JC’s Call

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Joseph Conrad: Times Remembered by Joseph Conrad
    Cambridge, 218 pp, £10.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 22805 0

Joseph Conrad died at the age of 67 on 3 August 1924, the day following the 18th birthday of his younger son, John Conrad, the author of the present book. John’s memories, which reach astonishingly far back into his earliest childhood, begin with his family living in poverty in a tiny cottage, ‘a dark and gloomy place’, at Aldington in Kent. Chance, Conrad’s first immediately popular success, appeared when the boy was seven, and The Shadow-Line Conrad’s last work of unimpaired quality, when he was 11. During his early teens the family’s fortunes were rapidly transformed: the more startlingly so because Conrad was an extravagant as well as a very generous man. At the time of his death he was living in a substantial country-house – rented, it is true – and employing a secretary, a valet/butler, a chauffeur, two housemaids and a cook, occasional ‘extra help from the village’, two gardeners, and eventually (for Mrs Conrad) a living-in nurse. Jessie Conrad, although seriously incapacitated by an injured knee which defied the surgical skill even of the eminent Sir Robert Jones, was still obliged to cook the omelettes, since her husband would accept them from nobody else.

Edward Garnett, Conrad’s literary adviser and intimate friend from early in his career, observed that his ‘ultra-nervous organisation appeared to make matrimony extremely hazardous’. The novelist was in fact subject to long bouts of depressive illness, and there was perhaps a further burden in his never having become quite at home with English social and domestic assumptions. Numerous anecdotes point to an inconveniently seigneurial demeanour in this expatriate offspring of the Polish landed gentry: for example, when travelling on a train he would admit his wife and children to the same first-class compartment as himself, but insist that they should give no sign of being connected with him. Mr Conrad tells a few stories of this sort, infused with affection and with a sense of fun which he shared with his mother. Entering a restaurant in Regent Street, Conrad ‘took off his coat and hat as he walked in, handed them to a very resplendent person with lots of gold ribbon and buttons on his uniform saying “Take these, my good man.” ’ The American officer thus addressed was amused rather than offended. Conversely, coming on his own doorstep upon a young woman apparently about to pay a visit, Conrad brought his heels together, bowed from the hips, and proceeded to kiss the girl’s hand. At this she bolted in alarm, having presented herself in the hope of being engaged as a housemaid.

Most of Conrad’s eccentricities were consonant with his breeding or with one or the other of his professions. When he took John into the local chemist’s shop with a profusely bleeding knee, father and son alike ceremoniously took off their hats, and Conrad entered into a courteous conversation with the proprietor, after which he made to take his leave – so that the boy had to call out, whether indignantly or plaintively: ‘What about my knee?’ At home, the novelist was capable of using his walking-stick to poke about the house in search of his walking-stick. Both at home and in restaurants – and this is mysterious, since Conrad had attended neither an English preparatory school nor its Polish equivalent – he was prone to rolling pellets of bread and flicking them at his neighbours. John’s effort to emulate his father in this improper behaviour was disastrous, since he caught the family butler straight in the eye, with the result that a dish of cauliflower au gratin landed on Conrad’s lap.

Alike as a husband and a father, Conrad was a demanding man. No extended account of him is without indications of this. In point of manners and conduct the boys were very strictly brought up. They knew that if told to be quiet or to clear out they must instantly obey; that they would not be received at table if not correctly dressed and well washed and scrubbed; that if sent on some small errand they had to observe in its discharge the rules of conduct incumbent upon their station. Of his elder brother in these contexts Mr Conrad tells us little. Borys was his senior by nine years, and in boyhood there was no close relationship between the two. What is significant here – significant for Mr Conrad’s whole book – is the novelist’s alert and early discovery that in his younger child there was one who, like himself, could live in imaginative commerce with the sea and ships.

Around Capel, the farm-house that was John’s second home, it chanced that there was an ancient moat which now offered a beguiling complex of ponds and ditches. Here John made his harbours and navigated his miniature sailing-ships. The native village of Patusan (the name could, of course, come only from his father) was made out of a shoe-box thatched with rushes. John, having fashioned what he considered to be a very good ship, one with ‘a deck house, fo’c’sle and a poop’, proposed to call it the Otago. Conrad rebuked this suggestion with gravity, since there would be a breach of decorum in giving such a childish object the name of his own first command. ‘On no account are you to use that name for any of your pieces of wood.’ But an honourable compromise was found. ‘It was finally settled by my father that she should be called the Narcissus and she was named and launched from the new slipway at Bangkok which JC had helped me to build.’

