The press agent everybody wants to meet


BLAIR FRASER November 1 1953

The press agent everybody wants to meet


BLAIR FRASER November 1 1953

The press agent everybody wants to meet



A GOVERNMENT information officer is normally a man in search of an audience. Part of his job is to take on invitations from groups too obscure to be spoken to by the ambassador or the minister or the first secretary; no group is too obscure for the information officer, who is hired to put his country’s case to anyone who will listen.

Nicholas Monsarrat, the new British Information Officer in Ottawa, thus seems to be living in a press agent’s paradise. Even before he left South

Africa, his last post, he had received several invitations to speak in Canada. By the time he was well settled in Ottawa these bids totalled more than a hundred. Monsarrat declined two thirds of them, but he set out early in October on an eight-month series of thirty-five speeches to some of the best audiences in Canada, all on his favorite subject, the Commonwealth.

This special treatment arises, of course, from the fact that Monsarrat is the author of The Cruel Sea, a novel about war in the north Atlantic. The book has sold more than a million and a half copies in fifteen languages, including Japanese. The film is packing theatres, in London, New York and various other places, including Canada where it opened in Ottawa with considerable fanfare. The two have earned Monsarrat an estimated three hundred

thousand dollars before taxes, and fame that sets him apart from his fellows.

Ordinarily information officers are step-children, at best, of any foreign service. The typical newcomer to Monsarrat’s job is unnoticed by anyone save the equally humble fauna of the newspaper world, and even they tend to patronize him.

Monsarrat, by contrast, is the best-known member of the diplomatic corps in Ottawa. Envoys of other countries, who never before have either known or cared who the British Information Officer might be, now beset their senior colleagues at Earnscliff’e for an opportunity to meet the Monsarrats.

One parish organization wrote to the British Information Office for any used object, old clothing or the like, cast off by the author of The Cruel Sea. They planned to raffle it for the benefit of the parish poor. Monsarrat considered sending them a pair of old flannels which he’d lately been persuaded to abandon, but finally sent an autographed copy of The Cruel Sea—a precedent he may have cause to regret.

The object of all this adulation is a tall, thin, angular Englishman of forty-three who carries his burden of fame with composure and the appearance of ease. As British Information Officer he behaves like any other—sends out bales of second-class mail to a mailing list of four hundred; is suitably affable to editors and correspondents; generally gives a pretty good impersonation of a run-of-mine public relations man.

On the whole the impersonation is successful, but it is never likely to become flawless. Monsarrat in fact is no more like a typical civil servant than a tropical fish is like a cod. Even if he’d never written a best-seller and become rich and famous he would still have gone down in anybody’s book as a very unusual character who’s had a very unusual career.

It began in the most eminent respectability. His father is a surgeon in Liverpool, where Nicholas was born in 1910; his uncle heads a family firm of barristers and solicitors in which the young Monsarrat was intended to become a partner. He went to Winchester, one of the liest and oldest and most respectable of British public schools; he went to Cambridge. He read law, and for eighteen months after leaving university he plugged dutifully away in his uncle’s law office.

This promising career was cut off abruptly when Monsarrat “ran away to London” with his family’s chill disapproval, an old typewriter, a half-finished novel and forty pounds in cash.

For the next few years he lived in a kind of poverty and squalor that he’d never seen in his life before. The half-finished Continued on page 55

he said and picked up the right-hand telephone. “Yes, doctor,” he said,

“—Ten more . . . Well, well doctor, you keep us busy . . . But the ten will be taken care of . . . Yes, doctor, I promise ...”

He hung up the right-hand telephone and seized the left-hand one which in turn was buzzing.

“Fifty?” he said. “Very well, colonel ... 1 understand . . . What rank? Just simple soldiers. I understand . . . We’ll try to put them through in a group . . . Thanks for having thought of me, colonel. Always at your disposal . . . My regards, colonel.”

After that he talked on both phones at once and I thought I heard my name. “What, you can’t pass him this afternoon? But of course he’s in a hurry. Why? You know perfectly well, Franck, the usual story. Toward four? All right. Thanks, Franck. I’ll do as much for you some day.”

Then, turning a condescending look on me, he said: “Go to Building B, Wing 1, Room Number 3454 and ask for Mr. Franck who will examine you. Of course, you’ll have to wait your turn, hut he’ll put you through this afternoon. He promised me he would. Please don’t fail. We will be very happy to have you with us.”

The girl in the black uniform drew near. Mr. Frazer stood up, dismissing me.

