BY CHRISTINA LAKE
I've often considered writing a fanzine article about my great-grandfather Walter Low. Not because he was a Hungarian Jew, son of an exiled revolutionary, interesting as that may be to me, but because he was an early friend of H G Wells. I know through my family that Walter and Bertie worked together on a journal called the Educational Times. It pleased me to think that this early journalistic endeavour might not be so unlike "pubbing their ish" and that perhaps they were producing the Chunga of their generation. Maybe Walter even gave Bertie a few ideas for his early novels? What hot-blooded fan wouldn't want to claim a family friendship with the father of science fiction, even if at several generations removed?
I once mentioned the whole thing to Moshe Feder and he thought it was pretty cool. Not my embellishments, but that my great grandfather and Wells had hung out together as young men. Not that young men hung out in those days, or at least if they did, they didn't call it that.
The trouble was, there wasn't much more to say. H G Wells knew my great grandfather. End of story. So what?
I'd read somewhere that one of the characters in the book Tono-Bungay was supposed to be based on my great-grandfather. I think it would be fair to say that Tono-Bungay is not one of Wells's best known novels. Not up there with War of the Worlds and The Time Machine or even the non-sfnal end of the Wellsian oeuvre, beloved of school teachers, such as Kipps or the History of Mr Polly.
Indeed it took me a while to track down a copy of Tono-Bungay and when I did I was rather put off by the weighty binding and small print, not to mention the fact that it cohabited its volume with a serious polemical work by Wells called A Modern Utopia. After browsing through a few pages, I decided to put it aside for a more auspicious occasion, and didn't pick it up again till last summer. Luckily for me it wasn't nearly as hard-going as I'd feared. There were some typical elements of the Wellsian realist novel -- young man gets apprenticed into dull job, marries the wrong woman and sinks into poverty -- but it was really a semi-autobiographical version of Wells's own escape from dull jobs into a more interesting world where he and his uncle come to make a huge fortune by selling a fake medicine, the Tono-Bungay of the title (not, I hasten to add, that I'm implying the swindling part was meant to be semi-autobiographical, unless it can be taken as some oblique comment on Wells's writing career.)
Although the book doesn't contain aliens or time travel, it does involve attempts at developing a flying machine and a bizarre adventure section where the narrator takes off in a dodgy boat to steal some "quap" (highly radioactive material that causes anyone who stays within close contact with it "to die, eaten up mysteriously like a leper") in a last ditch attempt to salvage his fortune. Naturally this all turns to the bad, and the radioactive quap eventually rots through the fabric of the boat and sinks to the bottom of the ocean, leaving the hero bankrupt.
The character in the book alleged to be based on my great-grandfather was Bob Ewart, the narrator's school-friend. The Ewart character is introduced in positive vein as a friend who has lasted his life out, but the portrait goes downhill from there. Sculptor and free-thinker though he is, he is also portrayed as the "embodiment of talk" without action and an unsatisfactory moral influence. It gets worse, he is indolent and penniless, sponges off a prostitute, and turns up to drink sixpenny Chianti with an unaccountable black eye. He comes back from Paris wearing ridiculous artist clothes. But somehow his "unfortunate disposition to irony" and a "sympathetic sort of lunacy" help him survive the savagings of the plot and he continues throughout the book to represent the wild and radical thinking of the unfettered mind. Even so, I wasn't too sure I wanted to claim this man as my great-grandfather!
Of course, by the time I'd finally read the book, I'd forgotten where I'd heard about the connection between Ewart and Walter Low. Maybe I'd just imagined it? I put the question on the back burner and didn't think about it again until early this summer when my partner Doug Bell and I were at the Trowbridge Village Pump folk festival. I'm not a huge fan of folk music though through repeated exposure I am getting to be more knowledgeable and to appreciate the more accessible end of the folk spectrum such as The Oyster Band and of course the incomparable Richard Thompson. This year's
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"We're best friends now. I know how to rip his guts out."
