What Luck! The Autobiography of A. A. Milne
WHAT LUCK! THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A. A. MILNE
A. A MILNE had the good luck to grow up in a family which was remarkable both for its courage and for its happiness. His father, John Vine Milne, was a schoolmaster after the heart of Erasmus, and so successfully removed from orthodoxy that he felt it a mission to make education an interesting art. His own products, Barry, Ken, and the irresistible youngest son Alan, took to his system like ducks to water, and as the father’s school flourished, so did the boys.
Ken and Alan Milne were brothers inseparable. They both won scholarships to Westminster, and there the two sunk happily into the fascinating extracurricular society of an English college. Thanks to his wit and a facility in expressing himself, the younger moved out ahead: Alan took honors at Westminster, while poor Ken was articled to a London solicitor.
Meantime the brothers amused themselves by writing light verse for Punch, and, when Punch was not hospitable, the verse went into the school magazine instead.
‘All this was fun,’ writes A. A. Milne, ‘but it never occurred to me that it might be a lifetime’s occupation.’ For it had been assumed that he was to be a mathematician, get a Cambridge First in the Mathematical Tripos, and so graduate into the heroic world of the British Civil Service.
But printer’s ink had already begun to work its spell, and one day A. A. Milne announced to the Captain of the College that he was going up to Cambridge to be editor of that famous journal, the Granta.
The Autobiography of A.A. Milne
WHAT distinguishes Cambridge from Oxford, broadly speaking, is that nobody who has been to Cambridge feels impelled to write about it. If it is not quite true that everybody has at least one book inside him, it seems to be the fact that every Oxonian has at least one book about Oxford inside him, and generally gets it out. Oxford men will say that this shows what a much more inspiring place Oxford is, and Cambridge men will say that it shows how much less quickly Oxford men grow up, and we can leave it at that. But it explains why this bit will have no particular interest for those particularly interested in Cambridge. Just as the practised public speaker singles out one man in the back of the audience and speaks solely to him, so I have singled out one hypothetical reader who is interested in me, and am writing solely for her. To-morrow, when she goes to the library, she can change this for a book about Oxford, and discover what University life is like.
One of the happy discoveries which I made was that I need not be hungry again. After seven years of starvation at Westminster it was delightful to be ordering one’s own breakfast and lunch. Even when one dined in Hall and left oneself to the authorities, one was safe.
On my first evening a waiter leaned over my shoulder and addressed a shy freshman opposite in the unusual words: ‘Capercailzie or beef, sir?’ ‘Capercailzie’ is pronounced like Cholmondeley and Cirencester — wrongly first time. The dialogue went like this: —
WAITER. Capercailzie or beef, sir?
FRESHMAN (startled). What?
WAITER. Capper-Kelly or beef, sir?
FRESHMAN (very pink). Er — I didn’t — er —
WAITER. Kepper —
FRESHMAN. Beef, please.
The rest of us hit upon some standard pronunciation, I forget what, and avoided the beef. It is always difficult to know what to do about other people’s pronunciations. I had to make arrangements with a mathematical coach, a Scotsman called Walker. I played football every afternoon, and didn’t feel inclined to work immediately afterwards, so proposed to go to him in the mornings at some hour when I wasn’t at a lecture. We discussed what subjects we should do together, and then he said, ‘And will ye come in the for-r-r-r-noon or the afterr-r-r-noon?’ My three-quarter English blood boiled at the idea of saying ‘forr-r-r-noon,’ politeness forbade me to say ‘morning,’ so I went to him in the afternoon, and never ceased to regret it. My previous coach, who had discovered that it was no good, was E. W. Barnes. There we were, working away like anything at Differential Equations, and now he’s the Bishop of Birmingham and I write plays. Somehow I never thought of him as a clergyman; probably he never thought of me as a dramatist. Certainly he never thought of me as a mathematician.
I did all the usual things in my first term. I bought two pipes, silver-bound, in a morocco case. I started a banking account, and established my check signature as ‘Alan A. Milne.’ So it has remained; with the result that any letter addressed thus proclaims itself at once a bill, receipt, or charitable appeal. This has been very useful. I had breakfast with the Master of Trinity, the famous Dr. Butler. It was he who came into the breakfast room one wintry morning where half a dozen nervous freshmen were awaiting him, glanced out of the window, and said genially: ‘Well, well, we have a little sun this morning’ . . . and the most nervous freshman who answered: ‘I hope Mrs. Butler is all right.’ I kept lectures, cut chapels, got up as late as I could, was called on by strangers, and, shyly, returned calls. I also played outside-left in the Freshmen’s Match and a silent Greek maiden in Agamemnon.
While this was going on, A. K. M. was sending in a set of verses each week to the Granta, and receiving them back again. It was not until the beginning of my second term that we had our first contribution accepted. Ken invented a nonsense verse, a little in the Limerick vein, which, once found, provided us with an easy formula for humor. We hoped that the result would come to be known as Milnicks, but it was not to be. Here is an example: —
And she was a wedding-boll.
He loved ‘not wisely’ (Othello)
But she didn’t love ‘ too well. ‘
One day she addressed him as‘Fellow!’ . . .
And they buried him there where he fell.
This was the first of half a dozen such tragedies, the last of them having a more human note.
And she was a girl of physique.
He said he was dying because of her.
But she told him she couldn’t stand cheek.
Then he recklessly said it was cross of her . . .
And he hopes to be well in a week.
A day or two after these verses came out, Trinity, Cambridge, was playing football against Trinity, Oxford. On our way back from Oxford we stopped inevitably at Bletchley, and went into the refreshment room for a drink. And while I was shyly drinking my ginger beer, and wishing that I liked beer and whiskey more than I liked rice pudding, which was not at all, I heard no less a person than t he Captain of the Side say to no less a person than one of the ‘ blues ‘ in the side: ‘Did you see those awfully good verses in the Granta this week — a new sort of Limerick by somebody called A. K. M.?’ I plunged a glowing face into the ginger beer. This was authorship. If only Ken had been next to me, so that we could have nudged each other and grinned, and talked it over happily together afterwards. Well, I would write to him to-morrow.
It was unlucky for poor old Ken that our verses were appearing in the Granta and not in the Weymouth Times. As we went on contributing, it gradually became accepted that I alone was A. K. M., disguising myself under these alien initials, presumably from modesty. A few friends knew the truth, but to others a brother in Dorsetshire seemed as remote from reality as a Bun bury in Shropshire or the dog that you go to see a man about. Our contributions came out regularly now, and from time to time somebody would say, ‘I liked your last thing in the Granta’— of which a shy smile seemed the appropriate acknowledgment. To go on, ‘Well, actually I have a brother down in Dorsetshire,’ sounded like the beginning of a new and irrelevant anecdote desperately in need of an audience. With an apologetic nod the other hurried on his way.
Ken may have guessed that this was happening, though I don’t think he would have resented it, but it made little difference; for, at the end of the summer term, he announced his withdrawal from the partnership. His reason was that I could do ‘this sort of thing’ just as well without him, and that he would prefer to try some other sort of thing without me. In short, his heart wasn’t in frivolity; he wanted to be more serious. He put it, as he would, charmingly, making it seem that there had never really been a ‘K’ in A. K. M., making it seem that I had been generously carrying him on my back for two years. This was so completely untrue that I protested violently against any idea of separation; indeed, I felt miserable at the thought of it. It was in his second letter that he confessed to a wish to be alone.
Well, it was for him to say. If he wished it, he should write essays for the Cornhill, while I wrote nonsense for the Granta. And good luck to both of us.
The Granta was nominally the property of the editor, but in practice his rights did not extend much beyond the nomination of his successor. The printer managed the business side of it and told the editor what (if any) the profits were. When, as editor, I was told what the profits were, I looked forward eagerly to receiving my first literary earnings. After looking forward eagerly for some weeks I applied for the money, and was informed that, until all the advertisement revenue had been collected, I was heavily in debt to the printer, and that an immediate settlement could be made on these lines if I wished it. I replied coldly that I was ‘putting the matter in the hands of my father’s solicitors’ (my brother Barry), whereupon a check for my first literary earnings arrived. What the rights and wrongs of it were I don’t know; but it seemed to me all against tradition that, as between Town and University, the University should be kept waiting for its money.
The editor at the beginning of my second year was a Trinity man whom I knew slightly. Under his auspices the initials of which I have since grown rather tired made a first appearance. The verses above them were not noticeably improved, or, I think, weakened, by the substitution of a second ‘A’ for the absent ‘K.’ But there was, uniquely, a contribution in prose (of no great merit) such as would not have been made in collaboration. I wrote it rather diffidently, wondering if this was the way to write. While I was still wondering, I received a letter from the editor, not, as I expected, saying ‘Better stick to verse,’ but making the incredible suggestion that I should take over the editorship in the following term.
This was almost the biggest surprise of my life. The most surprising thing was that he took twenty pages to elaborate his theme, the pleasure and profit to be derived from editorship and my supreme fitness for the job, when four words, ‘Will you be editor?’ would have been enough. I suppose that I was the only possible person in sight, and he had to be sure of getting the paper off his hands somehow. It was a little disappointingly easy. There is no fun in saying ‘I will’ grandly, and then being as good as told that, willy-nilly, you’ve got to.
Well, anyway, I was editor.
A Cambridge friend had asked me to spend a few days with him after Christmas, and I had accepted his invitation cheerfully, even after hearing that the entertainment would include ‘private theatricals.’ I imagined myself, with the rest of the house party, amusing a few friends in the drawing-room, my own part being one of those silent impersonations whose range, extending as it did from a Greek maiden to a monkey, could embrace almost anything. More attractive was the thought that I might write the dialogue for the others to speak, or compose the lyrics for some homemade pantomime. At the least I should be helpful as prompter or scene shifter. It was an appalling shock to find that we had taken the Ipswich Town Hall, and that in the one serious play in a triple bill I was to be the wounded hero.
