THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A. A. MILNE
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 graduate into the heroic world of the British Civil Service.
But printer’s ink had already begun to work its spell. At Cambridge A. A. Milne proved himself an indifferent mathematician but a highly skillful editor. Against his tutor’s protests he edited the undergraduate periodical, the Granta. After his graduation (he had taken a Third instead of a First) his verses were noticed in London. So finally, through a tolerance rare in fathers, he was given his patrimony of £320 and allowed to try his luck as a free lance on Fleet Street. At the end of his first year he had spent his allowance and earned a total of £20. St. James’2s Gazette, the Daily Mail, Punch, Country Life, and the Hibbert Journal had been bombarded, mostly in vain. But at the end of the second year there was a glimmering of hope. He was invited to become Assistant Editor of Punch.
The Autobiography of A. A. Milne
ALTHOUGH I was (undoubtedly) Assistant Editor of Punch, I had not been given a seat at the Punch Table. The Punch Dinner, at which the cartoons for the next number were planned, was held every Wednesday evening at seven, on the floor below the editorial offices. Wednesday was a busy day, and I was generally in my room when the diners began to congregate. Most of them would put their heads in to say ‘Good evening’; some of them would stay for a little talk; just so, one felt, would kindly uncles who had come to dine look in on the nursery to say good-night to the children, before joining the other guests in the drawing-room. I was too young to dine downstairs. There was no precedent for putting a child of twenty-four on the historic Table. There was also no precedent for removing anybody from the historic Table, once he had carved his initials on it. Any proprietor of any paper might quail at the thought of giving me a seat at the Table at twenty-four and finding me still there at seventy-four.
This, however, was not the reason given for my exclusion. The business of the dinner was the discussion of the cartoons. My political competence was doubted; my political competence, said the Proprietors, must be proved before I could come downstairs. When the Spirit of Nelson was saying to John Bull: ‘The ships are different, but the spirit of the men remains the same,’ what would Milne be doing? Sucking his thumb in the corner, and saying, ‘Who was Nelson?’—or making the idiotic suggestion that the legend should be: ‘The walls of England are no longer wooden, but the heads of the Admiralty remain the same.’ Encouraged by Seaman, I thought out cartoons by myself in the nursery, which he took down to dinner to show the grown-ups how serious I could be. Sometimes they were used just as I had suggested them; sometimes they were adapted; but I remained upstairs.
A year or two later I emphasized my value to the Table in a more striking way. The first copy of Punch was printed on Sunday morning, and sent to the Editor. The machines continued to go round, and other copies to tumble out of the press, but it was not too late for any small correction to be made, if such were necessary; a harmless error in the first five thousand copies could be eliminated from the remaining hundred thousand. It was our final precaution against the misprints which we derided in others. This first copy came to whichever of us was in London or nearer to London for the week-end, Imagine, then, my horror to discover one Sunday that not a simple comma but a whole cartoon had got out of place. The ‘senior cartoon’ (Partridge’s) was in the front of the paper, the ‘junior cartoon’ (Raven-Hill’s) in the middle. I hurried round to the office and became authoritative. The copies which had been printed must be scrapped; the pages must be set again, with the cartoons changed. The printer insisted that this was the order in which the pages came down to him on Friday night. That might be so — I had corrected each page separately and had never seen them together; but if it were so, then the Editor had made a mistake. Did I accept full responsibility now? Absolutely. So the machines stopped work at my word, and I, in the silence, felt extremely important, and wondered how much I had cost the Proprietors.
A good deal, I hoped. For it appeared that at the Wednesday dinner Partridge’s cartoon, having been drawn in advance before he went on holiday, and being in consequence untopical, had been deliberately made the junior cartoon. I had deliberately, and at some expense to the Proprietors, made it the senior cartoon. This, I felt, was the best argument for my admission to the Table which I had as yet produced. The argument was not effective, but in recognition of the fact that I was spending about three times as many hours at the office as had been bargained for, my salary was raised by fifty pounds.
Friday was my busy day. I sat down after breakfast to make my own personal contribution to Punch: a gay (I hoped) article of twelve hundred words, with a smile in every paragraph, and a laugh in every inch. (I was paid by the inch.) I might have sat down for this purpose on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday morning; I regretted now that I hadn’t, but it was too late. By four o’clock on Friday my article must be sent down to the printer, and the knowledge that it must be finished by four o’clock on this very day made both the writing of it possible and the writing of it earlier impossible. Ideas may drift into other writers’ minds, but they do not drift my way.
I have to go and fetch them. I know no work, manual or mental, to equal the appalling, heartbreaking anguish of fetching an idea from nowhere. The expression of it in writing is comparatively easy. A sort of agraphia may come over me sometimes, a terrifying inability to compress thought into a sentence; but normally I can follow up an idea with an enjoyment — at times lazy, at times eager — which may awake no echo in the reader’s heart, but is doubtless audible to him. First, however, the idea. On Friday morning at 9.30 I sat dowm to search for it.
At 11.30, my brain in ruins, I was still searching. At 11.30, I was telling myself that, even if I did find it, I had to find fifty-one more before the year was over; and that if I stayed on Punch until I was seventy, as everybody seemed to do, then I should have to find about 2500 ideas before I died. Yet now, in my prime at twenty-four, I couldn’t even find one. Why hadn’t I become a schoolmaster?
At twelve I was saying: ‘Well, it’s not very good, but I may as well begin, and see what happens.’ I began.
At 12.30 I was saying: ‘It’s not so bad.’
At 1.30 some variation of the idea came to me, and I began again. It was now definitely going to be good.
At 3.30 it was finished. I dashed to the Punch office, sent it down to the printer, and went out again in search of something to eat.
Soon after four I was back in the office, ‘doing the paragraphs.’ The paragraphs were cuttings from other papers, with appropriate comments. (As an example: ‘Peacock and Peahen for sale: unrelated: 1900 chicks,’ with the comment: ‘Then it’s quite time they were related.’) After I had really got the thing going, cuttings poured into the office from all over the world, and I enjoyed myself enormously with them. Some, of necessity, were unprintable.
I liked the one, and carried it about with me for a long time, which said of George V on his yacht: ‘The King has a delightfully keen sense of humor, and it is a joy to hear his hearty laugh when a sailor runs across the deck and catches his toe in a ring-bolt.’ We were much too loyal to print this sort of thing, but loyalty can be carried too far. An enthusiastic clergyman wrote to his local paper of a never-to-be-forgotten experience which he had just had. ‘Our Great Leader’ (Mr. Balfour, no less) had traveled to Edinburgh the night before, and his train had stopped at the local station for a few minutes. ‘Probably I was the only person in the neighborhood in possession of the information. I hurried round on my bicycle, and for five minutes had the inestimable privilege of gazing upon the face of the revered statesman.’ Unfortunately Seaman’s loyalty extended to Our Great Leader, and the picture of Balfour wondering, under that fixed gaze, who the lunatic was remained my private joke.
The paragraphs were finished by six o’clock, and I had the day’s contributions to go through. These consisted of articles or verses, jokes for illustration, and press cuttings. Few of them were of any value. The possible paragraphs I kept for the following Friday, and the best of the other contributions were passed on to the Editor with appropriate comments. Sometimes a joke would be ‘going the rounds,’ and a hundred people would send it. up, most of them alleging that it had happened to themselves last Tuesday. When Winston Churchill talked about a ‘terminological inexactitude,’every other envelope contained some supposedly humorous substitution of this phrase for the more ordinary word lie.’ When Tommy Bowles won a famous City of London election, the number of people who probed to its depths a joke based upon ’a game of bowl(e)s’ was only less than the number who thought it made the matter clearer if they described it as a game of ‘bowls (Bowles).’ One old gentleman wrote: ‘Dear Sir, On my seventy-seventh birthday last week a young friend of mine who is a great footballer’ — ‘footballer’ was crossed out, and ‘cricketer,’ in pencil, substituted — ‘said to me, “Seventy-seven not out!” I think this is clever wit.’ It was difficult in this welter of clever wit to keep one’s head; difficult not to feel, on one day, that anything which didn’t try to be funny was funny, and on the next that nothing would ever be funny again.
At seven o’clock my own proof would come up. It was — and I never know why this should be so — an entirely different article in print, and, as such, needed critical appreciation. I gave it this, finished off the contributions, and went out to dinner at eight.
At ten o’clock Owen and I were back in his room. The paper had been set and the pages were beginning to come up. They came up three or four at a time. Every now and then I managed to get hold of one, and then waited . . . and waited . . . for the next one. All Owen’s past life (or something) came before his eyes as he corrected a page of Punch, but through it all he read doggedly, very slow, very sure, until I wanted to scream: ‘For heaven’s sake, what’s it all about? Time isn’t a thing you do this to.’ I suppose it was because my day had been so frantic until now that I could not bear these wasted hours. Leisured idleness is a lovely thing, but idleness without leisure is an invention of the devil. They think highly of it in the army.
By one o’clock we were through. It had been interesting to cut ten lines out of somebody else’s article, and annoying to have to cut two out of my own. I had verified a quotation, explained the point of one of the paragraphs: —
‘Not more than twenty people will see it. Can’t you make it clearer?’
‘Easily. But it wall spoil it for the twenty.’
‘We can’t edit a paper for twenty readers.’
‘Wouldn’t it be heavenly if we could? ... Is that better?’
‘H’m. It isn’t too clear now.’
‘One must keep it funny somehow.’
‘Oh well, all right. You may find a better one to-morrow.'
‘Can I have some more pages?’
‘Can’t you find anything to do? You’d better pick out some books.’ ‘Right.’
I went into my room and picked out half a dozen books for review, read them all, lit my tenth pipe, and was in time for the next page.
On Saturday morning the corrected pages came back for final correction. We were due at the office at eleven. I got there at ten, had all the pages to myself, corrected them, and waited impatiently for Owen to come. I was playing cricket at twelve, or I was catching an 11.40 into Sussex for the week-end, or I was going to Lord’s, or Twickenham, or — anyway —
‘I’ve done all the pages.’
‘H’m. Do you want to get off?’
‘Unless there’s anything else I can do?’
‘When’s your train?’
‘Plenty of time. You’d better enter up the books.’
‘What about that paragraph? You were going to find a better one. Anything in the post?’
‘Three. They’re on your desk.’
‘Right. Well — good luck,’ and with it that sudden charming smile which turned him in a moment from a cold schoolmaster into the delightfully warmhearted human being which he so nearly was.
He was a strange, unlucky man. All the Good Fairies came to his christening, but the Uninvited Fairy had the last word, so that the talents found themselves in the wrong napkin and the virtues flourished where graces should have been. Humor was drowned in Scholarship, Tact went down before Truth, and the Fighting Qualities gave him not only the will to win but the determination to explain why he hadn’t won. There is a story of him as a golfer, making an excuse for every bad shot until he got to the last green, when he threw down his putter and said, ‘That settles it. I’ll never play in knickerbockers again.’ It could have been so delightfully said — but it wasn’t. He had, truly, a heart of gold, and if it had been ‘concealed beneath a rugged exterior,’ as so often it is in novels, it would have been more patent to the world than the veneer which was so nearly gold allowed it to be.
If anybody, reading this, says, ‘And now, to make the portrait complete, I should like to know what he thought about you,’ he would be justified. I must have maddened him. I did ask him once whether he was happier with my successor, a man of his own age, than he had been with me, and he said that there was nothing much in it — which meant, of course, that he preferred the other. ‘You had a much lighter hand with the paragraphs, and you didn’t let so many bad contributions get past you, but he is tidier and more businesslike, and he doesn’t want to dash away on Saturday mornings.’ He might have added, ‘And you were an unpatriotic Radical, and he is a patriotic Conservative.’ For my politics also maddened him.
Owen was one of the many non-party politicians of those days who took the strictly impartial view that all Radicals were traitors and all gentlemen Conservatives. He did honestly believe that Punch under his editorship was a nonparty paper. At the Table, Rudie Lehmann and E. V. Lucas did their best for Liberalism, but Rudie had been there so long that he had almost given up hope, and E. V. had always a sardonic tolerance for his opponents and a quick recognition that ‘the sense of the Table’ was against him. Lehmann, of course, had German origins; Lucas, poor fellow, had never been to a Public School or University — their politics could be understood. But Milne was in a different case. Sheer, willful wrong-headedness. A young man from one of the Eight Public Schools and the Only University, who certainly dashed off on Saturdays, but dashed off to play cricket at country houses — it was ridiculous.
