A Nest of Anarchists. Part 2. By JBP.
170 Westbourne Terrace
No 170 was at the wrong end of Westbourne Terrace. The respectable part of the thoroughfare linked Kensington Gardens with the Harrow Road. Kensington Gardens, home of Peter Pan's statue, was respectable and douce, the Harrow Road workaday and raffish. The other side of the Harrow Road was urban wilderness. That's where we lived, behind Paddington Station. The area should have been known as 'Lower Westbourne Terrace.'
Lower Westbourne Terrace was demolished in the 1960s. It is impossible now even to imagine where it might have been. The houses have gone, the road has gone, the entire neighbourhood has gone, the relationship between neighbourhoods has gone. All that can be said is that once upon a time it existed somewhere between the Harrow Road and what has since become the opulent enclave of Little Venice. It was not an opulent enclave then. Its denizens tended to slink about after dusk beside a refuse-laden canal.
On the corner of Lower Westbourne Terrace amid an even more raffish street which contained a Welsh Dairy and an off-licence, stood a pig-bin with its lid set at a rakish angle, overflowing with rubbish. On the wall behind the bin a local satirist had chalked a portrait of the contemporary hero known as Chad - sausage-nose and two eyes peering over a horizontal line - underneath the legend 'Wot, no pigs?' Chad lifted morale by asking 'Wot no' this and 'Wot no' that all over the country, his script written by hundreds of anonymous chalkers.
Behind the wall was an ex-garden of trampled mud and a bombed house boarded up and peeling. Glass was scattered tactically, paper bags blew about. A dog like a threadbare hearthrug lay slumped in the gutter. Ladies in hair-curlers and carpet-slippers shuffled in and out of the off licence bearing jugs or bottles.
No 170 was one of a row of tall, rundown houses built in the late 19th Century in the hope that they would be taken to resemble those l8th Century crescents in Bath. The basement flat was occupied by a railwayman, his Irish wife and three pale children. Once, when the lights failed and we knew the parents were out, we ventured into the basement with a torch and found the children cowering together in the dark.
The ground floor entrance was a passage-way leading to are inner door and a flight of stone stairs. It was supplied with one of those light-switches which are designed to turn themselves off at the most inconvenient moment. You pressed a flabby rubber button and fled for the inner door, evading if possible the parked bicycle. The light died with the ghostly shadow of a sound as you groped for the handle.
The rooms on the first floor consisted of a kitchen and a bedroom off the landing, then a living room off the second landing ten stairs later. The living room was immensely tall with scrolls of plaster flowers on the ceiling. French windows opened onto a balcony which it would have been unwise for more than one Italian tenor to occupy at a time. It was visited regularly by Mickey the extremely mongrel terrier who liked to bark frenziedly at anyone wearing overalls. These rooms were inhabited by Fredrick and Molly.
Off the third landing were two square rooms with sash windows, where perched ex-Dominican monk Anthony Elenjimittam, and ex-physicist Cecil Smelt.
Our bedroom and sitting room were above these, and on the top floor the kitchen crouched under a skylight, and two attics had access to the wide lead-lined gutters through tiny hinged windows. You could sit and sunbathe in the gutters because there was a low wall to prevent you from sliding into air.
These attic rooms during 1945 were occupied at one time or another by Andre Wendt, deeply pacific German anarchist just out of Wormwood Scrubs; Stephen Peet, then still a member of the FAU but drawn and maigre after years in a German prisoner-of-war camp; Alfred Perles, man of all nationalities and none, released from the Pioneer Corps; and writer John Atkins, temporarily AWOL from the Army.
* * * *
Fredrick had been accustomed to cite Anthony Elenjimittam as an authority on certain religious and philosophical topics long before the quoted scholar - small, plump, cherubic, and full to the brim with innocent benevolence - took up residence at 170 Westbourne Terrace.
Anthony was born in Goa, the Catholic region of India originally colonised by the Portuguese. He entered the Dominican Order as if in the course of nature. He had completed his novitiate and was studying in England when some accidental encounter with Hindu literature led him for the first time to take an interest in the nationalism then rampant in his homeland. The encounters with London expatriates which followed set his whole way of life trembling. At last the bubble burst and by the time he took over a room on the second floor, Anthony had left the Order and was earning his bread as a clerk.
You could not have guessed from his conversation that he was still a Catholic and a Thomist. His discourses on religion were florid, confusing, and all-embracing. His head teemed with golden abstractions, an amalgam of Hindu scriptures, Buddhist philosophy, and Christian theology, concepts from one tradition flung in pell-mell with those from another. It was as if instead of contemplating the realities on which the traditions were based, and the insights they share, Anthony had floated on a tide of universal good-will to an island where he was building a religious Tower of Babel.
