NEMO'S ALMANAC: THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS

 

by ALAN HOLLINGHURST

For the first five years of its existence Nemo’s Almanac was an almanac in more than name: the pages of questions faced wood-cuts of well-loved scenes (University College, Aberystwyth, Bridlington Harbour, The Old Sulphur Well, Harrogate) and a full calendar of anniversaries: Sydney lit by gas (25 May 1841), earthquake at Menton (24 February 1887), Oldham Theatre burnt (6 April 1878), suicide of Admiral Fitzroy (30 April 1875), the Clerkenwell explosion (13 December 1867), birth of the Duchess of Albany (17 February 1861) – a catalogue of forgotten triumphs and calamities. If the early issues were rather improving in tone, that must be put down to the profession of the first Nemo, Annie E. Larden, a Twickenham governess who evolved the publication from a holiday task set for her charges, who gave marks for ‘neatness’ and ‘intelligence’, and who observed drily in her first annual notes that ‘Competitors are advised to persevere’. 

 

For all this the first edition was ‘wonderfully successful’ (it made a profit of £5) and its formula was clearly one that touched on a British passion for national literature and history and a fondness for amateur sleuthing. Literary quotations were interspersed with quite wide-ranging questions – neither easy. One speciality was the characterless one-liner (‘The leaves fell russet golden and blood-red’, ‘The sweetest song ear ever heard’); another the query either tediously particular (‘How many persons connected with the Royal Family have been in the Navy since the Accession of Henry VIII?’) or impossible to ascertain (‘What was the favourite colour of the ancient Irish?’ –saffron, apparently). Clearly competitors thrived on these; in 1894 the question ‘Did Oliver Cromwell use blotting paper?’ drew a deeply researched answer from ‘a competitor at the Cape’. Mrs Larden’s farewell number asked recklessly for contestants to ‘Mention some remarkable events in history of which you have been personally aware’ – and in ‘Old Nemo’s last words’ the following year (her retirement was as protracted as that of some great diva) she took the self-made opportunity to reminisce. She was 70 at the time and recalled gaining her ‘first idea of public events from a Black Frock, worn with much pride, as mourning for William IV’. A touch miffed, one feels, that two competitors could remember the death of the Duke of York in 1827, she lets us know that Grimaldi’s song, quoted in the Almanac for 1898, had been heard by her grandfather in London in 1814. 

 

If such details open up a haunting perspective beyond the Almanac’s own century, much else remains obscure. Who were the numerous competitors of these early years? Their names sound as indefinably fictional as their pseudonyms are whimsical. Pseudonyms were very much the norm, yielding up their secret only when their wearer won a prize. One longs to know more about ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Mopsa’, ‘Two Bees’ and ‘Three Spiders’, ‘Lovey and Dovey’, ‘Tomatoes’, ‘Twee’ and ‘Mieux Sera’. ‘Skids’ was Mrs Pledge of Epsom; ‘Botanist’ the Countess of Mexborough. And who were Mrs Dobbs of Castle Dobbs, Co Antrim, Miss Clive Bayley of ‘The Wilderness’, Acot, Miss Ina Clogstone and Lady Blanc of the rue de la Pompe, Paris? Titled ladies abounded in the marks list, and Mrs Larden (who had dedicated early editions of the Almanac to the Duchess of Sutherland and the Duchess of Leeds) was not above preening herself on her correspondents: under the heading of ‘Claims to Distinction’ she pointed out that Horatia Cocles, an entrant in 1901, was ‘connected with Tower Bridge’. When Ethel Marion Atkinson takes over as editor in 1902 at the age of 25 we find a distinct change in the Almanac’s character: questions are phased out until by 1911 they have virtually disappeared; and thematic setting appears for the first time (‘Great Men’, ‘Fair Cities’, ‘A Family Group’) and will continue through the half-century of Miss Atkinson’s reign, adapting only during the two world wars to reflect events beyond the backward-looking bookishness of the competition– ‘Service’, ‘Struggle’, ‘Leaders’ in 1916; ‘Fortitude’, ‘Justice’, even ‘Resurrection’ in 1942.

 

The picture we piece together of her own life is an endearing one: she had been introduced to Nemo as a teenager by Miss Champion, for a while the editor of Nemo’s slightly younger sister Hide & Seek; an ardent Wagnerite as a young woman, she alters the entry-date to accommodate her August visits to Bayreuth (the 1905 cover quotation is from die Meistersinger); her home in Hersham, Surrey, is ‘broken up’ in 1933, when she asks competitors to tell her of ‘a nice little house by the sea’; and the next year sees her in St David’s, where she remains until her death in 1967 at the age of 90. In 1943 she is extending her sympathy to those who have lost their books in the blitz, and the following year she expresses (if in rather different terms) the problem which is Nemo’s to this day: ‘Between having no maid, nor daily help, – the garden, which must be done – savings group secretarial work, WI, and various other activities, it has really been difficult to find time. And house-work was the last straw!’ It was during this time that the poet Katherine Watson, who seventeen years later was to become Nemo herself, was stationed at St David’s and given the run of her library.

