Down There on a Visit
By Christopher Isherwood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1961 Christopher Isherwood
All rights reserved.
Now, at last, I'm ready to write about Mr. Lancaster. For years I have been meaning to, but only rather halfheartedly; I never felt I could quite do him justice. Now I see what my mistake was; I always used to think of him as an isolated character. Taken alone, he is less than himself. To present him entirely, I realize I must show how our meeting was the start of a new chapter in my life, indeed a whole series of chapters. And I must go on to describe some of the characters in those chapters. They are all, with one exception, strangers to Mr. Lancaster. (If he could have known what was to become of Waldemar, he would have cast him forth from the office in horror.) If he could ever have met Ambrose, or Geoffrey, or Maria, or Paul — but no, my imagination fails! And yet, through me, all these people are involved with each other, however much they might have hated to think so. And so they are all going to have to share the insult of each other's presence in this book.
* * *
In the spring of 1928, when I was twenty-three years old, Mr. Lancaster came to London on a business trip and wrote my mother a note suggesting he should call on us. We had neither of us ever met him. All I knew about him was that he managed the office of a British shipping company in a North German harbor city. And that he was the stepson of my maternal grandmother's brother-in-law; there is perhaps a simpler way of saying this. Even my mother, who delighted in kinship, had to admit that he wasn't, strictly speaking, related to us. But she decided it would be nice if we called him "Cousin Alexander," just to make him feel more at home.
I agreed, although I didn't care a damn what we called him or how he felt about it. As far as I was concerned, everyone over forty belonged, with a mere handful of honorable exceptions, to an alien tribe, hostile by definition but in practice ridiculous rather than formidable. The majority of them I saw as utter grotesques, sententious and gaga, to be regarded with indifference. It was only people of my own age who seemed to me better than half-alive. I was accustomed to say that when we started getting old — a situation which I could theoretically foresee but never quite believe in — I just hoped we would die quickly and without pain.
Mr. Lancaster proved to be every bit as grotesque as I had expected. Nevertheless, hard as I tried, I couldn't be indifferent to him; for, from the moment he arrived, he managed to enrage and humiliate me. (It's obvious to me now that this was quite unintentional; he must have been desperately shy.) He treated me as though I were still a schoolboy, with a jocular, patronizing air. His worst offense was to address me as "Christophilos" — giving the name an affected classical pronunciation which made it sound even more mockingly insulting.
"I'm willing to wager, most excellent Christophilos, that you've never seen the inside of a tramp steamer. No? Then let me counsel you, for the salvation of your immortal soul, let go of your Lady Mother's apron strings for once, and come over to visit us on one of the company's boats. Show us you can rough it. Let's see you eat bacon fat in the middle of a nor'easter, and have to run for the rail while the old salts laugh. It might just possibly make a man of you."
"I'll be delighted to come," I said, just as nonchalantly as I knew how.
I said it because, at that moment, I loathed Mr. Lancaster and therefore couldn't possibly refuse his challenge. I said it because, at that time, I would have gone anywhere with anyone; I was wild with longing for the whole unvisited world. I said it also because I suspected Mr. Lancaster of bluffing.
I was wrong. About three weeks later, a letter came for me from the London office of his company. It informed me, as a matter already settled, that I should be sailing on such and such a day, on board the company's freighter Coriolanus. An employee would be sent to guide me to the ship, if I would meet him at noon outside the dock gates in the West India Dock Road.
Just for a moment, I was disconcerted. But then my fantasy took the situation over. I started to play the lead in an epic drama, adapted freely from Conrad, Kipling, and Browning's "What's become of Waring?" When a girl phoned and asked me if I could come to a cocktail party a week from Wednesday, I replied tersely, with a hint of grimness, "Afraid not. Shan't be here."
"Oh, really? Where will you be?"
"Don't know exactly. Somewhere in the middle of the North Sea. On a tramp steamer."
The girl gasped.
Mr. Lancaster and his shipping company didn't fit into my epic. It was humiliating to have to admit that I was only going as far as the north coast of Germany. When speaking to people who didn't know me well, I contrived to suggest that this would be merely the first port of call on an immense and mysterious voyage.
* * *
And now before I slip back into the convention of calling this young man "I," let me consider him as a separate being, a stranger almost, setting out on this adventure in a taxi to the docks. For, of course, he is almost a stranger to me. I have revised his opinions, changed his accent and his mannerisms, unlearned or exaggerated his prejudices and his habits. We still share the same skeleton, but its outer covering has altered so much that I doubt if he would recognize me on the street. We have in common the label of our name, and a continuity of consciousness; there has been no break in the sequence of daily statements that I am I. But what I am has refashioned itself throughout the days and years, until now almost all that remains constant is the mere awareness of being conscious. And that awareness belongs to everybody; it isn't a particular person.
