The Times, June 27, 1930
COMPANY I HAVE KEPT. By HENRY S. SALT. (Allen and Unwin. 10s. net.)
Readers of Mr. Salt’s “Memories of Bygone Eton” and “Seventy Years among Savages” will welcome his new volume of reminiscence, which is a friendship’s garland rather than a fresh instalment of autobiography. They need not share his peculiar views on vegetarianism, humanitarianism, or the morality of field sports—though they may chuckle at the vigour and. the, occasional quaint illogicalities with which he maintains them. To enjoy one of Mr. Salt’s books it is only necessary to appreciate a singularly urbane and graceful style, redolent both of his Virgilian studies and his Eton traditions, a sly and always good-natured humour, and a happy shrewdness in the summing up of character.
After some mellow recollections of Shrewsbury and of Eton, Mr. Salt introduces us to the “company” he kept after his revolt from the ideas and conventions of his earlier life. The centre of the picture is held by Edward Carpenter, the sociable hermit of Millthorpe, where he combined in rural peace the functions of poet, philosopher, reformer, and market- gardener. It is clear from almost every page of Mr. Salt’s book how deep is his debt to Carpenter’s “simple life” gospel, but he avoids the insipidities of hero- worship. Carpenter, for instance, was an insistent champion of the benefits of manual labour in the fields.
I was once staying at Millthorpe at the time when the hay was to be cut, and in company with other guests I volunteered to assist in the work of carrying it. It was our enthusiasm alone that sustained us. We worked hard all the morning, and after the midday meal we asserted our readiness to continue. I thought our host did not look quite so pleased with us as we were entitled to expect, but out we all went in the blazing afternoon sun, and not a sign escaped us of our real inward inclinations. Suddenly Edward [Carpenter] who was next in the line to me, threw down his hay-fork and said testily: “Well, I can’t go on all day cocking this — stuff, if you can.” So virtue was rewarded, and all the weary had rest.
Carpenter was undoubtedly a prophet but not always in the narrower sense a reliable one. “No, Shaw. It won’t do,” was his verdict on hearing a reading of Candida in Mr. Shaw’s early period of neglect, and really after that the dramatist was justified in some scepticism about the soundness of the “Noble Savage’s” judgment.
After Edward Carpenter, the chief figures in the book are the “poet-naturalists,” Thoreau, Jefferies, and W. H. Hudson—the first two only spiritual companions of the author’s, the third an actual friend. About all three, he writes delightfully. But he can also extract charm from the unpromising subject of “cranks” and “bores,” and his convictions have laid him sadly open to persecution from both species. But he bears with them amiably, as he does with his controversial opponents; there is a pleasant glimpse of Mr. Chesterton calling at the office of the Humanitarian League, “where he kept expressing his fear that, if he detained me even a few minutes longer, ‘some elephant might suffer.’ ”
There are still echoes of controversy in the pages setting forth why Mr. Salt judges Virgil a better poet than Homer, but they die away when he speaks of wild flowers and the beauty of the South Downs. He has certainly drunk deep of the spirit of the “poet-naturalists,” and studied the art of disputing without offence.