A Letter to James Bone From Sir Max Beerbohm
James Bone, who was far more than four decades the Manchester Guardian’s stouthearted correspondent in London, is one of four brothers, Scotch, talented, and independent. Daring his years in Fleet Street, Mr. Bone took note of the vanishing London, and from his pen have come two delightful descriptive hooks about the city, each of them illustrated by the artist of the family. Muirhead Bone. The first, The London Perambulator, appeared in 1925; and this year, on the appearance of its sequel, London Echoing.the Editor of the Mancjester Guardian published the endearing letter from SIR MAX BEERBOHM which follows. We reprint it for those who will value these bools and the friendship behind them.
MY DEAR JAMES:—
The Editor of the Manchester Guardian has very kindly sent me a copy of London Echoing, and, very kindly too, invites me to review it. But it is so many long years since I reviewed a book that I have utterly forgotten how to perform that task presentably. Therefore I am merely writing a letter to you—and shall post it not to you, but to the Editor, asking him (though even Editors ought not to read private letters addressed to other people) to glance through it and, without showing it to you, publish it if he thinks it would pass muster in print.
Far be it from me to gush, even in strict privacy; hut measured terms are not those in which I can express my gratitude to you for this sequel to The London Perambulator of 1925 — a book that I have read and reread many times and have never tired of. The splendid pictures by the great Muirhead, your brother, would have cast into the shade any writing that wasn’t splendid too. And now here you and he are again, to enthral me jointly.
You object that to your way of writing ihe epithet “splendid” isn’t applicable? I agree. I remember that when I was quite a small boy I was taken 1o hear a led ure given by a very orotund old Irish barrister on “The English Humourists.”As an instance of Charles Lamb’s felicity in choice of words, he quoted, with deep unction, “the dusty splendour of St. Paul’s.” Then he paused. “Splendid? It is not splendid. Dusty? The notion’s absurd. But,” with upcast eyes, “DUSTY SPLENDOLR-R!” And you, James, remind me of St. Paul’s. Your splendour is dusty. So was Charles Lamb’s. You remind me of him, too. You are tilwavs happiest when your beams of light are filled with ihe motes of the dust of old things vanished. You’re a wondrous rememberer, as was Elia: a most warm and rosy recorder of things scythed away by that brute, Saturn.
You object to the word “brute”? No doubt. Like Elia, you are inveterately Gentle. You never rail at the present, at science and mechanism and vandalism and uniformity and insipidity and so on, as do I and so many others. You are best pleased to write of what you have loved — queer old shops, queer old taverns; queer old shopmen and innkeepers: “odd fish,” as Elia called the old clerks at the South-Sea House, and the old Benchers of the Inner Temple.
Again you object? — pointing out (gently) that during the gretiter part of your life you have been a Fleet Street man, ever alert in a maelstrom of current events. You have indeed. And nothing could be more vividly “actual" than (for instance) your account of the crowd outside Buckingham Palace when Edward VII was dying, or your notation of the difference in the public emotion at the close of the first European war from its emotion at the close of the second one. But even in times of intensest stress you are not forgetful of arcane corners.
I remember lunching with you in Soho on the day of Neville Chamberlain’s second flight to Germany, and how much you disheartened me with “inside information” that nothing would come of it, forasmuch as Hitler was in the worst of moods. But after the meal you atoned by giving me a great treat: you took me round to a strange old low-ceilingcd shop which, in an adjacent street, had been kept by the members of one family for more than a hundred and fifty years, It was filled with a thick rich pungent odour, an exquisite scent of— but (in a letter that may find its way into print) I must not say what, for the charming old man behind the counter made us both promise that nothing should he said “in the papers” about his premises. He had an antique horror of any kind of advertisement. I hope those premises suffered no hurt in the impending war? I imagine that Tony Weller, in his day, knew them; and his son too. And this reminds me that you, James, remind me not only of St. Paul’s and Elia, but also of Sam Weller though I doubt whether even his knowledge of London was so “extensive and peculiar” as your own.
And now, with renewed thanks to Muirhead and to you — to him for his shining mastery of spaces, to you for your glowing intimacy with corners — I am yours ever,