Years later I wrote a series for Punch called ‘Little Plays for Amateurs.’ This might have been one of those. The hero can be (as you please) a Frenchman in the Franco-German War, a Roundhead in the Civil War, or a Southerner in the War of Secession. Wounded after the appropriate battle, he drags himself to the house of his beloved, to find a German, a Cavalier, or a Northerner billeted there; and not only billeted there, but making unacceptable advances to the heroine.
One steps lightly into a play like this, thinking that one is going to be the hero, only to discover in the big scene that it is the other man who is upstage all the time, sacrificing duty and his own feelings to the call of an unrequited love. Personally I didn’t mind being downstage, if I couldn’t be at home. Owing to the fact that I was wounded, the heroine and I had a passionate love scene on the floor, with my head among the footlights — which was no position in which to remember a long speech describing my emotions during the Battle of Sedan. However, I did my best. Only one line was unforgettable: ‘All through that long night I thought of thee.’ She moved my head out of the footlights and stroked it. I said again, ‘All through that long night I thought of you — thee,’ wondering what came next. Fortunately it was the German colonel, a little early on his cue. Having informed me that I was his prisoner, and that escape was impossible, he left us. It was a desperate situation, but all was not lost; a secret passage in which the heroine and I had played as children offered a way out. She helped me to my feet, and we had an affecting farewell scene. ‘All through that long night,’ I said — ‘Quick — quick,’ she cried, ‘you must go!’ She led me to the cunningly hidden door. ‘Farewell, beloved,’ I said, and, opening the door, stepped into the arms of the Colonel. He informed me briefly that I was his prisoner and left us. The position now seemed hopeless, or would have seemed so in any other play. Fortunately we remembered that on the other side of the room there was a second secret door, leading to a second secret passage, where also we had played as children. We had another farewell scene, which I took more gayly, realizing that in five minutes I should have left the stage forever, and was editing the Granta next term. Flinging back the door, I cried, ‘Good-bye, my love,’ and stepped into the arms of the Colonel again. It was very discouraging. I remembered suddenly, with a start of dismay which was effective, that there was another performance to-morrow night. The Colonel took the centre of the stage and made his great speech of renunciation, giving me both little Renée and my freedom. All I wanted just then was to leave Ipswich.
But even at Ipswich one could get ready for next term. Alone in my bedroom, the Franco-German War forgotten for a few hours, I wrote a ballad. It began: —
I am thinking of you, are you thinking of me?
Thy are thinking of him, he is thinking of thee —
(Oh Mary, my Mary, come over the sea).
All through that long night I thought of Mary, and by morning I had written my first contribution for the new Granta. I submitted it to myself as editor, and accepted it. We had begun.
It was the custom for undergraduates to meet their Tutor on the first day of term, not to present but to receive an address of welcome, and to be informed of any new College or University regulations which might concern them. On the first day of Lent Term 1902, our Tutor so addressed us, and then added, ‘Well, that’s all, thank you, gentlemen. Mr. Milne will remain behind.’ The others went out, wondering what I had done. So did I.
He told me. In effect the conversation went like this: —
‘I hear you are editing the Granta this term?’
‘Well, you can’t.’
‘You had no business whatever to commit yourself to anything like that without consulting me.’
‘Oh! Well —may I?’
‘If you had consulted me, as you ought to have done, I should have forbidden it.’
‘You’re a mathematician—’
‘Not a very good one.’
‘And the College pays you for being a mathematician —’
‘Not very much.’
‘And from what I hear you will have to work a great deal harder, even as it is, in order to get the degree that is expected of you. And this is the moment which you choose to take on other responsibilities —’
‘I always meant to edit the Granta. I simply must.’
‘I warn you that the College may decide to withdraw the money it pays you—’
‘I simply must. I always meant to.’
There is a long pause. I am not looking heroic. I am looking sulky and stubborn and uncomfortable.
‘I’d rather do it,’ I mumble, ‘than have the money.’
‘And you think you can edit the Granta and do your legitimate work properly?’
‘How many hours a day do you call “properly”?’
‘I should expect at least six from anyone with any pretensions to be a scholar.’
‘All right. Six.’
‘Very well, then. You will keep a record of your working hours, and show it to me every week.’
So there it was. It is funny to think that my ‘working hours’ then were the stern laborious hours when I wasn’t writing.
The constant weekly features of the Granta were the editorial, ‘Motley Notes,’ ‘Those in Authority*#8217; (biographical sketches of the leading lights of Cambridge), Union Notes, Theatrical Notes, and comments on all the athletic activities of the term. The rest of the paper was filled with ‘humorous’ articles and verses.
The union and sporting notes were written by our special correspondents. There was a tradition that they were entitled to two pounds a term for this, and another tradition that they never asked for it and never got it. Tradition was upheld in my time, save once by a football ‘blue,’ who was big enough to know better. I paid him as cheerfully as I could. ‘Those in Authority’ chose their own biographers. An exception was made in the case of Edward VII, whom I put ‘in Authority’ in the May Week number of the Granta. ‘Little or nothing is known of his early life,’ I wrote, ‘but it is believed that even in this stage of his career he evinced that love for the drama which was destined to make him President, and afterwards Patron, of the A. D. C. Anyhow there is evidence to show that he frequently came on at Her Majesty’s and the Court about this time, while the Princess of Wales first saw him in 1862 with the part of Leading Gentleman, a part to which he has always lived up.’ I meant to send him a specially printed copy, but finance or laziness intervened.
One of the privileges of editorship was the possession of a free pass to the theatre. Even in those days I realized that dramatic criticism demanded no quality but enthusiasm, and that the man who saw The Belle of New York twice on his first Saturday at Cambridge could provide all the enthusiasm necessary. But it seemed that the manager of the New Theatre wanted more than enthusiasm: he wanted a definite promise in advance that his productions would be treated with more tenderness than they had been in the past. There was, of course, no reason why he should give me, or anybody else, free seats if he didn’t think it was good for business, and equally no reason why I shouldn’t buy my own seats and criticize his plays if I thought it was good for the drama; but, as I explained with dignity in the next, number, for the Granta to take its revenge in this way, ‘though apparently more expensive, would in fact be rather cheap.’ So Theatrical Notes were abandoned.
Normally the editor wrote the leading article and ‘Motley Notes,’ and depended on outside contributors for such stuff as jokes are made of. I took what I think must have been the mistaken view that no contribution to which I would not proudly have put my own initials was worth inclusion. The result was, human nature being what it is and authors what they are, that I couldn’t depend on anybody. When one more set of verses was wanted for the next number, and X.Y.Z.’s ‘Ode to My Tailor’ filled the space exactly, the fact that I was pledged to Electrodynamics for the next two hours did not prevent me from wnndering whether I couldn’t have filled the space as exactly, and even more delightfully, myself, if I had had the time. Naturally on these occasions one takes an exaggerated view of the possibilities. Pushing Loney’s Electrodynamics a little to one side and rattling a pencil against my teeth, I allowed various ideas to wander through my mind, the conclusion three hours later being a set of verses signed A. B.C. which endeared itself to me as X.Y.Z.’s had never done. No doubt it was better only in my own opinion, but, as editor, whose opinion could I consult but my own? Making a note that I should have to do eighteen hours’ mathematics to-morrow, to get back to schedule, I went to bed. Life was very full just then.
In the first number I began a series of dialogues which ran through the term. This series might be called the precursor (if anything as frivolous may be so dignified) of a series which appeared later in Punch called ‘The Rabbits.’ I don’t want to read ‘The Rabbits’ now, but I can do it without feeling uncomfortable. These earlier dialogues fill me not only with unease, but with a profound surprise that they led me anywhere. Yet they did, in fact, lead me away from the Civil Service, schoolmastering, chartered accountancy, all the professions which I might have followed, into the profession of writing.
It was in the first week of the following term that I opened unsuspiciously a letter addressed to the Editor of the Granta. It was from R. C. Lehmann, founder and ex-editor, and now for some years on the staff of Punch. He asked for the name of the author of a certain series of dialogues, ‘of which I and many others in London have a very high opinion,’ in the hope that, if it interested him, ‘work of a similar nature might be put in his way.’ I gave him my name.
The undergraduate of to-day will find it difficult to appreciate the thrill which I received from this letter. It must be remembered that in those days there was no ‘popular press’ to keep the universities ‘in the news.’ Undergraduates were not asked to tell a million suburban readers what was wrong with Oxford, or why they had decided to give up religion. They came into the London eye only on Boat Race night, when it was the magistrates who told them what was wrong and what they should give up. London was not interested to know ‘what the young man of to-day is thinking.’ Youth, no doubt, would be served, but custom demanded that it should be served last. When it had a beard and was more than a youth, then let beards be wagged.
I had no beard; I was twenty and very young for that; ‘people in London’ were talking about me. I was thrilled. There was only one person to whom I could communicate, and with whom share, that thrill. I wrote at once to Ken.
How easy I have found it to go through the world making on equal terms friends, acquaintances, enemies, and to have the persistent feeling that the only side of the equation which matters is my own. I meet Smith, I like Smith; that is all there is about Smith, I meet Jones, I detest Jones; that goes for Jones. What do they, in return, feel about me? That is their own concern. But for some reason which I cannot explain I assume that their feelings are not so definite as mine, nor so well considered. Is this because they feel less deeply than I, or because I am less worth consideration than they? I have never answered that question. The answer lies in the usual tangle of superiority complexes, inferiority complexes, conceits, modesties, mock-modesties, and vanities of which modern man is composed.
Through the rivalries of our childhood and boyhood I had tried to be ‘nice about it’ to Ken. It did not occur to me that he was trying, with complete success, to be nice about it to me. He was nice without effort, simply because he was not so much interested in our rivalry, because (I could almost persuade myself) he didn’t even know that we were rivals, and that I had beaten him again. How could it be a humiliation to him who showed no signs of being humiliated? All these little ‘victories’ and ‘defeats’ meant no more to Ken than the winning or losing of a game of beggar-myneighbor.
