted it during a time of severe crisis. Most
of the pacifists I knew kept quiet, perhaps out of gratitude to a society that
allowed conscientious objection. They certainly did not attempt to harass the
Later Bevan announced with great satisfaction
that the decision to publish this poem was justified in the event because it
stimulated Orwell to reply in the same vein, and to mop up Comfort's arguments
with some of his well-known simplicity and clear-headedness. (Margaret Cole
continued to shake her head however, believing there was a limit to the amount
of critical assault that could be permitted during wartime, and that this had
passed beyond it.) The most telling of Orwells rejoinders was that
Comfort and his friends were very brave in attacking those who would not hit
back, but was completely silent whenever Stalin came under discussion.
Comfort was undoubtedly a very talented, one
might justifiably say precocious, youth. He was slight in build and given to
quick nervous gestures. He had built up an enviable reputation as a poet on a
very slender basis. He had published a couple of novels and his work, including
criticism and comment over a very wide range of activity, was to be found in
most of the reviews of the time, from Horizon downwards or sideways. And all
this time he was qualifying to be a doctor. Of all the writers of ay time he
was the one who was most successful in becoming the Fashion with the coteries,
which of course is quite different from being popular or a best-seller.
Suddenly he stopped. What promised to be a
splendid literary future never happened. I have no idea why because I never
knew him well. The reason may have been quite straightforward. Or could it have
been a sudden attack of revulsion, a sense of sterility in all this politicking
and log-rolling? On the occasions when I met him he appeared to be so
single-minded as to lack the normal graces of human intercourse. He was like a
machine which had been set for a certain, definable end, I never heard him say
anything interesting because (I felt) it would be wasteful to utter opinions
which did not find expression in print. An audience would be welcome, of
course, but audiences had a nasty habit of hitting back. Keidrych Rhys once
told me that he went to a meeting where Comfort was a speaker and broke down
under pressure. He seemed less a Person that a Writer (that is, a type of
Person) so that he would. for instance, tell me loftily that the only reviewer
who seemed to understand his Play Cities of the Plain was James
Taylor. not knowing that this was my nom-de-plume. I suggest that if he had
known he would not have praised the review. I was so convinced that his own
periodicals were merely coterie publications that I once tried an experiment: I
sent him a poem with a note stating that he certainly wouldn't publish it
because I did not belong to the charmed circle. He did publish it, which
confirmed my suspicion, that quality didn't come into it and that pinpricks
could do the trick. I only once remember him making a remark which seemed to
come from himself and not from the Machine, and this was to the effect that it
might be a good idea to ban the sale of alcohol, judging by the cases he saw
admitted to the clinic.
He published a book on the Novel, which led
James Hanley to suggest wryly that he might have waited till he'd written a few
more himself. My last meeting was when he brought a poem by a French
collaborator (Eluard, I think) to the office for publication. I refused. He was
shocked. It was a good poem. What on earth did it matter if the fellow happened
to be a Fascist? I said it mattered a good deal.
When I was editing my New Saxon Pamphlets I
received poetry and prose from a young man in Bingley named John Braine. The
subject was usually doom, which he took very seriously. In one essay he
mentioned it about thirty-two times. Later, when I got to know him I discovered
that loot occupied an equal place in his stock of values.
I did my initial military training at Bradford
and so when I decided to go Absent Without Leave it was quite natural that I
should visit Braine to borrow money. When he heard of my plan he became very
concerned. He had been in the Navy, but as a clerk, and so far as I know had
never boarded a ship, but he held the Armed Forces in fear and respect. He came
with me to the railway station where I asked him to buy the ticket, it being
unwise for private soldiers to do any such thing at the time.
When the war was over and I was settled in
Dorset he came to stay with us. The cottage was the model for the passage in
Room at the Top where Joe takes his girl for a holiday. (Braine brought a girl
too, but she soon faded from his life) It did not take him long to decide that
Dorset, meaning the vegetation, was loosh. In fact, after he had been with us a
few days I felt the climate was becoming decidedly sub-tropical. What were once
elms began to look like palms, and fierce, red-eyed animals lurked in the
undergrowth. He was an engaging fellow, slow of speech but possessing a very
sharp critical apparatus. He could sniff out falsity without hesitation. He was
not so impressive in the practical area, however. Washing up with him became an
endless chore until you discovered that after wiping a dish he would put it
back with the dirty ones. We had no main drainage or sewage system so I used to
bury what the County Council called "night soil". Once when I was away Joan
asked him to do it. After he had been out for about an hour she went outside to
see why he was taking so long, and found his head barely visible above the very
deep hole he had dug. He also took her out rowing in Lulworth Cove but could
not manage to bring the boat in. The boat proprietor waded into the water to
try and catch the boat but Braine simply went round in circles. At last in
exasperation the boatman shouted, "Are you bloody well coming in or staying
out?" This hurt Braine, because he used to be a sailor.
