--Adventures At The Huntington Library--

By Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com


Recently, having nothing better to do, I decided to write a novel which would put in the shade that gig-lamped weed, Harry Potter. I needed the money and the immortality. What's more, I’d actually served in the trenches at real-life boarding schools in the bad old days, unlike authoress J.K. Rowling, a rank outsider with her fantasy coed school full of pupils called Ron and Lee and Hermione, pampered 1990s kids who actually look forward to the beginning of term. No blubbing on the platform in Rowling’s world.

Yes, I’d write a novel because fiction, so they say, is an elevated form of writing, where you're up above the clouds, master of your creation, and no need for fact-checking. Of course, my raw material would come from down below and no problems: I’d plug into the past faster than a Proust cake by reading a few lines from one of my 1950s prep school letters home("I’m sorry this is all a bit grim but I thought you'd rather hear the truth"). And with a whoosh I’d be wreathed in the stench of the changing room.

The real thing in colour, no secondhand stuff like the Rowling woman's scribblings from a café table in Scotland, someone who'd never experienced the exciting sting of cane on thigh, or the exotic taste of toothpaste-and-salt sandwich. Here would be real boys at a real school having adventures in a plot full of twists and turns and big surprises. A secret society revealed. QED, in the words of my old maths master as he rounded off a blackboard problem with a chalk flourish.

The problem was I couldn't conjure up a story, or even any characters (apart from myself). The fiction grounded the authenticity. A plot idea would glimmer and then evaporate as soon as it was on the table and under the light. Over my shoulder a commonsense voice asked how could I make people believe things that had never happened. But if I told the truth documentary-style then it wouldn't be a novel.

Besides, the truth was so mundane, so formless. Where were these characters you read about in how-to-write manuals, unforgettable personalities who spring from the imagination and dictate the story?

In search of a laxative I left my desk in the basement of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California (where I'm registered as a "reader"), to go shopping for a few self-help books, an easy job in Los Angeles where everybody and his waiter has a story to tell for money. I returned with an armful of titles such as "Plot"("You’ll discover how to handle the extremes of melodrama by ‘faking out’ your readers--making them watch your right hand while your left hand is doing something sneaky"), and "Plots Unlimited" which resembled a maths book with its cross references to thousands of "conflict situations" like Example 720 where "Jack is paralyzed by the fear that he has inherited the evil traits of an ancestor, Eric" and you can choose to go from there to, say, Example 288 where you're informed that due to these traits "Jack daren’t ask Carol, whom he dearly loves, to marry him".

How could such stuff fit into my prep school memories and transform them into fiction? Despite the icy air-conditioning in the Huntington basement (for protection of the priceless books) I started to sweat. Sweeping aside the pile of instruction books I returned to my Harry Potters. How does Rowling pull off the trick? Christ, she's clever! Take Hogwarts, her school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a country castle you reach by steam train from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters -- it's a wonder world of doors that refuse to open unless you're polite or tickle them in the right place, of people in portraits who'll jump out to go visiting friends and neighbours in other portraits, of Nearly Headless Nick, a resident ghost, so-called because of a botched beheading which resulted in his head flapping. Must have taken Rowling years to assemble all the jokes and then to weave everything into a mystery story involving magic mirrors, flying broomsticks, and a whole new sport called Quidditch. Must have meant reading an awful lot of fairy stories.

Rowling, I quickly concluded after coming to my senses following a snooze on the top of my desk, was the wrong road for me. When a problem arises in her world of potions and spells it's abracadabraed away in a poof of smoke. It's all magic and it's a swiz. Also, there's no place for sex in children's literature, at least not directly, and thus no place for my dear old masters with their swishing canes and bursting trouser buttons. My novel looked like having a grim market prospect.

