Round Things

T.J. Binyon

  • Maurice Baring: A Citizen of Europe by Emma Letley
    Constable, 269 pp, £18.95, September 1991, ISBN 0 09 469870 8

John Vavassour de Quentin Jones, Belloc tells us in his Cautionary Tales,

Was very fond of throwing stones
At Horses, People, Passing Trains
But specially at Window-panes.
Like many of the Upper Class,
He liked the sound of Broken Glass.

To this last line is appended the footnote:

A line I stole with subtle daring
From Wing-Commander Maurice Baring.

Though in his time Baring was the author of some sixty books, and had a collected edition of his works published by Heinemann in the Thirties, he is probably known to most people only through this gloss. Born in 1874, the eighth child of Ned Baring, first Lord Revelstoke and head of the Baring Brothers bank, Maurice had an idyllic childhood, spent mainly at Membland, the family home in Dorset – a house with a larder big enough for 2000 head of game. After an equally idyllic time at Eton and some time abroad learning German and Italian, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1893. He did not take a degree, however, and, after failing Geography and Arithmetic twice in the examination for the Diplomatic Service, took rooms in King Edward Street, Oxford to cram for a third attempt. Here, at riotous dinner parties, much wine was drunk and more was thrown, a special kind of port, called ‘throwing port’, being reserved for the latter function, while the sound of broken glass usually concluded the proceedings. It was in King Edward Street that his love for food, evident throughout his writings, emerged: a printed menu for a dinner for forty given by Baring and two friends at the Mitre in 1897 reads:

     Melon, Two soups, Salmon, Whitebait,
                Sweetbread,

Bits of Chicken, Lamb, Potatoes, Asparagus, Duck,
                Peas, Salad,

             Jelly, Ice, Strawberries,

                   Round Things

‘Very soon, during dinner, the musical instruments were smashed to bits, and towards the end of the meal there was a fine ice-throwing competition.’

Finally successful in the Foreign Office examination, he was posted to Paris as an unpaid attaché in 1899. He had been writing poetry and criticism for some time: in Paris he turned to poetic drama. He also corrected the Ambassador’s French, had a fine ink-throwing fight with one of the Third Secretaries in the Chancery, became an admirer, friend and opponent at tennis of Sarah Bernhardt, of whom he later wrote a biography, and, though attracted to Catholicism, put off conversion from ‘sheer cowardice and fright of Uncle Tom’. It was not until 1909 that he defied family opinion and entered the Church. He later wrote of his conversion that it was ‘the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted’.

In 1900 he went, as Third Secretary, to Denmark; here he met Count Alexander Benckendorff, then the Russian Minister in Copenhagen, who, with his wife and son, became his close friends. The following year a visit to the family’s estate near Tambov marked the start of that fascination with Russia that was to colour much of his life. On his return from leave he was posted to Rome. (It is perhaps from this period that the anecdote about Baring buying stamps in Italy dates. Sniffing suspiciously those that were proffered, he asked: Sono freschi?) While in Rome he learnt Russian and, tiring of the diplomatic service, resigned and returned to Russia with the intention of translating Dostoevsky and Gogol. Soon after his arrival the Japanese attacked Port Arthur: Baring offered himself to the Morning Post as a correspondent, and set off to cover the campaign in Manchuria, attaching himself to a Cossack horse artillery battery. Later he sent back reports on the Russian revolution of 1905, and, travelling backwards and forwards throughout Russia (preferably in third-class railway carriages), gained an intimate knowledge of the country and its people. His experience gave rise to a number of books, which include With the Russians in Manchuria (1905), A Year in Russia (1907) and The Mainsprings of Russia (1914); Landmarks in Russian Literature came out in 1910 and in 1924 he edited the Oxford Book of Russian Verse. In 1908 the Morning Post sent him to Constantinople, and in 1912 he covered the Balkan War for the Times. A world cruise, in the course of which he visited Australia, New Zealand and America, gave him the material for Round the World in Any Number of Days (1914).

