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   Chapter 16 MEREDITH TOWNSEND

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 23971

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Taking The Spectator as the pivot of my life, I began this book by a plunge in medias res. This done, I had to go back and tell of my rearing and of my life in something approaching chronological sequence. In so doing, however, I have striven to remain true to Sir Thomas Browne's instructions and to keep the alabaster tomb in the barber's shop always before my eyes. Now, however, that I have reached the time when I became Proprietor and Editor of The Spectator, I may fitly return to my chiefs and predecessors.

Unfortunately I can do this only in the case of Mr. Townsend. In regard to any character-drawing or description of Mr. Hutton my pen must refuse to write. Just before he died Mr. Hutton made me promise not to write anything whatever about him in The Spectator, and though I am not sure that he meant that promise to extend to what I might wish to write elsewhere, I have always felt myself to be under a general and not merely a particular obligation of silence. Mr. Hutton and I were always the best of friends, and I regarded him with admiration as well as affection. On some points we differed strongly, but on more we were in full agreement.

Though I did not go nearly as far as he did in the matter of spiritualism I had deep sympathy with his main attitude in regard to things psychological. It was this fact, perhaps, which made him say to me, half humorously but half in earnest, when he knew that he was leaving the office to die, as I also knew it, "Remember, Strachey, if you ever write anything about me in The Spectator, I will haunt you!"

I obeyed his wish and clearly must always do so, though not merely for this warning. Indeed, I remember well hoping that perhaps his spirit might still be anxious, and might find it possible to revisit his room, of which I had become the occupant. In this instance, at least, "the harsh heir" would not have resented the return. As I sat at his table late in the evening and heard, as we so often did in our river-side office, wild gusts of wind blowing up the Thames, rattling my windows, sweeping up the stairway, and shaking the door, I often caught myself trying to believe that it was Button's half-lame step on the threshold, and that at any moment he might fling open the door, put his hand in mine, and ask a hundred things of the paper and the staff. But, alas! he never came. As on many other occasions in my life, the desire to be haunted, the longing to see the dead was not potent, efficient, authoritative. But I must write no more of Hutton. If we cannot see the dead, at least we must keep troth with them.

Of Mr. Townsend I am happy in being able to speak quite freely. I am not trammelled by any promise. Before doing so, however, I would most strongly insist that no one shall suppose that because I say so much more of him than of his brother Editor, it is because my heart felt warmer towards him. I had, indeed, the warmest of feelings towards both, then. If anyone were to ask me which I liked the better, I should find it impossible to answer. They were both true friends. They made a great intellectual partnership. They were complementary to each other in an extraordinary degree. It was quite remarkable how little either intruded upon the intellectual ground of the other. This could never have been said of me, however, who for some years made a sort of triumvirate with them. I had a great deal of common ground with both. That was all very well for a subordinate and a younger man, but it would not have been half so satisfactory in the case of an equal partnership. Hutton was occupied with pure literature-especially poetry-and with theology and with home politics. Townsend, on the other hand, though he was a great reader and lover of books, and a man of real religious feeling, was specially interested in Asia and the Asiatic spirit and foreign affairs. To these subjects Hutton's mind, though he would not have admitted it, was in the main closed. Townsend knew a great deal about diplomatic history and about war by land and sea, as must every man who has lived long in India; Hutton's mind was little occupied with such things. Home politics, as I have said, were his field and had his deepest concern, while Townsend took in these no more than an ordinary interest. Again, Hutton was deeply interested in psychology and the study of the mind, whereas what interested Townsend most was what might be called the scenery of life and politics. Townsend looked upon life as a drama played in a great theatre and seen from the stalls. To Hutton, I think, life was more like some High Conference at which he himself was one of the delegates, and not merely a spectator.

[Illustration: Meredith Townsend, Editor of the Friend of India, and his Moonshee, the Pundit Oomacanto Mukaji, Doctor of Logic in the Muddeh University. (Taken at Serampore, Bengal, in 1849.)]

And now for Townsend the man and the friend. What always seemed to me the essential thing about him was his great kindliness and generosity of nature, a kindliness and generosity which, when you knew him, were not the least affected by his delight in saying sharp and even biting things. He barked, but he never bit. You very soon came to find, also, that the barking, though often loud, was not even meant to terrify, much less to injure. Quite as essential, perhaps, as this kindliness, and of course far more important, was a fact of which I ultimately came to have striking proof, namely that he was the most honourable and high-minded of men. It is easy enough for any man of ordinary good character to keep a bargain when he has made it. It is by no means an easy thing for a man who has, or seems to have, cause to regret the consequences of a particular course he has taken, entirely to overcome and forget his dissatisfaction.

