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Original: Excursion in Reality - p.p. 220-2
The commissionaire at Espinoza's restaurant seems to maintain under his
particular authority all the most decrepit taxicabs in London. He is a
commanding man; across his great chest the student of military medals may
construe a tale of heroism and experience; Boer farms sink to ashes, *
fanatical Fuzzi-wuzzies hurl themselves to paradise, * supercilious
mandarins survey the smashing of their porcelain* and rending of fine silk,
in that triple row of decorations. He has only to run from the steps of
Espinoza's to call to your service a vehicle as crazy as all the enemies of
Half a crown into the white cotton glove, because Simon Lent was too
tired to ask for change. He and Sylvia huddled into the darkness on broken
springs, between draughty windows. It had been an unsatisfactory evening.
They had sat over their table until two because it was an extension night.*
Sylvia would not drink anything because Simon had said he was broke. So they
sat for five or six hours, sometimes silent, sometimes bickering, sometimes
exchanging listless greetings with the passing couples. Simon dropped Sylvia
at her door; a kiss, clumsily offered, coldly accepted; then back to the
attic flat, over a sleepless garage, for which Simon paid six guineas a
Outside his door they were sluicing a limousine. He squeezed round it
and climbed the narrow stairs that had once echoed to the whistling of
ostlers, stamping down to the stables before dawn.
(Woe to young men in Mewses!* Oh woe to bachelors half in love, living
on £ 800 a year!) There was a small heap of letters on his dressing-table,
which had arrived that evening while he was dressing. He lit his gas fire
and began to open them. Tailor's bill £ 56, hosier £ 43; a reminder that his
club subscription for that year had not yet been paid; his account from
Espinoza's with a note informing him that the terms were strict, net cash
monthly, and that no further credit would be extended to him; 'it appeared
from the books' of his bank that his last cheque overdrew his account £ 10
16s. beyond the limit of his guaranteed overdraft; a demand from the
income-tax collector for particulars of his employees and their wages (Mrs
Shaw, who came in to make his bed and orange juice for 4s. 6d. a day); small
bills for books, spectacles, cigars, hair lotion and Sylvia's last four
birthday presents. (Woe to shops that serve young men in Mewses!)
The other part of his mail was in marked contrast to this. There was a
box of preserved figs from an admirer in Fresno, California; two letters
from young ladies who said they were composing papers about his work for
their college literary societies, and would he send a photograph; press
cuttings describing him as a 'popular,' 'brilliant,' 'meteorically
successful,' and 'enviable' young novelist; a request for the loan of two
hundred pounds from a paralysed journalist; an invitation to luncheon from
Lady Metroland; six pages of closely reasoned abuse from a lunatic asylum in
the North of England. For the truth, which no one who saw into Simon Lent's
heart could possibly have suspected, was that he was in his way and within
his limits quite a famous young man.
There was a last letter with a typewritten address which Simon opened
with little expectation of pleasure. The paper was headed with the name of a
Film Studio in one of the suburbs of London. The letter was brief and
Dear Simon Lent (a form of address, he had noted before, largely
favoured by the theatrical profession),
I wonder whether you have ever considered writing for the Films. We
should value your angle on a picture we are now making. Perhaps you would
meet me for luncheon to-morrow at the Garrick Club* and let me know your,
reactions to this. Will you leave a message with my night secretary some
time before 8 a.m. to-morrow morning or with my day secretary after that
Below this were two words written in pen and ink which seemed to be
Jewee Meccee with below them the explanatory typescript (Sir James Macrae).
Simon read this through twice. Then he rang up Sir James Macrae and
informed his night secretary that he would keep the luncheon appointment
next day. He had barely put down the telephone before the bell rang.
'This is Sir James Macrae's night secretary speaking. Sir James would
be very pleased if Mr Lent would come round and see him this evening at his
house in Hampstead.'
Simon looked at his watch. It was nearly three. 'Well ... it's rather
late to go so far to-night...'
'Sir James is sending a car for you.'
Simon was no longer tired. As he waited for the car the telephone rang
again. 'Simon,' said Sylvia's voice, 'are you asleep?'
'No; in fact I'm just going out.'
'Simon ... I say, was I beastly to-night?'
'Well, I thought you were lousy, too.'
'Never mind. See you some time.'
'Aren't you going to go on talking?'
'Can't, I'm afraid. I've got to do some work.'
'Simon, what can you mean?'
'Can't explain now. There's a car waiting.'
'When am I seeing you--to-morrow?'
