Leticia gave me the very best kind of recommendation earlier in 2013, on this post – a recommendation for a book which I already owned, and was keen to read. Perfect! The book was Leaves in the Wind (1918), the author was ‘Alpha of the Plough’. Not, as you may imagine, the author’s real name. Alpha is, in fact, A.G. Gardiner (not E.V. Knox, as I thought at one point) – who chose the name when writing for The Star, as several contributors were named after stars. What a serendipitous recommendation, seeing as I’d bought the book out of (a) curiosity and (b) frustration at the lack of decent books in Dorchester’s charity shops. And I ended up doing rather well.
It’s that variety of gem which doesn’t really exist any more (and how many times have I lamented its demise in my posts here!) – the personal essay. All sorts of wonderful people wrote them, from Rose Macaulay to J.B. Priestley, and there seemed to be no lack of audience for them in the first half of the 20th century – even (maybe especially) during the First World War.
Gardiner covers a great number of jovial topics – from his companions of a bus to giving up tobacco, from smiling in the mirror to famous conversationalists – but there is also a hefty portion of the book given over to soldiers and war. Difficult to avoid during wartime, and perhaps it is only to the 21st-century reader that the combination of the frivolous and fatal seems incongruous. Gardiner was nearly 50 when the First World War began, and did not see active service in it – but he is a kind, insightful observer of soldiers, blinded neither by patriotism nor cynicism:
A dozen youths march, two by two, on to the “up” platform. They are in civilian dress, but behind them walks a sergeant who ejaculates “left – left – left” like the flick of a whip. They are the latest trickle from this countryside to the great whirlpool, most of them mere boys. They have the self-consciousness of obscure country youths who have suddenly been thrust into the public eye and are aware that all glances are turned critically upon their awkward movements. They shamble along with a grotesque caricature of a dare-devil swagger, and laugh loud and vacantly to show how much they are at ease with themselves and the world. It is hollow gaiety and suggests the animation of a trout with a hook in its throat.
A central thread of Leaves in the Wind is humanity in the midst of war – the minutiae amongst the vast and awful. The collection would be worth hunting down for that alone. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression of Gardiner’s tone – because Leaves in the Wind is very often an amusing book too, and wanders onto the sorts of topics in which A.A. Milne would have delighted in his pre-war sketch writing days. Such as gentlemen’s fashion:
I am not speaking with disrespect of the well-dressed man (I do not mean the over-dressed man: he is an offence). I would be well-dressed myself if I knew how, but I have no gift that way. Like Squire Shallow, I am always in the rearward of the fashion. I find that with rare exceptions I dislike new fashions. They disturb my tranquillity. They give me a nasty jolt. I suspect that the explanation is that beneath my intellectual radicalism there lurks a temperamental conservatism, a love of sleepy hollows and quiet havens and the old grass-grown turnpikes of habit.
Quite frankly, I adore the idea of calling someone ‘an offence’, and will be putting it into practice asap.
This has been a speedy overview of a book which, though slim, is very varied – and, like almost all collections of personal essays, covers so many topics that an exhaustive review would be impossible, unless it was almost as long as the book. Gardiner proves himself, in Leaves in the Wind, to have an impressive range of tone – from funny to solemn, and (more impressive still) sometimes both at once.
Thanks, Leticia, for pushing this to the top of my tbr pile – I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for any more furrows ploughed by this particular author.