Thursday 27 August 2009

Good eggs

In 1908 – almost exactly a century ago – Ford Madox Ford founded the English Review, in which he published Hardy, Conrad, Wells, etc, and – their first appearance in print – D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, others. (Later, in 1924, he founded the Transatlantic Review: Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, etc.) Half of it was to be devoted to current affairs: ‘To imagine that a magazine devoted to imaginative literature and technical criticism alone would find more than a hundred readers in the United Kingdom was a delusion that I in no way had.’ He persuaded a wealthy politican ‘to provide half of the capital necessary, which we agreed was to be £5,000.’

This is an astounding figure. A net machine tells me that the purchasing power of that sum in 1908 is equivalent to, in 2008 figures, £389,200 (using RPI) or (using average earnings) £2,042,500.

But money aside, and politicians willing to invest in magazines, the literary life Ford witnesses is completely familiar. The established writers guard their privacy: Conrad ‘always managed be out at tea-time, in case anyone literary should come in’; James telephoned before visiting, ‘so as to make sure of meeting no writers’. The younger writers ‘crowded my office drawing room, they quarrelled, they shouted.’ Ford describes a dinner at which ‘Mr Chesterton and Mr Belloc were one on each side of Mr Baring. They occupied themselves for some time in trying in vain to balance glasses of Rhine wine on his skull. That gentleman comes back to me as having been then only a little less bald than an egg. The floor and his shirt received the wine in about equal quantities. But he did not seem to mind.’

The politician pulls out, but Ford is persuaded to keep going when no other magazine will, ‘on the score of immorality’, print a poem by Hardy. ‘Then came Ezra . . . He threw himself alarmingly into frail chairs, devoured enormous quantities of your pastry, fixed his pince-nez firmly on his nose, drew out a manuscript . . .’ Ford, guessing ‘he must be rather hard up,’ takes a poem and pays Pound ‘not a large sum’ but enough for him to live on for six months. And then Wyndham Lewis, wearing ‘an ample black cloak of the type that villains in transpontine melodrama throw over their shoulders when they say Ha-Ha!’ ‘He must be Guy Fawkes,’ Ford thinks – ‘but his writing was of extraordinary brilliance.’

Ford was ousted as editor in 1910 – problems with money, and in his personal life. ‘I remember only one dull moment’.

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