Wednesday, 6 January 2021
Book 1 Reading 2021 - Tea with Walter de la Mare by Russell Brain
The first book I've read this year is a short one called Tea with Walter de la Mare by a man called Russell Brain. Russell Brain was a neurologist, best known, if Wikipedia is to be believed, for a volume called Brain's Diseases of the Nervous System, and for something called "Brain's reflex", which is, apparently, "exhibited by humans when assuming the quadrupedian position". I have looked up an explanation of what this is, but remain none the wiser, as the explanation centres around "a hemiplegic flexed arm", which is quite beyond me.
As to Walter de la Mare, he may not be well-known now but he was once a fairly famous writer. His work seemed omnipresent in my childhood. I don't think I was enormously fond of it, but, although it might have struck me as a little dull, it didn't repel me, and I've found that with increasing age almost anything that was part of my childhood now contains an allure it might not have had at the time.
De la Mare and Brain became friends after Russell Brain, intrigued by a phrase - "the little nowhere of the mind" - that Walter de la Mare used in something he wrote about the poet Rupert Brooke, sent a letter in 1942 to de la Mare and asked where the phrase was from. De la Mare generously answered, sending a copy of a book as a loan. The two then corresponded for some years, until, in 1951, they at last met, after de la Mare invited Brain to tea.
I think it is possible to see right there the essence of what makes this book so delightful, for it speaks of a quiet and gentle world that has almost entirely vanished now. Would anyone write letters to someone for almost a decade these days and then finally decide to develop the relationship further, choosing to do so by means of a series of afternoon teas (do afternoon teas even happen these days, except the chaotic kind involving mothers and young children and sometimes called play dates by some people?)
Anyway, after that first invitation until de la Mare's death in 1956, Brain went fairly regularly de la Mare's house, and they talked and talked. The book is made up of the notes Brain made after each of these occasions. Whether Brain told de la Mare that he was making notes of their conversations, or that he intended to create a book from them - if that was his initial intention - I don't know. I should find it quite uncomfortable to think that anyone was writing down the idiocies that constitute my conversation.
All the same, I'm glad Brain did write down what he and de la Mare said to each other. It seems to me that it is a record not only of their meetings, nor simply of an individual called Walter de la Mare and his conversation. In the subject matter that Walter de la Mare repeatedly came back to - his preoccupation with childhood, dreams, memory, the occult and death, his fascination with what constitutes reality and what role perception plays in that, together with his attempt to understand the connection of mind and body and his hugely enquiring attitude towards everything - I think the reader has a glimpse of the furniture of a Victorian mind.
The writers that most interest de la Mare are also often very much those who were prominent in his lifetime but have faded from public view, (as, to an extent, has de la Mare himself now) - Beddoes, Bridges and Tyrell get a lot of air time, as does Swinburne, who remains better known than the first three, (to the extent that I believe I don't need to provide a link to identify him to readers), but is still no longer someone whose work many people think about a great deal. Like everything, literature has its fashions.
Possibly the remark of de la Mare's relating to literature that most interested me was this one about Thomas Hardy (who he knew and of whom he has quite a lot of interest to say):
"The opening chapter of The Return of the Native is one of the best pieces of prose written in the last century"
As the list above suggests the tea talk, as Brain calls it, ranged far and wide. In the course of their various afternoon meetings, De la Mare tells many good stories. I like this one about Oscar Wilde, for instance:
“We spoke of Oscar Wilde, in connection with whose centenary it was proposed to put a plaque on his Chelsea house. W. J. (Brain's abbreviation for Walter de la Mare) asked if there was any record of anyone’s being as severely punished as Wilde had been. Even the ordinary criminal is never punished twice for the same offence. He said that Henry Newbolt once found Wilde in a drawing-room surrounded by a crowd of female admirers. They were asking him which he thought were the best passages in Shakespeare’s plays, and Wilde quoted these at length. Newbolt didn’t recognise them, and on looking them up afterwards found that Wilde had invented them on the spot.”
I'm also fond of the absurdity of this one about de la Mare's mother:
“W. J. related how, when the Duke of Cambridge died, his house was opened to the public, and W. J.’s mother, intending to go round it, entered by mistake a neighbouring house, the door of which she found open. She went round this until she came to the drawing-room, where she met a young man who pointed out her mistake. Quite unabashed she said: ‘What beautiful things you have here”
This one about an infamous employee at the London Library also amused me:
"He asked whether I knew Cox, who used to be chief assistant at the London Library. I said he was apt to be rude, and W. J. said: ‘Yes: if you went in and asked for Oliver Twist, he, in a loud voice: “You are enquiring whether we have Oliver Twist in the library”, so that everyone could hear, in an attempt to make you look foolish.’ I said that after the library was bombed Cox was found at work next morning amid the chaos. Someone condoled with him, and he replied: ‘Yes, this is not at all what we have been accustomed to.’ W. J. thought that that was probably quite a serious remark.”
