Excerpts from Interesting People I Have Known by John Atkins.
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 attached:
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 review.
It went like this:
Ah Freud, ah Jung, ah Ernest Jones,
You and your slighted epigones
Are ringed round by our new constabulary
Who 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 indignation
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
To assault 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.
You fought for the victory of the Complex,
And Pavlov triumphed on the Reflex;
Your troops advanced; they took Neurotic,
Scattering the forces of despotic
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 rejected,
You crouch behind a bigger Ural,
The massive walls of Supra-Neural.
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 exception.
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 "G.P.0."
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 enemy.
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 war effort.
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 embraced me.
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 bottle!
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 unpleasant.
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 mention Antibes."
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 Reginald.
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.
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