A.J.A. Symons

    by Philip Clark, Executive Director

If you were asked to name the founder of the International Wine & Food Society, you would probably answer without hesitation that it was André Simon, whose memory still dominates the organization 34 years after his death. But in truth the IWFS had two founders, and in the early days of the Wine & Food Society (as it then was) they operated as a genuine partnership.

André Simon, then aged 23, married Edith Symons in 1900. In the same year, Alphonse James Albert Symons was born, the eldest of five children of an English mother and a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, about whose origins little is known except that his name was not originally Symons. AJA and Edith were not related, but in view of later events the coincidence of surnames was a strange one. Not unnaturally, Alphonse disliked his first name, preferring to be called “AJ”, after AJ Raffles, the fictional cricketer and gentleman burglar created by EW Hornung, the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

If he had not been involved in the founding of the Society, AJ would still occupy a minor place in the pantheon of English literature. Today, he is remembered for just one book, The Quest for Corvo, published in 1934 and still in print. Baron Corvo was the pseudonym of the strange figure of Frederick Rolfe, whose best-known work, Hadrian the Seventh, is a fantasy based on its author’s failure to become a Roman Catholic priest.

The word “dilettante” might have been coined to describe AJ, who was a dandy, bibliophile, calligrapher, gambler, and compulsive collector of such items as musical boxes and Victorian card cases. His father was an auctioneer, whose brief period of prosperity came to an abrupt halt in 1921. AJ, who left school at 14, and served a three-year apprenticeship to a firm of fur traders (a period he subsequently likened to Dickens’ time working in a blacking factory) went on to assist his father, but when the auction rooms had to be sold AJ needed to find new employment.

The tall and elegant young man went on to start the First Edition Club. He had a series of financial backers, who at one time included the Foyle brothers, owners of the famous bookshop in Charing Cross Road. For a time, the Club operated from Vestry Hall at the Church of St George, Bloomsbury, in Little Russell Street near the British Museum. 

Early in 1924, Symons married Gladys Weeks. AJ was an inveterate founder and joiner of clubs and societies, and in his mid twenties he found himself a member of a distinguished dining club called Ye Sette of Odd Volumes. There he met Maurice Healy, the Irish barrister and author of Stay Me with Flagons, one of the greatest of all wine books. Healy in turn introduced the young bibliophile to André Simon, by that time a successful wine merchant, author and acknowledged expert on gastronomy.

In the meantime AJ achieved his ambition of turning the First Edition Club into a limited company, and moved to grand new premises at 17 Bedford Square, with a flat for the Secretary, in the heart of literary London. With a typical Symons flourish, the new premises were opened in May 1928 by ex-king Manoel of Portugal. The Club spawned a magazine called The Book-Collector’s Quarterly, which was a joint venture with the publishing house of Cassell.

Symons’ self-composed epitaph was that “No one so poor has lived so well.” It is unlikely that the First Edition Club, which never achieved its target of 600 members needed to break even, would ever have been a financial success. However, its decline was accelerated by the Depression, which began in the USA in 1929. The limited company was wound up, involving significant losses to its backers, one of whom was André Simon. Such was AJ’s charm, however, that this setback resulted in the loss of few friends, and he remained on good terms with many of the foremost writers of his day. 

At this stage in his career, AJ turned his hand to biography. His first attempt, a life of the explorer HM Stanley, was little more than a potboiler, but he had become interested in Frederick Rolfe as a result of being lent a collection of his letters, written from Venice in the “weird baron’s” last years. The Quest for Corvo is a highly original tour de force, in which the detective work involved in tracking down its subject is skilfully interwoven with the biography itself.

The precursor of the Wine & Food Society was the Saintsbury Club, whose origins have been frequently chronicled. It started with a lunch that included AJ, André Simon, Maurice Healy and the poet and critic JC (later Sir John) Squire. At the lunch, Squire lamented the reduced circumstances of Professor George Saintsbury, author of the classic Notes on a Cellar Book, then living in retirement in Bath. It was agreed to give him a dinner. The founders of the Saintsbury Club were undaunted by the old professor’s refusal to have anything to do with them. AJ became the Secretary, and the first dinner was held on October 23, 1931. The Saintsbury Club still flourishes today.

