Wed, 13 Aug 2008
The other night reading Evelyn Waugh’s collection of travel writing, “When The Going Was Good”, in the description of a hotel where the author stayed in Malta, I found this unhelpful analogy:
[I]t was a realization of the picture I have always in my mind of the interiors of those hotels facing on to Paddington station, which advertise “5s. Bed and Breakfast” over such imposing names as Bristol, Clarendon, Empire, etc.
Only from the context is it clear that Waugh means by the comparison to belittle the Maltese establishment (which is funny, since he’s already explained that he lodged there for free by promising the proprietor that he would give the hotel a good word in his upcoming book). I suppose to a Londoner of Waugh’s time this was a useful reference, but the likelihood that a non-Londoner, especially one reading Waugh’s words 79 years after they were written, will have a picture in his mind of “those hotels facing on to Paddington station” is rather slim.
Then I put away the Waugh – for no particular reason, I just felt like a change – and took up Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair”. In an early chapter, Maurice Bendrix recalls his first romantic encounter with the married Sarah Miles:
We caught a taxi by Charing Cross station and I told the driver to take us to Arbuckle Avenue – that was the name they had given among themselves to Eastbourne Terrace, the row of hotels that used to stand along the side of Paddington Station with luxury names, Ritz, Carlton, and the like. The doors of these hotels were always open and you could get a room at any time of day for an hour or two….
…It had been the Bristol; there was a potted fern in the hall and we were shown the best room by a manageress with blue hair: a real Edwardian room with a great gilt double bed and red velvet curtains and a full-length mirror. (People who came to Arbuckle Avenue never required twin beds.) I remembered the trivial details very well: how the manageress asked me whether we wanted to stay the night: how the room cost fifteen shillings for a short stay: how the electric meter only took shillings and we hadn’t one between us….
It seems appropriate that my enjoyment of “The End of the Affair” – a story about coincidences and miracles – should begin with this unmiraculous coincidence. Among the hundreds of books in my library, how many contain a reference to the row of faux-genteel hotels across from Paddington Station? – more particularly, the Bristol Hotel, which (as Bendrix goes on to explain) was destroyed, along with its neighbours, in the Blitz? What are the odds I should come across two such references in a matter of hours?
Even after supplementing Waugh’s description with Greene’s, the reader of 2008 is still left with questions. A “real Edwardian room with a great gilt double bed and red velvet curtains and a full-length mirror” sounds amazingly swank, by the standards of modern pay-by-the-hour hotels. But of course an Edwardian room would have been about thirty years out of date at the time Greene was writing – perhaps today’s equivalent would be a room unrenovated since the 1970s, with shag carpet and mirrors above the bed. I wonder, what was the value of fifteen shillings in 1939? (Note the dramatic inflation in just ten years: in 1929, when Waugh was writing, you could buy a whole night’s stay and breakfast for one-third the amount.) What kind of “electric meter” would require you to plug coins into it? Are we meant to understand that our heroes were forced to make love in the dark for want of a shilling to plug the meter? (I note that a Google search for “coin operated electric meter” returns mostly British websites; maybe this is an innovation that, luckily, was never implemented by hoteliers on this side of the Atlantic.) And Greene never explains the origin of the taxi drivers’ nickname “Arbuckle Avenue”. A mocking allusion to Fatty Arbuckle, whose career was ended by a hotel sex scandal? Seems like a reach, but Google provides no other clues.
I probably wouldn’t have paused to think about these details, if the coincidence hadn’t moved me to compare the passages in these two books. The drift of Greene’s narrative is clear enough, even if one misses some of the finer points. Still, it makes me wonder how many of these finer points I’m missing, when I read British novels a half-century old or older (which I do quite a lot – Waugh, Greene, Wodehouse, Forster, Nancy Mitford, Somerset Maugham; these are some of my favourite authors). I suspect if I slowed down and went through these novels with an eye to investigating such perplexments, rather than skipping ahead to get on with the story, I would find a mystery in almost every paragraph. Is it a testament to the skill of the authors that my ignorance doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of their books? Or is it a testament to the invincibility of my ignorance, that I don’t really care how much I’m failing to understand?
Update, February 25, 2011: I’m grateful to Paul Croft for the comment below, confirming my speculation about the provenance of the name “Arbuckle Avenue”. Paul points out that The End of the Affair was published in 1951 – which I knew – but in that case “at the time Greene was writing” an Edwardian room would have been about forty years out-of-date, not thirty. The scene in question, however, is set in the late 1930s.