A Friend Of Fitzgerald by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Loder is a Rock of Ages to rely on.


I heard the other day of the death of dear old John Loder, the Woodbridge bookseller, at the age of ninety-two. Though ill equipped to do justice to his memory, it seems to me a duty, and a duty that I take up gladly. It is not often that a young man has the good fortune to know as a friend one who has been a crony of his own grandfather and great-grandfather. Such was my privilege in the case of John Loder, a man whose life was all sturdy simplicity and generous friendship. He shines in no merely reflected light, but in his own native nobility. I think there are a few lovers of England and of books who will be glad not to forget his unobtrusive services to literature. If only John Loder had kept a journal it would be one of the minor treasures of the Victorian Age. He had a racy, original turn of speech, full of the Suffolk lingo that so delighted his friend FitzGerald; full, too, of the delicacies of rich thought and feeling. He used to lament in his later years that he had not kept a diary as a young man. Alas that his Boswell came too late to do more than snatch at a few of his memories.

There is a little Suffolk town on the salt tidewater of the Deben, some ten miles from the sea. Its roofs of warm red tile are clustered on the hill-slopes that run down toward the river; a massive, gray church tower and a great windmill are conspicuous landmarks. Broad barges and shabby schooners, with ruddy and amber sails, lie at anchor or drop down the river with the tide, bearing the simple sailormen of Mr. W.W. Jacobs’s stories. In the old days before the railway it was a considerable port and a town of thriving commerce. But now–well, it is little heard of in the annals of the world.

Yet Woodbridge, unknown to the tourist, has had her pilgrims, too, and her nook in literature. It was there that George Crabbe of Aldeburgh was apprenticed to a local surgeon and wrote his first poem, unhappily entitled “Inebriety.” There lived Bernard Barton, “the Quaker poet,” a versifier of a very mild sort, but immortal by reason of his friendships with greater men. Addressed to Bernard Barton, in a plain, neat hand, came scores of letters to Woodbridge in the eighteen-twenties, letters now famous, which found their way up Church Street to Alexander’s Bank. They were from no less a man than Charles Lamb. Also I have always thought it very much to Woodbridge’s credit that a certain Woodbridgian named Pulham was a fellow-clerk of Lamb’s at the East India House. Perhaps Mr. Pulham introduced Lamb and Barton to each other. And as birthplace and home of Edward FitzGerald, Woodbridge drew such visitors as Carlyle and Tennyson, who came to seek out the immortal recluse. In the years following FitzGerald’s death many a student of books, some all the way from America, found his way into John Loder’s shop to gossip about “Old Fitz.” In 1893 a few devoted members of the Omar Khayyam Club of London pilgrimaged to Woodbridge to plant by the grave at Boulge (please pronounce “Bowidge”) a rosetree that had been raised from seed brought from the bush that sheds its petals over the dust of the tent-maker at Naishapur. In 1909 Woodbridge and Ipswich celebrated the FitzGerald centennial. And Rupert Brooke’s father was (I believe) a schoolboy at Woodbridge; alas that another of England’s jewels just missed being a Woodbridgian!

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Some day, if you are wise, you, too, will take a train at Liverpool Street, and drawn by one of those delightful blue locomotives of the Great Eastern Railway speed through Colchester and Ipswich and finally set foot on the yellow-pebbled platform at Woodbridge. As you step from the stuffy compartment the keen salt Deben air will tingle in your nostrils; and you may discover in it a faint under-whiff of strong tobacco–the undying scent of pipes smoked on the river wall by old Fitz, and in recent years by John Loder himself. If you have your bicycle with you, or are content to hire one, you will find that rolling Suffolk country the most delightful in the world for quiet spinning. (But carry a repair kit, for there are many flints!) Ipswich itself is full of memories–of Chaucer, and Wolsey, and Dickens (it is the “Eatanswill” of Pickwick), and it is much pleasure to one of Suffolk blood to recall that James Harper, the grandfather of the four brothers who founded the great publishing house of Harper and Brothers a century ago, was an Ipswich man, born there in 1740. You will bike to Bury St. Edmunds (where Fitz went to school and our beloved William McFee also!) and Aldeburgh, and Dunwich, to hear the chimes of the sea-drowned abbey ringing under the waves. If you are a Stevensonian, you will hunt out Cockfield Rectory, near Sudbury, where R.L.S. first met Sidney Colvin in 1872. (Colvin himself came from Bealings, only two miles from Woodbridge.) You may ride to Dunmow in Essex, to see the country of Mr. Britling; and to Wigborough, near Colchester, the haunt of Mr. McFee’s painter-cousin in “Aliens.” You will hire a sailboat at Lime Kiln Quay or the Jetty and bide a moving air and a going tide to drop down to Bawdsey ferry to hunt shark’s teeth and amber among the shingle. You will pace the river walk to Kyson–perhaps the tide will be out and sunset tints shimmer over those glossy stretches of mud. Brown seaweed, vivid green samphire, purple flats of slime where the river ran a few hours before, a steel-gray trickle of water in the scour of the channel and a group of stately swans ruffling there; and the huddled red roofs of the town with the stately church tower and the waving arms of the windmill looking down from the hill. It is a scene to ravish an artist. You may walk back by way of Martlesham Heath, stopping at the Red Lion for a quencher (the Red Lion figurehead is supposed to have come from one of the ships of the Armada). It is a different kind of Armada that Woodbridge has to reckon with nowadays. Zeppelins. One dropped a bomb–“dud” it was–in John Loder’s garden; the old man had to be restrained from running out to seize it with his own hands.

