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Authors: C. P. Snow

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A Coat of Varnish


Copyright & Information

A Coat Of Varnish


First published in 1979

© Philip Snow; House of Stratus 1979-2010


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.


The right of C.P. Snow to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.


This edition published in 2010 by House of Stratus, an imprint of

Stratus Books Ltd., Lisandra House, Fore Street, Looe,

Cornwall, PL13 1AD, UK.


Typeset by House of Stratus.


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library and the Library of Congress.


ISBN: 075512006X   EAN 9780755120062



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This is a fictional work and all characters are drawn from the author’s imagination.

Any resemblance or similarities to persons either living or dead are entirely coincidental.




About the Author


Charles Percy Snow was born in Leicester, on 15 October 1905. He was educated from age eleven at Alderman Newton’s School for boys where he excelled in most subjects, enjoying a reputation for an astounding memory and also developed a lifelong love of cricket. In 1923 he became an external student in science of London University, as the local college he attended in Leicester had no science department. At the same time he read widely and gained practical experience by working as a laboratory assistant at Newton’s to gain the necessary practical experience needed.

Having achieved a first class degree, followed by a Master of Science he won a studentship in 1928 which he used to research at the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. There, he went on to become a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1930 where he also served as a tutor, but his position became increasingly titular as he branched into other areas of activity. In 1934, he began to publish scientific articles in
, and then
The Spectator
before becoming editor of the journal
in 1937. However, he was also writing fiction during this period, with his first novel
Death Under Sail
published in 1932, and in 1940
‘Strangers and Brothers’
was published. This was the first of eleven novels in the series and was later renamed
‘George Passant’
‘Strangers and Brothers’
was used to denote the series itself.

became a casualty of the war, closing in 1940. However, by this time Snow was already involved with the Royal Society, who had organised a group to specifically use British scientific talent operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour. He served as the Ministry’s technical director from 1940 to 1944. After the war, he became a civil service commissioner responsible for recruiting scientists to work for the government. He also returned to writing, continuing the
Strangers and Brothers
series of novels.
‘The Light and the Dark’
was published in 1947, followed by
‘Time of Hope’
in 1949, and perhaps the most famous and popular of them all, ‘
The Masters’
, in 1951. He planned to finish the cycle within five years, but the final novel
‘Last Things’
wasn’t published until 1970.

He married the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1950 and they had one son, Philip, in 1952. Snow was knighted in 1957 and became a life peer in 1964, taking the title Baron Snow of the City Leicester. He also joined Harold Wilson’s first government as Parliamentary Secretary to the new Minister of Technology. When the department ceased to exist in 1966 he became a vociferous back-bencher in the House of Lords.

After finishing the
Strangers and Brothers
series, Snow continued writing both fiction and non-fiction. His last work of fiction was ‘
A Coat of Vanish’,
published in 1978. His non-fiction included a short life of
published in 1974 and another, published posthumously in 1981, ‘
The Physicists
a Generation that Changed the World’
. He was also inundated with lecturing requests and offers of honorary doctorates. In 1961, he became Rector of St. Andrews University and for ten years also wrote influential weekly reviews for the
Financial Times.

In these later years, Snow suffered from poor health although he continued to travel and lecture. He also remained active as a writer and critic until hospitalized on 1 July 1980. He died later that day of a perforated ulcer.





‘Mr Snow has established himself, on his own chosen ground, in an eminent and conspicuous position among contemporary English novelists’ - New Statesman



Part One





About half-past eight on a July evening, Humphrey Leigh was walking along the side of the Square. It was very hot for London, and hot enough for most other places. It had been so for weeks past. This was the summer of 1976, and that day the temperature hadn’t dipped below eighty, and stayed there still. Through the trees in the Square garden, the houses opposite gleamed in the light, an hour or so before sunset, the clear white stucco fronts as unbroken and unyielding as the heat.

