How Writers Behave and Misbehave

By Hensher, Philip | The Spectator, April 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

How Writers Behave and Misbehave


Hensher, Philip, The Spectator


THE NEW OXFORD BOOK OF LITERARY ANECDOTES edited by John Gross OUP, £16.99, pp. 400, ISBN 0192804685 .13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Oxford publishes, or has published, a number of anthologies of anecdotes relating to various professions. There is a very enjoyable one of military anecdotes, edited by Max Hastings, Elizabeth Longford's of royal anecdotes (competing in a crowded field), and Paul Johnson's of political anecdotes. Some professions more readily generate anecdotes than others. I could imagine an anthology of anecdotes about philosophers or doctors, but no one is going to buy The Oxford Book of Banking Anecdotes.

A lot of serious-minded people probably disapprove greatly of the idea of an anthology of literary anecdotes. After all, fulldress scholarly biographies of writers are, in some circles, not regarded as particularly worthy enterprises. The work's the thing, and not the second-best bed or the green carnation. How much more raffish, then, an account of literary history consisting of funny stories about authors. I don't expect this volume will be on the order list of very many university libraries.

The literary anecdote has a particular flavour, and its recurrent themes tell you a lot about how writers tend to behave and how they are generally perceived. For a start, a remarkable number of these stories are about a catastrophic loss of dignity. 'I shall never forget, ' Rosamond Lehmann writes, 'Mrs [Dylan] Thomas shoving a drunken elbow into her ice cream, then offering the elbow to T. S. Eliot and telling him to "lick it off".' Pretension is wonderfully skewered in Richard Kennedy's story of Clive Bell playing cricket -- 'he started to argue with the umpire in the most unsportsmanlike manner, making all sorts of allusions to Japanese literature'.

Authors, even the greatest, carry an uneven and self-sustained sense of their own worth inside them, which can easily slip into excessive dignity, and which, sadly, can easily be punctured by, say, Ezra Pound's awful father Homer turning up and saying proudly, 'You know, Mr Beerbohm, there ain't a darn thing that boy of mine don't know.' Like that of royalty, the dignity of authors tends to invite the banana skin, and it is difficult to know who is the main target of the story about the short-sighted E. M. Forster at a society wedding, bowing to the cake under the impression that it was Queen Mary.

Similarly, when the future Edward VII came to a dinner of literary men and was incredulous at being introduced to a man described as an authority on Lamb -- 'on we are laughing at.

The bad behaviour and thin skin of writers are legendary. Max Beerbohm was once mistaken outside a memorial service by a small girl for J. M. Barrie, and took the opportunity to write in her autograph book, 'Aye, lassie, it's a sad day the noo, J.M.B.' I don't think this would be as funny if it were about politicians. Lawyers are just as rapaciously opportunistic as writers, but this story, told by A. N.

Wilson, couldn't be an amusing story if told about lawyers:

At the great Requiem which was offered for Chesterton's soul in Westminster Cathedral, it was inevitably to Belloc that the newspaper cameras and reporters turned. In the course of the mass he managed to sell his exclusive obituary of Chesterton to no less than four different editors.

I suppose, to make heavy weather of all of this, the amusement comes from the sensitive analysers of the human heart -- and Belloc was Chesterton's best friend -- behaving in ways so conspicuously heartless. How awful to hear of Arnold Bennett cheerfully offering Somerset Maugham a share in his Parisian mistress:

'I thought it would be a good plan if you took the two nights a week she has vacant.' Charlotte Mew is a poet of agonised longing and sexual frustration; the tale of her chasing May Sinclair five times round a bed is wonderfully at odds with the self-pity of her work, and unspeakably funny. …

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