by Theodore Dalrymple (October 2012)
It is likely – and here I speak from personal experience – that most journalists, who know full well that what they write will be forgotten even before the reader has finished reading it, harbour the hope of some kind or measure of immortality, in other words that at least something of what they have written will continue to be read after their deaths. And so it is not at all comforting for them to have to remember that by no means all good books survive, except in the sense of mouldering on remote shelves in the ever-fewer second-hand bookshops of the world; mere merit is no guarantee of other forms of survival.
There is a small compensating pleasure, however, in this melancholy thought: that all around us are books that are worthy to be read but that nobody does read; and that once we have found such a book, we can hug to ourselves the knowledge that we have been clever and perceptive enough to have found it. We are then in an exclusive club of one.
Recently I had the pleasure of finding and reading Essays at Large by Solomon Eagle. I would be surprised if you had heard of Solomon Eagle, even under his real name, J C Squire, though he was famous enough in his time. The book was published in November 1922 and reprinted a month later (I possess this recondite knowledge because the verso of the dedication page tells me so). Nobody who likes the English language could fail to enjoy it.
The book consists of thirty-nine short essays that are literary but also rooted in everyday life, making precisely the kind of connection between life and literature that I think it is one of the purposes of literary criticism to make. The essays continually bring to mind – at least to my mind – experiences not dissimilar from those of the author himself, who is often so funny that I am afraid I laughed out loud in the quiet coach of the train in which I happened to be reading his book. As the public announcement at the beginning of the journey had asked passengers to be wary of suspicious behaviour and to report it, my outbursts of mirth – we are in the middle of the worst economic crisis in eighty years, for God’s sake, even those of us in the quiet coach – caused people to eye me oddly. I wanted to read them passages of Solomon Eagle to prove to my fellow passengers that, really, I was quite normal, and they would have laughed too if they had been reading Solomon Eagle, but I decided in the end that discretion was probably better than full disclosure, and no one reported me.
Let me take as an example Eagle’s, or Squires’, reflections on Rail-roadiana, that is to say an auction catalogue he had received from an American auction house which contained a collection of items having to do with the history of rail, including books but also ephemera such as time-tables. At first Squires appears rather sniffy at this, but gradually leads the reader to see that actually it is a worthy and useful goal to preserve these things.
As it happens, I had just flown from Amsterdam to London when I read this essay. On the plane next to me was an Englishman man to whom I smiled when he sat down, but who did not return my friendliness. I think I soon found out why. Around his neck were some binoculars, and I assumed he was a birdwatcher (I assume there are birds in the Netherlands but I don’t remember seeing any, at least not outside a factory farm). But I was wrong. From out his pocket he took a moleskin notebook and opened it. I quickly saw what he had been doing a why he needed binoculars: he had been collecting the registration numbers of airliners, and of course Schipol Airport is a rather good place to do that. It is just that it doesn’t seem worth doing.
I was in the window seat and he peered across me trying to get yet more numbers as we taxied out. He managed to note a few more numbers before we were airborne.
When we arrived at Heathrow (presumably another aircraft number-collector’s paradise) I noticed that, on the way to baggage collection he picked up all the little leaflets on offer: concerning, I think, everything from the precautions taken by customs to prevent the importation of the Colorado beetle into Britain to cheap British Airways holiday breaks in mid-November. I have little doubt, judging by the kind of man that he was, that he would preserve these leaflets in pristine condition to the day he died (he was much younger than I).
Needless to say, I felt infinitely superior to this man, I really looked down on him: that is, until I read Solomon Eagle. He says (and he has a wonderful prose style):
I doubt if a man who is willing to take really long views and can trust his children to obey the terms of his will, could do better [from the point of handing down valuables to his descendants] than to lay down in dry, warm bins, not to be disturbed for two centuries, a complete file of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide.
For, as he has said earlier in the essay, ‘The more ordinary and common the literature was in its own time the more likely it is, as a rule, to be scarce; yet it is from this kind of thing that we are likeliest to get a peep into the minds of our ancestors or a notion of their day-to-day lives.’
I began to feel – too late – less contempt for the man who had sat next to me on the plane, less pride in my own superiority; for the whirligig of time certainly does bring in its revenges.