He was capable of that mood of sheer, irrational
joy which characterises, I think, the true artist. We had a tiny Austin 7,
which used to be called the Chummy model, and one night we decided to visit a
pub in Plush (poob in Ploosh). On the way we had to go down one of those very
steep hills which appear unexpectedly so often in the West Country. Now Chummy
had no brakes to speak of and, with the extra incentive of Braine's weight,
hurtled furiously to certain destruction on the bend at the bottom. Braine
thought this was terrific, something like a Western probably, and crowed like a
cock all the way down. And, thinking it over, the destruction was not certain
after all - but sometimes, in the quiet of the night, I still hear Braine's
crow ringing in my ears.
He also had an unexpected vein of prudery. He
once went with us to a village cricket match and was taken short. He expected
to find a pavilion with flushing toilet, but we told him he would have to go
behind a tree. But he really needed a forest and I can still see the figure in
the far distance, getting smaller and smaller in his determination not to
violate the gaze of the village maidens.
John Braine, John Pick and John Atkins formed a
trio in those post-war years, devoted to writing, determined to avoid falsity
and pomposity, not caring overmuch what the world thought. We were hampered by
distance - me in Dorset, Braine in Bingley, Pick in Ullapool. John Pick and I
started a cyclostyled periodical called Fdarts which was enjoyed and highly
thought of by many prominent writers, (I mean, among other things, they used to
buy it.) Grigson actually proposed bringing out a selection in book form and he
doesn't do that every day. Most of the work was done from Ullapool. When Braine
joined us there he also helped on it and was partly responsible for the Demon
Horlicks, who insisted on sending people to sleep. (As though they needed it!)
We all exchanged views about Room at the Top
which was a best-seller, but certainly not a masterpiece. Perhaps this exchange
was the beginning of the break. Braine had written a story about a secret
society called the Vodi, and Pick advised him to base his next novel on this.
The result was something of a hybrid. After that our paths diverged. Until....
I attended a party at the British Council
Representative's house in Warsaw during the mid-seventies. When I arrived
Bernard Lott said to me, "Please look after John Braine - he's very drunk." Now
I certainly can't blame him for being drunk. He had come to Poland to spend his
Zlotis and that afternoon had been entertained by the Polish Writers'
Association, which meant he had already had a lot of vodka. I went up behind
him and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned round and continued saying what
he had been saying to his previous companion. Then he realised who I was and
I took him to another room and introduced him to
a series of girls - English and Polish and a few other nationalities that
happened to be around. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. I remember
some of the things he said: "My name is John Braine, I wrote Room at the Top,
I'm famous. How much does your husband earn? I earn a hundred times as much.
Why not come back to the hotel with me? I can give you a much better time than
he can. Etcetera.
Is it unfair to report a man in his cups? In
vino est veritas (A sudden memory - Jon Kimche wouldn't accept this, I wonder
why.) It's not the girl-hunting I object to - in fact, I've always approved it
- but the grounding everything on a financial basis. For a creative writer to
win a girl through his royalties rather than his personality or his wit seems
grave treachery. Perhaps I'm being pompous. Treacherous ground, this.
Braine felt guilty. For the rest of that night
he declared undying friendship ("You are ay only friend" - surprising, that!)
and a determination to keep up, or renew, that friendship. When I mentioned
John Pick he said scornfully, "He simply gave up!" But this was never true. To
me it seems that it is Braine who gave up - or, in a more meaningful phrase,
sold out. And since that day I have heard nothing from him, not even another
declaration of undying friendship.
A few weeks before I met Braine in Warsaw,
William Styron, the American novelist, had visited Poland. I told Braine this.
He half closed his eyes and said, "You know the trouble with Styron - the
Walter de la Mare
When I was a boy I read in the shadow of the
great sages Shaw, Wells and Chesterton. Around them floated a penumbra of poets
and essayists known as Georgians, Well, no-one wants sages anymore and T.S.
