Friday, January 23, 2009

The Means of Making Acquaintance

It would seem that the single immediate advantage of being now alone and adrift on the Internet, is in not being bound to any practical purpose. With nothing to promote, and no one to be pleased but myself, I may noodle away my unexpected afternoon-off by wandering among my own books. And as the vast majority of these are long out of print, and presumably likewise out of mind to anyone but me, I can, if I choose -- and I do -- pass an hour or more -- as I just have -- with only old E. V. Lucas for company. Why not?

We come to know books and their authors as we come to know strangers met in the street in the company of friends; the slightest introduction will do, and if the converse, however brief, be amiable, the looks of of the person to our liking, and nothing passes to put us off, then the happy accident is acquaintance. I need not befriend a book to buy it. It is enough that we should have a friend in common. (And here, an index is the best hostess. I always, if a book has one, turn first to her to help me find "the old familiar faces:" Beerbohm, Max or Goldsmith, Oliver or Lamb, Charles, etc.)

Edward Verrall Lucas (June 11/12 1868 – June 26, 1938) was a long-time editor at Punch, that much and justly maligned magazine of the less than amusing bits of jingo, cant and class snobbery that passed for entertainment in great-grandfather's day, though I doubt any of my ancestors read it, or could read much for that matter. And, at first acquaintance, Lucas would see to embody everything ick about the type; clubman, cricket-crazed, well traveled but always English first, a gossip and dog-loving gent, with a well-tailored, stuffed style, meant only to crack the thinnest smile on the other fella's thin lips. But Lucas while very much that, was more.*

He loved Lamb, and from my first encounter with Elia, it was Lucas, among his admirers, who seemed to love him best. Reading Lamb and then collecting Lamb, it would be impossible not to eventually own books by Lucas. And, after some luck on, and a happy trip down to Powell's in Portland, I came to have not only the Lucas Life of Charles Lamb, in two volumes, Seventh Edition, Revised, from April, 1921, but also my joy of the past few years' worth of bedtime reading, The Letters of Charles & Mary Lamb, in three volumes, edited by Lucas, also from Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1935. Gods bless 'em.

Having so dear a friend in common, my acquaintance with the clubman from Punch grew. And yes, while he can be pointless and smug in his essays and stories, he can also be amusing and kind. In his travels, all unknowingly perhaps, he preserved a world long vanished; of privileged access, of history still unbombed, of a style of wandering no longer possible on the crowded streets of London and Paris and Holland (pictured) and Bagdad.

He is also a collector of anecdote and an editor of delicious anthologies of letters and pen portraits and travelers' tales. In every little book of his I pick out from some dusty, neglected used bookstore shelf, I am, it seems, as likely to find yet another new friend; Sir Philip Sydney, say, or Rab and His Friends, as I am to drift a little disappointed from page to page.

And what friend doesn't bore us now and again? (Why, I'm likely to be doing so now, and I've only had you with me the length of this page!) As Johnson said, "admiration begins when acquaintance ceases," and E. V. Lucas has long since ceased to be anything less to me than a most admirable friend.

How can one not want to know better a man who said “One of the most adventurous things left us is to go to bed. For no one can lay a hand on our dreams?”

So, back to The Open Road, and Good Company and A Rally of Men, and The Second Post, and then, most likely a nap. I'm sure the Old Boy's shade will understand if I doze.

*Lucas was said, by way of titillating tattle, to have had "the greatest private collection of pornography in London." So it wasn't all teacups and cigars.

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