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John Loder was born in Woodbridge, August 3, 1825. His grandfather, Robert Loder, founded the family bookselling and printing business, which continues to-day at the old shop on the Thoroughfare under John Loder’s son, Morton Loder. In the days before the railway came through, Woodbridge was the commercial centre for a large section of East Suffolk; it was a busy port, and the quays were crowded with shipping. But when transportation by rail became swift and cheap and the provinces began to deal with London merchants, the little town’s prosperity suffered a sad decline. Many of the old Woodbridge shops, of several generations’ standing, have had to yield to local branches of the great London “stores.” In John Loder’s boyhood the book business was at its best. Woodbridgians were great readers, and such prodigal customers as FitzGerald did much to keep the ledgers healthy. John left school at thirteen or so, to learn the trade, and became the traditional printer’s devil. He remembered Bernard Barton, the quiet, genial, brown-eyed poet, coming down the street from Alexander’s Bank (where he was employed for forty years) with a large pile of banknotes to be renumbered. The poet sat perched on a high stool watching young Loder and his superior do the work. And at noon Mr. Barton sent out to the Royal Oak Tavern near by for a basket of buns and a jug of stout to refresh printer and devil at their work.

Bernard Barton died in 1849, and was kid to rest in the little Friends’ burying ground in Turn Lane. That quiet acre will repay the visitor’s half-hour tribute to old mortality. My grandmother was buried there, one snowy day in January, 1912, and I remember how old John Loder came forward to the grave, bareheaded and leaning on his stick, to drop a bunch of fresh violets on the coffin.

Many a time I have sat in the quiet, walled-in garden of Burkitt House–that sweet plot of colour and fragrance so pleasantly commemorated by Mr. Mosher in his preface to “In Praise of Old Gardens”–and heard dear old John Loder tell stories of his youth. I remember the verse of Herrick he used to repeat, pointing round his little retreat with a well-stained pipestem:

But walk’st about thine own dear bounds,
Not envying others’ larger grounds:
For well thou know’st, ’tis not th’ extent
Of land makes life, but sweet content.

Loder’s memory used to go back to times that seem almost fabulous now. He had known quite well an English soldier who was on guard over Boney at St. Helena–in fact, he once published in some newspaper this man’s observations upon the fallen emperor, but I have not been able to trace the piece. He had been in Paris before the troubles of ’48. I believe he served some sort of bookselling apprenticeship on Paternoster Row; at any rate, he used to be in touch with the London book trade as a young man, and made the acquaintance of Bernard Quaritch, one of the world’s most famous booksellers. I remember his lamenting that FitzGerald had not dumped the two hundred unsold booklets of Omar upon his counter instead of Quaritch’s in 1859. The story goes that they were offered by Quaritch for a penny apiece.

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I always used to steer him onto the subject of FitzGerald sooner or later, and it was interesting to hear him tell how many princes of the literary world had come to his shop or had corresponded with him owing to his knowledge of E.F.G. Arme Thackeray gave him a beautiful portrait of herself in return for some courtesy he showed her. Robert H. Groome, the archdeacon of Suffolk, and his brilliant son, Francis Hindes Groome, the “Tarno Rye” (who wrote “Two Suffolk Friends” and was said by Watts Dunton to have known far more about the gipsies than Borrow) were among his correspondents.[D] John Hay, Elihu Vedder, Aldis Wright, Canon Ainger, Thomas B. Mosher, Clement Shorter, Dewitt Miller, Edward Clodd, Leon Vincent–such men as these wrote or came to John Loder when they wanted special news about FitzGerald. FitzGerald had given him a great many curios and personal treasures: Mr. Loder never offered these for sale at any price (anything connected with FitzGerald was sacred to him) but if any one happened along who seemed able to appreciate them he would give them away with delight. He gave to me FitzGerald’s old musical scrapbook, which he had treasured for over thirty years. This scrapbook, in perfect condition, contains very beautiful engravings, prints, and drawings of the famous composers, musicians, and operatic stars of whom Fitz was enivre as a young man. Among them are a great many drawings of Handel; FitzGerald, like Samuel Butler, was an enthusiastic Handelian. The pictures are annotated by E.F.G. and there are also two drawings of Beethoven traced by Thackeray. This scrapbook was compiled by FitzGerald when he and Thackeray were living together in London, visiting the Cave of Harmony and revelling in the dear delights of young intellectual companionship. Under a drawing of the famous Braham, dated 1831, Fitz has written: “As I saw and heard him many nights in the Pit of Covent Garden, in company with W.M. Thackeray, whom I was staying with at the Bedford Coffee House.”