I was wrong. He wrote now to congratulate me. No friend could have been more honestly delighted, no lover have paid more reckless compliments. And then for the first time he brought our rivalry into the light, showing what it had meant to him from those earliest days until now.
‘Whatever I did, you did a little better or a little sooner. . . . And so it went on. Even after all this, I could still tell myself that I had one thing left. I should always be the writer of the family. And now you have taken that too. Do I mind? Yes. No. My head is bloody but unbowed. I have got a new frock coat and you can go to the devil.’
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
Throughout his life I never lost Ken, nor he me. Time, you thief, who love to get sweets into your list, put that in.
The immediate result of Rudie Lehmann’s letter was the suggestion that I should write a series of sketches for Punch. Obviously this could not be attempted until term was over, but it was attempted then with discouraging results.
Nobody had said to me, looking at a copy of Punch, ‘You ought to edit that one day,’ and if anybody had I should undoubtedly have answered, ‘I will.’ But there seemed to be many ways of editing a paper. This series of half a dozen articles went backwards and forwards between me and the assistant editor, Owen Seaman, for some weeks, until at last they were all to his liking. They reached the editor, Burnand, at the beginning of October. Nothing more was heard of them until May, when I made apologetic inquiries of Rudie. He wrote to Burnand, who replied that he had been very busy with his autobiography lately, and hadn’t had time to give them the anxious consideration which they deserved, but that he would be going down to Ramsgate for the weekend and hoped to be able to read them in the train. Rudie waited another month or two (Burnand having met a friend on the train), and then got them away from him, and sent them to a paper called John Bull which had just been started as a ‘rival to Punch’ This editorship seemed to be in more lively hands, for the series was accepted at once; but the financial arrangements were equally volatile, and the paper went bankrupt at once — whether before or after the first of my articles appeared I never discovered.
But at the moment the whole of this was hidden from me. I was beginning a second term’s editorship of the Granta, and I was about a hundred hours down on my mathematical timetable. Go, reluctantly but, as it proved, wisely, I installed a co-editor, Vere Hodge, and made him do all the work which I didn’t like. Editorials flowed from his pen as they had never flowed from mine. There was no space, of whatever length or breadth, which he could not turn to print. Between us we covered the paper. I wrote whatever I wanted to write, or could reasonably find time to write, and left him to fill up. Probably he thought that he was writing what he wanted to write, and leaving the blank spaces to me. It didn’t matter. We worked happily together and the space was filled. There was a faint aroma of culture about us now, Hodge being a classical scholar.
Ken and I went to the Lakes together in August, staying at a farmhouse at Seathwaite. We had decided to do a little rock climbing. We knew nothing about it, but had brought a rope, nailed boots, and the standard book by Owen Glynne Jones. The climbs in this book were graded under such headings as Easy, Medium, Moderately Stiff, and Extremely Stiff. We decided to start with a moderately stiff one, and chose the Napes Needle on Great Gable, whose charm is that on a postcard it looks Extremely Stiff. Detached by the hands of a good photographer from its context, it becomes a towering pinnacle rising a thousand feet above the abyss. Roped together, since it seemed to be the etiquette, Ken and I would scale this mighty pinnacle, and send postcards to the family.
We were a little shy about the rope when we started out, carrying it lightly over the arm at first, as if we had just found it and were looking for its owners, and then more grimly over the other arm, as one who makes for a well down which some wanderer has fallen. The important thing was not to be mistaken for what we were: two novices who had been assured that a rope made climbing less dangerous, when in fact they wore convinced that it would make climbing very much more so. There was also the question of difficulty. To get ourselves to the top of the Needle would be moderately stiff; but it was (surely) extremely stiff to expect us to drag a rope up there too. I felt all this more keenly than Ken, because it had already been decided, anyhow by myself, that I was to ‘lead.’ Not only had I won the Gymnastics Competition Under 14 in 1892, but, compared with Ken’s, my life was now of no value. Ken had just got engaged to be married. If I led, we might both be killed (as seemed likely with this rope) or I might be killed alone, but it was impossible that I should ever be breaking the news to his lady of an accident which I had callously survived. I was glad of this, of course; but I should have liked it better if it had been I who was engaged and Ken who was going to be glad.
We scrambled up the lower slopes of Great Gable and reached the foot of the Needle. Seen close, it was a large splinter of rock about sixty feet high, shaped like an acute-angled pyramid with a small piece of the top cut off, leaving a flat summit which could just take Ken and me and (we supposed) the rope. We had practised tying ourselves on, and we now tied ourselves on. We didn’t even shake hands. I just started up, dragging the rope behind me.
The Napes Needle has this advantage over, from what I hear, the Matterhorn: that the difficult part is not really dangerous, and the dangerous part is not really difficult. The dangerous part, as one would expect, comes at the top. One begins by forcing oneself diagonally up a flat slab of rock, the left leg, from knee to ankle, wedged in a crack, and the rest of oneself as free as a trolley bus to follow the left leg upwards. Only the reassurance of the book, as shouted up to me by Ken, that this, though difficult, was not dangerous, kept me at it. No doubt my leg was jambed — no doubt about it, as I found when I tried to move it; no doubt I couldn’t roll down the mountain without it, but the rest of my body felt horribly defenseless, and every nerve in it was saying, ‘This is silly, and one should stick to Essex.’ With a sudden jerk which made all that the book said ridiculous, I loosened my leg and got it in a little higher up. The very slave of circumstance and impulse, like Sardanapalus, ‘borne away with every breath’ a little farther from Ken (which meant twice as far to fall), I puffed on . . . until a moment came when I could go no farther. Knee still in crack, heart still in mouth, body still in vacuo, I sidled backwards to Ken.
‘It’s no good. Sorry.’
‘Were you really stuck?’
‘Absolutely. There’s more in this than we thought.’
‘Shall I try?’
At some other time I might have said, ‘My dear man, if I can’t, you can’t.’ At some other time I might have said, ‘ For Maud’s sake, no!’ At this time all I said was, ‘Yes, do.’ I wanted to lie down.
In a little while he was back with me, and we were studying the Easy group.
‘All the same,’ said Ken, looking up at the Needle again.
‘All the same,’ said I.
‘Think of Bruce.’
‘I think of nothing else.’
‘Say “I can do it..”’
‘I can do it.’
We got up.
‘Suppose I came up behind you and pushed a bit?’
‘What’s the rope doing?’
‘Is that right?’
‘Well, I don’t see what else it can do.’
‘Nor do I. I don’t like the look of the dangerous bit at the top, do you?’
‘It may look better when we get there.’
‘Yes. Well, let’s get there. Dash it, we can’t just carry the rope home again. Come on.’
It was a little easier this time. I felt more like a tram and less like a bus; I got to the sticking place and waited for Ken’s hand to reach my foot. With its support I straightened my knee and got a handhold higher up. We went on doing this until Ken had reached the sticky place, by which time I was in sight of home. Soon we were sitting side by side on a broad shelf, puffing happily. The ‘difficult’ part was over.
There remained a vertical slab of rock in the shape of the lower four fifths of an isosceles triangle. It was about fifteen feet high, and there was a ledge like a narrow mantelpiece halfway up. Owen Glynne Jones (who may have been a nuisance in the home) made a practice of pulling himself on to mantelpieces by the fingers, so as to keep in training, and no doubt it is in the repertory of every real climber. We were merely a couple of tourists. When in doubt we collaborated. Ken reached up to the ledge and grasped it firmly, and I climbed up him. When I was standing on the ledge, my fingers were a couple of feet below the top.
In making these climbs it is impossible to lose the way. Every vital handhold is registered in the books, every foothold scored by the nails of previous climbers. To get to the top I wanted one more foothold and one handhold, and I knew where they were. I shuffled to the left and looked round the corner.
On the precipitous left-hand face of the pyramid, a little out of reach, there was an excrescence of rock the size and shape of half a cricket ball. That was the handhold. Just within reach of raised foot and bent knee a piece of the rock sloped out for a moment at an angle of forty-five degrees before resuming the perpendicular. That was the foothold. I should imagine that the whole charm of the Napes Needle to an enthusiast rests on that forbidding foothold. To a non-enthusiast, as I was at that moment, the whole charm of a foothold is that it. holds the foot solidly, at right angles to whatever one is climbing up. This didn’t. Could one’s nails (and Jones) be trusted? When all one’s weight was on that slippery-looking, nail-scratched slope, while one grabbed for the cricket ball, did one simply disappear down the left-hand face, leaving Ken with a lot of rope and no brother, or did one’s head appear triumphantly over the top? That was the question, and there was only one way of finding the answer.
After all, there must be something in this rope business, or people wouldn’t carry ropes about. If I fell, I could only fall thirty feet. It was absurd to suppose that I should then break in half; there was no record of anyone having broken in half; no, I should simply dangle for a little, assure Ken’s anxious head that all that blood he saw everywhere was only where I had hit myself on the way down, and then climb gayly up the rope to safety. All this was just the give-and-take of the climber’s life. All those scratches were just signs of where other people had slipped, disappeared, and come laughing back. Without the rope one would be a dead man, but with it the whole climb was child’s play . . . or just plain folly?
Oh, well . . .
It was delightful to sit on the top of the Needle and dangle our legs, and think ‘We’ve done it.’ About once every ten years it comes back to me that, in addition to all the things I can’t do and haven’t done, I have climbed the Napes Needle. So have thousands of other people. But they, probably, knew something about it.
My last year at Cambridge was sacrificed to the Mathematical Tripos. The sacrifice was in vain. I had hoped that I might just get a Second, but it was not to be. As I wrote later, summing up my life: —
Worthy a Tutor’s kindly word,
For when I said we got a Second,
I really meant we got a Third.
It sounds well to say that one has got an Honors Degree; it looks well to write B.A. (Maths. Honors) after one’s name; to a maiden aunt one can explain how well her nephew has done. But one cannot explain a Third Class to one’s father. Father was so bitterly disappointed that for a week he did not talk to me. When I mentioned this the other day to a young friend who was waiting anxiously for the result of his Tripos, he said enviously; ‘Good Lord, I wish I could be sure that my father wouldn’t talk to me for a week.’ But in our family we dreaded Father’s unhappy silences much more than we dreaded his anger.
