Title: Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947

Author: Charles Brasch

Publication details: Oxford University Press, 1980, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Alan Roddick

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947

Chapter Eleven — London — 32

page 225

Chapter Eleven

after three seasons I gave up archaeology. I found plausible reasons for giving up, but they were not my strongest reason. To start with, I had grown tired of the people at Amarna, and grew more critical when I saw them in London during the year and contrasted them with my friends. A few years before at Esmond's prompting I had read Fulke Greville's 'O wearisome condition of humanity', a poem whose powerful sombre music I did not forget. During my third season at Amarna he or Mary sent me for Christmas the newly published Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse, which opens with twelve poems by Greville. Devouring these, and finding that there was no modern edition of Greville, I set about reading him in the original editions, and thought I should like to edit his work. I was able to persuade myself sufficiently to persuade other people that this would be an adequate occupation, on which pretext I said goodbye to the Society and Pendlebury.

When I considered the matter, I could see no future for myself in field archaeology, especially since it was as much the field as the archaeology that engrossed me. An archaeologist, it seemed to me, must specialize, as a linguist, or an engineer, or a field worker; and perhaps only the first would have a continuing future of useful work. I had no wish, even supposing I had had the capacity, to become an Egyptologist, to give myself to it wholly and for life, which I should have to do. Too many other things drew me, poetry above all, to which every interest and all knowledge must contribute.

Grandfather and my father were worried by this sudden change. They thought they had seen me settled, and here I was already giving up what I had chosen. Was I going to be a drifter, page 226sticking at nothing? an idler? a dilettante? I could not explain adequately, because I had not the courage or conviction to avow my secret hopes, so slenderly based. I prepared to edit Greville, read a good deal about him, especially in the reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and learned before very long that I was wasting my time, because one of the editors of the Oxford Book, Geoffrey Bullough, had begun work on Greville before me, and was equipped as I should never be. I do not think I was sorry.

Lel had followed me to England in 1934, after three or four years at home. During her first time in England she had been a school-girl, either at boarding school or on holiday with relatives or friends. When she left school and returned to Dunedin with my father, she lived at home as his daughter. She was very fond of him, as he of her, but she was obliged to conform to his life rather than live her own. The arrangement seemed ideal to him, while she chafed.

When I was about to return to England three years earlier we had talked of living together in London, and had troubled the family by our airy unrealistic ideas. We would need no furniture, we said; cushions on the floor would serve every situation. So Lel's plan was not new. But it puzzled and hurt my father deeply that she should want to leave him. Evidently she did not talk of returning to Dunedin within a year or two, but expected to stay on in England. My father decided not to keep up Bankton, with Carty and Cissie, for himself alone. As soon as Lel left, he sold the house, and went to live at the Fernhill Club, furnishing a largish room there with things he wanted to keep.

Lel and I took a flat at 5 St Edmund's Terrace, a short quiet street running parallel to Albert Road on the western slope of Primrose Hill. A terrace of houses occupied the lower southern side of the street; opposite behind stout iron railings rose the smooth green banks of a reservoir, open sky above. Primrose Hill with its poplars and other trees being less than a hundred yards away, the street had an informal semi-rural air, which made it exceptionally pleasant, retired and private to live in. The houses, built about the turn of the century and already I think all turned into flats, made a formal row of yellowish stucco, page 227basements below street level, portico of four columns (or was it two columns and two pilasters?) projecting from the front door to the street, tall rooms on the ground floor and first floor, lower ones on the second floor, and lastly an attic, our flat, approached by a steep winding staircase: a small landing, two smallish rooms with sloping ceiling, a narrow kitchen and a bathroom. From both rooms, north and south, you could step out of the window onto the roof, from the northern room, Lel's bedroom, to look onto the trees round the green reservoir, while from the living-room, unbelievably, half London lay before you. The hillside fell away behind the terrace, which stood well above the houses facing Albert Road, and beyond them stretched the trees and open spaces of Regent's Park, the terraces and cages of the zoo to the left, and a fringe of towers, spires, domes, chimneys, chimney-pots and cranes in a dense semi-circle from the City to Westminster, and finally the North Downs far off on the southern borders of London. Plumb in the middle of the view as you sat in the bath, the dome of St Paul's floated on the green wave of the Park trees.

