A. G. GARDINER
(“Alpha of the Plough”)
C. L. R. SASTRI
“His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man’.”
There is not a lover of journalism or literature who does not mourn the passing away of A. G. Gardiner a few decades ago. He had long passed the psalmist’s span of three score years and ten. That, however, does not mitigate the sense of our loss to any appreciable extent: rather does it serve to heighten it. We had been so very much accustomed to take his presence in our midst for granted that now we cannot bear to contemplate the void caused by his demise with any degree of fortitude. His was, indeed, a Dame to conjure with. The initials, “A. G. G.”, were known and honoured wherever they were found: they were an instantaneous passport to our affections. We read every line of his that we could lay hands on and, like Oliver Twist, asked for more. His writings were suffused with charm No wonder that even his worst enemies could not resist their lure. It is no exaggeration to say that, once you came to him, you could not leave him without a pang of regret. I can still remember many a dinner that was allowed to get cold because I happened to be in the middle of an article, or essay, of his. It is equally true that I often neglected my more serious studies for the same reason. It can be said of him, as it was said of someone else before him, that he “beguiled children from play and old men from the chimney-corner.”
Last of the Giants
Gardiner’s death is a loss in another respect also. He was the last of a race of journalistic giants. Scott, Spender, Massingham and Gardiner formed a quartette that has never been surpassed anywhere. They have had no single successor. It was, probably, not quite an accident that all of them belonged to the great Liberal party. During that period there was an efflorescence of the human spirit in that party that was well-nigh unique. In politics, as well as in the arts, it “flamed in the forehead of the morning sky.” Look where you would, it was a Liberal that dominated the scene. It was from that cultural Palmir Plateau that all–or almost all–its rivers and rivulets of genius flowed and “winded somewhere safe to sea.” That illustrious savant, Lord Morley himself, drew inspiration from the same prolific source. Naturally, these four figures whose names I have mentioned had no option but to tread the same path of intellectual development.
The Mountain-peaks are all Snow-clad
It would be unprofitable to go into the question of who was the tallest among those giants. There can be no comparison where superlatives are concerned. The mountain-peaks are all snow-clad. Scott was, undoubtedly, the doyen among them. He has also the advantage of being associated with the finest daily in England. That, of necessity, gave him a “pull” that was, unfortunately, denied to the others. He was the seniormost among them. His noble example could not but have been an invaluable asset, acting, as it must have done, as a sort of beacon to the Younger set. Scott was an institution by himself: the Manchester Guardian a veritable “school” of journalism. In English journalism Scott was, indeed, a landmark; and when he died the whole country rose as one man to render him homage.
In so far, however, as comparisons are possible among giants it has always seemed to me that Massingham towered above them as Mount Everest towers above Kanchanjanga and Nanga Parbat and the rest. Massingham was in a class by himself: as Cowley said of Pindar, “he formed a vast species alone.” His soul was like a star and dwelt apart. He was the biggest man of them all, though an unkind fate denied him the chance of becoming an institution in the same manner as Scott. His was a more fiery spirit: nor had he the knack of suffering fools (and knaves) gladly, as anyone must have who is determined to make the best of both the worlds. Even idealists, if they do not wish to be “caught out.” usually contrive to have a streak of materialism deeply embedded in their composition: if it escapes public detection it is because it is camouflaged cunningly and is made to form an inextricable part of the general colour-scheme. The lack of this protective principle, of this “safety first” device, was Massingham’s undoing.
Spender had neither the idealism nor the brilliance of either Scott or Massingham. He was not an out-and-out Radical like them and was noted for adopting “the middle-of-the-road” policy in most matters. He brought everything to the touchstone of practicality. This is not to belittle Spender’s contribution either to politics or to journalism; but I am here dealing with the imponderables, and Spender, consistently displaying more of the diplomatist’s skill than of the idealist’s fervour as he was wont to do, has, obviously, no place in this narrative. Even his literary style was not comparable to that of the other “Three Musketeers.”
The Illustrious Foursome
In the foregoing I have tried to sketch the journalistic background against which Gardiner’s qualities must be judged. It is easy enough to win fame if one’s lot is cast among nonentities. In the country of the blind the one-eyed are, unquestionably, the monarchs, as Dr. Johnsoa noted long ago. But this charge cannot be levelled at A. G. G.’s door. The main period of Gardiner’s life-work fell at precisely such a time as that depicted by the Lake Poet. He was the fourth wheel of a superb journalistic coach.
