Magazine August 10, 2009, Issue

Your Friend Priscilla

EDITOR’S NOTE: National Review Books now publishes History Writ Small: Exploring Its Nooks & Crannies by Barge, Boat, and Balloon, by Priscilla L. Buckley. Below is a version of Mr. Nordlinger’s foreword to the book. 

Some time ago, a veteran pianist taught me a saying: “You play who you are.” I have found this saying quite true, with qualifications, of course. Priscilla Buckley writes who she is. That is, her writing is graceful, lovely, intelligent, learned, amusing, assured, civilized — you get the picture. Nice picture. I might also say that her writing is lapidary. Her brother Bill liked to use that word.

One night at dinner, I heard her say, “I’m three,” whereupon Bill said, “I’m six.” Someone had asked Priscilla where she stood in their family of ten children. I had the impression they had been saying this from very early on: “I’m three.” “I’m six.”

Bill often called her “Pitts,” as her other siblings did and do, and as some other confreres do as well. Where did the nickname come from? No one knows — although probably a younger sibling was trying to say “Priscilla.”

Every now and then, I would hear Bill and Priscilla exchange bits of Spanish together. And their English was, is, utterly distinctive. There is a lovely burr in the voice. And “wh” is really, genuinely pronounced: For example, “why” is different from “Y”; and “whether” is different from “weather.” Frankly, Priscilla’s voice is music to my ears, as Bill’s was (and is, in memory).

I might add that I have had the fortune to meet many of the Buckley sibs, and they’re all delights — every one. And Priscilla seems to me almost a beautiful distillation of them.

After graduating (being graduated?!) from Smith College, Priscilla went to work for United Press in New York. Then she had two years in the CIA (where Bill had been too, for a year). Then Priscilla rejoined United Press — this time in Paris. She wrote about her press-agency days in a winsome memoir called String of Pearls.

After Paris, she joined Bill & Co. at National Review, where she was managing editor for 27 years. She wrote about these experiences, too: in Living It Up with National Review.

In this, her latest volume, she takes you around the world, or to many parts of it. You go by barge, boat, and balloon. Best of all, you always go with Priscilla. She is your friend, your companion. She says of personnel on a particular boat that they “entertain and instruct us.” (That was on the Nile.) Well, so does Priscilla. She is an enjoyable person to learn from: full of appreciation for life, for people. There’s not a mean bone in her body (though she pokes a little fun at a man named Bill Miller, on the Colorado River).

She takes her time traveling about, catching many fine details — while remembering a broader canvas. These days, people tend to race from continent to continent. Priscilla is not a “tourist in a hurry,” as she says. One of her chapters is called “Lazing It Through Languedoc.” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Yet there is nothing lazy about our author as observer and chronicler.

Here is one of her observations, a typical one for her: “I never saw an Azorean man, woman, or child run.” Apparently, they know how to take their time too.

She has a knack for finding just the right word. On a boat in England, she and her companions enjoy “a quiet cocktail, pausing from time to time to toss a biscuit to the fussy ducks that swim up, inquiringly.” Fussy is the word. And she writes with a dash and humor that is so pleasant to be with. In Egypt, “it is 7:45 a.m., and madame’s donkey awaits.” There are many donkeys for Priscilla’s group, and all of them are named Louisa (the donkeys, that is).

Have a dose of Priscilla in Holland — I prize the little touch at the end: “. . . nothing can dim the kaleidoscope of color that assails the eye, row upon row upon hundreds of rows of tulips: yellow, orange, mauve, lavender, pink, rose, magenta, coral, and purple, with now and then a delinquent orange tulip popping up in a sea of yellow, or a purple tulip in a sea of rose. No one’s perfect.”

I also like what she says about one of her sisters: “Jane does not accompany me on expeditions of that kind” — the roughing-it kind. “Not only is she not a happy camper, she does not camp.” I’m right with you, Jane.

There are moving passages in this book, as when Priscilla et al. are in Egypt, at just the time the Camp David accords are signed: “Jannat, tough young Jannat, who has given us so many insights into the wonders of ancient Egypt, all the while keeping us at a professionally cool distance, comes up and kisses each of us. ‘A kiss for the peace treaty,’ she says, and her cheeks are wet.”

Moreover, Priscilla writes with generosity and humility — and I’ll give you a taste of what I mean: On that Colorado River trip, “the romantics among us stake out a place on the beach under the stars. The worrywarts camp under the overhanging ledges. The worrywarts have a good night’s sleep” — while the romantics experience some difficulties.

One effect of this book is to make you love England, France, and other places all the more. Another effect is that you want to be a better traveler — a traveler like Priscilla Buckley. She knows how to do it. Travel is not wasted on her; she lets it fill her, and she is enriched by it. And, boy, does she know how to report back on it.

I will mention again that this is a civilized woman: a profoundly civilized person, a kind you rarely encounter. She is civilized, keen-eyed — and fun.

Please allow me to include a personal note — having nothing to do with the book, but having to do with Priscilla (who has to do with the book). I count it a privilege to be associated with her, in whatever modest way. Years ago, I became managing editor of National Review, and in my office was a cabinet, with Priscilla’s name on it. “Priscilla, Odds & Ends,” said a card (I believe in her hand). Do you think I have ever let go of that cabinet? Do you think I have ever budged that card, fading as it is?

I look forward to her next book, and I have an idea — don’t know whether she is interested. Priscilla is a very keen golfer, and a very good one. At her club in Connecticut there is a Priscilla L. Buckley Trophy. She, of course, has won it. (Have you ever won your own trophy?) She could do a book about golf, relating her life with the game. For example, there was the time Harry Thaw played through — Harry Thaw, who married the “Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” and murdered Stanford White. But Priscilla can tell that story much better than I . . .

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