Saturday, September 22, 2012

The motor

In one of his late broadcasts, on July 30, 1999, Alistair Cooke quoted the opening sentences of two novels, both published in 1933. The first was this, “a piece of considered literary prose that could have been written in 1923 or even 1913…[and] for an audience rather like the writer: literary, sensitive, leisured.”

They drove uncertainly along the avenue that led to the house, through the bars of light that fell between the tree-trunks and made the shadows of the lime-trees strike obliquely across the gravel. The navy-blue car was built high off the ground and the name on its bonnet recalled a bankrupt, forgotten firm of motor-makers. Inside, the car was done up in a material like grey corduroy, with folding seats in unexpected places, constructed liberally to accommodate some Edwardian Swiss Family Robinson. This was a period piece. An exhibit. The brakes had ceased to work long since.
The second was the opening passage of To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway, the centenary of whose birth Cooke went on to eulogize through the rest of the broadcast. However, he did not bother to identify the English author of the first. Perhaps he thought his listeners would recognize it.

Being just now preoccupied by the Edwardian frame of mind, I made a mental note to track down the passage and its author. Fortunately this took not fifty seconds on the Internet. It is the opening of Anthony Powell’s early novel From a View to a Death, which I have never read, in which a young London-based artist Arthur Zouch—worryingly bearded—is delivered to Passenger Court, a large country house maintained (together with the car and driver) by the parents of his prospective bride Mary Passenger, their younger daughter.

These sentences do their work admirably. The avenue of limes and gravel makes it clear that this is a stately home, and the old limousine without brakes does the rest—an apt metaphor for an ancient family marooned, like the defunct manufacturer, in the recent but moribund Edwardian past. The car can no longer be made to stop unless (with luck) it drifts to a standstill when the chauffeur, perhaps a little rustyThey drove uncertainlyeither disengages the gears or shuts off the engine within reach of a commodious, hopefully flat forecourt. Perilous speed is simply beyond its capacity.

The interior being so “done up,” is a reminder, too, that motor cars before the Great War were luxurious, and consisted of a handmade engine-and-chassis with custom coachwork added separately. This almost always comprised two completely interchangeable bodies, an open one for adventurous summer motoring with scarf, gauntlets and goggles, and a closed compartment switched for the winter months. The interior was decorated to taste with soft furnishings and thoughtful appurtenances such as retractable cigar-lighters, blinds, folding tables, thermos holders, and a speaking tube. Motor cars of this kind were sometimes also supplied daily with fresh flowers. That it had not yet been repaired or replaced was apparently a consequence of more general decline.

No comments:

Post a Comment