'Well, I don't really know. Ring me up in the morning. Good night.'
A quarter of a mile away, Sylvia put down the telephone, rose from the
hearthrug, where she had settled herself in the expectation of twenty
minutes' intimate explanation and crept disconsolately into bed.
Simon bowled off to Hampstead through deserted streets. He sat back in
the car in a state of pleasant excitement. Presently they
began to climb the steep little hill and emerged into an open space
with a pond and the tops of trees, black and deep as a jungle in the
darkness. The night butler admitted him to the low Georgian house* and led
him to the library, where Sir James Macrae was standing before the fire,
dressed in ginger-coloured plus-fours. A table was laid with supper.
'Evening, Lent. Nice of you to come. Have to fit in business when I
can. Cocoa or whisky? Have some rabbit pie; it's rather good. First chance
of a meal I've had since breakfast. Ring for some more cocoa, there's a good
chap. Now what was it you wanted to see me about?'
'Well, I thought you wanted to see me.'
'Did I? Very likely. Miss Bentham'll know. She arranged the
appointment. You might ring the bell on the desk, will you?'
Simon rang and there instantly appeared the neat night secretary.
'Miss Bentham, what did I want to see Mr Lent about?'
'I'm afraid I couldn't say, Sir James. Miss Harper is responsible for
Mr Lent. When I came on duty this evening I merely found a note from her
asking me to fix an appointment as soon as possible.'
'Pity,' said Sir James. 'We'll have to wait until Miss Harper comes on
'I think it was something about writing for films.'
'Very likely,' said Sir James. 'Sure to be something of the kind. I'll
let you know without delay. Thanks for dropping in.' He put down his cup of
cocoa and held out his hand with unaffected cordiality. 'Good night, my dear
boy.' He rang the bell for the night butler. 'Sanders, I want Benson to run
Mr Lent back.'
'I'm sorry, sir. Benson has just gone down to the studio to fetch Miss
'Pity,' said Sir James. 'Still, I expect you'll be able to pick up a
taxi or something.'
Simon got to bed at half-past four. At ten minutes past eight the
telephone by his bed was ringing.
'Mr Lent? This is Sir James Macrae's secretary speaking. Sir
James's car will call for you at half-past eight to take you to the
'I shan't be ready as soon as that, I'm afraid.'
There was a shocked pause; then the day secretary said: 'Very well, Mr
Lent. I will see if some alternative arrangement is possible and ring you in
a few minutes.'
In the intervening time Simon fell asleep again. Then the bell woke him
once more and the same impersonal voice addressed him.
'Mr Lent? I have spoken to Sir James. His car will call for you at
Simon dressed hastily. Mrs Shaw had not yet arrived, so there was no
breakfast for him. He found some stale cake in the kitchen cupboard and was
eating it when Sir James's car arrived. He took a slice down with him, still
'You needn't have brought that,' said a severe voice from inside the
car. 'Sir James has sent you some breakfast. Get in quickly; we're late.'
In the corner, huddled in rugs, sat a young woman in a jaunty red hat;
she had bright eyes and a very firm mouth.
'I expect that you are Miss Harper.'
'No. I'm Elfreda Grits. We're working together on this film, I believe.
I've been up all night with Sir James. If you don't mind I'll go to sleep
for twenty minutes. You'll find a thermos of cocoa and some rabbit pie in
the basket on the floor.'
'Does Sir James live on cocoa and rabbit pie?'
'No; those are the remains of his supper. Please don't talk. I want to
Simon disregarded the pie, but poured some steaming cocoa into the
metal cap of the thermos flask. In the corner Miss Grits composed herself
for sleep. She took off the jaunty red hat and laid it between them on the
seat, veiled her eyes with two blue-pigmented lids and allowed the firm lips
to relax and gape a little. Her platinum-blonde wind-swept head bobbed and
swayed with the motion of the car as they swept out of London through
converging and diverging tram lines. Stucco gave place to brick and the
facades of the tube stations changed from tile to concrete; unoccupied
building plots appeared and newly-planted trees along unnamed avenues. Five
minutes exactly before their arrival at the studio Miss Grits opened her
eyes, powdered her nose,
touched her lips with red, and pulling her hat on to the side of her
scalp, sat bolt upright, ready for another day.
Sir James was at work on the lot when they arrived. In a white-hot
incandescent hell two young people were carrying on an infinitely tedious
conversation at what was presumbly the table of a restaurant. A dozen
emaciated couples in evening dress danced listlessly behind them. At the
other end of the huge shed some carpenters were at work building the facade
of a Tudor manor house.* Men in eyeshades scuttled in and out. Notices stood
everywhere. Do not Smoke. Do not Speak. Keep away from the high-power cable.