I can't go on quoting all de la Mare's little anecdotes, but, if you liked these, there are plenty more in the book, including a quite funny account of doing jury duty and of telling lies as a child - or rather getting carried away with a fantasy and being caught out. There are also some interesting things from Brain himself, including an intriguing description of how bees communicate and something that if true is rather interesting in the midst of today's endless arguments about sex and gender:
“I told him about recent physiological work which had shown that it is possible to decide by microscopical examination of any cell in the body whether it comes from a male or a female, so that sex must be evident in every cell.”
De la Mare wrote a good many ghost stories and clearly had an interest in the supernatural - and also, not entirely unrelatedly, was intrigued by the question of what constitutes a personality, and what living things such as trees have, if they don't have personalities, which is an intriguing if ultimately probably fruitless line of thought.
My favourite comment of de la Mare's on the supernatural comes when he and Brain are looking at a picture and de la Mare observes: “I could almost haunt that picture. How odd to discover that a picture was haunted by oneself.” The remark reminded me of a story by Susan Hill and I wondered whether she had come across de la Mare's comment or whether it was a case of pure coincidence, another phenomenon that interested de la Mare. If she did find the idea in this book, I wonder why she didn't also take up another story idea that de la Mare mentions to Brain:
“What a good story one could make about a witness who volunteered to give evidence on demoniacal possession to the Commission and who, it gradually became apparent, was the Devil himself!”
In the context of horror and ghost stories, I rather like de la Mare's contention that the most terrifying thing imaginable is when something that isn't real gets vitality. It made me remember an incident in my childhood that I had forgotten, which entirely bears out his thesis.
As Brain reports it, de la Mare was full of original insights, always looking with curiosity at what we can easily take for granted, and from his questioning attention conversation unfurls. For instance, having been given a budgerigar, unlike most people who just think, "It's a budgie", de la Mare observes it closely and thinks about what he sees, telling Brain:
‘He has a very Gladstonian look. He never seems to look at you with more than one eye —his blackberry sphere of an eye", then going on to wonder, "Does he suppress what he sees with the other? You never look at a person between the eyes, or if you do he notices it at once. Isn’t it remarkable that you can always tell to a minute degree what another person is doing with his eyes!"
Among the many, many striking things de la Mare says, I particularly liked his assessment that, in creating the Alice books, Lewis Carroll did something absolutely original that had never been done before; this is true, and yet I had never quite grasped it, much as I love those books. Perhaps Willans and Searle did something not altogether dissimilar in their Molesworth books. His assessment of Harold Nicolson also struck me as absolutely accurate, and I found something he pointed out about the language of the Book of Common Prayer revelatory.
There are many more instances of de la Mare's insights in the book but what he does most of the time is ask questions - at one point he apologises for asking too many but he doesn't really need to as they are generally such puzzling and unusual questions that they open up whole new vistas in the mind. I suppose they provide in abundance what is often called "food for thought:
"If you had to prove I was insane, what single question would you ask me?" he wonders.
"If, when you died and reached Heaven's gate, you were asked what do you really know, what would your answer be?" he demands.
"How do you visualise yourself? Do you ever picture your own back? What scientific discovery would change your whole outlook on life? Do you ever try to stop thinking - it's like trying to dam a kind of torrid stream, Have you ever known a human being who seemed entirely different from anyone else? What would Man Friday's biography of Robinson Crusoe be like? How much of what we do is automatic, do you think? How much of your past life would you not find boring if you had to live it again? If you were asked to prove you were sane how would you do it?
The question of de la Mare's that made me laugh out loud comes in response to Brain quoting to him something said by JBS Haldane:
"I quoted J. B. S. Haldane’s remark that the wings of an angel, as they are traditionally depicted, would not be strong enough to raise his body. To which W. J. replied: ‘How does he know what the weight of an angel’s body is?’
The question that will haunt me with its strangeness is what de la Mare said to Brain at the time of their poignant final meeting. As Brain tells it, De la Mare, aware that he was very near death, asked Brain to visit; the two men sat - or perhaps de la Mare was lying, in bed - alone in de la Mare’s room:
“He greeted me with a smile and a joke about his lack of party manners. We spoke a little, and I took his hand. Then, after a pause he said: ‘All these onlookers! There are so many of them. I wonder, where do they come from?’ He died a few hours later, in the night following the longest day.”
All these onlookers! I too wonder where they came from. A lovely book, ending with the most intriguing question I have ever come across. I highly recommend it. You can find a roughly scanned copy, without the page numbers or anything scrubbed out of it, but a copy nonetheless, here.