Civilisation tant MI5 implications. Similarly, he turned the gruesome Dennis Skinner, the shambolic Michael Foot, the brilliantly sinister Norman Tebbit, the magnifico Roy Jenkins, the flashy Heseltine and the taciturn Heath into obedient character-actors in his skilfully contrived Commons comedies. Such events as the gravediggers’ strike, Diana’s funeral, Mrs Thatcher in a marzipan factory and Boris Johnson apologising to Liverpool, were delightful detonators to his fancy. As Hamlet said of Yorick, Frank Johnson was “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”. Moreover, unlike most professional jesters in print, his humour was not confined to the written word. He made you laugh over the table, in the bar, amid the high-pitched susurrus of a drinks party, even in the heart-sinking despair of an airport lounge. He was the spirit of innocent and angelic fun, and his early death deprived me and countless other friends of a constant palliative to the sadness of life.
Henry Fairlie was good company too, though very far from innocent, and with nothing angelic about him except his deceptive smile. I wish Charles Lamb had been around to encapsulate him. He spent his life perched on a tottering tripod formed by women, drink and debt, occasionally falling off but scrambling back with astonishing agility until, in the end, it was all too much. When I first came across him, he had just emerged from a brief spell in Brixton, where an angry judge had put him for contempt of court by breaking a bankruptcy order. His much-tried wife, Lisette, memorably summed up this episode: “Well, at least I know where Henry is.” I can still hear her calling out despairingly: “Henerey!” He always kept his money in cash in his top pocket, and when this was full he was liable to disappear, on a tour of girlfriends. He specialised in seducing young, pretty, lower-middle-class housewives, whose husbands—commercial travellers, oil explorers, airline pilots, etc—were away a lot. It was Henry’s boast: “I can get a hot cooked supper all over North London.”
He sometimes contemplated, in his cups, more permanent escapades. It was one of his accomplishments to get so drunk that he remembered nothing of the night the next morning, yet appeared at the time perfectly sober, except to those who knew him really well.
A beautiful woman, the wife of a rapidly rising politician, told me that Henry had once proposed to her, during a carousal, to run away with him. “This kind of furtive intrigue is unworthy of us both,” he declared grandly. “We must regularise it.” Enraptured, almost unable to believe her delighted ears, the lady said: “Henry, are you serious?” “Never was more serious in my life.” He told her that, as a start, they must go to Paris together. He would get the tickets. She was to pack a little bag and meet him the next day in the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz, at 6.30pm. So off he went, and the next day, with no recollection whatever of the conversation, Henry went about his normal business. The lady packed her bag, left a farewell note to hubby on the mantelpiece, and was duly in the Rivoli Bar at 6.30. No Henry. Six forty-five, still no Henry. Seven, and quarter past, no Henry. She asked the barman. “Mr Fairlie, Madam? No, haven’t seen him for some time.” At 7.30, she realised with dread that he was not coming, and taxied home in panic, just in time to snatch the note and tear it up, as she heard her husband’s latch-key in the front door. What an escape!
Henry prospered for some time with the Daily Mail, that most generous of newspapers. Told to cover the Paris Summit in 1960, he was given by the cashier a thick wodge of newly printed notes known in the trade as a Goldbrick. That duly went into the top pocket, and Henry was unable to resist a tour of North London housewives. So he never got to Paris and the Mail sacked him. He then turned to America, and wrote some splendid pieces there in Washington, oscillating between New York and London. During a brief visit to home pastures, he took part in a then-popular evening chatshow, Three After Six, and rashly libelled a popular woman writer. She sued, the TV company coughed up, but Henry never troubled to answer any of the lawyers’ letters he received. Instead, he returned to America. When the case came to court, for approval of the settlement reached, Henry was nowhere to be found, and the judge became angry. He concluded his remarks: “As for the contumacious co-defendant, who I understand is in foreign parts, I must point out, that if he ever comes within the authority of this court, it will be at his peril.” These deadly words in due course reached Fairlie in America, and he took them very seriously indeed, never returning to England—even after the affair had been forgotten, and the judge died.
Inevitably, he fell on hard times in America too, and ended up sleeping on a couch in the office of the New Republic. This book is a glorious memorial, delighting his fastdwindling band of friends, and introducing him, I trust, to a new circle of younger readers. I wish one could be sure that, among them, there are two such clever writers as Frank and Henry, as funny as the first, and such a rich source of anecdotage as the second.
