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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Norman Douglas

"You can admire a roguish old pagan without approving of him

"Recently I managed to get hold of a copy of Alone by Norman Douglas. This series of essays about Italian towns at the time of the first world war was the author’s favourite book. But it is not easily found. Indeed several of Douglas’s works are rarities. Most people know his novel South Wind, about wicked goings-on in pre-1914 Capri. And Old Calabria, my own favourite, which deals with the toe and instep of Italy, is one of the finest books of travel ever written. It has been republished, notably in a 1955 edition, with an introduction by John Davenport. So has Siren Land, another fine travel discourse on the Sorrentino peninsula, and there is a modern edition of a third, Fountains in the Sand, about the hinterland of Tunisia. But what we need is a collected edition of all Douglas’s books, which would include his learned monographs about Italian history, geology, flora and fauna, published as pamphlets. Perhaps that enterprising firm, Pickering & Chatto, would consider undertaking this arduous, expensive and valuable work.
Who was Norman Douglas? A good question for, though he was a celebrity in his day, wrote various pieces of autobiography and has been the subject of several books, mysteries remain. When I first went to Italy there were three famous men one hoped to meet, if the right introductions could be arranged: Bernard Berenson at I Tatti, Harold Acton at his superb villa outside Florence, and Douglas, spending his declining years in an apartment in the villa of a rich friend in Capri. He could be called on there, or if one was bold enough, spoken to while taking his aperitif at his favourite café.
He was a striking figure: tall, powerfully built and formidable even at 80, with a fine beaky face and brilliant white hair parted in the middle. He came of an old Scottish family but had been born in Germany, where his father managed cotton mills. His first language had been German, and he had been to the Karlsruhe Gymnasium as well as Uppingham. He spoke fluent French and wonderfully idiomatic Italian, understanding its most obscure dialects. In addition to the usual classical knowledge he possessed all kinds of scientific lore, and contributed to learned journals such as the Zoologist. It was his ability to introduce his expertise gracefully which give his books their special delight: there is scarcely a page which does not tell you something you did not know, and which is worth knowing. He was an outstanding example of the ability of the pre-1914 leisure class to produce gentlemen-scholars who wore their learning lightly but firmly and were capable of communicating it delightfully in faultless prose.
Douglas did a spell in the diplomatic corps, serving in St Petersburg. He married and begot two sons. Then came misfortunes: first a divorce, then in 1907 he lost all his money — how, I know not. But thereafter he had to live by his pen. He had a voracious appetite for fine food, and there were times, he said, when he nearly starved. Food was not his only passion. A bisexual, he had a taste for boys which he could not always control. His interest was partly altruistic. The monograph on The Pumice Stone Industry of the Lipari Islands, which he published in 1895, led to the abolition of child labour there. He also collected material for London Street Games, published in 1916, which was a pioneering work in child sociology, based on much field research. Alas, it got him into trouble. In 1916 he was arrested by the plain-clothes police outside a Kensington museum, in the company of a boy who had secretly supplied information against him. I was told all about this by old Martin Secker, his publisher, whom I knew when we lived in Iver, Bucks. Douglas was charged and bailed. During the dark days that followed, when many of his friends, such as Joseph Conrad, turned their backs on him, Secker gave him refuge in his beautiful Iver house, Bridgefoot. Eventually, however, Douglas decided to jump bail and leave the country. He did not return for a quarter of a century.
In essence he was a pagan. He believed that Christianity was a myth, and the Judaeo-Christian system of morals a Puritan straitjacket, to be repudiated by all sensible, sensitive and cultured gentlemen. His principles were those of Cicero, or of the elder Pliny. In his later dealings with handsome adolescents, who sometimes accompanied him on his travels, he was careful to secure the approval of their mothers. But he did not consider himself bound by conventional rules, and his books reflect this freedom. It gives them a certain dangerous charm, and certainly at the time they were published an undoubted freshness. Not that Douglas was in any sense a harbinger of the sexual revolution. He would have considered such a role unspeakably vulgar. He was a man of reticence, who dealt in understatement, irony, elegant nuances and other subtleties. There is nothing in his books that would bring a blush to the cheeks of a young Etonian and Wykehamist reading Literae humaniores at the House or New College.
What there is, rather, is a robust worldly wisdom, based upon capacious historical knowledge, wide acquaintance with men and places, acute observation of nature, and much serious thought about our role in the universe. He was, you might say, agora-wise rather than street-wise. John Davenport, with whom I discussed Douglas in John’s favourite Saturday morning caravanserai, the old Commercial in the King’s Road, always regarded him as a great man, as well as a fine writer. ‘The last of the Romans’ was his name for the old hedonist. His death was Roman. In 1952, in his early eighties, he decided his physical decline was making him a burden to himself and his friends, and he took a quiet, carefully prepared exit. Not a man to be approved of. But admired, perhaps? Anyway, relished.

Paul Johnson, The Spectator, Wednesday, 17th October 2007

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