As we get ready to commemorate J.M.Barrie's 160th anniversary next year, it seemed fitting to post this article, a speech on 'Literature and the Press.' Note his apocraphyl tale of 'meeting Robert Louis Stevenson (who died 125 years ago this month.) This is a great example of 'Scots humour' which has rather too often been taken as 'fact' by earnest and over-eager researchers!
November 12, 1924
MAJOR ASTOR, your Royal Highness, gentlemen — especially Mr. Churchill (1) — what worries me is those two suspicious objects that have been put upon the table in front of me. (Two microphones had been placed on the table to broadcast the speeches.)
I do not know what they are, but I presume that one of them represents Literature, and the other the Press. I think we should all feel very beholden to an eminent politician for coming here and talking to us so delightfully about literature and the Press, especially at a moment when the country is on the eve of a General Election — I mean to vote this time. But, though Mr. Churchill has been very nice about it, I know the real reason why I have been asked to reply for this toast. It is because I am the oldest person present. Many years ago I saw, in an American ‘Whitaker,’ my name in a list, headed ‘Interesting Octogenarians,’ and I think therefore that the best thing I can do is to give you some literary recollections of far past days. I dare say I may sometimes get a little muddled between past and present, between father and son, but then I notice that you have done that also to-night. You have been congratulating Mr. Churchill on being Chancellor of the Exchequer. Of course, it was his father who was that. I will tell you a secret — I know quite well what has been happening to Mr. Churchill, and I think that he is only wearing the laurels that he has so splendidly earned. But let us couple with him to-night the father, who must be proud of his boy.
Those of you who are at present writing your reminiscences, and that must mean the greater number of you, I warn you that there is not much use having reminiscences nowadays unless you can remember Robert Louis Stevenson. The only time I met Stevenson was in Edinburgh, and I had no idea who he was. It was in the winter of’79. I well remember the wind was ‘blawin’ snell’ when I set off that afternoon with my notebooks to the Humanities class of the University of Edinburgh. As I was crossing Princes Street — a blasty corner — I ran against another wayfarer. Looking up, I saw that he was a young man of an exceeding tenuity of body, his eyes, his hair, already beginning to go black, and that he was wearing a velvet jacket. He passed on, but he had bumped against me, and I stood in the middle of the street regardless of the traffic, and glared contemptuously after him.
He must have grown conscious of this, because he turned round and looked at me. I continued to glare. He went on a little bit, and turned round again. I was still glaring, and he came back and said to me, quite nicely: ‘After all, God made me.’ I said: ‘He is getting careless.’ He lifted his cane, and then, instead, he said: ‘Do I know you?’ He said it with such extraordinary charm that I replied, wistfully: ‘No, but I wish you did.’ He said: ‘Let’s pretend I do,’ and we went off to a tavern at the foot of Leith Street, where we drank what he said was his favourite wine of the Three Musketeers. Each of us wanted to pay, but it did not much matter, as neither of us had any money.
We had to leave that tavern without the velvet coat and without my class books. When we got out it was snowing hard, and we quarrelled — something about Mary Queen of Scots. I remember how he chased me for hours that snowy night through the streets of Edinburgh, calling for my blood. That is my only reminiscence of R. L. S., and I dare say that even that will get me into trouble.
It may interest Major Astor to know that I was the man who bought the first copy of The Times containing the news of the victory of Waterloo. [And the story becomes even less credible, this is humour not real memory!]I happened to be passing Printing House Square at the time, and I vividly remember the Editor leaning far out of his window to watch the sales, and I heard him exclaim exultantly, ‘There goes one copy, at any rate!’ Waterloo! I never knew Napoleon in his great days, but I chanced to be lodging in the same house that he came to, as you remember, as a stripling, just for a week, when he was trying to get a clerkship in the East India Company. The old connection between France and Scotland brought us together. I remember well taking him one evening to Cremorne Gardens, then at the height of its popularity, and introducing him to a stout friend of mine, whom some of you may remember, Jos Sedley. What fun we had in the fog driving Jos home in his coach to Russell Square! Napoleon was singing gaily, and Jos was bulging out of both windows of the coach at once. This is perhaps only interesting as being the first encounter between these two figures, who were afterwards to meet on the tented field. Napoleon, as is now generally known, did not take up that clerkship in the East India Company. I dissuaded him against it. Looking back, I consider that this was one of my mistakes.
Gentlemen, the unenviable shades of the great, who have to live on here after they have shed this mortal tenement! Not for them the dignity of dying and being forgotten, which is surely the right of proud man! Who knows that where they are fame is looked upon as a rather sordid achievement? The freer spirits may look upon those immortals with pity, because they have to go on dragging a chain here on earth. It may be that the Elysian Fields are not a place of honour, but of banishment!
‘Literature and the Press!’ It is a noble toast, and never can it be drunk more fittingly than in honour of the best friend that literature and the Press ever had — the printer. All seems well with the Press. We are gathered to-night round a chairman not unconnected with a journal of which we can perhaps say, without vainglory, that it is a possession which all the nations envy us. The Press nowadays, as Mr. Churchill has said, takes all the world in its span. I cannot look at Mr. Churchill, because I have been told to look at these two things (the microphones), but one who was very lately a Lord Chancellor, and now another, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, have both — I do not know whether Mr. Churchill is beginning to look a little nervous about what I am going to say next — all I am going to say is in glorification of the Press — when it is garbed in its Sunday best — they are the two brightest jewels on its proud bosom.
Literature, when it can be heard at all above the syrens — Mr. Churchill has had a good deal to say about literature and the Press, and has found that they are very much the same thing. He used an expression about there being no arbitrary dividing line between literature and the Press. I should like to give a definition of what I think is the arbitrary dividing line just in half a dozen words. It is this — Literature used to be a quiet bird. All, I think, is very well with literature, especially with the young authors. From its looms comes much brave literature, devised by cunning hands, women’s equally with men’s. There is no question whether a woman is worthy of a place in our Cabinet. Those young authors!
All hail to them! Happy they! Multitudinous seas incarnadine boil in their veins. They hear the thousand nightingales which we once thought we heard. They have a short way with the old hands, but in our pride in them we forgive them for that. Perhaps they sometimes go a little to excess, treating even God as if He were, shall we say, the greatest of the Victorians. I thank you for listening to me so patiently.
[1 Major J. J. Astor, M.P. presided, H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester (then Prince Henry) was present, and Mr. Winston Churchill had just proposed the toast ‘Literature and the Press, coupled with the name of Sir James Barrie]
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