Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
You come upon the "White Hart" quite unexpectedly in one of these anonymous little lanes leading down from Fleet Street to the Embankment. It's no use telling you where it is: very few people who have set out in a determined effort to get there have actually arrived. For the first dozen visits a guide is essential: after that you'll probably be all right if you close your eyes and rely on instinct. Also--to be perfectly frank--we don't want any more customers, at least on our night. The place is already uncomfortably crowded. All that I'll say about its location is that it shakes occasionally with the vibration of newspaper presses, and that if you crane out of the window of the gent's room you can just see the Thames.
From the outside, it looks like any other pub--as indeed it is for five days of the week. The public and saloon bars are on the ground floor: there are the usual vistas of brown oak panelling and frosted glass, the bottles behind the bar, the handles of the beer engines ... nothing out of the ordinary at all. Indeed, the only concession to the twentieth century is the juke box in the public bar. It was installed during the war in a laughable attempt to make G.I.'s feel at home, and one of the first things we did was to make sure there was no danger of its ever working again.
At this point I had better explain who "we" are. That is not as easy as I thought it was going to be when I started, for a complete catalogue of the "White Hart's" clients would probably be impossible and would certainly be excruciatingly tedious. So all I'll say at this point is that "we" fall into three main classes. First there are the journalists, writers and editors. The journalists, of course, gravitated here from Fleet Street. Those who couldn't make the grade fled elsewhere: the tougher ones remained. As for the writers, most of them heard about us from other writers, came here for copy, and got trapped.
Where there are writers, of course, there are sooner or later editors. If Drew, our landlord, got a percentage on the literary business done in his bar, he'd be a rich man. (We suspect he is a rich man, anyway.) One of our wits once remarked that it was a common sight to see half a dozen indignant authors arguing with a hard-faced editor in one corner of the "White Hart," while in another, half a dozen indignant editors argued with a hard-faced author.
So much for the literary side: you will have, I'd better warn you, ample opportunities for close-ups later. Now let us glance briefly at the scientists. How did they get in here?
Well, Birkbeck College is only across the road, and King's is just a few hundred yards along the Strand. That's doubtless part of the explanation, and again personal recommendation had a lot to do with it. Also, many of our scientists are writers, and not a few of our writers are scientists. Confusing, but we like it that way.
The third portion of our little microcosm consists of what may be loosely termed "interested laymen." They were attracted to the "White Hart" by the general brouhaha, and enjoyed the conversation and company so much that they now come along regularly every Wednesday--which is the day when we all get together. Sometimes they can't stand the pace and fall by the wayside, but there's always a fresh supply.
With such potent ingredients, it is hardly surprising that Wednesday at the "White Hart" is seldom dull. Not only have some remarkable stories been told there, but remarkable things have happened there. For example, there was the time when Professor --, passing through on his way to Harwell, left behind a brief-case containing--well, we'd better not go into that, even though we did so at the time. And most interesting it was, too.... Any Russian agents will find me in the corner under the dartboard. I come high, but easy terms can be arranged.
Now that I've finally thought of the idea, it seems astonishing to me that none of my colleagues has ever got round to writing up these stories. Is it a question of being so close to the wood that they can't see the trees? Or is it lack of incentive? No, the last explanation can hardly hold: several of them are quite as hard up as I am, and have complained with equal bitterness about Drew's "NO CREDIT" rule. My only fear, as I type these words on my old Remington Noiseless, is that John Christopher or George Whitley or John Beynon are already hard at work using up the best material. Such as, for instance, the story of the Fenton Silencer....
I don't know when it began: one Wednesday is much like another and it's hard to tag dates on to them. Besides, people may spend a couple of months lost in the "White Hart" crowd before you first notice their existence. That had probably happened to Harry Purvis, because when I first came aware of him he already knew the names of most of the people in our crowd. Which is more than I do these days, now that I come to think of it.