We sat one August evening on a garden seat at the end of the croquet lawn, Father and I, facing the less Elizabethan wing of the house. Father had his notebook out, and was checking figures: adding this up, subtracting that, and telling me the result. Twiddling the head of a croquet mallet between my feet, my eyes on the ground, I said ‘Oh, yes,’ and ‘Yes,’ and ‘I see’ in a reserved, rather obstinate voice. We were settling my future.
Father was convinced now that I was not good enough for the Civil Service. If there was a doubt in his mind, it was whether I was good enough to be a schoolmaster, to carry on this great preparatory school which lie had built up. Still, he would give me the chance. A year in Germany studying the latest educational systems, a year or two at a public school, then to Streete Court, first as assistant master, then a junior partner, finally in full control. He had it all worked out in his notebook: the salary I should get at first, my share of income as partner, the allowance to be paid to him when he retired, the compensation to be made to my brothers for inheriting the whole patrimony, the value of the inheritance in fifteen years’ time when I should be my own master, all obligations discharged, Blue-black ink, red ink, little ticks in pencil, as he checked each item: a labor of love and pride and hope that morning in his study, while I fooled about on the fashionable beach with the prettiest of the many pretty visitors to Westgate.
‘Well, dear, what do you think of it ? ‘
’It’s all right. It’s very generous.’ I said it reluctantly. The prettiest of the pretty visitors lived in London. I was going to Germany. It seemed wrong.
‘Well, you must think it over. I don’t want to hurry you.’
In front of us was the long north w ing, with the big schoolroom which Father had added to it when first Streete Court had climbed beyond that obstinate twenty-mark where it had stayed so long (and, it seemed, so hopelessly) . . . into the thirties and then the forties . . . and then the fifties: until now it could hold its own with all the fashionable schools of Thanet, this dream of the little Kilburn schoolmaster, B.A. (Lond.), with his old-fashioned clothes and his old-fashioned beard. He leant back, his notebook on his knees, looking over the quiet lawns to all the ugly schools through which he had struggled on his way to this loved place, and again ho was on his knees to God, as he had been every night of his life, in gratitude for the fulfillment to which he had been led.
‘I think I — I think I — I’d like to try to be a writer.’
‘It’s for you to decide.’
‘Yes . . . I think I have decided.’
Father closed the notebook and put it back in his pocket. How much of heartache was hidden in it and put away forever?
‘How do you mean to set about it?’
‘I thought I’d just go up to London and — and write.’
‘Write what ? ‘
‘Well — anyt hing. Everyt hing.’
‘We can’t all be Dickenses, you know .’
“Dickens isn’t the only man who has made a living by writing.’
‘Even Mr. Wells had to do other work for a long time before he could support himself by writing.’ Father had called him ‘Mr. Wells’ to me when I was eight; he would go on calling him ‘Mr. Wells.’
‘Wells hadn’t got, any money. I’ve got three hundred pounds or so. Haven’t I? I mean you said — I mean I know it’s your money, and it’s awfully good of you, but you did say— I mean the others had a t housand pounds.’
‘I think it’s three hundred and twenty pounds. Of course that would give you a start.’
‘But, Father dear, three-twenty — just think, I could live for three years on that if I had to, and do you mean to say that in three years I couldn’t — why, I nearly had a whole series in Punch w hen I was still at Cambridge — I mean everybody thought I was going to, and it isn’t as if—I mean I did edit the Granta, and people do read the Granta in London. Besides, there’s—’ I stopped suddenly.
‘Nothing. Anyhow, I know I can do it. Three years!’ In three years I could be editor of Punch, of the Times, of should I? Yes, for Ken’s sake — of the Cornhill, of anything you like, my dear Father. Look at me. There is nothing I can’t do.
‘Then you want to go to London and take rooms there. Would von live with Barry?’
‘Goad heavens, no. Sorry. Ken will be in London this year, but I wouldn’t even live with him. I must be alone.’
‘You do understand, don’t you, that you have no more money to come after this three hundred? And it will be too late then to be a schoolmaster. You’ll just have to be a bank clerk.’
It had always been held over us — I don’t know why — this threat of servitude in a bank. Other sons might be told that they would have to enlist, or emigrate, if they failed in their chosen profession: even to sweep a crossing; but from childhood we had been taught that it was in banks that human driftwood ultimately grounded. What qualifications were necessary for a bank clerk other than that of being a disappointment to his father we never discovered.
‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘ But I can do it. I know.’
Father went in to tell Mother. I went in to write a letter. What I had been about to say was ‘Besides, there’s Harmsworlh.’ But I thought that I would write to him first, just to make sure.
Alfred Harmsworth had been a boy at Henley House. He was one of those boys who seem full of intelligence out of school hours and devoid of intelligence in them. A master’s natural deduction is that the boy is idle; ‘Could do better,’ he writes in his report. Father didn’t condemn Harmsworth as idle; he condemned himself for not being able to discover where tins obviously clever boy’s interests lay. Harmsworth came to him one day and asked if a school paper could be started, because other schools had them, and he knew a little printer who — Father said that a school paper was a good idea, but it took up too much of a headmaster’s time. Perhaps one day when he was less busy —
‘That’s all right, sir.’ said Harmsworth eagerly. ‘I’ll do it all. You shan’t be bothered, I promise.’
Now I think that nine headmasters out of ten would have pointed out that, even as it was, this boy was continually failing to pass the necessary examinations, and that there was an obvious use which could be made of his spare time. Father was the tenth headmaster. Here, at last, was something which the boy was keen on doing. Then let him do it. So the first number of the Henley House School Magazine was published: ‘Edited by Alfred C. Harmsworth.’ On that day, one may say, the Northcliffe Press was born.
Harmsworth, as the world knows, was a very brotherly man. Almost as soon as he was earning a living for himself he was earning a living for a multitude of brothers. At about the time when he was giving us pennies at Penshurst Place, he was particularly concerned with the education of a younger brother, Albert. While we were buying ourselves sweets in Penshurst, Harmsworth was telling Father of the struggle he was having to educate and bring up his family. Every penny that his Answers to Correspondents brought in — and as yet nobody knew whether it was to be success or failure — must go back into the paper; and yet here was young Albert —
“I’ll take him for you,’ said Father. ‘When Answers is a success, you can pay me my fees, but we’ll say nothing about them for the present.’
‘And suppose it isn’t a success,’ said Harmsworth, not supposing any such thing.
‘In that case we’ll go on saying nothing about them.’
So Albert came to Henley House, and a delightful boy he was. Quite a good bowler too: off-break. And when, after a few anxious months, Answers was fairly on its feet, Harmsworth, with many expressions of gratitude, discharged his debt.
The first country house which Harmsworth bought when he was approaching millioneiredom was at St. Peter’s in Thanet. A few miles away, struggling to keep his school above water, was Father at Streete Court. Father, in adversity and prosperity alike, was grateful to God for His mercies, but he was too simple and modest to expect much from his fellow men. Yet even he was a little hurt (when he thought of it) that the Great Man next door never drove over to see his old schoolmaster, never gave so much as an English Essay Prize to his old school. However, that was the way the world.
But there came a day when, for the first time, he did appeal to Harmsworth for help. He was anxious about the lease of Streete Court. The freehold was not his, and any buildings which he put up — such as the gymnasium and, later, a sanatorium — became the property of the landlord, and the subject, at the end of each seven years’ lease, of additional rent. It was essential that he should buy the freehold as soon as possible. The price asked was about £7000.
Father had nothing. There was only one person who could help him. A letter was written to Harmsworth asking him to buy Streete Court and become Father’s landlord until the day when Father had saved enough to buy it back from him. In this way Father would have, at any rate, security of tenure. Harmsworth replied that he had so much of his money tied up, and so many claims upon it, that he was unfortunately unable . . . and so on.
Father said nothing. It was the first occasion in his life on which he had asked for help, and he felt sad and silent and ashamed. Mother said a good deal. Harmsworth became ‘that man.’ Even as a boy he had always been — all the things he wouldn’t have been if he had answered the letter differently. If I had said aloud, ‘Besides, there’s Harmsworth,’ Father would have shaken his head and said with a little smile, ‘Oh no, dear,’ and Mother would have laughed scornfully and said, ‘ That man!’
But I didn’t feel quite the same about it. I did understand that one might be a millionaire and yet not want to invest £7000 in a particular way at a particular moment; I thought that, however good a schoolmaster Father had been to Harmsworth, it was, after all, his job to be a good schoolmaster. One isn’t grateful (at least, I never see why one should be) to a doctor for curing one’s influenza or to a baker for selling good bread. I thought that Father and Mother overestimated the affection and gratitude which old pupils should feel for them. And though it was true that Father had been exceptionally kind to Harmsworth in the matter of his brother, was it not precisely to Father’s son that Harmsworth would wish to repay this kindness? How delightful for both of us. For, to a young man who knew nobody, ‘knowing Harmsworth’ was the best of all introductions to Fleet Street.
So I wrote to him.
It was a difficult letter to write, and I don’t suppose I did it very well. I couldn’t just say, ‘I’m coming to London, and I want a job.’ Besides, I was not sure that I did want a job. I wanted to be a free lance, with (it sounds unpleasant, but it must have been in my mind) a pull over other free lances as regards the Harmsworth papers. Most of all, I wanted some word of encouragement which I could show to Father and Mother as assurance of my capacity to earn a living; as proof also, perhaps, that I had been right and they wrong about Harmsworth. What, in fact, I said to him was that, after editing the Granta, I was coming to London to write, and I hoped the fact that he had patted my head as a child wouldn’t influence his editors against any articles which I might send to them. Silly, but the best I could do.