The Christopher who sat in that taxi is, practically speaking, dead; he only remains reflected in the fading memories of us who knew him. I can't revitalize him now. I can only reconstruct him from his remembered acts and words and from the writings he has left us. He embarrasses me often, and so I'm tempted to sneer at him; but I will try not to. I'll try not to apologize for him, either. After all, I owe him some respect. In a sense he is my father, and in another sense my son.
How alone he seems! Not lonely, for he has many friends and he can be lively with them and make them laugh. He is even a sort of leader amongst them. They are apt to look to him to know what they shall think next, what they are to admire and what hate. They regard him as enterprising and aggressive. And yet, in the midst of their company, he is isolated by his self-mistrust, anxiety and dread of the future. His life has been lived, so far, within narrow limits and he is quite naïve about most kinds of experience; he fears it and yet he is wildly eager for it. To reassure himself, he converts it into epic myth as fast as it happens. He is forever play-acting.
Even more than the future, he dreads the past — its prestige, its traditions and their implied challenge and reproach. Perhaps his strongest negative motivation is ancestor-hatred. He has vowed to disappoint, disgrace and disown his ancestors. If I were sneering at him, I should suggest that this is because he fears he will never be able to live up to them; but that would be less than half true. His fury is sincere. He is genuinely a rebel. He knows instinctively that it is only through rebellion that he will ever learn and grow.
He is taking with him on this journey a secret which is like a talisman; it will give him strength as long as he keeps it to himself. Yesterday, his first novel was published — and, of all the people he is about to meet, not one of them knows this! Certainly, the captain and the crew of the Coriolanus don't know it; probably no one in the whole of Germany knows. As for Mr. Lancaster, he has already proved himself utterly unworthy of being told; he doesn't know and he never will. Unless, of course, the novel has such a success that he eventually reads about it in a newspaper. ... But this thought is censored with superstitious haste. No — no — it is bound to fail. All literary critics are corrupt and in the pay of the enemy. ... And why, anyhow, put your trust in treacherous hopes of this kind, when the world of the epic myth offers unfailing comfort and safety?
That spring, totally disregarded by the crass and conceited littérateurs of the time, an event took place which, as we can all agree, looking backward on this, its tenth anniversary, marked the beginning of the modern novel as we know it: All the Conspirators was published. Next day, it was found that Isherwood was no longer in London. He had vanished without a trace or a word. His closest friends were bewildered and dismayed. There were even fears of his suicide. But then — months later — strange rumors were whispered around the salons — of how, on that same morning, a muffled figure had been glimpsed, boarding a tramp steamer from a dock on the Isle of Dogs —
No, I will never sneer at him. I will never apologize for him. I am proud to be his father and his son. I think about him and I marvel, but I must beware of romanticizing him. I must remember that much of what looks like courage is nothing but brute ignorance. I keep forgetting that he is as blind to his own future as the dullest of the animals. As blind as I am to mine. His is an extraordinary future in many ways — far happier, luckier, more interesting than most. And yet, if I were he and could see it ahead of me, I'm sure I should exclaim in dismay that it was more than I could possibly cope with.
As it is, he can barely foresee the next five minutes. Everything that is about to happen is strange to him and therefore unpredictable. Now, as the taxi ride comes to an end, I shut down my own foresight and try to look out through his eyes.
* * *
The company's employee, a clerk scarcely older than I, named Hicks, met me at the dock gates as arranged. He was not a character I would have chosen for my epic, being spotty-skinned and wan from the sooty glooms and fogs of Fenchurch Street. Also, he was in a fussy hurry, which epic characters never are. "Whew," he exclaimed, glancing at his watch, "we'd better look smart!" He seized hold of the handle of my suitcase and broke into a trot. Since I wouldn't let go and leave him to carry it alone, I had to trot, too. My entrance upon Act One of the drama was lacking in style.
"There she is," said Hicks. "That's her."
The Coriolanus was even smaller and dirtier looking than I had expected. The parts of her that weren't black were of a yellowish brown; the same color, I thought — though this may have been merely association of ideas — as vomit. Two cranes were still dangling crates over her deck, which was swarming with dock hands. They were shouting at the top of their voices, to make themselves heard above the rattle of winches and the squawking of the sea gulls that circled overhead.
"But we needn't have hurried!" I said reproachfully to Hicks. He answered indifferently that Captain Dobson liked passengers to be on board in plenty of time. He had lost interest in me already. With a mumbled goodbye, he left me at the gangplank, like a parcel he had delivered and for which he felt no further responsibility.