I HAD great trouble in finding Building B. To reach it I had to follow a narrow track across muddy ground. Once again the yellowish fog had taken possession of the land. A crowd of distraught travelers stumbled around me.

The building was a skyscraper. Automatically its elevator bore me to the thirty-fourth floor. In front of Room 3454 was a queue of men and women. With resignation I joined it. ’This time it was a twofold operation. In the shadowy outer corridor the people stood. When they finally penetrated the anteroom of Mr. Franck they settled into some twenty armchairs. A ground-glass panel separated them from the inspector who, from time to time, summoned the next one. Then the nearest armchair occupant got up and all the others moved up one notch. The woman ahead of me was young. She wore a beaver coat and kept wiping her eyes. When her turn finally came it took only a minute or two. As she went out she seemed somewhat comforted. Behind the ground-glass panel the voice said “Next.”

I went in. On the far side of a bleached wood table sat a man in shirtsleeves. His face was fat but intelligent. It gave me confidence to look at it. Mechanically, 1 put my bag on the table and began to tinker with the locks. But he smiled.

“No,” he said, “I’m not interested in your luggage. My job is to find out what you are bringing with you in the way of memories, attachments, passions ...”

“How can the law control . . . ?” “That’s just it. The law allows you a limited amount of memories and they must he minor ones. What’s your age?” “Sixty-five.”

He consulted a table and noted down a figure.

“At your age,” he said, “your quota is reduced. You are entitled to one ounce of sensuality, some interest in art, one or two family ties tempered hy a well-developed egotism and that’s about all. Kindly glance over this list of forbidden feelings and tell me if you have anything to declare.”

“Burning ambition. No, 1 have no burning ambition. 1 may have hoped for honors in the past, but after I received a few I realized that there was

not much to them. That’s all over.” “Very good,” he said. “How about lust for power?”

“Anything but. I’m terrified of power. T believe that the man who leads is actually the man who is led, prisoner of his office and his party. 1 would hate to be responsible for actions which I may not have wanted to make.”

“Very good. But perhaps you are too attached to your profession. According to your label you are a playwright. Don’t you feel that you could and should write one more play—the best one?”

“Unhappily, no. I know I can’t. I tried last year when I still believed in myself. I produced a monstrosity. No. That’s over.”

“So you acknowledge it?”

“Yes, my work is finished. It’s worth what it’s worth. I’m prepared to be judged on its merits.”

“Very good. Excellent. Now how about wealth—a fortune?”

“1 never took much stock in it. Anyway, there are no more fortunes nowadays.”

“No mistresses?”

“No one in the past fifteen years but my wife Donatienne. You see, I married very late.”

“You love her?”

“With all my heart.”

“Really, how you carry on! ‘With all my heart’ is not an expression which is permissible in our line of business. Come on, you love her physically? Affectionately? I ntellectually?”

“In every way.”

“As much as the first day?”

“More than the first day.”

A shadow crossed Inspector Franck’s face. “I’m extremely sorry,” he said, “under the circumstances 1 cannot give you your visa.”

“But I wish to go.”

“You say so, but who would honestly want to quit a world in which such a precious person was left behind?”

“You don’t understand,” I said angrily. “It’s on her account that I want to go. For the last three months I’ve been nothing but a burden to her.

I can’t go on spoiling her life. I’ve got to go.”

Franck shook his head.

“I’m sorry.” he said. “We never issue visas to men who have retained such passionate attachments. We know them. You save a seat for them, depriving the next one, and at the last moment they walk out on you and the seat is no good to anybody.”

I visualized myself thrown out into the pea-soup fog. in the midst of a sullen, muttering crowd, into the iron grinding of the streets of the unknown town. I visualized myself wandering with my suitcase, knocked out hy weariness, aimless, without hope or strength.

“For God’s sake,” I said, “give me a break. You seem an understanding person. You must realize how, after so much suffering, I want to escape to a

i When You Have Read ; This Magazine. . .

please send it to a member of the armed forces serving overi seas. If you know no one in the services, enquire locally if some organization is collecting magazines for shipment.

« In most areas some organizai tion is performing this valuable service.

