Avid to Live and Learn

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I shall always be grateful to A Cab at the Door. I read most of it one Sunday evening in a Victoria line tube train which was stuck for two hours outside King’s Cross station. The train lights dimmed and instead of the Blitz spirit a sullen, twitchy silence set in. I was spectacularly lucky in my companion. The sheer vigour of V. S. Pritchett’s writing and his benign, shrewd storyteller’s voice kept me suspended in his Edwardian boyhood until ‘the juice’, as the panic-stricken driver called it, came back on and we trundled away at last.

By the time VSP – as he was affectionately known – came to write A Cab at the Door (1968) and its sequel, Midnight Oil (1971), he was in his late sixties and in his prime as an incomparable short-story writer, prolific man of letters and fine travel writer. The New Yorker welcomed his stories, and his reviews for the New Statesman were a fixture when its arts pages were required reading; he was revered by its young mafiosi, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, in the 1970s. His memoir was highly praised and serialized on both sides of the Atlantic.

Undoubtedly you can find others that cover more spectacular personal contributions to world events, but I can’t remember a more enjoyable account of an early life than this. How could it have been allowed to fall out of print? Why has Pritchett’s name faded from public view since his death? Partly perhaps because of the increasing rarity of short stories, for which he was justly best known, and which like other endangered species have suffered badly from erosion of their former habitat in magazines and journals. Also today the cult of pessimism dominates, whereas for much of his life VSP seems to have been an unfashionably contented man, and something of that (though nothing smug) comes across in his work.

In this first volume he describes with salty zest and a jaunty lack of sentiment the twenty years that it took to find his escape route from a rackety childhood, via Christian Science and four years in the leather trade: hardly the standard preface to a life of letters.

The family’s misfortunes circled around his Panglossian father Walter, the focus of many unresolved filial emotions, whose unsettling vanities and ambivalent character would supply VSP with rich material to explore later. Bankrupt for the first time within a year of Victor’s birth in 1900, Walter failed to match his aspirations to cold reality, so the household was subject to sudden crises. Victor’s excitable cockney mother coped fitfully, and young Vic was often packed off to his paternal grandparents’ house in Yorkshire where he was delighted to wear clean clothes without holes and to be stuffed with his grandma’s famous cakes and tarts.

By the time two more brothers and a sister had arrived, ‘Father seemed as sumptuous as a millionaire and my mother was worn down. It was like a marriage of the rich and poor.’ Dressed like a magnate, spraying largesse over the trappings of his trade, Walter ignored the business itself, never mind the family. Enthralled by his account of an evening watching Peter Pan at the theatre with a client, it never occurred to his children that he could have taken them.

The young Vic was a London child, reared in the mean streets and shabby-genteel suburbs of a city masochistically proud of its ‘curry powder’ fogs and dingy melodramas. The cab at the door was the sign that the household was about to do another flit. They rarely stayed anywhere for longer than a year. The cab stopped at Woodford (twice) – Derby – Palmers Green – Balham – Uxbridge – Acton – Ealing – Hammersmith – Camberwell – Ipswich – Dulwich and Bromley.

Trapped at home, his despairing mother would suddenly get the urge to move the furniture. ‘From me to you. From you to me. Lower a bit. Tip it,’ Victor’s brother said, playing the removal man, and making her scream with laughter and drop her end. There were no servants and she made all her own and the children’s clothes – no curtains were safe when the dressmaking urge struck. On their first day at a new school in Dulwich the two oldest boys wore trousers refashioned from an enormous pair of Father’s pinstripes (Walter grew very stout). Victor got the Savile Row fly buttons down the side of one leg, with a hole snipped in the front tacking for when he needed to ‘go’. When school finished the thread had completely unravelled and he hardly dared shuffle home. ‘No one else had a Managing Director’s trousers on,’ he realized. ‘We were a race apart; abnormal but proud of our stripes, longing for the normality we saw around us.’

Deftly the author strips out the layers of self-deception that warp the family, and exposes the duplicities that allow them to live at ease with impossible contradictions. Bent to his father’s inexorable will, young Vic hid and lied about his own secret will that stubbornly waited to break free. Nicknamed ‘the dirty poet’ and ‘the professor’ by the family, he took refuge from the mêlée up a tree or on a shed roof, struggling with unsuitable reading. His secret prayer was to become Poet Laureate ‘before I am twenty-one’. A wonderful selfportrait emerges of the excitable ardent boy who knows he has something special but in his ignorance can’t see how or where to reach it. ‘The cry of the autodidact and snob broke out in me in agony: “Shall I never catch up?”’

Victor’s education took many odd directions, most of which the resourceful youth eventually turned to advantage. After Walter embraced Christian Science he took it up too, partly in order to meet new people at Sunday school. Soon he defeated the church elders in argument about the origin of evil, but tactfully agreed that the Eminences were right. He ‘believed, yet did not believe, very comfortably, at the same time’. VSP slyly lampoons Mrs Eddy’s jargon, noting how quickly Eternal Harmony vanished when they returned from the Absolute to the Relative and found their mother at war with the kitchen stove at home, ‘Letting Error in’. Years later Victor would find his way into journalism through reporting for the Christian Science Monitor, which never published bad news but had excellent foreign correspondents.

His worst reverses, apart from a wounding rejection by a girl which held him back for years, came from adult treacheries. He loved his downtrodden mother, but she was shifty about supporting him in his jousts with his father. Then the Yorkshire grandfather whom he trusted as an ally declared that the boy should be sent out to work.

Shame and despair! At 15 he was wrenched from school to be an office boy in the Bermondsey leather trade. The leather factor’s where he worked for the next four years was a Victorian family business run by a fierce paterfamilias and his four quarrelling sons. The relentless punishing routine eventually ground at Victor’s soul and made him ill. Even so, in that contradictory way of his he enjoyed the arcane workings of the trade, and being part of the ant-heap of toiling London. His Bermondsey years are among the most vivid, the men’s subversive office patter gleefully reproduced decades later – VSP has the gift of perfect pitch where dialogue and description are concerned.

Not for the first time, he was saved from sinking into unthinking despair by his inquisitive sympathetic spirit which found endless fascination in human variety. Avid to live and learn, he was led back to writing by leather trade customers and tradesmen, brilliantly resurrected, who noticed the book on his lap and recommended others.

If any quality defines V. S. Pritchett’s writing it’s his way of making ordinary people exotic and surprising. His characters seem almost more real than life, so that rereading his stories, I catch myself wondering if they have managed to do something different while my back was turned. The rich cast he summons in his autobiography have that fresh unexpectedness too, but the young man’s escape at the end of A Cab at the Door, through literature and travel, is the inevitable and longed-for passage to another life. He senses that in order to write he must become an outsider. ‘To love, travel is almost the complete alternative,’ he muses: ‘it is lonely, it is exhausting, but one has lived completely by one’s eyes and ears and is immolated in the world one is discovering.’

In a dreamlike early sequence the boy takes back to London the memory of a white road leading across the purple moors of Yorkshire, ‘rising and disappearing, a road that I longed to walk on, mile after mile’. In Castile the young man would come across a road which reminded him of it and beckoned him to walk across Spain, and thence to write his first book. But that comes later, in the sequel to A Cab at the Door: another treasure in store.

© Anne Boston, Slightly Foxed Issue 19, Autumn 2008


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