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Literary Levities In Londow Post by :lotherin Category :Essays Author :Robert Cortes Holliday Date :October 2011 Read :3568

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Literary Levities In Londow

Now it's a funny thing, that, come to think of it. Some folks have questioned whether, the other way round, it could be done in this country at all. It's a pleasant view anyhow that the matter presents of that curious affair the English character.

There is a notion knocking about over here that considerable rigmarole is required to meet an Englishman. And very probably few who have tried it would dispute that it is somewhat difficult to "meet" an ordinary Englishman to whom you are not known in a railway carriage. With the big 'uns, however, the business appears to be simple enough. Foolish doings do clutter up one's luggage with letters of introduction when all that is needed to board round with the most celebrated people in England is a glance at a "Who's Who" in a public library to get addresses.

For the purpose of convenience the writer of these souvenirs will refer to himself as "I" and "me." I was all done up in health and was advised by doctors to clear out at once. So I bought a steamship ticket, packed a kit bag, crossed the water and took a couple of strolls about that island over there; when, feeling fitter, I turned up in London for a look about.

It sort of came over me that in my haste of departure I had neglected to bring any of my friends along, or to equip myself with the means of making others here. I was unarmed, so to say--a "Yank" in an obviously hostile country. This, you see, was before the war, before we and Britain had got so genuinely sweet on one another.

At that time I had two acquaintances resident in London. One, a Bostonian, whose attention was quite occupied with a new addition to his family; the other was the errand man stationed before my place of abode. He was an amiable soul, whose companionable nature, worldly wisdom and topographical knowledge I much appreciated. He instructed me in the culinary subject of "bubble and squeak" and many other learned matters; but unfortunately his social connections were limited to one class.

One time not a great while back I happened to review in succession for a New York paper several books by Hilaire Belloc. Mr. Belloc had written me a note thanking me for these reviews. I decided to write Mr. Belloc that I was in London and to ask if he could spare a moment for me to look at him, Mr. Belloc being one of my literary passions.

Then an ambitious idea popped into my head. I determined to write the same request to all the people in England I had ever reviewed. Reviewing, mostly anonymous, had been my business for several years, with other literary chores on the side. I communicated to Mr. Chesterton the fact that I had come over to look about, told him my belief that he was one of the noblest and most interesting monuments in England, and asked him if he supposed that he could be "viewed" by me, at some street corner, say, at a time appointed, as he rumbled past in his triumphal car.

Writing to famous people that you don't know is somewhat like the drink habit. It is easy to begin; it is pleasurably stimulating; it soon fastens itself upon you to the extent that it is exceedingly difficult to stop indulgence and it leads you straight to excess. I wound up, I think, with Hugh Walpole. I had liked that "Fortitude" thing very much.

My Englishised Boston friend--he's the worst Englishman I saw over there--simply threw up his hands. He groaned and fell into a chair.

"Holy cat!" he cried, or English words to that effect, "you can't come over here and do that way. It's not done," he declared. "You can't meet Englishmen in that fashion. These people will think you are a wild, bounding red Indian. They'll all go out of town until you leave the country."

Well, I saw it was awfully bad. I have disgraced the U.S.A. That's what comes of having crude notions about meeting people. I felt pretty cheap. I felt sorry for my friend too, because he had to stay there where he lived and try to hold his head up while I could slink off back home. My friend pointed out to me that Mr. Chesterton and the other gentlemen had only my word for it that I had any connection with literature, and that as far as they were aware I might be the worst kind of crook, and at the very best was in all likelihood a very great bore.

Annie, the maid at my lodgings, handed me a bunch of mail. Mr. Belloc was particularly eager to see me, he said. He gave me an intimate two page account of his movements for the past couple of weeks or so. He had just been out to sea in his boat, the Nona, and had only got back after a good deal of difficulty outside; this he hoped would account for the delay of a day or so in his reply.