It may seem odd, but politics were like that in the great days of Lloyd George’s Penal Budgets, when income tax soared up to — was it 1/10d. in the pound? — and a supertax, if you can believe it, was actually put on employment-giving incomes over £5000 a year. In all my contacts on dance floors, cricket fields, and at country houses in those days it never failed to be assumed that I shared my companion’s estimate of the Government’s perfidy.
Owen discovered all too soon that I didn’t. I had given up submitting my contributions to him before sending them to the printer, but until I was on the Table he had a right of veto over them. Over the contributions of members of the Table he had none. When the slogan of the day was ‘ We want eight (battleships) and we wont wait,’ and Navy Leaguers were crying for Three and Four-Power Standards, without which we were at the mercy of our enemies, I suggested to Rudie Lehmann that he should rewrite the Ballad of the Revenge on the assumption that Sir Richard Grenville had refused to put to sea until he had a 53-power standard: —
And the sea went down, and the stars came out in the wake of the setting sun,
And ever the gallant fight went on ‘twixt the Fifty-three and the one.
When the pages came up on Friday, Owen was more slow, more thoughtful over them than he had ever been. At last he said, in his most cold voice: ‘Have you seen Rudie’s verses?’ Naturally I said that, though I hadn’t seen them, I knew what they were about, as I had given him the idea. ‘Then,’ said the cold voice, ‘you have done Punch and your country a great disservice.’ Possibly: but in those days I resented the assumption that Englishmen could only be accepted as lovers of England if they discussed Germany in terms either of adulation or of terror. Unfortunately the war, which made the world safe for democracy and England fit for heroes to live in, did not succeed in changing permanently the stigmata of patriotism. Once again the true-blue Englishman feels this profound admiration for Germany — an admiration too profound for anything but the very deepest bombproof cellar.
I am too old now to resent it, but I do find it funny.
Being now a man of means (or so it seemed to me), I moved from Wellington Square to a flat which had the highsounding address ‘St. James’s Park Chambers, Queen Anne’s Gate,’ but which was more easily identifiable by cabmen as ‘31 Broadway, Westminster.’ It had its inconveniences. In order to get to the long living room in front, it was necessary to pass through either of the two rooms at the back — which gave visitors an immediate acquaintance with one’s bedroom or one’s bathroom, as preferred. In these days this might be supposed to strike the right note of intimacy at the start, but in those days one kept something in reserve. I decided, therefore, to sleep in the bathroom, or, as I chose to put it, to have the luxury of a completely fitted bath in my bedroom. The other room thus became the anteroom or library. Through this visitors were shown, little knowing that for their sakes I was sleeping with the geyser.
Ken was married and living on two hundred pounds a year in Ealing. Always once and often two or three times a week I went down to dinner with them. While Maud stayed at home and boiled the potatoes, Ken and I would go out and buy sardines, tongues, tinned fruit, soft drinks, and, more adultly, cherry brandy. Then, while Maud washed up, we men sat in front of the fire, replete, and smoked and chattered. So it was often, but not always. There were days when Maud was not well enough for domesticity, and then it was for the men to take over her responsibilities. Many a time we have gone to the butcher’s and moved on equal terms with him from one undressed and muchslapped piece of beef to another, haggled for four pounds of rolled ribs, taken our booty back, cooked it and served it up triumphantly — no better beef on any table in England.
The weekly article in Punch left me with a certain amount of time but very little inspiration for other work. Owen used to suggest that I should spend the time in writing serious articles for the reviews; so did Father. As schoolmasters, they felt that I was not taking full advantage of my education. Owen made it perfectly clear in his verses that he was a classical scholar, but there was nothing in any of my cricket sketches to indicate that I could even work out a bowling analysis. Consider the literary members of the Table. Lehmann was in Parliament, Lucas had written a life of Lamb, Graves was assistant editor of the Spectator. Could I not also show that beneath the mask of levity there dwelt a serious purpose, or a knowledge of quaternions, or something?
The answer was that the levity was no mask put on for the occasion. The world was not then the damnable world which it is to-day; it was a world in which imaginative youth could be happy without feeling ashamed of its happiness. I was very young, very light-hearted, confident of myself, confident of the future. I loved my work; I loved not working; I loved the long week-ends with the delightful people of other people’s delightful houses. I loved being in love, and being out of love and free again to fall in love. I loved feeling rich again, and having no responsibilities but only the privileges of a benevolent uncle. I loved hearing suddenly that some Great Man, full of serious purpose, had loved my last article. And if anybody says that all this is a misuse of the much misused word ‘love’ — well, it is, but I like misusing it, for it conveys my simple happiness. Those (as I said when I collected under one title four books of Punch contributions; and as Wordsworth had said earlier; and as Osbert Sitwell was to say later) — Those Were The Days,
In short, I was gay, and the gayety could not be kept in. If, to please my elders, I had exposed the inner life of the quaternion in the Quarterly Review, it would have been a gay exposure, shocking to the academic mind. It is assumed too readily, I feel, that a writer who makes his readers laugh would really prefer to make them cry, and that he is only making them laugh because, as a ‘professional humorist,’ he is paid to do so. When, many years later, critics took to calling me ‘whimsical,’ they assumed, easily and naturally, that ‘whimsy’ was something which I had heard from Barrie was profitable, and which I stuck on my writing here and there, as one sticks stamps on a postal order to give it a higher value. I doubt if this mode of writing is practised so freely as is supposed. It is too difficult. A writer’s job is to express himself in prose or verse, and this is what most of us are doing. We are not laboriously expressing somebody else’s personality in order to please a publisher or annoy a critic.
In 1910 I was allowed dowmstairs. Graves presented me with a knife with which to leave my mark on the Table, and I achieved a modest and monogrannnatic A. A. M., which is already, I dare say, a hieroglyphic to him who sits in my place. Who was this, he wonders, and nobody now can tell him. Yes, Bernard Partridge is still there, the only survivor of my time; he sat just opposite; he may remember. Milne, wasn’t it? And in a little while somebody will be saying, ‘What were his initials?’
In those days the initials were better known. Indeed, I could claim that they were the most popular which ever appeared in Punch, inasmuch as they were divided, when I retired, among two other contributors, Anthony Armstrong and Archibald Marshall, for whose work I have received a good deal of credit. An article by ’A. A.’ on a Dutch cheese he had once met brought me an unexpected gift from Holland which I accepted thankfully, knowing how impossible it was to forward anything so ill-shaped for forwarding as a Dutch cheese. It was always a regret to me that Marshall didn’t write more about champagne or golf balls. For Punch readers are delightfully responsive. At a crisis in the war I wrote some pathetic verses called ‘The Last Pot,’ and never lacked for marmalade again. When I had exhausted the benevolence or the larders of English women, the nearer colonies and the more distant Dominions took up the torch, so that the Empire became to me a place in which marmalade is always setting. Whether through kindnesses like these, or from letters, or just from an awareness hard to justify or explain, the regular Punch writer did feel peculiarly at home with his readers, sure of their instant response. Just as a theatre company can play better to a warm house than a cold house, so does the ’professional humorist ‘ expand in the warmth of the reception which he knows is awaiting him. As a writer I expanded happily.
As a member of the Table I provided my own warmth. The dinner was a long one and a good one; we drank champagne who liked it; we smoked cigars or pipes; we talked and could have gone on talking. But from the other end of the Table Owen said, ‘Well, gentlemen,’ and we turned reluctantly to the business of the evening. The cartoons. The very political cartoons. And in those days politics made me extremely warm.
With its large circulation in the Shires, the Vicarages, and the Messes of England, Punch was almost compelled to be True Blue. To-day the distinction between Blue and Red is not so marked; ultra-red is indistinguishable from ultrablue, and everything complementary is some shade of purple. But those were the days when Lord Willoughby do Broke swore that blood would flow beneath Westminster Bridge (I think lam right about that, but it may have been Waterloo Bridge) before the Parliament Bill became law; and an Ulsterman called O’Neill threw a book at Winston Churchill (this being one of Mr. Churchill’s Liberal periods) across the sacred floor of the House of Commons; and Lord Winterton bobbed up continually, calling out ‘Manners, there, manners’; and duchesses bound themselves by a terrible oath never to lick stamps for a little Welsh attorney; and ‘well-known Harley Street physicians’ solemnly exhibited in the more Conservative press the seeds of poisoning which lurked in the gum of Insurance stamps if duchesses licked them, but not apparently in the gum of postage stamps such as are continually licked by common people. It all seems ridiculous now; it seemed to me ridiculous and indecent then; and, being young and impatient and sure of myself (or, as I said, young), I found it difficult not to get overheated at those interminable discussions which followed the overheating Punch Dinner.
When Owen went off to the Riviera or Scotland, E. V. Lucas came into the office as Acting Editor. He had as many concerns outside Punch as Owen had few, and consequently was as quick as Owen was slow. After the paper was put to bed on Friday night, Owen had nowhere to go but home, and a lonely home at that. E. V. had a hundred mysterious activities waiting for him. Only once as we walked down the Strand together did he vary his usual ‘Well, I’m going this way. Good-night,’ in preface to one of those disappearances to which I was now used, and which had all the air, even if they took him no further than the Garrick Club, of a prelude to adventure. On this occasion he suggested that I should come with him, and for the first time in my life I passed through the stage door of a theatre. What theatre I cannot remember, save that it was a theatre of varieties. We found ourselves in the dressing room of one of the great comics of the day, I have forgotten which. He and E. V., it seemed, were dear old pals. I was introduced. My presence there was so surprising to myself that I supposed he had wished to meet me, but my name meant as little to him as would have that of Keats or any other dear old pal.
We got on splendidly together. I didn’t say anything because I had nothing to say; I didn’t drink anything because I had nothing to drink, except whiskey, which I have never liked. But his flow of professional high spirits swept me up equally with Lucas, the dresser, and a couple of other men whom he seemed to think I had brought with me; his eyes appealed with no less confidence to mine than to theirs for appreciation and support; and when I left it was with the knowledge that there was always a drink waiting for me (old boy) whenever I liked to drop in. I never saw him again.
Through the thirty years of my friendship with E. V., beginning from the days when he first came into the Punch office as Acting Editor, I was encouraged by him to think that I was a good writer. Anybody who likes may differ from him, including myself at times, but I know that I am a better writer for his appreciation than I should have been without it. Owen was as guarded in his praise as a preparatory schoolmaster, who fears always the retort, ‘If my son was as clever as you said, why didn’t he get a scholarship?’ When I had written half a dozen articles, he would say, ‘Isn’t it about time you wrote some verse again?’ —which in a way (let us look on the bright side) was a compliment to my verse; and after three sets of verses he would say, ‘It’s about time you did another scries, isn’t it?’ —which could be taken (thank you, Owen) as a compliment to my prose. If these were compliments, they were all that I extracted from him. But E. V. knew that you can’t be light and gay and offhand and casual and charming in print unless you are continually reassured that you are being some of these things. If I had any value to Punch it was because sometimes I was some of these things, and E. V.’s praise helped me to give the air of doing it all easily — which is the only air to give writing of that sort.
At this time he was contributing, over the initials V. V. V., a weekly commentary to the Sphere called ‘A Few Days Ago.’ When he wandered off to Florence, he asked me, with the editor’s acquiescence, to take his place. So, for the six weeks of his absence, I commented on the world (religion and politics barred) over the initials ‘O. O. O.,’ and at the end of them was given the freedom of the Sphere for a weekly essay over my own name. I wrote these essays for two years at three guineas a time, and then retired, feeling at a temporary loss for subjects (politics and religion being barred). After a year’s rest I asked if I might come back, being then engaged to be married and more aware of the importance of money. Clement Shorter expressed his delight in the nicest way; but after six months the Proprietors of Punch offered to pay me what the Sphere was paying me if I stopped writing for it. This doesn’t sound like a tribute, but I suppose in a way it was. Shorter again was nice about it, and let me go.
After the war, when I had left Punch and had to earn a living somehow, I suggested to Shorter that I should make another return to the Sphere, but this time for six guineas. Once again he agreed, with the politeness of one whose only object was to serve me. I have always thought of him as the best editor for whom I have worked. We never met; he never wrote to me, save when I retired from or returned to the paper; but in some way he always gave the impression of having the complctest confidence in his contributors.
It was in 1910 that I published what I think of now as my first book: The Day’s Play, a collection of Punch articles. E. V. suggested that, since I had parodied the title, I should send a copy to the author of The Day’s Work, When I said I didn’t know Kipling, and couldn’t imagine that the author of the famous and recently published line ‘With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals’ would be interested in a book full of cricket and lesser games, E. V. assured me that Kipling was ‘not like that,’ and that he would write me a charming and appreciative letter back. I should have loved a charming and appreciative letter from Kipling, but had to wait twenty years for it; for in those days I couldn’t regard it as possible that young writers should introduce themselves in this way to older writers whom they didn’t know. The school tie wouldn’t hear of it; it was ‘bad form.’