Elliot and his friends savaged the Georgians into their graves. Nevertheless, I
knew what was what. Although I found new heroes in W.H. Auden and Christopher
Isherwood I could never forget the Rental exuberance of Chesterton and the
extraordinary sensitivity of de la Mare. In 1943 I wrote a critical study of
the latter based on a section of his work and sent him a copy as an act of
courtesy. There was some correspondence and then he invited me to visit him at
his flat. When I got there my essay was not mentioned at all. Now I see that it
was quite natural that he should want to talk about anything and anyone save
himself. He was extraordinarily modest and self-effacing. Knowing me to be an
admirer of Edgar Allan Poe he introduced him at the first convenient
opportunity as the subject of conversation, asking me if I had read a biography
of him by an American whose name he couldn't remember, and which he said was
very sensational and equally enjoyable.
I recall a man old In years and young in every
other respect, one who shrank from formality as I was told, he did from a long
poem. (But three years later he published a poem of nearly 150 stanzas.) He
carried goodwill like a banner; once you were in his presence there was no
mental fumbling for something to talk about, no uneasy suspicion that the whole
thing was a little unreal and that someone was merely being polite or playing a
part. Rather you forgot yourself and the distinction of your host, and only
marvelled at the mental and physical energy of a man who had just reached
seventy, who brought up chairs for the youngest of his guests to sit on, and
manipulated the conversation like an accomplished conductor. Immediately you
realised why his verse continued to be so sprightly and - may I say it? -
cheeky. When I try to recall his features, I find they mould themselves round
his eyes, which were enquiring, humorous and again cheeky.
It wasn't easy to get into his flat because he
did all his own domestic work and didn't always hear the bell. Once you were
admitted and were sitting down there would probably be slight interruptions in
the conversation while he got up to stir the porridge. I am basing these
observations on only a few visits yet I feel convinced the porridge was always
on and that he was intermittently always stirring it.
He was a short man, obviously loaded with
energy, his brows slightly bulging and his figure neat and spare. He would look
at you quizzically - when younger it was probably slyly, but when I knew him he
was no longer shy before his fellow-men, After the introductions he would
almost certainly take you to a window and show you a giant plane tree, which
towered above the flat; he would remind you that you were standing on the
fourth floor and then ask you to estimate the tree's height. You might glance
admiringly at the interior decoration and ornaments which were in keeping with
the Georgian exterior. You would then be reminded of something you had learnt
from reading his poems, that he was fascinated by the small and delicate. The
thing that took my eye was a tiny, pale blue fluted cup which had once belonged
to Byron; and there was an almost transparently white saucer bearing the
imperial monogram N. De la Mare kept his eye on you, and when he saw something
take your attention he would start to talk about it, whether it was a fireplace
or a candlestick. He would probably ask you when you thought it was made or why
modern taste in such things was so low. Nothing, you felt, could be so
important or worthwhile as your opinion.
I was never alone on these occasions. I think he
must have been fond of company. Another poet, and a particular friend of his, G
Rostrevor Hamilton, would probably be there. I wasn't always the only member of
my generation. One time I went Patric Dickinson was there. And - this is
important - there would probably be a scientist. The meal was the big event,
and all that went before and after was ante- or post-climactic. Not that
nothing would be said or nothing happen - you would be kept constantly on the
alert because your host's management of the conversation would be as agile as
his eyes. He would ask one of the company how it was possible to do any
creative work in a BBC office; he would enquire after a poet who you would
imagine had little interest for him; he would talk vivaciously of sunsets and
films. In 1945 he spoke about local air-raids and nodded his head sadly over
the unfortunate existence of such people as Hitler and Goering.
But the meal! That was the climax for which the
rest was only preparation end background. He would sit at the head of the
table, as presiding genius - which he was very successfully. Opposite him there
would be a lady (possibly Mrs Hamilton) to deal with tea-cups and other
essential properties. And ranged along the aides would be the rest - chiefly
people with a literary or artistic background but also, if available, the
scientist. Without the scientist the drama was only half staged. For now, de la
Mare's eternal curiosity would reach its pitch and demand its outlet: is there
anything on earth or beyond earth that is certain, any rule to which there is
no exception? It was de la Mare who once remarked to a leading brain surgeon
that without telepathy communication would be impossible. Once stated, the
truth is obvious, but it was the poet who had to tell the scientist.
