Books: Wit and Wisdom in This Life and Times; Survival Tactics. by Peter Vansittart (Peter Owen, Pounds 17.95). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Article excerpt

In its vast scope, Peter Vansittart's In Memory of England was one of the best books of 1998 for this reviewer, combining both wit and erudition with a wonderful sense of the sheer vitality history can possess in the right hands.

Readers who admire Vansittart's writings (and the number must grow annually) are likely to show an uncommon amount of joy at these engaging memoirs, where Vansittart charts the pathways which took him from childhood to literary London.

He provides a panorama of dissertation, debate and, above all, an overview which in its level-headedness represents a vade mecum for anyone seeking to engage upon that strangest of all professions - that of the writer.

Like many of us, Vansittart's early reading began with the Baroness Orczy of Scarlet Pimpernel fame, then he went on to John Buchan, Charles Dickens and A E W Mason, whose novel Konigsmark inspired Rex Whistler to make a set of ravishing illustrations in the 1950s which were sold simply as The Konigsmark Drawings.

But the strands of this fascinating life are wonderfully interwoven and tragedy and comedy are seamlessly linked.

At prep school, he notes that coconut oil was rubbed painfully into the boys' heads, for some reason, "A ritual someone interpreted as the authorities' design to make us as docile as trees".

Another incident shows the horror of an encouraged callousness - "the British spirit" - common in the 1930s at non-state schools.

"The school had gone down to a local swimming bath. One boy, a licensed clown and teacher's favourite, dived from an aching height in a graceful curve, but did not reappear.

"Some of us could see him far below, writhing in a hazed dance. The master bawled at him to 'stop showing off'. The other boys joined in the chorus. But the boy had caught his thumb in an underwater grating, 'and drowned under a network of jubilant eyes'."

Schoolfriends pass on into Time's maw. Vansittart keeps the address of a friend but fails to use it. In later years, he thinks he sees the friend while buying a carpet in Damaskas in the Pushkin Gallery in Moscow, or Virginia, in a passing car.

But he is deceived and you think what a great novel lies there for someone if it has not been written already.

In his 20s, Vansittart confesses that published writers for him resembled distant planets: unattainable and remote.

In those far away days, writers featured much more in public, people rushed to bookshops to buy their works on the day of publication, perhaps Huxley's latest essays or J B Priestley's new novel.

Television had scarcely arrived and had not become an open sewer running through the living room as it is today. It did not dull the mind because it was not there and simplistic pap was catered for by the B-movies or comics. Vansittart's writers were "the Great Impossibles" who were "like the demi-gods in de Chirico's novel Hebdomeros going to the sea in order not to get wet".

They were quirky and totally unique and, in the case of George Bernard Shaw, "personified freedom". Actually, Vansittart's loyalty to GBS wavered in later years when he began to suspect that the old socialist might be devoid of feelings, like some politicians and his own creation, Professor Higgins in Pygmalion, for whom Eliza Doolittle is merely an experiment. …