Miss Grits, in defiance of these regulations, lit a cigarette, kicked
some electric apparatus out of her path, said, 'He's busy. I expect he'll
see us when he's through with this scene,' and disappeared through a door
marked No admittance.
Shortly after eleven o'clock Sir James caught sight of Simon. 'Nice of
you to come. Shan't be long now,' he called out to him. 'Mr Briggs, get a
chair for Mr Lent.'
At two o'clock he noticed him again. 'Had any lunch?'
'No,' said Simon.
'No more have I. Just coming.'
At half-past three Miss Grits joined him and said: 'Well, it's been an
easy day so far. You mustn't think we're always as slack as this. There's a
canteen across the yard. Come and have something to eat.'
An enormous buffet was full of people in a variety of costume and
make-up. Disappointed actresses in languorous attitudes served cups of tea
and hard-boiled eggs. Simon and Miss Grits ordered sandwiches and were about
to eat them when a loudspeaker above their heads suddenly announced with
alarming distinctness, 'Sir James Macrae calling Mr Lent and Miss Grits in
the Conference Room.'
'Come on, quick,' said Miss Grits. She bustled him through the swing
doors, across the yard, into the office buildings and up a flight of stairs
to a solid oak door marked Conference. Keep out.
'Sir James has been called away,' said the secretary. 'Will you meet
him at the West End office at five-thirty.'
Back to London, this time by tube. At five-thirty they were at the
Piccadilly office ready for the next clue in their treasure hunt. This took
them to Hampstead. Finally at eight they were back at the studio. Miss Grits
showed no sign of exhaustion.
'Decent of the old boy to give us a day off,' she remarked. 'He's easy
to work with in that way -- after Hollywood. Let's get some supper.'
But as they opened the canteen doors and felt the warm breath of light
refreshments, the loud-speaker again announced: 'Sir James Macrae calling Mr
Lent and Miss Grits in the Conference Room.'
This time they were not too late. Sir James was there at the head of an
oval table; round him were grouped the chiefs of his staff. He sat in a
greatcoat with his head hung forward, elbows on the table and his hands
clasped behind his neck. The staff sat in respectful sympathy. Presently he
looked up, shook himself and smiled pleasantly.
'Nice of you to come,' he said. 'Sorry I couldn't see you before. Lots
of small things to see to on a job like this. Had dinner?'
'Pity. Have to eat, you know. Can't work at full pressure unless you
Then Simon and Miss Grits sat down and Sir James explained his plan. 'I
want, ladies and gentlemen, to introduce Mr Lent to you. I'm sure you all
know his name already and I daresay some of you know his work. Well, I've
called him in to help us and I hope that when he's heard the plan he'll
consent to join us. I want to produce a film of Hamlet. I daresay you don't
think that's a very original idea--but it's Angle that counts in the film
world. I'm going to do it from an entirely new angle. That's why I've called
in Mr Lent. I want him to write dialogue for us.'
'But surely,' said Simon, 'there's quite a lot of dialogue there
'Ah, you don't see my angle. There have been plenty of productions of
Shakespeare in modern dress. We are going to produce him in modern speech.
How can you expect the public to enjoy Shakespeare when they can't make head
or tail of the dialogue. D'you know I began reading a copy the other day and
blessed if I could understand it. At once I said, "What the public wants is
Shakespeare with all his beauty of thought and character translated into the
language of every day life." Now Mr Lent here was the man whose name
naturally suggested itself. Many of the most high-class critics have
commended Mr Lent's dialogue. Now my idea is that Miss Grits here shall act
in an advisory capacity, helping with the continuity and the technical side,
and that Mr Lent shall be given a free hand with the scenario ...'
The discourse lasted for a quarter of an hour; then the chiefs of staff
nodded sagely; Simon was taken into another room and given a contract to
sign by which he received £ 50 a week retaining fee and £ 250 advance.
'You had better fix up with Miss Grits the times of work most suitable
to you. I shall expect your first treatment by the end of the week. I should
go and get some dinner if I were you. Must eat.'
Slightly dizzy, Simon hurried to the canteen where two languorous
blondes were packing up for the night.
'We've been on since four o'clock this morning,' they said, 'and the
supers* have eaten everything except the nougat. Sorry.'
