They called him the Baron because he called himself Baron Stock. Caroline was not aware from what aristocracy he derived his title: nor had anyone inquired; she was sure it was not self-imposed as some sug gested. He came originally from the Belgian Congo, had travelled in the Near East, loitered in Europe, and finally settled in England, a naturalised British subject. That was fifteen years ago, and he was now near ing fifty. Caroline had always felt that the Baron had native African blood, without being able to locate its traces in any one fea ture. She had been in Africa and had a sense of these things. It was a matter of casual curiosity to her; but she had noticed, some years ago, when Africa’s racial problems were being discussed in company with the Baron, he had denounced the blacks with ferocious bitterness, out of all proportion to the occasion. This confirmed Caroline’s judgement; there was, too, an expression of pathos, which at times appeared on the Baron’s face, which she had seen in others of concealed mixed colour; and there was something about the whites of his eyes; what it was she did not know. And alto gether, having observed these things, she did not much care.
The Baron had set up a bookshop in Charing Cross Road, one of those which keep themselves exclusively intellectual. ‘Intelect-u-al,’ the Baron pronounced it. He would say, ‘Of course there are no intellec-tu-als in England.’
It had been the delight of Caroline and Laurence to recall the day when they looked in on the Baron at Charing Cross Road, to find him being accosted by a tiny woman with the request:
‘D’you have any railway books for children?’ The Baron reared high and thin on the central expanse of grey carpet and regarded her silently for half a second.
‘Railway books for children,’ she repeated.
‘Books with pictures of trains and railways.’ The Baron said: ‘Railway books for children, Madam? I do not think so, Madam. His arm indicated the shelves. ‘We have Histor-ay, Biograph-ay, Theolog-y, The osoph-ay, Psycholog-ay, Religio-n, Poetr-ay, but railway books for children…Try Foyles across the road, Madam.’
THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE
Merle switched on the television and found a play far advanced. They watched the fragment of the play as they drank their coffee. Then they went into the bedroom and took off their clothes in a steady rhythm. Merle took off her cardigan and Mr Druce took off his coat. Merle went to the wardrobe and brought out a green quilted silk dress ing-gown. Mr Druce went to the wardrobe and found his blue dressing-gown with white spots. Merle took off her blouse and Mr Druce his waistcoat. Merle put the dressing-gown over her shoulders and, concealed by it, took off the rest of her clothes, with modest gestures. Mr Druce slid his braces and emerged from his trousers. These he folded carefully and, padding across the room to the window, laid them on a chair. He made another trip bearing his waistcoat and jacket which he placed over the back of the chair.
They stayed in bed for an hour, in the course of which Merle screamed twice because Mr Druce had once pinched her and once bit her. ‘I’m covered with marks as it is,’ she said.
Mr Druce rose first and put on his dress ing-gown. He went to wash and returned very soon, putting a wet irritable hand round the bedroom door. Merle said, ‘Oh, isn’t there a towel? and taking a towel from a drawer, placed it in his hand.
When he returned she was dressed. She went into the scullery and put on the
kettle while he put on his trousers and went home to his wife.
Percy Mannering, almost eighty, stood with his lean stoop as the coffin was borne up the aisle. Godfrey stared hard at the poet’s red-veined hatchet cheekbones and thin nose. He thought, ‘I bet he’s regretting the termination of his income. They’ve all bled poor Lisa white…’ The poet was, in fact, in a state of excitement. Lisa’s death had filled him with a thrilling awe, for though he knew the axiom that death was everyone’s lot, he could never realize the particular case; each new death gave him something fresh to feel. It came to him as the service began, that within a few minutes Lisa’s coffin would start sliding down into the furnace, and he saw as in a fiery vision her flame-tinted hair aglow as always, competing with the angry tresses of the fire below. He grinned like an elated wolf and shed tears of human grief as if he were half-beast, half-man, instead of half-poet, half-man. Godfrey watched him and thought, ‘He must be senile. He has probably lost his faculties.’
‘New potatoes in the shops,’ Ronald said. ‘They’re always in the shops,’ said Martin, ‘these days. In season and out of season. It’s the same with everything: you can get new potatoes and new carrots all the year round now, and peas and spinach any time, and tomatoes in the spring even.’
‘At a price,’ said Ronald.
‘At a price,’ Martin said. ‘What bacon do you get?’
‘I make do with streaky. I grudge breakfasts,’ said Ronald.
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE
These girls [the Brodie set] were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water, and the word ‘menarche’; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie the Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Brontë and of Miss Brodie herself. They were aware of the existence of Einstein and the arguments of those who considered the Bible to be untrue. They knew the rudiments of astrology but not the date of the Battle of Flodden or the capital of Finland. All of the Brodie set, save one, counted on its fingers, as had Miss Brodie, with accurate results more or less.