Nicholas Monsarrat CONTINUED FROM PAGE 26 novel was duly finished and even published, but it earned him only thirty pounds. He wrote another novel which was published a couple of ! years later and earned fifty pounds. A ! third got up to eighty pounds; a play was actually produced with Greer | Garson playing the lead, but folded in about a week. It wasn’t until after war broke out, when Monsarrat had been ; scraping a living out of Fleet Street for j six years, that he published a book which was even a modest financial j success. It was called This Is The Schoolroom. Monsarrat has estimated that The Cruel Sea is seventy percent hard fact, thirty percent fiction. This Is The Schoolroom also contains large chunks of personal history. Its hero is a rich and idle Cambridge student whose father dies bankrupt, and who then becomes a penniless free-lance journalist living in a London slum. Like j Keith Lockhart in The Cruel Sea he bears a striking resemblance to Nicholas Monsarrat. In those years, which he now calls “the happiest of my life,” Monsarrat lived in “a genuine garret” in North Paddington. He paid nine shillings a week for a room in Harrowby Street off Edgeware Road, with a backyard privy he shared with “a cut-rate abortionist and an unsuccessful prostitute.” (Both of these appear in This Is The Schoolroom.) The food problem he solved in part by doing pieces about London restaurants and roadhouses which were published in a little paper called London Week, and for which their author got his dinner from the place he was writing up. He also got occasional jobs which paid some cash, and slaked his lust for travel as a courier for travel agencies—in that capacity he visited most of the countries of Europe and once crossed the Albanian frontier on a donkey. But most of his cash income, such as it was, he earned by contributions to the magazine Yachting World. There’s a connection between those bits for Yachting World and The Gruel Sea. Both are dividends of Monsarrat’s interest in sailing. He used to have a boat in north Wales, raced dinghies there, also crewed in bigger boats off Skye and in the Irish Sea. When he was a boy his father had a kind of ritual for each of Nicholas’ birthdays. Before giving him his birthday present Monsarrat Sr. would say: “Remember, Nicholas, Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar.” Nicholas doesn’t know yet why his father established this family tradition, but it made an indelible impression which was deepened, at a very early age, by personal experience. “If my father hadn’t given me a fourteen-footer when I was nine,” he said recently, “I should never have gone into the navy at all.” When war broke out it seemed unlikely that he’d go into any of the armed services. He was at that time an ardent and voluble pacifist. After Hitler invaded Poland Monsarrat got married (a venture that ended in divorce in 1952, after seven years of separation) and volunteered as a stretcher-bearer with a civil defense unit in Harley Street.

As the winter of the sitzkrieg wore on, though, his pacifism began to come apart. It occurred to him that no amount of stretcher-bearing could possibly win the war, and winning the war seemed a desirable thing to do once we were in it. So he answered an advertisement in the personal column of

The Times (that was one of the Royal Navy’s methods of recruiting officers in those days) and became a naval officerin-training.

A classmate at the training base, HMS King Alfred, remembers Monsarrat as a quiet, unobtrusive person who kept in the background and made no strong impression either way. “He never missed a party but he never took a very active part. You’d miss him if he weren’t there, but when he was there you’d hardly notice him.”

Monsarrat did a good bit of noticing on his own account, though. During his naval career he wrote three short factual books which were published then as paper-backed pamphlets, and reprinted this year in one small volume called Three Corvettes. They are the notes of a naval officer on active service, and they’re interesting reading for admirers of The Cruel Sea. The raw material of the best seller is here in fragmentary form. Some of the good anecdotes never did get fitted into the body of the novel; for instance:

By some caprice of the coding department we received the odd signal “Commence hostilities against Japan forthwith.” (They were in the North Sea.)

“Number One.” (Monsarrat was Number One, first lieutenant.)


“Commence hostilities against Japan.”

“Aye aye, sir. Starboard ten!”

At war’s end Monsarrat reworked his navy material into a fourth book which he now describes as “a short story of twenty-five thousand words” and which was entitled HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbor. It was well reviewed and had a considerable sale. Monsarrat came out of uniform much better known as a writer than when he went in.

He didn’t go back to Fleet Street, though. In the course of the war he’d acquired some political notions about the Commonwealth which still strike many people as odd, and which certainly would have looked sadly reactionary to the young socialist and pacifist of Harrowby Street. He joined the Commonwealth Relations Office, Information Division.

“Nicholas is a Winchester man, and a Winchester man could easily have got into the Foreign Office,” an awed compatriot said recently. “Instead he went into Commonwealth Relations (apparently the poor man’s Foreign Office, in the hierarchy of the British civil service) and into Information at that.” Information officers, his tone implied, use the tradesmen’s entrance.

Monsarrat’s queer preference took him to South Africa for seven years. For the first five of them he spent his spare time germinating and then writing The Cruel Sea.

Nothing prepared him for the success of the book. His publishers, who had hopefully printed the “four bad novels” of the nineteen-thirties, told him not to bother finishing a book about the war at sea. It was badly timed—either too late or too early. It couldn’t possibly sell.

