Books: Snakecharmers in Texas : Out Into the Light |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Out Into the Light

It was the chocolate wrappers that made Joyce Grenfell an overnight sensation as far as Australia was concerned. She was already famous before she arrived, of course. Even in the late 1950s Sydney wasn’t that far away from England. We had all seen her in the films. But most of her film roles up until that time had been horse-faced Grand Old Girls of the Miss Gossage type, so nobody was ready for the elegant, self-possessed creature she turned out to be when she arrived on her first theatrical tour.

The audiences were delighted with her. So, by and large, was she with them, but she didn’t like the chocolate wrappers. It was the custom for everyone in the audience to buy a five-shilling box of Winning Post chocolates during the interval and consume the entire contents during the second half. Each chocolate was wrapped individually in crinkly brown paper and there was a printed guide, also on crinkly paper, to help you identify the flavour of each chocolate by its shape. The printed guide made, if anything, even more noise than the wrappings. When the lights went down for the second half the whole audience pulled the lids off their boxes of chocolates — the lids came off with an audible sob, betokening the tightness of the air seal — and started searching through the crinkly wrappers for the chocolate of their choice. It sounded like a million locusts camping on your television aerial.

Joyce put up with it for two nights and then decided it was time to call a halt. On the third night the lights went down, the curtain went up, and they were at it. Instead of launching into her second-half opening song, Joyce advanced regally to the footlights and told the audience that if the eating of the chocolates could be delayed until the end of the performance it might be possible to enjoy both her and them, but if the chocolates had to be eaten now then she would be obliged to withdraw. The audience sat stunned, a freshly unwrapped heart-shaped strawberry cream half-way between lap and gaping mouth. There was a long, tense silence. Then from here, there and eventually everywhere came the reluctant sigh of lids being squeezed back on.

The Press next day tried to make a thing out of Joyce’s queenly intransigence, but the public loved her for it. She would have been a huge success anyway, but after the affair of the chocolates she was something more — an institution. Lyrical wit and perfect aplomb made a heady compound. She would have been impressive enough as a gifted comedienne, but as a gifted comedienne who was also toujours la grande dame she was dynamite. At Sydney University we in the Journalists’ Club took the bold step of inviting her to lunch. We were frightened stiff that she might say yes, but felt reasonably confident that she would be too busy for anything so unimportant. She double-crossed us by accepting.

On the appointed day we were all on our best behaviour. Drawn up in the carefully prepared University Union dining-room, we must have looked like a firing squad in mufti. She relaxed us by pretending not to notice. Everybody at the table either forgot his manners or else had never had any, but we coped by picking up the same cutlery as she did. Gradually it became apparent that she was prepared to hear something more adventurous than mere pleasantries. We tried to impress her with our knowledge of contemporary humorists — Peter Sellers, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl. She was very good at not damping the conversation by telling us that she knew them all personally, although when the subject switched to Ealing comedies — all of which we knew line by line and frame by frame — she casually let drop some inside knowledge about the geography of Ealing. Think of it: this woman had been to Ealing!

We made attempts to shock her. There was a good deal of swearing, as if to prove that young Australian males with intellectual proclivities were nevertheless tough, dinkum types underneath. By this time dessert had arrived. Joyce chose a pear, decapitated it, and rotated her spoon inside it, extracting the contents undamaged, whereupon the empty skin fell contentedly inwards. It was all done with such inexpressibly accomplished ease that it produced the same effect as the exhortation about the chocolate wrappers. While we sat with mouths ajar, she whipped an Instamatic out of her reticule and photographed us.

Greatly daring, several of us asked if we could write to her. She said we certainly could. My own first letter, rewritten a dozen times, was a model of lapidary prose that made Walter Pater sound like Jack Kerouac. I was staggered when she answered it, saying how much she had enjoyed meeting us all and waxing enthusiastic about the opportunities Australia offered to the committed bird-watcher. I wrote her another letter, perhaps a touch less strained. By now she was back in England, but she answered that one too. In the next letter I enclosed my latest poem, and in her next answer she did me the honour of criticising it in specific and useful detail. This was a particularly selfless gesture, since she must have spotted that I had composed it for the occasion out of no other impulse except the desire to impress. Without letting me know what she was up to, she was once again embarked on her usual task of helping someone to become himself.