The answer came a fortnight later. It said that, in Sir Alfred’s absence abroad, my letter had been forwarded to Mr. Philip Gibbs, the Literary Editor of the Daily Mail, ‘to whom the articles you mention should be sent.’
I did not show this letter to Father; I did not send any articles to Mr. Philip Gibbs. I fell as Father had once felt — ashamed of my own letter. Whether Harmsworth received it and returned it with instructions to the office, or whether he knew nothing of it, I never heard. I told myself that I had really only written to ‘that man’ for my parents’ sake, and that I was glad the great name I was going to make for myself would he made without his or anybody’s help. I pictured him on his knees a few years hence begging me to edit all his papers for him. Proudly I should refuse. . . .
Actually I did once refuse — but he was not really on his knees.
With Mother’s help I furnished two rooms in Temple Chambers at the bottom of Bouverie Street. This, I thought, would be convenient when I became editor of Punch. Breakfast was provided at a price; I lunched at an A.B.C. and dined at The Cock in Fleet Street. When I was not eating I was writing: no day without its thousand words, sent off to this paper or that. I was, proud thought, a free lance. To-day such apprenticeship seems less usual. Wordsworth, in what one might be forgiven for not recognizing as deathless poetry, writes of his ‘instinctive humbleness maintained even by the very name and thought of printed books and authorship.’ Humbleness is now better under control; The dread awe of mighty names’ has been ‘softened down,’ and the young graduate begins his career at once as gossip writer or critic. Perhaps it is as well; for how else could he live whose traditional playground, the evening press, has been torn from him? In my day there were eight fields open to his practice. Now there are but three, and even in these three he may not intrude on the reservations of the qualified. For to-day genius is rewarded rather than encouraged. The ‘mighty name’ is acquired as a going concern. What makes it go is of no moment to the editor.
I knew nobody in Fleet Street, but Rudie Lehmann had given me introductions to T. A. Cook of the Daily Telegraph and J. B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian. Cook had one piece of advice for me: ‘Never accept less than two guineas a thousandand to any free lance of to-day I will add: ‘Never accept advice like this.’ The important thing at first is to be printed. In those days a guinea a thousand was the usual rate, and I was thankful to get it. So far I hadn’t got it. At kins asked me to lunch. He was friendly and charming, and sorry that he couldn’t do much for me. He did w hat he could. He sent me a press invitation to the first appearance in England of Consul, the Man Monkey, and another to a meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society. I did them both in one afternoon. Consul’s performance struck me as the more human, but there wasn’t much in it. I may have muddled the two ‘stories’ up, However it was, both Atkins and I realized that I was not meant for a reporter.
Meanwhile my first free-lance contribution had been accepted. Sherlock Holmes had just ‘returned’ in the Strand Magazine after his duel with Moriarty. I wrote a burlesque of this, which I sent to Punch. Punch refused it, and I sent it to Vanity Pair. I can remember the last two lines of the dialogue between Holmes and Watson: —
‘And Moriarty?’ I said. ‘What of him?’
‘There was no such man,’said Holmes. ‘It was merely the name of a soup.’
To my delight the ‘stamped addressed envelope enclosed’ did not come back at once, and I was hopeful that, w hen it did, it might contain my first proof. Ken was now in London, a qualified solicitor just entering his first office. We were dining together at a nondescript club which he had joined. Waiting for him in the smoking room, I picked up Vanity Fair, wondering on which page of it, one day, my article might appear. To my utter disappointment, I found that somebody had forestalled me: somebody else had written a Holmes parody. No doubt: people were doing it all over England at that time. Jealously I read the opening paragraph. Dash the man, he had even got my first joke, about the Persian slipper! I read on . . . and then suddenly with beating heart glanced at the end: —
‘There was no such man,’ said Holmes. ‘It was merely the name of a soup.’ A. A. M.
Eirst pale with the shock of it, then red with embarrassment, I glanced nervously round the room. My secret was out. Was everybody looking at me? Even now, when I see my name in the paper, I feel that the world is intruding unduly on my privacy. I ought to be anonymous; we all ought to be anonymous. When I give my name in a shop, I give it with an ill grace. This first appearance of my initials in a London paper which all London could read filled me with a ridiculous shame. Only for a moment, of course. T hen I read the article through lingeringly: line by matchless line, loving every beautiful word of it.
I read it through twice more before Ken came; once as the old gentleman in the next chair, once as his wife for whom he would go out and buy a copy, as soon as he had read it. It seemed just as good to them as it had to the author. Then Ken came in. He was, of course, as excited and happy as I. Since I was now a millionaire, we resolved to celebrate the event. After the best dinner the club could provide, and a bottle of something to ‘wash it down’ (as other writers were saying) we went to the St. James’s Theatre and saw George Alexander in Saturday to Monday. In the Royal box sat King Edward and Queen Alexandra; in the next box sat George and Mary, Prince and Princess of Wales. I tried to think that they too had just read Vanity Fair, and had felt that the occasion should be celebrated. Anyhow there they were: it was a great evening. At the end of the month I received my first check, which was to pay for all this. Fifteen shillings.
These were the great days of Tariff Reform. Joseph Chamberlain was stumping the country; Arthur Pearson, his chief henchman, was putting fresh heart into the readers of the Daily Express and the St. James’s Gazette by telling them that Tariff’ Reform meant Work for All - or if they preferred it, as they probably did, Games for All, Pianos for All, Bicycles for All, and C heaper Wool. In the music halls Mrs. Brown Potter was reciting the Tariff Reform National Anthem, which went, as far as I can remember it, like this: —
I pledge my word that by (pom-pom) Protection we shall gain;
I pledge my word ‘twill cure all disaffection
(or win the next Election — or something)’:
These are the words of Joseph Chamberlain.
What (if anything) this lacked in imperial vision or economic argument was forgotten in the beauty of the reciter and a communal feeling of ‘Good old Joe!’ It is doubtful whether it made any converts.
Up to now I had not taken much interest in polities. Until the age of ten I had been a Gludstonian Liberal. Then, on one never-to-be-forgotten evening, Papa came into the silting room and announced to his family that for the first time in his life he had voted against Mr. Gladstone. He sat down, breathing heavily, and Mama and Ken and I became Liberal Unionists. So we remained until I came to London.
Now it happened that in the St. James’s Gazette one evening there was an article on ‘the miserable existence of the usher in a preparatory school.’ This was almost the only subject on which I had any special knowledge. I wrote a reply to it which was printed, and earned my first real guinea. This settled my college for me. I would graduate in letters at St. James’s as had Barrie in Pall Mall, as ‘Saki’ was now graduating at Westminster. Always every week, sometimes every day, I sent up an article to the St. James’s. No need to wait for a proof; I dashed out and bought a copy next day, to see where my contribution was. Looking for it in vain, and feeling that if one is looking for a thing one may as well look thoroughly, I read every word of the St. James’s every evening, leading article and all. And in this way, inevitably, I became a Free Trader and a Liberal.
Father had kept on friendly terms with H. G. Wells and they often w rote to each other. Wells had asked me to Sandgate that summer; had read some of my Granta articles; and had said, charmingly but incorrectly, that they were just the sort of thing with which he himself had begun, save that my touch was lighter than his. I was prepared to believe most things, but not this. It was much more of a thrill to be shown the manuscript of the book he was then writing, a novel called Kipps. He was now coming up to London for a few days, and asked me to dine with him at the National Liberal Club. I went eagerly.
He was, as always, friendly and helpful. He advised me never to accept a job on a paper, but to remain a free lance. Since there was now no chance of anybody offering me the servitude of a regular job, I promised to retain my liberty. He said that I must join a club, so that by reading every sort of London and provincial paper I could keep in touch with the needs and ways of editors. ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘you’d better join this. I suppose you’re a Liberal — your father’s son.’
I assured him that I w as a Liberal, but not for the reason suggested. Father, I implied, had ratted on us. I also told him that there was nobody in London whom I could ask to put me up for this or any club. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Then I’ll propose you and we’ll get Archer to second you.’
‘William Archer?’ I asked in awe.
‘Yes. You’ll have to meet him, of course. I’ll arrange it.’
A day or two later, at some horribly early hour on a cold November morning, I breakfasted with Wells and William Archer. Archer had more gravity than any other man I have met. In his grave handsome presence it was useless to remind myself that Stevenson had once been delighted by the humor of his letters. One felt that humor in his presence would have as little chance of establishing itself as would some practical joke on a bishop during the final blessing. Nor was it more hopeful to be intelligent. Archer, one felt, knew it all, and had rejected it.
They talked — w isely, profoundly, unceasingly; together they seemed as old and as wise as God. From time to time one of them would look to me for support against the other, and whichever looked first would get my support: a firm ‘Er — yes’ or ‘Er —no’ or ‘Well, I suppose in a way it is.’ It wasn’t helpful. Contemplating myself from outside, I got the impression of somebody who could do nothing but eat. With every mouthful I felt younger and more st upid: it didn’t seem possible that there could be any club for which Archer would not blackball me. However, when he had finished his breakfast, he filled in a form to say that he had known me intimately for several years, in the course of which I had proved to be a most entertaining companion. I was elected.
For many years afterwards Archer and I would meet at the Club. Neither of us had thought of this, and we didn’t know what to do about it. He was as shy of me as I was of him. We said ‘Hallo!’ or ‘Good evening’ gayly, as if each of us had much to tell the other. In the silence w hich followed, the gayety slowly died away. After a period of intense thought a smile would light up our faces, and we would say simultaneously: ‘Have you seen Wells lately?’ Wells was safely in Sandgate, away from all this, and we hadn’t seen him for some time. We said so — simultaneously. Then he would say, ‘Well — er — and give a little nod, and I would nod back and say, ‘Well,’ and we would hurry away from each other. I find that if I start wrong with anybody I never get right again. We were fellow guests at E. V. Lucas’s house in the country once, and I hoped that this would bring us together; for a man may be tongue-tied in a drawing-room but sing his heart out. under the open sky. Something, however,— possibly the fact that Archer wore a bowler hat all the time, kept us spiritually in London. We returned there in the body on Monday, fortified by the knowledge that our repertory now included an inquiry as to when we had last seen Lucas.
