Tom Phillips's Introduction to Humbert

Humbert Wolfe book spinesHumbert Wolfe originalsThe Great GameThe Great GameAfrican itemAfrican artwork, sketch on label Collage on DC Comics fragmentCollage with DC Comics fragmentRutherston illustrationAlbert Rutherston illustration with additionsWaste Land sketch Waste Land, sketch for new edition cover (detail)

Chance is often the artist’s best friend. It was, for example, an impulsive gamble that led me to W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document (the source of A Humument) a treatment of which I have worked on for over fifty years. On the look out for further copies of Mallock’s novel I kept on spotting as its near neighbour on the shilling shelves of second-hand bookshops, Humbert Wolfe’s Cursory Rhymes, evidently on a similar journey to oblivion. Eventually I took one of them down at random to examine it and found to my surprise that it had its own tempting attractions. In contrast to Mallock’s dense pages of Victorian prose, its short lyrics each occupied scarcely half a page, and, as in many posh poetry books of the time (1927), there were blank leaves in between. The paper also looked pleasant for work in pen or pencil and suitable even for watercolour: indeed here was a natural album for notes combined with a portable sketchbook. Moreover it was cheap and had already proved easy to find.

I soon had a small collection and started to use one as a notebook at my regular lunchtime haunt, the now defunct Paris Cafe in Peckham Road, a fancy name for such as used to be called Workers’ Dining Rooms where the standard fare would invariably be something and chips with a mug of tea. Each visit (in between reading bits of the TLS) I started to write descriptions of its Dickensian clientele together with snatches of their heavily masculine conversation (no woman was ever seen there) which revolved around betting and illnesses, films, football and local crime. I wrote a title on the spine, Cafe Society. One by one I allotted further functions to other copies. The next was called The Great Game, and mainly documented my attendance at cricket matches, usually at the nearby Oval, of which I was a member, but sometimes at the sacred ground of Lords (which I always think of as Lourdes). Travel seemed to call for yet another journal, especially during that time when I went back and forth to Africa assembling a huge exhibition, Africa: The Art of a Continent, that I curated at the Royal Academy. Other ideas presented themselves, such as a record of dreams, which inevitably proved how rapidly those that seemed unforgettable completely fade within hours from memory. As an addict of projects especially those of long duration (such as 20 Sites n Years my annual photographic tour of Peckham locations) I started to feel on home ground.

The themes continued to multiply, as this selection proves, with its traces of abortive schemes such as an attempt to make a sequence of haiku based on the gingko tree in my garden. One book entitled Money Matters remained as I should have expected, almost empty. In any case my aim to be systematic eventually fell apart as topic got incoherently mixed with topic, interspersed with general sketchbook notes relating to work in progress, some of which involved yet other books such as Dante’s Inferno and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as well as a soon to appear version of The Waste Land. To confuse the issue further I recently started to use the inviting blank pages in many of the now dozen or so copies at regular sessions with the venerable London Sketch Club, where drawing in a small book rather than at a tall easel made my membership of life drawing evenings conspicuously furtive. It has been healthy to return to the foundation activity of the student artist (for that is what one always remains).

Strangely enough, though ‘messing about in books’ in the vein of A Humument had long been my habit, I tended initially to ignore Wolfe’s generally irritating poems which seemed to be directed, patronisingly, at privileged children. Gradually however I began to attack them and found they offered pithy possibilities of extractable texts, here and there to be combined with guest appearances from Grenville, Bill Toge and Irma, who stroll in via small fragments of A Humument. One of the books became exclusively devoted to collage, no novelty as I learned when I found, thanks to James Woudhuysen in the TLS, that poetry by Wolfe had been similarly effaced by the Sitwells. As usual, the elements I pasted in came from my treasury of ancient copies (circa 1890) of the Boys Own Paper, as well as a hoard of DC comics that I never tire of exploiting.

Cursory Rhymes in its original and undoctored form includes its own illustrations from the hand of Albert Rutherston, a popular book artist of the time, here in his most whimsically feeble vein. At a single glance they cried out for obliteration and now are barely decipherable under much busier penwork (as in the present frontispiece).

Many of the thousand or so pages that do not figure in this compilation are devoted to often extensive diary entries only sparsely accompanied by visual matter. Enough are seen, however, to show my characteristically minuscule hand when making notes. You would not be alone if you were to find them difficult to read. Without a magnifying glass my older eyes are now themselves often defeated. Other mysterious marginalia may remain elusive such as comparative ping pong results with a near neighbour and scrabble scores with my wife.

Having gathered such a miscellany of matter to make what would once have been called a gallimaufry or hodge podge it proved hard to give the work a title. I was much tempted by Nursery Crimes as a nifty variation on Cursory Rhymes and this now lingers as a subtitle. Then I flirted with A Humbertiad which seemed too flatteringly grandiose. Curiously enough the title that would seem most apt for such a personal compendium of the trivial and the earnest (in effect a kind of self-portrait in the form of a book) might have been, as a final coy gesture of indebtedness to W. H. Mallock to call it A Human Document. However, I continued to relish Humbert with its Nabokovian echo in literature and its feeling of a christian name that hovers between the silly and the ponderous, suiting a lesser saint, a P. G. Wodehouse character or a minor Knight of the Round Table, a name that made the book title more properly Oulipian than Olympian, so I left it at that.

How might this book be read? It is like a labyrinth of loose ends which mostly turn into cul-de-sacs. I think of T. S. Eliot in Margate sitting in the Nayland Rock shelter looking at a featureless sea and plucking the strings of his mandolin, while conjuring with the words of The Waste Land. The only word in sight however would have been, as now, the arrowed direction TOILETS which happens to be an anagram of his name. Behind him is the gaudy roar of Fun Land.