Sunday 18 February 2018

Uncle Logan

'During the meal Uncle Logan was almost silent. He ate, and addressed a few practical remarks to his sister about the coming weekend arrangements, but all was done without once raising his eyes from his plate, or changing his expression or the dead tone of his voice between coming into the dining room and going out of it again. His eyelids, drawn permanently down so that he could see nothing but the food upon his plate, hooded him as the lowered curtain in a theatre hoods the empty stage between performances. At such times Uncle Logan seemed engulfed in a lack of interest in the living world so absolute that I was shocked. Deeply shaken. I suppose it was the first time I had seen someone I knew and admired and talked with every day who was yet afflicted with this particular sickness. Many years later I was told the name of Logan's illness: the doctor pronounced him to be Manic-Depressive. But at the time of which I'm speaking I had no knowledge that my uncle was the victim of any illness at all, nor do I believe that anyone else was aware of his particular trouble.
  As soon as the last spoonful of apple charlotte and the last crumb of biscuit and cheese were finished, Logan rose up stiffly from his chair, and unheedingly letting his crumpled napkin fall to the floor, he would start to shuffle doorward again as one stunned...
  I would watch his bowed shoulders in his navy serge suit, his handsomely carved ruddy face with the weariness lying over it like a grey powdered dust. Watch him disappear through the fine panelled Georgian door that the parlourmaid Katie would be holding open for him. I felt deep dismay at the spectacle of this fallen God...'

 So writes the novelist Julia Strachey, in a fragmentary memoir of her early life, recalling lunch times as Ford Place, where as a child she lived in the care of her 'Aunty Loo' (Alys, deserted wife of Bertrand Russell) and Alys's brother Logan – none other than Logan Pearsall Smith, author of the once very highly regarded (and still worth reading) Trivia volumes. I've written about him several times here, as a quick search will show, and had always imagined him much as he presented himself – an elegant idler, spending his time musing at ease and honing his little prose vignettes and aphorisms to a gem-like perfection. It comes as a shock to learn of the dark side of this brilliant creature, whose performances at the dinner table were in marked contrast to his lunchtime gloom.
 Julia Strachey recalls listening in on the conversation at the grown-ups' dinner parties:
'I could tell it was the very ne plus ultra of sophisticated gossip and dashing intellectual badinage. And the whole performance was led by Uncle Logan! There was wicked laughter and daring jests – how I adored those mischievous sessions! When Uncle Logan was in his glory he appeared to me the wittiest, handsomest and most stimulating man on earth.'

 Of course I should have known that the easiest-seeming art is often the product of the most intense effort, and the lightest, most sparkling effects are often born out of a struggle with darkness.

 The passages above are from Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge, assembled by FP, a lifelong friend, from an inchoate mass of writings left behind at Julia's death. In her lifetime Julia published almost nothing but two novellas, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and An Integrated Man, both of which are all but perfect. I might well be rereading and writing about them later in the year.


  1. No wish to be a party pooper but, in the case of people suffering from bipolar disorder should one be a little suspicious of their "dashing intellectual badinage," presumably fuelled by one end of the bipolar spectrum? You've given a very good description of the other end here.

  2. Yes indeed (think of Stephen Fry). This is Julia Strachey recalling her bedazzled childhood impressions.