Just as I was sinking deep, believing nothing could jump-start my novel, I was re-floated by an announcement I saw on the bulletin board in The Footnote, the room of beverage-and-snack vending machines provided for us scholars as a relaxation space. Next month, said the notice, there would be--right here--a weekend Conference On The Novel In Britain Since 1950. The Huntington seemed like a good venue since, not far from my desk, and behind locked and coded doors, lay a treasure trove of Twentieth Century Eng. Lit., including the papers of Christopher Isherwood and Kingsley Amis. Dead wood, however, was one thing, live authors were another: I might grab some tips and pointers from the illustrious authors advertised as coming to speak at our library.

At once I enrolled, excited that soon would be gathered together, just across the hall from our desks, in a room aptly named "Friends’ Hall",a bevy of British literature stars, names I’d seen emblazoned on the covers of the magazines the library subscribes to – "The Times Literary Supplement", "The London Review Of Books", "The New York Review Of Books" and on and on. Many’s the time, after a long lunch at our "Rose Garden" cafe, I’d settle down to peruse a review of a heavy but important new book, written by an even heavier reviewer, knowing that if I could stay the course I’d be able to hold my own at literary gatherings.

These people had reputations, I knew, even though I’d never read a word by any of them: Euan McEwan (spelling?), John Sutherland, Christopher Hitchens, and--biggest catch of all--Martin Amis, a name to be feared, a name so often ricocheting over the Atlantic, its reverberations heard even out here in Southern California. These people, like dazzling rockets, would soon descend on us embattled Huntingtonians holed up in a desert outpost at the very edge of Western civilization where all around us is the battle cry of mariachi bands and hip-hopping rappers. These masters of the printed word, magicians in a way, would provide me with the answers to the mysteries of literature. Just being in their presence, in the front row of "Friends’ Hall", soaking in their aura, would be enough to send me scurrying back to my desk with a head crammed full of the secrets of storytelling, the tricks of the trade. An image of Dickens, quill in hand and gazing into a great beyond, his huge head radiating oval portraits of Oliver Twist, Scrooge, David Copperfield, and others I didn't recognize, wraithed into my imagination. This could be a religious experience.......................

There was plenty of room in the front row, in fact there was plenty of room all over "Friends’ Hall". I chose to join a welcoming knot of local book-lovers in the third row, gentle souls of the sort who attend British costume movies and make annual trips to West End theatres in professor-led package groups. They recognized me as the charming Brit who's lived for decades in the Los Angeles basin for reasons best-known to himself. As I took my seat a strange feeling came over me, a dread that I was about to encounter head prefects of a school I’d run away from many years ago. I drew my chair closer to the comfy local lady on my left. The writers were running late. None of them had been present earlier at "Orientation Time" when assorted beverages and pastries had been offered in the outer lobby and the brightly bow-tied Head of Research (and dispenser of grants and honorariums) had delivered a little welcoming speech. While he was helping himself to an apricot scone I asked after the celebrities. He whispered rather stagily: "We believe that right now they're in the parking lot having a smoke. Lucky they're here at all--I've had reports of sightings early this morning at various bars and bistros--some of them the worse for drink". I said that writers tend to enjoy alcohol . "I would’nt know--I don’t read novels.....Onward and upward........."

Eventually, just as we were getting restless and starting to tut-tut, in they trooped to a shambling step, a picture of latter-day bohemianism, a gang, I felt, with little respect for the great literature and fine art housed at The Huntington, protected by locks and alarms and earthquake stabilizers. I recognized at once (from his many appearances on television current affairs programmes) Christopher Hitchens, the transatlantic pundit. A red hot poker in print, in the flesh he seemed a pathetic creature, as he struggled past us, a person you needed to stay clear of in case he might suddenly lash out. His long floppy corduroy jacket could not conceal the shirt tail hanging down over the seat of his jeans. His bullet eyes, piercing through a film of blood, darted around the half-empty room, giving our little group a curl of the upper lip and a glance as if to acknowledge that he recognized the land of the crass but at least there might perhaps be some potential customers present.

