Beverley Baxter's London Letter: Gang War on the Avon

June 1 1947

Beverley Baxter's London Letter: Gang War on the Avon

June 1 1947

Beverley Baxter's London Letter: Gang War on the Avon

IT WAS with modified rapture that my nearly 16-year-old son Clive and my nearly 14-year-old daughter Merihah learned from their parents that the Baxter family was going to Stratford-on-Avon to witness the opening of the Shakespeare Festival. Even the fact that the play was “Romeo and Juliet” did not make their youthful hearts heat faster. They offered the alternative suggestion that we should stay in London and see Mr. Humphrey Bogart in a film, hut they didn’t really expect to get away with it.

So off we set in our low-powered motor car (some day I shall give it to science as a grade detector) and reached Oxford for lunch. It was a holiday period and the undergraduates had scattered to the four winds, but. the colleges were there in all their cloistered dignity and sombre timelessness.

Pulling up at the Mitre Hotel, sometimes referred to by commercial travellers as their Alma Mitre, we made our way through the cold pitiless rain to the oak-heamed antiquity of the famous hotel. It was crowded and no table in t he dining room was available for half an hour so we went in to the lounge and ordered beer for t hree and something or other for one.

“Sorry, sir,” said the polite waiter, “hut this lounge is licensed and children are not admitted.”

1 asked him about t he lounge just by t he entrance from the street. “No, sir,” he said. “It is licensed too. That has been the law since 1857.” Or it may have been 1587.

Good old Merrie England! But what could we do with the children? The dining room was full, the two lounges were out of hounds, and it was raining cats and dogs outside. “Can we sit on the floor here in the hall,” I asked, “beside the luggage?”

“Oh, yes, sir,” said the waiter. “That will be quite all right. It is not licensed.”

“So we can have anything we like?”

He agreed that it was even so, and so it was. In fairness there was a box and a chair so we did not really sit on the floor.

Eventually we had lunch in the licensed dining room, where it was quite in order for children to sit at the table. And all this in a country which is hoping that Americans and Canadians will corne in their thousands and with their thousands. I suppose it is not the law which is so much at fault as its application. To keep children out of a saloon or a cocktail bar is obviously a desirable prohibition, hut if they cannot go into a lounge, where in the name of sanity can they he put?

Unable to answer that question we set off in the rain after lunch with the windshield wiper groaning its way to and fro across the glass, with lambkins only a few hours old huddling by their dams in the dry portions of flooded fields, with budless, blossomless trees as stark and gaunt as if it were late November, and hooded, muffled bicyclists weaving their way through puddles and against an illtempered wind. Truly the lovely countryside had paid a cruel price in this springless year.

But eventually we reached a goodly inn some 10 miles from Stratford and disembarked. Wisely its lounges were open to all, except that there were only half a dozen other guests beside ourselves. Grate fires were crackling away as if they had never heard of Shinwell, and there were current illustrated magazines on the table. The blustering rain dashed itself in impotent rage against the windows hut only added to our comfort. Life was good again.

Next morning, it being a public holiday, we started off to Stratford-on-Avon but pulled in to a petrol station to take on supplies. A surly fellow with a cigarette in his mouth came out and, in order to preserve the sanctity of the cigarette, peremptorily beckoned us to pull up nearer the pump. When he had filled the car with petrol we asked him for some water.

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“Where do you want it?” he grunted. Lacking a mechanical mind I asked him how many parts of a car there were that could absorb water.

“There’s the can,” he said. “You can do it for yourself. I won’t do it.”

At this I addressed him sternly, threatening to report him to the police and have hifi license taken away from him, though nqt quite sure what law covered the matter. He replied that it was his garage and that as far as he was concerned I could take my car to a place where water would be scarcer than champagne.

Obviously a Communist ... or at. least a Socialist . . . one of our now masters of course. Alas! that democracy should he so worth dying for and so uncomfortable to live with.

“1 am a member of Parliament,” I said, “and I think you are a miserable creature. As for the water you can keep it and drown yourself in it.”

For t he first, time he took the cigarette out of his mouth. “So you’re a member of Parliament,” he sneered. “One of those b . . . Socialists eh? Well, I’m a Conservative and you can take your car and your Socialism off mv premises.”

The rest, as Hamlet remarks, was silence. I was down for the count and did not try to rise.

Queuing for Shakespeare

A gale had sprung up by the time we reached Stratford, and the rowing boats on the lovely little river were hugging their moorings as if afraid to put out to midstream. At the Memorial Theatre there was already a queue of rainsoaked young people, though the gallery would not open for another six hours. For it was to he a great event, this opening performance of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Greatly daring, the governors had placed the production in the hands of 21-year-old Peter Brook, a boy who won fame as a producer when he was a 17-year-old undergraduate at Oxford and had had three or four subsequent successes in the London Theatre. With the daring of youth Mr. Brook had selected for Juliet an 18-year-old girl who had only played a small part before. His Romeo was 21, which made him almost a centenarian in that company, hut generally speaking the accent was on youth.

