Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Loud Bassoon

Fred Bason - not a name much remembered - was born 110 years ago today. He was proudly Cockney, and though unskilled and formally uneducated, he turned himself into a book dealer, writer and public speaker, counting Arnold Bennett and Noël Coward among his friends. Most notably, though, like another friend James Agate, he published several volumes of diaries. At the time, they were very popular, being full of Cockney humour and wisdom. His lighthearted approach to life shines out of every entry, such as one about how he started speaking at Rotary Club meetings, and another about how Agate tricked him over the title for his final volume of diaries - The Last Bassoon.

Bason was born in Walworth, London, on 29 August 1908 (though, at the time of writing, Wikipedia gives 1907 as his birth year) the only child of working class parents. He later claimed to have been born within hearing distance of Bow Bells (making him a true Cockney). He left school at 14, being apprenticed to a barber, and then a carpenter, before settling, from the age of 16, to a job as book runner. Over time, he learned to make money from buying and selling books, and, in particular, from autographs and books signed by their authors. Through his trade, he came to know many literary figures, not least Bennett, Coward and Agate. He also wrote articles for the press, appeared on radio programmes, and was a professional public speaker. He loved the theatre, but also boxing. He lived all his life in Walworth, in a rented council flat; he never married but had a close friendship with his housekeeper, Lizzie. He died in 1973. A little further biographical information is available at an archived Spectator review, and Paul Robinson’s book blog.

Bason is largely forgotten today, and he has little presence on the web, but for his published diaries. Bason met James Agate (a well-known diarist at the time but now also largely forgotten - see Not careless jottings) as a young man, and, on his advice, started writing a diary. In his lifetime, Bason published several volumes of these diaries; although long since out of print, second hand copies can be found readily enough online - see Abebooks for example. Here is Bason introducing his last volume - comically explaining, among other things, why he called it The Last Bassoon (but see the diary entries below for more on this). The spelling irregularities are as found in the published work.

‘By Way of Explanation. I have been faithfully keeping a day to day diary for more than thirty years. I was advised to do this by the late James Agate who said that if I would keep a diary that diary may some day keep me. The only thing its keepted me is HAPPY . . . and thats something. This is the fourth and the last portion of my diary and for that reason I have called it The Last Bassoon. The title comes from a part of The Ancient Mariner and Agate suggested that title when I thought Id had enough of being a diarist. Well, Ive had enough. Ive had a very long run for my so called literary career, and although I shall probably write other books I dont expect to ever compile another diary.

I will tell you why. Firstly, I am alone in this world. I have no wife, no sweetheart and I dont seem to have any relations left. I have no one but a very faithful landlady. I do have some friends (Thank God) and I wish to keep them. But the trouble with being a diarist is that one half of your friends want to be in your diaries and the other half fear to be in them! When you put them in they dont like what youve written about them, and if you leave them out they are annoyed! You are invited to a party and notice folks fear to speak to you, in case you put them into a diary. You have to get up and assure everyone on your honour that its a night off, and nothing will be used.

I wouldn’t knowingly annoy anyone. There is less than eight stone of me and I am not of the stuff that heroes are made from. I like peace and quiet and my friends are extremely precious to me. Beside as man cannot keep on diarying. James Agate, who in my opinion was the best of modem diarists, finished his Ego’s when he WAS very very feeble and in great pain. I want to finish my Cockney diaries when I am ever so well and have not a cloud in my sky.

Diary one was edited by Nicolas Bentley. It made two editions and sold over ten thousand copies. Diary two was edited by L. A. G. Strong. It had praise from 162 newspapers and did well. My third diary had an introduction and was edited by Michael Sadleir. And now, now I finish on a cressendo - Introduced and edited by Noel Coward! I believe that this book is the very first in all his career he has both introduced and edited, and he did it for NOTHING - for nothing but sheer goodwill. Its worth recording the fact that the first book I wrote had an introduction by W. Somerset Maugham (1931).

