Vincent Brome

Old-fashioned 'journeyman of letters'

Five foot seven and so light of frame any women could easily lift him off his feet, Vincent Brome was an autodidact of infectious energy. He wrote 37 novels, historical studies and biographies, all in the North Library of the British Museum, which served as his study for most of his life and where, when asked, he would say he was educated.

Vincent Brome, writer: born London 14 July 1910; died London 16 October 2004.

Five foot seven and so light of frame any women could easily lift him off his feet, Vincent Brome was an autodidact of infectious energy. He wrote 37 novels, historical studies and biographies, all in the North Library of the British Museum, which served as his study for most of his life and where, when asked, he would say he was educated.

As a member of the British Library's Advisory Committee from 1975 to 1982 he vigorously supported moving its great collection of books to King's Cross against the wishes of many irate readers, and knowing that the move would end his life's routine; he would soon not be strong enough to walk the extra quarter-mile to the new library from his Great Ormond Street flat.

"Book or thesis?" he would ask as you waited in line for your books under the lofty old dome. If your response was as genial as his question he invited you to lunch, which he took in a nearby canteen, the last being in Senate House. At five to one he would circle the Reading Room to gather his flock. Non-readers regularly joined what came to be called Vincent's table - scientists, psychiatrists, lawyers, art dealers, journalists, critics, even the odd businessman.

The food was unimportant; it was conversation that fuelled the afternoon's work. Brome was the catalyst in these noisy debates, his only rule the inadmissibility of anecdotal evidence; on this point he was fierce. If you passed the test, you could count on two hours of lively discussion any day you turned up. He was modest about his own work and enthusiastic about everyone else's. And he was generous with introductions to the literary and art gatherings he frequented in the evenings, and with invitations to dinner at the Savile Club.

Born in south London in 1910, Brome had been a nervous child, his only remembered success at Streatham Grammar School the publication in its magazine of two instalments of a serial called "The Sign of the Golden Cross". When the third was disallowed because it was said to be too good for a boy to have written he determined to prove his teacher wrong.

But his father, a solicitor in the legal department of an American can company, did not want a writer for a son and sent him to work in the City at a tea broker's in Mincing Lane when he failed to earn a scholarship to university. The high office stools and invoices only stiffened his resolve and at 18, with enough money in his pocket to survive for one month, he exchanged home and work for a sleazy room in Bernard Street by Russell Square, where he began what he called "the great experiment". He remembered the acceptance of his first story and the £10 that accompanied it as the ultimate ecstasy.

Harry Leggett, who edited Twenty Story Magazine, knew talent when he saw it. He offered Brome 50 guineas to write another story and became his mentor, introducing him to the semi-Bohemian life he would continue to live, and to the British Library.

Before Brome turned 20 it was clear to him that he would starve writing only the intellectual novels he felt himself capable of, so he wrote articles by day and fiction by night. At one point he was editor of Menu Magazines, at another assistant editor of Medical World, and for a while during the Second World War worked in the features department of the Ministry of Information.

Over the years he contributed to most of London's leading newspapers and journals, wrote plays for the BBC (in 1962 The Sleepless One was produced in Edinburgh), and broadcast his opinions whenever he was asked. His torrent of talk was so persuasive and polished it could have been published verbatim.

His novels always began with the spark of an idea he wanted to explore in fiction. In the early years their themes reflected his attachment to the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, where he made many lifelong friends. Michael Young was among them, and Brome worked briefly for him in the party's research department after Labour's 1945 victory. In later years Brome's novels became more psychological, but he never lost his early concern for the displaced or stopped fictionalising what he found socially problematic.

He was better known for his biographies. The first three also grew from his socialist roots: Clement Attlee (1947), H.G. Wells (1951) - the young Brome's hero along with Shaw - and Aneurin Bevan (1953). Freud and His Early Circle (1967) began a series concerning psychoanalysis and analytical psychology: Jung: man and myth (1978), Havelock Ellis: philosopher of sex (1981), and Ernest Jones: Freud's alter ego (1982). He then circled back to literary men with J.B. Priestley (1988) and Samuel Pepys ( The Other Pepys, 1992).

In his heyday he wrote a book almost every year, slowing down only close to the end of the century. It was a gruelling pace but he was happy for the work. In his Confessions of a Writer (1970) he called himself "a journeyman of letters". He knew he was a dying breed, an old-fashioned man of letters in a world where biography and literary criticism was being taken over by academics. Sometimes he thought he would like to have been one himself; how lucky his students would have been.

He never married, although he once bought a wedding ring. He called himself "a serial monogamist" and shared his life with many talented women. In the evening he was always ready to walk out with a friend to a party, the theatre, the Savile, his favourite fish restaurant, or just to Russell Square. Whenever you visited him after he became confined to his flat at the age of 94, the same wonderfully excited voice still summoned you through the speaker beside his bell to "come up, come up" for a long talk. In his last days he was cared for by his friend and literary executor, Sarah Jardine-Willoughby.

Judith Adamson



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