When I returned to London, in 1910, it was with a little more assurance than I had felt a few years earlier. Then I had been intensely conscious of my youth, my lack of experience, my incapacity for anything but a kind of literary beachcombing, gathering fragments for obscure publishers — The Proverbs of Japan, The Proverbs of China, The Potted Policy of Parnell. Through a chance meeting with Lionel Lindsay in Sydney I had been admitted to an attic near the British Museum that had once sheltered him and had still one of his abandoned self-portraits on the wall. The landlady, Mrs. Sweeting, an applecheeked countrywoman from Devonshire, had been ready to mother me as she had mothered her adored Lionel until (she said disconsolately) a rough, loud-voiced man (whom I guessed to be Randolph Bedford) had carried him off to Spain.
Those days held little for me but memories of dreary hack-work carried on far into the night, the sound of rejected manuscripts dropping in through the downstairs door, and the depressing smell of cocoa boiled on a tiny petrol-stove; though there had been brighter moments when I had climbed the gallery-stairs of some theatre or sat listening to Yeats or Shaw in a little hall off the Strand. Still, while I was away from it, my fixed image of London was of a solitary attic and the naptha-flares of fruit-barrows reflected in the slush of Theobald’s Road.
It looked a more cheerful place in the summer of 1910. This was perhaps due to the greater confidence I had gained through contact with various kinds of people and various modes of living, on the Maranoa as well as in Siberia and East Asia. I had as little money in reserve as on my first venture, but I was buoyed up by a feeling that writing was not the only work open to me. There were other jobs at which one could pick up both a living and a little broadening experience; there were boats leaving for New York and the Argentine that might want a deck-hand; and, as a last resort, there was the track home. I was no longer infected by the romantic notion that writing was in itself a glamorous pursuit, irrespective of what was written.
But in the first week of my return I had the luck to meet the one close friend of those early days, a solicitor’s clerk named Cox, a young fellow a little older than myself who had often dragged me out of my attic for a Queen’s Hall concert, a lecture, or a show of pictures. Though we had corresponded for a year or two we had lost touch, and this meeting was a chance encounter, but before long we had found a fifth-floor flat and were living together. Cox was a rare being, with the mixed nature of his Dickensian father and his French mother — a bright, temperamental woman who had come of a family of painters and had once been a singer. Cox himself lived in a perpetual simmer of excitement about all the arts. He had a wide knowledge of old prints and in our nightly walks could spot one of value in a dark shop-window; he seldom missed an orchestral concert of note; he was a keen critic of the plastic arts and could spend a happy afternoon brooding on the work of a single painter. Conversation at his mother’s table, with which he had begun to grow exasperated, mainly consisted in fine-spun arguments about some question of art.
Through his sister, who was secretary to Frank Harris, I heard most of the gossip of the current literary world, and sometimes gained entry to one of those inner rooms of the Ritz in which Harris lectured on the women of Shakespeare or the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. It was piquant to see this amazing little adventurer, with his mahogany face, his bang of dark hair, and his white tie edged with lilac, bowing over the hands of duchesses at the door and then, pacing about a raised dais, whipping himself up into a frenzy of passion against the courtly patronage to which the greatest genius of the race had been subjected. Harris at the time was exploiting his genuine knowledge of Shakespeare with the assistance of Austin Harrison of the English Review. He was also engaged in various under-cover rackets: buying small, dying journals, building them up, and then using them for his own ends, sometimes as instruments of blackmail.
Just then he was probably the most-discussed man in London, apart from Shaw, and few people were able to make up their minds about him. In the early ‘nineties he had suddenly appeared from nowhere, married a very rich wife, set up an establishment in Park Lane, and astonished everyone by the brilliance of his parties, which were likely to include such disparate people as Oscar Wilde, minor royalties, and his latest literary discovery. But he made his greatest sensation by breaking from this fashionable world at a time when he stood a good chance of being elected Conservative member for Hackney, and by purchasing The Saturday Review. Immediately there was revolution in the office of that staid old weekly. Bernard Shaw was installed as dramatic critic, and the former staff, including men like Saintsbury, was turned out to make room for such iconoclasts as Cunninghame Graham, Max Beerbohm, H. G. Wells, and D. S. McColl, who introduced Cezanne and Manet to an audience devoted to Frith. Harris still remained something of a social lion, though when he boasted of having been a welcome guest in every great house in London, Oscar Wilde retorted drily: ‘Once, Frank just once’.