All the more surprising, then, when on one occasion he interrupted the disquisition of a wild enthusiast for something or other by saying, 'Would it be helpful if I explained what St. Thomas had to say on this point?' and ticked off a series of logical steps on his pale brown fingers.
His intervention was even more effective when he made use of the technique learned from engagement with 'medieval disputation'. Presenting his victim with a syllogism, he induced a reply which elicited yet another syllogism until the victim fell into a hole and disappeared. His manipulation of this tool was accompanied by much benevolent glittering of spectacles.
He took me once to meet a Professor Ganguly, who had become his Britannic guru. The professor proved to be an urbane authority on English literature, and the conversation was mainly concerned with the qualities and shortcomings of D.H. Lawrence. Anthony looked on, beaming his blessings on civilization and all who sailed in her.
The furniture of Anthony's room consisted of a bed, a wobbly cupboard and a full set of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. He sat on the short pile while eating off the taller one. Crumbs were scattered on the uncarpeted floor as an offering to the mice. This generosity was not popular with Molly.
He bought a primus stove on which to cook, but had no idea how to set about the job. He would call up the stairs to Gene asking what to do with the egg in one hand and the pan in the other in order to produce an omelette.
Anthony was inclined when flush with money to spend it on unnecessary gadgets. He would buy the latest safety razor rather than a chair to sit on. He never needed to use the razor because his round face was completely hairless.
Every chance encounter was a great adventure to Anthony. He came home one night speechless with excitement because he had talked to a bus conductress in a pub.
He set off to work every morning dressed in a dark suit, and riding a bicycle. To do this even without an umbrella would have been hazardous enough, since he was never sure on which side of the road to wobble, but armed with an umbrella as an aid he found it almost impossible. He would either drop the umbrella or prod it inadvertently among the spokes, causing a general collapse, from which he extricated himself with amiable bewilderment. Once fully launched, he tacked like a yachtsman in a gale. The prayer went up 'Heaven help him on the Harrow Road', and Heaven must have done so, because he survived.
* * * *
Cecil Smelt, who occupied the next room to Anthony, looked upon him with satirical amusement. He reported that if you poked your head round the door and cried 'God!' Anthony floated up to the ceiling. Cecil was not accustomed to crying 'God!' except to achieve this result.
He began to attend the Forum after hearing Fredrick in the Park. He saw Fredrick's desperate pursuit of truth and certainty as a form of entertainment. For him there was neither fundamental truth nor any prospect of certainty. Even doubt was doubtful.
He enjoyed analysing into sub-atomic particles the statements and opinions of all those Forum members and attenders who could be induced to utter them. He then examined the self-deceptions which caused the disputants to hold those views in the first place. The pleasure he derived was similar to the pleasure others might gain from weeding a garden.
In September 1945 Cecil gave a lecture to the Forum, which Fredrick summarised like this: 'We were told that it was useless to search for meaning and value in our knowledge of the universe. Neither science nor philosophy, working from phenomena and the experience of relationships, can provide us with proof that nature has a purpose. The universe cannot explain itself - and it cannot, ex hypothesi, be explained by anything outside itself. This is a fact, it was emphasised, if we are honest, we must accept. . . knowledge is analysis, and both word and matter analyse to nothing. Life, for all its richness and vitality, remains clothed in mystery.' It is easy to see why Fredrick found Cecil so useful. He was a starting point. Personally, I found Cecil's ruthlessness refreshing.
In another lecture Cecil said that 'The play of assessment and merit constitute the make-up and activity of consciousness, for without these indications of worth, consciousness would suffer collapse into apathetic inertia and final extinction.'
Cecil himself had ceased to be interested in playing the game of assessment and merit. As a result there were periods during which his consciousness did indeed collapse into apathetic inertia. He could lie in bed all day because there was no conceivable purpose in getting up. He could live for weeks without making any moral judgement either on his own or other people's conduct. A sceptic may doubt everything, including reason, but a nihilist lives in meaninglessness. The intellect succeeds in destroying each perception of possible meaning as it occurs, while the ego is exhausted and impotent, yet still functions sufficiently to preserve itself. The result is a kind of selfish selflessness.
Cecil earned his living by marking physics papers for a crammer's college, although he regarded the theories of contemporary physics as mathematical constructs which could not be said in any meaningful sense to represent reality. He provided the proof that analysis is a tool which psychologically destroys the body of the world. Yet the body remains obstinately and enigmatically alive, fleas and all. And the world functions.
