A SOCIAL EVENING WITH THE WOOLFS
I went to supper with the Woolfs. We had strawberries and cream. Mrs W was in a very happy mood. She said she had been to a nightclub the night before and how marvellous it was inventing new foxtrot steps. I thought LW’s back looked a bit disapproving as he was dishing out the strawberries. The other guest was George Rylands,* a very good-looking young man who had worked for the Woolfs before going to university. We were publishing a book by him called Words and Poetry and McKnight Kauffer had done a design for the cover. George Rylands egged Mrs W on to talk about how much she enjoyed kicking up her heels. I couldn’t help feeling a little shocked. Some people came in with huge bundles of flowers to give * her. They had been commissioned to write an article about dirt-track racing. As they were very hard up, they were very anxious to get the job, but the editor had turned down their manuscripts. Mrs W had come to their rescue and written a description of the sport, in which she had compared the roaring machines and the arc lights to a medieval tournament. Some more people came in after supper. Mrs Woolf started rolling her shag cigarettes. She gave one to an American lady who nearly choked to death. She started talking about the Hogarth Press in a way that I thought didn’t please LW very much, saying it was like keeping a grocer’s shop. I think she is rather cruel in spite of the kind rather dreamy way she looks at you. She described Mrs Cartwright as having the step of an elephant and the ferocity of a tiger, which gives a very false impression as Ma Cartwright has no ferocity at all, although she does charge about everywhere. She also described her sliding down the area steps on her bottom, during the frost. I consider it bad form to laugh at your employees.
June 30. A LITERARY SWAIN. MRS W. AT WORK
Desmond MacCarthy came into the Press and asked to see Mrs W. But she had given strict instructions she was not to be disturbed so he had to content himself with writing her a note. He took about half an hour to do this, leaning on the high schoolmaster’s desk which we use as a counter. It would take him a long time to write his articles in the Sunday Times at this rate. In the door that leads into our office from the back there is a square window through which Mrs W can look to see if the coast is clear to enter the office. When we have exhausted the parcels of fifty copies of each book which are kept in the office, Miss Belcher and I have to enter her studio and manhandle and open one of the very large bales of 500 that are stored there. Sitting in her little space by the gas fire, she reminds me of the Bruce Bairnsfather veterans of the War, surrounded by sandbags. She looks at us over the top of her steel-rimmed spectacles, her grey hair hanging over her forehead and a shag cigarette hanging from her lips. She wears a hatchet-blue overall and sits hunched in a wicker armchair with her pad on her knees and a small typewriter beside her.
August 1. THE SHELF
Today the trumpet blasts. I put up my shelf. It proved to be a much harder job than I thought. In the first place I had to walk like Jesus carrying the Cross practically the whole way to Tavistock Square because the conductor refused to let me on the bus with the wood. 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. Great chunks of plaster kept falling off and filling the room with dust. Finally, but only just, I got the shelf erected, then, very nervously, I started to pile the circulars on to it. I expected it to collapse at any moment, but it took their weight. Finally, at eleven o’clock I left triumphant on my way to Russell Square Tube Station. LW and Mrs W are going down to Rodmell next week, but he will have a chance to see the shelf before he goes.
A LETTER TO A SCHOOL FRIEND
How are you getting on in the Upper Fifth, old lad? By the time you leave I shall be a celebrated chap in the literary world, making pots of money!
The Hogarth Press where I’m working, is in the heart of the literary world, with authors coming in all the time. Mrs Woolf, wife of the manager, is a very celebrated author and, in her own way, more important than Galsworthy. LW and Mrs W think nothing of Galsworthy.
The premises are a bit smelly as we work in the basement which was the kitchen quarters in an epoch when light and sanitation were not considered important for servants.
The general office has an enormous dresser in which the ledgers are kept. The kitchen range has been taken out and a gas fire and ring put in its place. The typist, Miss Belcher, makes tea on the ring. She is quite pretty, but not up to your sister.**
There is a dark sort of passage running to the back of the building along the sides of which parcels of books are stacked. Several cell-like rooms, which were probably used for the torture of Victorian skivvies, lead off it. One of these is used for printing.
The WC is just a cupboard without light with some holes in the door.
At the end of the passage across a small area is a big room with a skylight. This is called the studio and is where Mrs Woolf works. It is full of the large bales of books, each containing about 500 copies, that come from the printers. Their weight makes them suck up the damp from the stone floor and the room smells of mildew.
But this sort of thing does not matter if you are in the literary world. Ma Cartwright runs the office. She is very short and stout and sends me out to buy Banbury and Eccles cakes at the Express Dairy.
I went there for lunch on the first day with the typist but Mr Woolf has said we must go to lunch separately.
The house is going to miss me playing Back for them next year. I try to keep in training by going for a run round Battersea Park odd mornings. I wish I could get some rugger.
*George ‘Dadie’ Rylands (1902–99). Sometime Bursar, Lecturer and Director of Studies at King’s College, Cambridge. The Hogarth Press published his Words and Poetry and Poems.
**Ann Todd. Became film actress. Best known probably for The Seventh Veil (1946) with James Mason.
Extract from Plain Foxed Edition: Richard Kennedy, A Boy at the Hogarth Press
© Richard Kennedy 1972