Yes, Ive had a very good run for my time and trouble and no regrets for ever becoming a writer of sorts. Oh, I am very conscious of my limitations, but this can be said for my writings: Ive never failed to amuse and surely that is really something in these days!

I know that Noel Coward got much amusement as he sorted out my bits and pieces. I hope that you will get pleasure from reading the finished work. I was never cut out to be a literary gent. This is my final bow as a Cockney diariest.’

And here are several extracts from the same volume.

18 October 1949
‘It seems to me very nearly impossible to access the pleasure other people get out of life or of their own way of living. I’ve known in my time some remarkably rich people and for the most part I didn’t find them uncommonly happy. Indeed, some seemed happy being miserable or got their pleasures by making others miserable. I have known poor people who’s eyes reflected the genuine happiness they got from life. They have a smile and a cheerfull word for everyone. You seldom see them angry or wearing frowns and yet you know they are extremely poor people. Money or the lack of it doesn’t seem to really trouble them.

I’ve been awfully hard up from time to time and when I’ve been hungry I’ve been bloody miserable and full of self pity and felt that the world owed me a slim living. But I know a chap in Hastings who I’m positive hasn’t £1 in all the world and wouldnt know where to borrow a pound. He has in a kit bag 4 tooth combs, 2 ordinary combs, several books, washing utensils and a pair of socks and 3 white collars. I am pretty positive he hasn’t got anything else - oh, except, maybe, 10s. or 12s. but he is happy. He will travel the whole of the South coast dish washing and sleeping rough. He will work for his food and maybe a few bob over. He’s 46. He has no home and no relations. He is ever so happy! I don’t believe a really rich man could be happier. I was proud and happy to meet him. We had a long chat. He is ever so wise. He says ‘possessions are a hindrance to adventure.’

On the other hand there is Lady T. out in Switzerland. Recently she complained to me about the rate of exchange, the price of The Saturday Book, the servant problem, the weather, the prospects of a 3rd War and the low class of visitors from England to Switzerland all in one letter! I know her to be quite rich. I know her now to be a miserable old bitch and I want no part of her. If you want to let off steam and have a bloody good moan surely you can do it on your own doorstep - or like me keep a journal and get it out of your system by writing it all down.

I’ve a strange idea that with all his fame and fortune Ivor Novello is not a particularly happy man. I’ve an even stronger idea that the astounding and remarkable Aldous Huxley is also none too happy. Right at the top of the tree - surely all their dreams have come true! When a man has one million pounds it seems he wants another to keep it company. I do not understand this at all. I never shall! I know a Welsh Novelist who rubs along on less than 150 pounds a year. I’ve never once seen him miserable or at cross purposes with the world. I believe its something within one, some part of one’s make up, some gland that causes happiness and it has nothing to do with fame or fortune.

I can’t in truth say that I am always happy. I keep seeking - and at times I don’t know what I seek. If I knew that though I’d be happier. And it ain’t religion either, for I’ve known some remarkably miserable Vicars! It ain’t sex. Many tarts are happy women!

Oh, it’s so strange - people I mean. ‘Nothing is stranger than people and their moods.’ Sax Rohmer wrote this (in red ink) to me years ago. The older I get the more I agree with his mouth-full. But I do believe that faith in a God does help. I often feel less restless after saying simple prayers.’

30 December 1953

‘As we draw towards the close of this year there are 2 items I must put into my Diary which seem to have no headings but mustn’t be left out. Both are pleasant. If I was to be asked who are my favourite actors I would say with no hesitation Alec Clunes Marius Goring and Noël Coward. Well, now, diary, Alec Clunes sent 2 nice circle seats to me so that I could take Lizzie to see him in Carrington V.C. at the Westminster Theatre. Then out of the blue (and I mean just that) Marius Goring sent a stall seat for me to see Anthony and Cleopatra in which he was the star. Its really astounding when you come to think of it. In 2 days 2 stars send tickets and I would bet that neither knew the other was sending (thats if Alec has ever met Marius). Its what can be called a million to one odds. And what did Mr Noel Coward do? Mr Coward don’t have to do anything except keep alive.