I can easily illustrate what I mean when I describe how, later on, I became first half-partner in The Spectator with Townsend and then sole Proprietor and Editor-in-Chief. Within eight or nine months of Hutton's retirement, Townsend, for a variety of reasons yet to be described, but also largely on account of the fact that his health was beginning to give way, determined that he would end his days in the country. He proposed, therefore, that I should buy him out of The Spectator altogether and become sole Proprietor and Editor. As I was some thirty years younger than he was, and on his death would become sole Proprietor, subject to a fixed payment to the executors of his Will, this was in fact only anticipating what would happen at his death. He promised, meantime, to write two articles for me every week as long as his health would allow, and to take charge during my holidays. The arrangement appeared favourable to him from the financial point of view, when it was made, and involved a good deal better terms than those contained in our Deed of Partnership. At any rate, the plan originated entirely with him. All I did was to say "Yes."

But to make an arrangement of that kind and to keep to it in such a way that I never had the very slightest ground for even the shadow of a "private grievance" was wonderful. Think of it for a moment. The position of chief and subordinate was suddenly and absolutely reversed. I became the editor and he the contributor. Like the shepherd in Virgil, he tilled as a tenant the land which he had once owned as a freehold. Yet he never even went to the length of shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Well, of course it's your paper now, and you can do what you like with it, but you're making a great mistake." His loyalty to his contract, and to me and to the paper, was never dimmed by a moment of hesitation, much less of grumbling or regret. He was kindness and consideration personified. I shall never forget how perfectly easy he made my position.

There was another factor in the situation which would have made it even more trying for anyone but Townsend. Directly I became sole Proprietor, I threw myself with all the energy at my command into the business side of the paper, and within a couple of years had doubled the circulation and greatly increased the profits. This did not, of course, take anything away from Townsend's share in the paper, but it might very well have made him feel, had he been of a grudging spirit, that he had made a mistake in selling out when he did. As a matter of fact, the paper would not have done so well under the partnership. I should have hesitated to risk his property by launching out, and he would probably have thought it his duty to restrain me. He disliked anything speculative in business, did not believe in the possibilities of expansion, and preferred the atmosphere of the Three per Cents. That being so, I could not have appealed to him to put more capital into The Spectator.

In effect, we should each have waited on the other and done nothing. However, the fact remains that there never was a trace of jealousy on his part. I have no doubt that he occasionally wished he had retained a share in the paper. He would hardly have been human if he had not done so; but he never showed any regret of a kind which would have been painful or embarrassing to me. Under conditions which might have been most trying we continued and maintained a close and unclouded friendship. It was unaffected by the slightest touch of friction. Take a small point: he even insisted on changing his room at the office for mine. His room, the room he had occupied for over thirty years, was on the first floor, and this, he insisted, was the place for the Editor-in- Chief, and so must be mine. I yielded only to his peremptory request.

Of Townsend's intellectual gifts I cannot speak without expressing a keen admiration. It is my honest belief that he was, in the matter of style, the greatest leader-writer who has ever appeared in the English Press. He developed the exact compromise between a literary dignity and a colloquial easiness of exposition which completely fills the requirements of journalism. He was never pompous, never dull, or common, and never trivial. When I say that he was the greatest of leader-writers I am not forgetting that at this moment we have in Mr. Ian Colvin of The Morning Post a superb artist in the three-paragraph style of matutinal exhortation. Bagehot, again, was a great leader-writer; so were Robert Low and Sir Henry Mayne; and so also was Hutton. But these men, great publicists as they were, never attained to quite Townsend's verbal accomplishment. I fully admit that many of them could, on occasion, write with far greater political judgment, and with greater learning, and with greater force and eloquence. But where Townsend excelled them and was easily first was in his power of dramatic expression and what can only be described as verbal fascination. No one could excite the mind and exalt the imagination as he did. And the miracle was that he did it all the time in language which appeared to be nothing more than that of a clever, competent man talking at his club. He used no literary artifice, no rhetorical emphasis, no elaboration of language, no finesse of phrase. His style was easy but never elegant or precious or ornamented. It was familiar without being common- place, free without discursiveness, and it always had in it the note of distinction. What was as important, he contrived, even in his most paradoxical moments, to give a sense of reserve power, of a heavy balance at the Bank of Intellect.

He never appeared to preach or to explain to his readers. But though he had all the air of assuming that they were perfectly well-read and highly experienced in great affairs, he yet managed to tell them very clearly what they did not and could not know. He could give instruction without the slightest assumption of the schoolmaster. In truth, his writing at its best was in form perfect journalism.