I was unpromising material, but perhaps that was the challenge. Much later I realised that there were scores of us whose spiritual welfare she was quietly supervising, but she had the knack of making you feel that you were the only one. We were all her only sons. When I arrived in London, broke to the wide, and absurdly proud of it, she was more patient with my pretension to radicalism than the occasion warranted. (So was Reg, for that matter, who in my case must have been wondering how much boredom his wife’s kindness to waifs and strays was going to let him in for.) At the time I was incapable of realising that my own convictions were essentially a pose and that she was the true radical, since the values she represented were beyond the power of any government either to create or to destroy. But she never mocked me, although once or twice I caught her smiling in the middle of my most moving prepared speech. I was still asked to the Christmas party, where I had to play uncle to several enchanting children she was looking after over the festive season. Joyce describes the scene in her book In Pleasant Places but charitably makes no reference to my lurching self-consciousness. It still bothers me that I had neglected to clean my finger-nails.

Artistically creative people often excuse themselves from everyday obligations. But Joyce, who was artistically creative to a high degree, never did, not even once. She was very good at planning her day. Not that she ever let you know how much effort she put into fitting everything in. It all just happened. Once at Elm Park Gardens I spent an hour in hysterics while she tried out some new sketches on me — a privileged audience of one. For me it was the highlight of an idle day, or more probably an idle year. Later on I realised that she must have written a dozen letters that day, seen a dozen people, planned a dozen other days like it. Her use of time was like a classical Latin sentence — packed with meaning, nothing wasted.

As the Feldmarschallin points out to Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, it isn’t the what, it’s the how. Joyce was an object lesson in how to behave. She never preached, and I am not even sure that she ever set out to teach by example. But it was plain even to an eye as unpractised as mine that her good manners went far below the surface, all the way to the centre of the soul. Her good manners were good manners. It gradually occurred to me that doing the right thing meant more than just conforming to some abstract code. The implications of this realisation were disturbing. I might have to abandon my vague expectations of the millennium and settle down to doing something about my clear duties in the present. I tried to stave these thoughts off by mentally enrolling Joyce in the exploiting upper class, but since she obviously worked for a living and was a lot better than I was at treating the lower orders like human beings, this belief was hard to sustain. It even began to occur to me that I did not know very much about life.

I am still learning and always too slowly, but like so many of Joyce’s friends I owe to her much of what acumen I have come to possess. Katharine Whitehorn once said that you can tell the person who lives for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others, but Joyce wasn’t like that. She never imposed herself for a second. She simply lived her life, and the way that she lived it made you wonder how well you were living yours.

In the last ten years I saw less of her than I might have, perhaps through an unacknowledged conviction that if I had her as a conscience I would never develop one of my own. There was also the danger of sunburn from reflected glory. At Cambridge I invited her as a guest of honour to the Footlights annual dinner. She did a variation on her pear routine and gave a speech that left the congregation of apprentice comedians slack-jawed with the sudden, awful awareness of how much class you had to have before you could be as classy as that. A few years later, still in Cambridge, I was married and a baby was on the way — overdue, in fact. Joyce was playing a week at the Arts Theatre before taking her show into London. She arranged for two chairs to be put in the wings for my wife and myself, explaining to my wife where the nearest loo was. ‘You practically have to spend your life there at this stage of the proceedings, don’t you?’ It was complicity between mothers. You would never have guessed that this was the one happiness she had never been granted. But it was a small thing beside the happiness she could cause, as I saw and heard all over again when she walked out into the light.

Then months went by without a meeting and the months stretched into years. At the touch of a button I could see her on Face the Music. We talked occasionally on the telephone and more occasionally still we exchanged letters, but she knew that I had broken free. My second mother had joined my first mother as someone to grow apart from. Those of us who must learn self-possession, instead of attaining it by instinct, are often jealous of our isolation, and guard it hardest against those who taught us most. Perhaps I am trying to find a good name for ingratitude. But in the last year of Joyce’s life I somehow reached the conclusion that we had better meet soon. She gave me lunch at Elm Park Gardens. As always it seemed no time since the last time. For once doing the right thing at the right moment, I tried to thank her for what she had done for me. Some of what I had to say is in this article, which is the inadequate record of how she helped one young man to find his way. The hundreds of others whose lives were touched by her must all have stories like it. Beyond those favoured hundreds who knew her in person are the thousands and the millions who could tell just from the look of her that she had a unique spirit. There was a day when a woman who aroused as much loving gratitude as that would have been canonised for it. So far Christian Scientists have got along without saints but perhaps in her case they should think again. Meanwhile she remains an unforgettable example of just how extraordinary an ordinary human being can be.

* * *

At the kind invitation of Reggie Grenfell and Richard Garnett, the preceding piece first appeared as a contribution to the memorial volume Joyce (London, 1980).