The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Where are the great scribes of yesteryear?

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The Independent Online
WHO SPEAKS for literature these days? I ask, but answer comes there none. None of your blow-dried Braggery, sir]]] No: I mean those genuine heavyweight men of letters who, resting comfortably on a shelf-full of achievement, were given to bring out their pipes, raise an inquiring eyebrow and pronounce in an occasional yet dignified voice in support of the craft within which they had earned their spurs.

Putting their best feet forward, these gents with real bottom could turn their minds to any topic under the sun, dipping their toes in the cool, clear waters of commonsense, while the British public, which has a nose for these things, proved itself all ears to harken to what issued from their lips.

When first I came to London, I was determined, as every young penpusher worth his salt should be, to scythe a path for myself through the murky undergrowth of letters. In those far-off days, there was a doughty bunch of heavyweights on hand to offer sage advice to the stripling scrivener. Well do I remember my first encounter with T S Eliot. Sitting at the great man's feet in the smoky confines of a Bloomsbury cocktail party, I plucked up the courage to tell him how much I had enjoyed his major poem, 'The Waistband'. To this day, I will never be able to fathom his response, for he turned hard on his heels and exited into the night. But the point still holds: here was a great Homme du Lettres who was prepared, if not to speak to a young scribbler, at least to offer him the time of day; or not, as the case may be.

Then there was C P Snow, not everyone's cup of tea perhaps, but, with his shrewd understanding of both arts and science, a fellow who undoubtedly knew the difference between a firkin and an isobar, if any. Cecil was a singular man of letters, to be sure, forever ready with words of wisdom - and a pork pie or two] - for the fledgling author. Some of his advice on the craft of writing I fancy I shall never forget. He once revealed to me that he wrote his entire Strangers and Brothers series wearing shorts: 'That way, any inky spillages go straight on to your knees, where they can be wiped off with a bare minimum of effort.' From that day to this, I have always worn shorts while writing: indeed, I am composing this very column in a brand new pair of Lincoln green Tyrolean hunting shorts with embroidered smock attachment, originally, I fancy, designed for the fairer sex, but since adapted to my own specifications, allowing extra leverage around the stomach, plus pockets for nibs, rubbers, compasses, biscuits, etc.

And, of course, there was J B Priestley. The centenary of Priestley's birth has served to remind us once again that no one has quite taken his place. Two or three times a year, I used to think to myself, 'Time to pay a call on Good Old Jack'. Pipe in mouth, sturdy walking-stick to the fore, I would then march up the long and winding drive of his elegant country mansion outside Stratford and pop my head around the door. No one at home, would always be my first reaction, but Jack was a great prankster, and invariably, after a good 10 minutes searching, I would find him and his delightful wife Jacquetta hidden behind some sofa or other, often cowering behind extra cushions. 'Ah, Wallace, old man - didn't hear you come in]' he would explain, before dusting himself down and offering me a small glass of fresh water.

Like that other great conservative, poor old George Orwell, Jack Priestley has suffered the fate of being purloined by the Left. Though proclaiming himself a lifelong Labour supporter, and a great indulger in many a fashionable 'cause' (dread word]) he was to all intents and purposes a thoroughgoing Conservative. For instance, he would often argue in defence of nuclear disarmament - indeed, he took a hand in forming that monstrous organisation 'CND' - yet I believe that, deep down, he was all for the nuclear bomb, provided it is used only selectively and with good taste.

Yes, there are many lessons our society may still learn from the great J B Priestley. He would never have supported the striking signal workers, for instance, and he would be thrilled that coalmining in Britain is now pretty much a dead duck. Like Orwell, he had little truck with the shibboleth of democracy, and what has happened in South Africa would have caused him much pain. In this year of his centenary, it is up to all of us to keep alive the flame of his beliefs, and watch them burn bright.

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