But, all the same, Townsend both in matter and in style had his faults as a leader-writer. Th

ough he was never carried away by language, was never blatant and never hectoring, he was often much too sensational in his thoughts and so necessarily in the phrases in which he clothed them. He let his ideas run away with him, and would sometimes say very dangerous and even very absurd things-things which became all the more dangerous and all the more absurd because they were, as a rule, conveyed in what were apparently carefully-balanced and carefully-selected words. His wildest words were prefaced with declarations of reticence and repression.

It was said of a daily newspaper in the 'sixties that its proprietor's instructions to his leader-writers were framed in these words:

"What we want from you is common sense conveyed in turgid language."

What the world sometimes got from Townsend was turgid thought conveyed, I will not say in commonplace language, for his style could never be that, but in the language of sobriety, good sense, and good taste.

Let no one think that in saying this I am being false to my friend. Townsend's faults of judgment were all upon the surface. At heart he had a great and sound mind, though sometimes he could not resist the temptation to drop the reins on his horse's neck and let it carry him where it would, and at a pace unbecoming a responsible publicist. Sometimes, too, the horse was actually pressed and encouraged to kick up its heels and go snorting down the flowery meads of sensationalism!

People generally went through three phases in the process of getting to know Townsend. To begin with, they thought he was a man inspired with the highest political wisdom and knowledge. His gifts of dialectical vaticination made them look upon him as the lively oracle of the special Providence which he himself was accustomed to say presided over the British Empire. After a time, however, they began to think that he was what they called too "viewy," too much inclined to paradox, too wild. Often, alas! the feeling in regard to him ended here, and he was written down as impracticable if amusing. That view, though probable, was certainly false. Those who had the good fortune and the good sense to persist, and were not put off by this discovery of a superficial flightiness of thought, but dug deeper in his mind, ended, as I ended, in something like veneration for his essential wisdom. They found again, as I did, that he was very apt to be in the right when he seemed most fallacious. After all, a house may be cool and comfortable, even if the front door is painted in flame-colour and has a knocker of rock crystal set in gold.

I may here appropriately point out how great an effect his book of collected Spectator articles dealing with Asia, and especially India, has had upon public opinion. Asia and Europe (Constable, London, Putnam, New York) remains the essential book on the subject handled, and every year its influence is widening. No one can understand Asia or Islam without reference to its inspiring and also prophetic pages. For example, I notice that Mr. Stoddard, in his recent book on The Revival of Islam (Scribner), constantly quotes Mr. Townsend on the subject. And this, remember, is not due to any fascination of style, but rather to the fact that many of Townsend's prophecies, which at the time seemed wild and unsubstantial enough, have come true.

Though I have said that Mr. Townsend's style as a journalist was perfect, and I firmly believe this, it must be confessed that occasionally he indulged in paradoxes which cannot be defended. I will not conceal the fact that these occasional kickings over the traces personally delighted me as a young man, and still delight me, but, all the same, they are indefensible from the point of view of the serious man-that dreadful person, the vir pietate gravis. For instance, it was always said by some of his friends, and I think with truth, for I have not dared to verify the point, that he began his leader recording the Austrian defeat and the Battle of Sadowa with these words: "So God not only reigns but governs"

Another example of his trenchant style occurred in a "sub-leader" on a story from America, which related how the inhabitants of the "coast towns," i.e., villages in one of the Eastern States, had refused to allow a ship that was supposed to contain cholera or fever patients from New York to land at a local port. The farmers went down with their rifles and shot-guns, so the story went, fired upon the sailors and even the invalids, while they were attempting to land, and drove them back to their ship. Townsend's leader on this legend, no doubt purely apocryphal, was full of wise things, but ended up with the general reflection that people are apt to forget that "mankind in general are tigers in trousers" and that the majority of them "would cheerfully shoot their own fathers to prevent the spread of infection."