Back at Westgate, Father and Mother were get ting anxious. I suppose it would be fair to say that the average Victorian father expected little from his son as an individual and everything from him as his father’s son. As a tribute to Father, the editorship of the Times would be a reasonable offer to make to me; as a reward for a young man who had slacked his way through public school and University, the offer was unlikely. So, however certainly with one half of his mind he was aware that my progress must be slow and difficult, with the other he was prepared for miracles. Surprisingly, there had been no miracles. Three months had gone by, and I had earned five pounds. What could he do about it? Only one thing. He wrote to ‘that man.’
The first news which I got of this was the enclosure in one of Father’s letters of Harmsworth’s reply. It is always a temptation to glance at the enclosure in a letter before reading the letter. Unsuspecting I read; ‘Dear J. V. Very well, I will see your boy for you. Tell him to ring up my secretary and make an appointment.’ I was sick with indignation. How dare Father do anything so stupid? It was already settled that Harmsworth was to come, hat in hand, to me, not I to him. I didn’t want him; I was getting on perfectly well by myself; I had earned over five pounds, and my last contribution to the St. James’s Gazette was so good that it was bound to be accepted. Over six pounds, then. Why should Father humiliate himself, and me, like this? At least, he should have consulted me first. Then I would have told him of my own letter, and he would have seen how impossible it was.
Well, it was too late now. I had to go. I was shown into the Great Man’s room; I sat down nervously; he spoke to me. He said that he was going to send me along to two of his editors. ‘I have been careful,’ he said, ‘not to let them know that your father is one of my oldest and greatest friends’ (and I told myself that Mother would like this) ‘because I want you to make your own way. So now it’s up to you.’ A page boy was summoned, and I was led away.
First to Mr. Arthur Mee, who, it seemed, had succeeded Mr. Philip Gibbs as editor of ‘the articles you mention.’ lie told me that if I cared to send in contributions to the Daily Mail I could address them to him personally. I was in no mood to realize that this was a valuable concession; I felt that it just left me where I was before. We passed on to the next editor. I have forgotten his name, but still have a memory of shirt sleeves and a half-smoked cigar. He was that sort of editor, and he was responsible for some twenty ‘comics, boys’ papers, and what not. Humorous writers, he assured me with his feet up, were in demand, but I must realize that his public did not want anything subtle or refined. ‘Funny stories about policemen — y’ know what I mean. Umbrellas, knockabout—that sort of thing.’ I assured him that I knew what he meant.
I left the building. I walked across the road to Temple Chambers. Telling myself that I mustn’t let Father think that his help was in vain, I sat grimly down and began to write a funny story about a policeman; not subtle, not refined — knockabout. I wrote four hundred words.
I think I can say truthfully that those are the only words I have ever written which I did not write for my own pleasure. At the four-hundredth word I stopped, read them through, and with a sigh of happiness tore them into pieces. I was hack on my own again; making, as Harmsworth said, my own way.
Punch remained my goal, and I was no nearer to it. Every week I sent something in, and every week it came back again. It was difficult to know what to do with the rejected contributions. If the St. James’s didn’t like ‘Spring in the Black Forest’ (twelve hundred words), there was a chance that the Westminster might love it; and if the Westminster hated it, then it might be just the thing for the Globe. One could go on hoping; and hope was what, of all things, I wanted. But it was difficult to feel any hope about a six-hundred-word sketch which Punch had rejected. There seemed to be no place for it but the waste-paper basket — a place, no doubt, entirely suitable. Luckily a new weekly paper called the Bystander was prepared to accept verse. Its editor was not quite such a formalist as Owen Seaman; a cockney rhyme did not sear his soul; and even though he paid no more than a guinea for a set of verses, yet the thought of a guinea consolation prize was encouragement enough. I continued to send in verses to Punch.
There was a legend in those days that the contributor of any joke to Punch, illustrated or not, received five pounds for it. In April I made my first contribution to the paper, a four-line paragraph. I might get five pounds, and if so I was a made man; but was it possible, on the strength of one paragraph, to say that I ‘wrote for Punch’? Hardly. However, I had little time in which to wonder. In the following week the miracle happened, and a set of verses forced itself past Seaman into the paper. I was a real Punch contributor at last. To consolidate my position still more thoroughly, I had a small prose contribution, a narrow column, in the next number. All was well. I had proved that. I could earn a living by writing. I would be editor of Punch one day. I was the happiest man in London.
Punch, like most papers, pays its contributors every month. At the beginning of May it sent me a check for my three April contributions. The check was for sixteen shillings and sixpence. It didn’t seem to make sense. I wrote to Rudie Lehmann asking him what it meant, He replied: ‘My dear boy, it’s a damned disgrace. I am writing to Phil about it.’ This was Phil Agnew, one of the proprietors of Punch. Phil replied, in effect, that the honor of writing for Punch was considered to be sufficient reward at first, but that when the honor began to wear off, then I should begin to get paid more.
Well, I had had the honor, and I couldn’t afford to sustain it. There was no object now in sending contributions to Punch. I renounced the editorship.
Fortunately a renewed attack on the St. James’s met at last with success. I took an imaginary girl to the Zoo, to the Tower, to Earl’s Court, whence we proceeded together into print. In July I went round to the St. James’s office to demand regular work. I saw myself as its literary or dramatic crit ic. The editor suggested that I should come into the office during August and write some of its ‘Notes of the Day.’ I pointed out that these were mostly political, and that I was a Liberal. ‘That doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘We’ll tell you what to write.’ I replied coldly that nobody could tell me what to write. He said, ‘Good afternoon.’ A little later he left the St. James’s to edit a Liberal paper. Don’t ask me what his politics were. I wouldn’t know.
Country Life wanted an assistant editor. So did the Hibbert Journal. I applied simultaneously to both. To Country Life I quoted my games record, my editorship of the Crania, and my early collections of birds’ eggs and butterflies. To the Hibbert Journal I quoted my profound interest in philosophy and theosophy, my early collections of birds’ eggs and butterflies, my games record, and my editorship of the Granta. Neither application was successful.
Then in August I wrote what I thought was a very funny dialogue about Hackenschmidt and Madrali, those famous wrestlers. I had, in fact, seen them wrestle; had paid four pounds ten for a seal; had arrived sixteen seconds late, and thus missed the first bout of fifteen seconds, but saw the whole of the second bout of a minute and a half. An expensive evening, to which some paper ought to contribute. The editor of the St. James’s Gazette refused to; so did the editor of the Westminster; so did every other editor in London. I dropped the dialogue sadly in the waste-paper basket. Life for a moment seemed very drab.
Suddenly I remembered that there was a paper called Punch which paid a few shillings for articles. Since nobody else wanted my dialogue, and since even half a crown — and I could hardly get less than half a crown — was, as they say, half a crown, I pulled it out of the waste-paper basket, dusted it, and sent, it. to Punch. Punch printed it. Punch sent me a check for £2.5.0.
All was well again. I had proved that I could earn a living by writing. I would be editor of Punch one day. I was the happiest man in London.
September saw the end of my first year as a writer. I had earned twenty pounds, and spent, the whole of my patrimony.
Father ‘always used to say’ (and the phrase was almost literally true of Father) that Nature meant him for a millionaire. He had a gift for extravagance. I inherited it from him. But the extravagance was combined with a Scottish common sense and a Presbyterian horror of getting ‘wrong’ about money. We set our standards within our income and then enjoyed ourselves carelessly. Having thought once and for all as to what we could spend, we never thought twice about spending it. To-day I could be happy without a car, I could be happy without a country cottage, but I shouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t be reckless about golf balls, taxis, the best seats at cricket grounds and theatres, shirts and pullovers, tips, subscriptions, books, and wine lists. What it comes to, I suppose, is that I prefer a dribble of smaller extravagances to one big extravagance. And when my income demanded that I should go without all the things which I have mentioned above, then I was quite happy being reckless about buses and butter.
So, having three hundred pounds in the bank, I spent it in my own way. A good deal on tobacco; hardly any on drink. Hansoms to Lord’s, for only by hansom should one approach Lord’s (ah! how much Lord’s has lost since hansoms went out); but the tops of buses (and how much London has lost since the tops of buses went in), buses everywhere else. Subscription dances. Football and cricket on Saturdays for Old Westminsters. Dinners and plays with Ken while I was still rich. I spent nothing, but the money went.
Ken had dragged out, a miserable two months in an office off the Strand, discovering that the flaw in the process of becoming a solicitor was the fact that inevitably you became a solicitor. He hated it. One day he heard that there was a department in the Civil Service for which qualified solicitors only were eligible. With one profound movement he shook off, perhaps for the only time in his life, his acquiescence; resigned; worked hard for two months, and passed into the Estate Duty Office. He was safe. He had achieved a future. Every day at one o’clock I walked down Fleet Street towards the Strand, and he walked up from Somerset House towards Fleet Street, and we met and had lunch together. I wrote of him once: —
Of some Department gather round and bleat
Scandal and Art until it’s time to eat;
Return at three, and having written ‘Dear
Sir, your communication of last year
Duly received and noted’ — disappear.
His only criticism of this was that they began their letters ‘Sir,’ not ‘Dear Sir.’ But this was before the war. In the war, and afterwards, he worked himself to his death.
