ENGLAND, FIRST & LAST. By Anthony Bailey. Elisabeth Sifton/Viking. 212 pp. $15.95.
ANTHONY BAILEY'S second volume of memoirs opens in the late fall of 1944, as young Bailey returns to England after spending four years in the United States. For his mother, who meets him in Scotland, the reunion is both joyful and startling: "The seven-year-old boy in gray shorts and blue gabardine raincoat to whom she had waved goodbye in September 1940 had become a youth of nearly twelve, wearing long trousers and speaking in a broad American accent." For the boy himself the emotions of the moment are equally tangled; he is glad to be back with his family and to have a look at the war's last months, but he regrets leaving his American family and is apprehensive about being a stranger in his own country.
How Bailey deals with these an other questions is the subject of England, First & Last. No one who read and admired its predecessor, America, Lost & Found, will want to miss it, and perhaps it will also bring new readers to Bailey's wonderfully clear-eyed, affecting autobiography. Naturally it is different from the first volume, for in it Bailey has a different story to tell; the first book was all magic, wonder and discovery, while the second deals with rather more complex matters of maturation and rediscovery. But the tone remains the same and so, for all the growing up that takes place, does Bailey himself; he is gently self-mocking, endlessly appreciative of life's power to surprise, grateful for the people he has met and the challenges to which he has been exposed.
Like some 16,000 other British children, Bailey had been sent to the United States through the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children; he had lived in Ohio with a prosperous family wherein he acquired the status of full member, and he had savored the bounties of America with deep pleasure. Now, back in the reduced circumstances of wartime England, he must cope with scarcity and, even within his own family, "an intermittent feeling of strangeness, of being on one side of a transparent but definite screen, through which I looked at them and they looked at me." At school in Fareham, on England's southern coast, he is ribbed for a while as "Yank" and has to relearn another language and culture:
"I had to get back into the habit of putting the u into words like neighbour and rumour, and writing aeroplane and sailing boat, instead of airplane and sailboat. Icebox and automobile had to be abandoned for an infinite duration, and cans had to be tins. Relearning the intricacies of pounds, shillings and pence and managing to multiply and divide them -- why weren't they in neat, reasonable American decimals? -- involved constant hazards and depressions."
BUT THE depressions are relatively rare. At home as in America, Bailey is adaptable and resilient. His love for America and his American family is undiluted, but first and last he is an English boy; his readjustment is speedy, sure, and happy. Soon he is busily about the normal business of boyhood: he makes pals in school, he learns to sail and develops a lifelong devotion to boats, he explores the seacoast and a historic castle towering over it, he discovers girls and other terrors of adolescence.
Ah yes: girls. "Presumably some fortunate youths grew up with an instinctive appreciation of the fact that, in general, girls were as interested in boys as boys were in them. I did not." No one who was once a shy, unconfident boy will fail to wince in recognition at Bailey's funny, painful descriptions of hanging around for hours in hopes of a glimpse of a lovely thing who does not acknowledge his existence, or of bicycling miles out of his way praying for a chance encounter with a girl whose beauty is impossibly radiant.As he says: "There was, in any event, a lot of hanging around attached to the business of girls -- looking for them; waiting for them; hoping they would show up -- all of which drained one's ardor for a while. There had to be better ways of spending one's time than worrying about creatures so remote and hard to make contact with."
So Bailey immerses himself in school, both his studies and his extracurriculars. He goes off to Churcher's, "a grammar school with a public school organization," and fits right in: "In school, as I later found in the army, to be 'keen' was the highest virtue, and for the moment I was keen to participate, keen to have a hand in the running of things that affected me, and keen not to be an outsider." He is a considerable success, but like most of us looking back to adolescence he does so with discomfort:
"At this point one trouble with thinking about those years is the difficulty of doing so without an upsurge of distaste for the adolescent one was, which may color the process of recollection unfairly. That was me, and I couldn't help it. Pimply. Shy, yet full of self-aggrandizing ambition. Incoherent yet wanting desperately to be articulate. Interested in various arts yet saturated with arrogant prejudices and philistine feelings. With an embarrassed shiver that the passage of thirty-four years does not alleviate I see myself on stage in Mr. Kershaw's production of The Merchant of Venice, on the verge of being flummoxed by absolute stage fright, and yet with the speeches of Antonio coming out of me as if from some sort of recalcitrant speaking machine. And it is hard not to applaud Mr. Kershaw's brilliant casting: I am as pompous and priggish as Antonio; Shakespeare makes him such a mealy-mouthed, self-regarding fellow."
That passage is characteristic of the book, and goes a long way toward explaining why Bailey is such an agreeable autobiographer. At the same time that he is making fun at his own expense, he is quietly locating in his own life those universal experiences to which all of us can respond. His travails with girls, his teen-aged awkwardness and self-absorption, his poorly understood and ill-expressed love for his parents: all of us have been there, and thus England, First & Last is a book in which all of us can expect to find glimpses of ourselves. The story it tells is less conveniently shaped than that of America, Lost & Found, because it is a story not of a strange and wonderful chapter in a life, but of life's most mysterious, dislocating and exhilarating passage: from childhood through adolescence to the edge of adulthood. Making that passage with Anthony Bailey is an exceptionally rewarding experience.