 

Perhaps Miss Atkinson was editor for too long. Though she lacked Mrs Larden’s homiletic zeal, she was unshakeably conservative in taste, and over her half-century there is only a slight shift in the booklist on which she draws. Typical authors quoted are Owen Meredith, Bret Harte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Whittier in 1909; Whyte Melville, Aytoun, Mrs Ewing in 1919 (though there are soon complaints that ‘Nemo’s choice of books is too modern’). In 1922, the great modernist year, the twentieth-century authors included are Binyon, Masefield and Tagore; and over the coming decades Humbert Wolfe was to be her sole concession to the new. Miss Atkinson remained in essence a Victorian, promoting the reading of her own childhood (‘Macaulay’s letters are not yet out of date’) even as she realised that the world was changing around her. In her last years she seems like a figure out of Miss Mitford, making jam and bottling fruit, sending news of a snowdrift (‘the lifeboat fetched provisions’) and regretting that ‘the splendid education of the young gives them no time for the leisurely ‘Culture’ in which most of us were brought up’. Meanwhile her circulation had plummeted and in 1945 she had only 19 competitors.

 

Her successor, in 1949, was Lady Birkett, née Dorothy Forbes, the wife of Sir Thomas Birkett, who had been Sheriff of Bombay during the Great War and subsequently retired to fish and shoot on an estate at Beldorney, Aberdeenshire. They were divorced in 1923, and the following year Lady Birkett was the first Nemo to produce a book of her own, the anthology Hunting Ways and Hunting Lays. After that she is hard to trace, and in the late 40s and 50s is found moving between a number of addresses in Belgravia and Bayswater: a cottage, a mews house, a flat above a milliner’s shop. The current Lord Birkett (no relation) recalls that his mother received a letter from her, ‘suggesting that she was the senior Lady Birkett, and why didn’t my mother call herself by some other title’. Lady Birkett’s reign is marked by various attempts at improving the Almanac. The prizes are doubled (to £5, £2 and 10/-); she introduces new authors (T. S. Eliot, Lytton Strachey, Carl Sandburg, Auden, MacNeice, Christopher Fry), invites competitors to name their books of the year (Kon-Tiki and The Boy with a Cart in 1950), their favourite authors (significantly still Tennyson, Browning and Kipling; Dickens, Trollope and Lamb), and their Desert Island Books, ‘as in the radio programme’. For all this, the Almanac’s fortunes continued to decline, and by 1958 only 12 competitors were left.

 

Nonetheless, Lady Birkett was an excellent setter, who brought a new range and wit to the game; all her pages were thematic, and often on subjects, such as ‘Cherry Stones’ or ‘Indigestion’, that are not easy to find six or seven instances of. Eye trouble compelled her to give up (at I guess the age of about 70), and when Miss Watson took over in 1959 she maintained the freshness, breadth and virtuosity of her predecessor; and benefited too from some publicity – the first that the eccentric byway of the Almanac seems ever to have attracted. In 1960 a competitor had written about Nemo in the magazine Books; this lead to an article by Leonard Russell in the Sunday Times, which in turn stimulated a letter from Graham Greene, who had participated in a family Nemo syndicate as a boy. Circulation rose and many competitors still at work joined the list. Even so, it was only a cash injection from the US in 1966 that saved the Almanac from closure. The demands of Miss Watson’s Burford bookshop obliged her to give up in 1970, and John Fuller’s accession was marked, as one might have expected from an Oxford don who is also a distinguished poet, by an increase in arcana (Coleridge notebook jottings known only to specialists, never reprinted anagrams by Joshua Sylvester) as well as in modernity (whether Empson or Highsmith, Redgrove or Angus Wilson). Publishing from his own Sycamore Press, and offering discounts for larger orders, Mr Fuller raised the circulation from 150 to 500 in three years, and a mention in the TLS in 1976 was to add several hundred more, many from the US. (Further publicity under the current editorship [ie Alan Hollinghurst’s editorship, from 1988 to 1996] has brought the figure to 2,000 – big enough, perhaps, if the Almanac’s air of innocent obscurity and cliquish obsessiveness is to be preserved.)

 

The social history of Nemo’s Almanac would make a touching and revealing study. It would have to do with time and memory, class and literacy, friendship and rivalry, education and ethics. (The whole question of swopping, and indeed of cheating, over which earlier Nemos sought vainly to exercise control with bannings, penalties and separate lists for ‘nonexchanging’ competitors, would have to be looked into as well.) Longevity has characterised its addicts, Miss Champion (comp 1894–1930) and Miss Overton (who competed for 54 years and never won a prize) among them. The Hon Mrs Bontine (‘one of the earliest Nemoites’) was looking for quotations to within a fortnight of her death in 1928 at the age of 97 (though in her zeal she is outdone by Sir Charles Clay, alleged to have died with the words ‘I’ve just found October 2’ on his lips). ‘Three years existence is probably the limit of an ephemeral publication like Nemo’s Almanac’, wrote Mrs Larden in 1894. Miss Atkinson planned ‘a natural war death’ for the competition in its fiftieth year, but was persuaded to carry on, since it was found ‘a real help and relaxation in these difficult times’. As it enters is 100th year it is flourishing as never before. I hope these words will be echoed by its editor 100 years hence.

 

POSTSCRIPT

Alan Hollinghurst wrote this history of the Almanac for the 100th edition, in 1994.

The current situation of the Almanac, as it battles to survive against habits of online consultation, is that it has a circulation of about 350, with about a tenth of those who buy it sending in their answers. I wish more people did send answers in, even if they haven’t found more than a handful of them, as it makes for contact between editor and subscribers and that helps to make the enterprise feel alive and current.