25 NOVEMBER 1955, Page 14


The Other Oliver Edwards

IT was bound to happen sooner or later. The advertisement in the Agony Column read : 'Oliver Edwards, of London- derry and Lisburn, formerly of Cardiff and Reading, begs to state he has not the honour of being the contributor to The Times of identicallzame.'

My more cultured readers will scarcely need reminding that 'Oliver Edwards' is the nom de plume under which, for the past nine months, The Times has printed the principal article on the page which it devotes every week to contemporary, or anyhow modern, literature. From the first moment when 'Oliver Edwards' appeared in the middle of those acres of anonymity (`during the brisk but ineffective exchange of fire which followed a chance bullet, after passing through your correspondent's hat, slightly damaged the military attaché's motor-car'), I knew there was going to be trouble; and my enjoyment of the articles which 'Oliver Edwards' writes has always been clouded by a faint foreboding.

I see now, like a commander whose flank has been turned, that I was worrying about the wrong things. I was of course conscious of the fact that there must, throughout the length and breadth of the English-speaking world, be some hundreds or perhaps thousands of people who bear the same names as Dr. Johnson's philosopher-friend, but I assumed them to be either sunk in, apathy or else swarthy dentists in the Windward Islands who do not, for one reason or another, read The Times. The sort of people I worried about were, I now see, peripheral to the main problem.

I thought of the eager undergraduate, questing for those human, personal details, the dust which he is learning to throw in the examiner's eyes: the name of Dr. Johnson's cat, the number of miles Trollope rode every day while he was in the Post Office, the exact tonnage of the Nona, the significance of the recurrent surname 'Crutwell' in the works of Mr. Waugh. Others, after all, abide these questions. . . .

Then I remembered, with a pang of remorse, a sarcastic letter which I had once helped to compose. It was addressed to a well-known press-cutting agency. Their lynx-eyed employees had discovered that The Knight of the BUM* Pestle, by Beaumont and Fletcher, was to be performed by the dramatic society at one of our older universities; the principal roles would be sustained by Mr. A, Mr. B and Mr. C. The agency, very sensibly, sent to the society's premises letters addressed to Messrs. A, B and C, offering to collate on their behalf, in return for a modest fee, all references henceforth made by the British press to them in their newly acquired status as public figures. But the agency addressed similar missives to —. Beaumont, Esq., and —. Fletcher, Esq., and thus drew fire from me and my only less insufferable contemporaries.

What happens, I wondered, when the rival press-cutting agencies compete for Oliver Edwards's favours? What happens when the exigent boss-figure enters the door marked `E' and cons the progress-chart upon the wall? An uneasy hush falls upon the ranks of maidens whose day-long duty it is to count out the small change of fame or notoriety; eviscerated Tatlers slip, with a kind of soughing death-rattle, to the floor. From beyond a partition come the sounds of a Stakhanovite activity. Lucky D's! if only Lady Docker had married (say) an Ellerman!

The boss-figure takes in the monthly statistics at a glance. `It's the same old story,' he admonishes the elderly, cringing master-cutter. 'Eden's carrying this department. Nobody's trying. I admit you pulled yourselves together a bit when you lost Edward VIII, but now . . Eliot, T. S., and Evans, Dame E.: they're always there or thereabouts, they've got stamina. But what about some new blood? . . . Eccles? Yes, I give you Eccles. Always finishes strongly. Bin look at Ely and Exeter! Selling-platers, most of these bishops, mere selling-platers. . . . Who's this Euripides? Shipowner?'

`So we believe, sir. He seems to have an interest in the theatre, too. He hasn't replied so far.'

`Keep after him,' enjoins the boss-figure. 'Follow him up. Talking of that sort of thing, what's happened about Edwards, O.? The chairman keeps on sending me reminders.'

'I'm afraid he hasn't answered either, sir.'


And so it goes on. The editors of standard reference-books- The Writers' and Artists' Year Book, Who's Who in Literature, and so forth—are constantly getting dusty answers. The secre- taries of literary societies in Cheshire ('any Friday evening in February . . . It is always much appreciated if the speaker is willing to answer questions after his address. . . . Regret we are not in a position to offer you a fee'). are in the same boat; so are the plushy photographers who (in moments, one imagines, of desperation) write to literary gentlemen and offer them free sittings. In all these circles a vague malaise, a daunting awareness of being up against the imponderable, has been slowly building itself up.

* * But on these people, I now realise, the effect of Oliver Edwards's choice of a nom de plume was far less discon- certing than it was on those whose nom he actually chose. And now the first of these worms to turn has presented us with a new mystery : what made him turn? It is not a straight- forward case, like that of the two Winston S. Churchills, of one literary personality wishing to avoid confusion with a namesake. The real Mr. Oliver Edwards (if I may so call him) does not describe himself as 'Author of Bell-ringing Down the Ages, I Was a Sword-swallower, The Soul of Nesta Figg, etc.': he describes himself as 'formerly of Cardiff and Reading.'

This sounds a difficult as well as an unenviable thing for one man (now residing in Ireland) to be, unless of course he played football for both places; but at any rate it is pretty clear that he is not in the literary world, or he would have said so. What drove him to advertise the fact that he is not the Oliver Edwards? Is he fed up with getting letters from his old friends in Cardiff and Reading saying that they never knew he had it in him? Do the young poets of Londonderry mew pitifully outside his front door at night? What exactly, to use a vulgar phrase, is eating him?

We shall never know; and we can only wait to see how many of the other Oliver Edwardses, the hot blood of their clan stirring, will rush into print to make it clear that they, too, must disclaim the honour of leading the avant-garde at Printing House Square. The lesson. of the whole thing seems to be that, whether they have literary antecedents or not. commonplace surnames are, as an alternative to anonymity. not really such satisfying disguises as a good old-fashioned pseudonym, like Captain Coe, or Corisande, or Comet.