The second (or third) unexpected joy is an invitation to attend the Chelsea Arts Ball as a guest of the management! James Agate once said to me: ‘When you make the grade, Fred, your trouble will not be where to go but where not to go. You will be given free seats and invitations here and there. Look for the catch. There is usually a catch in free gifts and they are not really free.’

Well, dear James, I’m getting up in the grade. But I am sure that in the seats to shows for Marius and Alec and The Arts Ball invite from Loris Rey there is no catch at all. Therefore I feel I must include these happy items at the close of an eventfull happy (on the whole) year.’

29 August 1954
‘As one grows older, birthdays usually pass unnoticed, but today, my birthday has been exceptionally interesting. Anton Dolin allowed me to attend a full rehearsal of a new ballet called ‘Napoli’. During it a beautiful ballet star, Daphne Dale, spent a great deal of her spare time reading a book. I felt bound to enquire as to the title of same and was rather astounded when Anton found out for me that she was reading, with apparent keenness and enjoyment, Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett. How the author would have enjoyed knowing this and meeting Miss Dale. She is a real smasher - and so very talented as well. Mrs Frank Pettingell gave me a lovely pullover for a birthday gift. Mrs Morris in Birmingham sent me a Max Murrey thriller, and my dear Lizzie gave me an electric razor. I also had eight cards. All in all a very wonderful birthday.’

21 May 1958
‘Yesterday I had luncheon at the Hyde Park Hotel with Mr N. from Estoril in Portugal. It was a wonderfull luncheon and do you know I had for the first time ever GULLS eggs! They cost I think 5s. each. God! Talk about eating money. On my oath I couldn’t tell the difference between them and the eggs of Walworth at 3d. each. But my host said he liked them and they made a difference as he couldn’t get ’em in Portugal.

So there I had gulls eggs and smoked salmon and all things wonderfull, plus lovely conversation with one of my admirers, and although it was our first meeting, in 5 minutes it was as if we had known each other 5 years. We got on well.

And do you know what he did? Of course you dont. Well, after luncheon he took me in a taxi to Berkeley Square and from a florists named M. Stevens he bought 6 wonderful orchids in a glorious box (with gay pink ribbon) which must have cost at least a quid. And I had to take home orchids for Lizzie. She’d never seen an orchid in all her life. She almost cried with delight! It gave her enormous pleasure and Mr. N. knew it would in advance. I was sent home in the taxi and on instruction from Mr. N. the taxi man bought one of my books out of his tip. I had to sign my book to this taxi man and I was so tight that it was a job.

Well, Diary. I put it to you. I’ve been ill 3 weeks. I go out. I have a double sherry, then again a sherry; then a white wine, then a rich red wine, then kummel - whatever that is - plus Gulls Eggs!! My God, if Mr N. had’nt sent me home in a taxi I’d still be in Berkeley Sq listening to the Nightingale what aint there! All this happened yesterday but I will take days to get over it - and Lizzie has orchids! Oh, aint it lovely to have admirers who are thoughtfull friends as well! Yet in Walworth Ive never even had a kind word in 30 years concerning my books.’

5 June 1958
‘Yesterday at Brighton I gave my one hundredth talk to a Rotary Club. (The first talk to Rotarians I gave was in 1941 in Camberwell. My 99th was at Chertsey a week ago.) I was keen to keep this engagement although I felt very ill and Liz had to go with me in case I got some blackouts and fell down. For five years Id tried to get a Brighton talk, but each time something prevented me. I was not going to let myself down again, so I went to Brighton. You see, diary, when I started talking at Rotary clubs a speaker with much experience of these places told me that the three toughest, hardest audiences to hold in the Rotary World were at Wakefield, Leeds and Brighton, although I forgot to ask him why. As the years have passed I managed to hold Leeds and Wakefield and I intended to see how Brighton* would accept my exclusive brand of Cockney humour.