[Footnote D: No lover of FitzGerald can afford not to own that exquisite tributary volume “Edward FitzGerald: An Aftermath,” by Francis Hindes Groome, which Mr. Mosher published in 1902. It tells a great deal about Woodbridge, and is annotated by John Loder. Mr. Mosher was eager to include Loder’s portrait in it, but the old man’s modesty was always as great as his generosity: he would not consent.]

When I tried, haltingly, to express my thanks for such a gift, the old man said “That’s nothing! That’s nothing! It’ll help to keep you out of mischief. Much better to give ’em away before it’s too late!” And he followed it with Canon Ainger’s two volumes of Lamb’s letters, which Ainger had given him.

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Through his long life John Loder lived quietly in Woodbridge, eager and merry in his shop, a great reader, always delighted when any one came in who was qualified to discuss the literature which interested him. He and FitzGerald had long cracks together and perhaps Loder may have accompanied the Woodbridge Omar on some of those trips down the Deben on the Scandal or the Meum and Tuum (the Mum and Tum as Posh, Fitz’s sailing master, called her). He played a prominent part in the life of the town, became a Justice of the Peace, and sat regularly on the bench until he was nearly ninety. As he entered upon the years of old age, came a delightful surprise. An old friend of his in the publishing business, whom he had known long before in London, died and left him a handsome legacy by will. Thus his last years were spared from anxiety and he was able to continue his unobtrusive and quiet generosities which had always been his secret delight.

Looking over the preceding paragraphs I am ashamed to see how pale and mumbling a tribute they are to this fine spirit. Could I but put him before you as he was in those last days! I used to go up to Burkitt House to see him: in summer we would sit in the little arbour in the garden, or in winter by the fire in his dining room. He would talk and I would ask him questions; now and then he would get up to pull down a book, or to lead me into his bedroom to see some special treasure. He used to sit in his shirtsleeves, very close to the fire, with his shoe laces untied. In summer he would toddle about in his shaggy blue suit, with a tweed cap over one ear, his grizzled beard and moustache well stained by much smoking, his eyes as bright and his tongue as brisk as ever. Every warm morning would see him down on the river wall; stumping over Market Hill and down Church Street with his stout oak stick, hailing every child he met on the pavement. His pocket was generally full of peppermints, and the youngsters knew well which pocket it was. His long life was a series of original and graceful kindnesses, always to those who needed them most and had no reason to expect them. No recluse he, no fine scholar, no polished litterateur, but a hard-headed, soft-hearted human man of the sturdy old Suffolk breed. Sometimes I think he was, in his own way, just as great a man as the “Old Fitz,” whom he loved and reverenced.

He died on November 7, 1917, aged ninety-two years three months and four days. He was extraordinarily sturdy until nearly ninety–he went in bathing in the surf at Felixstowe on his eighty-sixth birthday. Perhaps the sincerest tribute I can pay him is these lines which I copy from my journal, dated July 16, 1913:

“Went up to have tea with old John Loder, and said a cunningly veiled Good-bye to him. I doubt if I shall see him again, the dear old man. I think he felt so, too, for when he came to the door with me, instead of his usual remark about ‘Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest,’ he said, ‘Farewell to thee’ in a more sober manner than his wont–and I left with an armful of books which he had given me ‘to keep me out of mischief.’ We had a good talk after tea–he told me about the adventures of his brothers, one of whom went out to New Zealand. He uses the most delightful brisk phrases in his talk, smiling away to himself and wrinkling up his forehead, which can only be distinguished from his smooth bald pate by its charming corrugation of parallel furrows. He took me into his den while he rummaged through his books to find some which would be acceptable to me–‘May as well give ’em away before it’s too late, ye know’–and then he settled back in his easy chair to puff at a pipe. I must note down one of his phrases which tickled me–he has such a knack for the proverbial and the epigrammatic. ‘He’s cut his cloth, he can wear his breeches,’ he said of a certain scapegrace. He chuckled over the Suffolk phrase ‘a chance child,’ for a bastard (alluding to one such of his acquaintance in old days). He constantly speaks of things he wants to do ‘before I tarn my toes up to the daisies.’ He told me old tales of Woodbridge in the time of the Napoleonic wars when there was a garrison of 5,000 soldiers quartered here–this was one of the regions in which an attack by Boney was greatly feared. He says that the Suffolk phrase ‘rafty weather’ (meaning mist or fog) originates from that time, as being weather suitable for the French to make a surprise attack by rafts or flat-boats.

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“He chuckled over the reminiscence that he was once a great hand at writing obituary notices for the local paper. ‘Weep, weep for him who cried for us,’ was the first line of his epitaph upon a former Woodbridge town crier! I was thinking that it would be hard to do him justice when the time comes to write his. May he have a swift and painless end such as his genial spirit deserves, and not linger on into a twilight life with failing senses. When his memory and his pipe and his books begin to fail him, when those keen old eyes grow dim and he can no longer go to sniff the salt air on the river-wall–then may the quick and quiet ferryman take dear old John Loder to the shadow land.”

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