However, each Wednesday when we met at the Dinner, E. V. would say, ‘Have you sent your book to Kipling yet.?’ until at last I had to promise him that this next week I really would. So i sat down to write the accompanying letter. ‘Sir,’I began . . . it was, it had to be, one of those letters in which the case for the importance of the addressee and the unimportance of the addressor is slightly overstated. Kipling himself once answered Tennyson’s praise with the words: ‘When a private is praised by his General he does not presume to thank him, but fights the better afterwards,’ although the parallel of a corporal not thanking his colonel but fighting the better afterwards would have done justice to the situation. My letter beginning ‘Sir’ and enclosing my own modest volume expressed not only an unrestrained admiration for the great man’s own work, but the assurance that it was from him alone that I had drawn my first enthusiasm for literature, and that it was to the peak whereon he sat that I was lifting my eyes, content if I could master only so much as the few first gentle slopes. (Or whatever. I don’t keep copies.) When I had written this, I read it through, and decided that it was so utterly false that I simply could not let it go. I admired much of Kipling, but not like that. The only writer whom I did admire at all like that in those days was Barrie. So, not wishing to waste the letter, I sent it and the book to Barrie. He wrote a ‘charming and appreciative’ letter back. He elected me the ‘last, member’ of his cricket team, the Allahakbarries. He asked me to lunch. That was how I got to know him. Even after twenty-five years I wished that I had not forced myself on him, but had been introduced in the ordinary way.
In 1913 Owen Seaman’s goddaughter, Dorothy de Sélincourt (‘Daphne’ to friends), was persuaded to marry me. Owen had taken me to her coming-out dance, and we had gone about together in a way common enough now, but less usual in those days. When I wanted a present for a sister-in-law or a new suit for myself, I would summon her to help me; when she wanted a man to take her to a dance she would ring me up. She laughed at my jokes, she had my contributions to Punch by heart before she met me, she had (it is now clear) the most perfect sense of humor in the world; and I, in my turn, had a pianola to which she was devoted, and from which I could not keep her away. We might have gone on like this forever. One day we found ourselves in a bootshop.
‘Any sort of boots, or just boots?’ she said.
‘Skiing boots,’ I said proudly. ‘This is a great day in your life.’
‘I bought mine yesterday.’
‘Where? Hampstead Heath?’
‘But that’s where I’m going!’
‘Well, there’s plenty of room for both of us. I’m going to a place called Diablerets.’
‘Dash it, so am I.’
‘What a very small —’
‘ Don’t say it. Are you at the Grand?’
‘Yes. What fun! I’ve got a pair of orange trousers.’
‘I shall be wearing a red carnation in my buttonhole. We’re bound to meet. What are you like with a lot of other people about?’
‘So am I. I do hope we shall like each other.’
We did. The ‘other people about’ made everything different. I proposed to her at eleven o’clock one morning in a snowstorm. I had to because she was going back to London that afternoon, where also there were other people, and it was clear to me now that it was my mission to save her from them.
This is the autobiography of a writer, not of a married man. My next book was dedicated ‘to my collaborator who buys the ink and paper, laughs, and in fact does all the really difficult part of the business,’ and it is as a collaborator that Daphne plays her part in this book.
We were married in June, and took a flat in Embankment Gardens, Chelsea. I was now getting eight guineas a week for my contributions to Punch, which was then the top price for writers on the staff. When I stopped writing for the Sphere the Proprietors compensated me by raising my salary to £500, so that with double pay for Almanacs and Summer Numbers, and a trickle of royalties from the books, I was making about £ 1000 a year. We were very comfortable and very happy. I had met the Williamsons (C. N. and A. M.) a year or two before at a luncheon party, and romantic Alice Wdllinmson made me promise then that, when I fell in love or got married or did any of those things, I would introduce the lady to her. So, after our return from a rather cold and bleak honeymoon on Dartmoor, we asked them to dinner. They returned our hospitality (if you can call it that, the cook-general being temperamental) by offering us their villa at Cap Martin for a second honeymoon. The offer, as we discovered when we got there, included not only the villa but the staff, the food, the cellar, and even the cigars, together with letters of introduction to everybody and the company of that delightfully wheezy bulldog Tiberius. It was a noble piece of hospitality, but Alice Williamson was an American, to whom such gestures are natural.
My friend Alderson Horne, at whose house in Sussex I had spent so many delightful week-ends, was putting on his first play. Disguised as Anmer Hall, he has since become the high light of what critics call the uncommercial theatre, by which is meant the theatre which hasn’t got to make both ends meet. In those days most plays were preceded by ’curtain-raisers ‘: one-act plays which entertained the cheaper seats while the stalls were finishing their dinners — acted, mostly, by the understudies. Alderson, either from friendship or because he thought I had an unrevealed talent for such things, asked me to write the curtain-raiser.
For some years now I had been trying to catch a glimpse of the middle-aged man who writes this book. What should I be in 1930, in 1940? Still writing for Punch? Editor of Punch, perhaps. Nothing, I felt, which I wrote for Punch in 1930 would be better than what I was writing now. I had by this time mastered the technique (the tricks, if you like to call them that) of the ‘humorous’ sketch; I couldn’t expect to become ‘funnier’; and the gayety and light-heartedness would gradually become less gay, less carefree. Having made a reputation, however small, by 1910, it was silly and unexciting to spend the rest of one’s life trying to keep the spots off it. It was true that to be Editor of Punch was a career in itself, but should I be allowed to do what I liked with Punch? No. And would it be a good thing for Punch if I were? No. Its secret was that it was a National Institution. Did I want to edit, could I edit, a national institution? I thought not. In any case the editorship would not be vacant for another twenty years . . . another thousand humorous articles . . . the best of them no farther on than the best of those which I had already written.
Then how escape?
Obviously, and only, by writing in my spare time, novels or plays on which ultimately I could depend for a living. When should I begin? There was only one day — to-morrow — and to-morrow, as is its habit, never came. Then I married, and, it seemed, became more tied to my surroundings. Could I give up the certain income? Could I renounce my collaborator’s great ambition for me, the editorship of Punch? I didn’t see how I could. Nor (it being Friday morning) did I see how I could endure to go on forever like this. Something would have to happen some day.
So, when Alderson asked me to write a curtain-raiser, I told myself that it was happening now. I was going to be a dramatist.
I wrote a one-act play called MakeBelieve, a title which I used later for a full-length children’s play. My collaborator sent it to the typist and bought a new dress for the first night. The play was posted to Alderson, and after a few exciting days came back again. The reason given (and there is always a kindly reason given) was that the characterization was too subtle for understudies to put over the footlights; it needed a star cast. Quite possibly Alderson didn’t like it.
So what? Should I try another manager, or should I try another play? Could I write plays or couldn’t I? I didn’t know. But possibly Barrio would know. I sent Make-Believe to him. Barrie said that without any doubt I could write plays, and sent it on to Granville Barker. Barker wrote to me enthusiastically, accepted the play for production, and added, ‘But the important thing is that you should immediately write me a full-length play.’ The thing had happened. I was escaping. I was going to be a dramatist.
But, as it turned out, I was to escape in other circumstances. War was declared.
I should like to put asterisks here, and then write: ‘It was in 1919 that I found myself once again a civilian.’ For it makes me almost physically sick to think of that nightmare of mental and moral degradation, the war. When my boy was six years old he took me into the Insect House at the Zoo, and at the sight of some of the monstrous inmates I had to leave his hand and hurry back into the fresh air. I could imagine a spider or a millipede so horrible that in its presence I should die of disgust. It seems impossible to me now that any sensitive man could live through another war. If not required to die in other ways, he would waiste away of soulsickness.
I was a pacifist before 1914, but this (I thought with other fools) was a war to end war. It did not make the prospect of being a soldier any more attractive. There was an extraordinary idea among the elderly that ‘being a soldier’ meant just no more than ‘risking your life for your country,’ and that the man who was unwilling to do this was a coward, and that the man who was willing to do this was a hero. To people like myself the Great Sacrifice was not the sacrifice of our lives but of our liberties. Ever since I had left Cambridge I had been my own master. I fixed my own hours, I was under no discipline; no bell rang for me, no bugle sounded. Now I was thirty-two, married, with a happy home of my own and engaged happily in work which I loved. To be a schoolboy again, to say ‘ Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir ‘ and ‘Please, sir’ and ‘May I, sir?’ was no hardship to schoolboys, no hardship to a million men in monotonous employment, but it was hell itself to one who had been as spoilt by good fortune as I. However, again I was fortunate. There are Colonels and Colonels; I met only the one sort of Colonel. If a special order had gone round the British Army, ‘For your information and necessary action: Milne is joining us. See that he is given the easiest and best possible time, consistent with ultimate victory,’ I could not have had more reason to be grateful to my commanding officers.
As the result of an introduction from Graves, I was commissioned to the 4th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, then stationed at Golden Hill in the Isle of Wight. In the orderly room I said ‘Sir’ to the Adjutant, whose uncle I called ‘Charles’ on the Punch Table. It gave me no compensating thrill that elderly sergeants who knew all about soldiering said ‘Sir’ to me. It was a reserve battalion, into which the Colonel had persuaded many of his personal friends, some of whom were married. After six experimental weeks in which I learnt to be just a little, but not much, like a soldier, Daphne joined the married strength, and from then on, whenever it was possible, she shared the war with me.
Through a variety of accidents I became Signaling Officer. After a nine weeks’ course at the Southern Command Signaling School I really knew something about it, with the result that I was kept at home as an instructor until July 1916. As a specialist officer I was, I thanked heaven, independent again. Nobody in the battalion could tell me anything about signaling (except my sergeant, and he only when we heliographed from one range of hills in the Island to another, and he thought he was back in India); I was excused — or excused myself, it was never clear which — orderly officer’s duty; never saw my company commander from one week to another; and, having the whole battalion behind me on route marches, could almost imagine that I was taking a brisk country walk in civilian knickerbockers.
Mrs. Williams, the Colonel’s wife, mother of four children and the regiment, only to be described as a ‘perfect dear,’ became great friends with Daphne. They put their heads together and organized an entertainment for the troops, one of the features of which was to be (whether the troops liked it or not) a little play in which Daphne and the Colonel’s children would act. The play would be written by — whom do you think? The Signaling Officer, no less. My collaborator was detailed to break the news to me. I said that I was much too tired in the evenings to write anything. She said that she would do the writing; all I had to do was to lie in an armchair and tell her what to write. Easy work. So we wrote a ‘little play’: about a Prince and Princess and a Wicked Countess (Daphne) and a magic ring. Some of the dialogue seemed to us rather funny, and my collaborator said, as she has so often said, ‘ You mustn’t waste this.’ But there seemed to be nothing to do with it, since it was no more than one scene in a children’s play. ‘Write a book round the people in it,’ said Collaborator. ‘I’ve never written a book,’ I protested, ‘not straight off.’ ‘Well, now’s the time to begin,’ she said.
So after I had come back from my signaling course and rejoined the battalion, which had now moved to Sandown, and we had taken the prettiest cottage in the town with lilacs and cherry trees in the garden, I dictated the book: a long fairy story called Once on a Time. There are, I think, some good things in it, but few people have read it, and nobody knows whether it is meant for children or for grown-ups. I don’t know myself. But it was the greatest of fun to do. We began every evening at half-past five, I in my chair before the fire, my collaborator, pen in hand, brown head bent over table, writing, waiting, laughing: it made the war seem very far away; it took us back to our own happy life in London. On Sundays — for I seem to have excused myself Church Parade too — we went for long walks over the cliffs with lunch in our pockets, and the characters in the book came with us, listening to us as we settled their fate for the next chapter.
It was a great moment when the last word was put down on paper. I had thought that I could never write more than two thousand consecutive words, and I had written sixty thousand. I had written a book. It was finished. Spring was here, and now, save for this trivial business of soldiering, I was free, I could take a holiday, I could rest.
But I couldn’t. In a week my collaborator was saying, ‘What shall we do now?’ We had to do something. I couldn’t just be, of all stupid things, a soldier. What should we write?
Not a book. We had written a book. What about a play? The play, the fulllength play which I had been going to write before the war.
So I wrote a Comedy in Three Acts, called Wurzel-Flummery.