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headliners were Suzanne Vega and The Waterboys (I never realised the Waterboys were folk, and have to say that their tendency towards extended electric guitar solos came as something of a relief after so much noodling around on dulcimers and the like by earlier bands). Though the real show-stoppers were full-on ska/salsa/rock/reggae band Los de Abajo from Mexico City to whom we danced non-stop till we dropped, and even then the band were still leaping around the stage in a high energy frenzy which wouldn't be balked by frantic time-out signals from the organizers. In the end, rather than stop, they broke through the fourth wall and marched down from the stage into the audience to play their last number. It was awesome.
Anyway, as I was saying, I'm not a huge fan of folk music, so normally I bring a book to read for those mellow afternoon moments when you're sitting in a tent, a pint of beer at your side, chilling out to some harpist or female singer-songwriter. My festival book was the autobiography of the late great British DJ John Peel, which was a bit of a liability as the book was desperately poignant, and when read with alcohol and music kept making me want to cry. Doug, despite liking folk music much more than I do, also had a music-related book with him -- White Bicycles by Joe Boyd, telling of Boyd's career in the music business, producing bands such as Pink Floyd and Fairport Convention (not, as I had thought from my naïve and ignorant British '70s rock perspective, a book about the band Nazareth who had a hit with "My White Bicycle" in that era!)
Walking back to the campsite to get changed for the evening, Doug told me an anecdote from his book. Apparently Boyd was briefly imprisoned on a drugs charge (as counterculture heroes often are!) and one of the only books he was able to get hold of was, yes, Tono-Bungay. When he was released from prison, the first bus he spotted was going to Highgate Cemetery, a place where the book's lead character used to go to contemplate life. On a whim, he took the bus to the cemetery, and was contemplating the vagaries of life himself, when he realised that the names
on the two tombstones in front of him, dating from the
1890's were transposed versions of the names of the two
main characters in Tono-Bungay.
This little nugget of information got me quite
excited. What if one of those graves was my great-
grandfather's? Ewart is close to being an anagram of
Walter, and Walter Low did die in London in the 1890s
from pneumonia following a bout of flu. In which case,
what would be the name on the grave next to his? Back
home after the festival, I dug out the book to see if I could
find out more, maybe a character whose name contained the
missing letters from Walter Low's. Naturally it wasn't that
simple. The main character in the story had the unusual sur-
name of Ponderevo. It occurred to me immediately that this
must be another anagram. I set about rearranging the letters
on the back of an envelope, confident that some sound and
obvious English name would come out. Instead I found
myself writing down nonsensical arrangements, the best of
which were the equally outlandish Pedro Oven and Devon
Rope. Perhaps Ponderevo was a dead end after all? In which
case what on earth was the name on the other gravestone? All the main characters were called Ponderevo as far as I could see, apart from Ewart. There was Gordon-Nasmyth, the explorer who found the quap, but he only appears a couple of times in the book. And the principle women -- Marion and Beatrice -- didn't sound very anagramatic.
Eventually in exasperation I ordered Wells's autobiography from Exeter University library. One of the few perks of my current job is that previously unobtainable books are now at my beck and call, so a couple of days later Volume 1 turned up in the box from Exeter, sporting a shabby red binding dating from the mid-1960s. Judging by the library stamps it'd not been borrowed in nearly 15 years. Lucky for me that Exeter University don't have a tough discard policy!
I flicked through it straight away looking for my great-grandfather's name -- and found it towards the end of the book, in a chapter called Collapse into Literary Journalism. I was very excited to see several paragraphs about my great-grandfather, starting with the words: "Both Walter Low and I were very sarcastic young men, and we had excellent reason so to be." It took me a bit more reading to find out what they were being sarcastic about, which was helping students to pass exams. Not so nefarious, you might think, but in fact they were devising material for a correspondence course operation which got its results through drilling students in model answers to likely exam questions, rather then by teaching them the subject. Wells, a great proponent of the value of learning, came to find this somewhat scandalous. The other scam they had going was that Walter Low was paid £50 to edit the Educational Times, and had a budget of £50 for contributors. As Wells said: "He and I found it convenient that I should be the contributors -- all of them."
