Saturday, September 9, 2017

Not careless jottings

James Evershed Agate, born 140 years ago today, was a leading theatre critic in the first half of the 20th century, and one of the most well-known literary figures of his time. He is all but forgotten today but deserves to be better remembered for his witty and discursive diaries, all but one of which were published in his lifetime under the title Ego. In one intriguing entry from 1945, Agate reveals how conscious he was of writing his diary for publication: ‘How far should a writer take his readers into his confidence? Shall I “lose face” if I confess that the Ego books are not the careless jottings of idle half-hours? That I think Ego, talk Ego, dream Ego? That I get up in the middle of the night to make a correction? That before the MS. of any of my Ego’s reaches the publisher it has been through at least a dozen revisions?’

Agate was born at Pendleton, Lancashire, on 9 September 1877, the eldest of six children. His father was a cotton broker with a strong bent towards the theatre, and his mother was an accomplished pianist. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School, and then joined his father’s business, where he worked for 17 years. During his 20s, he was an avid theatre goer, and tried his hand at writing plays. In 1906, he began to contribute a weekly theatre column to his local Manchester newspaper, and within a year he had joined the Manchester Guardian as a junior critic. During the war, he joined the Army Services Corp and was posted to France. His knowledge of French and of horses led him to be appointed hay procurer; and his system of accounting for the business was turned into an official War Office handbook. He later collated articles sent to the Guardian from France into his first book L. of C. (Lines of Communication).

In 1918, while still serving in France, Agate married Sidonie, daughter of a rich landowner, but the relationship was short-lived, and, after their separation, Agate’s relationships were openly homosexual. After the war, he published a second collection of essays, Alarums and Excursions, and many more books followed. In 1921 he moved to The Saturday Review as theatre critic, a position once held by Bernard Shaw (who Agate had long wanted to emulate), and two years later to The Sunday Times, where he remained for the rest of his life (though he combined this role with being drama critic for the British Broadcasting Corporation for a number of years). He also wrote about film and literature for other media, and was a keen follower of various sports. He died in 1947. Further information can be gleaned from Wikipedia, Neglected Books, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), and an episode of BBC’s radio programme Letter from America.

From 1935 until his death, Agate wrote nine volumes of diaries published with the titles  Ego 1, Ego 2, etc., the last, Ego 9, appearing posthumously - each one subtitled as the Autobiography of James Agate. The first was published by Hamish Hamilton, the second by Victor Gollancz, and the rest by George G. Harrap (including several volumes of condensed extracts entitled A Shorter Ego). The diaries are a breeze to read, full of wit, anecdotes, gossip, sarcasm, as well as literary, theatre and music news (but nothing on politics of social issues). He often includes the text of letters he receives, and records problems with his health or finances, but most often he writes about his own writing/journalistic preoccupations and about his many friends and acquaintances
. Alistair Cooke, in an episode of his famous Letter from America describes Agate as ‘A Supreme Diarist’. Several volumes of Ego can be freely read online (Ego 4, A Shorter Ego - volume 1, Ego 9). The following extracts come from Ego 2 and  A Shorter Ego - volume 3).

9 October 1935
‘Lunch with Alexander Korda who to my enormous astonishment turns out to be a man of great culture and distinction of mind. We talked about a lot of things including the Goncourts’ novels - which, he says, “are not so good as we thought when we were young men.” He insists that I shall help with his new film of Cyrano de Bergerac, and for the reason that his Hungarian nationality prevents him from detecting the finer shades of English verse. In the end I agree to do what he wants, and I hope my incursion into films will continue as pleasantly as it has begun.

In the evening go to the Reinhardt film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Shakespeare is alleged to make his first appearance on the screen. He doesn’t!’

21 November 1935
‘Driving back from lunch to-day had an attack of nerves. At Oxford Circus was on my deathbed, going up Great Portland Street was dead and buried, along Albany Street calculated estate available after insurances raked in, horses sold and debts paid, passing Stanhope Terrace made my will, ascended Primrose Hill and descended to the Everlasting Bonfire simultaneously, and as we turned into England’s Lane was critically considering Jock’s first article as my successor on the S.T.