But though I don't know when, I know exactly how it all started. Bert Huggins was the catalyst, or, to be more accurate, his voice was. Bert's voice would catalyse anything. When he indulges in a confidential whisper, it sounds like a sergeant major drilling an entire regiment. And when he lets himself go, conversation languishes elsewhere while we all wait for those cute little bones in the inner ear to resume their accustomed places.
He had just lost his temper with John Christopher (we all do this at some time or other) and the resulting detonation had disturbed the chess game in progress at the back of the saloon bar. As usual, the two players were surrounded by backseat drivers, and we all looked up with a start as Bert's blast whammed overhead. When the echoes died away, someone said: "I wish there was a way of shutting him up."
It was then that Harry Purvis replied: "There is, you know."
Not recognising the voice, I looked round. I saw a small, neatly-dressed man in the late thirties. He was smoking one of those carved German pipes that always makes me think of cuckoo clocks and the Black Forest. That was the only unconventional thing about him: otherwise he might have been a minor Treasury official all dressed up to go to a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee.
"I beg your pardon?" I said.
He took no notice, but made some delicate adjustments to his pipe. It was then that I noticed that it wasn't, as I'd thought at first glance, an elaborate piece of wood carving. It was something much more sophisticated--a contraption of metal and plastic like a small chemical engineering plant. There were even a couple of minute valves. My God, it was a chemical engineering plant....
I don't goggle any more easily than the next man, but I made no attempt to hide my curiosity. He gave me a superior smile.
"All for the cause of science. It's an idea of the Biophysics Lab. They want to find out exactly what there is in tobacco smoke--hence these filters. You know the old argument--does smoking cause cancer of the tongue, and if so, how? The trouble is that it takes an awful lot of--er--distillate to identify some of the obscurer bye-products. So we have to do a lot of smoking."
"Doesn't it spoil the pleasure to have all this plumbing in the way?"
"I don't know. You see, I'm just a volunteer. I don't smoke."
"Oh," I said. For the moment, that seemed the only reply. Then I remembered how the conversation had started.
"You were saying," I continued with some feeling, for there was still a slight tintinus in my left ear, "that there was some way of shutting up Bert. We'd all like to hear it--if that isn't mixing metaphors somewhat."
"I was thinking," he replied, after a couple of experimental sucks and blows, "of the ill-fated Fenton Silencer. A sad story--yet, I feel, one with an interesting lesson for us all. And one day--who knows?--someone may perfect it and earn the blessings of the world."
Suck, bubble, bubble, plop....
"Well, let's hear the story. When did it happen?"
"I'm almost sorry I mentioned it. Still, since you insist--and, of course, on the understanding that it doesn't go beyond these walls."
"Well, Rupert Fenton was one of our lab assistants. A very bright youngster, with a good mechanical background, but, naturally, not very well up in theory. He was always making gadgets in his spare time. Usually the idea was good, but as he was shaky on fundamentals the things hardly ever worked. That didn't seem to discourage him: I think he fancied himself as a latter-day Edison, and imagined he could make his fortune from the radio tubes and other oddments lying around the lab. As his tinkering didn't interfere with his work, no-one objected: indeed, the physics demonstrators did their best to encourage him, because, after all, there is something refreshing about any form of enthusiasm. But no-one expected he'd ever get very far, because I don't suppose he could even integrate e to the x."
"Is such ignorance possible?" gasped someone.
"Maybe I exaggerate. Let's say x e to the x. Anyway, all his knowledge was entirely practical--rule of thumb, you know. Give him a wiring diagram, however complicated, and he could make the apparatus for you. But unless it was something really simple, like a television set, he wouldn't understand how it worked. The trouble was, he didn't realise his limitations. And that, as you'll see, was most unfortunate.
"I think he must have got the idea while watching the Honours Physics students doing some experiments in acoustics. I take it, of course, that you all understand the phenomenon of interference?"
"Naturally," I replied.
"Hey!" said one of the chess-players, who had given up trying to concentrate on the game (probably because he was ...