Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, through two world wars and the coronations of two kings and one queen, Bernard “Ben” Jemison and James “James” Hinkle used to meet one another every fortnight or so in a London pub. Over the course of two or three hours, drinking pitchers of ale and snacking on platters heaped with English delicacies like salted chicken lips and boiled potatoes with greasy gravy, the two would discuss the hottest topics of the day.
Between their meetings at the pub, Hinkle and Jemison often dashed off to one another short letters containing interesting anecdotes, or mentions of topics they might discuss at a later date.
Each of these men was well-acquainted with some of the brightest stars even before they burned high in the sky of the Edwardian age. Though Jemison and Hinkle have never appeared even as footnotes to history, their unacknowledged contributions to London’s artistic community forever changed the contents of the world’s literary canon.
The existence of these two men was discovered when some of their letters were found by Dr. Yuka Lalie, a professor of Japanese Studies at Oxford. She immediately surrendered the letters to her husband, a professor of Dramatic Arts in nearby Maiden Head, who gave them to his sister, an avid philatelist.
Dr. Lalie’s sister-in-law kept the cancelled stamps and threw the letters away, where they were discovered by her housekeeper who, in turn, gave them to her son, an odd jobs man, convinced he would “get a fizzle” out the letters, as Jemison and Hinkle were, among other things, a stone mason and a housepainter, handymen who performed many odd jobs for members of what is now known as the Bloomsbury Group.
Word of the letters leaked into the treacherous stream of academia, and Jemison and Hinkle were aggressively sought out by Bloomsbury scholars, Eliot scholars, Keynesian scholars – more scholars, really, than you could shake a switch at.
A 99-year-old Jemison and a 103-year-old Hinkle were finally tracked down in a care home for the elderly in Reading, England, by Alexander T. Piddlepot, an Oxford fellow who hoped he might acquire enough information from the two gentlemen to finish his doctoral thesis.
Nearly 120 hours of conversation with Jemison and Hinkle were captured on tape between October and December, 1997; however, exasperated by their arguing and coarse language, their failing perception of passing time, odd fits of what the jaded Piddlepot deemed “selective incoherence,” and the men’s general lack of regard for the significance of their recollections, Piddlepot ceased making his trips to the nursing home and threw away the tapes, which were rescued by Phineas Twyndlestick, a student of Piddlepot’s, and sold to an undisclosed party for an undisclosed sum.
Transcribed for the first time are some of the highlights from those abandoned tapes.
On T.S. Eliot
Hinkle: So I says to Tom, I says, “Hey Tom! Me nor Ben makes heads nor tails from that poem ye gave us–can ye not make a few notes, like, so’s we kin read it to unnerstand?” And he writ on it them notes, on account of he liked Ben and me ever so well, and cuz he knowed we knowed some Greek.
Jemison: Crikey, that Tom! Quite a dancer was that bloke! Used to put a lampshade on his head and do the foxtrot with them girls –
Hinkle: Them Stephen girls – Nessa and the Stick, we callt her, on account of she was always knockin’ on Lytton with a hickory switch, poor bugger. Even the Stick liked dancin’ with ole Tom Cat Eliot. He was a randy boy, ole Tom, and loved to smoke good hashish. He was a peach. Always give good advice, deed honest.
Jemison: He did. I started losin’ my hair like Da, around before I was turnin’ twenty, and one day I took off my cap to ole Tom when he walked by, and he says, “Hallo, Jemison.” I turned pink in the cheeks when he stared at my scalp. “Anything wrong?” he asks me, real kind, like. And so I says to him, I says, “My how my hair is growin’ thin! Do I part my hair behind,” I asks him, “or comb it all to the back?” He says to me, he says, “Jemison, shave your head and be done with it.” I did. Grew back thicker. Never fell out again.
Hinkle: Not like his teeth, poor old Ben!
Jemison: Keynes had fine teeth. A brilliant man – wouldn’t go for all this that’s happenin’ to day with the King wantin’ to marry this American dee-vor-say. Crikey, I miss that bloody Maynard.
Hinkle: God save his majesty the King!
Jemison: God save the King!
On Hemingway and Fitzgerald:
Hinkle: Them monkeys was doomed with a capital D from the minute they tromped into the parlor. Their accents was terrible and they come in chewin’ jelly candies like cows chewin’ cud. The pretty one – Scott was him name, I rightly think – the pretty one walks in and says to the Stick’s husband Leo, Scott says, to him, “Hiya! Miss Stein says yer wife’s barmy. My wife’s barmy, too. That’s why I drink.”
Jemison: Crikey but they was low-class. Bloody hell!
Hinkle: Deed honest! And the fat, handsome one with biscuit crumbs in his mustache, he clouts the pretty one upside the head and says, “You boob! That’s no way to act with comp’ny!”
Jemison: And the group was all just starin’ at these yobs – hillbillies they’re callt in America, I rightly think – and then the fat one says, “Miss Gertrude Stein sent us to see you. Says you’re all real smart fellas.” And still the lot of ’em don’t say nothin’ to them two. Finally, the pretty one, he says all in one breath, “Y’uns sure has nice yards over here lotsa elbow room fresh air y’uns like to hunt cuz Ernie, here, he hunts in Africa y’uns ever go to Africa?”
Hinkle: That’s when Keynes and Bell and Strachey all run at ’em and throwed ’em out the door. That pretty one was shakin’ like my Da’s hand durin’ Lent when The Stick run at ‘im with her old hickory switch. He wasn’t to know she was tryin’ to swat that poor Strachey bugger.
Jemison: I seen old fish hold up better than them two. Keynes was bloody quick, though.
Hinkle: Deed honest, they was doomed with a capital D.