In one of those Sphere articles I had referred to the unimaginative way in which millionaires leave their money. ‘How much more amusing,’ I wrote, ‘to leave £20,000 to each of fifty acquaintances on condition that they all took the same ridiculous name. Fifty Spiffkinses in the same club, just because you said so.’ This idea came back into my mind suddenly and was made the theme of the play. The ridiculous name was Wurzel-Flummery. We imagined Dennis Eadie, who had played the irresponsible clergyman so delightfully in The Honeymoon, playing the solicitor. Barrie, who had promised to give me any introduction I wanted, read the play, praised and criticized it, and sent it to Eadie. Eadie asked me to lunch with him at the Carlton Grill to ‘talk it over.’
How happily I went to the Colonel to ask for a day’s leave; how readily he granted it; how excitedly next morning we went to the station together, my collaborator and I; how fondly, how hopefully we waved good-bye to each other; how eagerly she waited on the platform for me as my train came back. The news was as good as could be expected. Eadie seemed really keen on the play, and wanted to do it, but there was just something not quite right with it. ‘If I knew what it was, I would tell you, but I don’t. I just feel — ask Barrie. Or read it through again yourself. It’s so nearly right.’ I said that Barrie had already made one or two criticisms. ‘Well, he would know. And when you’ve got it right, send it back to me. I want to do it.’
Who could say fairer than that over one’s first play? We had a happy dinner together, chattering excitedly, building the wildest castles in Shaftesbury Avenue. At half-past ten we went to bed, still chattering. At eleven there was a heavy knocking on the front door. Our servant slept out. I went down, knowing what it was. An orderly saluted and said that the Colonel would like to see me in the Mess. I was for France in forty-eight hours.
Somewhere in the waste land round the Somme I opened a letter from Daphne. She wrote from Burnham-onCrouch, where she was staying with her mother. Enclosed in her letter was a note from Gerald du Maurier to Barrie.
For better or worse, Wurzel-Flummery had to stay as it was, and since Eadie didn’t like it as it was, some other manager must be approached. It had always seemed possible, now in this dead country it seemed certain, that this was all I should have to leave to my collaborator. Barrie had sent the play to du Maurier, du Maurier had returned it.
‘Dear Jimmy,’he wrote, ‘I like it enormously; I know his work in Punch, of course. If I were in this for fun, I would do it like a shot, but there’s no money in it.'
For some reason, — his name, perhaps; his technical perfection as an actor; the fact that he was George du Maurier’s son, — I had always thought of Gerald as an artist, who did things ‘for fun.’ How else could one write, paint, compose, act, engage in any of the arts? When one knew him, one knew that the stage meant nothing to him but a means of getting money; he never pretended otherwise; but somehow it was a shock to make the discovery at this particular moment, in this particular place. . . .
I had been sent, with the military efficiency of those days, to a battalion which had already a signaling officer, a new man just appointed, called Harrison. I had spent eighteen months learning to be a signaler, and of bombs and rifles and the ordinary routine of the platoon officer I had forgotten what: little I had known. The brigade was just going into action. It proposed to capture the Switch Line at Bazentin-lePetit (or what once was that village). When this business was over, the Colonel would recommend my transference to some battalion which wanted those eighteen months’ training; meanwhile I could go into action with the signaling officer and add some practical knowledge to all the theory which I had assimilated. As soon as we had got into the reserve trenches I went into the signalers’ dugout to introduce myself; I liked signalers and felt at home with them. I meant to have asked a thousand technical questions, but found myself engaged in a long discussion with Lance Corporal Grainger about books. He was a Welsh miner, as well educated as most of them are, quiet, friendly, charming. We found we shared a passion for Jane Austen.
The attack was timed for midnight. On the day before, Harrison and three men, with me hanging on ‘for training,’ran out a line to the front trench by a devious route, for we had been told that the existing line would never stand against the opening counter-barrage. On the way we fell into a burst of whizbangs, and Harrison was knocked out. We got him back to the first-aid post, I reported to the Colonel, and became signaling officer. Early next morning we went out again — this time by the ordinary communication trench, such as it was — and laid a line, elaborately laddered according to the textbooks, and guaranteed to withstand any bombardment.
II. Q. was in a deep German dugout, facing, of course, the wrong way. In an adjoining dugout was the II. Q. of the East Lancashires, with whom the attack was being made. In the space between these two underground rooms were my signalers. At eleven o’clock that night the Colonel, the Major, the Adjutant, and I sat round a table by candlelight smoking and talking, waiting for our barrage to begin. But the Germans, who knew all about it, began first. And the line went.
We sat there completely isolated. The sergeant-major of the East Lancashires went up the steps with some idea, I suppose, of getting information, and was blown out of existence before he reached the top. My signalers announced this, and added that the line to brigade was also down. The depth of the dugout deadened the noise of the guns, so that a shellburst was no longer the noise of a giant plumber throwing down his tools, but only a persistent thud, which set the candles dancing and then, as if by an afterthought, blotted them out. From time to time I lit them again, wondering what I should be doing, wondering what signaling officers did on these occasions. Nervously I said to the Colonel, feeling that the isolation was all my fault, ‘Should I try to get a line out?’ and to my intense relief lie said, ‘Don’t be a bloody fool.’
It was about two o’clock in the morning that a runner got through. The attack, as was to be expected, was a complete failure. As far as was known, Soand-so and So-and-so were killed—I remembered them, two boys under the apple trees in the little village where I had joined them in billets; we had dined in the garden to the gramophone, and there were peaches which one of them had fetched from Amiens, and the war was just a happy picnic to them, the guns rolling so far, far away in the distance that one would never catch up with them—no, sir, he couldn’t say about the captain — no, sir, he was all right, but he couldn’t rightly say about any of the others, it had been coming over something cruel.
‘All right,’ said the Colonel.
‘Am I to go back, sir?’
‘No.’ He caught the Major’s eye. The Major got up and strapped on his revolver. It was all too clearly the moment for me to strap on mine. Perhaps somebody else would do WurzelFlummery — afterwards.
‘Use your common sense,’ said the Colonel. ’If it’s impossible, come back.
I simply cannot lose three signaling officers in a month.’
I promised, but felt quite unable to distinguish between common sense and cowardice.
I told my sergeant that we were now going to run out a line, and asked him to pick two men for me. I know nothing of the section then, save that there was a lance corporal who loved Jane Austen, unhelpful knowledge in the circumstances. He said at once, ‘I’ll come for one, sir,’ which I thought was sporting of him, although it was obviously wrong for both of us to go. He picked on another man, a company signaler who had joined headquarters for the occasion, and we attached ourselves to the Major. We dashed. The Major went first —he was going to ‘reorganize the troops.’ I went second, God knew why; the sergeant and the signaler came behind me, running out a line neatly and skillfully. No laddering now, no textbook stuff it was just dropped anywhere. From time to time the Major flung himself down for a breather, and down we flopped and panted, wondering if he would get up again. To our relief each time he was alive, and so were we. We passed one of the signal stations, no longer a station but a pancake of earth on top of a spread-eagled body; I had left him there that evening, saying, ‘Well, you’ll be comfortable here.'
More rushes, more breathers, more bodies — we were in the front line. The Major hurried off, to collect what men he could, while I joined up the telephone. Hopeless, of course, but we could have done no more. I pressed the buzzer, and incredibly heard Daffy’s slow, lazy voice: not my Dally in England, but Corporal Daffy, ex-gardener from Buxton, with the gardener’s heavy drooping moustache and heavy stoop, unalterably a civilian. There was only that one other voice in the world which I would have sooner heard.
I asked to speak to the Colonel. I told him what I knew. I ordered — what were telephones for? — a little counter-bombardment. Then, with a sigh of utter content and thankfulness and the joy of living, I turned away from the telephone. And there behind me was Lance Corporal Grainger.
’What on earth are you doing here?’ I said.
He grinned sheepishly.
‘You weren’t detailed, were you?’
‘Well, then —’
‘I thought I’d just like to come along, sir.’
He looked still more embarrassed.
‘Well, sir, I thought I’d just like to be sure you were all right.’
Which is the greatest tribute to Jane Austen that I have ever heard.
We put in a week at Loos after the Somme, and were then due for a long rest. In billets at Philosophe on the way out I heard for the first time the name of the Division General: Gleiehen. Was he still Count Gleichen, or had he already become Lord Edward Gleichen? I cannot remember. After the war we found that he and Lady Edward were neighbors of ours on Ashdown Forest, and we became so friendly with them that Lord Edward and I exchanged books, he giving me London’s Open-Air Statuary and I giving him Winnie-the-Pooh. It is doubtful if the history of the British Army can record any similar exchange.
After our rest we went back into the line at Bully-Grenay, hoping to spend the winter there, but the ‘blood bath of the Somme’ was not quite full, and at Beaumont-Hamel there was to be yet one more display of G. H. Q’s bulldog tenacity. The battalion’s objective was called — and it was the only attractive thing about it — Beauregard Dovecote. If ever any place looked a death trap on a military map, this did. But it rained and rained and rained. At the last moment the attack was postponed. The troops should have been disappointed about this, but weren’t; they marched westwards, singing loudly. It went on raining; one never ceased to be wet through. We fetched up eventually at Doullens; the sun came out; the H. Q. staff was photographed, and all was gas and gaiters. For a week or two we rested, trained, and wrote home saying that we were in the pink. At some sort of field day I was introduced (if that is the correct military word) to the new Divisional General. He told me that signal officers must be extremely careful not to risk their valuable lives; I agreed with him cordially.
I had my men out on a little hill one morning, and was walking, as usual, from station to station to see how the messages were coming through. It was a warm November day — so warm that each station seemed a mile, rather than a few hundred yards, from the next — and I wondered how I could drag my legs there. At lunch in the H. Q. mess I went to sleep; spent the afternoon and evening sleeping in front of the stove, and when I went to bed was given the usual couple of aspirins by the M. O. Next morning my temperature was 103. The M. O. went off to arrange for an ambulance to take me to the clearing station. By the time I was introduced to it again, the thermometer was soaring up to 105. Next day the battalion got the order to move; the attack was to begin. My sergeant came to say goodbye to me. I handed over my maps, commended the section to his care, and wished him luck. He was lucky. He only lost a leg.
Ten days later I was at Southampton. Some kind woman offered to write a telegram for me. It was to Daphne, saying that she would find me in hospital at Oxford. I woke up one afternoon and saw her at the end of the bed, crying.
We were back at Sandown. January 18 was my birthday. In addition to letters from the family there was one from J. M. Barrie. Surprising. How did he know that—he didn’t know. He wrote to say that Boucicault was putting on two one-act plays of his in a Triple Bill, and that if I could turn WurzelFlummery into a two-act play it might be used to complete the program. One could hardly imagine a more exciting birthday present.
The three plays came on at the New Theatre in April, Wurzel-Flummery in the middle. Dot Boucicault played the solicitor, Nigel Playfair the pompous M. P. I got thirty pounds a week for the eight weeks of its run. We went up for the first night with forty-eight hours’ leave, were introduced to Irene Vanbrugh, and asked by Dot to write a play for her.
Meanwhile the War Office was getting on with the war. Our battalion was a unit of the Portsmouth Garrison, and had, like other battalions in the garrison, its own signal section. It was now decided to establish a signaling school at Fort Southwick at which all the signalers of the garrison could be trained, together. The school was divided into four companies, of one of which I was to be in charge. Reluctantly Daphne left Sandown and the regiment, and took a cottage at Portchester. I should have a two-mile walk up to the Fort every morning at seven-thirty, and a two-mile walk down every evening which would get me home at five-thirty. Then, after tea, we could begin Irene’s play.
Unfortunately the play which I had in my mind offered no possible part to her. I tried to forget about it and think of something else. It was no good; the only way to forget it was to write it. So I wrote (or, more accurately, dictated to my collaborator) a play called The Lucky One. The Theatre Guild did it in New York ten years later, but it has never been put on for a run in London. I used to think it was my best play; well, I suppose it was once; but now I see that I just wasted a good idea. I wish I hadn’t thought of it so soon.
Again I tried to write ‘Irene’s play,’ but again I thought of something else first. The result was a one-act play called The Boy Comes Home. We had enjoyed writing it, but there seemed to be nothing much to do with it. If only I could write the play which Boucicault wanted. But Daphne was becoming concerned about my health; I got tired so easily. Well, it was a tiring life, getting up at seven-thirty, walking two miles uphill, running a company for eight hours (which included teaching ploughboys the theory of induced currents), walking two more miles, and then doing my ordinary work of writing for another five hours. And I knew the cure for it. I wanted to go to sleep for a whole year.