Scott in the Manchester Guardian and Massingham in the Daily Chronicle (and, later, in the Nation) and Spender in that “old sea-green incorruptible,” the Westminster Gazette, and Gardiner in the Daily News “magnoperated”, in the late Mr. James Agate’s beautiful phrase, as no “foursome” had ever been privileged to do. It was the grandest symphony that anyone could have hoped to hear. For nearly two decades Gardiner preached the Liberal doctrine from the pulpit that the Daily News so graciously provided for him. I am not prepared to aver that he was a match for the other three in point of political lore. Political was far from being his first love. He did not come to it con amore. Pride of place in his mind was always given to literature. But, with all his limitations in that line, he managed to make up by unwearied diligence for what was lacking in primal impulse.
Goes into the Wilderness
Belonging as he did to the “old journalism” Gardiner laid huge store by “principles.” They did not cling to him, in Falstaff’s memorable phrase, “lightly, like an old lady’s loose gown”, but were woven into the fabric of his very life. They were not so much ballast intended to be thrown overboard at the first hint of a gathering storm; they were, rather, the precious cargo itself, and the commodore preferred to go down to the bottom of the sea with his merchandise to saving his skin by flinging it into the roaring waters. That was how, ultimately he lost the editorship of his paper. The policy of the Daily News was changed to suit the new Lloyd George that emerged during the later stages of World War Number One, a Lloyd George that took friend and foe alike by surprise, and Gardiner was asked to change with it. But he sternly refused thus to trim his sails to the prevailing political wind and left the Daily News after an un broken service of nearly twenty years. The loss, needless to say, was more the party’s and the paper’s than his.
After that he turned his hand to freelance journalism. He did some work for the Nation after Massingham’s departure from it. He wrote regularly for John Bull. But all this was, more or less, like the crackling of thorns under the pot: his life’s mission ended with the editorship of the Daily News. The Liberal party chose new gods, but Gardiner would have nothing to do with them.
More an Author than a Journalist
To the general public, Gardiner is known more as an author than as a journalist. In this he scored heavily against Massingham. Massingham did not leave a single book behind him to commemorate his memory. He might have left one, for he was persuaded to write his autobiography, but his life was cut short abruptly: he could not bear the severance of his connection with the Nation–into the editing of which he had put the whole of himself. The Nation was Massingham and Massingham was the Nation. But Gardiner was wiser and side by side with editing the, Daily News was shrewd enough to put a lot of himself into books. It is probable that now many have forgotten his editorship days but still remember with inexpressible gratitude the pleasure his printed pages gave them.
His “Magnum Opus”
Gardiner wrote the standard biography of his political hero, Sir William Harcourt. It compares favourably with the other political biographies in the English language, and compares more than favourably with Spender’s biography of Campbell-Bannerman. It is, as usual, a “double-decker.” We should have been obliged to him more than we can tell if he had been able to condense his material into the pages of a single volume, as Lord Newton did with his biography of Lord Lansdowne. Never has literature known such a foolish bed of Procrustes as the conventional length of a political biography. But Gardiner redeems the tedium by the incomparable loveliness of his diction. I do not think that any two-volume biography has ever been written with such perfection of style. Gardiner’s masterpiece – for such it undoubtedly is scintillates with brilliance. His concluding chapter, in especial, des_rve” being !:-ound by the young student of literature” for a frontlet on his brow and a talisman on his writing wrist” as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (“Q” of revered memory) has said of Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University. Had I had sufficient space at my command I should have quoted from it copiously. It is like a baron of beef: one can cut and come again.
His Unsurpassed “Pen-portraits”
Gardiner excelled in “pen-portraits” of eminent personages, which he gathered together between the covers of several books, like The War Lords, Prophets, Priests, and Kings, pillars of Society, and Certain People of Importance. It is the literal truth to say that he had not his equal in this field. He has had many imitators but they have not been able to dislodge him from his seat of eminence, much, no doubt, as they would have liked to do. They had neither his breadth of vision, nor his catholicity of interests, nor his felicity of expression. The one who came nearest to him was, perhaps, the late Mr. “E. T. Raymond” – in real life Mr. E. Raymond Thompson – one-time editor of the Evening Standard of London. He had to his credit many volumes of literary portraits as well as of full-length biographies. I have gone through most of them and I am the last person to decry his ability or to deny him his due. He had, further, an enviable command of language. Nevertheless, he failed to give his readers the same “over-all” delight as “A. G. G.” did.