You would not be allowed to settle down as the
spectator of a verbal duel between your host and his antagonist. At any moment
you might be asked for your opinion. Always your opinion, the opinion of
an equal. And you would have to give it, for it would be drawn out by his eyes
which seemed to gleam at you only a few inches above the table top. He was not
as short as that suggests but he appeared to screw himself up in his chair as
though into a ball of determination. You mumbled something inadequate and the
duel went on. Naturally the conversation tended to deal with the fringes of
experience, those things which most of us have read about but rarely know at
first hand: magic, the supernatural, holes in the atmosphere, Charles Fort
(whom he had just been reading), clairvoyance, the more extreme philosophical
attempts to define the universe, such as solipsism. And at this time I would
remember that this man had written some of the most genuinely creepy stories in
the language. Nothing would be settled at the end of the meal, which was
entirely satisfactory to your host, who distrusted certainty and probably
didn't believe it could ever be realised. And all the time there was no hint of
"discussion", that grim exercise in which so many people try to involve you,
largely owing to the exquisite sense of humour and the sensitive balance he
threaded through those verbal mealtime structures, beckoning you away from
over-seriousness and tension.
Then it was time to go. He would take you to the
door and then there might be a final, characteristic incident. Your gaze would
rest on the portrait of a young, rotund and complacent Victorian mother with
her round and complacent son who appeared to be the same age as herself. De la
Mare would chuckle and say You don't see that face today, do you? On the
buses and in the tube?"
I showed him my little book of poems, Experience
of England. I knew it was not his sort of verse - I was already well under the
sway of the moderns - but I felt that just as I could appreciate his poetry so
he might understand mine. And, of course, he was kind. He told me the parts he
liked and he also told me what he didn't like, although he put it kindly, "I
think you're very hard on London", he said. We tend to forget that although the
Georgians wrote much about nature, most of them loved London. I, who was a
modern and therefore expected to adore pylons (some of our poetry was called
"pylon poetry" by the older generation), dreamt of the day when I could escape
from London. My poem on London began:
There is no life here but the diseased attempt
To simulate vivacity.
And it contained four stanzas in a deliberately
ugly jazz vein, of which this is the second:
Swing those hips,
lift those thighs,
Say you love me with your eyes!
I ain't gonna stop a-pesterin' you
Till I break through.
Certainly not the kind of thing Walter de la
Mare would have appreciated.
I took a degree in History at Bristol
University, graduating in 1938. I had only been able to attend university by
accepting a grant from the Board of Education, which meant I was more or less
committed to becoming a teacher. I therefore decided to stay on for another
year in the Department of Education, for which I had to borrow £100 from
the university. When I was finally qualified I applied for the post of History
master at Halesowen in the Midlands. I was so astonished at not getting the job
I decided to look for something else - this was, of course, a rationalisation
for I did not want to become a teacher. I still thought of myself as destined
to become a writer.
I had just read a Penguin Special by
Mass-Observation that interested me enormously. This, I thought, was the kind
of job for me. I saw my way to the writing profession through journalism, and
M-O seemed a logical step on the way to journalism. This is, in fact, the way
things happened but there was one thing I had not considered - that I should
find journalism a fairly unsatisfactory kind of job. It was perfectly easy
getting into Mass-Observation. Tom Harrisson wanted educated observers who were
prepared to work hard and irregular hours for a recompense that was equally
irregular and very low. Thus Alex Hughes, Brian Allwood, Hugh Clegg and I found
ourselves living together in Streatham for a while, until eventually we went
our various ways. Economically those were hard times (I have only fainted once
in my life through malnutrition, and it was then, though this important event
occurred in Shepherds Bush, not in Streatham); we naturally grumbled, but we
also enjoyed ourselves for we were young, enjoyed the challenge and found the
idea of what we were doing exhilarating even if the details were often
If I were to make an extension of the people I
have known, ranging from those I liked most to those I liked least, whereas
John Braine, for all his faults, would fairly come high, Tom Harrisson would
come very near the bottom, if not propping up the whole collection. A less
pleasant person I have rarely met. We all had to admit his single-mindedness
and his utter devotion to and absorption in the organisation he had helped to
establish and now ran more or less on his own. He had energy, great ability and
he also had a very wide acquaintance among people who mattered and could help
us: people with money who could be bullied. Having said that, I can think of
nothing else in his favour.
He was a well-built man, sturdy, with features
that would have been attractive but for the intolerable shiftiness of his eyes.
He gave the impression of loathing you on sight. He would sweep back a mop of
black hair from his forehead with a grimace of absolute distaste. When he
smiled it was with an enormous effort, and the result was wan and watery.