During the Whitsun days he had to travel about England to see his children at their various schools, and after that he had to go to settle again about his boat, where she lay in a Welsh port. Then he must speak at Eton. He would be "available," however, at the beginning of the next week, when he hoped I would "take a meal" with him. Perhaps he could be of some use in acquainting me with England; it would be such a pleasure to meet me, and so on. Very nice attitude for a man so slightly acquainted with one.

Mr. Chesterton wished to thank me for my letter and to say that he would be pleased if I cared to come down to spend an afternoon with him at Beaconsfield. Mr. Walpole apologised very greatly for seeming so curtly inhospitable, but he was only in London for a short time and had difficulty in squeezing his engagements in. This week, too, was infernally complicated by Ascot. But couldn't I come round on Monday to lunch with him at his club?

Mr. Chesterton is a grand man. Smokes excellent cigars. But first, as you come up the hill, from the railway station toward the old part of the village and to the little house Overroads, you enter, as like as not, as I did, a gate set in a pleasant hedge, and you knock at a side door, to the mirth later of Mrs. Chesterton.

This agreeable entrance is that for tradesmen. The way you should have gone in is round somewhere on another road. A maid admits you to a small parlour and in a moment Mrs. Chesterton comes in to inquire if you have an appointment with her husband. She always speaks of Mr. Chesterton as "my husband." It develops that the letter you sent fixing the appointment got balled up in some way. It further develops that a good many things connected with Mr. Chesterton's life and house get balled up. Mrs. Chesterton's line seems to be to keep things about a chaotic husband as straight as possible.

Mr. Chesterton is a very fat man. His portraits, I think, hardly do him sufficient honour in this respect. He has a remarkably red face. And a smallish moustache, lightish in colour against this background. His expression is extraordinarily innocent; he looks like a monstrous infant. A tumbled mane tops him off. He sits in his parlour in a very small chair.

Did I write him when I was coming? Wonder what became of the letter? Doesn't remember it. Perhaps it is in his dressing gown. Has a habit of sticking things that interest him into the pocket of his dressing gown. Where, do you suppose, is his dressing gown? However, no matter. "Have a cigar. Do have a cigar. Wonder where my cigars are! Where are my cigars?" Mrs. Chesterton locates them.

Now about that poem, "The Inn at the End of the World," or some such thing. He is inclined to think that he did write it, but he cannot remember where it was published. Now he has lost his glasses, ridiculously small glasses, which he has been continually attempting to fix firmly upon his nose. Slapping yourself about the chest is an excellent way to find glasses.

Well, it is very flattering to be told that one is so well known in America. But so he had heard before. Describes himself as a "philosophical journalist." Did not know that there was an audience in America for his kind of writing. Wonders whether democracy as carried on there "on such a gigantic scale" can keep right on successfully. Admits a division between our two peoples. "Trenches have been dug between us," he declares.

Rises to a remark about the Englishman's everlasting garden. "He likes to have a little fringe about him," he says. And then tells a little story, which one might say contains all the elements of his art.

When he first came to Beaconsfield, Mr. Chesterton said, the policemen used to touch their helmets to him, until he told them to stop it. Because, he said, he felt that rather he should touch his hat to the policemen. "Saluting the colours, as it were," he explained. "For," he added, "are they not officers of the King?"

Mr. Chesterton apologised for being, as he put it, excessively talkative. This was occasioned, he said, by "worry and fatigue." I declined to stay for tea, as I noticed a chugging car awaiting in front of the house. "You must come to see me again," said the grand young man of England. The last I saw of him he was rolling through his garden, tossing his mane; the famous garden that rose up and hit him, you remember, at the time of his unfortunate fall.

Fine time I had with young Walpole. Those English certainly have the drop on us in the matter of clubs. They live about in the haunts beloved of Thackeray, and everybody else you ever heard of. Pleasant place, the Garrick. Something like our Players, but better. Slick collection of old portraits. Fine bust there of Will Shakespeare, found bottled up in some old passage.

Fashionable young man, Walpole. I can't remember exactly whether or not he had on all these things; but he's the sort that, if he had on nothing, would look as if he had: silk topper, spats, buttonhole bouquet. Asked me if I had yet been to Ascot. "Oh, you must go to Ascot." Buys his cigarettes, in that English way, in bulk, not by the box. "Stuff some in your pocket," he said. "Won't you have a whiskey and soda?"

