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Nico Llewelyn Davies To Andrew Birkin - 1975

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Letterfrom Nico Llewelyn Davies to Andrew Birkin, 5 December 1975


5 December 1975

Dear Andrew

Many thanks for your excellent letter, with its JMB enclosure which I very much appreciated – absolutely new to me.

Before I get going, I think this may tickle you: a hobby of mine is chasing after various second-hand books, and I get a good many lists sent me; included in a recent one from Salisbury was Peter Pan’s Postbag – letters to Pauline Chase, Heinemann 1909 with a map of the Never Never Land. Half because (by coincidence) I have a young American idealist coming over to see me and planning a 75th anniversary of [Roger Lancelyn Green’s] PP book and was particularly searching for the map mentioned on p.182 of “50 Yrs of P. P.”, and half just a fun, I asked for it and it arrived this a.m.. Imagine my personal pleasure when I read the following letter on page 19 of the book:

“Dear Peter Pan thank you very much for the postcard you gave me. I am longing for some more of them and I have sent you a picture of the little house for you And Nik-o thinks he can fly but he only tumbles about he sends his love. From MICHAEL. (I was always Nik-o in those days!) My first appearance in the book I fancy! I’ll show it you.

I was very interested to know that Kirriemuir had in its museum and photographed copy of ‘The Boy Castaways’ and also of course all you say concerning Black Lake Cottage which of course I cannot remember.

When you ask about my possible “embarrassment” etc at Eton, it’s difficult to be 100% certain in one’s 55 year old memory so to speak: I would say roughly that (a) I was “aware” this “little” man (he was just under 5’4” at which height the Eton boy used to go from jacket into tails, and I remember my delight in saying to him “I’m going into tails, you couldn’t!” tho’ I prefer JMB in a letter to Turley Smith saying “Painful news – Nico goes into tails tomorrow. I begged him to go into them one at a time so that I could get used to the idea.”) was sort of unusual and famous but I was and would have been quite happy to share him if he welcomed the idea. By the time I’d reached 18½ and was leaving and for the next three years (when I was the Number One) we used to have these fabulous cricket weeks at Stanway when 10 of my friends plus 4 or 5 girls would stay the week and I’m sure enough all of them found JMB very great fun; he used to come to my bedroom last thing most nights and discuss the various characters and we always ended up the week with speeches from everyone – culminating of course in a totally marvellous one from him. But, if memory is right, going back to my 14/15 years of age I would say I boasted of JMB to masters, just talked of him as an uncle to boys – but never with ‘doubt’ or ‘embarrassment’.

Regarding your trilogy: perhaps the line that has been least clear is ‘The Letting Go’. Which I like a lot, but don’t quite know what has been ‘let go’ … P.P. or the Ll.D’s or something else? I would instinctively vote against the BBC’s suggested Part 4 – up to JMB’s death – as there was such a decline, surely in other eyes as well as mine. Wonderful moments tho’ there were, the real fire went out when Michael was drowned. This – REALLY? – The Letting Go?

I’m much delighted that you rate Thomas Hardy as you do: he has always been my favourite author too. I was lucky enough to meet him once or twice and had a splendid moment with him in the stage box at a rehearsal (dress rehearsal, I think) of “Mary Rose” … he was wearing a largish hat and he was suspected of being an Australian reporter and they tried to sling him out! When I asked him which of his own novels he thought the best he said “Jude the Obscure” … maybe not surprising as that was the last one he wrote, but it rates about 6th with me – “The Return of the Native” coming first.

Much as I appreciate your suggesting I should continue Peter’s book [i.e. the Morgue], there are many reasons why I cannot: chief of which could be that all the letters have been destroyed! But another even more cogent reason is that I know my own limitations. I’m vain enough to believe that I can write good letters, but I know I could not stay the course of a book. My great friend Rupert Hart-Davis has been doing his best to persuade me – not as a publisher: he, as I, retired wholly from that racket, but we write each other once a week. Where did all this enjoyment of writing letters come from? Every day at Eton to Uncle Jim? Rather doubt it as they were mostly ½ a page at maximum!

I think I'll tell you now the "truth about" Cynthia Asquith, though I realise it may be unwise to write it all down.

A. Michael and I didn't take her very seriously when she first came on the scene [in 1917]. Rather fun, but "let's go out" sort of thing.

