Nora Barnacle: Pictor Ignotus
When Doctor Johnson defined a club as ‘an assembly of good fellows meeting under certain conditions’ he did not mention the essential condition – that each member shall assume that every other member is a good fellow. In practice, of course, it is a law of club life the world over that, apart from very small clubs indeed, no member can know every other member even by sight.
Dublin’s large, ancient, honourable and flourishing (well, anyway, ancient) boozing club The Wamps – writers, actors, musicians, painters, sculptors – offers one striking exception to this universal law. Lennox Yeates knows every Wamp and even the youngest Wamp knows him. Not surprisingly. A member for some fifty-four years who has practised, or at least tried to practise each of the aforesaid five arts, he is not only one of the most visible people in the club but in the city. Black cloak, black Camargue hat, tumbling tie once black, rimless monocle on a black ribbon, a Van Dyck beard so white it looks dyed. In all so distinguished a figure that some Wamps wag once said of him that when he comes shambling along to the club the very dogs in the street stop smelling one another and bow to him. And then, that Olympian name! Removed from fame by a bare letter. Before the poet died many a Wamp must have felt a small thrill of pride at some country cousin’s question: ‘The poet?’
Not that Lennox ever encouraged so absurd a misprisal. He would have you know that he is a gentleman, at one time a landed gentleman if now as far down in his luck as you like. But no boastings about it, no pretensions about anything and, dammit, no lies! In fact he is the most modest, timid and unpretentious old chap. Chin down, head up, eyes wandering. If he saw a dead cockroach he would probably growl ‘Basilisks!’ He has seen changes and revolutions, castles falling, dunghills rising, Jack as good as his master. In private how bitterly he mocks them, shivering slaves who always finish up their gossipy tales with a wheedling ‘Mind you, I said nothing!’ Not that anybody would ever be so tactless as to press him about some gossip that he has been scandalously whispering – he is a great sotto vocer. If so pressed, he will start grumbling horribly, groaning wickedly, winking scandalously, grunting ha-hos and ha-has and I-could-an-I-woulds. Could it be that he sees his prudence as part of his panache – a White Russian surrounded by former serfs grown fat; asking nobody to read the sorrow written on his brow, pleased if we care to read between its lines? Every man has his self-image. He sees himself as One of the Old Stock. Some members say he is a snob. He is. Some say he is a prig. Not really. A prig is a man who sticks pedantically to his principles. Lennox has no principles, except survival. He is a popular member – greeted cheerily by everybody. He has never said a hard word about any man, though among a group if he sees somebody he does not like it is comical to see how he will stare at the fellow from under the brows of his lowered head, fish in his pockets for a piece of paper and slowly, watchfully, tear it into smaller and smaller bits. As for his being an artist? He has the art of living. When somebody once teased him that he would probably have survived beautifully in Paris under its Terror, he nodded, and smiled: ‘I have survived in Dublin under its Liberty.’
‘The poet?’ that timid, eager, country voice used to ask him. ‘Yes,’ Lennox always replied, most courteously. ‘The name is Yeates. Poet.’
Not, you observe, ‘the’ poet. Not even ‘a’ poet. Just that pleasant, polite figure of speech defined long ago by some pedantic Greek as a paradiastole, indicating how far a little truth can go to create a large impression. We have all employed the trope, or been conned by it. STOPIT CONTROLS DANDRUFF. Futile to come pounding the ad-man’s desk six months later: he will merely blow your dandruff off his desk and ask you sadly when did he ever say that STOPIT stops anything. You think that this means that Lennox is sly? Apart from women and drink the old boy likes nothing better than being sly, as when he recounts yet once again and yet once again – the truth is he is a bloody bore – the miracle his Greek trope worked for him sixty years ago on the morning of his departure from Coughlan’s Royal Hotel in Killarney.
His filmy eyeballs defocus. He grins with browning teeth.
‘There we are at the cashier’s desk in the hall, poor old Mossy O’Brien and myself, I’d been painting the whole week. Bags on the mat. The pony and trap outside on the gravel waiting to take us off to the GS&WR for Dublin. Behind the counter, in her black bombazine and gold chains, old Ma Coughlan, the toughest hôtelière between the Liffey and the Atlantic. Her good eye fixed on me like a cat’s on a bird, her glass eye amiably up to heaven, they say it was her late husband did it, I wouldn’t blame him. Her two fists holding up my account, twenty quid worth of bed, board and booze, her grip flexed for the rip. “I’ve just heard this minit,” she says, “that you are the poet Yeats. Is this true? You really are Mister Yeats?” ’
Like every club bore he waits for it.
‘And you said?’
‘Naturally, the truth. I knew what she was up to – he’d just been given the Nobel. “Yes, Madame. The name is Yeates. Poet.” She rips the page like a queen, lets it float into the wastepaper basket, leans over the counter to me and says: “Then why the divil in hell didn’t you tell me when you came here two weeks ago that you are a Somebody?” I needn’t tell you, gentlemen, that we went fast before she discovered that she had the wrong man.’
Obligatory laughter, noblesse oblige, his (although no nearer than near) fame his audience’s compulsion. And, anyway, a few years ago, he did come so very near it, so very near to being a Somebody!