Azure Puddles

John Bayley

  • Compton Mackenzie: A Life by Andro Linklater
    Chatto, 384 pp, £14.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 7011 2583 7

Staying at about the age of eleven with a friend whose father was a doctor, I was put in a room where the only reading-matter was a medical textbook and the first volume of what was to become Compton Mackenzie’s quadrilogy, The East, West, South and North Winds of Love. I embarked on it with hope and confidence, but after only a few pages had to give up and turn for entertainment to the medical book. Considering myself a mature and experienced reader, I was much chagrined at this and confessed my defeat to no one – it was too shaming. Mackenzie’s novels were a household word at the time. Everybody devoured them. What was wrong with me? It is a slight consolation after this lapse of time to feel that I may have been right.

How could such a colourful and remarkable personality have written such an unabsorbing novel? Perhaps by an unexpected but logical consequence. Mackenzie himself once said that he thought he would give up writing ‘because living is so much more enjoyable’. Neither a best-seller nor a serious author – and one aspired to be both – could afford to know that was true. Born into a well-known acting family – his energetic and successful parents ran what became the Compton Comedy Company – Mackenzie remained an actor all his life, running it like a continuous one-man show, and probably in unconscious competition with the activities of his dynamic father. On Capri he was to see himself as Byron, D.H. Lawrence as Shelley and Francis Brett Young as a more retiring kind of Keats. And Lawrence was fascinated by him, found him sympathetic and good company, and made him the model in his story called ‘The man who loved islands’. The story could just as well be about Lawrence himself, and shows the humorous self-perception of which he was capable: both men shared in their different ways the restlessness and the need for total dominance of a ‘perfect’ environment. ‘He wanted an island all of his own,’ writes Lawrence in the story: ‘not to be alone on it, but to make it a world of his own.’ That cap fits both authors.

Andro Linklater, son of the Scottish author who was one of Mackenzie’s great friends, has written a remarkably perceptive biography. As an undergraduate at Oxford, and for some time afterwards, Mackenzie could well have been one of the minor players in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time: perhaps a little like the fabled Truscott who is going to become a great poet, great actor, great statesman, great something or other. Needless to say, little more is heard of Truscott, but Mackenzie was one of those rare birds who not only seem destined for fame but do in fact achieve it, by one means or another. When he appeared as Gratiano in an OUDS production of The Merchant of Venice, the famous actor manager of the Garrick Theatre, Arthur Bourchier, promptly offered him a contract to be the young lead at the Garrick, with a salary rising to £2000 a year, a phenomenal sum in those days. He turned it down, because he had already decided that acting was a shallow skill and the stage ‘a safe prosaic form of livelihood’. He had decided to become a world-famous writer.

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