Shaking hands with him was a horrible experience, for you unexpectedly found
yourself holding on to a limp flipper, and wondering what to do with it. This I
always found extraordinary, for a weak handshake is usually associated with a
floppy character. There was nothing floppy about Toms character. It was
ruthless and frequently nasty. When I recall those days I realise that
Toms relations with his team were identical with those of a foreman I
once worked under on a demolition site. In each case the dominant notion was
that the boss should be completely aloof and that friendly relations were a
sign of weakness.
Professionally, of course, he was magnificent.
All his passion went into M-O, perhaps his only love. Once when he was away and
I was left in charge at Holland Park, the American Robert Lynd, author of
Middletown. one of the most important sociological publications of the day,
called in. I showed him round and tried to explain how we worked. He was
astonished that so much work of such quality could be achieved with such meagre
resources. It would have been impossible in America, he said. Tom had the
vision of a sociology that should give as much weight to subjective opinion and
feeling as to statistical analysis. But his observers had to be objective, even
when describing the emotions of others. I remember how furious he was once when
he caught me out over a single word. I had been sent to Downing Street to
report crowd behaviour the day war was declared. I described the howling of the
sirens, and the way the crowd started to run, pouring into Whitehall towards
the bomb shelters and Underground station. "Fortunately", I wrote, there was no
panic. What right has an observer to use the word "fortunately", demanded Tom.
Charles Madge. his founding partner and sparring
partner (one of the funniest correspondences I have ever read was one between
them that I came across in the files, each trying to assert his literary
superiority over the other), once told me a fascinating little snippet that
threw an odd light on Tom. Although he was the son of a general, had been born
in South America, seemed to know everyone. and was the author of the remarkable
Savage Civilisation, despite his self-assurance and apparent sophistication,
his wife once said to Charles, "He's really quite naive. He swoons when I
In her way just as determined and single-minded
as Tom Harrisson, Elizabeth had nevertheless managed to retain her humanity. I
noticed when I visited her in her Welsh cottage that everything had to make way
for her writing. Reginald Moore, her husband, could starve (or get it himself)
and their little boy, Laurie, was shut out until dummy had finished her
chapter. Of course, starving Reg would appeal to any modern Woman's Libber, but
they didn't exist then. I would like to add that Laurie didn't appear to suffer
at all. When I met him several years later he was a personable young man with
no observable hang-ups. He had probably learnt a very useful lesson, that the
world's work must go on.
She knew what she wanted (to be a writer) and at
the same time she was a friendly human being. Her appearance varied according
to her mood; at times she was extremely attractive, especially when she mocked
the pompous and pretended to be in fear of pretentious nitwits with half her
ability. Basically she was more friendly than Reginald because I never felt
there was some mysterious barrier lying between her and oneself as I did with
She was of Welsh origin and was proud of being
connected with one of Swinburne's less respectable friends. But it was the
other-worldly, supernatural aspect of the Celt that interested her. After Alun
Lewis's death in India she began writing automatic stories which she felt came
from him. She got in touch with Lewis's widow, who decided they had been
dictated by Alun. I found this absolutely fascinating and wondered why the
manuscripts were not examined and analysed by experts, in the hope that we
could delve just a little deeper into this mysterious area but, as so often
happens, the whole affair was put aside and apparently forgotten.
She used to have occasional bouts of
table-turning but I had my doubts. I only joined in this kind of exercise once,
when we used a planchette, or its equivalent. (Forgive me if I am not expert in
the correct terms.) It was very sluggish at first, and I could sense a feeling
of disappointment among the participants. Then suddenly things started to
happen. The tumbler whizzed round the table, barely hesitating between letters,
and we discovered we were in touch with aliens who proposed to intervene in
earthly affairs when they became really critical - perhaps a danger to the rest
of the galaxy? As the answers began to be spelt out I stole a glance at
Elizabeth. She now seemed to be in a state of trance, her eyes mere silts, but
wearing that look of complete determination I knew so well, and which she
always wore when in the company of uncooperative fools. But the message
appeared to be nonsense: E I S E, no English word that I
knew of began like that - when suddenly it became clear. Eisenhower's Death!
They would intervene after Eisenhower's death! I was terribly excited and
really convinced. "Of course", I said, "when Eisenhower dies" (he was very ill
at the time) "Nixon, the Vice-president will succeed him - and Nixon is dying
for a scrap with the Russians!"
