This day and age there is more and more time a town dweller has for entertainment and education. This is clearly visible in the proliferation of conversation clubs ran by learned men of our town, which has been ongoing for the last thirty or so years. What a venerable tradition! You may laugh at me, but I myself have been toying with the idea of setting up a ladies’ club for just my friends and their friends – we could meet on a Sunday every month after church and discuss more weighty subjects than what we can normally chat about when we share an omnibus ride for a couple of stops or bump into one another in the noisy market. This journal sometimes feels like I’m talking to myself!
Just to mention a couple of interesting circles who have (and still do) devote time for the art of conversation on a regular basis… There’s the famous Curfew Club, a conversation club that was founded back in 1886 and it is restricted to only twelve members who meet monthly, each member hosting one meeting every year. I know that they are very strict about two things that are taboo: theological questions and municipal politics. Very wise!
A professor at our University, Cyril Ransome was a founding member back in the day. He’s been long dead and his boy Arthur is a grown man now, about thirty and a journalist by trade, and I hear he is working on children’s books based on his childhood spent in Windermere and Rugby. His mother, Professor Ransome’s widow, the lovely Mrs Edith Ransome moved back to Headingley last year and he often visits her. He is a handsome, but much-troubled man, you probably heard of the literary storm he got himself into: his book on Oscar Wilde, published last year, embroiled him in a libel suit with Lord Alfred Douglas. I’ve also heard that his marriage to Ivy Walker is on the rocks too. A jack of all trades (just think of how he had been studying chemistry here at Leeds before he turned to cheap journalism and Bohemian literary life in London), I hear, he is now learning Russian and planning a trip to Russia later this year, apparently to study Russian folktales. One would think this is hardly a good idea when one is in the throes of a pending lawsuit and a troubled marriage.
It seems that his friend Eric Eddison has done better in the world: after their Leeds years he was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford and then joined the Board of Trade. The reason I know about them is because they shared a governess when they were both kids growing up in Adel, a Miss Glendinning who lived by the Shire Oak at the time. Now this Miss Glendinning once was arranged to meet us, Mama and myself, for tea and tell me about what it entails to be a governess. I was a precocious twenty-year-old back then with no suitable suitors or much prospect of a private income, and Mama thought I should just have a chat with the kind Miss Glendinning. As you can guess I was not much taken by Mama’s idea, but I appreciated the warm person I got to know in Miss Glendinning and we corresponded for a number of years.
Anyway, I digress… My career path is much less interesting than the early conversation clubs and all the notable men in attendance. After the Curfew Club, Professor Cyril Ransome founded another club called the Ransome Literary Club, with a membership also restricted to twelve. This is more like a book club and they meet way more frequently than monthly. They often meet at the University Refectory too and the Masonic Hall and of course their own homes all over Headingley where the Ransomes live too.
And then there is the Conversation Club, with the same twelve member/twelve month operation. This one has had such prominent Leodians as the aforementioned Mr Ransome (clearly a lover of good banter), Dr John Eddison and his brother Octavius Eddison (the old solicitor who used to ride around town on horseback, Eric Eddison’s father), and Nathan Bodington, Professor of Classics and Philosophy and also the former Vice-Chancellor of the University. He died two years ago, bless his memory.
Many of these honorable old men, whom I remember as oft-seen public figures of our community, are now gone, but their legacy is alive. It seems if you’re an educated man in Leeds, you have always had a choice of fine literary circles – although I have a feeling that (as is the case of any small city’s intelligentsia) often they consist of much the same faces until a member or two dies or moves away… Nevertheless, provincial as it may seem, our men of letters have a busy social life, besides what’s on offer at the theatres, cinemas, societies and university lectures. Now that our very own Vice-Chancellor [Michael Sadler] and Frank Rutter have settled so well in Leeds, the arts are surely to follow all the literary clubs. And one day maybe my Ladies’ Sunday Club will join the ranks too!
Both Eddison and Ransome became successful writers later in life. Eddison is best known for the early romance The Worm Ouroboros (1922) and for three volumes set in the imaginary world Zimiamvia, known as the Zimiamvian Trilogy: Mistress of Mistresses (1935), A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), and The Mezentian Gate (1958).
In 1913 Ransome won the lawsuit, left his wife and did indeed travel to Russia and published Old Peter’s Russian Tales in 1916. He later returned to Russia during the First World War as a foreign correspondent and met his second wife there. Upon their return to England, they settled in the Lake District. He decided not to accept a position as a full-time foreign correspondent with the Guardian and instead wrote Swallows and Amazons in 1929—the first of the series that made his reputation as one of the best English writers of children’s books.
The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds UK showcased many original drawings by Arthur Ransome, which he made to illustrate his series of children’s books. The catalogue for the exhibition ‘Austerity and Invention: Illustrators between the War’ with an essay on ‘Arthur Ransome in Leeds’ by Chris Sheppard, Brotherton Fellow at the Leeds University Library is now available in the Gallery’s online shop.
David Hall, Far Headingley, Weetwood and West Park, Far Headingley Village Society, 2000, pp. 124-26
C. S. Lewis: Collected Letters Volume Two: Books, Broadcasts and War, 1931–1949, ed by Walter Hooper, Harper Collins, 2009