He was part of a shaky line of literary lions but I recognized none of the others. Where was Martin Amis? I continued to fix on Hitchens, a loathing enveloping me like a nasty cold. Led onto the dais by an official, he flopped down into a chair, his belly parting his jacket, his eyes closing contentedly, a hand shaking noticeably as it was raised to push back a stray lock of greasy hair.

Suddenly, as if by osmosis, his eyes shot open and he sat up straight. He waved a now perfectly steady hand. All along the platform people were waving and smiling. We turned round to see the cause of the excitement: from the back of the hall there slowly processed a slight and gnomish man with long grey hair at the side of the head and not so much up top--the sort of style I associate with superannuated socialists harboring grudges against long-gone political systems.

As the little fellow approached the dais, and the applause grew louder, he flapped a hand in a please-don’t-notice-me-I’ve-been-through-all- of-this-sort--of-thing--before gesture. "Who is that man?" I asked my neighbour. The woman looked astonished. "Why, don’t you recognize our star? It's Martin Amis. THE Martin Amis." And as she spoke the magic name I could hear it echoing around the hall in that same phrase:"It’s Martin Amis, Martin Amis, Amis, Amis, Amis.............."

With a heave of sadness I readjusted my image of Martin Amis. For I remembered him from an early 70s photo as a boy beauty with lazy come-hither eyes and pouting lips, a face wreathed in tumbling thick curls fringed saucily. A regular prick-teaser. And now this.

The gnome slid into a seat far away from us all, and issued a nod. Instantly the conference commenced. A Zachary Leader, an American who teaches at the University of Surrey at Roehampton, introduced a string of academics lecturing on authors I’d mostly never heard of and had now no intention of reading. I’d rather have had an analysis of Frank Richards’ plotting of the Billy Bunter stories. Still, I dutifully made notes: some writer whose "characters’ inner lives hang out on their tongues" and another in whom we must note "the importance of metaphor".

The nearest we got to my kind of novel was when Hitchens managed to get to his feet and deliver a lecture on "Reactionary Humour". In a tone of snide clever-dickery, he stated that P.G. Wodehouse had lifted his whole Blandings Castle world from "The Importance of Being Earnest", but that, nevertheless, he (Hitchens) admires Wodehouse as a humourist who couldn't have been pro-fascist because he’d created Sir Roderick Spode and his party of "Black Shorts". No, he’s concluded, Wodehouse was an innocent, a simple man, a naif.

At Q&A time I put up my hand. "The gentleman in the old school tie and blazer", said Hitchens in acknowledgment. I stated: "I don’t think Wodehouse could have been all that naive and simple. After all, he collaborated on Broadway with Jerome Kern and both were known to be tough as old boots". This temporarily unstuck Hitchens. His face went pale, losing its boozy flush. He rattled something out about Wodehouse & Kern musicals, confusing them with those of the Gershwin brothers. I didn't pursue the matter. Instead I attacked with my follow-up question (something you're allowed to do in America): "You have made no mention of the finest of all modern British comic novelists". Hitchens performed his lip-curling:"And who might that be, in your opinion?" "Julian McLaren Ross", I answered loudly and with relish. "I've heard the name but never read a word of him. Next.........."

When we broke for lunch he walked out with Amis and a couple of young women in black, giving me a wide berth. I glimpsed them a little later offering each other cigarettes in a corner of the Huntington entrance. Hitchens was trying to light a Swan Vestas on a Greek statue. Pleased with myself, I ate a large lunch at the library's "Rose Garden" cafe as I explained to my local friends about McLaren Ross. They made notes. I think I had too large a lunch because during the afternoon session ("Enigma And Homelands: Naipaul and Rushdie") I nodded off.