Sucking a bar of nougat Simon emerged into the now deserted studio. On
three sides of him, to the height of twelve feet, rose in appalling
completeness the marble walls of the scene-restaurant; at his elbow a bottle
of imitation champagne still stood in its pail of melted ice; above and
beyond extended the vast gloom of rafters and ceiling.
'Fact,'' said Simon to himself, 'the world of action ... the pulse of
life ... Money, hunger ... Reality.''
Next morning he was called with the words, 'Two young ladies waiting to
Simon put on his dressing-gown and, orange juice in hand, entered his
sitting-room. Miss Grits nodded pleasantly.
'We arranged to start at ten,' she said. 'But it doesn't really matter.
I shall not require you very much in the early stages. This is Miss Dawkins.
She is one of the staff stenographers. Sir James
thought you would need one. Miss Dawkins will be attached to you until
further notice. He also sent two copies of Hamlet. When you've had your
bath, I'll read you my notes for our first treatment.'
But this was not to be; before Simon was dressed Miss Grits had been
recalled to the studio on urgent business.
'I'll ring up and tell you when I am free,' she said.
Simon spent the morning dictating letters to everyone he could think
of; they began--Please forgive me for dictating this, but I am so busy just
now that I have little time for personal correspondence... Miss Dawkins sat
deferentially over her pad. He gave her Sylvia's number.
'Will you get on to this number and present my compliments to Miss
Lennox and ask her to luncheon at Espinoza's ... And book a table for two
there at one forty-five.'
'Darling,' said Sylvia, when they met, 'why were you out all yesterday,
and who was that voice this morning?'
'Oh, that was Miss Dawkins, my stenographer.'
'Simon, what can you mean?'
'You see, I've joined the film industry.'
'Darling. Do give me a job.'
'Well, I'm not paying much attention to casting at the moment--but I'll
bear you in mind.'
'Goodness. How you've changed in two days!'
'Yes!' said Simon, with great complacency. 'Yes, I think I have. You
see, for the first time in my life I have come into contact with Real Life.
I'm going to give up writing novels. It was a mug's game* anyway. The
written word is dead--first the papyrus, then the printed book, now the
film. The artist must no longer work alone. He is part of the age in which
he lives; he must share (only of course, my dear Sylvia, in very different
proportions) the weekly wage envelope of the proletarian. Vital art implies
a corresponding set of social relationships. Co-operation ... co-ordination
... the hive endeavour of the community directed to a single end ...'
Simon continued in this strain at some length, eating meantime a
luncheon of Dickensian dimensions,* until, in a small miserable voice,
Sylvia said: 'It seems to me that you've fallen for some ghastly film star.'
'O God,' said Simon, 'only a virgin could be as vulgar as that.'
They were about to start one of their old, interminable quarrels when
the telephone boy brought a message that Miss Grits wished to resume work
'So that's her name,' said Sylvia.
'If you only knew how funny that was,' said Simon scribbling his
initials on the bill and leaving the table while Sylvia was still groping
with gloves and bag.
As things turned out, however, he became Miss Grits' lover before the
week was out. The idea was hers. She suggested it to him one evening at his
flat as they corrected the typescript of the final version of their first
'No, really,' Simon said aghast. 'No, really. It would be quite
impossible. I'm sorry, but...'
'Why? Don't you like women?'
'Oh, come along,' Miss Grits said briskly. 'We don't get much time for
amusement ...' And later, as she packed their manuscripts into her attache
case she said, 'We must do it again if we have time. Besides I find it's so
much easier to work with a man if you're having an affaire with him.'
For three weeks Simon and Miss Grits (he always thought of her by this
name in spite of all subsequent intimacies) worked together in complete
harmony. His life was redirected and transfigured. No longer did he lie in
bed, glumly preparing himself for the coming day; no longer did he say every
morning 'I must get down to the country and finish that book' and every
evening find himself slinking back to the same urban flat; no longer did he
sit over supper tables with Sylvia, idly bickering; no more listless
explanations over the telephone. Instead he pursued a routine of
incalculable variety, summoned by telephone at all hours to conferences
which rarely assembled; sometimes to Hampstead, sometimes to the studios,
once to Brighton. He spent long periods of work pacing up and down his
sitting-room, with Miss Grits
pacing backwards and forwards along the other wall and Miss Dawkins
obediently perched between them, as the two dictated, corrected and
redrafted their scenario. There were meals at improbable times and vivid,
unsentimental passages of love with Miss Grits. He ate irregular and
improbable meals, bowling through the suburbs in Sir James's car, pacing the
carpet dictating to Miss Dawkins, perched in deserted lots upon scenery
which seemed made to survive the collapse of civilization. He lapsed, like
Miss Grits, into brief spells of death-like unconsciousness, often
awakening, startled, to find that a street or desert or factory had come
into being about him while he slept.