Difficult person to talk with, as the only English he knows is the King's English. I was endeavouring to explain that I had left New York rather suddenly. "I just beat it, you know," I said.

"You beat it?" said Mr. Walpole.

"Yes, I just up and skidooed."

"You skidooed?"

I saw that I should have to talk like John Milton. "Sure," I said, "I left without much preparation." And then we spoke of some writer I do not care for. "I don't get him," I said.

"You don't get him?" inquired Mr. Walpole.

"No," I said, "I can't see him at all."

"You can't see him?" queried Mr. Walpole.

More Milton, I perceived. "I quite fail," I said, "to appreciate the gentleman's writings."

Mr. Walpole got that.

"Fortitude" had done him very well. The idea of Russia had always fascinated him; he had enough money to run him for a couple of years, and he was leaving shortly for Russia. "Is there any one here you would like me to help you to see?" he asked. Queer way for a gentleman to treat a probable crook. "Have you met Mr. James?" Walpole was very strong with Mr. James, it seemed.

Read aloud a letter just received from Mr. James, which he had been fingering, to show that his informal, epistolary style was identical with that of his recent autobiographical writings, which we had been discussing. "Bennett, of course you should see Arnold Bennett." Great friend of Walpole's. "And Mrs. Belloc Lowndes," said Mr. Walpole, "you really must know her; knows as much about the writing game as any one in England. I'll write those three letters to-night."

Suddenly he asked me if I were married. "All Americans are," was his comment. He had to be going. Some stupid affair, he said, for the evening. We walked together around into the Strand. "Well, good-bye," said Mr. Walpole, extending his hand, "I've got to beat it now."

There was an awesome sort of place where Thackeray went, you remember, where he was scared of the waiters. This probably was not the Reform Club, as he was very much at home there and loved the place. However, just the outside of this "mausoleum" in Pall Mall scared Mr. Hopkinson Smith, who had been inside a few clubs here and there, and who spoke, in a sketch of London, of its "forbidding" aspect, "a great, square, sullen mass of granite, frowning at you from under its heavy browed windows--an aloof, stately, cold and unwelcome sort of place."

An aristocratic functionary, probably a superannuated member of Parliament, placed me under arrest at the door, and in a vast, marble pillared hall I was held on suspicion to await the arrival of Mr. Belloc.

A large, brawny man he is, with massive shoulders, a prizefighter's head, a fine, clean shaven face and a bull neck. Somehow he suggested to me--though I do not clearly remember the picture--the portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, R.A., in the National Portrait Gallery, frequently reproduced in books.

He gives your hand a hearty wrench, turns and strides ahead of you into another room. You--and small boys in buttons, with cards and letters on platters, to whom he pays no attention--trot after him. A driving, forceful, dominating character, apparently. Looks at his watch frequently. Perpetually up and down from town, he says, and continually rushing about London. Keen on the job, evidently, all the while.

He does not know how far you are acquainted with England; "there is a wonderful lot of things to be seen in the island." Tells you all sorts of unusual places to go; how, somewhere in the north, you can walk along a Roman wall for ever so long, "a wonderful experience." Makes your head spin, he knows so much that you never thought of about England.

Discussing a tremendous meeting later on, where all the literary nobility of London are to be with you, he follows you down the steps when you go. Later forgets, in the crush of his affairs, all about this arrangement. Then sends you telegrams and basketfuls of letters of apology, with further invitations.

"Here you are, sir! All the winners! One penny." This had been the cry of the news lads but the week before.

"England to fight! Here you are, sir. Britain at war!" suddenly they began to yell through the streets.

It was not an hour now, I felt, to trouble Englishmen with my petty literary adventures. Also, I became a refugee, to some extent. And, well--I "beat it" back 'ome again. This was the only way I knew, as a neutral (then), to serve the countries at war.


(The end)
Robert Cortes Holliday's essay: Literary Levities In Londow

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