Figure of Eight by Patricia Cockburn - review by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Special Reserve

Figure of Eight


Chatto and Windus/The Hogarth Press 208pp £10.95 order from our bookshop

ONLY AN EDITRESS of considerable tact and taste, breeding and discernment, could have invited me to review this book. After all, I have eaten Patricia Cockburn’s bread and salt. I have sat up with Claud into what used to be called the small hours. I have known Andrew and Patrick very well since university, and with Patrick used to write the John Evelyn column for Cherwell. With Alexander I alternate as a columnist for The Nation in New York, where together we try and keep up a steady shelling of bastards’ HQ. So, am I in what solemn American journalists call a conflict of interest situation? Not a bit of it. As your editress has divined, I am unusually well-qualified to be your guide in this matter.

Brook Lodge, Youghal, County Cork was an enchanting spot. I had wanted to go there ever since reading of it in Claud’s memoirs, where it was described as ‘standing at a slight angle to the world’. And of course, I wanted to meet Claud. Who didn’t? Without him, there might not have been Private Eye. As founder-editor of The Week in the 1930s, he had single-handedly resuscitated the tradition of the confidential and subversive newsletter, and had given bastards’ HQ a series of memorable pastings. I remember the wistful way in which he would describe schemes that had not quite come off – like his plan, during some corruption scandal, to send every member of the government an identical telegram. The message would read, ‘Fly at once – all is discovered’. It would then be a matter of watching to see who left town.

I did a fair amount of feet-sitting and late-night anecdote-imbibing. And I met his wife, the chatelaine of Brook Lodge; the daughter of Myrtle Grove; the retired explorer and still active hunter; and the creator of exquisite shell pictures. (I should say that Myrtle Grove is not a woman but a fine neighbouring house, belonging to the Arbuthnot family, in which Sir Walter Raleigh is supposed to have smoked the first tobacco pipe in Europe.) I am proud to say that I helped her pick up shells on the lovely nearby beaches, being given very strict instructions on what, for ecological reasons, to avoid. I was struck, as one had to be, by her passionate attitude towards nature and animals, and by her rage at the abuse of either. I also read, as soon as it came out, her book The Years of The Week, in which she recounted the battles of the previous generation. ‘It’s not frightfully good I’m afraid – you see Claud had already stolen all my best jokes.’ So she said. Anybody who ever made the mistake of underrating her, or thinking of her as second fiddle, will be knocked for a loop by this, her captivating autobiography.

Why is it so good? First, its natural bluntness and candour. I remember being extremely angry with Paul Johnson for writing a typically vulgar and snobbish piece in the old New Statesman. He made a crude attempt to lampoon Patricia, whose guest in Ireland he had been, for combining radical opinions with ‘huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. The suggestion or innuendo was that she led some kind of double life. Yet nobody could meet her, or read this book, without being struck by the absence of hypocrisy. Patricia Arbuthnot was well born, and grew up to take servants and large houses for granted. She ‘came out’, was presented at court and all the rest of it. She makes no fuss about it either way (though the actual descriptions of Anglo-Irish country life are very well drawn and remind me of Anthony Powell). When she met an improvident Communist scribe who she liked better, she gave up her family and inheritance in order to be his wife and comrade. She still loved horses and the chase, and kept up with the field when she could. This is all set down here without any archness or special pleading.

Second – what a life. Asked by the Royal Geographical Society to help in drawing up a language map, she voyaged through Asia and the Congo basin, often laying down markers and pointers in places where no European, let alone a woman, had ever ventured. These chapters are enthralling, funny, and matter-of-fact without being self-deprecating. Her eye and ear, even at this remove in time, are first rate. Here is Juma, her escort through Central Africa:

Not long after he joined us, he and I were standing on a hillside in Kivu province. I said,
‘Have you a word for beauty? Do you understand what a thing being beautiful means?’
Below us was a small lake backed by a panorama of high mountains. Groves of tall feathery bamboos grew from the bright red volcanic earth and swayed gently in the breeze. In the lake, which was fringed with blue water-lilies, a solitary naked man in a dugout canoe was fishing with a square net held open with crossed sticks. It was a scene of exquisite loveliness, reminiscent of a Chinese painting. I waved towards the View.
‘Do you think the scenery is beautiful?’
He looked puzzled, paused, and then said, ‘No’.
‘What do you think is beautiful?’
He pointed to my rifle, which I was carrying.
‘That is beautiful.’
‘Is it beautiful because it is powerful and can kill things, or is it beautiful in itself? If, for instance, I had no bullets, would it still be beautiful?’
‘Both’, he said.

I like that passage a lot. It shows how to be curious without being patronising – a rare combination in travellers’ tales of the period – and it shows the advantage of being interested in everything and everybody. Patricia Cockburn is an omnivore, capable of keeping up an inquisitive and yet informed conversation on almost any topic. Mentioned between these covers are chess by mail, the care and feeding of innumerable creatures, the origins of the Tamil plight in Ceylon, the ambiguities of the position of women in Islam, the impossibility of keeping wild mice out of the Chicago slaughterhouse (even the ultra-refrigerated bits, which merely induce them to grow thicker pelts), the problem of tooth decay in Polynesia, the idiotic tendencies of Neville Chamberlain’s supporters, the villainy of New York art dealers and the pitfalls of post-war Communism in the Balkans. Have I left anything out? Yes, a great deal. In order to read about Somerville and Ross (the lowdown), about the adaptability of White Russian emigrés, the perils of freelance journalism and the hazards of running an ARP post in the Blitz, you will have to do what you ought to have done already and buy at least one copy of this book.

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