B. When Michael was drowned, she was wonderful and I vividly remember writing her a long letter of gratitude and deep affection saying that if there were EVER a moment when I could help her in ANY way etc she had only to let me know.

C. In 1922 or 3 or 4 I was at some large weekend party (life and soul of the younger batch, of course!) and was sitting next to Lady Astor (whom I liked very much) and she started slanging Cynthia, saying how she was ruining JMB, turning him into a snob etc, and that she would get all his money, taking it from my brothers and me. Which I violently pooh-poohed and said some pretty offensive things - which she enjoyed ... she always liked being answered back. (She was dead right!)

D. After I left the flat to marry Mary in June 1926, I moved naturally to another world, but used to look in quite frequently. As often as not I'd ring the bell: Frank would open the door: "How's Uncle Jim?" "Well... Lady Cynthia's been in." I knew what this meant. I'd open the door to his wonderful study – overlooking 7 bridges across the Thames – and find Uncle Jim lying prostrate on the settee. I was the only person who could get him out of these states of despair. Silence for half an hour, while I sat at his desk either reading a paper or writing, then I'd say "I see Woolley made a marvellous 75 yesterday." There would be a stir on the settee ... and soon we'd be talking cricket, and soon again all would be well. What Cynthia had been doing was crying her woes: talking of her oldest (dotty) son and her affect poverty etc etc etc, sucking all his sympathy from him – and JMB was a fantastic mass of sympathy, people came from miles away for his comfort. He reached the point of drafting a new will, but never signed it – wouldn't, in my belief, as in the cold light of remorseless reason he thought it would be wrong.

E. When Uncle Jim got really ill, and was not expected to last the night, Peter made the Greatest Mistake of his Life and telephoned her down in Devon or Cornwall. She hired a car and motored through the night. Meanwhile Peter, I and General Freyberg went on watch – 8 to 12, 12 to 4, 4 to 8 am – each of us expecting to see JMB die. Cynthia arrived towards the end of Bernard Freyberg's watch ... still alive ... got hold of surgeon Horder and solicitor Poole with the will ... Horder gave an injection, and sufficient energy was pumped into Uncle Jim so that he could put his name to the will that Poole laid before him.

F. When Peter and I heard what had happened, and that we were cut out from the will, we talked and thought and eventually went to consult a leading solicitor, Theodore Goddard. What did he advise? If, he said, we would get 1. Freyberg to state in court how unconscious JMB was etc etc, and 2. Frank Thurston to agree with the repeated manoeuvres of Cynthia (which I mentioned in D above) then we couldn't fail – in his opinion – to win the case.

G. We did get Bernard and Frank to say they would back us up; but then we each thought how horrid the whole thing was going to be, and we decided not to sue.

H. I told the above one day to Janet Dunbar [when she was writing “J M Barrie: The Man Behind the Image”] who listened politely but told me later she hadn't believed me. Later she called on Simon Asquith and his wife. Simon apparently fairly sozzled and sprawling, his wife extra charming and delightful. Suddenly Simon lurched to his feet, went out of the room and returned with wads of written material which he more or less flung on Janet's lap – "Here you are, take it away." This was Cynthia's diary or diaries (her first such book was published after her death – a great mistake so far as any admirer of hers (myself included!) is concerned as Cynthia would have edited 75% out) – which could never be published as they were so full of libel etc.

Janet took it away and THERE was all my story word for word EXCEPT that Cynthia added that I was in the room when Horder injected JMB – presumably thereby implying that I approved. I made/asked Janet to remove this line from her book (that I was there) and she did. The unattractive Simon had apparently turned against his mother: but he doesn't turn away from all the royalties!

Believe it or not, much as I would have relished the money, the two things that broke my heart were firstly that I had no say in the reproduction of his plays - how I would have loved to be consulted in the casting and management of this play and that, all of which I knew so well and had watched so closely as JMB told the various actors what was in his mind etc etc: secondly that the relatively small amounts that were going to my daughter and others of her generation were removed. All very sad.

I've told you all this at such appalling length to save time when we meet. You had to know, and will have plenty of other things to talk about or look at. Of course one can understand Cynthia's motives and more or less sympathise with them: a mother and her children, etc. But it was a sad end to "Arthur & Sylvia Llewellyn Davies and their boys – My Boys". Never mind: I've recently been reading Cynthia's “Haply I Remember” and found it very delightful. Enough! Too much! But keep on asking if something occurs to you and your eyesight hasn't gone …

Yrs ever



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