In Search of Cyril Connolly's Generation

By Hills, C. A. R. | Contemporary Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

In Search of Cyril Connolly's Generation


Hills, C. A. R., Contemporary Review


THE historian, Sir Steven Runciman was, I think, the last survivor of Cyril Connolly's contemporaries in College at Eton, the schoolboys of Enemies of Promise. Possibly in some distant shire one still remains, but he would need to be almost of Queen Mother vintage. Lord Hailsham, now in his early nineties, overlapped for two years with Connolly at Eton. Connolly went on to become a critic whose work was a powerful force in the mid-twentieth century, and to publish the autobiographical book about the writer's life which made him famous.

About ten years ago, like many other people, I was contemplating writing a life of Connolly. I decided to contact old men who had known him in his youth, of whom a surprising number were still alive. Runciman himself was not helpful. I possess one civil but entirely uninformative letter from him. I was present at a lecture he gave at a branch of Waterstone's, where he irritated the audience by praising the 'dear old Ottomans', who had known how to deal with rebels by hanging them at the town gates. Later, he almost ran away from me at the London Library anniversary party. I am thus unable to shed much light on this reserved figure.

His lifelong friend Dadie Rylands, who was, I believe, a kinder man, did agree to see me. Even he was initially reluctant. Another biographer, Clive Fisher, had already approached him. Why had I used all his Christian and family names (George Humphrey Wolferstan) in my letter, plus all his honours, when from his nursery days everyone had known him simply as 'Dadie'? But he eventually chose an afternoon, a hot and stormy one, as it turned out, in the summer of 1992.

I arrived at Cambridge before lunch, excited, but also embarrassed to be disturbing a man of ninety. It would be fascinating to enter the King's College rooms where he had entertained Virginia Woolf, and which Carrington had decorated for him. But Jeremy Lewis's authorised biography had just been commissioned, and Clive Fisher's work was well advanced. I myself had a final interview for a full-time job the following day.

At the appointed time, I approached the sported oak. No answer. Secretaries, appearing as if from nowhere, were very doubtful. Doctor Rylands, although in splendid shape, was very deaf. And he went out often. Had I arrived on the right day? I said I would wait. An hour passed. I hung on outside the rooms with a terrible feeling of disappointment.

Suddenly a slim, almost bald old man was running up the stairs. Who on earth was I? Oh, of course, he had invited me to tea, but been asked out himself, and forgotten all about me. Frightfully sorry. I said it was nothing, and with great speed we were moving into the beautiful rooms and looking at his photograph album.

He showed me pictures of a startlingly beautiful youth, George Egerton, with whom he had been in love at Eton, and of himself on the arm of the Master of Magdalene, A. C. Benson, who had been in love with him at Cambridge. Looking at the tanned, wizened figure beside me, it was easy to imagine Dadie as the nineteen-stone Master had wistfully described him, 'in high spirits dancing, frolicking, gathering shells'.

We talked for two hours, as the storm gathered over the Backs and the punters wrestled manfully with the Cam. In his stentorian voice, he told me a lot about Connolly, unexceptionable stuff, most of which I already knew. I liked him very much, as had most of the thousands of people who had come into contact with him during his long life.

I had brought a number of books to help me with the interview, and at the end, as it was now raining heavily, he insisted on wrapping them up for me in Sainsbury's bags. But as I walked away towards the Lodge, I realised with horror that I had left behind my copy of Enemies of Promise. At the Lodge he was waiting for me. 'I ran', he said smiling. 'I thought there was just a chance of catching you'. The next day I had the interview and got the job. …

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