My life for two years at Primrose Hill seems to me now an elaborate dance leading me in and out of the lives of a moving throng of friends and relations; a dance whose figures from moment to moment absorbed me fully, concealing any larger pattern the whole dance might have had.

One by one my friends began what was to be or seemed to be their life's work. Some knew already what they wanted and in what society they must find a place; Colin and Jack as scholars, Reggie and others as civil servants, some as school-teachers, some as journalists, one here plainly a writer, one there a musician, a scientist, a doctor, a wife. Others had no strong bent, or society offered no scope for their talents, or the accidents of nationality and politics frustrated them. Yet all seemed to me more sure of how they must live, if only they could, than I was.

At St Edmund's Terrace there was a continual coming and going of friends and relations, to meals, to stay with us, always to talk; our flat came to seem an island of New Zealand far from home. I walked back and forth across Regent's Park constantly, at all times of day and night, to visit the de Beers, who after Uncle Isidore's death settled at 11 Sussex Place — they were page 228to be there for thirty years. I went to Hinde Street, to the Egypt Exploration Society. I went to St James's Square, to the London Library, of which Esmond made me a member. When Grandfather, my aunts and my father came to London in the spring of 1935 (my father stayed for six months, Grandfather for nearly eighteen months, and Emily longer still) I visited them frequently at their hotels, especially the Langham in Portland Place opposite the b.b.c., where Grandfather stayed all through his visit.

I went to the galleries and museums, to exhibitions, to the Russian ballet, to Indian dancing, to concerts, to plays, to restaurants and tea-rooms and cafes, almost invariably with friends or relations. It was an intensely social life. It might have seemed a carefree, happy one. But beneath it lay and over it hovered, remorselessly darkening, the inescapable anxieties and endless threats of those years; the aftermath of the slump — unemployment, begging in the streets, hunger marches; Mussolini for ever banging his insolent tin drum, and far more menacing, the rise of the Nazis, while England seemed paralyzed, powerless for good, acquiescent in evil.

Lel and I shared a good deal from day to day. She knew I wanted to write, but I did not speak to her of my hopes. She hardly read poetry, she did not have my interest in books, painting and music, but enjoyed opera, ballet and plays, chiefly I think as good entertainment. It was my friends who came to the flat — only Ida Lawson had been her friend first; she went out to meet friends of her own. Her main independent interest was in the Girl Guides. She had been a Guide at St Hilda's, in Dunedin, and continued an active one after leaving school. She went to meetings and camps in England and once at least to a big international gathering at Adelboden, all of which gave her enjoyment and satisfaction; she found something romantically appealing in the mystique of the movement, an appeal which perhaps all such big movements share, whatever their aims. I used to tease her about being a Guide, but lightly, recognizing that this was a genuine interest on her part, although I thought it rather a poor one.

She wanted to improve her French, so in October I took her to Bourges, where she had arranged to stay for three months with a French family. For some reason this was not a success. page 229While I was at Amarna for my last season she moved to Paris, then stayed at Lausanne for four weeks with Madame Spencer, who felt very worried about her health. But she seemed well enough when I got home in April 1935, and during the rest of the year while the family were in England. She enjoyed being with them; but with my father now she was under some strain, as I had always been. Neither Grandfather nor my aunts made any such demands on her or on me; with them she was perfectly at ease. So she was, I think, with my friends; especially with James, who stayed with us a good deal and got to know her best.

After taking a first in English at Oxford James went on to read Modern Languages in one year, and managed a good second in that. He had also won the university's annual Shakespeare Prize. His energy, enthusiasm and ideas had no limit: he had started an Independent Labour Party group in New College, encouraged by Middleton Murry. After seeing the Hunger March of the unemployed as it passed through Oxford from the north he had worked at a camp for the unemployed at Eynsham, where Nevill Coghill produced a miracle play. He talked with infectious warmth about A. S. Neill's school Summerhill, where an Auckland friend of his, Jackie Martin, was teaching. A little earlier, he and I had gone again and again to Covent Garden to see the Russian Ballet from Monte Carlo when it first came to London — the finest company of the time, heirs of Diaghilev and Nijinsky; we grew so familiar with the music, choreography, sets, dancers, that they were constantly in our minds and on our lips — Swan Lake, Tricome, Les Presages, Les Sylphides, La Boutique Fantasque and a dozen more, and a galaxy of dancers, above all that inimitable stylist Massine, robust and rapier-keen, and the unforgettable trio of youthful prima ballerinas, Riabouchinska, Toumanova, Baronova.