On the Bloomsbury Parties
Hinkle: I never had no use for them folks nor their parties. Oh, Ben over there, he thought they throwed smart parties and loved to go help his sister clean the place before the real folks started filin’ in and have a chat with what’shis –
Jemison: It was Keynes. John Maynard Keynes, the only one of the lot ever amounted to anything, only one ever made bloody sense. He packed a perfect pipe, too. Damned thing never went out.
Hinkle: Still and all, the house always smelt of dogs and smoke and bacon fat. They never wiped their feet – and Ben’s poor sister on her hands and knees scrubbin’ the floors every week. Deed honest! She let them Bells’ house air out once for a whole day, and when she closed the doors and windows and such it still smelt like dogs and smoke and bacon fat. And them with them babies and all, stinkin’ of dogs and smoke and bacon fat.
Jemison: He was a scholar and a gentleman. Named my dog for him. Old Maynard!
Hinkle: Prettiest babies I ever seen, raised amongst that mess! A crime!
On Virginia Woolf
Hinkle: Aye, the Stick, we callt her, on account of she was always swingin’ that hickory stick around at that bugger Strachey when she had a few swallows from the jug. She liked us nigh well enough – when we was in our place. And that was often away from her and that buncha riff-raff at Gordon Square.
Jemison: Crikey, ain’t that right! I laid some stones on the Stick’s walkway once and hadda go inside and speak with Leo. Well, he took his sweet time comin’ when I was callin’ for im, an I looked down at a stack of papers on the table, like. And I says to the Stick –
Hinkle: I remember this! It’s rich, this story!
Jemison: And so I says, real nice, like, with all respect for the Stick, “Had you not better change the name of that story?” I says.
Hinkle: ‘Twas called –
Jemison: James, please. She had callt the bleedin’ story “Water Curling at the Edges to Fall Upon the Shore Before Rushing Back to Meet the Sea.” Just before the Mister come in, I says to the Stick, I says, “See here – would you not better call this story ‘The Waves’?”
Hinkle: And the Stick says, “Mister Jemi -”
Jemison: James, please, can you not for one bloody second leave off my tale? She says to me, “Mister Jemison,” like I’m to be respected and all, but real sour in the mouth about it, “Mister Jemison, had you not better finish the walkway before it snows?” And this is July! July 1930! Crikey!
Hinkle: Well, we pass the book stall one day and low and behold –
Jemison: She gone and changed the bloody name. Looked at the book, and there’s my Christian name for one of the characters – Bernard! Seen her many times after, and she never said a bloody word about it. Probly forgot, that one. Lord, but she was round the twist half the time.
Hinkle: I’ll never forget the time me and the Stick met up on the river bank in Brighton, and she says, “Mister Hinkle,” just like I’m a gentleman, like, passin’ a beautiful day in March and not a mental cripple from the war that’s goin’ on. “Could you not sell me a few good, heavy bricks that would fit in my dress pockets?” I says to her, I says to the Stick, I says, “And what are ya needin’ such things for, Mrs. Woolf? Will ye be motoring up to London and pitchin’ bricks at the Germans whilst they bomb the city tonight?” I was tipplin’ that day, I admit it. I should not have bleedin’ said it.
Jemison: Story of your bloody life, “should not have bleedin’ said it.”
Hinkle: Ben, would you like a throttle? I’m not too old! So the Stick, she says to me, instead of bein’ so polite as to tell me what she’ll really be needin’ them bricks for, she says, in her posh accent, “I shall put them in my pockets and drown myself in this, the River Ouse.” Years and years I put up with her cheekiness and seen all the business with the hickory switches, and I had it up to the eyebrows.
Jemison: Deed honest, but the Stick could work your nerves.
Hinkle: James. Please. So I says to her, I says, “Well, you kin just as well use the bleedin’ stones on the river bank and have as much success as you would have with bleedin’ bricks.” And I bent over and the handed the Stick a few good, heavy stones which that might fit in her pockets, and walked on. Never looked back, never did another licka work for them hoity-toities. I’ve not seen the Stick in donkey’s years.
On E.M. Forster
Jemison: What, now? What’s the E –
Hinkle: I think they’re wantin’ to know if we ever met the Mole.
Jemison (laughing): Ah, Crikey! Dear, sweet Morgan.
Hinkle: He used to corner me outside if I was workin’ for the Bells and tell me how much he’d love a romp. So one time I says to him, I says to the Mole, “Morgan! Remember yourself as a gentleman – meet me in the woodshed!” And off he run, like a priest from a whore.
Jemison: I hadda romp with him once. Coupla times.
Hinkle: What’s that?
Jemison: Right after the war, it was. I seen them blokes with arms blowed off, faces blowed off, privates shot off, brains comin’ out their ears, gassed and what-have-you – I thought to myself, I thought, “Ben, you seen the worst that can happen to a man. The Mole’s not a bad bloke, you seen worse.” He said he fancied me. No one else did. So I let ‘im bugger me. He was nice. I said to him once, I said, “Morgan, you ride my bum like it’s a passage to India!” He liked that, the dirty bastard.
Hinkle: I’ll tell the truth, after the war, and not with the Mole, but one day whilst I was workin’ in the yard, the gentleman Duncan Grant come up behind me, deed honest –
Jemison: Crikey! Gentle? More like a railroad tie bustin’ through a olive, the Duncan I’m to remember.
Hinkle: You and Duncan, too?
Jemison: Me and all of ’em – they was all buggers.
Hinkle: Well, I’ll be…So they was.
Jemison: Not Keynes. He was a good Englishman. Just our secret? Like the Masons?
Hinkle: Right. The bleedin’ Masons. God save the King! God save the King! May the year 19 and 39 be as lovely as 19 and 78!