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.”
Barry Humphries — famous for his character Dame Edna — was a screech. He read Stevie Smith’s little poem “On the Death of a German Philosopher.” He said he had no idea what it meant (that made at least two of us). And he recalled that he was once in a terrible show, “excoriated” by every critic. John wrote a “stinker” of a review, along with everyone else. But he did it “in a nice way.” That was definitely John Gross.
John was not religious, so far as I know, but he sure as hell was not de-Judaized, and neither was this memorial service. We heard an old Yiddish song — a novelty — called “Der Rebbe Elimelech.” I later learned that someone in the audience wept on hearing this — because, he explained, people had sung this in the camps, as they went to the gas chambers.
Martin Amis gave the last of the three addresses (after Weidenfeld and P-J). He spoke of John’s extraordinary combination of “brainpower” and “self-effacement.” John’s daughter, Susanna, read a poem: “Wants,” by Philip Larkin. Later we had a little tribute to America, or nod to America: “Shenandoah,” sung by Paul Robeson. I wish a singer other than a Stalinist had been found: Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne — they both made wonderful recordings of “Shenandoah.” And Robeson was not just a Stalinist: He was a Stalinist who reported on desperate Russians who had thought they could go to him for help.
Robeson loved Stalin the way normal people love their mothers. You want to see what he said upon receiving the Stalin Peace Prize? Go here. I wouldn’t recommend reading it soon after you’ve eaten. Anyway, he had a very good voice, even if he was stiff, musically. And what do I always say, about the separation of art and politics? You’ve got to do it, or else you’re sunk. I once read that Schwarzkopf made five films for Goebbels. That was hard to swallow.
A final poem, “The Garden of Proserpine” by Swinburne, was read by Victoria Glendinning. Then we all filed out to a recording of Mozart’s String Quintet in B flat.
‐In another room, there was a “drinks reception” (characteristic British phrase). (“I’m going to see Jenny at a drinks party next week.”) I said to Robert Lloyd, “It was good to hear that Lloyd glow. I don’t know how it got there — I don’t know what you do — but it’s there.” Lloyd did not demur or protest or say, “Aw, shucks.” He said, “I don’t know how it got there either. It’s just a gift. Has always been there.”
I loved that.
‐I chatted with Charles Moore, that star of the Telegraph and The Spectator — that star of conservative journalism generally. I said that he had made me read an article about banking. Ordinarily, I would not read an article about banking. I would turn the page, or click on something else, fairly quickly. But I will read an article about anything, if written by Charles Moore. (I once said the same about Bill Buckley, after he had written a piece about cigars.)
You want to see that article about banking — and, in particular, about the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King? Go here.
Moore has long been engaged in writing the authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher. It will be multivolume, I suspect. And I have every reason to believe it will be a great biography: the “literary event of the season,” for the likes of us (or of several seasons).
‐In his address, David P-J remarked that John (Gross) had not been invited to appear on the BBC — had not been invited for 25 years or something like that. John himself mentioned this to David. I’m sure he wasn’t complaining; I’m sure he was just sort of perplexed.
A good many of Britain’s treasures are not invited on the BBC — treasures who are conservative or conservative-leaning. This is indeed perplexing. The BBC is a goliath with multiple outlets, and chat pretty much 24/7. Paid for by the taxpayers, it is supposed to be politically balanced and neutral. What a crock. Some of the best conservatives are excluded perpetually.
A network that doesn’t have David Pryce-Jones talking about Libya is a network with its head up its arse.
How could you find a better conversationalist — a better guest — than John Gross? Freakishly knowledgeable, wide-ranging, amusing, sympathetic. Churchill once said that being with Franklin Roosevelt was like opening a bottle of champagne. John was like that: perfect for the BBC.
Stupid, stupid BBC.
‐And stupid, stupid honors system: or stupid, stupid people who run the honors system. By “honors” I mean Sir This, Sir That, Lord This, Lord That. After the service, or meeting, Roger Kimball hosted a wonderful dinner at the Athenaeum. “To John,” went the toast. The diners included some of your favorite writers: John O’Sullivan, Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple), and so on. We were saying that John ought to have been Sir John. And that Robert Conquest should definitely, definitely be Sir Robert (or “Sir Bob”). That P-J should be Sir David. That Paul Johnson should be Sir Paul. Etc., etc.
Name a left-wing horror show — such as Eric Hobsbawm — and he has an honor. Can’t Britain give honors to people who actually like the country, and wish it well? Can’t the country give honors to people who like Britain more than they do Stalin? (I have a strong suspicion that Hobsbawm favors Stalin — whose mass murdering he has defended.)
On that dyspeptic note, I’m going to knock off — to return with a Part II, re London. Thanks for joining me today. See you.