A Life with Books Pt. 1 ‘From ‘Heidi’ to Heidegger’ ( Memoir)

There wasn’t  much for an English child to read in post-war Germany.

In the tiny ‘book corner’ of the Foreign Office school I attended, there were only a few precious copies of the ‘Rupert Bear’ annuals ; a scattering of comics ( all for boys);  and a  much-loved copy of ‘Heidi’, translated in to English ( for the girls).

In spite of the  paper shortage during the war, the British Government had allowed the ‘Rupert Bear’ annuals to continue to be published on ‘war economy’ paper, as a concession to British children. Perhaps it was hoped that Rupert would offer a semblance of normality, continuity and solace in these times  of upheaval and chaos.

How extraordinarily far-sighted and gentle was that decision.

I was devoted, like many other children, to the antics of this little bear and his’ pals’ : Bill Badger, Podgy Pig,Bingo the Brainy Pup,Freddie and Ferdy Fox -all living in this impossibly idyllic place called Nutwood.

To a lonely and troubled child, like myself, his world seemed surrealistically bonkers, almost exotic;  but there was something reassuring about Rupert himself : iconic and comforting, there he was, unknowingly, doing his bit for the ‘war effort’. The England he lived in was so  far-removed from the landscapes of war-torn Germany that we kids were living in. A world of bombsites, starving  people with bootlace-less shoes, ragged clothes, ravaged lives.

Allied-occupied Germany,  for the British people working there in 1945 – onwards – was a comfortable place to be. My father, like many others, worked for the Control Commission ( British Element) in the Transport division. This meant that he was physically absent from my life most of the time. He was travelling all over Germany: Bremen, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Essen. My mother and I trailed after him, like camp followers, living a life of comparative luxury. Beautiful houses – mansions- with vast marble staircases, grounds –   were seconded for us to live in.  We had troupes of servants to look after us: cooks, nannies, gardeners.  Malnourished, good people desperate for work. The flourishing black market provided whisky and de Reske cigarettes; and encouraged a louche ‘party’ atmosphere.  Left to the various Hildegards and Irmgards who looked after me, I’d look through the bannisters in my nightie, at the adults below, partying, flirting, drinking, wreathed in cigarette smoke.

Occasionally, I’d   beg my emotionally-absent  mother to read to me from a copy of Grimm’s  Fairytales, found in one of the houses, but was constantly rebuffed with the phrase: ‘Go away, and leave me alone’.

it’s the only phrase I can ever remember her saying to me.

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GERHARDIE cont.

The two ‘Michaels’ were strange bedfellows, anxious to ‘talent spot’ as many young ladies as they could. Ivens published one of my poems  ‘The Ophelia Syndrome’  in ‘Twentieth Century’; and then gave me several books by Ivy Compton-Burnett and Wallace Stevens to review. I dutifully ploughed through Ivy’s work ( excellent discipline), and then Michael decided to educate me further by introducing me to the work of Thornton Wilder ( I read everything by him), and the incomparable Max Beerbohm.

I’m indebted to Michael for broadening my reading.

Hence, my meeting with William Gerhardie. All part of Michael’s intellectual ‘grooming’ of me, and much appreciated.

GERHARDIE cont.

‘The furniture struck me as being Continental,  the lighting was dim,the curtains heavy,and in the last two decades of his life, kept permanently down’.

Post Scriptum:

I was introduced to Gerhardie by Michael Ivens, on of the editors of a magazine called ‘Twentieth Century’, which only lasted for a few issues. and was a strange hybrid – part literary ( think ‘The Listener’), part political samizdat, co-edited by another Michael – Wynn-Jones, who was to marry his no-nonsense girlfriend, the soon- to -be cookery writer, Delia Smith.  At this time, she was writing a daily recipe for the Evening Standard.

In fact, I remember eating one too many of her home-made profiteroles at a party round at MW-J’s flat in Elsworthy Street, NW3 on Wednesday, 17th September, 1969. It could well have been their engagement party.

Other guests at the party included : Dennis Hackett, Irma Kurtz,Gay Search and Rowan Ayres. A lot of the guests were part of the Nova  magazine team, where Wynn-Jones, now only twenty-eight, had been a sub-editor.

Nova was a trendy,ground-breaking women’s magazine of the time. Experimental, daring and outre. It tried to capture – or perhaps create – the zeitgeist  of the day. I kept my copies for decades, until they were thrown out.