People have often wondered how Harris, with his scandalous record as liar, swindler, profligate and libeller, could yet hold the loyalty, even the affection, of such men as Shaw, Yeats, Bennett, and Max Beerbohm. The answer lay in his generous impulses which were quite as marked as his vices. He protested violently against public injustice; he gave money away freely to those who asked for it; he made unusual gestures, such as carrying off Ben Tillett, the wharfies’ leader, every year for a recuperative holiday at his villa in the Riviera. Personally there was an attraction in the mysterious vitality of the man and the tones and undertones of his great voice; an attraction, too, in his democratic easiness. I was astonished once, when I had sent him a short story, to get a friendly, informal note saying he didn’t quite like the end of it and asking me to come in and talk it over. All he was concerned about, I found, was the particular poison I had used for a character’s suicide!
‘Why lysol?’ he greeted me. ‘Lysol! Good God, man, you don’t need to be as brutal as that, do you? Why not well, laudanum?’
And with this particular point settled he was ready to bring out the decanter and hold forth on a number of things his own short stories, his early experiences as a sand-hog working on the foundations of Brooklyn Bridge, his first invasion of London when he had bearded the proprietors of The Fortnightly Review and asked them peremptorily for the editorship. It was a monologue that went on for a couple of hours. Leaning forward over the table, jumping up to pace about the carpeted floor, he talked as if he could not stem the flow of that compelling voice of his which, as someone said, sounded as if he had been granted an extra organ; and he passed easily from witty description to obscene rhetoric directed against the British aristocracy. Harris was small, gipsy-dark, deep-chested, and formidable. His own conception of himself seemed to be, now that of a powerful bandit, now a genius like Shakespeare, now a Man of Sorrows.
‘Christ goes deeper than I do’, he is reported to have said once, ‘but I have had a wider experience’.
But it is easier to poke fun at the incongruities of Harris than to suggest the force of his personality. He had the daemonic drive of his own Montes in ‘Montes the Matador’, a story about which Meredith said: ‘Never before has there been such an actual bull-ring for me’. There was a touch of Hitler in him, perhaps, but he had more vanity than pride, and even his blackguardism was mitigated by his human warmth. It is an undoubted fact that when he took charge of the Fortnightly Review, and later The Saturday Review, he liberated new forces in English literary life.
That was fifteen years or so before, though, and A. R. Orage, of the New Age, was the editor towards whom most of the younger writers turned hopefully now. Orage had some of Harris’s qualities, but none of his vices. A witty conversationalist, a lover of company, he was entirely without social ambition, being content to live on a pittance so long as his weekly journal could keep its head above the current. His first little book on Nietzsche had been a dazzling success and he was besieged by publishers with proposals for other books, but he turned them down emphatically. All his time and thought must be reserved for this weekly, which he aimed at making a model of its kind.
The New Age had its office in a narrow street off Chancery Lane, and after climbing the ricketty stairs you found a door that could hardly be opened without bumping into Orage’s chair. There he sat every Monday bending over his proofs, with S. G. Hobson writing editorial notes at his elbow, Katherine Mansfield, her hair over her eyes, revising the sketches that afterwards became In a German Pension, and the ascetic Alfred Randall hovering round as a liaison with the printer. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, with the paper put to bed, they adjourned to a cafe nearby where the outside contributors would gather.
My lucky entry into this group was due to a short sketch, ‘Rough Faring’, and for a long while my life moved around the central point of these Monday gatherings. Orage usually dominated the talk, presiding at the head of the table, as G. K. Chesterton said afterwards, ‘as publicly as Dr. Johnson in a coffee house’. But he had no tendency toward monologue: his warm, brown eyes moved from one to another of the group and kept conversation flowing. At his elbow sat Beatrice Hastings, an extremely handsome and brilliant woman whom Katherine Mansfield came afterwards to regard as her dark angel. They went away for week-ends together, these two, and cooked up squibs usually directed against some current reputation, occasionally a reputation that other members of the group regarded with respect. Just then, for instance, Ashley Dukes, the journal’s dramatic critic, had written with enthusiasm about Masefield’s drama, Nan. To his disgust he found Nan tom to shreds in the next issue of the paper and Masefield’s lyricism about ‘my white vlower’ held up as an attempt to plaster a cheap melodrama with the borrowed ornament of Synge. It was the end of Ashley Dukes’ association with the New Age.
But there were never gaps around the table for long. The portly figure of T. E. Hulme, the philosopher, was usually in its place; Ezra Pound came regularly, a shy, modest young man, speaking little except in side-comments to his neighbours; Wyndham Lewis slipped in unobtrusively with a drawing under his arm. Other casual attendants were Herbert Read, Bechofer Roberts, Paul Selver, and Richard Curle, the biographer of Conrad. The talk was sometimes political, but usually concerned with literature.
Though these gatherings were stimulating, what helped me most in my work was private contact with Orage. His eyes as he read over a piece of writing were alive, responsive, and austere. He could be warm in his praise, but his criticism went directly to the point.
