The Peripatetic Reviewer

LONDON. — “Are you here to read or are you here for pleasure?” is the first question put to an American editor when he arrives in London, and if your answer is yes to both, as mine was, within forty-eight hours all shelf space in your sitting room and bedroom, all table tops, and most chairs will be piled high with manuscripts, bound proof’s, and advance copies of English publications hoping for publication in the United States. It is agreeable to have a wife along so that she can share the eyework with you, and it is imperative to find a competent English secretary who will not be baffled by American idiom and who will keep sending the undesirable candidates back to their points of origin. English literary agents and publishers are punctilious, and it would never do to return a manuscript to the wrong sanctum. As in times past, I was saved from this embarrassment by Pat Brayne, a cheery, impeccable secretary (address supplied on request).
The day began at 8.30 with breakfast served in our sitting room. Since there is no good orange juice in the United Kingdom and since every American in the first week feels puffed up by the starchy diet, we bought fresh oranges and clusters of rich purple grapes from the barrows on Piccadilly. Editorial ideas are stimulated by food and drink, and I not infrequently have breakfast engahemnts when in New York or Washington, but I kept this hour for private cogitation abroad since the London schedule (a word they always mispronounce) provides live other occasions when an editor can entertain or be entertained by his clientele: luncheon, tea, “drinks” (our cocktail hour), dinner, and supper (from 10 P.M. on). Having confirmed the day’s engagements in my little black book, I settled down to a quiet morning with the Great Brayne.
On my very first visit to an agent’s office I acquired two unpublished manuscripts by Dylan Thomas; the rich and perceptive short stories by Wolf Mankowitz came next, and good things after that until I had bought more than a score of contributions for the magazine—and still the quest went on. Claude Cockburn promised to write an account of the famous hoax of the Piltdown Man and of the dentist who exploded it. Richard Gordon, whose books, Doctor in the House and Doctor at Sea, have sold a quarter of a million copies in England, agreed to look into the several years of research the Harvard Hospital outside of Oxford has devoted to the common cold (and how you don’t get it). A golf tournament was being played in a high wind with hard, fast greens, and the anguish as reported by the Times prompted me to write to Bernard Darwin for a paper on “Golf in the High Wind.
With the sun flooding Half Moon Street (we bad twenty-six days of sunshine) and with Piccadilly and Green Park only half a block from my windows, it was tantalizing to think of the London that beckoned if one were not bound to print. Occasionally in the afternoons I .rebelled. I sauntered down St. James’s to buy a hat in Lock’s; poured over salmon flies at that beloved shop, Hardy’s Pishing; saw the exhibition of portraits by Augustus John; or I went window-shopping in the Burlington Arcade, where I bought a half-dozen neckties, sniffed my way through that most fragrant tasteful emporium. Fortnum & Mason, or with the help of Mr. Lorester of Leader’s ticket agency made my reservations for the shows that are hard to get into: Airs on a Shoestring, The Boy Friend, and that slice of English Chekhov, A Dag by the Sea, in which John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson lead an incomparable cast.
The food in London is better than at any time since the war. The lobster, grilled Dover sole, and poached turbot (Nelson’s favorite fish) as served at The Mermaiden, an appendage of Fleming’s, are memorable. The sirloin steak at Isow’s in Soho, and the beefsteak and kidney pie at The Ivy, where the literati gather, the juicy duck I had at the Caprice (the hardest of all to get into — be sure you telephone in advance), the hors d’oeuvres and mutton at the Ritz — these were some of the “bests” I enjoyed.
The number of good restaurants has multiplied and one can’t, hope to cover them all in three weeks; I brought back with me as an appetizer for future visits that succulent and amusing booklet, London Night and Dag, illustrated by Osbert Lancaster. Mr. Lancaster is one of those versatile gents for whom there is no simple label: artist and architect, a cartoonist whose comics in the Beaverbrook press are as popular as anything in Punch, a connoisseur and a lover of Greece, he is that rarity, a contemporary historian who can capture the façade of an age and the habits and quiddities of those who lived in it. His memoirs of his Victorian childhood, All Done from Memory (Houghton Mifflin, $2.75),which has been published with us though not yet in England, provides a perfect reminder for Americans viewing London from the outside.

