By ALAN BRIEN
I HAD been toying with the idea of unveiling this week a few more pieces of Beaverbrookiana
ally that Kohinoor among anecdotes about the night the Lord flambeed himself in the Waldorf Towers pantry and the advice Mr. John Junor gave me as the smell of singed millionaire hovered like a smoky genie above the stricken dinner guests. But it has been put to me (mainly by me) that last week's instal- ment was what literary critics call 'a minor clas- sic' and that any additional decoration would spoil its spare and elegRnt lines. There was also a small, warning voice at the back of my cranium which spoke up, saying, 'Haven't you made enough enemies already?' After all, there are still 'those gems from my Hugh Cudlipp Collection, those selections from my David Astor Anthology, the still-unsorted cellarful of souvenirs from my Days with Randolph Churchill, not to mention a newer case of exhibits to me by Lady Pamela Berry, few of which have ever been displayed before the general public. (Though, of course, any bona-fide student has always been permitted to inspect the treasures if he presented himself at the side door with a bottle in one hand.)
So, instead, I have chosen the safer course of dusting off my one and only Hemingway story which floated up into my memory after reading his posthumous bitcheries about Scott Fitzgerald. In 1956, it reached the ears of the Evening Standard that Hemingway was in mid-Atlantic on the Libertd. And some officious desk-bound fellow conceived the idea of sending me down to Plymouth to hook on to him as he passed by within sight of the English shore." My journey down there was made miserable by the thought that I might have to scale some slippery,'swinging, rope ladder, green with fear and seasickness, while 'the great man sneered from the bridge.
Needless to say, the operation which had been simply demonstrated in Shoe Lane by moving a nicotined finger across a tiny map of England turned out, when put into effect by a flesh-and- blood correspondent dealing with actual trains, motor-cars, boats and bureaucrats, to be an odyssey of snags and frustrations. Once in my compartment I was seized with a fit of nervous amnesia and suffered from delusions that I should' be going to Portsmouth or Southampton. The shipping line at Plymouth was shrouded in a pall of vagueness about the hour, or even the day, of the Liberte's arrival. Some officials promised that I could travel out to its mooring spot on the luggage tender. Others insisted that the Customs authorities would not permit any visitors. The shore-to-ship radio telephone operator connected me with a laconic American voice which insisted that Mr. Hemingway had failed to turn up in time for the departure from New York.
My only success was in hiring a miniature tug affair, steered by a Bogartian, unshaven salt in plimsolls and a yachting cap, for £5. That at least would give a professional look to my expense sheet. We seemed to spend hours circling the ship while the suitcases spilled out of some hole in its side like giant children's bricks, but no one resembling the great man peered out from'among the faces along the rails. Once inside, not up a rope ladder but across an almost equally vertigin- ous and shuddering ramp, I realised that I had not the faintest idea of where to start looking. It
had never occurred to me that a liner could be so enormous and complicated—it was like being insinuated into the base of a bee-hive and told to have a word with the queen.
My deadline, which had once seemed so com- fortingly distant, was now almost upon me. I started running the corridors shouting,. 'Ott est hitnsieur 'Emingway? S'il vous bloody plait.' Various steward figures in dazzling white ducks gave me cabin numbers, apparently at random, in French, and I plunged, sweating and Medusa- haired, into various wrong staterooms. Twice I found bars tucked away in windowless metal caverns. The bar tenders denied any knowledge of 'Emingway and suggested different bars. Other journalists, who must have been deposited aboard by submarine, appeared at the end of long car- peted vistas, pantomimed fury and contempt for rival papers like the Demon King, and made off at a trot. Eventually, having traversed the ship a couple of times, I arrived back at one of the bars and discovered there a battered, burly figure humped on a. stool. He didn't look like Heming- way as much as like an old, over-exposed, badly retouched photograph of Hemingway. His hair and beard seemed to have been knitted on, heavy wooden needles out of shiny, new, delicate barbed-wire. His face, such of it as was visible, was as bright as a peeled orange. And as he spoke tiny vessels appeared to explode across his cheeks like Very shells over a battlefield. `Mr. Hemingway,' he said, 'has nothing to say to the press, but I will buy you a drink.'
He spoke very slowly and carefully like some- one counting out small change in a foreign currency and watching to spot the moment when he is being overcharged. I took the drink and poured it down into a stomach already distended by a queasy brew of awe and resentment. Now I was here I couldn't think of a single thing to say. A hasty rake over the surface of my mind produced a recent small news item—some bumptious tourist in Havana had taken Hemingway's place at a bar and been picked up and ejected by an indignant boozing crony. What was the use of preaching about the True and the Beautiful and the Good and That's The Way It Should Be Among Men, I asked, if the preacher behaved like any Hollywood bum on a spree?
Hemingway punched himself in slow-motion on the ear as if annoyed that it should be trans- mitting such gibberish. 'You a drinking man?' he said. 'Yes,' I said. 'You have your favourite bar?' I suppose so,' I said. 'Then you have your favourite place in that bar. And that is your place. And they keep it for you.' No I don't,' I said, 'And no they don't.' Then it's, not a real bar,' he said amicably. 'In a real bar, they keep your place where you put your back to the wall. That's all.' That's pot all,' I said, stamping , my feet. That's Warner Brothers gangster talk. How would you like it if I had you thrown out of my bar?' Just then a fat Frenchman appeared. 'I think my seat, sir,' he announced. Hemingway slid off like a boxer who hears the bell for the next round. 'Excuse me. Excuse me,' he said. 'Your seat, certainly.' There was a longish pause and then we were both shaking with laughter until the counter rattled. `To hell with newspapers,' he shouted. `Come to France. We'll get off the boat and just drive into anywhere.'
I thought of the nicotined finger, the last edition, the pay slip, Lord Beaverbrook. 'Some other time,' I said. Back on shore I scribbled my newsless story as I waited for the call to FLE 3000 to come through. At last it came—`the office is closed for the day,' they said, 'try to- morrow morning.' And that's the way it was.