London Journal, Part I


As you may remember, John Gross, the remarkable man of letters, died in January. There was an outpouring of appreciation for him in newspapers and magazines all over. This was in part because writers know other writers — and they have platforms (i.e., those newspapers and magazines). When a hardware-store owner dies, he may be mourned by many. But the articles may be few.

There was another reason for the outpouring about John, however: He struck a chord in a great many of us. He was sparkling, erudite, kind, and lovable. Well-nigh unique.

I did a note about him in Impromptus, here. And I would like to print, below, the editorial paragraph that appeared in National Review. It may be helpful to those who are learning of this writer for the first time:

John Gross was the most civilized man you could have known. He had superb manners, and was versed in literature, theater, art, history, and virtually everything else. He was once called “the best-read man in Britain,” no less. But there was nothing stuffy or pompous about him. He was perpetually generous and amusing. He was born in London’s East End in 1935. He became a famous man of letters, both in Britain and in America. He held a number of important positions. For example, he was the editor of The Times Literary Supplement. And senior book editor of the New York Times. He compiled many Oxford anthologies, the last of which came out only last year: a book of literary parodies. He was a trustee of London’s National Portrait Gallery, a judge of the Booker Prize. People regarded him as a conservative, and he was, in a way. But this was mainly not a political matter. It was a matter of high standards in art, letters, and life. It was a matter of sticking up for the Judeo-Christian civilization. John Gross has died at 75. The last of a breed? Maybe not, but there are precious few specimens left.

In London last week, there was a memorial service for him. He did not want it called a “service”; he wanted it called a “meeting” — a memorial meeting. Actually, he didn’t want it at all. But I think he acceded to the wishes of his family. And he specified what he wanted at the “meeting”: a few addresses, and a selection of poems and music (mainly songs).

Le tout London was there — certainly le tout Londres litéraire. David Pryce-Jones once wrote, in an article about a row between Salman Rushdie and V. S. Naipaul (a dear friend of David’s), “Literary London is a small town.” I will give you a taste of how the program went.

John’s son Tom led it off, welcoming everybody. Then Lord Weidenfeld spoke. He said that David had introduced him to John more than 50 years ago. Next at the podium — or a podium, because there were two, one on either side of the stage — was Robert Lloyd, the distinguished British bass. I was surprised to hear he was 70, or past 70: He said that John had attended his 70th-birthday party. Lloyd is damn well preserved — and still performing.

He did not sing on this occasion, but introduced a recording — a recording of his own, as was only right. This was Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise, from which we heard one song. In Lloyd’s voice is a special glow. I have remarked on it many times, in reviews over the years.

The first of the poems was “Tears, Idle Tears,” by Tennyson. In due course, we heard poems by Auden, Hardy, Frost, others. John Gross had memorized reams of poetry, along with other literature.

An Ella Fitzgerald recording of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” was played. I thought of what Liza Minnelli said, when asked who was the best singer. “You mean, besides Ella?” Many years ago, a radio host had fun with “What Is This Thing Called Love?” — with the title, I mean. He said you could place a comma almost anywhere: “What Is This Thing Called, Love?” “What, Is This Thing Called Love?” “What Is This Thing, Called Love?”

Naturally, John wanted P-J to speak, and he was — again, naturally — top-notch. He knew John well, and did not shrink from saying that he, John, took part in the “culture wars.” John was subtle, polite, and “noncontroversial,” and he was loved by people of varying political stripes. But he took part in those wars all the same — on the side of culture, of course, real culture. David’s address was a version of a piece he wrote for The New Criterion, found here.

The voice of voices — Kathleen Ferrier’s — was heard. She was singing “The Keel Row.” My oh my, did John love British culture, along with other people’s cultures. We also heard John McCormack in “Oft in the Stilly Night,” not to be confused with “In the Still of the Night” (which is a Cole Porter song, like “What Is This Thing Called Love?”). In Impromptus recently, I told the famous story about McCormack and Caruso, meeting for the first time. One or the other says, “It’s an honor to meet the world’s greatest tenor.” The other says, “I was just about to say the same thing.”