Alice Dilke by Horatio Morpurgo

Watching the pterodactyls by Horatio Morpurgo

Alice Dilke had already proved her worth as a reader for Victor Gollancz before she was taken on as a scout for Warner Brothers. She recommended a novel called Doctor No. It might, she thought, make a good film. Warner thought not. She recommended a play by Frederick Knott next. They listened this time. It became Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Family life had long since supervened by the time I knew Alice, half a century later. These stories of her life in the London swim—going up in a lift with Marilyn Monroe—had in turn themselves become material, for what she termed her ‘anecdotage’.

But the circumstances of our meeting still had something of the MacGuffin about them. In the breakfast room of a guesthouse in West Dorset, I overheard tourists asking themselves why Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident murdered by the KGB in London in 1978, was buried in a nearby churchyard. I’d written about that part of the world myself, so I drove over to the village. The vicar thought that Markov had been ‘married to a local girl’ and gave me directions to the family home.

‘The local girl’ in question, Annabel, was by now a novelist living in London. Her mother, Alice, was returning from an evening walk with the dog as I arrived. After satisfying herself that I was nothing to do with the local press, she invited me in for tea and asked what I wanted to know. She opened a bottle of white wine and told me some stories. Good ones. The thread that had led me to her door felt tenuous enough at the time. But I was new to the area so this kind of welcome really mattered.  We became good friends.

She retained this gift for hospitality right to the end. In the village hall after the funeral last week I met many others who had been similarly surprised by it. I expect it derived in part from that touch of the displaced person which was hers by background and experience as well as temperament.

Born in India, where her father worked in the Forestry Service, Alice passed her childhood at much-resented boarding schools or with Dorset relations. Her parents did not see that university was any place for a lady of her station. She was, manifestly, someone who would have known what to do with such an opportunity. A year at the Sorbonne, in 1936, was presumably justified as some kind of finishing school, but the far-right hoodlums of the Action Française disrupting lectures were never forgotten. And whether or not she was there to discover French literature, that is what she did.

Perhaps it was her ambivalence about West Dorset which made her such an excellent guide to it for a newcomer like myself. Her humour about those to the manner born was barbed as only an insider’s could be. She once hit off the deafness and the smiles of that world with a brief, pitch-perfect satire. Dorset Hostess: ‘And what have you been doing today in this splendid weather?’ Her Guest: ‘I’ve been watching the pterodactyls over at Studland.’ Hostess: ‘Lovely, isn’t it?’

Dorset, pterodactyl-spotters and all, was her place. She remembered it from long before the foodies and ‘the fashionistas’ and the property casino. She had partied with Pitt-Rivers. And was proud of it. She had ‘ridden over to Mapperton’, for a picnic.

But she and her husband, the writer Christopher Dilke, had also counted Cecil Day-Lewis as a close friend and shared his love of Thomas Hardy’s poetry. It wasn’t only its craftsmanship (though it was that) or Hardy’s attachment to a landscape—which she had defended herself, joining the opposition to a local bypass. Ezra Pound once noticed, rightly, that Hardy’s learning is too often forgotten. Alice agreed. She thought she detected, for example, the influence of Catullus in his The Voice.

She had on her shelf a little book of translations from Horace, inscribed by a student at Cambridge in 1719. Dryden, Milton, Pope, Congreve and Swift were all contributors. With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold / And feed the genial heart with fires; / Produce the wine, that makes us bold, / And spritely wit and love inspires; / For what hereafter shall betide,/ God (if ’tis worth His care) provide.

The official culture of yesteryear knew its poets. Or, on her ninetieth birthday, half way into a bottle of Sancerre, she volunteered the following: There was a young bride of Antigua, / Who said to her spouse ‘What a pig you are!’ / He replied ‘O, my queen / Is it manners you mean / Or do you refer to my fig – u – ar?’

She remained canny about film—watching Chinese noir (dismissively) with her grandchildren, in that same front room with the fireplace and the Horace. But it was writers she really knew. She had talked nightingales with John Fowles, when he came to look at some woodland nearby. She had talked Flaubert with Iris Murdoch (Iris: ‘If he’d sent me Madame Bovary, I’d have sent it back and told him to rewrite it completely.’) She had hit a conversational brick wall with Harold Pinter.

She was a champion for the now forgotten Isaac Disraeli, father of Benjamin. He was, in the early 19th century, well known as a compiler of ‘Miscellanies’, a popular and constantly up-dated omnium gatherum of historical anecdote and literary quotation. Certainly to know Alice was, among other things, to know what well-stocked minds used to be like.

But I run the risk of sounding too much like a ‘miscellany’ myself. Let me close with the kind of thing Alice could do when you turned to her without even realising that’s what you were doing. Some weeks after a childhood friend of mine had died, I went to see Alice, still preoccupied I suppose. I don’t remember now whether the story she told me was a direct response to what I’d told her, or even if I did tell her. Anyway this was what she told me.

A deer had broken through her hedge a few days earlier and lain down on the lawn. Proud of her garden, she tried to drive it away at first, before realising that it could not get up. She then called a vet, instead, but it died before the vet arrived. And now she couldn’t get the episode out of her mind. It was somehow connected to a trip she and her husband and friends once went on together, sailing round the Aegean. She’d told me about this before but never in such detail.

The talk about poetry. How they woke, each morning, to the white sands of another island up ahead. Nobody is allowed to sleep on Delos, birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. But perhaps the rules were more lax in heady postwar days. Somehow they did get ashore one night and walked its avenues in the moonlight. It was the marble lions she recalled most clearly. She couldn’t stop thinking about that time now. She wished she could go back to Greece.