Comfortably in dreamland and having great adventures (which I wish I could have remembered), I was woken by the persistent whine of another snidesman. I looked up and recognized John Sutherland, an English academic who used to frequent our library years ago when he was teaching nearby. Sometimes I’d dared to approach him but he'd usually dismiss me with this irritating whine. Today he appeared to have been working himself up into a fine lather whilst I’d been sleeping, with a trickle of water easing down from the side of his mouth as he whined and spat about something that clearly was bothering him. Yet all the while he smiled. I came in on this:"The energy of the future must come from below. Will immigrants be the next important novelists?" Then came the Rushdie word again and I snapped shut.

At question time, which he seemed to resent, I decided to keep quiet since I had nothing to say on the subject. I mean, I felt like having a go at the bugger, but I confined it to my mind and by shifting loudly in my seat. However, I was happy when my neighbour,a well-stacked woman from Malibu and frequent Cotswolds visitor, dared to state: "Sir, you have spoken cleverly of modern writers but you have failed to mention today's most successful author and she's British too". Sutherland issued a low hiss, looked heavenwards, and returned with a fierce smile: "And who would that be?" "Why, sir, I refer to J.K.Rowling". "Who?" "The Harry Potter books". His smile grew bigger and more dangerous: "Oh, do tell me. Is she any good?" At this point I couldn't resist, I had to join the fray. Standing up full and rotating so that all coul d see me, I shouted, "Yes,Yes, Yes! She's wonderful!" I would have said more but the bow-tied Huntington official was clearing his throat loudly and pointing to his watch.

The grand finale. Zachary Leader, humble and Heap-like as Americans often tend to be in the presence of British authors, brought up to the platform the star himself--Martin Amis. In a beautiful rolling deep voice he told us that so enamoured is he of America that he's decided to move to New York ASAP and write the Great American Novel in the tradition of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Since I've only ever read about Bellow and Roth I wasn't phased, but my friends in our row seemed a little shattered. There followed a nice surprise: Mr Leader played us a tape of Kingsley Amis, the father, on some long ago BBC radio programme. He was doing a remarkably good music hall turn: an impression of a World War 2 radio broadcast from America by Franklin Roosevelt with so much static interference that the President's rhetoric sounded as if it was punctuated by burps, belches, and farts. Quite the best part of the conference, I felt. And although my notebook was empty of writing tips I knew that I must now turn around and return to the library basement and check out some of Kingsley Amis’ novels. Such a funny man might provide me with the right pointers for my novel in maturation.

Now, as I've noted earlier, the Huntington holds in its manuscript stacks the papers of Kingsley Amis. Reckoning there might be some rare material amongst, say, his notes for novels, I climbed the winding staircase, one of many in the library, up to the chambers of the Keeper of Rare Manuscripts. She's a kindly person who has helped me in the past when I was researching "Titanic" material and information about George Freeth, the legendary early surfer.

Was there anything in the Amis papers that scholars had not gutted clean? Something startling to fire me up? Some manuscript I could hold and smell and perhaps feel the creative mind at work? She thought for a while. Finally she c ame up with a possibility: an unpublished novel and indeed a self-suppressed one. Mr Amis had given instructions for it never to be published during his lifetime: "Difficulties With Girls"--not to be confused with the later published novel of the same name. Why did Amis suppress this novel? Well, said the Keeper in a hushed voice, he felt that the work might be misconstrued. In short, that he might be accused of being gay. My interest immediately pricked up. Not only might I find out how a novel is constructed from scratch, but there could be some lubricious fun along the way. After all, Amis Senior was a notorious womanizer and his characters couldn’t be more removed from the world of queerdom. I thirsted for the stuff to be handed to me.

This meant a little waiting in the Ahmundsen Reading Room, surrounded by scholars poring over rare mss--crinkly correspondence of centuries ago, in spidery ink, between poetic dukes and earls; works on vellum crafted by arthritic monks scratching with quills in bitter British weather-- tick-tocking these aged writings into the safety of their neat and trim little laptop computers. Scratch-scratch into tick-tocked digitry, at high-speed and with robotic efficiency, without any visible emotions. So I sat and waited and watched.

