Schusterism

C.H. Sisson

Among the attractions of diaries are the glimpses they give of the minutiae of daily life which – as is particularly the case in the 20th century – all the time undergo changes that accumulate to set a marked distance between ourselves and our predecessors. Sixty years is long enough even for those who were alive at the time to look back with some astonishment on the ordinary arrangements of the day. Consider W.J. Turner – admittedly a new and uncertain driver – driving to Warminster in second gear and not unnaturally ‘arriving with the engine red-hot’, which did not prevent his loyal wife asserting that ‘Walter is a splendid driver already.’ Consider Sassoon himself, at the time only slightly instructed in the art of managing his new car, colliding with ‘a dog-cart going at full speed’ and immediately recording that ‘increasing confidence makes me genuinely enjoy the car’; and being equally unperturbed the following day when he ‘knocked a bicyclist on to the pavement in Maidenhead but didn’t damage him at all’. Even after some experience he ‘failed to slow down on a steep hill and ran into a flock of sheep, killing one and knocking the shepherd over. He was a lanky, red-haired barbarian with a weak face and watery blue eyes.’ The shepherd must have been weak, for he apparently accepted £2.10s. without further demur. Carefree days? Perhaps not, but days at any rate in which drivers’ relationships with the rest of the world and with their vehicles – not to say the vehicles themselves – were somewhat different. Unless one is knowledgeable about such technological history, one may be surprised, too, to find that Sassoon’s car did 50 miles to the gallon. Of somewhat wider historical interest is the fact – which everyone knows in general but which it is more difficult to imagine concretely – that one could then quite unremarkably drive from door to door in Central London and park one’s car outside one’s club.

This is the world in which Sassoon is moving around in the years recorded in this third volume of the diaries. Although at the beginning he is riding in the Cotswold Open Race in which, as he says with heavy irony, ‘posterity will be impatient to know how I “got on”,’ most of the volume deals with his life in and, so to speak, from London. It is not only the motor-cars which are different from those we know. The social world as a whole is one that has vanished. The older figures retain something of their pre-war Edwardian air. The former librarian of the House of Lords, Sir Edmund Gosse, an old acquaintance of Sassoon’s, still cuts a dignified figure; it was indeed only in 1925, as Rupert Hart-Davis tells us in one of his meticulous (and most helpful) footnotes, that this ‘critic, biographer and man of letters’, born in 1849, was knighted. Frank Schuster (1840-1928), ‘wealthy musiclover and giver of parties’, was still giving parties, and Sassoon spends a great deal of time in his radiance or under his shadow, making the most of the lavish facilities offered but carping to his diary. Butlers are still more than a stage property and there are young men ‘in white waistcoats smoothing their sleek hair and pulling on their white gloves’.

Not all is glamour and splendour. Among the more solid figures who appear on this stage from time to time are Thomas Hardy, visited more than once in Dorchester:

Tea at Max Gate. Lady Stacie there, a descendant of R.B. Sheridan – and a fashionable lady, formerly a great beauty. She gushed to T.H. about his novels at the tea-table. He shut her up by saying ‘I am not interested in my novels. I haven’t written one for more than thirty years.’

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