Tripping with The Baronet in 1967

Meet Sir Thomas Willes Chitty, 3rd Baronet, grandson of a former Master of the Supreme Court and managing editor of Halsbury’s Laws of England, who’d been elevated in 1924. In the complex world of British peerage, the Baronet resides in a somewhat grey area betwixt commoner and royal, the lowliest of inherited titles.

After a brief stint in the Royal Navy, Chitty decided to become a novelist, something that may have been encouraged by a contest he won while at University College in Oxford challenging anyone to imitate the first 150 words of an unpublished Graham Greene novel. (Greene was England’s most famous living novelist at the time, although few knew he was also attached to MI6, reporting to Kim Philby, who’d later defect to Russia after spending decades spying for the Communists while running the Soviet desk at SIS.) Strangely, the second, third, and fourth-place winners of that same contest turned out to be Graham Greene himself, submitting under pseudonyms.

While his first novel (Mr. Nicholas) was well-received, it failed to sell enough copies to support Chitty and his new wife Susan, who was also an aspiring novelist, so he took a job as a publicist for Shell Petroleum. Mr. Nicholas had been a blistering critique of suburban English life, exposing the hypocrisy of the upper class, while his next book, For the Good of the Company, published in 1961, took on his former bosses at Shell.

In 1967, Chitty landed a cushy writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois. It was a similar appointment to the one John Cage had recently landed, only Cage was attached to the music department. Landing in the cornfields of Illinois at the beginning of the psychedelic revolution was an eye-opening experience, and when Chitty returned to England, he published High, a fictionalized account of his year at Illinois. In 2014, when he passed over to the great beyond (and his son inherited his title), Chitty’s obit in The Telegraph included this line: “The novel High, which he wrote shortly after his return from America, gives some clue to the impact the counter-culture revolution of the time had had upon him. He admitted that taking LSD was ‘the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in 20 years.’ He tried it, he said, because his most intelligent students recommended it.”

In order to protect his famous family’s reputation, Chitty published all his books under the pseudonym Thomas Hinde, and only one or two can be found on Amazon USA, so you have to search deeper but copies are available for a pittance on other sites. High was somewhat experimental and quite entertaining, especially for anyone familiar with the U of I campus during the late sixties. The main character is a British author-in-residence who conducts an affair with a student while consorting with a rebel crowd of misfits. It contained a novel within a novel as the protagonist struggles to write a book that parallels his experience. When it first appeared, High was compared favorably to Nabokov’s masterpiece, Pale Fire. I would compare it with one of my favorite novels, The Hair of Harold Roux, written by the great Thomas Williams, who was greatly overshadowed by his famous student John Irving.

I believe I have a cameo in the book. You see, there was a house near Lincoln and Nevada Streets that held frequent beer bashes attended by the literary crowd, as well as by me and Larry and Bugsy. You’d typically find us gathered around the refrigerator, guarding the beer supply. The key giveaway is we wore black leather jackets favored by Black Panthers. Bugsy had recently brought in the first major delivery of LSD from the streets of San Francisco, and one of those blue capsules may have ended up in Chitty’s mouth.

If you want a glimpse at life at the U of I from a distinctly British perspective, this book delivers, though it might take some time locating a copy. One suspects the public libraries in town as well as the University library might have one.

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