Like homing pigeons the dramaticcritics of London, producers and managers, as well as what is left of Society, were arriving for the great night. It w;ts ;t setting for a triumph. Nor was it only the actors and producers who were young. Between the ages of 30 and 33, a period in Shakespeare’s life in which, according to Bernard Shaw, he had not yet allowed his brains to rush to his head, he had written those exquisite pieces, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “All’s Well That Knds Well,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Only in his later years did he turn to the tragedies of “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” ‘‘King Lear” and all those historical dramas which have plagued the schoolboy and thrilled the adult through the centuries.

What kind of a man was Shakespeare? Like good trippers we went to the house of his birth and there, with other pilgrims, we were taken around the ground floor by one guide, and upstairs by another. How admirably they both did their work! There was no mumbo jumbo, no rattling of a memorized screed, but a loving reverence mixed with a sprightly recognition that Shakespeare was a lively fellow on his own account. His marriage to Ann Hathaway was obviously the Elizabethan equivalent of a shotgun wedding. He liked to be regarded as a man of consequence quite outside the theatre for did he not apply for a coat of arms for his father so that on his death the poet could describe himself as William Shakespeare, gentleman? And as you study the records you begin to perceive the difference between Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the writer.

For example, he reveals his innermost feelings as a poet when he causes Prospero to say in “The Tempest”:

“We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life

is rounded with a sleep.”

Thus did he supply the radiance of magic language to the last chapter of the human story. Yet so perturbed was he ¡is a man that he purchased for £400 (a great sum in those days) the perpetual rights of a grave to he dug L7 feet within the church itself, and he prepared this crude inscription for it:

“Good friend for Jesus sake Forbeare

To digg the dust enclosed heare:

Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,

And curse be he yt moves my Bones.”

No lofty sentiment, no gentle “out, out brief candle,” no pleading for his memory as a poet, no word of immortality in this world or the next. The man who gave undying words to Hamlet and Othello as death approached had nothing more for himself than a sixteenth-century equivalent of “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”

So we left tin* house of the myriadminded Shakespeare, whose genius is beyond mortal explanation, and drove hack to our inn to change, not forgetting to give the soldier's farewell to the garage keeper who was a Conservative.

What better prelude to a play than a hot bath, a good dinner, an imported cigar, and the companionship of one’s own? In such circumstances a man’s world is complete, and it is good. Even the rain seemed kindlier as it blew against the windows of the car, and the darkening countryside was tinctured

with friendly cottage windows. It was Shakespeare’scountry (to say nothingof being in Anthony Eden’s constituency) and its spell survived even the bufferings of the unkind elements.

The splendid theatre was so crowded that the faithful stood three deep behind the barriers. There was electricity in the air, find a murmur of anticipation as the lights faded and the curtain rose on a dim uninhabited square in Verona, w-hile muted French horns played weird, sad barbaric music. A ghostly figure slowly crossed the stage informing us that the story we were about to hear was sfidness beyond the limits of sadness. 1 wish I could quote his actual words but my Aberdeen terrier (named Max, after Lord Beaverbrook) got hold of my volume of Shakespeare’s plays last week and devoured “Hamlet,” “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet” at one sitting. Unlike my children he prefers Shakespeare to any other author in my library.

As soon as the solitary actor had reached the wings the stage leaped into life. Here was a blazing Latin sunlight: here were Capulets taunting the Montagues with tongues as sharp and ready as their rapiers: here were hot blood, hot hatred, hot sun and hot love: Here was Youth!

Young 21-year-old Master Peter Brook was going to prove once more that genius defies the years, and that experience is only a form of fatigue. Never had “Romeo and Juliet” opened so splendidly. I was doubly pleased because the girl playing Juliet is a constituent of mine in North London, although I had never met her or her family. Here, for once, my dual life as a critic and a politician blended perfectly.

Now if this were a short story instead of real life I would bring it to an end with scenes of wild enthusiasm, with Master Peter bowing his thanks and then announcing his engagement to Juliet, while Romeo offered to be best man.

Unfortunately life, unlike art, has no rules. The young lady was not a great Juliet. She remembered all her lines but was as English as a rose instead of being the dark flowering of precocious Italian womanhood. When she and Romeo did the balcony scene, which has lines of shimmering delight, they might have been a high-school pair being sentimental beneath the moon. In other words they failed to give music to the magic phrases and merely talked them.

But the duels were magnificent and the crowd scenes terrific. The production had everything but beauty, but if you take beauty from “Romeo and Juliet” you have nothing left except a gang war between two families.

“I liked it,” said Clive on the way home. “I never knew that Shakespeare could be so tough.”

“I didn’t like it,” said Meribah. “Juliet didn’t make me cry once.”

How wise women are, how infinitely more discerning than men. And how comforting it is to those of us who are older to know that even genius at 21 has something to learn that only the years can teach. Sorrow has not yet struck a note of music in Peter Brook’s breast, but some day it will and then the world will acclaim him.

When we got home Max was just starting on a volume of Shaw’s plays. Will someone tell me what to do with a high-brow Aberdeen terrier?


Government originated in the attempt to find a form of association that defends and protects the person and property of each with the common force of all.—Jean Jacques Rousseau.