THE GIRLS OF SLENDER MEANS
Inspired by a brain-wave, Jane’s first approach to a writer had been, ‘What is your raison d’être?’ It had worked marvellously. She had tried it on Nicholas Farringdon when he had called to the office about his manuscript one day when George was ‘at a meeting’, which was to say, hiding in the back office. ‘What is your raison d’être, Mr Farringdon?’
He frowned at her in an abstract sort of way, as if she were a speaking machine that had gone wrong.
‘THE DESECRATION OF ART’
We all know that there is a lot inferior literature about as there are inferior and boring examples of any other art. It is easy to say bad things must go. The critics, in every field of art, are never done denouncing what they feel to be bad art. They rightly prune and cultivate, they attempt to practise good husbandry. And as we become more articulate, itinerant, knowledgeable, we are more and more agreed on what is bad. And everyone knows we have to give up what is bad – it is a banal moral precept. What is wrong, what is bad, must go.
But I suggest now that we have to give up some of the good manifestations of art. Good things, when they begin no longer to apply, also must go. They must go before they turn bad on us. There is no more beautiful action than the sacrifice of good things at the intelligent season and by intelligent methods.
A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON
‘Books don’t wriggle. Authors do,’ was one of Colin Shoe’s remarks. ‘They take everything personally,’ Colin Shoe would say. ‘There isn’t an author who doesn’t take their books personally.’ I felt this was obviously a virtue on the author’s part; but, at the same time, these airily expressed prejudices gave us of the firm a coterie sensation which, amoral as it was, I shouldn’t have liked but rather did.
‘I hope you’re not argumentative,’ he said. ‘An argumentative woman is like water coming through the roof; it says so in the Holy Scriptures, either Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, I forget which.’
LOITERING WITH INTENT
I have never known an artist who at some time in his life has not come into conflict with pure evil, realized as it may have been under the form of disease, injustice, fear, oppression or any other ill element that can afflict living creatures. The reverse doesn’t hold: that is to say, it isn’t only the artist who suffers, or who perceives evil, But I think it true that no artist has lived who has not experienced and then recognized something at first too incredibly evil to seem real, then so undoubtedly real as to be undoubtedly true.
Proust’s Madeleine fetish is well known. He dipped a small cake in a cup of tea; he put it to his lips; and the past came flooding back. He experienced the same effect when he tripped over the cobblestone in a courtyard…
My Madeleine is an empty notebook. A friend who accompanied me at one time into a stationer’s shop remarked: ‘You examine a notebook like a housewife in the market examining a fish.’ As soon as I see one (and I acquire many and many), I desire to fill it. Whenever I am stuck for a new subject or something to write I go to my stock of note books and select a new one.
THE ONLY PROBLEM
HARVEY was a rich man; he was in his mid-thirties. He had started writing a monograph about the Book of Job and the problem it deals with. For he could not face that a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world; that God did permit all suffering and was therefore by logic of his omnipotence, the actual author of it, he was at a loss how to square with the existence of God, given the premise that God is good.
‘It is the only problem,’ Harvey had always said. Now, Harvey believed in God, and this was what tormented him. ‘It’s the only problem, in fact, worth discussing.’
In the field of literature with which I am mainly concerned I would like to see more, far more, writing about Scotland in general and Scottish domestic life in particular. I see no point in a dialect that the average intelligent reader in Essex or Worcestershire cannot understand. I see no point in offer ing Scots dialects (which in any case are not regionally constant) to the intelligent read ers in the United States or Australia. The object of art is to diffuse pleasure, which includes the appreciation of tragedy as well as comedy. (In the case of a work written naturally in Gaelic or a specifically Scottish tongue that is different: it should be offered for translation abroad.)
Magnus was the only imaginative factor that had ever occurred in the Murchies’ family, but unfortunately he was mad, and had to spend his days in the Jeffrey King hospital, a mental clinic in Perthshire from where he was fetched, early on most Sunday mornings, to spend the day at Blackie House. Magnus was beyond cure, but modern medicine had done a great deal to mitigate his condition. He had a mad look. He was large and ate voraciously. There had been a time when he was too violent to have at home, but thanks to the pills they gave him he was violent no more. He had always had periods of comparative lucidity, hours and hours of clarity, even days of it. Then, at any moment, he might go off on his ravings.
Many families have at least one fairly mad member, whether in or out of an institution. But the families do not normally consult the mad people even if they have lucid periods; the families do not go to them for advice. The Murchies were different.
THE FINISHING SCHOOL
‘YOU begin,’ he said, ‘by setting the scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake. It’s too misty. You can’t see the other side of the lake.’ Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you must just write, when you set your scene, “the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.” Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like to-day, you can write, “The other side of the lake was just visible.” But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, “the other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.” That will come later.’