However, she begged me to see the M. O. at the Fort. I saw him; he sent me down to the Military Hospital at Cosham; I was kept there for a night, thumped all over in the morning, and passed on to the Convalescent Hospital at Osborne for three weeks.
And there I really did rest. Life at Osborne seemed to me then, and has seemed so at times since, the ideal life. One would not expect Osborne House to be beautiful; it was not; but the surroundings are perfect. There was a nine-hole golf course running down to the Solent, there were croquet lawns, there was an excellent library of light novels. Our only duty was to see the M. O. in charge of our section on every other morning. The food was incomparably better than anything we had had lately. We ate, slept, read, played games gently, and wished it could go on forever.
I managed to get another three weeks’ sick leave after I left Osborne, and then we returned to Portchester. There was a chance that I might ultimately get a job in the War Office. If we were to write Irene’s play together, we must write it in the next week. On Thursday at five-thirty I settled into a deck chair in our little garden, saying, ‘I shall now think of something.’ By dinnertime I was ready. At eight-thirty I began to dictate Belinda, and by Tuesday evening it was finished. My collaborator took charge of it while I went off to Dover. A week later I got a telegram from Boucicault: ‘I like the play, my wife likes the part, I would like to do it.’
Belinda came on in April 1918. It synchronized with the most desperate moments of the war; it lived through the worst air raid, and it died gamely nine weeks later. In the circumstances it was difficult to regard ils ill-fortune as a matter of much importance. I was now in the War Office, wore the green tabs of Intelligence, and wrote (horrible word) ‘propaganda.’ I had been marked for Home Service by a succession of medical boards, with the recommendation of ‘sedentary work.’ If there is any work more sedentary than writing I do not know it; moreover, by a happy accident, it was the only work for which I was mentally fit. I had a room to myself and wrote pretty much what I liked. If it were not‘patriotic’ enough, or neglected to point the moral with sufficient hardihood, then the Major supplied the operative words in green pencil.
Arthur Bourehier saw Belinda and wrote to ask if I had written anything which might suit him. I said ‘No,’ but he insisted on reading The Lucky One and The Boy Comes Home. He sent back the first, and passed on the second to Owen Nares. Nares came to dinner, play in hand, our first actor guest. He wanted to do it at the Victoria Palace as a musichall turn, but his time was strictly limited to twenty-three minutes, and this would play for twenty-seven. He suggested cuts: four minutes, four pages.
I didn’t want to cut, and I knew that the Victoria Palace would be too big for it. As it happened, Playfair had just arranged to put it. on at a charity matinée. Somehow I felt that if it. were played once, in a reasonable-sized theatre, I should be content. So, having been told by my agent that I couldn’t expect more than five guineas a week for it, I wrote to him now to say that I insisted on fifteen, feeling that if Nares turned it down, so much the better. I showed the letter to my collaborator, who said indignantly, ‘Fifteen? You ought to have twenty’; so I added, not really meaning it, ‘P. S. On second thoughts, twenty.’ My agent took it seriously, asked twenty, and got it. After Nares had played it at the Victoria Palace, it was incorporated in a revue at the Palace. In the spring Godfrey Tearle loured the provincial music hells with it. After which all the boys in the amateur world came home with it . . . and continue so to come.
The war would be over any day now what was I going to do? Duty (I thought) called me back to Punch, inclination to this new file in the theatre. I was certainly not established in the theatre: £311 from Belinda was the most I had made out of a play. Could I be sure of a living as a dramatist? Wasn’t I in a way pledged to Punch, which for the first three years of the war had paid me half my Assistant Editor’s salary? The answer to the first question was‘No,’ to the second, ‘Yes.’ I would go back to Punch for three years; then I should feel free. And by that time I hoped to have proved that I could live on the theatre.
But on Armistice Day I forgot all this. The war was over and I was going back to my old job. Once more I should sit in that, dusty little office sorting out good jokes from bad; once more have fun with the paragraphs, be (oh, so happily) bored at the Wednesday dinners; once more (on Thursdays) take Daphne with me as unofficial secretary to clear up the week’s arrears of work. She loved it; I loved it; and I had promised her to be Editor one day. I was going back.
Demobilization, we were told, would be quicker if we could produce a letter from our employers to say how eagerly they longed for us to return to them.
I hurried round to the Punch office for my letter. I burst in on Owen Seaman. He looked up, surprised. ‘Hallo?’ he said. ‘I’ve come back,’ I announced dramatically.
Owen, instead of falling on my neck, said coldly, ‘Oh!’ It appeared that nobody in the office had either expected or wanted me back, everybody being very well satisfied with my elderly substitute, as well as a little annoyed that I had written plays, not Punch articles in my spare time. In short, it became clear that I was free to do whatever I liked, which is what I have always wanted to do. I said bitterly and ungratefully to myself, ‘Kicked out!’
We were very considerate with each other. Owen’s one wish was to serve my interests, mine to serve Punch. Of course (he said) my place was open to me, there was no question of that, but it seemed a pity that I should waste my time on the mechanical work of subediting when I could write such brilliant plays. Of course (I said) I should like to devote myself exclusively to playwriting, but after Punch’s generosity to me I could not possibly put the paper to any inconvenience. Was he sure— very politely he made it clear that he was. In that case, I said — and then stupidly murmured something about. Daphne’s ambition for the future. This took him off his guard, and it was not until the third attempt that he found words which made it seem rather a compliment that, whatever happened, I should never be Editor. That settled it. I arranged to send in my resignation to the Proprietors.
‘That doesn’t mean from the Table, of course,’ he said. ‘ You’ll still be on the staff and write every week.’
But that was what I wouldn’t do. What I wanted was just the opposite: the mechanical work and the salary, coupled with a free mind for the theatre.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said, ‘and let the Proprietors know.’ But I had no doubts. I wrote and resigned from the Table. They were very nice about it. They told me to drop in to dinner when I liked, and drop in to the pages of Punch when I liked. For six months or so I dropped in occasionally. Then I dropped out.
It happened that we were dining that night with W. L. George and his wife. Daphne was dressing when I got back and in no mood for conversation. It was not until we were in the taxi that I told her that I was not going back to Punch. She burst into tears. She was still crying quietly to herself when I paid off the taxi. We walked round the dark and silent square, beneath a rain-laden sky which threatened to fall at any moment, while she tried to get control of herself. I promised her that we shouldn’t starve, I promised to make a success of the theatre. It was a little like telling a woman whose loved cottage has been burnt down that you will build a more expensive one on the ruins. It doesn’t really comfort her at the time.
There was one other guest at the Georges’, and we didn’t need an introduction to tell us that it was beautiful Lillah McCarthy. When the five of us sat round the dinner table the talk was general. Naturally I had Miss McCarthy on one side of me. We left a few minutes after her, and caught her up again at High Street Station. We traveled to Sloano Square together.
Three days later I had a letter from her. She said that she was just starting in management, and that Barrie had suggested that she should ask me for a play. Would I have tea with her on Tuesday to discuss it?
This was Friday morning. We had all been given six weeks’ leave from the War Office, after which we had to rejoin our regiments for demobilization. I retired to my room to think of a play for Lillah McCarthy. It was wonderful to be thinking in the morning again. By Tuesday afternoon I had written the first act of a comedy which I decided to call Mr. Pint Passes By. I could now definitely promise Miss McCarthy a play. I went round to tea with her, full of hope.
She was charming. I told her about the play, and she asked me to send it to her manager, A. E. Drinkwater, as soon as it was finished. We chattered. . . .
I said good-bye.
She said how delightful it had been to meet me.
I said: ‘Well, of course, we did meet last Tuesday.’
She said: ‘Oh — did we?’
Since then I have never expected my name or my face to mean anything to anybody. It saves a lot of anxiety.
Demobilization was not difficult. I rejoined the regiment at Crowborough, where, as a sedentary soldier, I not only lived comfortably at the Beacon Hotel, but found a comfortable stool in the demobilization office from which I could call attention to the hard case of Lieut. A. A. Milne. In little more than a week I was in respectable clothes again.
Mr. Pim Passes By was finished and under consideration by Drinkwater. A children’s play, Make-Believe, had opened Nigel Playfair’s management of the Lyric, Hammersmith. In the summer I had written a play called The Great Broxopp, which was now being sent round. The future of the English theatre seemed assured, but our own present needs demanded some sort of regular weekly income. I had reëstablished relations with the Sphere—but was six guineas a week enough? Luckily at this moment Lord Lee bought the Outlook, engaged E. V. Lucas as a contributor, and asked him to suggest a dramatic critic. He suggested me; and I, when asked, suggested six guineas a week again. It seemed a nice reasonable sum.
I was dramatic critic of the Outlook for six weeks before I discovered that the position was impossible. One could not damn a manager’s play and then send him a play of one’s own; still less could one praise it and then send him a play of one’s own; least of all could one tell other dramatists how to write plays when one’s own imperfect plays were available for comparison. So I resigned
I was getting good at this — but still wrote occasional essays for the paper.
In the intervals I wrote a detective story. I had read most of those which had been written, admired their ingenuity, but didn’t like their English. Their characters (in so far as they existed as characters, which was anæmically) continually ‘effected egresses,’ instead of ‘going out.’ The detective ‘carefully selected ‘ a cigarette from his case (something which no human being has ever done) before telling his colleague what his impressions were when he first, had ‘cognizance’ of the affair. I wondered if I could write a detective story about real people in real English. I thought it would be ‘fun to try,’my only reason for writing anything. The result would have passed unnoticed in these days when so many good writers are writing so many good detective stories, but in those days there was not so much competition, and The Red House Mystery had a surprising success. One eager American editor came over to London and made a contract giving me £2000 for the serial rights of my next one. I still have that contract somewhere, whether valid now or not I cannot say, for my ‘next one’ was a book of children’s verses, and subsequent works have made as little claim on his bank roll. Sometimes I think it would be fun to try again . . . and then there seem to be so many other things to try. As it might be, autobiography.
Daphne was in a nursing home in May. One afternoon I found Irene with her. Dot Boucicault had announced that he wouldn’t put a play on in London until theatre rents had gone down. In the autumn they were having a season at Manchester.
‘Isn’t it about time you wrote me another one?’ said Irene.
‘Dot said he wasn’t going to—’
‘Well, if we had the right play — one can always change one’s mind.’
‘Would he really like to read one?’
‘Of course he would. Part for me?’
‘Better than Belinda?’
‘I hope so. You’ll see.’
Drinkwater had been unable to make up his mind about Mr. Pim Passes By. A week ago I had made it up for him. That evening I sent the play to Boucicault. He signed an agreement which gave him the right to try it out for a week in Manchester. On January 4, 1920, it came to London.
I have attended many first nights in the miserable rôle of author, but never one like that. The house was so delighted to see its loved and lovely Irene back again that in sheer happiness it extended its favor to the play. Calls went on continuously; there were continuous cries for ‘Speech!’ — the author was pushed on and pushed off; and still Dot and Irene were bowing. As I sat in the wings among the stagehands wondering if it were true, a very weary voice behind me said, '’Ere, go on and give ’em a speech, guv’nor, and let’s all get ’ome.’ So that was all it was. I imagined him when he got home.
’Late to-night, Bill.’
‘Yus, we ‘ad a success.’
And forty million people in England equally stolid. However, that didn’t prevent us from enjoying it.
In August of that year my collaborator produced a more personal work. We had intended to call it Rosemary, but decided later that Billy would be more suitable. However, as you can’t be christened William, — at least, we didn’t see why anybody should, — we had to think of two other names, two initials being necessary to ensure him any sort of copyright in a cognomen as often plagiarized as Milne. One of us thought of Robin, the other of Christopher — names wasted on him who called himself Billy Moon as soon as he could talk, and has been Moon to his family and friends ever since. I mention this because it explains why the publicity which came to be attached to ‘Christopher Robin’ never seemed to affect us personally, but to concern either a character in a book or a horse which we hoped at one time would win the Derby.
When he was three, we took a house in North Wales for August, with the Nigel Playfairs. It rained continuously. In the one living room every morning there were assembled five Playfairs, three Milnes, Grace Lovat-Fraser, Joan PittChatham, Frederic Austin, and a selection of people to whom Nigel had issued casual invitations in London before starting north for what he supposed to be his Welsh castle. In a week I was screaming with agoraphobia. Somehow I must escape. I pleaded urgent inspiration, took a pencil and an exercise book, and escaped to the summerhouse. It contained a chair and a table. I sat down on the chair, put my exercise book on the table, and gazed ecstatically at a wall of mist which might have been hiding Snowdon or the Serpentine for all I could see or cared. I was alone. . . .