‘You’re not getting the most out of your unique experiences’, he said, soon after our first meeting. ‘Tum them over and over so that they don’t need to be signed because they come so unmistakably out of your own vision of life and are stamped with your particular truth. I could tell a sketch by Cunninghame Graham or Hudson at a glance, but I couldn’t be sure of one of yours’.
What he meant by my ‘unique’ experiences was little glimpses I had given him of life in places that were strange to him. Yet the piquancy of external detail alone would not secure his interest. Once I sent him a sketch of a happening in a Siberian post-train.
‘Place your little incident in a milieu more familiar to you’, he told me in rejecting it, ‘and you will see how you are relying on mere strangeness of setting rather than on human feeling’.
He had a belief that the truth about life could only be revealed by people who had the capacity and the will to look about them with an individual eye. Anything else was merely putting down words upon paper. At the time, I was ready to lean over backwards to escape the formulas by which I made my living. Behind me were literally hundreds of stories that had been contrived mechanically to bring out an obvious drama and a spurious gusto: it was a relief to find a place in which one could throw overboard all such devices for catching the attention of people who read as they ran, and try to distil the essence of experience.
But the reaction, I can see now, was not wholly good. It could lead to a suspicion of dramatic movement itself, as it led Conrad to tum his back on the exciting possibilities he had opened the way for in the last pages of Nostromo. And the sketch-form, as practised in the New Age and other English journals, tempted one to a false attitude toward personal experience, an unreal detachment, a lack of identity with the people one encountered, or participation in the events one described. Facetiousness would be accepted as irony, a sophisticated stance as a mature view of things. There is little in my writing of the time I can re-read with pleasure.
Apart altogether from writing, though, Orage’s friendship was inspiriting. He was gay, courageous, masculine. (‘Never mind: it’s a man’s paper’, he said when I was being diffident about a romantic serial of mine that was running through a Sunday journal.) He had no regard for reputation, his own or anyone else’s. Although Arnold Bennett, as ‘Jacob Tonson’, had for years written a lively causerie for the journal, Orage could close down on him without compunction because he thought his values were becoming cheap. Why, when life was so rich in its areas of freedom, should a writer want to enter the prison of a social class, to play cards with company-promoters in clubs, or spend his days among rich drapers at Twickenham?
Even Orage’s impishness was attractive, the impishness that had let him allow Beatrice Hastings to run riot in the correspondence-columns of the New Age, and sometimes in critical articles. It was the lurking boy in him coming to the surface. I can remember A. J. Penty, the authority on the Mediaeval Gild System who had once roomed with Orage, whispering earnestly when some project of the Fabian Arts Group was being discussed:
‘We must k-k-keep Orage out of it. He’ll b-b-break it up at the very beginning’.
Many people have speculated on why Orage, this outstanding editor and exceptional man, should, in 1921, have given himself up to the Gurdieff experiment at Fontainebleau, submitting to all its disciplines and letting Gurdieff himself impose on him humiliating tasks. It was partly, no doubt, the emotional effect of war, but it also had its raison d’etre in his immense curiosity about life, and his belief that something about it could be learned from esoteric experience. He had none of the usual forms of pride. He could sit down to a bowl of bean-soup after a day’s navvying without feeling he was submitting to an indignity.
What Orage meant to younger writers can be seen from Katherine Mansfield’s letter to him when she was nearing her end.
‘You taught me to write, you taught me to think’, she wrote. ‘You showed me what there was to be done, and what not to do. My dear Orage, I cannot tell you how often I call to mind your conversation or how often in writing I remember my master. . . . I haven’t said a bit of what I wanted to say. This letter sounds as if it was written by a screw-driver, and I wanted it to sound like an admiring, respectful but warm piping beneath your windows. I’d like to send my love, too, if I wasn’t so frightened’.
I think most of his friends and disciples felt like that. My own last contact with him came in 1932, when I was living on Green Island, North Queensland. Orage had been for a long while in America; he had come back to London to revive the New Age, though in a different form as the New English Weekly.
‘This should sound to you’, he wrote, ‘like the call to a new incarnation. Many old New Age spirits, in fact, will have their being again in the new paper, and I hope your spirit in the flesh will be among them. Stay me with sketches, comfort me with articles. Writers arc not so many or so spirited as they were before the war: at least I haven’t found ’em yet. So keep an eye on us and lend a pen when you see the boat careening (or whatever a boat shouldn’t do )’.
Orage himself, however, was the boat that careened. He died soon after reviving the paper and when I went back to London on a visit, in 1935, my first social summons was to a dinner, chaired by Herbert Read, that a few of his old contributors had arranged in his memory.
Vance Palmer (1885 – 1959) was an Australian novelist, dramatist, essayist and critic.