Eventually I was presented with three blue folders, each one tied up in white ribbon: Notes, The Mss., and Reasons For Not Publishing Novel. It was thrilling to hold the papers, like picking up Amis’s cocktail glass still containing a few drops of gin and Italian. So excited had I become that I didn't work methodically but instead sampled every folder as quick as a wink. The typing was small, as if done on a portable. There were also notes in pen and in Biro, quite neat. In the Notes folder there was a list of Peter Simple columns with page references, notes on a deaf man who has discovered a way of farting silently, a girl who can't help doing everything wrong from cooking rotten dinners to giving people the wrong presents, women who always prevent men from getting on with things, especially in films about war, women who can fake orgasms (unlike men), and Mogadon,Bocasin, bicameral drinks, Wills Whiffs, and how madmen invariably talk banalities..

Then I saw a mention of queer adventures at a party. And I kept running across references to a long moveable bean feast of several years ago and to some of the people involved. I recognized one of the names as a nasty piece of work I’d encountered at dinner parties in London on my annual excursions there--a fruity-voiced con man with literary pretensions, a man who had once accused me, during the meat course, of being in the closet. All very intriguing. I moved quickly to the last folder, The Reasons.

This was neatly typed, far the cleanest of the folders. Here I learned that the basis of the novel was a binge trip made with George Gale from July to August, 1962. They'd meandered between Swansea and Cambridge, with a side run up to the Far North, and had indulged in much boozing and bouts of bedding. Who did what to whom is not detailed. But Amis explains that he'd intended to write up the jaunt as a light, episodic story about two marriages gone awry. A comic novel. He lit upon the device of having a queer narrator in order to make jokes about women and marriage from an impartial point of view. As he wrote, though, an unusual nervousness came over him because he realized the danger of writing as a queer. Mr. Hyde was taking over. He was becoming sympathetic. And he knew that sooner or later he'd be writing about queer activities which was all very well because he was a seasoned novelist and had skills enough to fool the public. However, as he typed on he realized with a sense of panic that readers might believe he'd been a repressed bugger boy all along and might even have done the nasty. The result would be a blackballing from his clubs. The Jim Dixon syndrome all over again.

Would people understand that in fact he despised homosexuals, regarding them as absurd and disgusting as well as socially tiresome? What happened after his death didn't matter. They can publish the stuff and no blushing.

It was thrilling, then, to turn to the actual manuscript itself. I felt like an explorer entering a hitherto forbidden country. There are only 127 pages--the story suddenly breaks off in mid sentence-and it's hard to read due to all the crossing-out and handwritten insertions, but the dialogue runs free and frothy as if snatched straight from the drawing room or pub.

The setting is some university town in the Northern provinces during the early 1960s where Robert, a homosexual student, has a live-in job as male nanny to the son of a revolting accountant called Adrian and his randy wife Ann. The story takes place over a week or so. Action of a sort (mostly drinking, eating and the hurling of a 1930s jazz LP) starts when Adrian's novelist brother Reggie arrives with his (randy) wife for an extended stay. Reggie too is quite sex-driven and has to fend off calls from recently conquered women. I lost track of who was charvering whom (in the normal manner) because I was eager to read the lavender stuff. Still, Amis has created a true comic figure in Adrian: fat and wobbly, he glugs as he walks, yawns like a klaxon, can issue bleating lamb farts or ones like harsh barks. He takes his drinking seriously as if it was a fine and exclusive art, bending forward and frowning, moving his lips to and fro as if in silent prayer.