All this turned out, of course, to be merely what Doctor Rutty, the Irish Quaker, called “an hypochondriack obnubilation from wind and indigestion.” ’

15 March 1944
‘Moths won’t eat silk. I made this important discovery on going to my hat-box to fish out my topper for the Royal tea-party. The hat-box is one of those old-fashioned double ones; I found that the brown bowler that I used to wear at the horse shows had been completely eaten away, whereas the topper was intact. Bought a new tie, the first since the war, and paid the shocking price of 37s. 6d. for it. The morning coat, having made fewer than a dozen public appearances, is still very handsome, and altogether I think I was looking fairly smart when I presented myself at the Palace half an hour too early. Brother Harry having telegraphed from York that on no account was I to forget the occasion or be late. Nobody else in the enormous, empty room except a highly distinguished, ambassadorial personage chatting with some kind of Sultan. Presently an official came up to me and said, “Corps Diplomatique?” I replied, in equally succinct French, “Non.” He said, “Are you British?” I said, “Gad, sir !” He said, “The other room, if you please.” So I went into the other room, which was entirely empty. I had time to admire the furniture, which was magnificent; but the pictures seemed to me to be staggeringly unworthy of their setting. They were so conspicuously faded and unremarkable, though I suppose it would take a David or a Delacroix to make anything really effective out of troops being reviewed. Presently some people that I knew came in - Rebecca West, Irene Vanbrugh, Harriet Cohen, Arnold Bax, A. P. Herbert, a couple of my editors - and I recognised in to-day’s party a very gracious gesture to people of my kind, with a sprinkling of the Services. Next I found myself wondering what my feelings would have been if, fifty years ago, I had been granted prevision of this afternoon. What would my kid brother Harry have thought? This led to a moment of something ridiculously like sentiment. And then we formed up in single file, our cards were taken from us and handed from admiral to general, and general to admiral, five or six in all, till they reached the Lord Chamberlain, who read out our names. The King, who was in naval uniform, asked with enormous charm how I did. The Queen, in dove-grey and wearing pearls, smiled as though she remembered me, while the two princesses shook hands very shyly and prettily. While this was going on, a small band discoursed Haydn and Mozart, after which we drank tea out of some very beautiful china.’

21 April 1945
‘How far should a writer take his readers into his confidence? Shall I “lose face” if I confess that the Ego books are not the careless jottings of idle half-hours? That I think Ego, talk Ego, dream Ego? That I get up in the middle of the night to make a correction? That before the MS. of any of my Ego’s reaches the publisher it has been through at least a dozen revisions? That it is only when the galley proofs arrive that the real work begins? I suppose that when I had finished with the galleys of Ego 7 it would have been difficult to find fifty unaltered sentences. The reason for this is that stuff in print reads differently from the same stuff in typescript. Very well, then. The galleys have been returned to the publishers, and one sits back and awaits the page proofs in the vain belief that there is nothing more to do except see that the galley corrections have been properly carried out. Actually I made over two thousand corrections on the page proofs of Ego 7. For the reason that stuff in page reads differently from the same stuff in galley. There is another and more humiliating confession. This is that anything to which I subsequently attach value always turns out to have been an afterthought. [. . .A]ll my best stuff goes into the margin of my page - not even galley - proofs. [. . .] Another trouble is inaccuracy, which is my bête noire. My passion for correctness amounts to a neurosis. Not only do I look up chapter and verse, but I compare editions, telephone to libraries, consult innumerable dictionaries and encyclopaedias, ring up Embassies. And now this morning comes a letter asking how in Ego 6, page 132, I can say that Cora Pearl appeared at the Variétés in Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène when I have already said in Ego 4, page 174, that the theatre was the Bouffes-Parisiens, and the opérette Orphée aux Enfers?!!!!!’

22 August 1945
‘Lunch with Bertie van Thai at the Savoy, where a really extraordinary coincidence happens. (First let me say that Bertie’s life at the Food Office is one unbroken sea of milk troubles. Either London is drowning in milk and there are no bottles to put it in, or there is an avalanche of bottles and no milk.) Now for the coincidence. At the next table is Kay Hammond with her little boy. Gathering that he is fond of cricket, I beckon him over and tell him how I once bowled out W. G. Grace. Whereupon John Clements leans across and says, “This is unbelievable. In the lounge before lunch I was telling John how at a public dinner my father heard W. G. say that on the sands at Blackpool he had been bowled first ball by a little boy of seven whose name he never knew!” ’

30 April 1946
‘Cold and cheerless. Nothing to do, and nothing to see except ex-repertory actresses trundling about on bicycles. Diarised and got chilled to the bone sitting on Flamborough Head. To the pictures (twice), after which Harry entertained us with card tricks - which he has not done for twenty years - and it was all very, very Tchehovian.’

The Diary Junction

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