|Illustration by Hadley Hooper|
THE FIRST WRITER I KNEW WAS my grandfather, and he was the reason I never wanted to become a writer myself. The author of more than 300 books, he died in his 90th year, bankrupt and heartbroken shortly after my grandmother ran off with a man who first proposed to her when she was 17. His story has continued to haunt me. Thankfully, the second writer I met was Jorge Luis Borges, and he was the reason I wanted to become a writer. One of his beliefs was that every writer invents his own precursors.
My grandfather's name was Stuart Petre Brodie Mais, but everyone knew him by his initials. He was the son of a Derby-shire clergyman and a snobbish mother -- "an abominably stupid woman" -- who was over 40 when he was born. She didn't like babies and farmed off S.P.B. to her brother, Horden Tamlyn, an enchanting but profligate Devon landowner who had played tennis with the Kaiser and who rattled between his two estates in a high dogcart. Tamlyn became in S.P.B.'s words "my boyhood hero." In his third volume of autobiography, All Change, S.P.B. wrote of him:
He was a very generous, kindly man who was forever giving large parties at which champagne flowed freely, and he cultivated the odd habit of hurling the empty bottles through the dining room window, with the result that the lawn outside became littered with pieces of broken glass.
Tamlyn was a critical figure in S.P.B.'s development. He paid for his university education and passed on a taste for extravagant, reckless living.
My first recollection of S.P.B. I am 9. He's come to take me out from my Oxford prep school and arrives sooner than expected, dressed in a deerstalker hat with a number of scarves draped around his neck -- each a different color. ("He was fanatic about time," says my mother. "He had to be everywhere, always -- and always early.") He wears all the way up both arms a number of Rolexes, which he later pawns, and a billowing black coat, which I inherit, and conducts himself in a manner that is gruff, intolerant and rather terrifying. Afterward, ä42
he writes me a letter, the handwriting so minuscule and jerky I can't read it.
His handwriting was the only small thing about him. To a child he filled the room, as if he'd rambled in not from the bus station but from the pages of the stories I was reading: Greenmantle, Mistress Masham's Repose, The Prisoner of Zenda. It doesn't surprise me, for instance, to discover that after coming down from Oxford he claimed to have received "an offer from Sir Eyres Mansell, who wanted me to become king of Albania. I should have liked that, but my mother, in spite of her snobbishness, could not bear the thought of my going so far away."
Instead of a Balkan king -- a role that would have suited him since he was terribly overemotional, overdriven and excited -- S.P.B. became an English schoolmaster, teaching English literature at Rossall, Tonbridge, Sherborne. He was by all accounts a remarkable teacher, practicing in 1913 what only became common in the 1960s: a kind of student-based philosophy. He threw the set texts out of the window in the manner of Tamlyn's champagne bottles and divided his class into debating teams to champion the merits of Wordsworth, say, over Byron. Pupils taught by S.P.B. did not forget the lesson. At Sherborne, he became mentor to Alec Waugh, Evelyn's elder brother, and encouraged him to publish The Loom of Youth -- a novel that resulted in Waugh's expulsion and in which S.P.B. is caricatured as always rushing about with an armful of books.
In 1917 -- "to my great surprise and dismay" -- my grandfather was himself sacked from Sherborne after Chapman & Hall -- the firm managed by Waugh's father -- published S.P.B.'s novel Interlude, about a married public schoolmaster who elopes with a shop girl. Obliged to stop teaching, he fell back on his pen. He went to work for the Daily Express and then as fiction reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, also contributing regular broadcasts to the BBC. He had a rich, irate voice and was famous for his broadcasting, especially during the Second World War -- in 1940 he was getting between 400 and 500 letters a day.
As his fame grew, so did the number of visitors to his home in Sussex. My mother remembers Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, H.G. Wells, John Betjeman and the novelist Henry Williamson ("He didn't like beds and slept on the floor"). I used to wonder if she wasn't guilty of inflating S.P.B.'s reputation, but then Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess would later tell me that they too had made the pilgrimage to Southwick. A scourge of old fogies, he'd been kind to them when they were young writers and they felt a genuine gratitude.