Monsarrat wrote it anyway. By midsummer of this year it had sold five hundred and fifty thousand copies in the Commonwealth and the same number in France, three hundred and seventy thousand in the United States; a hundred and forty thousand in a dozen other countries. In the three years since it was published, The Cruel Sea has earned him about a hundred thousand pounds sterling, or an average of nearly a hundred thousand dollars a year.

Besides making Monsarrat rich, it has made him a thoroughly eccentricfigure. The first question everybody asks about him is “Why does he keep on working at a civil service job, when it’s costing him money to do it?”

Certainly it has cost him a good deal of money. By retreating to a tax sanctuary like the British West Indies, Monsarrat could have retained the considerable fortune The Cruel Sea has brought him. But as a British civil servant he pays British income tax no matter where he lives, and British income tax takes away about two thirds of an income the size of Monsarrat’s. For the last three years, therefore, he has worked for approximately two hundred thousand dollars less than nothing.

In South Africa at least he could spend the considerable number of pounds that the tax collector left to

him. In Canada even this won’t be so. All his royalties, even from dollar countries, go into the British Treasury and are paid to him in pounds. He is not allowed to turn them back into dollars. Except for the flat sum of about two thousand dollars which any foreign service couple is allowed to take out (if they have it) to a new post, the Monsarrats henceforth will have to live on the dollar income of a British Information Officer.

That is a fairly comfortable sum— basic salary $3,900, plus a tax-free living allowance somewhat larger than the salary itself, so that altogether it’s the equivalent of about ten thousand dollars a year. But however comfortable that might be for most people, it’s a lot different from being able to afford anything you want.

Both the Monsarrats have been accustomed to that happy situation. His second wife is the former Philippa Crosby, daughter of a wealthy South African family and herself a well-known journalist in that country. Neither, in the opinion of friends, has any financial sense.

When they came to Canada they brought along a Jaguar sedan. Monsarrat has always loved fast cars. As a student he used to volunteer as a test driver at Brooklands, the British auto racing track, and he has never lost the taste for speed.

Before leaving Britain he also ordered a Bentley, a fourteen - thousand - dollar masterpiece which he’d always lusted to own. The Bentley has now arrived and is his pride and joy, but meanwhile he has had to get rid of the Jaguar. It’s a beautiful car with a top speed of a hundred and thirtytwo miles an hour and it completed several Canadian journeys in times which Monsarrat hopes to keep secret. But you don’t even put a Jaguar into high gear at less than sixty, and the Monsarrats found it an impractical vehicle for shopping at Ottawa supermarkets, or crawling through Confusion Square at five p.m. So they sold it, at a substantial loss, and bought a Canadian Chevrolet—didn’t even use the diplomat’s privilege of buying the same car in Detroit for several hundred fewer dollars.

In Ottawa a junior foreign service officer gets a flat in Sandy Hill or Centre Town, or if he has some means of his own he rents a small house in Rockcliffe. The Monsarrats spent a long time looking, meanwhile occupying a suite at the Chateau Laurier. Finally they leased a beautiful great run-down place out beside the Royal Ottawa Golf Club, with acres of farmland and furlongs of driveway and a glorious view of the river. It will cost about as much to heat this ancient structure aS a new house would cost to rent.

There are of course a lot of compensations in having money, even if you can’t take it out of the sterling area. Monsarrat can buy anything he wants in Britain and have it sent over. His sterling assets help to support his first wife and their ten-year-old son in a village near Oxford, England. But when all these advantages and mitigat ons are reckoned up, there are still enough inconveniences in the dollar area to lend new point to the question:

“Why would any man make such a sacrifice of time, money and effort to continue in such a job?”

One part of the answer may lie in Monsarrat’s appraisal of himself as a writer. In spite of the great success of The Cruel Sea, he gives the impression of being far from satisfied with his own work.

“Before the war I set out to be two things, a fiction writer and a pacifist,” he said not long ago. “I ended up not a

true fiction writer, a sort of documentary writer—and the captain of a frigate.” Monsarrat doesn’t disparage his “documentaries.” He enjoys being famous. He got much pleasure from the flood of enthusiastic reviews, and pain that still rankles from the one really hostile one. That was a paragraph in The New Yorker, still one of his favorite magazines, which called The Cruel Sea “a dismal tale” by “a dull, often sentimental writer.” That clipping has a page all to itself in Monsarrat’s scrapbook, surrounded by a black border and a cross.