James called himself a Marxist at that time and spoke of giving people — anybody, friend or acquaintance — 'some straight Marxism'; yet he went regularly to the Presbyterian church, St Columba's, in Oxford. His knowledge of literature was wide, his feeling for it as keen as his judgement was acute, all this strengthened and greatly refined by his years at Oxford. But his page 230energy, his ability, his gift for mastering and marshalling ideas and assessing situations, together with his human sympathy and compassion and strong sense of justice, drew him towards politics. He thought of various possibilities, tried some, including a period of work on The Times, which filled him with distaste (and refused him a permanent job), and finally accepted a proposal to go to China to study conditions for a year, on a travelling fellowship sponsored by the Rhodes Trust. He left for Peking early in January 1936, travelling across Siberia.

Other friends of his and mine, coming to England soon after him, were to remain and become part of England: Jack Bennett, John Mulgan and Geoffrey Cox in particular. They were to find scope for their talents without being obliged to change their views, to join a large body of Englishmen in working for England and the world in opposition to the ruling current.

To his friends, as no doubt to himself, Jack was a scholar born, in tastes, temperament, even in physique. His interests were as wide as James's (who was my touchstone in so many things), but he had no more inclination than I to take part in public affairs. The mediaeval world caught him early, Chaucer and Langland at the centre of it; the present preoccupied him no less, what he wrote in Phoenix and elsewhere had shown the breadth of his response to and the fineness of his perceptions of those perennial human concerns which literature records and discriminates. He seemed unworldly, being self-forgetful and subject to accidents, to ill-health, to eye-strain. He had very little money to live on; he worked and worked during term, no one harder, and was then obliged to go to uncongenial relations in Leicester during vacations. He stayed with us once or twice when he had lost a railway ticket (to Leicester: did he lose tickets to other places?); he was so bad a sailor that the sea voyage between New Zealand and England nearly always made him seriously ill. A post-graduate scholarship had taken him from Auckland to Merton, a college which appreciated and was kind to him and, through him, took to itself later a succession of promising English scholars from New Zealand. After taking a first in English and failing to get a Commonwealth Fellowship, which would have meant going to the United States, he remained in Oxford and shared a flat with an American couple, Paul and page 231Mary Engle; I stayed with them more than once on my fairly frequent visits to Oxford.

Paul Engle was at Merton with Jack; before leaving the States he had made a name for himself with his first book of poems, American Song, fresh agreeable poems in a loose romantic style, far removed from the more compelling English poetry of the time. He and I were, I suppose, rather wary of each other at first and he spoke little, but ate a great deal after coming in from rowing, a tall angular young man with a very irregular face, not noticeably American until he spoke, but as if unfinished in a way that Americans and colonials often were. He published in the following year a long sequence of poems mostly in blank verse called Break the Heart's Anger, a series of impressionistic reflections on the state of the world seen from a dozen different places which he had visited in the States and Europe. Expansive work, just the opposite of mine. For all his American openness Paul seemed the kind of man who probably brooded a lot; his wife complemented him, gay and charming.

A year later, I stayed again with Jack, when he was sharing a house in Bainton Road with Ian Milner and John Mulgan, and preparing to marry one of his pupils. His hopes and prospects fluctuated. He wanted to return to New Zealand — at one time he hoped to succeed his former teacher Pip Ardern in a lectureship at Auckland; yet wanted to remain in Oxford too, if Oxford would have him. In the end, Oxford was to keep him and New Zealand so to lose a teacher of the finest sympathies. Jack would have been a different and possibly a less notable scholar in New Zealand, which could not have offered him the time, the resources, the stimulation of other excellent scholars that he found in Oxford. And Oxford would then have been the poorer, with so much less of new blood from outside to renew it. Meanwhile, he married. Three of our circle of friends gathered, following a registry office ceremony, for a Quaker service in the chapel of Somerville, Edith's college; Ian, Alison West-Watson from Christchurch, and John Bromley from New College, an English friend of James's and now of us all, an elegant eloquent historian of fine mind and the widest sympathies. Jack and Edith remained in Oxford until they set off to visit New Zealand the following year, 1938.