To Oxford

Now I had a weekend at Oxford coming up; and since one’s time there is never long enough, I telephoned ahead to make sure that my friends were free. On May Day, the Saturday of our arrival, Sir Richard Livingstone took us in tow and a better educator or more kindly humanist does not exist. With him we drove out to Boar’s Hill to pay our respects to Gilbert Murray, the classicist who has done more to retrieve the beauty of the Greek plays than any other man in our time. Mr. Murray, nowin his eighty-ninth year, had been invited this spring to deliver the annual address before the Classical Association, and the words he spoke on the theme “Are Our Beads Beal?” were received with a standing ovation. When we left his book-lined study with its pleasant view of the sloping garden and the fruit trees in bloom, I had his promise that he would send me a copy.
That afternoon we motored out to have tea with John Masefield at Burcote Brook, and once again I came under the spell of that deep voice as he spoke of English history in a way that made us fool that it happened only yesterday. I asked again if he would show me the fragment of the Armada t hat the English divers had sent him from the treasure ship sunk in the channel off the Isle of Mull; this led to his telling of the scandalous sinking of the Royal Georye, a minute-by-minute account — the poet said he was paraphrasing David — which made the tilting deck and the panic as she split seem as graphic as the Lusitania.
Sunday I was introduced to All Souls by Isaiah Berlin, and there at supper met the younger dons and the Vice-Chancellor. One other Cambridge man besides myself was present, Noël Annan, a Bellow of King’s, and he and I did our best to hold the bridge against the banter and badinage which Oxford loves to heap upon the Light Blue.
Which brings me to an observation first, begun thirty years ago: that English conversation has a probing, a mimicry, a rude and teasing sting which is the perfection of small talk and which, when they are working on one another, reduces the visitor to silence — he can’t compete. They epitomize, deprecate, laugh at, and satirize their opposite numbers with devastating wit. Whistler I think of as one American who acquired the art, and an art it is. To listen to the two country squires, Evelyn Waugh, the novelist, and Cyril Connolly, the critic, deploring their boredom away from London; or Humphrey Ellis tell of his dinner on a Spanish train, or Kenneth Tynan, their best dramatic critic, compare the mores of Broadway with those of the London theater, is to be convulsed.
And this in turn leads to a remark on their reading. English readers follow their proclivity far more widely than we. They are captivated by no list of best sellers (none is printed), and the book clubs corral only a fraction. Travel books (Spain and Africa seem in the ascendancy today), religious books, books on gardening, yachting, mountain climbing, prehistoric Britain, Buddhism, and modern architecture, all have their loyal following. The English are undimmed by any infatuation with television. Difficulties of style do not stand in the way of their enjoying a gifted writer like Ivy Compton-Burnett, who is seldom read on our side. They read.
And so back to the mine, back to my little suite on Half Moon Street where Shelley had once lived, back to more books, correspondence, and manuscripts, back to the climax of the trip and what might be termed “a proper English day.” An old friend of mine, Morley Dobson, the poet, had come down from the Lake Country and we held a twentyyear reunion beginning with fish and chips at The Mermaiden. We made reservations for Twelfth Night at the Old Vic, and then headed down to the riverbank to spend the afternoon at the Tower of London.
This visit to the Tower was something neither would have done without the other, but five minutes after we had surrendered ourselves to the guidance of our Beefeater, I am sure we were both happy we had come. It is a cruel and bloody scroll of the British past which unrolls for you as you cross over the drawbridge and move from tower to tower. But the plaintive records make the gray pile live: the Biblical texts scratched into the stone by prisoners during their long vigil; the rampart where Elizabeth, the girl, took her daily walk never knowing whether Queen Mary would that week order her execution; the tower where Sir Walter Raleigh spent part of the twelve years before he was beheaded, where he courted, married, and had a son; the chopping block, the giant ravens, the ancient gleaming armor, and St. John’s Chapel in the White Tower, with its Norman beauty and the brass plate on the wall telling of its blazing past. “No more bloodthirsty than our own time,” remarked Morley as at last we re-emerged into the twentieth century.
While Morley and my wife had tea, I changed into a dark suit and was whisked off to the House of Commons to see the Prime Minister. Sir Winston, pink-skinned, clear-eved, made me welcome with a spot of Scotch and a long cigar, and the brief absorbing visit that followed I shall long remember. But that, is another story.