A MEETING WITH WILLIAM GERHARDIE ( Author of ‘Futility’, ‘The Polyglots’, etc.) b.1895 ndsd. 1977

Literary fashions and reputations come and go with great speed, and often well-known writers – famous in their own time – disappear into obscurity.  One such writer was William Gerhardie an Anglo-Russian, and  friend of Cyril Connolly and Hugh Kingsmill.  This is a piece I wrote, shortly after meeting him him in 1969. I was introduced to him by Michael Ivens .

‘Just behind Broadcasting House, in Hallam Street, lived the ‘English Chekhov’ – William Gerhardie.

We visited William in the autumn of 1969 in his grand, cold and faded flat, crammed with books and manuscripts piled  from floor to ceiling . Over the mantlepiece in his reception room, was a large, gilt mirror, which had probably graced a ballroom in Imperial Russia.  William alluded to this fact, and began reminiscing about a beautiful, young dancer who had once lived with him.

Born in St. Petersburg to English parents,in 1895, Gerhardie had written several incredible novels in the 1920s. Evelyn Waugh had written with uncharacteristic praise: ‘I have talent, but he has genius’.

In his day, Gerhardie’s work had been massively popular, but he had ceased to write, and now his MSS resided in boxes all around him.  From 1940, he had published nothing, and was now a frail, elderly man.

Against the glowing velvet upholstery and threadbare carpet, William stood tall and erect. He had large, wild eyes, taking in everything. He talked animatedly to us both about other writers, and especially Cyril Connolly, whom he seemed to admire yet be irritated by him at the same time.

When Gerhardie shook my hand, on arrival, I took notice of his thin, angular body, bony hands, white hair and taut, almost transparent skin. Yet his mind was alert and youthful.  His friends, including Michael, and the writers Olivia Manning and Michael Holroyd were all doing their best to get his work re-published, possibly with Macmillan’s. In this they succeeded.before his death.

However, Gerhardie remained a recluse until then.

Another visitor to his home, Malcolm Muggeridge, recorded his meeting with Gerhardie in an article entitled ‘ The Genius Syndrome’ ( New York Review of Books – April 1982) as follows:

‘I remember thinking that it was more like a suite in a 2nd class hotel than a residence, though he was to live there, becoming ever more of a recluse, until his death in 1977.  The furniture struck me as bei

Our Man in Golders Green

Even now, when I see the red  No.82 Metroline bus to North Finchley from Victoria station, my heart lurches a little, and I want to jump on to it  once again, and take that magical 10 mile journey to Martin’s home.

I feel a Betjemanesque joy at the marvels to be seen en route : Lord’s Cricket Ground, the Francis Holland school; the tube stations – St.John’s Wood and Finchley Road. And then my destination : the Refectory pub in Golders Green, where white-suited Martin, is normally sitting outside ( weather-permitting), writing in his Moleskine notebook, and drinking a glass of white wine, while waiting for me to arrive.

Martin is always very punctual. I must’nt be late.

Here is a man straight out of ‘Greeneland’; reminiscent of the foreign correspondent, Fowler, in The Quiet American, or Charles Fortnum, in  The Honarary Consul.( In fact, when Martin told me that he never drank water, I recalled Fortnum making the same remark to Plarr, and I wondered if this was a delightful literary ‘in-joke’ on Martin’s part)!

But to label Martin as a Graham Greene-ish ‘anti-hero’ would be so wrong. So one dimensional. These are just playful ‘nuances’.because Martin is a warmer, kinder and more authentic man

He is also immensely attractive and charismatic; and I was utterly beguiled by him from our first meeting.

An enchantment had begun.

Celine pt.5

The meeting eventually took place in Meudon. Bob then wrote a piece about it, which was published in the legendary ‘Evergreen Review’, founded by the late Barnet Lee ‘Barney Fosset ( 1922-2012).

The article can be accessed from the ‘Evergreen Review’ archives – made available on their website in October 2013. I presume that the ;ER’ must have sole copyright of Bob’s work.

However, here are some tantalizing extracts:

C: I am almost 67 – in May I shall be 67…to do this torture.the hardest job in the world’.

Gallimard, his publisher, had just published his latest book, North.

BS: ‘There is a great deal of interest in you In America’

C: ‘What interest? Who is interested? People are interested in Marlene Dietrich and insurance – that’s all’.

N.B.  The US- based ‘Evergreen Review’ existed between 1957-73. In its time it published work by Camus,Ferlinghetti, Beckett, Edward Albee,Brecht, Borges, Bukowski, Nabokov, Burroughs et al,