Now I should be able no longer to walk down Fleet Street to meet him. I had only twenty pounds in the bank, and I must find cheaper lodgings. I advertised for ‘two unfurnished rooms with use of bath, central,’ received news of furnished bed-sitting-rooms in Ponders End and maisonettes in Park Lane, refused all interest in anything from St. John’s Wood, and came at the end of September to Chelsea. Wellington Square, Chelsea, is now becoming fashionable; when I tell my friends that I used to live there t hey think that I have come down in the world. It was not so fashionable in 1904. I lived in a police sergeant’s house; I paid ten shillings a week for the two rooms at the top of the house; and the bathroom to which I traveled every morning had been, until lately, a sort of conservatory linking up the back yard with the ground-floor passage. There was an incandescent mantle and a smell of gas in the sitting room, there was some sort, of music-hall singer in the floor below, there was a variety of police sergeant’s children on the stairs. I paid sevenpence for breakfast, and had my other meals out. The sergeant’s wife was a big, friendly soul, motherly (as she might be, with the practice she had) and embarrassingly kind. Her husband had been the champion revolver-shot of the Empire, or something like it, and the two targets, right and left-hand, which hung framed in the hall explained why. I was very happy at Wellington Square, and life was exciting.
Punch was a little more remunerative now. I had an occasional essay in the Daily News, for which I received two guineas instead of the usual guinea. Once I got three guineas for a story in the Westminster Gazette, my top price so far and therefore to be celebrated with Ken in some way, and reduced, in effect, to two guineas. And then on January 17, 1905, I went to the bank to draw out my weekly two pounds. Two pounds just, about saw me through: fourteen shillings for rooms and breakfast, another fourteen for lunches and dinners, and two shillings for coal — leaving ten shillings a week for teas, buses, stamps, stationery, doctors, dentists, games, clothes, holidays, and club subscriptions.
It was the club subscriptions which put me out. I had lunched with Ken, my bank being in Fleet Street, and he came in with me to get the money. I was telling him proudly that I had a balance of nearly six pounds. The cashier took my check, went away, and came back with the manager. The manager broke it to me kindly that I was overdrawn. I protested. He reminded me that I had signed a Bankers Order for the National Liberal Club subscription of six guineas, which had just been paid. I said, ‘Oh!’ There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. We waited. He asked if I should be paying any more money in immediately. Normally I could have said with absolute conviction, ‘No,’ for there was no hope of getting anyt hing from a paper until the end of the month. Then I remembered that to-morrow was my birthday. Father had sent me a fiver last year. Would he do it again? Probably. I announced with dignity that I should be paying in the tremendous sum of live pounds to-morrow; and my check was cashed.
The fiver arrived next morning, and to my dismay another one followed it a few days later. Rudie Lehmann, who was in a way responsible for my coming to London as a writer, took a delightfully friendly interest in my struggles and had to be given the latest bulletins. I wrote what, no doubt I thought was a humorous account of the bank incident, and he replied with a check for five pounds ‘to be repaid when your balance is on its legs again.’ It was extraordinarily kind, but I didn’t want the money, and I hated the idea of borrowing from anybody. So I waited a week or two, by which time a balance might be considered capable of getting on its legs, and then repaid it.
From now on I had nothing but what I earned each month. I wanted a hundred pounds a year, eight guineas a month: say three from Punch, two from the News, one from the St. James’s — that ought to be possible. It left another two guineas to come from all the other publications in London, except the Hibbert Journal, in which I had now lost interest. Well, that also ought to be possible. What about the Evening News, to which I had never sent, anything? I sent something to the Evening News. C. E. Burton, the Literary Editor and most prolific verse-writer in London, asked me to come and see him.
‘I liked your article; it’s going in tomorrow.'
‘It was funny without really trying.’
‘That’s what it tried to be,’ I confessed.
‘How would you like to write us an article like that every week?’
‘I should love it.’
I waited. Nothing happened.
‘Er — what would the — I mean, what do you —’
‘Oh, a guinea.’ He said it cheerfully. I said nothing. Doing his best for it he added, ‘Every week.'
‘It isn’t very much.’
‘But how reassuring to have one every week. Think how glad Amelia would be.’
Amelia was the girl I look into the St. James’s Gazette with me from time to time — also for a guinea. I blushed; not with embarrassment at the thought of Amelia, who didn’t exist just then, but with pride to think that she had become real to somebody else.
‘Couldn’t you possibly make it thirty shillings, so that we could feel that I wasn’t, like the ordinary contributor?’
‘I see your point. So let’s say twentylive. You could feel like that quite easily on twenty-five.'
‘Yes, rather. Thanks very much.’
It didn’t need three years at the Mathematical Tripos to tell me that I now had sixty-five pounds a year. I had already decided that I was going to get thirty-five or more from Punch. So what? Obviously a dash to Somerset House to catch Ken before he left, and a cheap dinner together. My hundred pounds a year was assured. We must celebrate.
Father was sixty in March. At sixty he would retire. He was doing this for Mother’s sake: ‘You know what your mother is. As long as there is any work which she can do, she has to do it. Look at the way she still does the carving! It’s too much for her at her age. She has had a very hard life. Now I want her to have a rest.’ And Mot her said: ‘ It’s all a lot of nonsense, dear. You know what your father is. I’ve never had a day’s illness in my life. But your father isn’t really strong. He has had a very hard life, he’s earned a rest, and I shan’t say any more about it.’
Father looked forward to their years of leisure more than Mother did. Except in the arts, there was almost nothing, or so it seemed to him, which he could not have done, no position of responsibility which he would have been afraid to fill. Sometimes he would tell us of his plans in the event of finding himself Prime Minister, Lord Roberts, or the President of Marylebone C ricket Club: flights of imagination which borrowed reality from the fact that the conversations between Father and the necessary executive were always in oratio recta. ‘I should send for the Chief of Staff and I should say “Now look here.” . . .’ One heard the click of heels in response and the prompt ‘Very good, sir.’ Though unlikely to be offered any of these posts, he was now at least available for them. He was only sixty: there were many ways in w hich he might discover himself. At any rate he could hear good music at last.
No doubt schoolmasters hear, or overhear, a great deal of bad music, but it is a mistake to suppose that the world of good music is closed to them. For some reason Father assumed that Covent Garden and Queen’s Hall were not available until one had retired from active work and had gone to live in the country. I don’t think that he had ever been, or ever did go, to a good concert; I am sure that he never saw an opera; yet somehow it was fixed in his mind that all his life he had been starved of music against his will. I have a recurring dream in w hich I am trying to put on my pads in order to go in to bat, and cannot, cannot, cannot get the buckles to fasten. As in a dream Father saw himself continually making for the Albert Hall and continually being thwarted. Now,at last, he would be able to get there.
All through that spring term members of the family were looking for its new home — somewhere off the beaten t rack, so that it would be cheap and the countryside unspoilt; somewhere not too far from London, so that any of us could come down for week-ends. A combination of these virtues was not easily found. It was left to Ken and me to make the great discovery: in a village with the unsophisticated name of Steeple Bumpstead Essex, if you liked Essex; on the borders of Suffolk, if you didn’t. Father, who had lived and taught in Essex as a young man, did not wish to be reminded of it. So at the beginning of April he said good-bye to Streete Court, leaving behind him a name which is still remembered, and the address for any who cared to write to him: ‘Broadgates, Steeple Rumpstead, nr. Haverhill, Suffolk.’
Ken and I went down for Easter. On the Monday, Steeple Bumpstead Cricket Club opened its season in the fields between our garden wall and the churchyard. The cows were driven off the pitch, anything which they had left behind was removed, and a wicket was marked out. If Bumpstead lost the loss, the bearded and burly owner of the cows would open the bowling with a fast underhand which included everything from a long hop to a yorker in one ricocheting delivery. To-day being Bank Holiday, and the morning empty, the v illage had drifted early on to the field with bats and balls, perambulators and dogs, and while the younger members practised unofficially in corners, their seniors stood about between the creases and discussed life. In the course of their discussion a sudden dispute arose between the local policeman, in uniform, and a casual soldier, also in uniform, as to their respective merits in the cricket field. Mere assertion not seeming enough, however emphatic, it was suggested by partisans that they should settle the argument in a single-wicket match. The soldier tbought it unnecessary.
‘’Im?’ he said scornfully. ‘Why, ‘e’d never get me out.’
‘Nor ‘e wouldn’t get me out neither,’ said the policeman.
‘Me? Not get ‘im out? I’d do the ‘attrick on him if ‘e only ‘ad one stump.’
‘So would I. That’s what I’d do.’
‘I’d knock ‘im into the churchyard,’ said the soldier. ‘So I would. Right into the churchyard and over the church. Every bloody ball.’
‘So would I too,’ said the policeman.
‘ Into the churchyard and out of it. And don’t you come swearing at me, when t here’s ladies and young children present . That’s obscene language, that is. And I don’t mind telling you, young man, that I’d knock every bloody ball — every ball o’ yours, right over the church and over the church and all, so I would. You!’
Still talking, they were led away by their supporters, and presently the policeman was standing, bat in hand, at one end of the pitch, and the soldier, ball in hand, at the other. ‘Play,’ said the umpire.
Twenty minutes later the policeman was still at the wicket. His score was 0. At least three balls had come within his reach, but he had missed his opportunities. Tired of batting, he declared his innings closed. Half an hour later the soldier was still at the wicket. His score was 0. He had not had so many opportunities as the policeman, and he had missed them. His innings was declared closed by the hysterical spectators. The policeman went in again. Ken and I, equally hysterical, left the garden wall for the luncheon interval.
On the way back to London next morning I was thinking of this match. ‘You might make a joke about that,’ said the Gnat at every opportunity, and I was equally on the lookout for articles. Having written this one, I felt that it was worth more than twenty-five shillings, more even than the two guineas the News might give me. W hy not try, as I never had, the Daily Mail, which was reputed to pay enormous sums? So I tried it. The article was printed, and I was invited to call upon the editor.
‘We all liked your article very much,’ said Marlowe.
I tried to look modest.
‘The Chief tells me that your father is one of his oldest friends.’
I tried not to look cynical.
‘How would you like to come in here and edit Page Four?’
I should have thought that he was being funny if I had not heard that this was the Harmsworth way. Page Four — the leader page — with the special articles! Arthur Mee had followed out after Philip Gibbs; a vacancy; try somebody young. Quick come, quick go.
‘I should like to very much, but I’m afraid I couldn’t until the end of June.’