So, perhaps my great-grandfather was turning out to be of no greater moral fibre than Bob Ewart, though at least there was no hint of living off prostitutes. In fact, Wells seems to have derived a lot of fellow feeling from the fact that they were both recently married, and that neither marriage quite lived up to their expectations. He talks of them prowling about London (so that's what "hanging out" was called in those days), sharpening their wits with talk. Apparently Walter Low was "mystical and deliberate", with an extensive knowledge of foreign languages, and, something I didn't know, a keen interest in the "Jewish question" (though I shouldn't be surprised since Walter's sister Edith later became an active Zionist). Best of all, Wells credits Low with influencing him to start writing again, though I'm not sure if this was through encouragement, or emulation. Having now read Volume 1 of the autobiography, and most of Volume 2, I don't detect any hint that my great-grandfather might have shared in Wells's interest in writing about the future. Wells himself can't decide whether this development in his career was a lucky accident following his early success with The Time Machine, or a natural result of his strong interest in evolution and the future development of mankind.
What Wells does say about Walter Low's influence was
that he learned journalistic savoir faire from him, dexterity
in swinging into a subject and a variety of useful phrases
and methods of reviewing. That's good enough for me!
The Educational Times may not have been Banana Wings,
but thanks to my great-grandfather, Wells would've had no
trouble producing a fluent fanzine review column!
Wells's autobiography did, in the end, have something
to say about Tono-Bungay and the origins of Bob Ewart. It
turns out that some of Ewart's set piece talks were inspired by
the artist Bob Stevenson, a cousin to Robert Lewis Stevenson,
renowned for his stylish public speaking. Wells is quick to assert
that Ewart is not a caricature of Bob, oh no, he just had Bob's
style of talk grafted on to him. But maybe Wells only said that
for fear of a libel suit? After all, both Ewart and Stevenson were
artists, and both were called Bob. In which case, ironically, the
feckless Ewart might be more related to Doug than to me since
both the Stevenson family and Doug's own can trace descent
from Scottish hero Rob Roy McGregor. Still, I like to think that
perhaps there is a little piece of Walter Low left at the core of the character. Or perhaps Wells started off wanting to say something about his early friend Walter, but became diverted by the comic possibilities of the character he had created.
Maybe it doesn't matter whether or not Ewart was based on my great-grandfather as I found out more about him from finally reading Wells's autobiography than I would have from any tombstone, or from working out some dubious correlation between a fictional character and a real live person. But I do have one further, and last, theory in relation to the graves in Highgate Cemetery. Perhaps after all, Ponderevo wasn't an anagram (though it sounds like it damn well ought to be!) Apparently Wells and his second wife Jane used to go for walks in Highgate Cemetery in the mid 1890's as part of their wanderings around London in search of story ideas for articles. The characters in Tono-Bungay, as already related, also used to visit the cemetery, and on one occasion Ewart ends up saying: "We're young, Ponderevo, but sooner or later our whitened memories will wash up on one of these beaches, on some such beach as this. George Ponderevo, F.R.S, Sidney Ewart, RIP. Look at the rows of 'em." Notice how Bob Ewart has become Sidney Ewart for this one paragraph. Maybe they were simply names borrowed from the cemetery, and switched around for the purpose of the story? Perhaps if I take a trip to Highgate Cemetery next time I'm in London, I'll find that the graves belonged to George Ewart and Sidney Ponderevo?
Whatever the truth, I've a feeling I've not finished with H G Wells yet. I showed my mother the Wells autobiography, and she told me that Wells had dedicated one of his early novels to my great-grandfather. So there's something else to research! Besides, since reading two volumes of Wells's autobiography I'm becoming quite fascinated with the man, despite watching a strangely skewed BBC biopic on him at the weekend, where his career was reduced to his most outrageous utterances set between episodes of womanizing that would have put Ewart to shame. I can see I'm going to have to borrow some more books from Exeter University library. At this rate, who knows, I may even end up writing another fanzine article about him?
Data entry by Judy Bemis
Hard copy provided by Geri Sullivan
Updated March 6, 2007. If you have a comment about these web pages please send a note to the Fanac Webmaster. Thank you.