Putting up Useful Shelves

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In 1922, Richard Kennedy’s formidable grandmother pulled a well-connected string and got him a scholarship to Marlborough. To say that Kennedy’s education up to this point had been patchy is an understatement. As he describes it in his childhood memoir A Parcel of Time, it consisted of ‘two uneducated women’, his mother and his nurse, failing to teach him to read, followed by a series of pretty dire south-coast prep schools from which he generally absented himself by the simple expedient of taking the bus home.

By the time he reached Marlborough he was (more or less) literate, but a scholar he was not, and everyone knew it. At the age of 16 he found that his presence was no longer required at this august establishment and he left without a qualification to his name, thus joining that long line of individuals considered dunderheads at school, who later flourish, creating much-loved, enduring work while the clever chaps are forgotten. Think of Kathleen Hale and Orlando (Slightly Foxed, No. 14); think of Rosemary Sutcliff (Slightly Foxed, Nos. 4 and 17). As for Richard Kennedy, a distinguished artistic career lay ahead. Before that, however, he was to spend a memorable period as an apprentice to Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, and in his wickedly funny account of that time, A Boy at the Hogarth Press, he produced a minor classic.

I arrived much too early this morning and had a long wait before Mrs Cartwright and Miss Belcher arrived to open the Press. They both wore overalls: Miss Belcher a flowered one and Ma Cartwright a plain beige one which has a long way to go round her as she is very stout . . . She nearly fell down the area steps when she arrived – she runs everywhere on very high heels and appears to be very efficient, typing at a terrific speed. Leonard Woolf obviously does not think her at all efficient. In fact he was bloody awful to her in front of Miss Belcher and myself because she tried to cover up some trivial mistake.

Rarely has High Art been so candidly observed at close quarters or so beguilingly combined with domestic detail. Richard Kennedy arrived at the Press, located in a handsome Georgian house in Tavistock Square, in 1926. He had been taken on by ‘LW’ on the recommendation of Kennedy’s Uncle George – another string pulled on behalf of the fatherless boy (John Kennedy was killed in 1915, in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle) and to much the same effect as the one that got him into Marlborough: Kennedy arrived all eagerness and enthusiasm, ‘getting a second chance to prove myself ’, and left three and a half years later, pronounced by LW to be ‘the most frightful idiot he [had] ever had the privilege of meeting in a long career of suffering fools’. It is clear, however, that a great deal of mutual affection passed between them, and indeed between all parties, in a basement world of pinafores and packing cases, proofs pegged up to dry, Eccles cakes and apple turnovers, and the snoring spaniel Pinker, LW’s constant companion.

Pinker, A Boy at the Hogarth Press

There was also, of course, ‘Mrs Woolf ’, yet to publish her first masterpiece, To the Lighthouse (1927), and to be seen writing in a large windowless room surrounded by bales of books – novels, political and psychoanalytical essays, belles-lettres and biography, not to mention the Russians. When not writing she is acting as hand-press compositor; conversing with visitors – Desmond MacCarthy, Roger Fry, American publishers; wafting in from a party in some marvellous gown; forever rolling her shag cigarettes. The smoke from those roll-ups is a leitmotif of this enchanting memoir: the others are LW’s trembling hands and cries of anguish as some new stupidity is perpetrated – Kennedy’s spelling of ‘accept’ as ‘except’, for example, in a two-line letter about a manuscript which it takes him an hour to type; and the lunchtime walks with LW (accompanied by Pinker) round Tavistock Square, where the great plane trees mark the seasons. On these occasions RK learned a lot from LW, who became something of a father figure to a young man who had been brought up since the age of 2 by a widowed mother and a colourful succession of nurses. Partly under LW’s tutelage, partly just by soaking up the atmosphere, Kennedy now found himself reading T. S. Eliot, Anatole France, D. H. Lawrence and Proust – this last the cause of some bemusement to Mrs Woolf, as RK pronounced it to rhyme with Faust.

But the boy also endeavoured to make himself useful. He packed books, wrote (better) letters, put up a shelf. There were numerous shelves for books, but none for the countless leaflets and circulars announcing each new title. Kennedy, endeavouring to put this right, found it ‘a much harder job than I thought . . . It did not take me long to discover that the damp and rotten walls were not going to give much purchase to the rawl plugs holding the brackets.’ Eventually, the shelf goes up. Inevitably, it later comes down, in a scene which is a small masterpiece of comic writing.

This was not the only time RK had had problems with shelves, as the reader of A Parcel of Time will discover, though that incident was potentially more serious, involving a bath and a naked child. This lovely memoir is characterized by the same self-deprecating humour and gently pitiless observation that marks A Boy at the Hogarth Press but, unlike that well-intentioned but often disastrous sojourn in Bloomsbury, it contains a true epiphany: the moment at which Kennedy realized his vocation as an artist.

And it is not, of course, only the writing that distinguishes these memoirs. Kennedy’s fluidly expressive illustrations portray with affectionate accuracy both the great presiding influences of his childhood (including a mother who in desperate moments wished he had never been born) and the industrious life of the Hogarth Press: the writing, the typing, the parcelling up; the receiving of visitors (of whom the bookseller Simpkin Marshall, always in a hurry, is one of the most memorable); and – my favourite – the trudging through endless rain in some provincial city with a briefcase crammed with unsold books.

I was given A Boy at the Hogarth Press for Christmas some years ago, and it made my day: I lay by the fire on the sofa (someone else must have done the washing-up) and was completely entranced by the world it recreated. For the life of a small publisher is like no other: it’s all hands to the pump in a way which now simply doesn’t happen in a vast conglomerate awash with money. In an age where company swallows company, and Amazon endeavours to swallow the lot, it is refreshing to think not only of the long-gone activities of the Hogarth Press, but also of the office of Slightly Foxed, where jiffy bags are stuffed by everyone as each new title in this series is published, ready to be sent off to loyal subscribers.

© Sue Gee 2009, Slightly Foxed Issue 20


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