But though he views his fabulous brain child with a kindly indulgent eye, it’s not the intellectual son and heir he hoped to beget. That, presumably, will be a work of “true” fiction and not, like The Cruel Sea, a “documentary” of events that actually happened. Maybe it is his new book, The Story of Esther Costello, a strange novel about a girl who could neither see, hear nor speak, and about the woman who first rescued and then criminally exploited her. It had a mixed reception from the critics. Monsarrat himself remarked, some

weeks before it was published: “I don’t think anyone else will like it, but I love it.”

His models and mentors among living English writers are Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West and Richard Aldington. Waugh’s influence, particularly, is visible in his earlier work. Monsarrat doesn’t do as much serious critical reading nowadays as he did in his apprenticeship—he’s been yielding to the temptation to “keep up with the news,” the twentieth century’s greatest single waste of time, and when he does read fiction it's more likely to be by

story-tellers like Nigel Balchin and Nevil Shute.

He still takes his trade seriously enough to write five hundred words I every night—sometimes more but j seldom less. His only compromise with weariness is that they needn’t be part of the new novel he usually has in hand. They can be a broadcast, a magazine article, anything outside his work as an information officer. But five hundred words must be batted out, by threefingered typing on a weatherbeaten portable, before Monsarrat goes to bed.

But for all this industry and selfdiscipline, Monsarrat seems to have mixed feelings about the worth of fiction writing. Toward the end of his novel This Is The Schoolroom there’s a passage which is interesting in retrospect. The hero has finally begun to succeed as a free-lance writer; an old friend who symbolizes maturity and wisdom is calling upon him:

“But what are you going to do?” he asked suddenly . . . “You are making a success of writing, and you must be earning a great deal of money, but surely you don’t regard that as an end . . . That is what you are doing for yourself; what about the rest of the world?”

What Monsarrat has found to do for “the rest of the world” is to work for the Commonwealth of Nations. As he states them to a stranger his views are commonplace enough—Britain’s only chance to continue as a world power is through this community of free nations of which she is the founder. But for Monsarrat this political truism seems to have taken on the status of an ! almost mystical faith.

He doesn’t discuss the policies of South Africa either internal or external, but obviously seven years in Dr. Malan’s domain must have been a pretty severe test for this idealism. It j survived. Monsarrat came to Ottawa ; as much an enthusiast for the Commonwealth as ever, and full of ambitious plans for the British Information Service in Canada.

It’s already a pretty big operation — j a staff of twenty-three, in Ottawa, a library of a thousand volumes, a film library of five hundred titles, and a reference service that answers questions all the way from “How can I get a job as a manicurist in London?” to “Why doesn’t Britain buy more Nova Scotia apples?” Begun on a small scale during

the war, it has become the largest and probably the most successful of all such agencies in Ottawa.

Monsarrat is not content with this eminence. He thinks the British Information Office is not only too small and too feeble, but that it’s in the wrong place trying to do the wrong job. He wants it not in Ottawa, a vermiform appendix to the High Commissioner’s Office, but in Toronto and Montreal where the major Canadian publications are located. He’d like branches in Halifax, Winnipeg, Vancouver, perhaps other Canadian cities. Perhaps even Ottawa.

■ Since he took over the Ottawa office five months ago Monsarrat has made no changes at all. Instead he has devoted his energy to the task of persuading the British Government to accept his views on the radical changes he’d like to make. So far nobody is committed to any of them, but he has received enough guarded and qualified encouragement to keep him cheerful and sanguine.

Even in this happy mood and with his best civil service manner on, Monsarrat is a highly unconventional civil servant. No Foreign Office man would ever climb into a glittering Bentley, take off his jacket and reveal a pair of hand-painted braces on which vulgarly bosomy Venuses are prominently displayed. The typical representative abroad does not entertain in large random parties of no particular rank or status, chosen for no apparent reason except that they’re people the Monsarrats like. No previous information officer has been invited by an Ottawa newspaper to send back dispatches on a drama festival, as Monsarrat did from Stratford, Ont., last summer.

Nor, for that matter, has any diplomat of Monsarrat’s modest rank and seniority ever become a social lion the moment he arrived. This aspect of Monsarrat’s career is not only unusual, it is unpalatable to his stuffier diplomatic colleagues. Some of them might not be too disappointed if this bird of bright plumage should take wing and leave their soberly feathered flock to its accustomed ways.

It might happen, of course. But if Monsarrat is able to do even a fraction of what he hopes to do in this country, they’ll probably have to go right on putting up with him. ir