Alan Pryce-Jones 1908-2000
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Alan Pryce-Jones died in the United States on 2 January, aged 92. He made a distinguished and enlivening contribution to English letters and his friends will long remember his many gifts and his humour and the mercurial delight of his company.
It goes without saying that any native of the British Isles whose speech is not punc- tuated with 'er' and 'sort of must be of Celtic and probably Welsh descent, and the fluent clarity of Alan Pryce-Jones's utter- ances, people assumed, could only be a direct heirloom from the Druids. Yet this wasn't quite right. Alan's father, whose whole life had been devoted to the Cold- stream Guards — the Welsh Guards had not yet been formed when he was gazetted — was famous for his long silences, so any eloquence springing from the sickles and the mistle tee must somehow have lost its way among the muffling bearskins.
The origins of his gift must be sought elsewhere; in Northumberland, perhaps, among the Grand Whiggery, for his moth- er's grandfather, the great Lord Grey of the Reform Bill, won several prizes as an undergraduate 'for composition and decla- ration', and his maiden speech in the Com- mons, challenging a measure put forward by William Pitt, was delivered, so his listen- ers said, with an éclat surpassing anything in human memory.
There was more than a touch of this in Alan's everyday life — reduced in scope of course — and his autobiography catches the note exactly: the flair for words, the humour and the charm; one can almost see the alert eye as one reads, the bird-like lift of the nose, the amused and amusing smile.
He declared that he must have been an intolerable child. He was certainly a preco- cious one, full of views picked up from accompanying his worldly grandmother on visits. He was 12 at the time of the Ver- sailles conference and the cession of the Austrian Burgenland to Italy. 'I remember,' he wrote, 'walking around the lake, explaining to Sir Rennell Rodd, our ambas- sador in Rome, exactly what he must do about the Alto Adige.' He read everything within reach, enjoyed turning the poems of Christina Rossetti into Greek iambics at Eton, and loved playing the piano — as he did, delightfully, all his life — even when accompanied on the violin by Henry Yorke just off the note. Oxford saw the beginning of the Comus rout that uncoiled through most of his life. Maurice Bowra came on stage and John Betjeman and the whole Valhalla of the gifted youth of the Twenties. It was a time of feasting and running up debts and into scrapes, and after two terms, within a few hours of being gated, he was caught in tails climbing back into Magdalen at daybreak and sent down.
Arrival at his parents' house in a friend's Rolls touched off an explosion, and after- wards, pacing the streets and wondering what next, he ran into another friend. After listening, the friend said 'J. C. Squire, who is editor of the London Mercury, wants an assistant. He's having his hair cut at this moment at the National Liberty Club.' Alan was beside his barber's chair in a flash and work began on Monday.
It was 1928, Alan was 20, and he settled into the delights of grown-up London with all the zest of Saki's Clovis, his alter-ego predecessor.
Literary journalism was immediately con- genial. The town was full of entertaining friends and indulgent relations. Battle- ments and pediments and Firbankian lawns beckoned from the country. There were bohemia and Bloomsbury and the Sitwells and a host of eccentrics, and travel, and low life; there was his wild cousin Agatha Runcible — Elizabeth Ponsonby — and the Bright Young People. Instead of a monster cumulative hangover, the regimen gave birth to a more than promising volume of verse and a study of Beethoven; then far wandering, with a much older musical rela- tion, became the material for The Spring Journal, an accomplished book about the Nile and the Levant, and People of the South, three short novels in one, set in Ecuador, Chile and Brazil.
In Central Europe he fell in love with Therese, daughter of the remarkable Baroness Fould Springer, and the marriage brought him a new set of relations — Aus- trian, French and Jewish — all spinning on a Vienna-Paris axis. The family mansion near Schtinbrunn was rather overpowering, but they settled buoyantly into Viennese life.
There were frequent descents on Hun- garian shooting-boxes and wide Slovakian acres, until impending events drove them west. Illness and death ended this happy marriage in 1953. It was only briefly over- cast by Therese's sorrow when Alan, under instruction from Father Martindale, left the Anglican for the Roman Catholic Church. The change is movingly told. It was followed soon by the shrewd wind of aggiomamento.
Self-reproach sometimes broke through the sparkling current and regret for time wasted and ideas squandered in talk and parties and late hours; there were evenings with Cyril Connolly when they counted up the enemies of promise. But he was his own devil's advocate here, for his actual records read like a long tale of energy and achievement.
When the war broke out, he managed to get overseas before Dunkirk, and he ended it, steeped in Ultra mystery, as a lieu- tenant-colonel. Then he edited the Times Literaty Supplement for 12 important years, and radically changed it. This was a bril- liant appointment, and his wide reading and his knowledge of Europe and the Americas abolished all vestiges of parochialism and raised the circulation to unprecedented heights. At the same time he reviewed plays for the Observer and books for the New York Herald Tribune and lectured all over the globe for the British Council.
There are few grounds for reproach, then, and there is only one stricture on his work: there should have been twice as much, especially of his reminiscences. Alan knew everyone in the world and his stories were hilarious and leavened throughout with his sense of the absurd, in which he is always the first skittle to be shied at.
Four decades ago he settled in Newport, Rhode Island, out of reach, somehow, and married again; and for a time it looked as if he had abandoned Britannia to elope with the shade of Edith Wharton. But, luckily, he came back to London at least once a year, and when he did rooms were sudden- ly lightened again with his particular glow; for the years seemed to have given up this indestructible, articulate and still Clovis- like presence as a bad job. The Comic Muse was at his elbow still, and a raven with a cold seemed to hop in his footsteps, croaking 'Never bore!' Needless advice! He never did; but baseless dread drove him along too fast when we would have liked him to have halted longer and dug deeper.
But now that he has left us, the best rem- edy for a sense of loss is to re-open his last book — The Bonus of Laughter, with its title from a poem by his old friend John Betjeman — and to give way yet again to his surviving, resilient and totally engaging spell.