Interview with: Alan Pryce-Jones

From my diary June 25, 1991

Mr. Pryce-Jones houses are on John Street in the heart of Old Newport. Three mid-Ninteenth Century saltboxes. His principle residence is at 46 where we found a note addressed to Mr. and Mrs. asking us to check in at #50. I hadn't been prepared for a compound.

He came at us from behind to set us up in that house. Admirable house. I am here to configure the library, which is in astonishing disarray, but I can't see the books for the too charming host and surroundings. Mr. Pryce-Jones' flair for living is to me his most attractive of his very handsome features. I consider him one of the grand old boys of modern literature. His reputation is based partially on his reign as the memorable editor of the Literary Supplement of the London Times and partially as a terribly engaging conversationalist and partially as a marvelous ear. This is to by no means disparage his talent as a writer.

After we were allowed a civilized time to position ourselves and acclimatize, he gracefully bowed out to make an appearance at an esteemed elder's annual remembrance, leaving us to bath and well stocked bar. Once the one year old was installed, I got some time to poke around. The third house on the property was the library.

There is a reference in Noel Annan's book, Our Age, to Mr. Pryce-Jones' education at Oxford. After rattling off his contemporaries and cohorts as the be-in-and-end-all of England's effete elite in the 'twenties and 'thirties, there's the story of his being "sent down after two terms for gross idleness." In his autobiography, The Bonus of Laughter, he admits to his early literary education contributing to pretension and flippancy,and writes it off, not without some reason, as just that. I have always considered it as an occupational hazzard.

What struck me on first acquaintance with his books was extraordinary collection of English poetry from the first half of this century. Most people don't bother much about poetry anymore. As a critic as well as editor and practitioner, Mr. Pryce-Jones served a significant role in popularizing the verse of a generation as yet inadequately anthologized. The books to read are Martin Green's Children of the Sun and Paul Fussell's Abroad.

The English contribution to Modernism has become slightly obscured by the academic and popular perception of the period as hopelessly fey and contrary to the political interests of our time. While I myself have little good to say about the Imperialist slant to the history of the time as written from the British P.O.V, I find everything to recommend the literature.

Amongst the personally inscribed are books by Messers Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Brian Howard,and Henry Green. Of Harold Acton he comments, "I find it amusing that the Princess cultivates his company. In the none too distant past none of them wanted to know him. His books from the Sitwell's are very lovingly inscribed. One of the twelve proofs of Ulysses is in his possession as consequence of the gross underestimation of the book by his mentor, J.C. Spires, who wanted them burned and nothing less. An inefficient secretary saved them from that fate.

My family and I were Pryce-Jones guests for the week it took me to put his eight thousand volumes in agreeable order. You couldn't find a better host. Days, he took my family to his cabana at Bailey's Beach.

Nights we'd talk:

When I was little one had fairly good training from one's elders. I had two aunts who used to come very often and they loved reading out loud, so that one was read out loud to, which is stimulating when you're quite small, and I learnt quite a lot by that. My father inherited a habit of his parents, from the eighteen-seventies I suppose, of Sunday readings; special things you read on Sundays you didn't read during the week. Not improving necessarily, not religious things, but they were slightly superior to the weekday reading and that put one in touch with all sorts of things one wouldn't see otherwise. It was pitched slightly higher. In my parents house that was quite something.

Very simple is Beatrix Potter. I learnt to read out of Beatrix Potter really, because my mother was someone who would read aloud to me and, sitting beside her looking at it, I got to relate the dots on the page to words finally. So that I discovered that I could read -- I was about five I should think -- and they didn't know that I could and that was exciting to me.

When the first war broke out in 1914 I was -- what was I?...born 1908, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 -- I was six. Actually, I could read the newspaper and they kept from me the news of the war until it started to upset me. My father was a professional soldier. I wasn't the least upset, really, I merely thought of how extraordinary that on the rare occasions that I saw him, because he was away in France, he never spoke of the war. Why wasn't he interested in the things that he was doing? why didn't he ever talk about it? They thought that I couldn't read and knew nothing. In fact, I was quite well up on what was happening.

Children's books were better in the teens and twenties. Mrs Molesworth wrote wonderful stuff for children. One called Herr Baby, about a little boy in a German family. Frightfully good book. And The Cuckoo Clock, about a little girl who forms a friendship with a cuckoo in the cuckoo clock. I really think it was beautifully told. I keep all my children's books together still. After David grew up he was never particularly interested so I took all of them back and give them to his children from time to time. The great-grandchildren will get them.

The poet Novalis meant a great deal to me when I was quite small, about ten or twelve. This arose because my grandmother had a German governess whom she adored and who was very nice to me. Somehow there was a works of Novalis in the house and she would translate them into English, because in those days I didn't speak German. I suddenly became thrilled and I can't tell you why. When I hear the name Novalis my ears prick up still. It meant to me the whole meaning of poetry, the whole meaning of existence practically, involved in this one incomprehensible book that I couldn't read in its original language.

My life has been seldom altered by really good books. Reading Proust, not really. Reading War and Peace more. George Eliot altered my view of the world. When I discovered Middlemarch I was thrilled by it. I remember making it last a long time. I'm a tremendous fan of J.F. Powers. I've enjoyed his books as much as any I've ever read. There are a great many admirable writers, who I know to be good, that I have a great deal of trouble with. Dostoevski is one and Conrad is another. I have no trouble with Nostromo or The Secret Agent but I very often get stuck.

About twenty years ago, I thought it was ridiculous that I'd never read Ulysses and I thought I never would read it if I just went on leading the ordinary life one does. Not enough leisure. I promised myself I would take a cargo boat across the Atlantic and take Ulysses and nothing else.

