The Writer and the Persona

One may like a writer’s books without liking the writer. I have not had opportunity to test this maxim directly; but the experience of reading The First Mate’s Log may come close to what is needed. I like the book, as I like all of Collingwood’s books. But the Log is what it says, an account of Mediterranean Sea voyage taken by the author with a bunch of young men (Oxford students) half his age. The Log perhaps reveals more of Collingwood’s personality than his philosophy books do. Or maybe Collingwood just adopts a somewhat different persona for the Log.

I reproduce below the first chapter of the Log. It is highly amusing, and it helps flesh out some passages of the philosophy books. I am disturbed by the comment about “fish and women” though. I hope the disturbance is just a reflection of my own uptightness.

The subtitle of the Log is Of a Voyage to Greece in the Schooner Yacht ‘Fleur de Lys’ in 1939. The first chapter is called “Gilpatric,” for Chadbourne Gilpatric, an American Rhodes Scholar.

ONE day in the Summer Term I went down to Balliol to call on Bill. I had paid my call, had left the college, and was looking into the window of Thornton’s bookshop on the other side of the street when I found myself addressed. I looked up and saw a young man at my side.

He was neither tall nor short, neither fair nor dark, neither thin nor thick. He stood on the pavement like a dancer, as if prepared at any moment to spring off it a yard into the air. He wore his clothes as if they did not exist; as if there were nothing to impede any sudden flight through the air, or any sudden transformation of his visible shape, that should take his fancy. His light grey eyes, which were like the colour of the sky when dawn has just broken, looked not at the surfaces of things but through them, so that (I thought) if he wished to leap through the stones and mortar of a building in order to grasp its soul he would know in advance where to leap, because those eyes would have shown him where the soul lived. To complete my description, he carried a large wireless set by one finger passed through a hole in its top; by the way in which he did it I could see that, just as material things had for him no impenetrability and no opacity, so they had no weight.

Of course I am well enough accustomed to seeing fairies, and speaking with them too; though not well enough for familiarity to have bred contempt. That this young man was a fairy I knew when first I clapped eyes on him. There are rules for dealing with fairies; in particular, that you must play them as you play fish or women, by means of a certain guile or honourable (because expected) deceit, and that you must make them give you a sign that they are genuine, though naturally you must never ask for it. If they are genuine they will give it unasked.

When I had become aware of all this I knew that he had been speaking to me, and I doltishly staring at him. He was addressing me by name and asking me to join him and some friends of his on a voyage to the Greek islands in a schooner that we were to sail ourselves. I knew instantly that I should go; but I remembered the rules. I must assume the proper kind and degree of coyness, and I must wait for the sign. So I pretended to refuse, knowing that my pretence could not deceive his fairy nature. In another moment I received the sign. He told me that his name was Gilpatric.

This was doubly conclusive. None but a genuine fairy will address you in the Gaelic; and moreover I myself have a peculiar devotion to St. Patrick; not in derogation of the honour I owe, like all members of my family, to the great saint we revere in common, St. Cuthbert, but something over and above that, a devotion proceeding from my own personal and spontaneous choice. So when this dawn-eyed young man told me that he was called in Gaelic the Servant of St. Patrick, I knew that he was my own fairy self, a self that carried about the ways of the world a name in the fairies’ language which was the name I had long ago chosen for my own.

One rule obeyed does not let you off obeying the second. I had my sign, and I knew I was his: I knew I should sail in that schooner, whatever might come of it. But I still had to play my fairy. I pretended, as I say, reluctance. I demanded argument. I asked for conviction. I proposed further and completer discussion in my own rooms at the other end of the city. All these requests my fairy granted as soon as they were made, with the grave demeanour of a fairy who knows the rules and thinks none the worse of a mortal for obeying them.

What more need I say? Only this: that I have written this log day by day for the amusement of my fellow servant and of the crew he serves. Commands, I had nearly said; but whereas he never commands, hinting at most his thoughts for our welfare and the success of our enterprise, serve he does. Who else brings below the books we have left on deck of an evening to liquefy in the dew? Who else puts our pipes away where they belong, sorts out our scattered Leicas, empties our ashtrays and gives the rest of his dinner to any one of us whom he notices looking hungry? On many evenings round about twilight, when supper is done and mariners smoke in the cockpit, these records have been read aloud; and now they are printed in the hope that they may fulfil the promise of the Spanish poet who said that the flowers of the rosemary (that’s for remembrance) to-day are blue flowers, to-morrow shall be honey.

The next chapter is called “Corsican Landfall.”

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