Ambrosia and Small Beer, arranged by Christopher Hassall

The delight of reading John Guest’s Broken Images, which I posted about recently, led me to look for his other works. A short search, as his few other publications were collections of other people’s work.

ambrosiaandsmallbeerOne, for which he did not even claim credit, bears the odd title of Ambrosia and Small Beer. Subtitled “The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall, Arranged by Christopher Hassall,” the book was being prepared for publication by Hassall when he died suddenly at the age of 51. Guest, who had been a close friend of Hassall since the two served together in an anti-aircraft battery in 1940, was a senior editor at Longmans, Green and Company, Hassall’s publisher, and took over the final work on the book.

Christopher Hassall and Edward Marsh first met in March 1934. Hassall was 22, just graduated from Oxford, trying to pull together his first book of poetry, and working for Ivor Novello, the legendary singer, actor, composer and playwright. Marsh was 61, a senior Civil Servant nearing retirement, and already well-known as a mentor and patron to creative talents such as Novello, D. H. Lawrence, and Rupert Brooke. The four collections of Georgian Poetry he edited had been hugely successful–selling as many as 20,000 copies each–and Marsh was also known to have been responsible for editing and maturing the prose style of his minister/MP, Winston Churchill. Marsh’s Wikipedia entry categorizes him as a “polymath”–probably one of the few people to earn that label.

Marsh was also something of a cornerstone figure in the homosexual community of his time. At 22, Christopher Hassall was a beautiful young man, and that, combined with his poetic talents, certainly held a strong attraction for Marsh. Within days of their meeting, Marsh was writing long letters filled with detailed criticisms–word by word examinations in some cases–of Hassall’s poetry. Soon, however, the correspondence moved into the wider world of Marsh’s intellectual interests, artistic passions, and social contacts.

Marsh never married and appears never to have had any long-term intimate relationships. He lived alone and had the time and, apparently, tremendous energy to devote to those friendships he most valued. Hassall identifies this as an vital factor in their relationship: “As a solitary man, Marsh tended to live the private lives of other people. Some of his most intense experiences were lived vicariously.” While Hassall includes excerpts from many of his own letters and notes to Marsh, the bulk of Ambrosia and Small Beer comes from Marsh’s pen.

Fluent in a half-dozen languages, Marsh had a prodigious memory for facts, concepts, and poetry. His was a mind of both tremendous breadth and surgical precision. “Nothing seems to have got lost between the brain and the pen,” the writer George Moore once remarked of a letter calling for a civil list pension to be granted for James Joyce. But he was also a great lover of gossip and jokes. Hassall called him “an ornament of society with an inexhaustible fund of small talk,” and the title comes from his description of Marsh’s conversation: “an engaging blend of ambrosia and small beer.”

Marsh continued to write to Hassall as the young man became–in partnership with Novello–a successful librettist, as he married, served in the Army during the Second World War, and enjoyed success as an actor, poet, and producer after the war. Indeed, the correspondence continued right up to Marsh’s death in 1953. Ambrosia and Small Beer collects perhaps a third of the total material, but one suspects that what is omitted is hardly to be missed. As Hassall remarked in his preface, Marsh loved to indulge in gossip that had little lasting value.

What’s left, however, is great fun for anyone who loves literature, people and humor. Marsh knew almost everyone who was anyone in Britain of the 1930s and 1940s, and a healthy share of them invited him to dinner and country house weekends. He read a good share of the better and lesser books published during that period and is generous in devoting space to his personal reviews. I’ve discovered a fair number of neglected titles in the course of reading this book. And he delighted in sharing jokes. I suspect that one of the services Hassall performed on posterity’s behalf was to weed out the duds from the gems, because there are plenty of good laughs to be found here.

In many ways, Ambrosia and Small Beer reminds me of James Agate’s Ego–the nine volumes of diaries that he published between 1935 and 1946: it’s erudite, bitchy, and funny. I would give Ambrosia a slight edge, however, for the invaluable leavening effect of Hassall’s editing and his own contributions. While Agate was notorious for endlessly rewriting his own work, Hassall had a wonderful sense for what to include and what to delete.

We can be grateful, for example, that he chose to include the text Marsh enclosed to accompany the following comment, from a letter in April 1944:

Someone named Adrian Earle wrote to say he was writing a life of Lionel Johnson, and asked if I could contribute anything. I send you the rough copy of what I wrote for him–it’s inexpressibly slight.

Marsh’s piece is as follows:

I met Lionel Johnson only once, when we both stayed with the late Lord Russell for a night in the latter nineties at a little house near London. I forget who else was there, except Harry Marillier and Edmund Garrett. When Russell and the others went to bed, L. J. asked me to stay up with him: he was born with insomnia, he told me, and had never been able to sleep, in his cradle or since; so we settled down to talk. His conversation was enthralling, but alas very little of what he said has stuck in my memory. One topic was the novels of George Meredith, which he put very high; but he owned that after giving one week of his life to the first chapter of The Egoist he had come to the conclusion that it had no meaning whatever. Later in the night he discoursed with eloquence on the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he exalted as the most wonderful structure of thought that the world had produced; and–this is my last fragment–he said that he had never in his life been able to do a sum of any kind.

At about five or six in the morning he poured himself out a tumblerful of neat whisky, after drinking which he said that now he would be able to sleep; so I went to bed, leaving him curled under a rug in a big armchair.

For the justification to forego reading The Egoist alone, I am grateful that Hassall chose to include this.

After Marsh’s death, Hassall began collecting materials for a biography, which he published in 1959: Edward Marsh: Patron of the Arts. One reviewer called it, “The most entertaining biography since Boswell.” If Ambrosia and Small Beer is any indication, I am eager to make my own assessment of the biography.

Ambrosia and Small Beer: The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall, Arranged by Christopher Hassall
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965