Saturday, October 20, 2018

And Uncle Horace too

So, when I put together the first post in this sequence, I hadn't noticed that there are several references to Sir Horace Plunkett, Dunsany's uncle, as well. In fact, Betjeman worked for Sir Horace briefly as his private secretary. And by 'briefly' I mean only for a matter of (I gather four or five) weeks in 1929. At the end of about a month Betjeman fell ill with a nasty flu. While he was in bed recovering,* he recommended a friend to fill in for him, and (long story short) the friend stole the job, offering as justification the opinion that Betjeman wdn't have been able to keep it v. long anyway.

Here's Betjeman's description of Sir Horace, from a letter dated 10 Februry 1929:

I am at the moment Private Secretary to Sir Horace Plunkett 
who in the early eighties was a big man in Agricultural Co-
operation. He is still more than keen on it and being slightly
off his head has written the first chapter of a book of nine 
chapters no less than seventy-two times. He says the same
thing over and over again and rarely completes one of his
sentences which suits my style of thinking. The pay is fair
and the food and travelling excellent. He is in bad health 
at the moment and this hotel** is furnished in that
Japanese style so popular with the wives of Anglo-
Indian Colonels who retire to Camberley . . . (p.52)

Needless to say, Sir Horace was not 'off his head', just clearly suffering from a bad case of writer's block. I've heard him described in all seriousness as one of the great men of his century for his devotion to improving the lot of farmers, particularly in Ireland through the Co-Operative movement. It says a lot about his character that when private airplanes came in when he was already an old man he had someone take him up so he cd better see for himself the patchwork of fields and farms and how they all fit together. As a result, he learned to fly himself when already well into his seventies.

--John R.

*this was back in the days, only a decade after the Spanish Lady,  when folks took flu seriously.

**the Beresford, in Birchington-on-Sea, Kent

1 comment:

Magister said...

And what did Sir Horace have to say about Betjeman? His diaries (scans and transcriptions) can be found at:

A selection:

24 January 1929: "Gerald brought Betchmann [sic], a young Oxonian who will take on McKay’s job. He is extremely intelligent, knows nothing of my work but will step into McKs shoes & work under Gerald. He has just graduated at Magdalen, Oxford, in Modern literature, is working in the City for his father, was offered a job by the Daily Express but doesn’t like it and will take on my job. He will come at end of next week."

17 February: "Temperature last night. Had to keep the house, barring fetching Curtain (who, dear old man is week-ending in the absence of my man) and the R.C. housemaid from their devotions. I had also to fetch John Betjmann [sic] from his Meeting House of the Society of Friends at Esher. Four Quakers and he communed (mostly in silence). I have at any rate a good, honest, extremely clever secretary. His working in will be difficult."

18 February: "Had to spend today & tomorrow in the country. Working in J.B. is the thing that matters most. The whole trouble is that he cannot concentrate on anything. He reads a bit of agric’l cooperative stuff & then writes a poem or a story which comes much easier than my dull drab toil."

2 March: "The Dentist! Knocked me about a bit. J.B. more depressed than ever & made me doubt his being able to stand the strain of my work which he has not yet faced. I am helpless."

3 March: "The doctor had to be called in for JB who had diagnosed Jaundice (rightly as it was found) and suspected cancer on the liver, the result of searching the Encyclopaedia on jaundice!! He won’t be fit, Beare says, for a fortnight for any serious work."

5 March: "At 5 AM I had a temperature of 100.6 at 10 AM I was 98.6 A.M. [sic] at 11.30 John Bowle, a friend of Betjmann’s [sic] came as his locum tenens. Brought him to Crest House. He is no cleverer than the other J.B. but 2 years older and knows much more of life.
Found the invalid much better. But he won’t be able to work for another ten days."

6 March: "Well(?) again & tried to work. The two J.B.’s were a strange contrast – both as clever as can be, the dilettante religious Dutch-Englishman and the Anglo-Saxon son of a corn merchant – gloomy, but now facing facts – between them have all I want. But their careers, not my end, must be my chief concern. I wrote to the Master of Balliol to ask about the latter."

17 March: "Ernest Betjmann [sic], father of J.B. came to confer with me about his son who ought never to have taken on my job, in order to hold it while sick, got John Bowle (who can do it) and must now leave. The father is 10 years my junior. He is a manufacturer of the luxuries which adorn the Bond Street shop windows, lives a double life, finds his staff no longer willing to carry on without an understanding as to their future interest (which E.B. wants J.B. to inherit but J.B. can’t & won’t) and practically asked me to help him in his perplexities. A bounder of the worst kind! I must try to help the boy to get away from the father – But how?"