Another of Eagle’s essays on this theme is the one about literary relics. He writes hilariously of Henry Festing Jones’ collection of the relics of Samuel Butler, the nineteenth century rationalist writer, which he gave for display to St John’s College, Cambridge (Butler’s college). Jones, who was also Butler’s companion, wrote a biography of Butler that makes Boswell’s Life of Johnson seem like a mere preliminary sketch. The collection includes the menu of a dinner given to Henry Festing Jones on completion of his Memoir [of Butler]. ‘Here,’ says Eagle, ‘we are distinctly coming down to details.’ He then lists a few of the items on display: a sandwich case, a pocket magnifying glass, an address book, two pen trays, a bag for pennies, two small Dutch dolls, a matchbox that his brother gave him. I cannot forbear from quoting to demonstrate Eagle’s humour, wisdom and humanity – as well as literary skill in providing an extremely powerful last line:
It [the collection] is pretty thorough. I missed Butler’s pyjamas, which are totally unrepresented; and no collection of the kind can be deemed quite complete without some sample nail-clippings, some boots, a piece of toast incised by the hero’s teeth, and some few [collar] studs. There is not even a lock of Butler’s hair here. Nevertheless, as I said, it is as varied a collection of its kind as exists. And it is strange that these relics should have been brought together, placed in a Cambridge college, and dedicated to the memory of one who spent his whole life attempting to reason people out of what he considered their absurd sentimentality. On Butler’s own principles his relics should have been buried with him. But disciples will be disciples, and his disciples were wiser than he.
There could hardy be a more devastating criticism of a man’s work than this, and all done with good humour and without insult.
Squire was a brilliant parodist. In an essay on The New Style of Memoir, Squire protested against what was then a new phenomenon, that of relaying tittle-tattle about living persons in books. He was a gentleman; he thought that the abuse confidences and the reporting of private conversations were shameful, and this was so even if they were interesting.
But he was not therefore in favour of eternal blandness; he would not have wanted malicious gossip never to have found its way into print, and certainly did not believe in the rather fatuous injunction, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. If this were adhered to, he wrote, biographies would go something like this:
So Henry VIII died, as he had lived, in the odour of sanctity, beloved by his wife (Catherine of Aragon) who was his first and only romance, and revered by his people. His spare features and sympathetic deep-sunken eyes, so vividly preserved for us on the canvases of Holbein, attest the unworldly character of the man and the austerity of his life.
Napoleon, Emperor of the French, a man distinguished for the sacredness which he attached to human life and the implicit trust which he put in human nature, died at St. Helena in 1821. He had abdicated in 1815 owing to failing health, and chose that sunny island on the advice of his doctors, finding a great solace during his last years in the congenial conversation of an Englishman, Sir Hudson Lowe, who exiled himself in order to be near his invalid friend.
His essay, then, is an implicit plea for decent respect for the exigencies of civilised social intercourse while maintaining realism about life as it is actually lived: and the balance requires judgment and the exercise of virtuous restraint.
His essay on Christmas card poetry is hilarious:
It is amazing that every publisher of Christmas cards should have ‘on tap’ a bard so skilful that he can turn out hundreds of these poems without ever introducing a touch of individuality or novelty. For somebody must write them, even if it is only the chairman of the manufacturing company or the compositor who does the type-setting. Who are these mysterious people? Are they scattered amateurs everywhere? Or is it here that we find the explanation of how our professional and justly celebrated poets earn their living? Or is this one of those industries which are the hereditary monopoly of a few families like flint-knapping, violin-making and gold-beating?
Then Squire thinks of another solution to the problem he has set himself:
Our enlightened capitalists are always said to be exploring new methods of eliminating waste. May it not be that it long ago occurred to one of them that a sufficient accumulation of Christmas verses was now in existence, that there was no difference between old ones and new ones, that nobody could ever remember if he had seen one of them before, and that it was criminally extravagant to go on employing labour in the fabrication of new goods before the old were worn out? Surely if these truths were not grasped by keen business minds in the old days of fat and plenty [before the First World War] they must have occurred to somebody during the war when every ounce of effort had to be put into war-work, and he was who mis-employed labour was helping the Germans. If not, are we to understand that the composers of Christmas verses, after five years’ inactivity, have actually been set to work again at their own trade – or (awful thought) that some of those extraordinary tribunals [that decided who need not go into the armed forces] exempted them as indispensable?
There is in this a love of absurdity, which is almost a sufficient condition for a love of life, and also for a civilised outlook. My copy of Essays at Large has a small ink inscription, To Gwen from Mary Eccles, written in a hand, that I think is contemporary with the book, that does not suggest intellectuality, which in turn suggests a generally literate culture (for only a literate person would think of offering such a book as a gift, and only to another literate person). In the book I found a bookmark, with a little picture of a pixie-like figure in a jester’ costume, holding in his elfin hand a glass of champagne, beneath which are the words LONG LIVE FRIENDSHIP. Above it are the words From Mary to Gwen.
And long live J C Squire, a man who had in may ways a rather tragic life. He was, by the way, the first poet of the Great War to publish anti-war poems, though he believed in the justice of the Allied cause.
Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.
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