page 232

Ian, after getting his first in Modern Greats, was going home before making his way to Berkeley with a Commonwealth Fellowship. Because of threats of War in China he decided not to travel across Siberia; so he would miss James, but see his brother Hugh, now a journalist in Singapore. Our circle was breaking up. Since James left England the year before, he, Ian, Jack and I were not once to be together again for thirty-five years; but two of us have met often, even three, and if we seemed to drift apart at times we came together again as closely as ever. Ian like James was moving away from literature to public affairs. Both felt called to action, to work directly if they could to make a better world. For Jack I think as for me no such possibility existed; it was not in our natures. That I had to be chiefly a passive onlooker left me, much of the time, feeling helpless, guilty, stifled with frustration, fiddling while Rome burned. And I could not even fiddle well. Yet I thought somehow I should one day make a noise in the world, a noise of my own.

Ian had no such pretensions. Concern, duty, and strong interest in international affairs led him to work where he believed he could be most effective. While James's exuberance, ability, and large confidence might take him anywhere, Ian expected only to work usefully, quietly, without thinking of notice. His innate modesty, humbleness and goodness were transparent; one felt them even in a short talk with him. When he reached England in July 1934 we had not seen each other for more than two years.

He had become a firm Marxist and materialist who did not believe in God, chiefly from humanitarian reasons I thought, although he argued on philosophical grounds; this gave his nature and attitude some rational support, and also suggested the openness and adaptability of Marxism at that time. His nature was so firmly grounded, so defined by practice, that it did not change, only grew stronger and clearer with the years. He placed great faith in Marxism as a principle and guide, had the highest hopes of the development of Soviet Russia on Marxist lines; he believed Russia to be the one power whose foreign policy was capable of leading to a just World order. But he kept his individual judgement, the clear-sightedness of a man who meets other men on their own ground, respects and wants to trust them; he believed, in the end, in individual men and women, page 233not in states and systems. He tried always to come as close as possible to everyone he met, to put himself in your place, deferring to you and making no claims for himself, yet without in any way abdicating; he was individual and human like you — and you were no less individual and significant than he. So people trusted and loved him. In his humanity and idealism, his nobility and modesty, imaginative and practical together, he seemed to me the type of the large-hearted New Zealander, a character not of exaggerated heroic proportions, but of Homeric clarity of outline.

While Ian listened to you, John Mulgan seemed to give you more of himself, to be more outgoing. While you felt Ian's inwardness in the quiet reserve which was part of his strength, John's more expansive nature and open good humour concealed his inwardness, so that you met him on what was common but neutral ground. I knew him chiefly through our friends, and we were rarely if ever alone except in some chance brief meeting. He looked more completely the outdoor man than the rest of us, walked as if on fields or hills rather than streets, and dressed untidily, curly fair hair rumpled, half his shirt buttons usually undone. He was so clearly the young New Zealander that it was a surprise to me when, after taking a first in English at Merton at the same time as Jack, he chose to remain in England and work at the Clarendon Press. Especially since his interests, to judge from conversation, seemed to lie more in affairs than in books; which showed how slightly I knew him. He declared himself a little later however in editing at the height of the Spanish war an anthology called Poems of Freedom, which Auden introduced.

Geoffrey Cox was I think easier to know, a man whose interests and abilities turned wholly to public life. We continued to meet from time to time in Oxford and London. He looked streamlined for action, strongly and compactly built and quick in movement, a neat head with straight dark hair that lay down sleekly, firm strong mouth and keen eyes. From Oriel he went at once into journalism, and was working on the News Chronicle when he got married in the summer of 1935 — John Mulgan was his best man, James, Ian, Lel and I were all at the wedding; he had found his chosen life as though it was waiting for him, and if he knew the times were out of joint — for there was no doubt about his liberal sympathies — he was able to keep his footing and find ample scope for his energies.