The Café Royal stood rather pompously like a regal icon on Regent Street - though the iconic nature of this garish rendezvous had more to do with Louis XIV than Victoria. It was, most definitely French in both food and fashion. That its back door opened out onto the fringes of Soho, however, meant there was another side to the place perhaps a bit more disreputable - appealing to that combination of opposites, the Bohemian Prince or the High-minded Pauper. The Café Royal catered to both of them, the rich and the raffish, upstairs in its elegantly expensive restaurant or down below in the madcap bar where the prices were cheap (or, at least, cheaper). So it was not unusual on the same night to have General Boulanger, the despised traitor of the Republican cause, dining upstairs with his retinue on truffles while downstairs in the aptly named Domino Room, exiles from the days of the Commune were downing bottles of cheap claret while plotting to de-trufflize the Boulangers of the world.
The fact that a Gallic Grand Café could be both royalist and republican was not something that the traditional English mind could easily absorb. However, there it stood, defiantly, in the middle of London’s West End as a magnet to the new class of intelligentsia spewed out by the overheated engine of late Victoria and its unrealised (and ambivalent) quest for Modernism. Is it any wonder then that artists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler fresh from Paris and imbued with a heady mixture of Courbet and Baudelaire should have used the Royal as a base in his battle against the Ruskinites and their visceral horror of the dreaded Impressionists. (Or, for that matter, why Lord Salisbury could so easily have confronted Oscar Wilde over his son’s love that dared not speak its name - because where else was that paunchy boozed-up reprobate going to be having his dinner?)
When Z had come there after his first sojourn in France, soaking up the language and the culture (a requirement for any would-be writer in those days), he both loved and hated it. What he loved about the place was the buzz and the energy and the fact that somebody who was anybody in the arts was always there in the flesh to see and be seen. What he hated about it was exactly the same thing. There was, of course, a great deal of posturing and pretence - of cocks showing their cockades. There was also wit and brilliance and viscous verbal bantering that often gave lie to the soft and succulent words reserved for the vellum of the page. And Z could partake in this tournament of male vanity, valour and vulgarity along with the best of them. But afterwards he often felt an ache both in his stomach and in his head. Sometimes he found it easy to go along with the game, seeing it as young men doing what young men do, letting off steam and having good fun. But other times he found the whole charade abhorrent - feeling a moral revulsion to this daily bout of ubiquitous consumption and of drunken knives being sharpened on slobbering tongues. (This virtuous nausea was best summed up to him by the sight of a minor poet who was noted for his routine of taking a small golden cross from his waistcoat pocket and dipping it ceremonially into each successive glass of absinthe prior to drinking it - until, as often happened, he would slide slowly from his chair to end up, legless, underneath the table whereupon someone would complete the ritual by placing the absinthe-soaked cross onto his forehead.)
Not that Z came here very often. He preferred the smaller cafes around Soho and the British Museum. They were quieter and the artists and writers he knew who went there were more down-to-earth people. Perhaps they weren’t blazing stars hoping to ignite the heavens, but they were serious about their work and they all, in their own manner, had something important to say - or, at least, thought they did.
He was at the Royal today because Jerome had asked to meet him here. This was strange in itself because Jerome felt the same about the place as he did. On more than one occasion he, Jerome, had said that it wasn’t flamboyance they were after but a moderately good time, with articulate friends, decent whiskey and aromatic tobacco. He had written an entire book (several, in fact) on this subject, praising the virtue of what he called ‘idleness’ - not laziness, mind you, but those enduring moments of space and time which nurture dreams and creativity. Central to this theme were the notions of respect and tolerance. Jerome had built his career on this simple idea, which led some people to think he was a sluggard. But nothing could have been further from the truth. As far as Z was concerned, Jerome worked harder than anyone he knew - with the possible exception of Z, himself.
Anyway, Jerome had asked to meet him here and Z had come. He came because Jerome was his friend and because, more than anything, he trusted him. And he trusted him for the simple reason that Jerome knew what it was like to be poor because he had lived it and because he had survived with his humour in tact. Z also trusted Jerome because, like Z, he had no one to fall back on but himself. And knowing that made a great deal of difference to Z because he felt that if Jerome said something, he said it with honour and if he said he would do something, he would do it with pleasure. In short, Jerome was someone Z could believe - not least because Jerome had once also lived in the East End and had been looked upon as an ‘other’. Not an ‘other’ because of race, but an ‘other’ because he was different in his head. And that, Z felt, was the biggest ‘otherness’ of all.
Like Z, Jerome was a dreamer. You could see it in his eyes which sometimes would drift off into another land far away from the person sitting next to him. Those who knew him well (and few people did) would comment on how grounded he seemed, how self-possessed. And yet he himself didn’t feel ‘grounded’ at all. Like many people with a strong inner life, he had a curious sense that there were things he was bound to achieve, that somehow, in a vague and ill-defined way, he had a unique purpose and that there were even vaguer spirits there to guide him. And, yes, there were times he felt he was playing out a pre-determined role in the theatre of life - something re-enforced during his years as a vagabond actor with a touring company.
But probably the same things could have been said of the other young writers in their circle - people like Doyle and Barrie, sometimes Shaw, and the blind poet, Marsden They all were dreamers who had come up ‘the hard way.’ Nothing was given to them. What they had they had earned through sweat and toil and having had the courage to follow their dreams and listen to their own inner voices.