I elbowed my way aboard, nearly getting myself pushed into the open hold. Captain Dobson saw me from the bridge and came down to greet me. He was a small, fattish man with a weather-scarlet face and the pouched, bulging eyes of a comedian.
"You're going to be sick, you know," he said. "We've had some good men here, but they all failed." I tried to look suitably anxious.
Below decks, I found a Chinese cook, a Welsh cabin boy and a steward who looked like a jockey. He had been on the Cunard Line for twelve years, he told me, but liked this better. "You're on your own here." He showed me my cabin. It was tiny as a cupboard and quite airless; the porthole wouldn't unscrew. I went into the saloon, but its long table was occupied by half a dozen clerks, scribbling frantically at cargo lists. I climbed back up on deck again and found a place in the bows where, by making myself very small, I stayed out of everybody's way.
An hour later, we sailed. It took a long time getting out of the dock into the river, for we had to pass through lock gates. Lively slum children hung on them, watching us. One of the cargo clerks came and stood beside me at the rail.
"You'll have it choppy," he said. "She's a regular dancing master." And, without another word, he vaulted athletically over the rail onto the already receding wharf, waved briefly to me, and was gone.
Then we had high tea in the saloon. I made the acquaintance of the mate and the two engineers. We ate soused mackerel and drank the tea out of mugs; it was brassily strong. I went back on deck, to find that a quiet, cloudy evening had set in. We were leaving the city behind us. The docks and the warehouses gave way to cold gray fields and marshes. We passed several lightships. The last of them was called Barrow Deep. Captain Dobson passed me and said, "This is the first stage of our daring voyage." In his own way, he was trying to create an epic atmosphere. All right — I awarded him marks for effort.
Back to my cabin, for it was now too dark to see anything. The steward looked in. He had come to propose that I should pay him a pound for my food during the voyage, and eat as much as I liked. I could see he thought this was a stiff bargain, because he was sure I'd be seasick. "There was another gentleman with us a couple of months ago," he told me with relish. "He was taken very bad. You'll knock on the wall if you want anything in the night, won't you, sir?"
I smiled to myself after he had left. For I had a second secret, which I intended to guard as closely as my other. These seafolk were really quite endearingly simple, I thought. They appeared to be absolutely ignorant of the advances of medical science. Naturally, I had taken my precautions. In my pocket was a small cardboard box with capsules in it, wrapped in silver paper. The capsules contained either pink powders or gray powders. You had to take one of each; once before sailing, and thereafter twice a day.
* * *
When I woke next morning, the ship was rolling powerfully. Between rolls, she thrust her bows steeply into the air, staggered slightly, fell forward with a crash that shook everything in the cabin. I had just finished swallowing my capsules when the door opened and the steward looked in. I knew from the disappointment in his face what it was he'd been hoping to see.
"I thought you wasn't feeling well, sir," he said reproachfully. "I looked in half an hour ago, and you lay there and didn't say a word."
"I was asleep," I said. "I slept like a log." And I gave this vulture a beaming smile.
At breakfast, the second engineer had his arm in a sling. A pipe had burst in the engines during the night, and he had scalded his hand. Teddy, the Welsh cabin boy, cut up his bacon for him. Teddy was clumsy in doing this, and the second engineer told him sharply to hurry. For this the second engineer was reproved by the first engineer: "You won't half be a bloody old bugger when you're older — my God you will!"
Despite the second engineer's semiheroic injury, I was beginning to lose my sense of the epic quality of this voyage. I had expected to find that the crew of this ship belonged to a race of beings apart — men who lived only for the sea. But, as a matter of fact, none of them quite corresponded to my idea of a seaman. The mate was too handsome, rather like an actor. The engineers might just as well have been working in a factory; they were simply engineers. The steward was like any other kind of professional servant. Captain Dobson wouldn't have looked out of place as the owner of a pub. I had to face the prosaic truth: all kinds of people go to sea.
Actually, their thoughts seemed entirely ashore. They talked about films they had seen. They discussed a recent scandalous divorce case: "She's what you might call a respectable whore." They entertained me by asking riddles: "What is it that a girl of fourteen hasn't got, a girl of sixteen is expecting, and Princess Mary never will get?" Answer: "An insurance card." I told the story about the clergyman, the drunk and the waifs and strays. When I got to the payoff line: "If you wore your trousers the same way round as your collar ..." I faltered, not sure that it would be good taste to mimic a Cockney accent, since both engineers had one. However, the story went over quite well. They were all very friendly. But the answer to that constantly repeated young man's question, "What do they really think of me?" seemed to be, as usual, "They don't." They weren't even sufficiently interested in me to be surprised when I took a second helping of bacon, although the ship was going up and down like a seesaw. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Down There on a Visit by Christopher Isherwood. Copyright © 1961 Christopher Isherwood. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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