Humphrey Leigh was walking slowly. As a rule, his pace was light-footed, but not smoothly co-ordinated. He remained an active man, although he had retired from his official job the year before. There was nothing conspicuous about him. He was tallish, five feet eleven or so, not one to pick out in a crowd. His face was seamed, lines from nostrils to mouth and a single line across his forehead, but that made him seem observant or amused, rather than grave. Most people meeting him would have guessed him to be years younger than he was.

A young man and woman were coming towards him, and called out that they would be seeing Humphrey later that night. He was not walking slowly because of the temperature. He had put on a tropical suit, and that was enough concession to discomfort. He was walking slowly because he didn’t want to arrive at his destination. He was having to pay a duty call on an old lady in distress. That would have been bad enough, even if there had been anything to say. There wasn’t. She had telephoned him at dinner-time, telling him that she had been at the hospital for hours that day: they had finished their tests; she would know the verdict, as she called it, within a week or two, she couldn’t tell precisely when.

She was being stoical, but she asked him to call in for a few minutes, begging for company, which he couldn’t remember her doing before. She was as proud as a woman could be, or at least as any woman he had known. Not that he was a close friend. He was not sure that he even liked her. She was more than twenty years older than he was; from all he had heard, she might have been easier to love than to like. Still, she was a relation, if a remote one, and he had known her, on and off, since he was a boy. If one had known anyone for long enough, one often felt that one liked them more than one truly did.

On his way to her house, he didn’t make that reflection, though in better spirits he might have done. He was just thinking that there was no conceivable comfort to give. The date of that evening was Tuesday, 6 July. That particular day had no significance in anything which was to follow; but there came to be some significance, which strangers didn’t completely understand, in the actual neighbourhood. The square in which Humphrey Leigh was walking was called Aylestone Square. It lay between Chester Square and Eaton Square. All were part of the district known as Belgravia. At this time, Belgravia remained the most homogeneous residential district in any capital city in the world, and in a quiet and seemly fashion the most soothing to the eye. In the centre of a capital city, that is. Belgravia was not a suburb. It had its frontiers, Knightsbridge to the north, Ebury Street about two miles away to the south. Buckingham Palace was just outside its eastern edge, Sloane Square and Chelsea a mile and a half to the west. Westminster and Whitehall were quite near. Within this area were something like three thousand houses and apartments and a population of ten or twelve thousand actual residents.

It had been built, as a piece of hard-boiled speculation, largely in the generation between 1820 and 1850. The Grosvenor family owned great stretches of these parts of London, and they discovered a remarkable property developer by name of Thomas Cubitt, who was later approved of by the Prince Consort, a fine judge of talent. More than any single man, Cubitt was responsible for the Belgravia as Humphrey Leigh knew it. The land didn’t look over-promising. It consisted of dank water meadows and equally dank kitchen gardens (‘I refuse to live in a swamp,’ said Lady Holland in her old age, offered one of the new houses in Belgrave Square). If one looks at some of the ragged countryside on the way to Heathrow, one can get an impression of what Cubitt had to work on. But, as with Venice, building on swamps seemed to lead to pleasing aesthetic results.

Cubitt and his associates were very fortunate. They were, of course, out to make money. They were building mainly, though not entirely, for the well-to-do. In Belgrave Square they put up mansions for the aristocracy. In Eaton Square, land being very short, terraces of great houses, mansions joined together. In exile after 1848 Prince Metternich lived in a terraced house; but it was one of those terraced houses (known, by what seemed a somewhat discouraging use of nineteenth-century naval terminology, as second-raters) for the upper middle classes. There were some streets of quite small terraced houses for artisans and clerks, by the nineteen seventies cherished by persons more privileged than their original occupants. Streets of shops and tiny service industries – discreetly renamed by Cubitt. Elizabeth Street, a hundred years later the main shopping quarter of half Belgravia, started life as Eliza Street, disreputable, tarts earning a few pence from the river traffic. Mews for the horses, quarters and cottages for the grooms. It was a mistake to think that the Belgravia of the eighteen seventies was quieter than that of this story. Horses were clattering and clopping all day and a good deal of the night, and the streets were thick with smell.

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