James Agate, Diarist

Although James Agate (pronounced AY-gett) was, during his lifetime, one of the best-known literary figures in England, it’s not surprising he’s utterly forgotten today. His primary form–theatre and film reviews for daily newspapers–is about as short-lived as there is.

Not that his work ethic ever acknowledged that fact. As his biographer, James Harding wrote,

As a talker, as a raconteur, he was spontaneous and witty without effort. As a writer, he was slow, uncertain and laborious. It took him three days to write his Sunday Times article, and he rewrote it as many as six or seven times. the manuscript ended up as a maze of crossings-out and second thoughts. He would go to bed reasonably satisfied with what he had done. In the middle of the night, new phrases would present themselves, and he would get up and slave at his desk again until dawn.

He made it a habit, in fact, to draft his review before even going to a play, just to ensure that he had something ready in time to make his deadline. But though he worked at a time when theatre was the leading form of lively arts in Britain and reigned for years as its most influential critic, there would be little reason for mentioning his name here had he limited his output to criticism (and three minor works of fiction).

What earns Agate a place not just on this site but on the shelves of any lover of literate amusement are the nine volumes of his Ego–a unique work that combines autobiography, journal, causerie, commonplace book, and collections of letters written to him by others. They are, in Harding’s words, “the perfect bedside books. You pick one up to check a point, and, before you realize what is happening, you are bewitched into reading on, and on, and on.” This is an echo of Jacques Barzun’s introduction to The Later Ego, which collects Ego 8 and Ego 9: “One can only say that nine volumes of this ideal bedside reading are none too many.”

Agate was approached to write his autobiography in the early 1930s. From today’s vantage point, one wonders why. At the time, he’d been working as a critic for over twenty years, covering theatre, music, books and, lately, film. A theatre lover from an early age, Agate found his talent for acting lacking and turned to criticism as an alternative. It was a profession he joined late, having spent the first twenty years of his working life following in his father’s footsteps as a cloth merchant. Although he’d begun to acquire a nationwide reputation through his appearances on BBC radio, his autobiography would seem to have more in common with a quickie book published to capitalize on a minor celebrity’s fame than anything of lasting literary value.

Yet when the first Ego was published in 1935, most reviewers acclaimed it as an exceptional work. Rebecca West wrote, “One would like to organise some graceful national demonstration in its honour. … Really, there is not anything much better than our Mr. Agate, save Mr. Pickwick and such bright diamonds of literature.”

The comparison with Pickwick was accurate. Agate was a larger-than-life character: foppish, heavy-drinking and smoking, a lover of cricket and horse racing, extravagant in his spending (he would keep cabs waiting for hours while he dined and wined with friends), and vastly well read. He was also gay, though his public brash drew attention away from his private preferences. He liked to be one of the last to enter a theatre, which he did with a flourish, and wherever he went, he loved the company of lively personalities … as long as he was allowed to outshine them. He once described himself as a character “who looked like a farmer, dressed like a bookmaker, ate like a Parisian, and drank like a Hollander.”

He also spent money like there was no tomorrow. While he did quite well when he worked in the cloth business, once he came back from serving as a purchasing agent in the British Army, buying fodder in the south of France for use by cavalry horses in France and Greece, he gave up all pretense of keeping his books. He opened a small shop when he first moved to London and it quickly went bust. He bought and sold horses with expert eye for horseflesh, but usually came out at a loss after factoring in his stabling costs. “Debt worries are a legitimate hell,” he wrote in his very first entry. In his very last, he notes, “Received this morning a curt communication from the Revenue saying that unless I find £940 within a week everything in my flat except the bed I lie on will be taken away.”

Although Ego and all the subsequent volumes were subtitled, “The Autobiography of James Agate,” it’s really a set of diaries than a narrative life story. The first entry in Ego 1 is dated 2 June 1932; the last in Ego 9 exactly fifteen years later–just four days before his death, of a heart attack, just short of his 70th birthday. Across the over two thousand pages comprising the nine volumes, Agate wrote and quoted–without ever a note of apology–whatever he felt. “It will be a relief to set down just what I do actually think, and in the first words to hand, instead of pondering what I ought to think and worrying about the words in which to express the hammered-out thought.”

It was never intended to be a private diary. He kept keeping it after being approached about the autobiography, and, as Harding puts it, “Agate wrote for immediate publication.” After Ego 1, the subsequent volumes appeared roughly every 18 months, and from the responses from critics and readers he quotes, each was eagerly anticipated. “I enjoy keeping this diary, yet would not write a word except with the notion that some day somebody may read it.”

Agate was opinionated, bitchy, frank (but not candid), and witty. Or, as Alistair Cooke described him in one of his last “Letters from America,” “irritating, brilliant, perceptive, self-centred, argumentative, charming, spoiled, explosive, capacious.” Agate was fluent in French, German and Latin, prodigious in his knowledge of literature and the history of the theatre in both England and France, and ready to pounce on the slightest mistake in a quotation from Shakespeare, Jonson, Congreve, and most of the other major playwrights.