But sooner or later I should be asked what I was writing. What was I writing?
About six months earlier, while at work on a play, I had wasted a morning in writing a poem called ‘Vespers.’ I gave it to Daphne, as one might give a photograph or a valentine, telling her that if she liked to get it published anywhere she could stick to the money. She sent it to Frank Crowninshield of Vanity Fair and got fifty dollars. Later she lent it to me for the Queen’s Doll’s House Library, and later still collected a forty-fourth of all the royalties of When We Were Very Young, together with her share of various musical and subsidiary rights. It turned out to be the most expensive present I had ever given her.
A few months after this, Rose Fyleman was starting a magazine for children. She asked me, I have no idea why, to write some verses for it. I said that I didn’t and couldn’t — it wasn’t in my line. As soon as I had posted my letter, I did what I always do after refusing to write anything: wondered how I would have written it if I hadn’t refused. One might, for instance, have written: —
Of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red),
And all the day long he’d a wonderful view
Of geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue).
After another wasted morning, I wrote to Miss Fyleman to say that perhaps after all I might write her some verses. A poem called ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor’ was the result. It was illustrated by Harry Rowntree; proofs had come to me in Wales; and with them came letters from both illustrator and editor saying, ‘Why don’t you write a whole book of verses like these?’
So there I was with an exorcise book and a pencil, and a fixed determination not to leave the heavenly solitude of that summerhouse until it stopped raining . . . and there in London were two people telling me what to write . . . and there on the other side of the lawn was a child with whom I had lived for three years . . . and here within me were unforgettable memories of my own childhood . . . what was I writing? A child’s book of verses, obviously. Not a whole book, of course; but to write a few would be fun — until I was tired of it. Besides, my pencil had an India rubber at the back; just the thing for poetry.
I had eleven wet days in that summerhouse and wrote eleven sets of verses. Then we went back to London. A little apologetically — feeling that this wasn’t really work; feeling that a man of stronger character would be writing that detective story and making £2000 for the family; a little as if I were slipping off to Lord’s in the morning, or lying in a deck chair at Osborne reading a novel — I went on writing verses. By the end of the year I had written enough for a book.
It was only after the book was in the publisher’s hands that Owen Seaman heard about it. Probably Lucas, then chairman of Methuen’s, had mentioned it casually. Owen asked if Punch could print some of it, and I told him, reluctantly enough, that he could use what he liked, for I feared that as a ‘reprint from Punch ‘ it might not get the attention which would be given to a new book. However, the publication of some of the verses had two good results: it confirmed my opinion that Shepard was the right illustrator for the book, and, with the first appearance of ‘The King’s Breakfast,’gave the publishers an idea of its ultimate reception. This was enthusiastic beyond all imagining, in both England and America. In the ten years before it went into a cheap edition, half a million copies were sold.
It is inevitable that a book which has had very large sales should become an object of derision to critics and columnists. We all write books, we all want money; we who write want money from our books. If we fail to get money, we are not so humble, nor so foolish, as to admit that we have failed in our object. Our object, we maintain, was artistic success. It is easy to convince ourselves that the financial failure of the book is no proof of its artistic failure; and it is a short step from there to affirm that artistic success is, in fact, incompatible with financial success. It must be so; for how else could we be the artists we are and remain in our first editions? If any other artist goes into twenty editions, then he is a traitor to the cause, and we shall hasten to say that he is not one of Us.
All this is commonplace. What has been particularly irritating about the sales of the Christopher Robin books (even though the irritation has produced no more intimidating retort than the writing of the name ‘Kwistopher Wobin’) is that the books were written for children. When, for instance, Dorothy Parker, as ‘Constant Reader’ in the New Yorker, delights the sophisticated by announcing that at page 5 of The House at Pooh Corner ‘Tonstant Weader fwowed up’ (sic — if I may), she leaves the book, oddly enough, much where it was. However great the indebtedness to Mrs. Parker, no Alderney, at the approach of the milkmaid, thinks, ‘I hope this lot will turn out to be gin,’ no writer of children’s books says gayly to his publisher, ‘Don’t bother about the children — Mrs. Parker will love it.’ As an artist one might genuinely prefer that, one’s novel should he praised by a single critic, whose opinion one valued, rather than be bought by ‘the mob’; but there is no artistic reward fora book written for children other than the knowledge that they enjoy it. For once and how one hates to think it — vox populi, vox Dei. The position can only be saved by asserting that it isn’t the genuine voice of the people. It is the illiterate mothers who speak. Even so, it might be held that mothers have their own private qualifications for speaking.
In fact, I know that a great many children did, and do, like When We Were Very Young. I think that such merit as attaches to the verses for this (as distinct from the illustrations to which the book is so obviously indebted) was won by taking pains — more pains, perhaps, than is usual. Whatever else they lack, the verses are technically good. The practice of no form of writing demands such a height of technical perfection as the writing of light verse in the Calverley and Punch tradition. When We Were Very Young is not the work of a poet becoming playful, or of a lover of children expressing his love, or of a prose writer knocking together a few jingles for the little ones; it is the work of a light-verse writer taking his job seriously even though he is taking it into the nursery. It seems that the nursery, more than any other room in the house, likes to be approached seriously.
Whether I have added to technique that ‘wonderful insight into a child’s mind’ of which publishers’ advertisements talk so airily, I wouldn’t know. I am not inordinately fond of, or interested in, children; their appeal to me is a physical appeal such as the young of other animals make. I have never felt in the least sentimental about them, or no more sentimental than one becomes for a moment over a puppy or a kitten. In so far as I understand their minds, the understanding is based on the observation, casual enough and mostly unconscious, which I give to people generally; on memories of my own childhood; and on the imagination which every writer must bring to memory and observation.
Winnie-the-Pooh came out two years later, and was followed by a second book of verses and, in 1928, The House at Pooh Corner. The animals in the stories came, for the most part, from the nursery. My collaborator had already given them individual voices, their owner by constant affection had given them the twist in their features which denoted character, and Shepard drew them, as one might say, from the living model. They were what they are for anyone to see; I described rather than invented them. Only Rabbit and Owl were my own unaided work. These books also became popular. One day when Daphne went up to the nursery Pooh was missing from the dinner table, which he always graced. She asked where he was. ‘Behind the ottoman,’ replied his owner coldly. ‘Face downwards. He said he didn’t like When We Were Very Young.’ Pooh’s jealousy was natural. Popular as he was, the verses had had the larger sale.
It is easier in England to make a reputation than to lose one. I wrote four ‘children’s books,’ containing altogether, I suppose, 70,000 words — the number of words in the average-length novel. Having said good-bye to all that in 70,000 words, knowing that as far as I was concerned the mode was outmoded, I gave up writing children’s books. I wanted to escape from them as I had once wanted to escape from Punch — as I have always wanted to escape. In vain. England expects the writer, like the cobbler, to stick to his last. As Arnold Bennett pointed out, if you begin painting policemen you must go on painting policemen, for then the public knows the answer— Policemen. If you stop painting policemen in order to paint windmills, criticism remains so overpoweringly policeman-conscious that even a windmill is seen as something with arms out, presumably directing the traffic. These last ten years in which I have been writing plays, novels, and invocations against war are littered with affiliation orders on behalf of all the ‘juveniles’ born so lovingly and with such complete absence of labor into the book-world. If I didn’t put my name to them, ‘that,’ as the King of Hearts said, ‘only makes the matter worse.’ It proves that my spiritual home is still the nursery, that I am still thinking of policemen.
It has been my good fortune as a writer that what I have wanted to write has for the most part proved to be salable. It has been my misfortune as a business man that, when it has proved to be extremely salable, then I have not wanted to write it any more. It has been my good fortune as a husband that I have always been encouraged to be a writer, not a business man.
I like writing, by which I mean that I like putting down certain words in a certain order. Because it gives me no pleasure when I am writing a play just to put down ‘Exit Smith,’ and less than no pleasure to put down, as I read the other day, ‘They exit together,’ I gratify myself by taking as much time and trouble over stage directions which may never be seen as I should over an inscription in stone on an inescapable monument. This is due, not entirely to that pride or self-love which makes a woman wear pretty things even if nobody is going to see them, but to a laziness which at times approximates to torpor. I hate writing by which I mean that I hate the business of putting down words with a pen. Unless I can get some sort of ‘kick’ out of them I can hardly bring myself to the drudgery of inking them in. To spend two days in writing a difficult letter to The Times is not work, but continuous excitement; to spend five minutes regretting my inability to give the prizes away at St. Etheldreda’s is to live again through all the wasted hours in form and lecture room.
When I read one of those 8/6 novels whose weight well qualifies them for a permanent place in literature, I never find myself thinking ‘How boring this is to read,’ but always ‘How boring this must have been to write.’ This is no criticism of the book either as a work of art or as a work of interest. I doubt if any 8/6 novel could be as dull as parts of Paradise Lost, but the author of Paradise Lost in his most uninspired moments is leading an exciting life. From time to time I feel that the writer of the 8/6 novel I am reading was neither amused nor interested, and I envy him the staying power which kept his pen at work.
The most exciting form of writing is the writing of plays. There is, however, this to be said against it: that, when once the play is written, the author is never really happy again until it has been taken off.
One writes a book; a publisher is waiting for it; a date of publication is fixed for it. The book will be printed just as one wrote it, exact to the last comma. Whether criticism blows fair or foul, the book remains in being; it is there for anyone to read.
One writes a play; no manager is waiting for it; the play may be sold this year, next year, sometime, never. Being bought, it may be produced this year, next year, sometime, never. If produced, it will not be produced, exact to the last eyebrow, as the author saw it, for the reason that its characters live in the author’s imagination, and that, even if they have autotypes in real life, it is extremely unlikely that these will be actors and actresses by profession, available for this production. Finally, when some version of the play has been launched, a puff of foul criticism, a week of fog, a few days of crisis, a bus strike, the sudden indisposition of the leading man, may be enough to sink it forever. Even if the play runs, every visit to it brings to the author the realization that this is not the play which he had thought he was writing. Oh, well — next time, perhaps.
For one who insists on full value a play is the thing. So strongly do I feel this that, when I write a play, I write all the dialogue first, without a single stage direction, and then reluctantly turn novelist. There is a certain amount of fun to be got from the description of the characters, from the hints at their emotions which a dramatist must give; but it is dreary work to record the position of a window or a fireplace, and the number of telephones on a desk. With the opening scene of Act II bubbling over in one’s mind one cannot impede oneself with upholstery. I plunge into dialogue. I see the room as I write . . . and if I must, I will tell you about it afterwards.
Dialogue in a novel has to suit the occasion, the character of the speaker, and the state of the person addressed. In playwriting it offers an additional stimulus to the author: it has also to suit the audience. Stagecraft, of which we hear so much, is merely the art of making things easy for the audience. Realistic dialogue makes things difficult for an audience, for the reason that it is both boring and allusive. Here is a slice of life: —
HUSBAND. Well, what do you think?
WIFE. I don’t know. (Thinks for a minute.)
HUSBAND. It’s for you to say.
WIFE. I know. (After a long pause) There’s Jane.
(Colonel in third row of stalls strikes match to see who Jane is. She isn’t in the program. Who the devil is Jane? He never knows.)
HUSBAND. You mean the Ipswich business?
WIFE. Yes. (Telephone hell rings.) That’s probably Arthur.
(Clergyman in fifth row of stalls strikes match to see who Arthur is. He’s not in the program either.)
HUSBAND. Friday. Much more likely to be Anne.
WIFE. Not now.
HUSBAND. Well, you anyway.
WIFE. Oh, all right. (She goes out for ten minutes while Husband reads paper.)
HUSBAND (as she comes back). Anne? (He sneezes.) Damn. I haven’t got a handkerchief.
(He gets up. At the door he says) Oh, by the way, I’d better ring up Morrison. (Exit. Wife writes a letter and then picks up paper. Husband returns.)
WIFE (from paper). Myrtle’s engaged! Fancy!
HUSBAND. Yes, I meant to have told you. I saw John at the club.
(Two old gentlemen strike matches.)
WIFE. Who is he?
HUSBAND. Bar, I think. Listen, darling, we must decide.
WIFE. It’s difficult. (After a long pause) Oh well let’s —
MAID. There’s a policeman downstairs, sir, wants to see you.
HUSBAND. Oh, Lord! (He goes out for five minutes while the audience waits breathlessly. Now the drama is moving. . . . He returns.)