Perhaps, in a strange way, they were fortunate to be living at that particular time which the Jubilee represented. Though, for them (most of them, anyway - Kipling aside), it was just a lot of misplaced pomp and circumstance. A recently lettered public was emerging from the ill-lit offices with worm-eaten desks and the factories of some Dickensian Coke Town into the dawn of a new and more open age where a multitude of penny magazines stuffed the shelves of railway newsagents providing unlimited fodder for the recently contrived class of commuters who consumed them voraciously as a means of all too briefly escaping their rapidly encroaching drudgery some twenty minutes down the track.
Yes, change was in the air. You could smell it along with all the dung churned up by the soon-to-be outmoded omnibus, but more especially by the new odours and sounds and sensations blaring at you from the walls, the stalls and the pages of papers like the Pall Mall Gazette. Suddenly (well, perhaps not so suddenly as all that) the stereotypical image of the Victorian lady and gentleman, prim and properly covering their piano legs with modesty socks, was being ripped apart with the vengeance one feels about a lie that’s been allowed to fester just too long. The screen was being torn down to reveal a mirage that was never really there. But whatever was there - and that, of course, was open to interpretation - everyone knew it wasn’t going to be there long.
It was an idea that was approaching with an unstoppable force that bordered on certainty. And like most ideas that brought with it the seeds of the new along with the annihilation of the old, the first thing to go was the language which propped up the ancient and outmoded - for there is nothing more sterile and stultifying than a language that has outlived its moment.
Was either Jerome or Z, himself, conscious of their role in this revolutionary reconstruction? Probably not. Marx’s son-in-law used to chum around with them on occasion. And they all knew Eleanor, his wife. Who didn’t? They were quite aware that the axis of the world was shifting - how fast, again, depended on whom you asked - but they weren’t out to bang their drums (well, maybe Shaw but he did it with so much panache that nobody minded). And, Z, as we noted before, waited to bang his drum till later. Jerome never banged a drum at all, though after the War to End All Wars he wondered whether he should have.
The critics were not kind to them. Of course, critics are hardly ever kind - it’s not their job, they would argue. But critics always have an axe to grind and a family to maintain - they either uphold the old regime or usher in the new. In either case their job is similar to the Praetorian Guards or The Young Turks who will soon become Praetorian Guards if their heads haven’t been lopped off before then.
They, the critics, were especially unkind to Jerome (or would be, soon). They called him ‘vulgar’ and ‘coarse’ which was really quite curious for a fellow whose stories were so incredibly gentle. What they meant by that, however, was that he dared to write in what they called ‘the vernacular’ - throwing ‘literary style’ to the winds - or snobbish pretence, depending on which way you looked at it. But they did him and, by implication, he rest of his friends a great favour by giving them a collective sobriquet of ‘New Humorists’. They hadn’t meant it as a compliment but the rubric stuck, lifting them out of the great anonymity of amorphous faces and transforming them into a Movement - the dream of every half-baked writing group.
Of course, there would be nothing half-baked about them after so many long years in the oven. But that was later. And later, much later, the Movement which launched them all would refer to just several - Z and Jerome. And later still, just Jerome himself. (And that for a single book which he, at the time of our meeting, had yet to finish.)
But that day at the Royal, all these things were yet to be. That day, in the summer of 1887, they were still young pups chasing after bones. The bones, it is true, had become meatier and more frequently tossed so that, by then, both Z and Jerome were able to hear more clearly the Sirens’ call. And, in fact, though they both would have many decades left in their writing career, it is of interest that the books each of them would be remembered for would be written in the following year. Of the two, it would be Z who gained an enormous following and would be recognised throughout the world, while Jerome would be regarded as a rather minor figure - until much later, after they were both gone and then the situation would be reversed. Jerome would be considered a quintessential English writer whose work would endure and it was Z whose books would disappear into the mists of time - known only to a few who took the trouble to explore. (However, since we haven’t reached the end of time yet, it’s possible that the situation will again be reversed.)
As Z waited for his friend to show up that day, he wrote some notes on a piece of foolscap paper which he had taken from the office of the Jewish Record where he had just been prior to coming to the Royal. The Record was a small and under financed weekly that was trying desperately to compete for advertising with the mainstream Jewish press and had been attempting to seduce young, energetic writers like Z into their tiny stable. Z, who hated the dominating organ of Jewish opinion - the Chronicle - because he believed it was simply a mouthpiece for the wealthy businessmen and financiers, had agreed as long as he was given total freedom to write what he wished. There was hardly any money in it, but Z felt it might provide him with a showcase for some of his vignettes on the East End - a way to experiment with new techniques and styles.
The Record, of course, would lead him nowhere. A small Jewish periodical that was read by only a handful of people was simply a way of keeping his hand from getting stiff while he waited for something else to come along. But it did get him noticed by some people in the community who liked what they saw and felt that Z might be exactly the person they needed to do a job that was being mooted back then in certain quarters.
Jerome had other ideas. In fact he had his own magazine planned and he wanted Z to play an active part. Which, in fact, was what Z thought the nature of this meeting with Jerome was going to be about. But he was wrong.