Yet he managed to be expert without becoming pompous. He was capable of finding fine and funny things in the highest and lowest. An example: “I hold this Pipe Night [a short story collection by John O’Hara] to be ten times better than James Joyce wrote towards the end of his life, and a hundred and fifty times better than Gertrude Stein wrote at any wrote wrote at wrote wrote wrote period any any at.”

He also, it seems, trusted and liked well enough by a very broad reading audience for thousands of them to have felt free to write him on almost any topic at all. Agate includes hundreds of such letters–everything from an RAF airman in a remote station in Malaysia asking for a donation of a few books to enliven the base library to two girls in Manchester asking for career advice.

It’s a literary potpourri, and if you don’t find something funny or enlightening, keep reading: you will in the next page or two. I can’t agree with James Harding’s claim that, “The full flavour of the Ego books cannot be appreciated without reading them through consecutively. So much depends, as in a musical composition, on the individual themes which are stated, taken up, varied, developed, and then succeeded by other motifs that recur at given points.”

It just isn’t possible. Agate was a prodigious worker, enormously proud of his output, which he toted up each year and compared with the likes of Balzac and Trollope. But the diary entries are just as likely to be ephemera (“7.0. Get up. 8.0. Start to motor to Manchester. 12.15. Arrive Manchester”) or clippings (excerpts of other peoples’ reviews or articles) or letters from his many correspondents, high and low (“Dear Mr Agate, Are you a self-made man because I wish you could advise me how to be one too”) or jokes:

From a Harley Street lecture on the subject of How to Sleep Well: “Be careful how you spend the evening. It’s what you do out of bed that affects you when you turn in.” One of those cases, surely, in which the converse is equally true!

It’s this unpredictability that makes the volumes of Ego so wonderful for serendipitous browsing. I dip into Ego 6, arriving in mid-1942:

May 31, Sunday
Opening my paper in the train to Bournemouth, I read that John Barrymore has died. Oddly enough, among the books I have brought down with me is a review copy of Mrs. Alma Power-Water’s biography published this week. “For God’s sake don’t whitewash me,” Barrymore said to her. “Play me as I am.” ….

July 1, Wednesday
Billy Bennett, the music-hall comedian, died yesterday….. Billy Bennett was forthright, bawdy, and wholesome. He knew what sailors and soldiers on leave look for is not a rock bun, a symphony concert, or a lecture on modern poetry. He knew that a Saturday night audience is a crowd of clerks and shop assistants, let out after being pent up for the week in warehouse or store. He was a wiser man than Burke, who ought to have known that vice which loses its grossness doubles its evil. Bennett’s grossness had that gusto about it which is like a high wind blowing over a noisome place.

July 30, Thursday
Meric Dobson, now a sub-lieutenant in the R. N. V. R., told me this. During his recent leave he visited a travelling circus near Bristol. Introducing “Miss Zelfredo, the world-famous snake-charmer,” the ringmaster said, “It is with great regret that I have to announce one of the great tragedies of the Ring. Doreen Zelfredo’s python, which had been with her for six years, died on Friday at Knowle. I am sure the audience will join with me in sympathy for Doreen, and in the wish that she may soon find a new pal. If ever a woman loved a snake Doreen did. Miss Zelfredo will not enter the ring and perform her act without her snake.”

A few days after this, Agate wrote,

This sixth and possibly final volume of Ego–I can feel an October nip in the air–will be my thirty-seventh book, unless, of course, I publish some more while it is writing. This means thirty-seven slabs of stolen time. Every moment spent on Ego had been filched from the hours I should have been giving to this editor or that…. But since, all deductions made, my books have never brought me in even a hundred pounds a year, I must continue reviewing plays, films, novels. And then there is the old income-tax nuisance. My arrears tie me to the stake. Bear-like, I must fight the course.

The lucky readers who discover Ego will thank James Agate for filching these moments, for these are pages that are still to be enjoyed long, long after his finest Sunday Times reviews will have been forgotten.

It would be a challenge to assemble all nine volumes of Ego, as several of the early books are quite rare. The later volumes, however, are easier to find, and fairly cheap. Easier still are the three volumes of A Shorter Ego (Vol. 1 (1946); Vol. 2 (1946); and Vol. 3 (1949)). There is also The Later Ego, (1951) edited by Barzun, and the rather slim The Selective Ego (1976), edited by Tim Beaumont. Any of these is a great place to start–and I challenge you to stop with just one. There’s a good reason why Barzun, in his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, called Agate “the Supreme Diarist.”

2 thoughts on “James Agate, Diarist

  1. I can’t help wondering why you cite Barzun on Agate, but reject his statement regarding the pronunciation of the man’s name, choosing to synthesize one of your own. Quoting Barzun, page 753: “Agate (he pronounced it to rime[sic] with Hay gate, but many acquaintances said Ay-git) . . .”

  2. Much enjoyed this piece. I’ve been a fan of J.A. for years, to the extent that he appears, thinly disguised, in my next novel, Curtain Call (Cape, January 2015). You’re right about Ego I-IX, one of the great glories of British diary-writing.

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