No doubt, if you had asked Townsend to justify his statement, he would at once have admitted that the language was a little strong, and would have been quite willing to introduce some modification, such as "men occasionally behave as if they were tigers in trousers," and to add that "in certain instances some men might even go so far as to hold that it might be a public duty to shoot their own fathers to prevent the spread of infection." He was always rather sad, however, if one suggested a little hedging of this kind when one was reading over the final proofs of the paper. What he liked, and as a journalist was quite right to like, was definiteness. Qualifying words were an abomination to his strong imagination. No man ever loved the dramatic side of life more than he did. He even carried this love of drama to the lengths of honestly being inclined to believe things simply and solely because they were sensational. The ordinary man when he hears an extraordinary tale is inclined to say, "What rubbish! That can't be true. I never heard anything like that before," and so on. Townsend, on the other hand, was like the Father of the Church who said, "Credo quia impossibile." If you told Townsend a strange story, and suggested that it could not possibly be true because of some marvellous or absurd incident which was supposed to have occurred, his natural and immediate impulse was to look upon that special circumstance as conclusive proof of its credibility and truth. His extraordinarily wide, if inaccurate, recollections of historical facts and fictions would supply him with a hundred illustrations to show that what seemed to you ridiculous, or, at any rate, inexplicable, was the simplest and most reasonable thing in the world. This leaning toward the sensational, which belongs to so many journalists and is probably a beneficial part of their equipment, should not be forgotten by those who are tempted to judge the Press harshly in the matter of scare headlines and scare news. When something has been inserted in the Press that turns out later to be a cock-and-bull story, the plain man is apt to think that it must have been "put in" because the editor, though he knew it was false, thought it good copy and likely to sell his paper. In my experience that is not in the least how the thing works. A great many editors, however, greatly like and are naturally inclined to believe in "good copy." And, after all, they have got many more excuses for doing so than the ordinary man realises. Nobody can have anything to do with a newspaper without being amazed at the strangeness, the oddity, the topsy-turvy sensationalism of life, when once it is laid bare by the newspaper reporters.

For example, they write an article to show how astrology has absolutely died out in England. A day afterwards you get a letter from some old gentleman in Saffron Walden or Peckham Rye or Romford, informing you that in his small town, or suburban district, "there are ten practising astrologers, not to mention various magicians who do a little astrology in their odd moments." And all this is written with an air of perfect simplicity, as if the information conveyed were the most natural thing in the world and would be no surprise to any ordinary well-informed person.

But it was not only in outside affairs and in his view of the world that lay outside the windows of his mind that Townsend found life a thing of odd discoveries, strange secrets, and thrilling hazards. His own existence, though in reality an exceedingly quiet one, indeed almost that of a recluse, was still to him a great adventure. There was always for him the possibility of the sudden appearance of the man in the black cloak with hat drawn over his brows, either looking, or saying "Beware!" I remember well his pointing out to a member of the staff who is still, I am glad to say, a colleague of mine, a delightful reason for the arrangement of the furniture in his, Townsend's, room at 1 Wellington Street, Strand. Townsend complained that his writing-table was in a very cold corner, and that from it he could not feel the warmth of the fire. It was suggested to him that the best plan would be to bring the table nearer to the fire and to sit with his back to the door. "But don't you see," said Townsend, "that would be impossible? I couldn't see who was entering the room." As he spoke there rose up visions of Eastern figures in white turbans gliding in stealthily and with silent tread, and standing behind the editorial chair, unseen but all-seeing. Alas! we did not often have such adventures in Wellington Street, but no doubt it stimulated Townsend's mind in what might otherwise have been insupportably dull surroundings to think of such possibilities. This idea, indeed, of watching the entry was a favourite topic of his. I remember his telling me when I first came regularly to the office, that Mr.--, the then manager, who sat in the inner room downstairs, had a mirror so placed that he could see all who came through the main door, without himself being seen, and so appearing to place callers under observation. At my expressing some surprise that this was necessary, I was met with the oracular reply that though it wasn't talked about, such an arrangement would be found "in every office in London." Of a piece with this half-reality, half make-believe, with which, as I say, Townsend transformed his quiet life into one long and thrilling adventure, was a remark which I remember his making in the course of a most innocent country walk: "If the country people knew the secret of the foxglove root it would be impossible to live in the country." Apropos of this remark, my painter brother, who had always lived in the country and had plenty of cottage friends in Somersetshire, pointed out that as a matter of fact the country people knew the effects of digitalis as a poison exceedingly well, even though they were not inclined so to use it as to make life in the country impossible. He went on to tell, if I may be discursive for a moment, how, one day he was painting quietly behind a hedge, he caught a scrap of conversation between two hedge-makers who were unaware of his presence. It ran as follows: "And so they did boil down the hemlock and gave it to the woman, and she died." That was the statement: whether ancient or modern, who knows? For myself, I have always wondered what the hedgers would have said if they had suddenly had their rustic on dit capped with the tale of how the hemlock was used in Athens 2,400 years ago. Did the "woman" of Somersetshire stave off the effects of the poison by walking about? Did her limbs grow cold and numb and dead while the brain still worked? But such questions are destined to remain for ever unanswered. Country people do not like to be cross-questioned upon stray remarks of this character, and if you attempt to fathom mysteries will regard you with suspicion almost deadly in its intensity till the end of your days. "What business had he to be asking questions like that?" is the verdict which kills in the country.

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