Monday, October 11, 2004 +

The Last Ego

James Agate wrote his own obituary in 1942, five years before his death. From James Agate: An Anthology, ed. Herbert Van Thal:

James Agate was the son of a cotton merchant hailing from Sussex. His mother, who was Yorkshire-bred, was educated in Paris, and later at Heidelberg studied the piano under Heinefetter, the pupil of Chopin.

Both parents instilled into the boy his taste for music and that mastery of the French tongue which was to become the envy of his brother critics and the bugbear of the illiterate public.

His birth in Manchester in 1877, his school years, his factory apprenticeship, his seventeen years of hawking bales of grey calico, his early connection with the Manchester Guardian, his admiration for C. E. Montague, his fondness for cricket and tennis (the real stuff, not the lawn), his passion for horses, his peaceful participation the the first Great War, the books whose writing whiled away the war years, his happy marriage and felicitous divorce, his transition from the opulence (Mancunianly considered) of £4000 a year to the interest on his modest war-gratuity, his disastrous essay in shopkeeping, the many adventures in all-but-bankruptcy, his wilful extravagances, the rebellious stomach against which an iron constitution fought a rear-guard action over many years, his surrender to Balzac, his modesty and bombast, his industry, his gusto, his flair for the scabrous, his egotism -- all these are set forth in his well-known series of intimate Diaries.

When the first of the Ego books appeared one reviewer wrote: "A Philistine with the conscience and equipment of an intellectual is enough to upset anybody."

It was upsetting for the highbrows to meet a newcomer who refused to be impressed. It was upsetting to find this "odd mixture of culture and bumptiousness" running off with the plums of the profession. It was upsetting for his colleagues, acclaiming some personable chit as a great actress, to be told that they had no standard to judge by.

His early music lessons had taught young Agate that the first movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata is technically easier than the last -- an obvious truism which his brother critics, deafened by the modern fad of quietism and unable to hear orchestrally, failed to apply to the art of acting.

For the so-called intellectual critics, the new-fangled intellectual drama, attaining its zenith in Agate's day, consisted of the mental reactions of actresses sad in the pastry sense sitting about saying nothing, doing nothing, and looking like the back of the kitchen grate.

Just as Beerbohm had refused to be gammoned by Duse, so Agate declined to be bamboozled by Bergner. His brother critics were upset when, closing both eyes and one ear, he was quicker to recognize talent than any of them and first in the field with his discoveries of Edith Evans, Charles Laughton, Stephen Haggard, and many others. Most modern dramatic critics spend their lives discovering nonentities; Agate preferred entities.

It was upsetting when Agate conceived the notion of writing on his Sunday level for a daily paper, thus doing more for the large reading public of this country in six months than all the highbrow reviews had done for that public since their foundation.

His brusqueness was proverbial. When a visitor said to him: "I mustn't outstay my welcome," Agate growled: "Who said anything about welcome?"

Agate was witty in an age which distrusted wit, and a great dramatic critic in the day of "write-ups." As a stylist he was cogent rather than graceful. Logical sequence of thought was his ideal; his model Hazlitt.

He was furious when people said: "I never agree with you: it's your writing I like." He would reply with that slight stutter which always impeded his utterance when he was angry or excited: "Damn it, man, I haven't been wrong about a play since 1923. And six years later I wrote to the author in America to apologise."

He was a great fighter, and at his happiest when engaged in controversy, which he always won. "If I'm not going to win you can't see my back for apologies."

He would give his shirt to a beggar and refuse to pay the bill for his last half-dozen. His debts were fantastic; he denied himself nothing, his friends little, and never paid except under pressure.

He felt keenly the lack of a university education, and was jealous of the Foreign Office accent. His shop-window was superb, and perfectly concealed the meagreness of the academic stock within.

He had never read the Greek dramatists, and so mixed up the plays of Congreve, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar that he carried in his waistcoat-pocket a note of what each had written in case somebody should stop him in the street to ask.

A natural broadcaster, one of the best and shortest of after-dinner speakers, and an ideal correspondent; the replies of his secretaries would fill volumes. He worked far into the night, grinding out hackwork under half a dozen pseudonyms. But the stuff he enjoyed writing he wrote as though in a high wind.

To sum up, James Agate has a compendium of contradictions -- at once unsentimental and emotional, lavish and stingy, sensitive and callous. This man who looked like a farmer, dressed like a bookmaker, ate like a Parisian, and drank like a Hollander now emerges as an extraordinary amalgam combining in one person the logician and the dreamer, the sceptic and the believer, the cynic and the poet. A great journalist.

But the subject is inexhaustible, like the man himself. His death eclipses the gaiety of newspapers.

His enemies will miss him.