In 1949, a moment when I was editing the novel pages of the Times Literary Supplement, a book came in called A Mine of Serpents, author Jocelyn Brooke. The name was familiar on account of a previous work, The Military Orchid, which had appeared the year before, and received unusually approving notices. I had not read The Military Orchid, partly because there was a good deal to do reviewing other books, partly because (being in that respect like Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, for whom ‘the spring was anonymous’) I thought a work much concerned with botany sounded off my beat.
Quite fortuitously, I reviewed A Mine of Serpents for the TLS myself, treating it more or less as a novel, which it was to only a very limited extent. There was some excuse for that, as a note at the beginning stated that the book was ‘complementary’ to The Military Orchid, rather than a ‘sequel’, and certain ostensibly fictional characters occurred in a manner to suggest later development of a contrived plot. I did not grasp that here was the second volume of a loosely-constructed autobiographical trilogy, slightly fictionalised. The review now strikes me as a trifle pompous, but I recognised Brooke’s talent at once, and remarked that the epigraph from Sir Thomas Browne – ‘Some Truths seem almost Falsehoods and Some Falsehoods almost Truths’ – contains ‘in a sense justification of all novel-writing’.
I knew nothing of Jocelyn Brooke himself, except what was to be gathered from this book. He was, in fact, then just about forty, and had recently emerged from the ranks of the Royal Army Medical Corps, in which he re-enlisted two years after the end of the second war. A collection of poems by him had appeared in 1946, but The Military Orchid was his first published prose work.
In the same year, 1949, Brooke brought out The Scapegoat and The Wonderful Summer, neither of which came my way at the time – nor were part of the trilogy – but in the spring of 1950 I reviewed his Kafka-like novel, The Image of a Drawn Sword, and, in the autumn, the trilogy’s third volume, The Goose Cathedral. By that time I had marked Brooke down as one of the notable writers to have surfaced after the war.
In those days reviewing on the TLS was unsigned, so there was no question of Brooke having known about my liking for his work when in 1953 an article by him appeared in one of the weeklies praising my own first novel, Afternoon Men, published more than twenty years earlier. Afternoon Men had, as it happened, been reprinted about a year before, but when I wrote to Brooke expressing appreciation of this unexpected bouquet, he turned out to be unaware of the book being in print again, having merely reread his old copy, and rung up a literary editor on impulse. In due course we lunched with each other, met from time to time afterwards (though never often), and continued to correspond fitfully until Brooke’s death in 1966.
All writers, one way or another, depend ultimately on their own lives for the material of their books, but the manner in which each employs personal experience, interior or exterior, is very different. Jocelyn Brooke uses both elements with a minimum of dilution, though much imagination. However far afield he went physically, his creative roots remain in his childhood. He was by nature keenly interested in himself, though without vanity or the smallest taint of exhibitionism.
Brooke might, indeed, be compared with a performer at a fair or variety show (perhaps to be called Brooke’s Benefit), who arrives on the stage always with the same properties and puppets. The first backdrop is certain to be the landscape of Kent, into which the author is wheeled in his pram by his nurse, his mother in attendance. Soon he is lifted out of the pram, and presents himself as child and schoolboy. There are botanical effects; sometimes fireworks. Soldiery of the Royal Army Medical Corps wait in the wings to provide mainly comic relief. Occasionally the scene is changed, though rarely for long: a London pub; the houses and flats of perhaps rather dubious friends; a camp in the Middle East or Italy; but sooner or later we are back among the hopfields, with the neighbours and the family wine business; the bizarre antitheses of a highbrow childhood in unhighbrow surroundings. In short, the facts of Brooke’s life are more than usually relevant.
Bernard Jocelyn Brooke was born 30 November 1908, third child and second son of Henry Brooke and his wife Mary, née Turner, the youngest of the family by ten years or more. Both his grandfathers had been wine merchants, also his father, who had started life as a solicitor. Brooke’s elder brother, after ten years as a regular officer in the Royal East Kent Regiment, The Buffs, joined the firm too, and for a while so did Brooke himself.
Earlier generations were parsons, in the professions, yeoman farmers. A less run-of-the-mill heredity is suggested by the portrait (1826) of Great-Aunt Cock with her two little dogs (reproduced in one of Brooke’s books); also by the box containing the literary remains of a great-grandfather, crony of Thomas Hood’s, Joseph Hewlett, a tipsy vicar with 18 children, who kept body and soul together on a minute stipend by writing facetious novels under the name of Peter Priggins.
The Brookes’ wine shop – always known as the Office – was at Folkestone. They themselves lived at Sandgate, a more socially eligible strip of coast to the west. They also possessed an inland cottage at Bishopsbourne in the Elham Valley, where in the summer they retired to ‘the country’. Bishopsbourne was the neighbourhood to provide Brooke’s earliest memories, most beloved centre for imaginary adventure in childhood, hunting-ground for flowers, the very heart of the Brooke Myth.
From earliest days Brooke used to overhear grown-ups muttering that he was ‘not strong’, a condition that must have caused specially uncomfortable concern to parents who were converts, though not fanatical ones, to Christian Science. At a later date, Brooke’s childish problems would no doubt have been looked on as largely psychological. The household, without being in the least professionally intellectual, was not without all literary contacts, not on visiting terms with Conrad, who had a house by Bishopsbourne, but the two elder children used to attend the parties of a Mr Wells, who turned out to be H.G.
Brooke’s nanny (from some early mispronunciation always known as Ninny), by creed a strict Baptist, was a preponderant figure in his life, and (like the country round about) remained so virtually to the end of his days. He was an intelligent child, painfully sensitive and, like many such, quick in some directions, slow in others: