Magazine article The Spectator

Alan Pryce-Jones 1908-2000

Magazine article The Spectator

Alan Pryce-Jones 1908-2000

Article excerpt

Alan Pryce-Jones died in the United States on 2 January, aged 92. He made a distinguished and enlivening contribution to English letters and his friends will long remember his many gifts and his humour and the mercurial delight of his company.

It goes without saying that any native of the British Isles whose speech is not punctuated with 'er' and 'sort of must be of Celtic and probably Welsh descent, and the fluent clarity of Alan Pryce-Jones's utterances, people assumed, could only be a direct heirloom from the Druids. Yet this wasn't quite right. Alan's father, whose whole life had been devoted to the Coldstream Guards - the Welsh Guards had not yet been formed when he was gazetted - was famous for his long silences, so any eloquence springing from the sickles and the mistletoe must somehow have lost its way among the muffling bearskins.

The origins of his gift must be sought elsewhere; in Northumberland, perhaps, among the Grand Whiggery, for his mother's grandfather, the great Lord Grey of the Reform Bill, won several prizes as an undergraduate `for composition and declaration', and his maiden speech in the Commons, challenging a measure put forward by William Pitt, was delivered, so his listeners said, with an eclat surpassing anything in human memory.

There was more than a touch of this in Alan's everyday life - reduced in scope of course - and his autobiography catches the note exactly: the flair for words, the humour and the charm; one can almost see the alert eye as one reads, the bird-like lift of the nose, the amused and amusing smile.

He declared that he must have been an intolerable child. He was certainly a precocious one, full of views picked up from accompanying his worldly grandmother on visits. He was 12 at the time of the Versailles conference and the cession of the Austrian Burgenland to Italy. `I remember,' he wrote, `walking around the lake, explaining to Sir Rennell Rodd, our ambassador in Rome, exactly what he must do about the Alto Adige.' He read everything within reach, enjoyed turning the poems of Christina Rossetti into Greek iambics at Eton, and loved playing the piano - as he did, delightfully, all his life - even when accompanied on the violin by Henry Yorke just off the note.

Oxford saw the beginning of the Comus rout that uncoiled through most of his life. Maurice Bowra came on stage and John Betjeman and the whole Valhalla of the gifted youth of the Twenties. It was a time of feasting and running up debts and into scrapes, and after two terms, within a few hours of being gated, he was caught in tails climbing back into Magdalen at daybreak and sent down.

Arrival at his parents' house in a friend's Rolls touched off an explosion, and afterwards, pacing the streets and wondering what next, he ran into another friend. After listening, the friend said `J. C. Squire, who is editor of the London Mercury, wants an assistant. He's having his hair cut at this moment at the National Liberty Club.' Alan was beside his barber's chair in a flash and work began on Monday.

It was 1928, Alan was 20, and he settled into the delights of grown-up London with all the zest of Saki's Clovis, his alter-ego predecessor.

Literary journalism was immediately congenial. The town was full of entertaining friends and indulgent relations. Battlemenu and pediments and Firbankian lawns beckoned from the country. There were bohemia and Bloomsbury and the Sitwells and a host of eccentrics, and travel, and low life; there was his wild cousin Agatha Runcible - Elizabeth Ponsonby - and the Bright Young People. …

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