The film meanwhile grew rapidly, daily putting out new shoots and
changing under their eyes in a hundred unexpected ways. Each conference
produced some radical change in the story. Miss Grits in her precise,
invariable voice would read out the fruits of their work. Sir James would
sit with his head in his hand, rocking slightly from side to side and giving
vent to occasional low moans and whimpers; round him sat the
experts--production, direction, casting, continuity, cutting and costing
managers, bright eyes, eager to attract the great man's attention with some
'Well,' Sir James would say, 'I think we can O.K. that. Any
There would be a pause, until one by one the experts began to deliver
their contributions ... 'I've been thinking, sir, that it won't do to have
the scene laid in Denmark. * The public won't stand for travel stuff. How
about setting it in Scotland--then we could have some kilts and clan
'Yes, that's a very sensible suggestion. Make a note of that, Lent...'
'I was thinking we'd better drop this character of the Queen. She'd
much better be dead before the action starts. She hangs up the action. The
public won't stand for him abusing his mother.'
'Yes, make a note of that, Lent.'
'How would it be, sir, to make the ghost the Queen instead of the
'Yes, make a note of that, Lent...'
'Don't you think, sir, it would be better if Ophelia were Horatio's
sister. More poignant, if you see what I mean.'
'Yes, make a note of that...'
'I think we are losing sight of the essence of the story in the last
sequence. After all, it is first and foremost a Ghost Story, isn't it. ...'
And so from simple beginnings the story spread majestically. It was in
the second week that Sir James, after, it must be admitted, considerable
debate, adopted the idea of incorporating with it the story of Macbeth.
Simon was opposed to the proposition at first, but the appeal of the three
witches proved too strong. * The title was then changed to The White Lady of
Dunsinane, * and he and Miss Grits settled down to a prodigious week's work
in rewriting their entire scenarios.
The end came as suddenly as everything else in this remarkable episode.
The third conference was being held at an hotel in the New Forest* where Sir
James happened to be staying; the experts had assembled by train, car and
motor-bicycle at a moment's notice and were tired and unresponsive. Miss
Grits read the latest scenario; it took some time, for it had now reached
the stage when it could be taken as 'white script' ready for shooting. Sir
James sat sunk in reflection longer than usual. When he raised his head, it
was to utter the single word:
'No, it won't do. We must scrap the whole thing. We've got much too far
from the original story. I can't think why you need introduce Julius Caesar
and King Arthur at all.'
'But, sir, they were your own suggestions at the last conference.'
'Were they? Well, I can't help it. I must have been tired and not
paying full attention ... Besides, I don't like the dialogue. It misses all
the poetry of the original. What the public wants is Shakespeare, the whole
of Shakespeare and nothing but Shakespeare. Now this scenario you've written
is all very well in its way--but it's not Shakespeare. I'll tell you what
we'll do. We'll use the play
exactly as he wrote it and record from that. Make a note of it, Miss
'Then you'll hardly require my services any more?' said Simon.
'No, I don't think I shall. Still, nice of you to have come.'
Next morning Simon woke bright and cheerful as usual and was about to
leap from his bed when he suddenly remembered the events of last night.
There was nothing for him to do. An empty day lay before him. No Miss Grits,
no Miss Dawkins, no scampering off to conferences or dictating of dialogue.
He rang up Miss Grits and asked her to lunch with him.
'No, quite impossible, I'm afraid. I have to do the continuity for a
scenario of St John's Gospel before the end of the week. Pretty tough job.
We're setting it in Algeria so as to get atmosphere. Off to Hollywood next
month. Don't suppose I shall see you again. Good-bye.'
Simon lay in bed with all his energy slowly slipping away. Nothing to
do. Well, he supposed, now was the time to go away to the country and get on
with his novel. Or should he go abroad? Some quiet cafe-restaurant in the
sun where he could work out those intractable last chapters. That was what
he would do ... sometime ... the end of the week perhaps.
Meanwhile he leaned over on his elbow, lifted the telephone and, asking
for Sylvia's number, prepared himself for twenty-five minutes' acrimonious
Evelyn Waugh. Excursion in Reality
Last-modified: Fri, 11 Jan 2008 07:59:10 GMT