So different from the poetry by John Gross
The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 2: 1923-25 Faber, 912pp, £35
The long-delayed publication of the second volume of T. S. Eliot’s collected letters is at once a major event and a rather small one. Eliot was a central figure in the literary life of his time. The letters in the new volume, which covers the years from 1923 to 1925, were written when he was at the height of his powers (The Waste Land had been published in 1922), and they are interesting—how could they not be?—on many counts. But no one could say that they are a contribution to literature in their own right. They almost never stir one’s spirits or excite one’s imagination. Even as gossip their entertainment value is strictly limited.
Money worries and health problems (both his wife’s and Eliot’s own) are constant themes in the book. There is prolonged agonising about whether he should give up his job at the head office of Lloyds Bank, and an abundance of detail about the terms of his move to the newly established publishing house of Faber and Gwyer, soon to be Faber and Faber. But in terms of space it is his editorship of the quarterly review, the Criterion, which looms largest.
He had to find time for his labours for the Criterion after he had returned home from the bank. He wasn’t paid for them (though the journal itself received a subsidy from Lady Rothermere), and he was sorely overworked. But for all his groans he plainly felt the job was worthwhile. It enhanced his intellectual authority, and he tackled it with unremitting dedication.
The correspondence provides a close-up of his editorial principles and practices. We can watch him pursuing favourite themes, wooing eminent potential contributors (often unsuccessfully), disengaging himself from undesirable ones, practising an editor’s necessary insincerities.
There are unexpected twists and turns. He wrote to D. H. Lawrence, for example, saying how pleased he was to hear that Lawrence liked the Criterion, only to receive a poke in the eye by way of reply. No, it had bored the novelist “to turn the very pages” of the current issue; the whole thing was “too literary”, “old barn-hen stuff”. It is plain from comments they made on other occasions that he and Eliot were instinctively
68 Books hostile. But that did not stop them valuing one another as editor and contributor respectively: the Criterion published no fewer than five of Lawrence’s stories.
The magazine’s contributors, potential or actual, included authors as exceptional as Italo Svevo and Wyndham Lewis, Paul Valéry and Marianne Moore. Eliot’s dealings with them constitute what ought to be an absorbing chapter of literary history. But unfortunately most of the letters he addressed to them were stiff and formal. When he canvassed a contribution from Rebecca West, for instance, he admittedly hadn’t met her, but even so she must have been surprised to find him signing off: “I am, Madam, your obedient servant.” She might as well have been hearing from her solicitor.
It isn’t only when he is writing in the role of editor that the letters are notably buttoned-up. There are some nice dry touches—“Nobody likes being called a ‘highbrow’”, he tells a critic who has devoted a friendly essay to him—and even when he is being overprecise he at least has the virtues of precision: he expresses himself firmly and clearly. But what you hardly ever seem to get is the true voice of feeling.
One or two letters stand out in sharp contrast to the prevailing restraint. Writing to John Middleton Murry, Eliot pours out his heart, or his desperation: “In the last ten years—gradually but deliberately—I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel—but it has killed V.”—Vivienne, his wife. (He didn’t much respect Murry, but somehow found it easier to confide in him than in people he respected more.) And there is a scary letter to Lady Rothermere, warning her against a madwoman who has been persecuting Vivienne and is “burning” to injure Eliot himself “in every way possible”. (The facts seem to be more or less as Eliot described them, but you feel a more general sense of panic at work as well.)
It would take a bold person to pass confident judgment on the rights and wrongs of Eliot’s first marriage—and quite a few such bold people have shown up in the past 30odd years. There is no doubt a great deal that we shall never know. But on the evidence of the newly-published letters Eliot was caring and conscientious, preoccupied with trying to get help for Vivienne’s mental condition from doctors who didn’t fully understand it, and much of the time on the brink of a nervous breakdown himself.
Despite the glimpses of anguish, the man you encounter in these letters seems worlds away from the poetry. There is nothing new, of course, about the idea of a gulf between a writer and his work. When Henry James met Tennyson, he reported to a friend that “you must understand there is nothing personally Tennysonian about him”. Much the same point could be made about many other authors. But in Eliot the disparity seems particularly glaring. You wonder how such a gift came to be lodged in such a figure.
Meanwhile, the new volume is a book to consult rather than one to read. And since the editors quote generously from Eliot’s correspondents, many of the best things in it are not by Eliot himself. There are some particularly attractive letters from his elder brother Henry. The aged George Saintsbury gives a genial and witty account of his reactions to Ulysses. And in an exchange between Eliot and Bertrand Russell about conceptions of culture, the last word must go to Russell: “Your opinion is different from mine, but why shouldn’t it be? Neither is founded on reason.”
Vivienne Eliot: Her health was a constant preoccupation