I need not have worried. They were quite alright and gave me a fair hearing and in 25 minutes talk I was able to get nine laughs out of them, so they were not so tough. Alas, I was only able to sell two of my books there although there were more than ninety men there and I did offer them for sale at far below cost price! Maybe most of them are still unable to read? I just wouldnt know. However, I sold a copy to The President of the club and to the Speakers secretary and they both promised to lend them around, so it was not quite a waste of time and genuine effort.

I recalled to Brighton Rotary how I got my first Rotarian talk. It was in 1941 and I’d made a name on the radio. There came one day to my home a big fat tough man. Would I talk at his Rotary Club? I didnt know what Rotary was, the word meant nothing to me. He explained and then I said that I would be willing to talk for ten minutes free. He said that would not do; it would have to be 25 minutes. And still he offered me no fee. He said he was not in the position to pay a fee so I wasnt very willing. It was war time and life was short.

Then he said that he noticed that I had two very bad teeth. He would take those two teeth out free and PAIN-less if I would talk 25 minutes. He was a dentist and would take me back to his surgery in his car immediately after the talk and in a jiffy they’d be out. He looked so strong and capable that I agreed.

Well, I gave the talk and then I went back to his place near Camberwell Green and that man gave me Bloody Hell. Never, never have I been hurt so much. He quite unnerved me for four days, and my gums were badly torn and still bleeding four days later, and took weeks to heal. When I got home I was white and shaking and bloody. I looked as if Id been in a massacre. Lizzie looked at me and then said ‘My God, Freddy, what did them there Rotarians do to you? They must be proper so and so’s to treat you like that, and you going there FREE just to make them laugh.’
* Brighton is becoming so respectable that the pigeons now fly upside down.

23 February 1960
Agate’s last laugh. Yesterday in a parcel of books I’d bought to aid a charity there was a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (when I asked for his autograph more than 30 years ago I thought I was asking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Now, verse has never been much in my line, but something prompted me to look up and read for the first time in my life The Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. And I’ve had quite a SHOCK!

Dear old James Agate, so long after his departure to some land far from ours, has played a neat trick on me and must at this moment be having such a good laugh, for I have been landed with a title for my last book which was given to me long years ago by him! ‘When you want to end your diaries call the last one The Last Bassoon, my boy. It comes from the Ancient Mariner and will suit you down to the ground.’ Now, diary, I had a lifelong admiration for Mr Agate and always took what he said for gospel. Maybe to some slight degree I even patterned my own life something on his lines. I knew him long before he became famous, and fame at no time changed him for me. Bless his heart, he’s had a LAST LAUGH. He must have known that I would take what he said as correct, that The Last Bassoon was in this notable poem, but I find that all that’s mentioned is the loud bassoon!

I am stuck with a title and can do nothing whatever about it. Well, let him have his last laugh. I do not begrudge it him. He was a kindly old man with his own brand of humour, and this is probally an extreemly good sample of it!

Have I ever been the loud Bassoon? On my oath I don’t think so. I’ve mostly walked away from the limelight. I know it has been too much I and not enough Thou, but no one but Lizzie would share my life, and without relations it just had to be I, or spend my life in some humdrum manner. And that I didn’t want to do, for in my heart I longed to become another Samuel Pepys. Stanley Rubinstein said several times that the mantel of James Agate had most certainly fallen on me. Well, from under its covering I can hear at this moment a chuckle; it’s Jimmy saying, ‘I had you, my boy ... I had you. You know I’m a kidder.’ Perhaps his kindly interest is watching over me, and The Last Bassoon is a better title. We shall see, as the years roll on.’

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