On the outbreak of war he managed to get himself attached to the staff of Sir David Henderson, then commanding the Royal Flying Corps, and after some difficulty in donning his uniform (‘Six people endeavoured to put on my puttees; none of them were entirely successful, except finally in the evening. Sir David Henderson’), set off for France. A year later, Trenchard took over command of the RFC. Saying he wanted a ‘second memory’, not a ‘court jester’, he was at first unwilling to keep Baring on, but a month’s trial period proved the latter’s worth, not only as an irreplaceable French interpreter, but also as an efficient staff officer. He remained with Trenchard until the end of the war. ‘There never was a staff officer in any country, in any nation, like Major Maurice Baring,’ remarked Foch, while Trenchard himself later wrote: ‘He was a genius at knowing the young pilots and airmen ... He was my mentor and guide, and if I may say so, almost my second sight in all the difficult tasks that came in future years ... The Flying Corps owed to this man much more than they know or think.’ Baring’s own account of these years, in Flying Corps Headquarters 1914-1918 (1920), is in many ways the best of all his books. He ended the war as a major (Belloc was not wrong: he was made an honorary wing-commander in 1925), was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the OBE and Legion of Honour:

Yesterday a French colonel came here and pinned the Cross of the Legion of Honour on my breast. It has two long and very sharp pins. He dug them into my not too solid flesh. I bore the pain for one second, but as I noticed that he was pressing the pins deeper and deeper into my breast I finally uttered a shrill squeak.

After the war Baring turned down the opportunity to continue working with Trenchard, preferring to devote himself to writing. He produced a number of novels, beginning with Passing by (1921), and an autobiography of great charm, The Puppet Show of Memory (1922). In 1930 he settled in Rottingdean with a blue budgerigar named Dempsey which would sit on his head and talk to him, in a house which a French critic described as having ‘un raffinement d’un autre âge, et ce luxe discret que les Anglais appellent confort’. Virginia Woolf was less impressed when she stayed for tea: ‘2 dirty footmen to hand anchovy sandwiches, which I loathe and so had to put in my bag. When asked for a match by Baring I handed him a sandwich.’ He had, however, begun to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease. Neither orthodox medicine not the Alexander technique alleviated the symptoms, and on the outbreak of war, together with Dempsey, he moved to Scotland, living with the Lovats at Eilean Aigas on the River Beauly until his death in 1945.

Though Baring’s novels are still pleasant to read – the best of them, C (1924), has just been reissued as a World’s Classic – Virginia Woolf’s classification of them as ‘second-rate art’ is probably not unjust: ‘He’s too white waistcoated, urbane and in the old Etonian style,’ she wrote. His criticism is impression istic, and not free from error, as a TLS reviewer pointed out in 1911: ‘Mr Baring is positively dreadful on everything ethnographic: he ... seeks to prove the European affinity of the Russians by the “Aryan type” to be seen in portraits of Tolstoy and Pushkin, though Tolstoy, as is well-known, was exactly of the Hairy Ainu type and Pushkin a thick-lipped octoroon.’ There is, too, something irredeemably of the 1890s about his writing: fairies trip into his prose with alarming frequency: his childhood was ‘like fairyland’, as was the experience of talking to Gosse. Yet he obviously deserves a biography, and it is a pity that he has not been better served than by this somewhat disorganised work, which comes to life only in the long passages the author quotes from Baring’s own writings. The book’s most serious failing is not its author’s reluctance to probe deeply into Baring’s private life, but her inability to paint a portrait of her subject which will explain to us – admittedly a difficult task – why Foch and Trenchard should have spoken as they did; why Herbert Asquith, when asked who, in his view, was a man of genius, should have replied: ‘For genius in the sense of spontaneous, dynamic intelligence, I have no doubt that 1 would say Maurice Baring’ (he obviously was not referring to Baring’s reputed mastery of eighteen to twenty languages, or to his ability to recite, in chronological order, all the Derby winners since the first race in 1786); and why Eddie Marsh, one of Baring’s closest friends, should have written: ‘I cannot but believe that at the General Resurrection Maurice Baring, of all men now living, will be the most warmly greeted by the greatest number of his fellow creatures from every country and continent, and from every walk of life ... Men, women and children who have known him for a week or tor a lifetime, will rise up and embrace him with individual affection.’