HUSBAND. Some fool turned the lights off. Let’s see, what were we talking about? Damn, I left my pipe downstairs.
(He goes out.)
(And if the audience goes out too, who shall blame it?)
That is how real life is lived. It is clear that natural behavior, natural dialogue, must be dressed up before it. can recommend itself to an audience. The only truth which is demanded from the dramatist is truth to character. Subject to this truth, he is required to present in the refracting mirror of the stage such distortion of real life as will best reflect his meaning. Remembering that the playgoer, unlike the reader, can never turn back, one sees that playwriting becomes an exciting sort of game, in which one has to defeat the apathy, the preconceptions, and the defective memory of one’s antagonist. It may interest my reader in the upper circle if I illustrate with a play of my own some of the fun and the dangers of this game.
A play can be based upon Theme, Story, or Character. If you base it upon a theme, then you must invent a story which will illustrate the theme; if you base it upon a character, then you must invent a story which will exhibit the character. The story is necessary in any case, and will be the main interest for many of the audience, but it will not necessarily be the main interest for the author.
The Truth about Blayds was based upon a theme. It was not a Story of Literary Life, nor a Study of a Literary Fraud. My interest in it was the interest which I took in this problem: What happens in a religious community when its god is discovered to be a false god? To work out this problem I could choose any community, any god, convenient to me. A tribal god on an island, a national hero among his countrymen, a churchwarden in a chapel if the devastating truth were known, who would still be faithful, who unfaithful? And faithful to what? The Truth or the God? I decided to illustrate the theme with the story of a great poet — showing the reactions of his family to a deathbed confession that he had lived on the work of a long-dead contemporary, in his lifetime unknown, unpublished.
I made the family as representative of a religious community as I could. The High Priest, secretary, son-in-law, and official biographer 1o Blayds; his wife, taking her beliefs at second hand from the priest; her sister, the true believer who had sacrificed everything for the Faith; the detached critic, old suitor of the sister’s, who accepted intellectually rather than spiritually; the grandchildren, dragged reluctantly to church, scoffing, unbelieving. One knew them all, and it was interesting to watch their characters come out in the fierce light which beat upon the dead Blayds, the self-confessed fraud to whom willingly or unwillingly they had given their lives. It was interesting, that is, to me; but it could only be interesting to the audience if it believed as completely as I did in the Blayds legend. It would never do if the audience were saying to itself all through the discussion, ‘But how could anyone have been taken in? Who could have thought for a moment that he was a great poet?’
Blayds, then, must be seen and believed in —authentically a Great Man.
Now nothing is so difficult to put on the stage as a Great Man; and of all great men the most difficult to project across the footlights is the literary genius. For it is obvious that a character in a play can never he wiser or wittier than the author of the play. The author may tell himself that in real life no genius is uniformly wise or witty; that the great writers whom he himself has met have shown nothing of their peculiar quality in conversation. This may be so. Barrie told me of an occasion when he was present at a gathering of young authors all very busy talking about style. An older man sitting aloof in a corner, but listening intently, was asked to contribute to the discussion. He confessed uncomfortably that he knew very little about the subject; he would rather listen and learn what he could; he really would have nothing to say of any value; they all knew much more than he did. Fearing to be drawn more deeply into the argument, he added that he had to go now, and slipped out. ‘Who was that?’ Barrie was asked. Barrie, who had brought him there, explained that it was Thomas Hardy. But not a Thomas Hardy who could have made the crossing of the footlights. For stage life, as I have said, can never hope to be real life, but only life which seems real in the unreal conditions of the theatre.
The genius, in fact, must carry immediate conviction of his genius to the audience. Taciturnity is not enough. But if the author be not himself a genius, how is he to create one?
The usual way, the obvious way, what seems at first the only way, is to let the audience get the measure of the hero’s greatness through the eyes and by the tongue of the hero-worshipers. Only so, within the limits of the stage, can one be assured that he climbed Everest, swam Niagara, or won the battle of Waterloo. But having been as critic to all those plays in which, for the opening ten minutes, the minor characters acclaim the heroic deeds of the next character on the programme, —and then in comes, to a burst of applause, dear old George Alexander. or Tree, or Arthur Bourchier, looking just the same, now that he is the Great Chemist, as he did last week when he was the Great Financier,
I realized how difficult it was to establish genius by this means. It is an instinct with all of us to resent unbridled enthusiasm for the unknown. True, my genius was an old man of ninety, whose hoary locks would disguise his Green Room origins and lend him that aura of immortality which surrounds almost any writer on his ninetieth birthday; I had nothing to fear from the actor if I could give him the entrance to make, the words to say. But how could I?
Well, I began with Royce, the critic, come to present an address of congratulation to the Great Man. All is set for the usual opening; now we shall hear what a Great Man he is. But Royce is received by Oliver, the skeptical grandson, for whom Old Blayds is merely a nuisance. They are joined by Septima, the granddaughter, and between them, to Royce’s great embarrassment, the young people make the whole Blayds theology ridiculous. The audience, inclined at first to sympathize with them, begins to resent their intolerance. From feeling that a genius might well be a nuisance to his grandchildren, it wonders if the grandchildren might not well be a nuisance to him. Marion, their mother, comes in. For her, Blayds is God indeed. Now the audience sees the other side of the picture: the slavish, meaningless hero worship. Might that not be even more of a nuisance for the genius? If the grand-children-attitude is wrong-headed, isn’t their mother-attitude even more wrong-headed ? Which is the more intolerable to Blayds?
To Blayds, the genius? Already, without realizing it, the audience is beginning to accept the fact that he is a genius.
For I have even dared to give a sample of his genius. The fact that Tennyson wrote ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and Wordsworth wrote Idiot Boy’ lent me confidence, but an audience would not be sharing my recollection of such lesser masterpieces. They would want the genuine thing. Very well, they shall think that they are getting it.
‘Septima, seventh dark daughter,
I saw her once where the black pines troop to the water —
A rock-set river that broke into bottomless pools. . .
Unconsciously Royce quotes the hackneyed words in response to the girl’s name. They have a swing to them; for a moment they sound like poetry. But before the audience can give its critical attention to them, Septima says casually to Oliver, ‘Noll, I’ll trouble you,’ and holds out her hand for the shilling which passes with the reaction of each new visitor to the introduction. ‘Damn it, Royce,’ says Oliver, feeling in his pockets, ‘I did think you would be able to control yourself.’ The audience chuckles, in sympathy with any daughter of Tennyson’s called Maud, any son of Byron’s called Harold, and any granddaughter of Blayds’s called Septima.
Now comes the High Priest, the fussy little son-in-law, dictating answers to the letters of congratulation, choosing a select list of callers for the Press: ‘three Society, three Artistic and Literary, and two Naval, Military, and Political.’ The ‘health’ — where shall they drink the health? In here? The letter from Queen Victoria — shall Royce be allowed to hold it in his hands? Yes, perhaps just for a moment. If this is not the household of a Great Poet, what is it?
Lastly comes Isobel — who sent her lover away twenty years ago, in order to keep alive the spark of the great man’s genius. For twenty years she has tended him: was it worth it for the great poetry he has written? Was it worth it for the life she has lost? She wonders to Royce, who was her lover all those years ago. The audience wonders too, accepting Isobel’s judgment of her father. He was indeed a great poet, and she was right; he was indeed a great poet, but she was wrong.
And so to Blayds. For half an hour we have been assuming that he is the last of the Great Victorians; here he comes, magnificently to the eye the last and greatest of the great Victorians. What are to be his opening words? What can they be which will do justice to his godhead? If Shakespeare and Æschylus collaborated to find a speech for him, the audience would think it unworthy. What, then, will they say to a speech of mine? ‘We believed in him until you made him speak to us; we should have remembered that no character can be greater than the author.’ Still, he has to say something. . . .
He says it —and immediately the High Priest whips out a pencil and makes a note of it on his culf. The audience breaks into laughter, telling itself how infuriating it must be for genius to have its simplest remark recorded. From now on he is free to speak at my own level, and still be a genius.
The health is drunk, the address of welcome is presented. Blayds talks a little of the friends he loved: Tennyson, Whistler, Swinburne, Meredith. Now he is alone with Isobel; the excitement of the occasion has died, and old age rushes in on him. He has something to confess — now! now! — before it is too late. ‘Listen, Isobel,’ and, as he begins, the curtain comes down. . . .
The curtain goes up; now my play begins. ‘What happens in a religious community when its god is discovered to be a false god?’ We have established him as a god: now he is to be revealed as a false god; now we shall know. We have got the necessary, but unsignificant, First Act out of the way, now we can command the audience’s interest for the development of our theme. . . .
But it was not so. I discovered, when it was too late, that I was fighting a losing battle against that First Act. I had taken too much care over it. I had established the Great Man so firmly that for most of the audience Blayds, the living Blayds, was now the play. The audience had seen him, had believed in him, and wanted to go on seeing him. As consolation, the critics told me that it was the best First Act ever written, but there, for most of them, the play ended. It might be the best First Act ever written, but there, for me, the play began. For me the play was based upon Theme, for the audience upon Character; and the result seemed to be just a Story which had petered out.
Writers are often asked if they force themselves to write every day or if they ‘wait for inspiration.’ It is not suggested (as far as I know) that they say to their wives at breakfast, ’If I am not inspired by eleven o’clock, dear, I shall want the car’; nor that, being in the middle of a novel, they sit with closed eyes at their desks, waiting for assistance before they start the fifth chapter. It is in the details of conception that the layman is interested, not in the pangs of labor, nor the nourishment of the child when born. In short, is the baby ever accidental?
For myself I have now no faith in miraculous conception. I have given it every chance. I have spent many mornings at Lord’s hoping that inspiration would come, many days on golf courses; I have even gone to sleep in the afternoon, in case inspiration cared to take me completely by surprise. In vain. The only way in which I can get an ‘idea’ is to sit at my desk and dredge for it. This is the real labor of authorship, with which no other labor in the world is comparable.
My process of conception is something as follows. After hours, days, weeks of labor (the metaphor is standing on its head, but no matter) after weeks of anguish, during which I am nobody’s friend, the germ of an idea comes into my mind. It is considered and rejected as old, foolish, or inadequate. I go on thinking . . . more weeks pass ... it seems as if I should never write again. A pity that that idea which I had three weeks ago wasn’t any good . . . or wasn’t it? No. Hopeless. I go on thinking for another week. . . . What about that idea which I had four weeks ago?
. . . N-no, not really good. I go on thinking. . . . Damn it, what about that idea which I had five weeks ago? Is it any good or isn’t it ? And if it isn’t, why does it keep coming into my head, pushing out all the much better stories which are knocking for admittance? How can I possibly think, if I’m always thinking of this silly idea about a dead man? And then I throw my hand in. There is only one thing to do: get this impossible nonsense out of the system. It may not be a play at all: good, then I shan’t have to bother about it any more. Anyhow, let’s begin to write. Hooray, I’m writing again . . . and somehow the idea develops itself.
How do ideas first show their heads? In various strange ways.
Plot 1. It would be rather exciting if a man died on one suddenly; and the police want to know all about him, and the one thing which can’t be given away is the reason why he came to the house. So Husband and Wife have to make up a story. But they can’t. Their brains won’t work. And the minutes are going by, and Authority is on its way, and they stand there desperately trying to think against time. Mightn’t that be dramatic?
That became Michael and Mary.
Plot 2. It’s no good. I shall never write again. A pity, because Dennis Eadie has asked for a play, and Harrison wants a play for the Haymarket, and if only I could think of an idea, then I could write a play and Harrison would put it on, and then we should all be at the Haymarket on the first night, waiting for the curtain to go up, and wondering what it was going to be about. . . . Terribly exciting, waiting for the curtain to go up, and wondering—an empty stage, a big hall, and then a knocking at the door. Who is it, who is it? A butler rather a mysterious butler, isn’t he? walks solemnly across the stage and draws the bolts. I always think that that’s the most exciting way of beginning a play. Strangers, wayfarers, coming into a strange house. It is rather a strange house; is it an hotel? Well, of course, that’s what they’d naturally ask, the people at the door. ‘Is this an hotel?’ And what does the mysterious butler say? Suppose he said, ‘A sort of hotel, my lord’? . . .
That became The Dover Road.
