Grotty Cecil

Simon Raven

  • Dornford Yates: A Tragedy by A.J. Smithers
    Hodder, 240 pp, £8.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 340 27547 2

The minute Dornford Yates was dead in 1960, the mating calls of envy and resentment were heard hissing over the bier. The smelly little judgments which they spawned are now grown great and paramount. Dornford Yates, the orthodox legend runs in 1982, made a fortune out of writing best-sellers which appeal to the worst in all of us. They were and are sadistic in tone and action, feudal and fascist in sympathy, the ripely festering recipes of an arrogant racist authoritarian snobby sexist old pig: they should be (indeed they often have been) removed from the school libraries to make room for books about proper people.

But back to Dornford Yates. Apart from the offences listed above, he was also (the legend continues) a mindless philistine, a moral arch-bigot, a miser, a bully, a malingerer and a cheat (that is to say, a plagiarist). In order to avoid paying taxes he went to live in Rhodesia, where he guzzled luxurious drinks served by brutally subjugated natives and said vile things about the sainted Aneurin Bevan. Dornford Yates, in short, was John Buchan with big brass knobs on – an ultra-Imperialist and a granite diehard, who seduced the public with his flashy and worthless stories in much the same way as child-molesters tempt eight-year-olds with gaily-coloured sweets.

But now comes A.J. Smithers with his biography to explain with patience and good humour that the truth was far more temperate and far less entertaining. The picture which emerges from this carefully compounded book reminds me of a married couple who featured in a French Reader which I was given in childhood. The couple was called Dupont, and the conversazioni which it conducted (jejune to the point of nullity) variously in the Theatre, at the Bridge Table, when Dining Out (etc, etc) were held up to me as models of Gallic elegance and poise. Similarly, Mr Smithers’s Dornford Yates is held up as a model of English decorum, common sense and perseverance, and has much the same effect on the reader – resignation rapidly succeeded by indifference.

Cecil William Mercer (as Yates was christened) was born into a family of the lower professional classes, i.e. small Kentish lawyers who had been a bit bigger before the two senior partners blew the kitty. Little Cecil went to an obscure and now defunct prepper in Deal, and thence to Harrow as a ‘home boarder’ (not quite the thing), his father having removed from Kent and set up again on the school doorstep. After some years of mediocrity and conformity, Master Mercer moved on to a drab and parsimonious sodality, known as University College, at Oxford, where he ground at the Law, played minor parts in unremarked productions of the OUDS, and with difficulty achieved a Third. He then disappeared into the City as a modest clerk, reappeared after a while as a moderate barrister, and started writing for Punch. His literary and legal activities were suspended in the August of 1914, when he dutifully enlisted, and was soon after commissioned, in a rather remote regiment of London Yeomanry. This mob eventually got as far as Macedonia, where Mercer led a series of routine patrols in a forlorn and unlovely terrain in such dismal conditions that he contracted rheumatism and had to be invalided home. There, though still in uniform, he recruited for a civilian ministry, and when the war was over he married a girl called Bettine.

This seedy curriculum vitae was now about to become even duller and dimmer. There seems to have been a little money about by 1919 (a legacy or two), so Cecil and Bettine went to Pau, where in those days you could almost live off fresh air. At Pau precisely nothing happened for 20 years, except that Bettine got the hots for someone else, whereupon Mercer horsewhipped him and divorced her with poker-faced disdain and aplomb. He then married another lady of entirely chaste demeanour, with whom and with which he lived in placid self-satisfaction ever afterwards, although they had rather a tiresome time during the German invasion of 1940 and had to retire (for good, as it turned out) to Rhodesia. And oh yes, I almost forgot: for some part of every featureless day Mercer withdrew to his study, where he fabricated, between 1920 and 1960, some two score of tales and romances. He employed, with many variations, a well-tried and well-loved formula: the Knight tracks the Ogre through the Forest and rescues the Princess just ten seconds before she is forcibly deprived of her Cherry. Since Dornford Yates was much the same naive and regular a fellow as Captain Mercer, he endowed the Knight with upper-middle-class disciplines and loyalties, the Princess with patrician courage, purity and charm, and the Ogre with the traditional qualities of the Cardsharp, the Seducer or (tout court) the Cad. Since he meant every word he said, since he really believed in Duty, Honour, Chivalry and Trust, his tales carried conviction. The combination of ethical conviction and romantic reverie is powerful: add just a whiff of social nostalgia (Edwardian Oxford) and the brew becomes irresistible.

There now. Let us hear no more about arrogance, fascism and reaction. All the poor rheumaticky little man ever managed in that line was to horsewhip his own cornutator, surely a venial operation. For the rest, he just sat steady for 40 years in Pau and Rhodesia, transcribing fantasies about the shining paladin who lances the scaly serpent who is just about to push his slimy snout under the white samite frillies (‘mystic, wonderful’) of the helpless (and sometimes witless) maiden. An ancient and justly appealing formula: so honi soit qui mal y pense – even if it did fetch Dornford Yates a cool half-million Bradburies. As to that, jolly well-done by grotty Cecil from dingy ‘Univ’: why should all the glittering prizes go to the Christ Church men?