I took this cargo boat from Boston to Southampton. It took about three weeks and I read Ulysses with delight. It's one of the nicest trips I ever did. On this very comfortable boat -- there was practically nobody on board at all -- I had a cabin like a cathedral, played bad bridge with a Spanish purser in the evening, and I'd taken a case of vodka with me, because you aren't allowed to buy liquor, and that endeared me to the Captain. I had a lovely time lying on a deck chair in the sun reading Ulysses. It was an absolute joy.

One has books that do mean something to one. There was an awfully good novel which, when I was at Eaton, somebody said you must read a book called The Nebuly Coat. It's a frightfully good novel. Written by a man called J. Meade Falkner. Very interesting person he was: he was the head of Vickers, the armament makers, he was a great authority on ecclesiastical literature, he was a rich man, and he just wrote three books. He also wrote a number of poems that anticipate by fifty years all the poems by John Betjiman. You don't know if you're reading John Betjiman or Meade Falkner. It's most extraordinary. They were privately printed in London by a bookshop.

One of his novels was called The Lost Stradivarius, one was about smugglers off of the Dorset coast, and the other one called The Nebuly Coat is about the collapse of a cathedral. It's the most fascinating book, a sort of thriller. The story's rather a good one to do with a complicated inheritance and the Nebuly Coat is the heraldic coat of arms on the cathedral window. There's a rightful heir and an unrightful heir. Eventually the villain is killed by the collapse of the cathedral which is brought about by playing the organ too loudly. Sixty-four foot stops brought the cathedral down. It sounds ridiculous but it wasn't at all.

At Oxford, we all read Chrome Yellow and just the other day I was reading its contemporary reviews and they were so impressed. Much more than they would be now. I reread it just lately and it's a perfectly good book but some books evaporate and that has evaporated. That whole thing of the Bloomsbury mystique and everyone's self-satisfaction with each other. It all seems rather vapid now. I remember thinking of Chrome Yellow as brilliant, as funny to a degree, as an illumination, but I don't think really that it is.

Ford Madox Ford I've always had trouble with. I know one should think him wonderful but quite lately I tried again and sort of fagged after about twenty pages. The writer I've never got on with very well with is Anthony Powell, that enormous novel Dance to the Music of Time. It's got some very good things in it. Ten splendid pages and then wasted rubbish. It's rather difficult to read now. I think the military stuff's good. Books Do Furnish a Room is a good title, starts out well and then it suddenly dies. Powell was a kindly old soul. He just published a book of his collected reviews, quite a stout book, about four hundred pages long, the reviews of thirty or forty years. One usually can't reread contemporary reviews but they held up rather well.

Connolly was a great career man. In his day there was nobody more entertaining, nobody nicer, more welcoming, more charming to be with. One could have the most delightful time with him. When it wasn't his day, nobody could be more fiendishly tiresome, exasperating, maddening, and self-pitying. A squalid man, like Auden. He was a great friend of Phillip Toynbee.

At one point the Toynbees as a couple and the Connollys as a couple lived under the same roof and it was a catastrophe. He would say, this really too much, I spend the whole of my days now on my knees trying to get the sick out of the floorboards where Phillip's thrown up all over the floor again. Which didn't surprise him. He thought it was the most natural thing to do.

The nicest thing about Evelyn Waugh is he was the most loyal friend. He had a number of people that nobody ever wanted as a friend. They were crooks and thieves and cheats and all the rest of it. In particular, a rather terrifying man called Ray Radcliffe, who was always in prison for things like buggery. He was not the sort of person you had round to your house.

Evelyn Waugh was wonderful to him: gave him money, supported him when he was down and out, gave him a home for weeks at a stretch, visited him in jail. He was an enormously loyal friend to the very few people he was loyal to. He was mostly horrible to people but when he wasn't, he was beyond praise. It was always so unexpected to me. There was a drunk called Alfred Duggen who eventually wrote some very good historical novels, Evelyn was wonderful to him. Couldn't have taken more trouble.

Graham Greene and I used to live in the same building. We both lived in the Orderly in London. He felt I was spying on him, not me especially but anyone in the building, and he was very troublesome. When you saw him coming you really had to hide behind a pillar in order that he wouldn't think that you were there trying to get him.

I do think that good Henry James is absolutely beyond praise but there's some awfully dull Henry James around too. I think The Awkward Age is an absolutely marvelous book. It has the whole of Evelyn Waugh in it and is much better. It's frightfully funny. I was amazed. The Spoils of Poynton is quite a good book. Of the early ones I like Roderick Hudson. Never got through Portrait of a Lady. I got stuck in the middle of that and it just sits there.

I rather enjoyed the Lewis book about all the James'. It didn't tell you anything you didn't know but I rather enjoyed it. All of Henry James' books were sold in the 1950's in Rye, locally, in a small bookshop. It was madness. I bought not very many, because a lot of the good ones had gone before I got on the scene, but I got about a dozen or so. Books annotated by him which I am delighted to have... all sorts of unexpected books, including Georgian Poetry which was done by Eddie Marsh.

Sir Edward Marsh published four or five volumes of Georgian Poetry. I found among them a dedication copy to Henry James from his friend Eddie Marsh. Eddie Marsh was still alive and I rang him up and said, would you like the book back? Seems silly that you shouldn't have it. He said, Don't speak about it. I've got more than enough books in the house. I said, may I keep it? Yes, of course, for God's sake keep it, don't bore me with it.

Interviews with: Diana Vreeland | Fran Lebowitz | Albert Murray | John Waters | Susanna Moore | Fab 5 Freddy | Alan Pryce-Jones