War & Spottiswoode

You’re in The Anthony Powell Society Newsletter, I said to Amy. They’ve quoted the bit where I compared you with Jean Templar: the Googling Lampreys post.

Amy was having one of her obtuse days and I had to remind her about this blog, which to my great regret she does not follow regularly, and then give her an outline of the plot of A Dance to the Music of Time, or at least those features salient to the post in question. This took some time. Doctorates have been earned for less. She listened with politeness rather than interest and then went to the crux of the matter.

Who told Anthony Powell about me?

Anthony Powell died, I said, some years ago, but his Society lives on. It is in rude health. The Earl of Gowrie often contributes to its deliberations.

Grey Gowrie! shouted Amy, familiarly I thought. The man who wrote about Carel Weight!

I had recently lent Amy a work by Carel Weight to hang in Great Secret Miss. It is one of his Sussex walk paintings. It is late summer and a middle-aged couple struggle down a country lane. Nothing but their rather chippy decency preserves them from being submerged by the foliage. She had liked the picture so much that she removed it to her private quarters, whether in London or Kettering I do not know her well enough to ask. Furthermore she liked it so much that she read whatever she could find about the artist and inevitably came across Grey Gowrie’s article in Modern Painters all those years ago.

Gowrie is a man of many parts, I said. Carel Weight is not all that he writes about.

Nevertheless, I reflected, if His Lordship is remembered in a hundred years’ time, that perceptive and unfashionable article is undoubtedly what he will be remembered for.

Amy returned to the point.

Who told Anthony Powell Society then?

According to the Newsletter the post was spotted by Robin Bynoe.

Robin Bynoe should mind his business, she said. Maybe I bar him from Great Secret Miss.

That would be only fair, I said. He sits here nursing a single cup of green tea, absorbing gossip like a great sponge and never contributing any of his own.

Secretly, however, unlike Amy, I was pleased to see the blog quoted in so Augustan a publication as The Anthony Powell Society Newsletter and I have kept a copy with me to show people.

(To be fair to Amy, it is her pubic hair, not mine, which in the post is made the subject of an anecdote in questionable taste, and that may have contributed to her irritation. Probably the topic is best dropped.)

Curiously I have been thinking about Powell recently. I bought and read a first edition of his book about John Aubrey. I read it in paperback years ago and made little headway. It still seems to me that he might have taken a step back to examine his subject in the round. The focus is relentless and half his text is quoted directly from Aubrey and other Seventeenth Century writers, so that it is not always easy to follow what is going on. Maybe it is no accident that The Anthony Powell Society Newsletter digresses from Dance to the stand-alone novels, the Memoirs and the Journals, and indeed to many other fascinating things of merely tangential relevance to Powell, but rarely ventures into the world of John Aubrey. In Dance, Powell’s alter ego Nick Jenkins writes a book about Robert Burton at a stage of their lives when Powell himself wrote his Aubrey book and you can’t help thinking that Jenkins’ book might have been better.

Sadly, Powell records no dealings between Aubrey and his contemporary Abraham Cowley. The name of Great Secret Miss was taken from one of Cowley’s poems and Amy and I are both great fans of his.

The first edition of Powell’s Aubrey book was published in 1948 when the wartime austerity measures adopted in the publishing industry were still in force. It says so. Nevertheless it is an immensely elegant book, with its minimal dust cover, its stitched pages and its traditional type-setting. Wartime austerity measures or not, when books are printed like this these days they are self-consciously marketed as craft products.

The publisher was Eyre & Spottiswoode. From my earliest years I have been accustomed to thinking of Eyre & Spottiswoode as one of the great publishing houses, and I had sort of assumed without really considering the matter that it still was. However it appears to have been absorbed like so many other imprints into one of the publishing megaliths and I don’t believe that Eyre & Spottiswoode books are to be found any more – at any rate new ones.

This is quite sad, but it is particularly a shame for a personal reason. A joke is about to disappear over the event horizon and I had better record it before it is too late.

I was brought up in a village in the Surrey hills. In the 1920s, two things happened there.

The first was that they raised some money to build a village hall to commemorate the men of the village who had died in the recently ended World War. They raised some money but not enough.

The second was that someone called Spottiswoode died, leaving a sum of money to build a village hall to commemorate himself, or, as it may have been, herself. It too was insufficient.

The village elders, practical farmers then rather than investment bankers and superannuated pop stars as it would be now, did the sensible thing and combined the two funds to build a single viable village hall. It was called The War & Spottiswoode Memorial Hall. This caused decades of wholesome amusement to my father, and, when I first became familiar with the publisher’s imprint (on if I recall rightly a library copy of Titus Groan), to me too.

Of course the echo of the publisher is not the only reason why calling a building The War & Spottiswoode Memorial Hall is funny, but I think that it’s necessary to make the thing memorable.

It is still called The War & Spottiswoode Memorial Hall. The investment bankers and superannuated pop stars tend not to pick up literary references anyway. If you refer in conversation even to such a famous, modern and middle-brow figure as J K Rowling they will look puzzled and then politely correct you. No, ‘J P Morgan’, they will say. But even among the cultured the name of the hall will raise a wry smile only among those of a certain age. And that seems sad to me. Wry smiles are not to be sneezed at, in these terrible times.

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4 thoughts on “War & Spottiswoode

    • alablague says:

      One always hopes that one has written with respect and decency but I see what you mean.

      I have often thought about the relationship, or lack of it, between Anthony Powell and Carel Weight, since they are both great heroes of mine. They were both about the same age and both important members of the English arts establishment. Weight was Professor of Painting at the Royal College for many years and came within a vote (or possibly two) of becoming President of the Royal Academy.

      I asked Carel once if he knew Powell personally and he gave the vague look that meant either he had no idea what I was talking about or this was one of his enemies and the less said the better. Or he may simply not have heard: he was well into his eighties at the time.

      There is one connection, apart from Lord Gowrie, who bought a painting and wrote a rather good article about it. Both men were close friends of Adrian Daintry, and Carel’s description of his last years (‘rather sordid really, but great company’) echo Powell’s in the Journals.

      Daintry was not a painter of the first rank. But then, was Barnby?

  1. No apologia needed! I was but winding you up, especially about the opening. 🙂

  2. alablague says:

    i guessed at once!

    But tell me, how good a painter was Barnby?

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