The hoo-ha about whether to sing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the Last Night of the Proms made me remember the endearing author of the offending lyrics.
We are in the middle of moving house at the moment, which has involved me in parting from thousands of books, some of them dear old friends. In our bedroom, however, is a bookcase containing about 200 volumes from which I could not imagine being parted. They include Proust, P.G.Wodehouse, The Nebuly Coat, The Oxford Book of German Verse, ditto Prose, and so forth. I might write about this collection of “Desert Island Books” in a later blog.
Two members of the celebrated Benson tribe, children of the Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson, are assembled in this shelf of favourites. Fred Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels – of course. But also, a book called On the Edge of Paradise by David Newsome (doyen of Benson studies, former Master of Wellington College) , which is the life of Arthur (A.C.) Benson told through his copious diaries.
They were a very loveable family, the Bensons, but many would consider them rum. The future Archbishop proposed to his wife when she was just 12. Having given birth to the family of writers – among them, Monsignor Hugh, author of such thrilling recusant tales as Come Rack, Come Rope! – , Fred, the high camp humorous novelist, and Arthur, A.C., who was an Eton beak, and subsequently Master of Magdalene College Cambridge. Their mum, born Mary Sidgwick, fell in love with Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous Archbish. They shared a bed – the children were only mildly embarrassed by this.
Magdalene College, of which A.C. became master, is perhaps chiefly celebrated for housing the diary and library of its famous alumnus Samuel Pepys. Another great diarist, however, was A.C.Benson, His journals run for over five million words, and it is, sad that so few of them are in print. Techno-incompetence means that I have printed two illustrations of the Pepys library in this blog, and, having tried to delete one of them, and inadvertently deleted the whole entry, I have decided to leave both in place! Perhaps appropriately. If the truth is told, I would far rather read A.C.Benson’s diaries than Pepys. Where Pepys is brutally coarse, Arthur is hyper-sensitive. Where Pepys is on the make, Benson was on the lose, emotionally at any rate. Whereas Pepys stood on the threshold of Britain being about to take off – as a great commercial power, as an intellectual powerhouse, as an architectural paradise, Benson came when all that was about to come to an end, and be irreparably ruined by the First World War. The hateful twentieth century destroyed everything he – and we – ever loved. Pepys’s diaries are for those whose favourite seasons are spring and summer. Benson’s diaries are for those of us who love the melancholy of autumn.
Some entries are thousands of words long. His impressions of life, and of the hundreds of people he met, and of the innocent pre-First World War days where he led such a privileged existence are indeed a sort of Paradise, when we step back into them today. But poor Arthur was deeply depressive, and often confined in mental hospitals for his crushing black dog periods.
He fell in love with a succession of beautiful young men, but would have been horrified, indeed was horrified, by the idea of “doing anything” about this. Newsome’s book has a poignant jacket, illustrated with a number of photographs – one shows the Benson tribe entire, another, old A.C., distinguished don and and , top left, poor Arthur, standing beside Dadie Rylands, who himself grew to be the legendary King’s don, friend of the Bloomsburies etc. I knew Dadie a bit – perhaps that’s another blog.
In this picture, Dadie, a blonde twenty-year-old, had his hand through Benson’s arm. Looking full at the camera, Benson could be some retired Indian army colonel, with his double-breasted suit and his walrus moustache. Behind the staring eyes, though… Ah! Such sadness.
In one diary entry he ruefully reflected that he had always lived on the edge of Paradise, and never entered it. Hence Newsome’s title.
Benson, who would be the first editor of Queen Victoria’s letters, was in his forties when the King, Edward VII, asked him to supply some lyrics for Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March.
He had first met Elgar in 1902 when the King had asked them to collaborate on his Coronation Ode. Thry met at the Queen’s Hall, which was where the Proms used to be held – before it was bombed in the Second War, Elgar had only been to the Proms once before. He walked straight to the ticket office, ignoring the long queue and insisted on being given a free ticket. He sat through a Saint-Saens march, a Tchaikovsky concerto (“my idea of music”. )“Then came the Ode. Elgar stepped to the box; he is taller and shapelier than I have imagined…a long nose – red hands – large cuffs”. He conducted with a smiling aplomb – has a funny fumbling movement of the hands after end of piece. The Ode did both please and impress me very much; it is wizard-like music”.
Afterwards, in the dressing room, “I found Elgar with his artists. I ought to have thanked them – but I was too stupid – and just had three pleasurable words with E., who was very genial and pleasant. Once or twice I detected a twang, I thought”.
A typical Benson diary entry, with its close attention to all the details – Elgar’s funny gestures with his hands, his slightly “common” voice. The “Land of Hope and Glory” lines were added at the last minute when the King wanted more of the Benson-Elgar duo. Apart from “Land of Hope and Glory”, Benson also wrote the words for a melody called “My Heart”, a poem he composed in ten minutes.
Elgar liked Benson’s work, and suggested they collaborate on an opera on the theme of Cleopatra. Newsome adds, “Arthur never followed it up – probably wisely”.
Elgar came to hate the slaughter and insensitive jingoism associated with the Pomp and Circumstance march. Benson, in 1914, said that he was against war in any circumstances, thought it should be as outmoded as duelling. He died in 1925, having lived through the war which saw the death of hundreds of his former pupils at school and university.
To revisit his diaries, with Newsome as guide, is to feast on an innocent, largely male world. His favourite play was The Tempest. “I think Ariel is the hero of the piece, that pretty, sexless creature, the dreaming spirit of wood and flower. It takes hold of me to think of Ariel serving so zealously and only waiting for his escape to the blossom that hangs on the bough. Then Prospero giving up his enchantments and the isle full of noises to go back to the world and business. Macbeth frightens me and Hamlet bewilders me; but The Tempest leaves me happier at heart”.