Cecil did not look on first acquaintance in the least like a man who lives in such a state of deprivation. Dark, of medium height, with a square, rather heavily handsome face, and an easy, saturnine manner, he could laugh at jokes, didn't take drugs or get drunk, and would join in any lively conversation. He left work until the last moment, and then laboured night and day to complete it. This was no real hardship as he preferred to live at night, and often walked to Lyons' Corner House, Marble Arch, for a cup of coffee at three a.m. Coupe, Fred Perles and I joined him once, and spent an hour trying in vain to find any worthwhile book which Coupe hadn't read. Cecil's own reading could be surprising. I found him thoroughly enjoying C.S.Lewis's 'Screwtape Letters' for its acute analysis of the workings of the ego, while entirely distrusting the lessons Lewis was intending to draw from it.
Cecil enjoyed the eccentric and meticulous scholarship of the predatory Coupe. He and Coupe became incompatible allies - to call them 'friends' would be to redefine the word - but they balanced and played off each other in a manner beneficial to the Forum insofar as it was a truth-finding organisation. The titles of the lectures they gave when Fredrick hired the Alliance Hall, Westminster, for a series of public discussions may give some idea of their different perspectives.
Fredrick himself revealed his commitment, over-riding concerns, and state of soul, by contributing 'The Problem of Loneliness', 'Freedom and Charity', and 'Loneliness and Sanctitiy.'
Cecil's talks were called 'Nihilism and Intellectual Honesty' and 'Word and Scientific Symbol.' They could not be readily taken in on a first hearing, but when studied on the page proved to be so precisely phrased as to make misunderstanding perverse.
Coupe's first lecture, on the other hand, announced as 'Staudenmeir and the Reversibility of Perception' was typical in that no one present had heard of Staudenmeir and to most this German savant remained impenetrable. I have never encountered his name since. I found each paragraph as delivered very intriguing, but could not now give any idea of how his perceptions had been reversed, or what Coupe actually said about the process. Gene tells me that it did something to explain the nature of apparitions.
On another occasion Coupe launched into 'Nietzsche and the Reversal of Values', a popular subject with the Forum because whatever else he may have been, Nietzsche was a brilliant psychologist who analysed better than anyone else the ability of the ego to deceive itself. As can be seen, Coupe was fond of reversing things.
Cecil was dangerously attractive to women. Each one in turn hoped to fill a vacuum. Since his actions could be physically positive but psychologically negative, the results were usually disastrous. He attached no value to ideas of permanence in relationships, and might vanish at any moment like a shadow when the sun goes in. You could never rely on Cecil's sun shining, no matter how bright the day. At least one of his girl-friends tried suicide. Midge threw herself out of a window and broke her fall on a dustbin, surviving with severe bruises.
Soon after the end of the war in Europe, Cecil took Midge to Cornwall for a holiday, more as an acceptance of the inevitable, I imagine, than a gesture of contrition. After they had been there for a few days and he reported favourably about the sands, rocks and lodgings, we followed, staying in the same town. Cornwall in 1945 was not rife with tourists, many of the bays were covered with barbed-wire and overlooked by concrete pill-boxes on the cliffs, but the pounding waves and lively air were a burst of freedom after confinement in battered London.
Cecil might seem an unlikely candidate for the post of lifeguard, but he saved us from drowning. Until the day on which the North Cornish coast showed its teeth and the sky turned dark we enjoyed the ripples of sunlight in clear pools, and the random music made by water dripping on floating tins in a disused quarry.
On a clear day we swam out towards nowhere, and only when we began to paddle round for the return journey did we realise that we had dreamed a great distance too far. A wind had begun to blow, waves were heaving at the rocks, and the tide had turned. Instead of moving inshore as we swam, we saw that if anything we were drifting away. There was a nightmare quality in the sensation that we were exhausting ourselves simply to stay at the same distance from the shore. The mind was slow to accept the obvious: if we didn't soon reach the projecting strip of rock where the waves were breaking, we should drown. Gene says she thought 'I must help John', and then realised that she couldn't. It's amazing how long it took to sacrifice pride and dignity and yell for help. When we did begin to bellow and shriek in harmony the figures on the shore continued to move placidly, intent on affairs which did not contain us. They were as remote as pictures on a wall. No one turned his head.
And then we saw Cecil, in shirt and trousers, slipping and scrambling on the rocks. If we didn't reach him he couldn't reach us, but the sight of him plunging about on the jagged lumps and edges of black rock, now just under water, revived strength we didn't know we had. Cecil stood waist deep on the farthest rock, hanging on. We were struggling and falling amid the breakers. One by one he hauled us out.
* * * *
The next part. "The Wandering Scholar".
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