In all their subsequent playing together at imaginary voyages Conrad insisted that the claims of realism and good navigation should be observed. ‘You said that The Glow-Worm was bound for Singapore with a cargo of coal so she cannot be loading pig-iron at Cardiff’ or ‘The Grasshopper should berth tomorrow at high tide, that will make about a hundred and twenty days from Adelaide, a fair passage.’ A similar seriousness attended John’s introduction to mechanical contrivances through the instrumentality of a box of meccano sent by André Gide and thereafter systematically added to by Conrad’s bringing home the accessory sets that served to build up a large kit. Eventually small steam-engines were adapted so as to power the more elaborate models. Mr Conrad records that his mother showed no interest in the imaginary voyagings and was a little jealous of the enlarging meccano. It seems not to have been Conrad’s habit up to that point to bring presents home for his wife. But when she showed her displeasure he promised to reform.

In Portraits from Memory Bertrand Russell tells of his impression that nothing in Conrad’s demeanour in any way suggested the sea. ‘He was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his fingertips. His feeling for the sea, and for England, was one of romantic love – love from a certain distance, sufficient to leave the romance untarnished.’ This view is not wholly incompatible with Conrad’s almost Dickensian habit, chronicled by his son, of constantly using nautical terms in domestic contexts. The kitchen was the galley and the indoor staff was the crew; Jessie would be spoken of as ‘blown off course’ and Conrad himself would require to ‘get back on an even keel’. Here we find what I judge to be the best thing in this wholly admirable book. In September 1920 the Conrads went on a three-week holiday to Deal. Jocelyn Baines, in his well-documented biography, could only mention the bare fact, but now Mr Conrad tells us more.

Their hotel commanded a view of the Downs. When dusk fell ‘I was surprised how well JC remembered the frequencies of the various lights; by counting the flashes he could tell the South Goodwin, Cap Gris Nez, the Gull and further away the North Goodwin light-vessel.’ Walking with John on the front next morning, Conrad recognised in a man hiring out pleasure craft, Baker by name, a member of the crew of the sailing ship Riversdale on which he had served as second mate in 1883. John saw that his father was ‘almost totally overcome’; and what the encounter preluded was his own extremely drastic introduction to managing a dinghy or a yawl in rough water. In no time Conrad had bought both for himself and his son ‘sou’westers, oilskins and long boots which came right over the knees’, and under his father, Baker and Baker’s assistant a quick succession of lessons had begun. It was sheer torture at times, but John acquitted himself reasonably well, and he realised that while sailing his little boats on the moat at Capel House he had unconsciously gained from his father ‘a very useful grounding in the elementary precepts of sailing’. But what was really remarkable – and is evoked by Mr Conrad in a splendid piece of writing – was the transformation brought about in his father by a return to such activities. They sailed out to the Gull lightship, were welcomed aboard and climbed to the lantern; they paid a similar visit to a Scandinavian vessel sheltering from a gale; obedient to his father’s sharp commands, John had to swarm up and down rope ladders for the first time in his life and while contending with far from helpful seas. But, he records,

there were other surprises in store for me as JC changed from the gouty invalid I knew, to an able and energetic seaman ... It was incredible; he became positively nimble going up and down ladders, through hatches and wherever he went asking questions and making comments ... It was quite extraordinary: here was a man who had not been to sea for more than twenty years, frequently crippled in hands and feet by gout, scrambling about a rolling lightship as though it was his everyday occupation ... It was not until we stayed at Deal that I really appreciated just how much he wanted to get back to sea. My mother told me during our stay that she was worried lest the call might be too strong to resist.

In no practical form, of course, could a ‘call’ have come. From the Riversdale of that early time Conrad had departed in a huff, and in his subsequent nautical career he had met with very little success. He had then addressed himself to the extraordinary task of writing novels in the English language, and had come to be acknowledged as among the major masters of his art. It was there that his true métier and his passion lay. But – his son here records – ‘his literary life was very much his private preserve so far as his family was concerned.’ It is a preserve upon which, properly enough, John Conrad does not intrude in this delightful gathering of ‘times remebered’.