But what of the queerdom? Well, Reggie has a ghastly sycophant in tow, an American of the Midwestern naive brand called Tom and Tom has been ordered by his shrink, Dr Perlmutter, to try being a homo for a while since it might solve his premature ejaculations. He tells Robert about his problem: how his dick can stand up 100% and fast but then goes and explodes in 5 seconds. What does Robert think? Everybody in the novel uses Robert as a listening post. That's the trouble--he never comes to life. You never really believe in him. What kind of men does he fancy? Tom pouts his lips, flutters his eyes, rolls his shoulders and flaps his wrist at Robert but all to no avail. An old geezer with money calls to remind Robert that they're flying abroad together soon, aren't they. Robert is noncommittal. Another senior, a bristle-chin northerner, tries to take the lad by storm behind the bushes, but is knocked flying. There's no back passage activity, no cottaging.

Instead, Robert is valued for his skill in choosing the right colours in curtains and for putting up with constant enquiries concerning homosexuality. He doesn't give much away, just agrees that everybody is instinctively revolted by homos. He also agrees with characters who tell him that queers never tell the truth, are cunning about sex but stupid in every other way. Adrian sums up the whole homo lifestyle as a few furtive minutes behind the bike shed. And our hero himself has a vision of life as a married closet queen: a morning trip to the shops for milk and bread and then a slipping into the rear of the newsagent’s for a purchase in plain wrapper of a Danish magazine featuring naughty boys in singlets and shorts.

The story breaks off on a Saturday in Scotland. In an epilogue taking place in 1982 we're told that Robert has made a marriage of convenience to an older woman with money while Tom has been murdered in an Illinois public lavatory. The heterosexual couples are still together and boozing away as usual. I’d like to read more about Adrian and Reggie with their jazz LPs and constant refilling of glasses. I really enjoyed the loving descriptions of gin bottles being uncorked, of ice smacking into crystal, of even the dry fishcake. Amis needn't have worried---the queer stuff isn't convincing because the author is clearly at a distance, through a telescope darkly. What he relishes is men at work on drink and jazz, with women waiting in the wings, always at your service for a quickie.

At this point I tied up the folders with their ribbons, handed them back to the guardians, and longed for a cocktail. It was now only mid-afternoon and there's no bar in the Huntington. Besides, I've made it a rule never to start drinking until after 6pm and then, oh boy. So I trudged upstairs once more to visit the Keeper and see if she could suggest something to substitute for my desire. She did her usual pondering. Then: had I seen the personal library of Kingsley Amis in which the author's fondness for alcohol is reflected in the more than 130 books on the subject?

Indeed no, I had no knowledge of this collection. She escorted me down deep to a dark and narrow area I vaguely remembered. Keys were turned, codes were pressed, and a thick iron door at last creaked open. Now I recognized where I was: the room where they keep the rare special materials, the private papers of artists and writers. Christopher Isherwood’s diaries lie here, so do mine. And just around the corner, in gleaming rows on brand new utility shelves, there stretching in front of me was the Amis library.

Books of all shapes and sizes and conditions, new books for review and clearly unopened, dog-eared Ian Fleming and Dick Francis books speckled with food stains, and "The Beer Drinker's Companion", "Plonk and Superplonk", "500 Recipes: Cocktails and Mixed Drinks", "The Gin Book", "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks", "Cocktail Party Secrets", "Spirits and Liqueurs of the World" "Malt Whisky Almanac" "The Hangover Handbook", rows of Rex Stout, rows of Kipling, the Beezer Book. Finally, on their own down the bottom right hand row: a stack of jazz LPs and some audio cassettes, one labelled "Larkin Jazz". I’d like to play that tape sometime. Sometime when I can lie here in a deck chair with a gin fizz and a canape and all around me the comforting Kingsley Aimis smell of old sports jackets, tobacco and alcohol. So satisfying and so much safer than the air circulating in the nearby Isherwood stack where sit lists of the author's multiple sex partners--Brad and Cliff and Rod and Russ and Speed and the one who wore his cap pulled low--as well as instructions about the flexing and unflexing of the sphincter.

Kingsley’s OK, like a tattered old familiar slipper. I rest my case. I have no novel of my own but at least I have found a pleasantly aromatic spot in which to linger.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com