The Cars of T.H. White


The first book I read by the late T. H. White was “England Have My Bones.” I derived enormous pleasure from it and still have the copy so generously given to me by a “Chain Gang” Frazer Nash owner. I was less aware then of the profuseness of cars in books and was intrigued to read of the author’s Bentley in which he drove to Scotland for his beloved salmon fishing (it broke down, the cross-shalt gears driving the magnetos having sheared), but not until it had averaged 50 between Glasgow and Carlisle on the run home.

Home to Tim White in those days was the Shire (in fact, Buckinghamshire). This book, published in 1936, was about living in the Shire and keeping snakes, fishing, shooting, hunting, playing darts, learning to fly, etc. I loved almost every word of it, although disturbed that it was not true autobiography and therefore that people and places were disguised. But it made me an incurable T. H. White reader. I even excused him a careless crash while tipsy at the wheel of his exciting motor car: “I got into the Bentley, waited for the self-starter to die down after failing to engage the cogs of the flywheel; pressed again, and the engine started beautifully. I was in top gear before the end of the curly drive, with three lovely changes, and driving with happy glee. There was a steep hill to the main mad, but my brakes were as good as my engine, and we took it fast. It was a black nignt. There was, so quick as to be imperceptible, a jolt and leap: I began to brake, but there was no time. Then, immediately, I was forced to rise in my seat. There was the noise of grinding and tearing metal…”

White recovered, and replied very politely to a letter I addressed to him on the subject of his car, and in which I had made a stupid mistake. I read with enormous joy nearly all his subsequent books, quoting from them as appropriate in our “Cars In Books” columns; in that great book “The Story of the British Light Aeroplane” Terence Broughton quotes White and Garnett amongst authors whose books are essential reading for those wishing to recapture the atmosphere of Club flying in the 1920s and 1930s. And when there were no cars to mention, as in “The ‘Sword in the Stone,” “The Goshawk,” ” The Elephant and the Kangaroo” (that hilarious book about the advent of a Second Flood), “The Master” (that splendid thriller, which perhaps “takes the mickey” out of James Bond ?), and “The Godstone and the BIackymor” (except passing reference to a Jaguar), I used to buy White’s books, which, as I think those accustomed to receiving free review copies will agree, is the summit of appreciation!

In 1964, after achieving immortal fame with his “The Once and Future King” on which the musical “Camelot” was based. White died, of a heart attack, at sea returning from an American lecture tour. Now we have nothing left, except all those books, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography (“T. H. White,” 352 pp., 8¾ in. 5¾ in., Cape/Chatto & Windus, 1967, 45s.).

I shall read White’s books again; I am not sure I am glad I read this biography. Do not misunderstand me. It is an entirely competent and readable and fascinating work—Anthony Burgess says in The Sunday Times that Miss Warner has written the best biography of a British writer since Rupert Hart-Davis’ “Hugh Walpole.” It tells me a little more about White’s cars, which we will come to in a moment. It proves that he gave all his love to a red Setter, got drunk, suffered pain (about which he writes with true distinction), and liked ancient houses, old cars, fast cars, the countryside against the wen, desolation, and animals more than most humans. White had-all the qualities which so endeared his books to those of similar interests (not that all of us can afford to get drunk).

But had I ignored this excellent biography I would not have discovered that in his younger days T. H. White was a sexual aberrant (cured by a psycho-analyst) and a sadist, that he mastered fast driving and aviation only because he was afraid of them, that in recent years he suffered a complete obsession for somebody else’s small boy, was pompous with his publishers and addicted to theatrical dress…. Yet, how can one fail to enthuse over a man who learnt so many skills, who could live alone, even on uninhabited islands, who included, in “The Elephant and the Kangaroo,” full instructions for turning a Dutch barn (all that was at hand) into an Ark and who, his fortune made, invited blind-deaf visitors and poor Italians and hordes of children to his house on Alderney? I am sad, selfishly, that there will be no more books by T. II. White. “The best thing for being sad,” says Merlin in “The Sword in the Stone,” “is to learn something.” (In middle-age I am learning to ride a near-vintage Sunbeam motorcycle combination, riding it very slowly, very cautiously, looking pathetically comical (I am tempted to use a stronger term). I venture to think that T. H. White would not have disapproved.

About the cars in this biography. . . . A picture shows the grandparents of Terence Hanbury White in India in a veteran De Dion Bouton. White’s Bentley was used while he was at Stowe, where he was Head of the English Department, “At a time (1932) when a Bentley was the right thing; his was old, it was probably bought secondhand; but it went very fast and was black.” He crashed it in 1935. A legend grew up around the accident, after the Bentley had demolished a cottage, but, says one account, not the headlamps “Bentleys being what they are.” I have always thought of this Bentley as a 3-litre but someone recalls being allowed to drive it at the age of 16, when his feet would hardly reach the pedals and he could hardly see over the bonnet (happy days of freedom!) at 85 m.p.h. between Stowe and Sywell, which is fast, so it may have been a 4½-litre.

By 1938 he had a 1927 Austin which, he says “. . . boiled over, all the wheels fell off, the hood fell in, and I left it in the middle of the road” half-way to Buckingham, which is probably an exaggeration. This may or may not have been the 12/4 which he used as a mobile snake-pit while at Stowe, although that was surely a saloon? (There is, indeed, evidence that he had crashed a car in 1932, which might have been an Austin, or another Bentley.) This breakdown made White “buy a Jaguar on the spot,” the American Book Club having chosen “The Sword in the Stone.” He had it that evening and set off for Radnorshire, to fly his falcons, the next morning. This is presumably the Jaguar he took to Ireland in 1939, after joining the A.A. I had always thought of this as a modern Jaguar, because the book in which White refers to it wasn’t published until 1959, but in “The Familiar Faces ” by David Garnett it is described as “the long Jaguar S.S.,” with White’s falcons perching in the back in dangerous proximity to the occupants of the front seat. Perhaps it was an S.S.I or a 2½-litre S.S. Jaguar? It could be the car he still had on Alderney, described as “his old car” and which he got rid of in 1958 to please a child guest who had laughed at it, but this, battered and with one door tied with string, could equally have been an old car bought on the Island; White was sorry to see it go and his dumb-blind lady friend consoled him with the remark : “Never mind! It’s had a happy life.” What replaced it is unfortunately not mentioned. When, after buying a motor launch (by telephone), he acquired the lifeboat of Lady Docker’s yacht Shamara White described it as “Fully up to the standards of the gold-studded Daimler. . . .” He also installed two diesel engines in a motor cruiser. The aerodrome where he took flying lessons in 1934 is identified as Sywell, and there is a mention of a Klemm apparently kept at Hilton Hall by his friend David Garnett, and of the D.H. Dove in which White was flown from Alderney to Southampton to sign the Camelot contract—which he loved, although I doubt whether the wheels were retracted two feet from the ground.

Not a great deal about cars in Miss Warner’s Masterly biography— in any case, T. H. White has been described as “Uninterested in mechanical things such as cars and had not the faintest idea how they Worked,”— although he knew how the magnetos of his Bentley were driven!— but this is, nevertheless, another book that I recommend as irresistible Christmas reading.—W. B.