“Where O’Flaherty sits is the head of the table” and, where “A. G. G.” was, the master of pen-portraiture. There is no manner of doubt that, within the limits that he prescribed for himself, he was the supreme magician. Everything must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and his sketches had them to perfection. He marshalled his argument so that it lacked not (as the old divine puts it in Thomas Love Peacock) the primary requisites of a head and a tail. In other words, his sense of construction was infallible. He caught our interest with his very first sentence and he led us up the garden path of his narrative with just the right measure of coaxing and cajolery. In like manner he was not abrupt in his denouements but softened the fall of his endings, so to speak, by preparing us beforehand for them. He knew–none better–how to “join his flats.”
The mass of his information
What struck us was his amazing mass of information. The career of every public figure seemed to be an “open book” to him. It appeared to be all one to him whether that public figure was a poet or a philosopher, a politician, or a publican: he grasped them to his bosom with hoops of steel. The only condition that he made was that those who sat for him as his “models” must be persons “of importance in their day,” as Browning would have called them. Of course, the more that importance promised to be permanent the better it suited him. But he was wise enough not to drive this principle to its logical conclusion.
His Unerring Eye for Pretension
In the treatment of his “subjects” he was, as a general rule very lenient. His quality of mercy was not strained.
“It dropped as the gentle rain from heaven
upon the place beneath.”
But there was an exception. He had an unerring eye for pretension. He had nothing but withering contempt for the poseurs. When confronted with any of these contemptible beings his sarcasm could be biting, indeed. I can cite an example. His portraits of the late Mr. St. Leo Strachey, editor of the Spectator, and of Mr. Hilaire Belloc are unforgettable. Both of them, Gardiner hints, are (not to put too fine a point upon it) humbugs in certain respects. The manner in which he establishes his thesis is extremely revealing. He lets his full stream of irony play on them as from a hose; now the hose is turned in this direction and anon that. I cannot resist this quotation from his sketch of Mr. Belloc. The very opening sentence gives us an indication of his method of attack.
“Some wit has divided society into two classes–dukes and other people. This is a mistake. The true classification should be–the British people and Mr. Belloc. One ought, of course, to put Mr. Belloc first, but perhaps he will forgive the slight for the sake of the cadence. It is not intended to suggest that Mr. Belloc is inferior to the other 45 millions bf us. That would be absurd. No one would recognize its absurdity more readily than Mr. Belloc, for among his many transcendent qualities humility is not conspicuous.”
“Others abide our question...”
Opinions may well differ as to whether his pen-portraits of politicians or of literary figures are the better. I prefer the latter. His sketches of George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling are among his very best. My own favourite is the first. I am a lover of Meredith myself and am happy to find that I am in excellent company. Gardiner’s chief glory is these pen-portraits. He stands supreme in this chosen field of his.
As an Essayist
Gardiner has another title also to distinction. Under the pen-name of “Alpha of the Plough” he wrote a series of essays in the well-known London weekly, the Star. These are now available in book-form as Leaves in the Wind, Many Furrows, Pebbles on the Shore, and one or two others. His style in these is bewitching. If, as an editor, he is not in the same street with Massingham, as an essayist he is not, to be perfectly candid, in the same class as Robert Lynd and J. B. Priestley. It was he, however, who helped Lynd (“Y. Y.” of the New Statesman) on to his present position. He was among the first to discern Lynd’s genius and, having done so, appointed him as the Literary Editor of the Daily News. Though, as I have noted, he is not, as an essayist, of the same calibre as Lynd he occupies a unique position nonetheless. As C. E. Montague observed, “A range of mountains may not be the Alps, and yet have a career.” Second-class essayists, like “A. G. G.”, have also a special niche in the temple of fame. Let us give them our meed of praise and pass on.
I have remarked that “A. G. G.’s” style is bewitching. Simplicity is its keynote. It is not easy to write a simple style, as some imagine, an insipid style. There is an ornament that Pertains to simplicity, and there is a simplicity that is at the same time scholarly. Gardiner’s simplicity was of this nature. If we would cultivate this kind of writing, we should exercise a wise economy in words: there should be a self-restraint in language, what Walter Peter called “the beauty of a frugal closeness of style.” That Walter Peter himself did not practise what he preached is beside the point. Gardiner, for his part, observed all these rules. One is never pulled up by a slipshod phrase or a slovenly sentence. In addition, he was a master of epigram and of quotation. His love of literature shines through every line that he ever wrote. Like the maiden in the fairy story he could not open his mouth without pearls (of literature) dropping out of it.
Such was Gardiner. This “appreciation” of mine of him is by way of being an affectionate memorial–albeit belated. I got much from him: it is only in the fitness of things that I should endeavour to repay, however inadequately, those manifold services. May his name shine forever as a sort of beacon to guide the footsteps of aspiring journalists!