Elizabeth Berridge is one of the best of our
contemporary novelists, but she has suffered from the kind of misfortune that
is so influential in the literary life. She came a little after Elizabeth Bowen
and a little before Muriel Spark. You've got to be born at exactly the right
moment if you hope to succeed as a writer.
I believe I am the only acquaintance of Dylan
Thomas who has never written about him.
I used to see him now and again on my visits to
the Wheatsheaf and other pubs in the area. In fact, the only times I enjoyed
those visits was when I met him, for he was always straightforward and
unpretentious good company, unlike bores such as Maclaren-Ross or louts such as
Colquhoun. I remember one evening when he told me he had just produced a
wonderful image, and produced a scrap of paper on which it was written. This
may sound a bit mad until you realise that he was employed for a time by an
advertising company as a consultant. Norman Cameron worked for the same
company. They would sit round a table and discuss the product and the campaign
they planned for it, and then appeal to Dylan for an image they could play with
and toss around. On one occasion it had to be something suggesting softness.
Dylan thought for a moment and then said, "A needle - " (A pause, while the
business men think; Hallo, is this fellow playing games with us?) And then
Dylan added: "- falling through water."
On one rare occasion we actually moved out of
the Wheatsheaf and went together to another, non-literary pub for a brief
interval. We played darts and were challenged by a couple of locals, and
surprisingly won drinks, Dylan pulling it off with the final double. This was
the side of him I liked - the common man aspect, in which you are part of the
environment and not showing off against it. I think that the fascination of
Shakespeare derives partly from the sense that he was an enormously gifted
common man. I don't remember darts at the Wheatsheaf, where too many people
were polishing their egos to forget themselves in a game. The feeling I had for
him must have been reciprocal for on one of these occasions he suddenly gave me
a hard stare and blurted out, "You know, I like you -" and was then covered in
confusion and added, "Oh hell, that was a cuntish thing to say, it sounds
bloody patronising, but you know what I mean."
I once had what I thought was a good idea for my
New Saxon magazine. It was that three pools of different types should walk down
Oxford Street on a Saturday morning and register their impressions in a poem.
The three I chose for this were Keidrych Rhys, Dylan and a lady whose name I
will not divulge for a reason that will soon be obvious. I rang Dylan and asked
if he would participate. He asked who the other two were and said he thought it
a good idea no long as I didn't stipulate a poem. Whatever he wanted to say.
for example, might come more naturally in prose - and then he continued in the
bawdy vein which seemed second nature to him. I mean, ----- (the lady
poet) would probably be thinking about her cunt and wouldn't notice anything
else, and a poem wouldn't be appropriate, etc., etc.
Bawdy, vital and drunk - he was always the first
two and often the third, though I didn't see this side of him very often, I
remember a group of us were invited on the spur of the moment to the house of a
pompous young man who posed as a Critic. He is occasionally referred to these
days, so many years later, as ----,The Critic. We were to go to his parents'
house. He fluttered round us, especially Dylan, like a puppy dog, fawning and
smiling and paying compliments and in general being very tiresome in the nicest
possible way. Dylan said he would go home first to fetch Caitlin and I went
with him. While I was waiting outside I experimented with a lighted cigarette,
making patterns in the air. The display was fascinating and Dylan also enjoyed
it when he came out with Caitlin, carrying the baby in the carry-cot. I mention
this simply to illustrate something which was always true of him, his delight
in simple effects. So many contemporary writers profess boredom with anything
that is uncomplicated or unsophisticated or might have pleased Chaucer or
Herrick. And so we went on to the party where the Critic was behaving even acre
fatuously in his endeavour to impress, and the guests reacted increasingly with
a mockery which they barely took the trouble to conceal from its object, until
Caitlin remarked, I don't think I've ever been to a party before where
the host has been regarded so contemptuously by the guests".
I have never believed that artists and writers
are a race apart, but that they are normal people with specially developed
talents. As I have already said, one of the great attractions of Shakespeare is
the thought that, behind the brilliance, lay a personality with whom you and I
could easily communicate. It is the inferior artist who imagines he's different
and sets up a barrier between himself and what he thinks of as the herd. Dylan
was very human and could exhibit strong traits of friendliness and sympathy.
One of the best examples I had of this was a letter he wrote to Harry Klopper,
an Austrian who stayed with me for a while. Harry had tried to write some poems
in English, which he sent to Dylan for comment and criticism. Dylan's reply was
several pages long, and expressed the greatest sympathy with someone who wanted
to write poetry but by force or circumstances was compelled to write in an
alien language which he could never feel in the way a poet must.