Plot 3. ‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform: He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.’ Grand hymn, that why did it suddenly come into my head? And why did I never see before what an absurd non sequitur it is? I mean the first, two lines are all right by themselves, and so are the second two, but they don’t mix. In effect he begins by saying that great events from little causes spring, or whatever the line is, and then . . . It’s ironic the way things do happen like that. Or the other way about. Little events from great causes. What’s the Latin? Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. Is that right, or shouldn’t it be a pentameter? The little gods must have fun deciding what mountains are to be in labor in order that our ridiculous little wishes shall be gratified. Here’s a woman wants to hang a pair of curtains in her house, but her husband won’t let her, and the little gods say, ‘All right, darling, you shall hang your curtains,’ and then they get into a corner and chuckle together, and arrange the most frightful shocks for both of them . . . and up go the curtains.
That became a play called Green Curtains, until it suddenly occurred to me a better title would be Mr. Pim Passes By. Plot 4. This interval of labor between the end of one ‘work’ and the beginning of the next, when (as Wells put it picturesquely to Daphne once) I am in the basket again, is not only agony for myself but a tribulation to those who live with me. Indifference to my suffering is as much resented as anxious inquiries as to how I am ‘getting on.’ Nothing which anybody can say or do is right.
How conceited of the man to refer to his books and plays as if we had read them all and knew what he was talking about! Or the other way round, if you like. How modest of him to assume that only those who know all his books and plays could possibly be reading this!
YOUNG FRIEND. And to what, sir, do you attribute your success?
AUTHOR. Don’t call me ‘sir.’ I hate being called ‘sir.’ I’m not as old as all that.
Y. F. Sorry. And to what — if you’d just get your back to the light . . . and I think a hat . . . thank you —And to what, young man, do you attribute your success?
A. Meaning by ‘success’?
Y. F. Anything you like. The fact that I bought your last book —I mean got it from the library — I mean it’s on my list — dammit, you know quite well what I mean.
A. Well, as long as it’s clear that I don’t mean more than you do.
Y. F. That’s all right. You see, what I think you ought to give us now — last chapter and all that — is Something for the Little Ones. A few Helpful Words on Speech Day. Advice to Young Man about to make his way in World. Sum it all up. What’s the secret?
A. There’s only one rule.
Y. F. Well?
A. Never take advice. Of all sad words of tongue or pen the saddest are ‘ Why did I listen to Tomkins?’
Y. F. That doesn’t rhyme.
A. If his name were Benjamin it would.
Y. F. But do you really mean it?
Y. F. And that’s why you’re where you are?
A. Wherever that is — yes.
Y. F. How do you know you wouldn’t have been much more successful if you had followed other people’s advice?
A. I don’t. But you didn’t ask me to what I attributed my failure.
Y. F. In other words, you’ve always done what you wanted to do, and haven’t listened to other people?
A. In other words, I’ve listened to other people, and then tried to do what I wanted to do.
Y. F. Splendid. Anything else you’ve noticed?
A. Well —
Y. F. Come on, this is the last chapter. Tell us What You Believe, or What’s Wrong with the World, or something.
A very clever young man was telling Reinhardt how to produce Shakespeare. None of this elaborate spectacle, none of this gorgeous scenery. Just simple black curtains. That was the way to do it: so much more artistic. Reinhardt nodded encouragingly. ‘ It is also easier,’ he said. I have a theory that what is wrong with the world (or, quite possibly, what is right) is that to-day everything is ‘also easier.’ Let me give a few examples of what I mean, and if it be said that I am choosing examples to prove my case, the answer is that this is exactly what I am doing.
In what I shall call ‘ my day,’ anybody who wanted to earn a living as a singer had to learn to sing. In tune. It is hard work learning to sing — in tune. So now you needn’t. You croon. The convention that crooning is singing enables all those people who cannot sing, but wish to earn a living by singing, to do so without going through the labor of learning to sing. In my day dancing was waltzing, and waltzing was not only hard work, but was something which had to be learnt. To-day, with a minimum of fatigue and an entire absence of technique, it is possible to claim that one is dancing. Drawing is difficult. A famous drawing master of my day used to go round the work of his pupils, saying to each one as he compared the work with the model, ‘It is always a good thing to be something like.’ It is also a difficult thing. Modern technique, both in painting and in sculpture, avoids the difficulty of being something like; just as modern hot music avoids the difficulty of disclosing a new tune.
In my day poets said what they had to say in song. This song (poetry, it was called) demanded rhyme or, at least, rhythm from its devotees, and in consequence was hard work. It was obvious, therefore, that if you were going to improve poetry you would improve it most comfortably by omitting the things which were difficult to manage — rhyme and rhythm — and concentrating on what might come to anybody, inspiration. In my day a novelist who wanted to put down the thoughts in his hero’s mind, as often he might want, would spend hours of hard work reducing them to an orderly grammatical sequence in which they could be easily followed. The modern, so much admired, technique allows you to throw them on to the paper just as they come into the hero’s mind (which means just as they come into the author’s mind), and if there is any hard work to be done, it must be done by the reader. And the latest technique of all seems to throw the work on the proofreader.
So much for the arts. I could stop there, but I shan’t. In my day beauty in women was for the favored few, for it demanded such rare gifts as a beautiful complexion, beautiful hair, beautiful features. Nowadays it is no longer difficult to be beautiful. Complexions, hair, and features can be bought. The modern world has accepted the convention that obviously-painted lips and obviously-gummed-on eyelashes are beautiful, and beauty is within the reach of all. Even men need no longer be ugly; they can emphasize their ugliness with a beard and become ‘striking.’ It is, let us admit, not always easy to grow a beard, so we must look forward to the day when gummed-on beards will be admissible.
In my day there was something called Society, into which (unless you were born there) it was almost impossible to enter; and if you were outside it, as I was, you read about it in the society papers with awe or indifference or an assumed contempt. Terrible for modern youth to think that there was any reservation, however contemptible, to which it had not the right of entry. To-day a study of the society papers shows that there is no barrier through which the sports car of the gigolo has not crashed, no frontier over which the passport of the interior decorator (‘special peculiarities’ and all) will not take him.
I shall now drag the moss out of my hair, and regard the matter dispassionately. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the arts and graces are now so much easier to achieve? First let me admit, before it is ‘pointed out ‘ to me, that it is still difficult to be a good crooner (if there is such a thing) or a good ballroom dancer; indeed, it is obvious that a modern expert in the rumba, the lumbar, and the black bumba has need to be more expert than the old-fashioned expert in the waltz. No artistic standards could make Weatherly’s drawing-room ballads of greater literary value than the best modern free verse, nor even of greater literary value than such early examples of free verse as Cæsar’s Commentaries. Pretty girls, in spite of their make-up, are still pretty, if less kissable; and who cares anyway if men are ugly and Society is dead? Yet the modern eagerness to lower standards and abolish ‘form’ remains a distress to the mossy. It is as if democracy had said, not ‘The arts and graces shall be open to all,’ as it has every right to say, but ‘Achievement in the arts and graces shall be the perquisite of all,’ which is nice for all of us, but not so good for the arts and graces.
The abolition of form. Looking for something else, I have just come across a letter dated ‘April 12th, 1929,’ which begins, ‘Several months ago I wrote to you, but have not yet had a reply.’ These unanswered letters turn up from time to time and cause an acute remorse, tempered by the happy reflection that it is now too late to do anything about it. This particular letter, however, had so nearly been answered as almost to excuse me. It was from one of those earnest Americans who are engaged upon what may or may not turn out to be a textbook for schools, and who wish to make it as authoritative as possible by getting other people to do the writing for them. In this case it was to be a textbook on ‘the technique of the drama,’ and the technique was to be provided (free) by dramatists. Would I answer the following questions? Well, apparently I did. That is, I scribbled answers in pencil against the questions, and presumably intended to have them typed and sent to him. But apparently I didn’t. Reading them again, I see that the fifth question and answer are strangely appropriate to my theme.
5. Don’t you think that the present conventional form of play structure and the physical limitations of the stage hinder the dramatist from expressing himself as freely and as fully as he might in the cinema form?
Answer. Certainly. One is also hindered by the conventional form of the sonnet. Howmuch more freely and fully Wordsworth might have expressed himself about Westminster Bridge if he had been writing a guidebook.
This passion for freedom untrammeled by form is attributed by Deans to the evil influences of Bolshevism and other red perils. Unfortunately I cannot share their conviction that Bolshevism is a synonym of lawlessness. On the contrary, I associate it with an excess of law, a complete sacrifice of the right to selfexpression, and a passion for filling up forms. In poetry the totalitarian state is best symbolized by the villanelle, which may be described as a reiteration on two notes: as it might be, ‘Heil Hitler’ and ‘To hell with Russia,’ or the other way round. But free verse seems to be the corollary of free speech, which is the attribute of democracy. Form — craftsmanship— all difficulties imposed from without, such as ‘It’s a good thing to be something like,’ or the three walls of a stage; all these are barbed-wire fences which stand between democracy and the green slopes of Helicon. Away with them!
Well, what about it? In middle age we not only forget that we are no longer young(which is not surprising, since we are always telling ourselves how young we are keeping), but we forget that our contemporaries are also middle-aged — which is astonishing, since we are always telling ourselves how old the poor fellows are getting. Thus I found myself saying the other day that the extravagances of this cosmetic age proved finally that women adorned themselves for women only, not for men; in proof of which I assured my company that without exception every man I knew preferred a clean face to a painted one. And then I realized that the men whose support I was quoting were (naturally) my friends and contemporaries, and that possibly the modern young man did not agree with me. To him, it may be, blood-red fingernails, even blood-red toenails, are beautiful. Yet he must admit that it is an easy way of being beautiful, and he will allow the middle-aged to think that he is easily pleased. We shall continue to think also that a society which is satisfied with crooning and hot music is easily pleased.
So in conclusion it may be asked, if the young are easily pleased nowadays, is that not a good thing rather than a bad thing? Perhaps it is. There is little enough reason for happiness in the world to-day; let us be thankful that there are so many causes of pleasure. We have made the world a wilderness, and it is ridiculous to blame those whom we have put into it (accidentally as often as not) for being satisfied with the little we have left them to find there.
A Saxophone, a Gin and It — and Thou
Beside me crooning in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Praise be to Allah.
As for‘What I Believe,’I put this into print once at the request of a Bishop — the only Bishop who ever came into our house. (When he left, we found five threepenny-bits on the sofa. We gave them to the Salvation Army, and tried to take our minds off the matter, but of course we couldn’t help wondering.) This confession of faith formed one of a series of pamphlets, and may so remain. I wrote another pamphlet once called Peace with Honour. This also need not be paraphrased here. I find it very hard to convince those who are concerned with political and social activities that, unless one is professionally a Public Speaker, one does not want to say the same thing over and over again in different ways. If one has written it once, one has said it as well as one can — forever. This must be true of most writers; I may be unique in not wanting to say anything aloud at any time. At one of my few public appearances I made a speech which, with the many others made on that occasion, was broadcast to the world. Or so I was told by my neighbor when I sat down. ‘Fancy,’ he said, ‘they heard you in Honolulu!’ Daphne was sitting a table or two away, and when we met afterwards I told her proudly that they had heard me in Honolulu. ‘Good,’ she said; ‘I’m glad they heard you somewhere.'
Well, to those who have been reading this autobiography I have now been audible for quite a long time. It would be as well to sit down. But before I do so there is something which I should like to say.
Every writer who has put his name to the back of one book or the front of one program has surrendered some part of his privacy to others. He is not on that account the servant of the public, as the actor so clearly considers himself to be; but at least he and the public are now on visiting terms. In private life we are all very much at the mercy of visitors, and we have to decide for ourselves in what size of lettering the WELCOME on our doormats shall be displayed. So, too, the writer must decide to what extent he shall leave himself at the mercy of the public. To answer personally every letter he receives; to sign autographs and copy out verses whenever he is asked; to provide unpaid contributions for anybody’s magazine; to make a speech, take a chair, give away prizes at anybody’s bidding; to read and advise upon all the plays sent to him, to help place all the manuscripts submitted to him, to write quotable advertisemenls for all the books given to him; to accede, in short, to all the strange requests mack; (I suppose) to every writer — this is to be, not merely the servant, but the very slave of the public.
On the other hand, one has been lucky, one has owed much to the encouragement and kindness of established writers, and one should make some sort of repayment. It may well be that my balance is still a debit one; that the WELCOME on my doormat has not been so conspicuous as it should have been; that I have ignored too many requests, refused too many invitations. With that unanswered letter of 1929 front of me, I cannot help feeling that I have behaved with seeming discourtesy to too many people. If some of them happen to be reading this, I ask their pardon. And to them and to all other readers I shall say Au revoir, hoping that we may meet again.
With each twelve months of the Atlantic
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