The financial depression of the early Thirties had already resulted in a severe setback for AJ. Soon afterwards André Simon also suffered from its ramifications, in his case partly because of the collapse of sterling against the French franc. On November 30, 1932, André lost his job as sole UK agent for Pommery Champagne after more than 30 years’ service.

Like Symons, André had to look for a change of career. He had long cherished the idea of starting a wine magazine, and sought the advice of one of his many acquaintances, JL Garvin, Editor of The Observer. Garvin could see that, in those uncertain times, such a magazine was unlikely to be profitable in its own right. Instead, he suggested the idea of a society, on the lines of the First Edition Club, whose members would pay a subscription and receive a magazine as one of the benefits of membership.

The First Edition Club still existed in a much reduced form, although it had given up its grand premises in Bedford Square and returned to Little Russell Street. André invited AJ to lunch, and the eventual result of their meeting was the founding of the Wine & Food Society on October 20, 1933, with André Simon as its President and AJA Symons as its Secretary. Thus the Society’s first premises were also those of the First Edition Club. Within a month the Wine & Food Society had 230 members, and 1000 within a year.

The Society’s Journal, originally Wine and Food, first appeared in 1934. André acted as Editor, with AJ responsible for production and advertising as well as writing occasional articles. Following the repeal of Prohibition immediately after the foundation of the Society, the partners decided that André should visit the USA as a kind of gastronomic recruiting sergeant. During his absence, AJ was left in sole control of the Society, which now took up almost all of his time. The lists of guests at the dinners of this period read somewhat like a Who’s Who of the era.

Most of the remainder of the Thirties was on the whole a good time for AJ. He had already rented a fine Georgian house in Finchingfield, Essex, which was his weekend retreat. His revived finances enabled him to indulge his taste for expensive suits (made by the Prince of Wales’ tailor). He dined out almost every night and during the week his wife saw little of him. This was a contributory factor in their divorce in 1936. But there were those who regretted that he had not shown greater single-mindedness in pursuing the literary career that had begun with such promise.

AJ was an enthusiastic walker (an attempt to take up sailing had been an unmitigated disaster). Fortunately, he has left us an account of a walking holiday, entitled “Walking in Wessex”, in issue No. 14 of Wine and Food (1937). This beautifully-written period piece describes a journey with two friends from Whitsbury Down near Salisbury to the coast at Weymouth, and then on to Lyme Regis and Seaton. They stayed in inns and lunched in picturesquely-named villages such as Tollard Royal and Tarrant Gunville. AJ’s account concludes, “We had travelled in the best of all ways, on foot, through a hundred miles of English countryside, and found it unexpectedly unspoiled. We had left our entertainment to chance, and been richly rewarded.… As the train bore us back from the happy holiday scene I made a vow which I now discharge, to offer thanks to the gastronomic angels that had smiled upon our path.”

In 1939, the Second World War broke out. Food rationing began, and Symons published The Unration Book, a parody of an official publication. Suddenly, in November, he was taken seriously ill. It appeared at first that he had had a stroke. He retired to Finchingfield in the hope of recovery. André Simon, meanwhile, had to take on the whole of the day-to-day running of the Society. Unaware of the seriousness of his partner’s illness, he resented the fact that AJ was no longer pulling his weight. AJ rallied briefly, but died of a brain haemorrhage on August 26, 1941.

“We who knew him best mourn him most,” wrote André Simon, “but he will be greatly missed by all. His place can never be filled: there will never be anyone like him.” The Society was not, entirely, “André’s wonderful invention”, but instead the result of a collaboration between two brilliant but very different individuals. Without AJA Symons, it is possible that the International Wine & Food Society would never have been founded, or if it had, it might have taken a very different form. Today’s members of the IWFS, to whom he has passed the torch, owe it to the Society’s other founder that his memory is not forgotten.

These first three Meetings, as we called our functions, were entirely my own work, not too bad work, you may think, but I can tell you without any false modesty that what my friend and partner did was ever so much better. He had good friends in Fleet Street, youngish men of about his own age…. AJA Symons, not the Society, invited his friends, sat with them at table, talked to them intelligently and amusingly, and the next morning the Society had the most wonderful free publicity….

From In The Twilight by Andre L. Simon