Mr Cattermole’s Successors

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In the autumn of 1991, I started working for the Royal Society of Literature, one of the strangest and most beguiling organizations in London. Nobody, not even Roy Jenkins, its President, seemed to have much idea of the RSL’s purpose, and so in the evenings, after work, I took to exploring the archives. They lived in a small room over the front door of the Society’s home, 1 Hyde Park Gardens, stuffed into lever arch files whose spines read like a register of literary ghosts: Barrie, Beckett, Beerbohm, Blunden, Brooke . . . The yellowing letters inside the files did not, on the whole, concern matters of great intellectual weight – one Fellow had left his kid gloves after a lecture and wanted them ‘sent down’ to him in the country; another, suffering from lumbago, offered his apologies for the next Council meeting. But among them I found something that made me sit up. It was a list of my predecessors as Secretary: ten of them, beginning, in 1820, with Mr Cattermole. On average, I calculated, they had each served seventeen years. Never! I thought. Not me!

It took a while to understand that time moved differently at the RSL. In the first-floor office – a room roughly the size and shape of a tennis court ‒ Rip Van Winkle might have woken from a fifty-year doze to find little changed. I worked at a roll-top desk on a manual typewriter. There was only one electrical point, and no central heating, so in the winter I huddled over a free-standing gas heater which, on ignition, belched flames like a dragon. Ranged around me on the shelves were supplies of stationery that must have been laid in when the Society moved here, on a fixed rent of £500 per annum, just after the war. There were sticks of sealing wax, ox-blood red and embossed, curiously, ‘BANK OF ENGLAND’. There were boxes of dip-pen nibs from a Birmingham company called C. Brandauer & Co. Ltd. I have one in front of me as I write. ‘These pens neither scratch nor spurt,’ it boasts

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About the contributor

Maggie Fergusson is Culture Editor of 1843 and Literary Adviser to the Royal Society of Literature. She has written biographies of George Mackay Brown and Michael Morpurgo.

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