Well, at the end of April I was going up to the Orkneys for two months, to coach a distant connection of the Limpsfield uncle’s, a boy of fifteen w hose healt h was keeping him out of school for a term. It had seemed a delightful opportunity, giving me all that I wanted just then: a remunerative holiday, new experiences, copy, and an acquaintance, welcome to one who had never been north of Scarborough, with my ancestral country. How gladly would I have sacrificed it all now!
‘It’s all fixed, is it ? ‘
‘Well, yes. I said I would.’
‘End of June, what ? I dare say we can keep the place warm for you. Can you write up there?’
‘Oh, rather. I mean to.’
‘Well, send us some more articles, and we’ll keep it open until you come back.’
I floated out of his room; I floated down Fleet Street. I had got a job! On one article! Incredible! If only I could take it on at once— if only the Limpsfield uncle had never married if only I hadn’t been such a fool — But never mind. At the end of June I should be an editor. Silly young men would write silly young letters to Harmsworth, and their silly private letters would be ‘handed on to Mr. A. A. Milne, to whom the articles you mention should be sent. Perhaps I would see them, if their fathers were importunate enough; tell them kindly, with my feet up, that they could send their contributions to me personally and not to the editor. And every week I should print a brilliant article by myself, just to show them how it should be done.
None of this happened. I sent an article in as soon as I got to Orkney. My place-warmer wrote that he didn’t think it suitable for the Mail (how wise he was), and that he had handed it on to the Evening News, for whom, he understood, I was writing. This seemed to me such impertinence that I sent in no more articles. Nor did I hear again from Marlowe. My association with the Daily Mail was ended.
I have said that once every ten years I remember with pride that I am one of the many, or not so many, who have climbed the Napes Needle. Once every twenty years I remember, not exactly with pride, but with a slight lifting of the chin, that I am one of the few, or very few, who have spent a night alone on a desert island.
There the island was, perhaps a few hundred acres of it, half a mile from the mainland, its only inhabitants sea fowl. We landed one afternoon and walked about it; found an eider duck’s nest, surprised a few rabbits, and rowed home to tea. At dinner that evening. I said that I should like to stay there one night. Nobody knew why; I didn’t know why myself, but I supposed that there ‘might be an article in it.’ Sometimes we fished at night. It was easy for the others to drop me on the island after the fishing and to send somebody over for me next morning. I landed with a rook rifle, a rug, and a flask of brandy.
There was no shelter anywhere. I wrapped myself in my rug and snuggled down into the heather. As long as I lay still the world was still, but every movement of mine filled t he sky with t he deepbreathed sound of wings, as if a sudden storm had blown up and died away again. The night was too dark for sight, but the nearness of all that life was faintly menacing. I turned from one cramped position to another as quietly as I could. . . .
The dawn came early and with it a gentle rain. I drank the brandy. The brandy had been part of t he joke; like the rifle, a concession to romance. Now I was glad of it. Rifle under the arm, I walked down to the shore. I followed the coast line until I had caught up my footsteps —how many people, I thought, have done that?
I did it again. It didn’t seem so original this time. I sat on a rock and looked out to sea, my rifle on my knees. Nothing happened. . . .
I decided to shoot a rabbit. Since I was using a rifle I supposed that I should be allowed to shoot it. sitting. Well, it was my island and I could make my own laws: I would stalk a rabbit until I got. it into a sitting posture, and then we should see. This took time, but time was what I wanted to take just then. It was appreciably nearer breakfast when we got into the required positions; the rabbit sitting up outside its hole, polishing its whiskers, I on my stomach, a suitable distance off, my finger at the trigger. I fired. The rabbit looked up at the noise, noticed me, and trotted into its hole to tell the others. I hadn’t killed it, bul I could tell myself proudly that I had distracted it.
I fetched my rug and went down to the landward side of the island. The gray lifeless air melted into the gray lifeless waters; I could see no land, but soon I should hear the creak of oars, and from the mist would come the rescue for which I waited now as eagerly as any authentic castaway. Soon in about two hours - - it came. I lit my tenth pipe, and went down to the beach to meet it.
Naturally I made an article out of all this. It was too long for the Evening News, and apparently too bad for every other paper. But the experience was not wholly wasted. At dances that autumn I would tell my partner that I had once spent a night alone on a desert island . . . and get her surprised attention for a moment.
In April, as I should have said before, I had had my first book published. Rudie, who continued to feel responsible for me, introduced me to Barry Pain. Barry Pain, who thought in little shilling books, said: ‘Why don’t you make a little shilling book out of those St. James’s articles?’ I said that there weren’t more than half a dozen anyway. ’Then write some more. You could call it Lovers in London. It would look well on the bookstalls.’ It wouldn’t, I thought, look as well as Eliza, that best of all shilling books, but it would be a good thing to have done. So I did it; Barry Pain’s agent sold it for me; and it was published by Alston Rivers: paper cover one shilling, cloth cover one and six.
I got fifteen pounds in advance of royalties, which was more money than I had seen for a long time. I also got one or two reviews. The Sheffield Daily Independent said (and I have been interested in the paper ever since), ‘The only readable part of this book is the title,’ which was more damping than it knew. A few years later E. V. Lucas read it, and suggested that I should buy back the publisher’s rights, add some more chapters, and republish if at six shillings. So I borrowed Mother’s copy, read it, and hastily bought back all rights in if for live pounds. I didn’t want to republish it in any form, but I was terrified lest the publishers might. Sometimes now I see it advertised in booksellers’ catalogues. It is marked, thank God, ‘very rare.'
I had had a dozen contributions in Punch in the first, half-yearly volume, and in the autumn I was asked (this time officially) to write a series. I wrote it. It wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t very bad. By the end of the year I had made about a hundred and t wenty pounds, and had lived on it. It seemed that the present could take care of itself; but what of the future? Where should I be in five years’ time? Normally I should not have wondered; but I was sitting in Battersea Park, in a pair of tight boots, on a mild February day which seemed to make them tighter, and I preferred to think of anything rather than of the walk back to Wellington Square. What could I look forward to — after getting these boots off? At twenty-four one must be certain of fame at thirty. How could I achieve fame at thirty? Only, it seemed, by writing a novel — a real novel — a six-shilling novel which would be the talk of every dinner-table.
Sitting in my slippers before the fire, I resolved to begin my novel on Monday. I would retire into the country to write it, as many a young writer had retired before. I would give myself up exclusively to my novel. It would be called (this is all I remember of it) Philip’s Wife. Why, I do not know. To prove to myself that this was no empty resolution, I wrote to Punch, warning it that it. must not expect any contributions for the next few months, as I was retiring into the country to write a novel, a novel to which I was giving myself up exclusively. My letter went, of course, to Owen Seaman, my contacts with Burnand being limited to the one we had so nearly made in the train. A note came back from Rudie: ‘Owen showed me your letter. Don’t come to any decision about leaving London until you hear from him.’
Two days later, on another mild February day in another pair of boots, I made my way to the Punch office. I had been there once before, to have a few words with Seaman in the assistant editor’s room. Probably I had suggested a visit, feeling that this would establish me more firmly in his mind as a contributor. This time the suggestion came from him, and the meeting place was the editor’s room. Burnand had finally retired to Ramsgate.
The new editor made as little of the occasion as he could: in his new position he wanted somebody to relieve him of the worst of the donkeywork — somebody who came in for, say, a couple of afternoons a week and sorted out the contributions; naturally I should be on trial at first, naturally I couldn’t expect to be put on the Punch Table immediately; obviously this and obviously that; but what it came to, however he glided over it, was — How would I like to be assistant editor of Punch?
It didn’t seem possible.
‘The proprietors thought, seeing that they wouldn’t require your full time, that two hundred and fifty pounds a year would — er — meet the case.’
That didn’t seem possible either.
‘As regards your own contributions, they would be paid for at double rates, and naturally we should expect you to contribute every week.’
I tried to look grateful, eager, but not surprised, while doing simple arithmetic in the head. It wasn’t coming out. I put the arithmetic by for the bus, and looked grateful, eager, but not surprised.
‘Normally, of course, you would send them straight down to the printer, but I think perhaps that just at first you had better let me have a look at them before they go.’
Nothing that, was going to happen ‘just at first’ mattered now, I was so certain that I should get everything I wanted in the end. Hadn’t I always said that I would be editor of Punch one day? Or hadn’t I? I couldn’t remember. Anyhow I was going to be.
‘Of course,’ I said eagerly to everything.
‘You’d better start on Tuesday. I don’t come on Monday.’
‘Right,’ I said, wondering how I could possibly live until Tuesday.
I left the office. It appeared on the bus that I should be getting five hundred pounds a year. I had been living happily on a hundred and twenty or less. How delightfully extravagant one could be with five hundred a year! Could it be true? Could I have misheard the figures? Should I go back and ask for it all again? Perhaps in writing this time. No, it was true. I wanted to think of all that it would mean, of all that I would write to Father, of all that I would tell Ken, but I could not think for happiness.
Just as it had seemed wonderful to be editing the Granta after so short a struggle, so it seemed wonderful now to be, at twenty-four, assistant editor of Punch. In fact, I had no need to be so surprised at myself. My real achievement in either case was to be not wholly the wrong person, in the right spot, at the right moment. When Seaman was assistant editor, the editor was traveling about the country writing his reminiscences. The new editor proposed to live in his office chair and devote himself to his paper. The new assistant editor would have none of the responsibilities Seaman had had; bis position would be one of more subjection and less dignity. Clearly, then, he must be a young man; clearly be must be a young man who was already a journalist, but not a journalist bound to another paper; he must be himself acceptable as a contributor; and, not least important, he must possess, for the editor’s peace of mind, a degree of presentability such as was only conferred, it was thought, upon the whiter students of the larger colleges at Cambridge. I met all the conditions. Two years earlier I should not have been acceptable, two years later I might not have been available. Burnand resigned at the exact moment, and I had, I must suppose, the field to myself.
(To be concluded)
With each twelve months of the Atlantic
THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR