In The Thirties by Edward Upward

Edward Upward

Edward Upward was born in 1903 to a middle class family in Birmingham. He went to prep school and then Repton public school and then ‘up’ to Cambridge, before going on to (try to) become a writer. These are all classic characteristics of members of the so-called ‘Auden Generation’ and, as it happens, Upward’s father was, like Auden’s, a doctor.

But Upward had a particularly close connection to the Auden Gang because at Repton he became good friends with Christopher Isherwood, later to be W.H. Auden’s collaborator, friend and sometime lover. At Cambridge, Upward and Isherwood invented an English village, Mortmere, which became the setting for various surreal, obscene and satirical stories. He was introduced to the great Wystan in 1927.

Upward was characteristic of the group in two other ways.

1. Teacher After leaving university he became a teacher (as did Auden and Isherwood) in 1926 and remained one till he retired in 1961. For 30 years he taught at Alleyn’s private school in Dulwich. Nowadays Alleyn’s annual fees are £21,000.

2. Communist Somehow Upward managed to reconcile teaching at private schools for the rich with being a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He became a ‘probationary member’ in 1932, then a full member in 1934. From 1942 Upward and his wife, also a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, were investigated by MI5 for their communist activities. (MI5 should have been investigating those pillars of the establishment Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt). It was only in 1948 that Upward quit the British Communist Party and that wasn’t in disgust at the show trials or the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, but because he thought it had gone soft and was becoming ‘reformist’, i.e. ceasing to be revolutionary and instead truckling to the post-war Labour government, then at the peak of its power.

Despite winning poetry prizes at Cambridge, publishing some poems and hanging round on the fringes of the literary world, Upward only managed to publish one novel in the 1930s, Journey to The Border, in 1938. This describes in poetic prose how a private tutor rebels against his employer and how this and the darkening international situation triggers a breakdown from which he only emerges when he realises he must throw in his lot with ‘the workers’. (Presumably by teaching at a fee-paying, exclusive private school for the wealthy.)

Then came the Second World War. Upward continued his teaching career but struggled to write anything. When he took a year’s sabbatical from teaching, in the 1950s, specifically to write his Great Novel, he found he couldn’t and suffered, like the fictional character of his first novel, an actual nervous breakdown. Only slowly did Upward work up a story about a posh private schoolboy who goes to Cambridge and tries to reconcile the conviction that he’s a writer (a poet; they’re always poets) with his commitment to the Communist Party of Great Britain.

A ‘story’ which is, in other words, completely autobiographical.

Slowly the idea turned into a trilogy which came to bear the overall name, The Spiral Ascent. In the second volume, Rotten Elements (1969) our hero terminates his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain because he thinks it’s gone soft and ‘reformist’ (ring any bells?). In the final part, No Home But The Struggle (1977), the protagonist is reconciled to the new forms of radical politics of the 50s and 60s and joins the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament.

In The Thirties, published in 1962, is the first volume of The Spiral Ascent and introduces us to its lead figure, would-be poet Alan Sebrill.

In The Thirties

The Penguin paperback edition I picked up in a second-hand bookshop is 237 pages long, so average novel length. It’s divided into 14 chapters. Its protagonist, Alan Sebrill, is supposed to be a young, aspiring poet. The title of this book leads you to expect that it might capture some of the youthful exuberance and heady excitement of those strange and threatening times and it certainly describes the idealism, naivety and gaucheness of youth.

Chapter 1

Chapter one is by far the longest at 40 or so pages. Having finished the book I can now see that Upward intends it as an introduction to his lead character and fills it with incidents designed to show how young, privileged, idealistic and naive he is.

It is the summer of 1931. (This isn’t explicitly stated, we deduce it from two pieces of evidence. 1. In chapter two a character says it’s nearly ten years since he took part in the great Hunger March of January 1922 [p.58], so just under ten years after Jan 1922 must be December 1931 at the latest. 2. Later on, the narrator tells us that the meeting where the character said yhat took place in October i.e. October 1931. Since the events in chapter 1 take place in the summer of the same year, we can deduce they take place in the summer of 1931.)

Young would-be poet Alan Sebrill has packed in his job as a teacher at a posh preparatory school and taken up the invitation of his friend, young would-be poet Richard, to come and stay with him on the Isle of Wight so he can complete his Great Long Poem. Richard moves Alan into a spare room in the boarding house he’s staying at, kept by a strict Miss Pollock.

They are innocent young chaps, full of banter and absurd idealism. They walk down to the beach and along the cliffs, playing with words and terms for the birds and geological strata and wave formations, convinced that their special feel for language and the acuteness of their perceptions will make them poets, great poets, place them among ‘the English poets’.

The doomed

Alan develops the idea that they are ‘doomed’ because they are so much more sensitive and alive and alert than ordinary people, and especially the hated ‘poshos’.

‘What makes people vile is being successful or comfortably off. That’s why most of the hotel visitors are so poisonous. They are the wicked, the devils. Only the doomed are good, and we must be on their side always.’ (p.20)

Richard likes it. It makes them both feel special.

The working classes

Richard is convinced he is ‘well in’ with the local working classes. He gets a drunk local lad, Basher, to show off his tattoos to Alan. How frightfully working class! Richard enjoys talking to ‘the working classes’ on the beach-front esplanade in a loud voice.

‘It surprised the stuck-up public school gang staying at the big hotel. I’ve realised lately that the time has arrived for me to show definitely that I’m against the plus-foured poshocracy, and for the cockneys and the lower orders.’ (p.8)

‘Poshocracy’? Richard and Alan both agree their poetry will contain plenty of ‘Marxian’ ideas although, when pushed, it turns out that all Marx means for Alan is that he was the great repudiator of the ‘upper-class mystique’ which dominated his ghastly prep school. Now he’s left the school Alan doesn’t find Marx so compelling any more.

Outsiders

Alan is on the short side, chronically shy, specially round girls. He feels like a misfit. He thinks writing poetry makes him special. He thinks it makes him different and better than the ‘poshocrats’ who dress for dinner up at the grand hotel. He tried reading Marx (Capital) but the reader can clearly see that he uses the German philosopher as a psychological prop to counter his excruciatingly self-conscious sense of inferiority around the effortlessly tall and stylish ‘poshos’, both at his former prep school, at the hotel on the island.

For example Alan and Richard see other young people dancing outside the pub they frequent, but Alan is too shy to approach any of the girls, despite fairly obvious encouragement.

After a week Richard abruptly announces he is leaving. Alan is at first upset that he is breaking up their poets’ conclave but Richard is bored of the island, is not writing anything, wants to go back to London. Well, when you have independent means you can be free and easy like that. (Later on we learn that Richard has left England to live abroad. Alright for some, p.197).

Alan’s Audenesque poetry

Alan stays on in Miss Pollock’s boarding house for weeks, squeezing out four or five lines of verse a day for his Great Poem. In the entire book we are shown only one couplet of Alan’s poetry and it reads like pure Auden. Here it is:

Central anguish felt
for goodness wasted at peripheral fault (p.12)

Note the use of classic Auden tricks like:

  • omitting the definite or indefinite article – ‘the’ or ‘a’ – where you’d expect them (in front of ‘central anguish’ or ‘goodness’, for example) in order to convey a more robotic/ominous meaning
  • technocratic diction – ‘central’, ‘peripheral’ – which somehow makes it feel part of a science fiction film or laboratory report
  • half-rhyme (‘felt/fault’) cf. Auden: ‘Fathers in sons may track/Their voices’ trick’

Peg

After Richard has left, Alan summons up the courage to talk to the red-haired girl who he’s noticed staring at him. She is far more experienced and forward than him. They talk and then dance (the foxtrot) to the band on the esplanade at the bar/pub/restaurant on the beach. She’s called Peg and rather surprisingly tells him she has a fiancé up in London, but this is a holiday romance so it won’t count. She discovers Alan’s middle name is Thorwald, and playfully introduces him to her two friends as the poet Count Thorwald. Playful undergraduate stuff.

Peg invites him for tea at her aunt’s house where she’s staying. The aunt is eccentric. Confident Peg tells the disconcerted Alan that that night she’ll leave the scullery window into the house unlocked (the aunt firmly locks all the other windows and doors). So a lot later that night, Alan has to go through the rather degrading experience of sneaking down the lane to her house, shimmying up the wall and squeezing through the narrow window, stepping into scullery sink and elaborately down onto the floor then tiptoeing through the house up to her bedroom.

Sex in the Thirties

Eventually they arrive on her bed where, to the modern reader’s bemusement, they lie side by side ‘for a very long time’ (p.27) chatting. Really? Eventually they turn towards each other and embrace but then lie in this position ‘for almost as long’. Alan postpones any movement at all as it would have seemed like ‘an affront to her, an impudence, a crudity’ (p.27). The very next sentence is: ‘After the climax they stayed awake talking about what they would do next day.’

Sex is strange – an odd, uncanny, disruption of everyday life and manners and conventions. Reading about anybody else’s sex life is almost always disconcerting. But the oddness of Alan and Peg’s behaviour makes you think: is this really how our great-grandparents thought and behaved, with this odd combination of knowingness and timidity?

Is the scene here to indicate just how young and timid and shy and inexperienced Alan is? Why does it jump from them lying completely still to ‘after the climax’? Was it the Censorship – remember Ulysses and a number of D.H. Lawrence novels had been banned for their sexual content? Maybe the very strict rules about depicting sexual activity meant novels were allowed to tell you all about the before and the after but all descriptions of the thing itself were simply removed?

Or is it me? Are my expectations of sexual behaviour thoroughly debauched from watching thousands of movies and pop videos in which scantily-clad dolly birds adopt a series of stylised and stereotyped poses and positions – and I’ve come to think that that’s what sex is or should be? That I’ve lost touch with a world before TV, movies and pop videos, magazines and advertising saturated us with fixed ideas about what sex, or behaviour around sex, should be?

Is this scene a) incomprehensibly innocent and dated or b) a fairly accurate description of some people’s often clumsy and embarrassed experience of sex?

The oddity of the scene suggests how books like this have at least two values over and above any literary ones:

  1. as social history, to show us how our grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents thought and felt.
  2. by doing so, to broaden our horizons about what human behaviour and feeling can be. To show us that we’re not trapped in an Instagram / Tinder / ‘hot priest’ world, where each new TV series tries to outdo its predecessors in sexual frankness and explicitness. That we can escape from the crushing conformities of the modern world.

Just a thought.

Peg leaves

Anyway, after whatever it is that happens that night, things go awry. He is initially elated and wants Peg to become his beloved, but she continues prattling on about her fiancé in London (John) and casually mentioning that even after she’s married she intends to have lots of lovers. Deflated, he stumbles back out of her bedroom, down the stairs. He can’t be bothered to go through the fol-de-rol of climbing out the scullery window and just unlocks the backdoor and walks out. Stuff the security-minded aunt.

Next day they meet on the beach and their relationship deteriorates further. Alan presses his love and Peg is increasingly distanced and detached and then announces she’s going back to London earlier than expected. He wants to take her in his arms but is convinced she will rebuff her. But he can see that she still has feelings for him. Cross-purposes. Later that day she catches the coach for London, he doesn’t bother to see her off.

The struggle to write continues

Abruptly Alan decides romanticism is the enemy. He must be hard, forget all about Peg. For the next fortnight he struggles with the Long Poem, writing a handful of lines each morning. Then he realises it is all wrong because it’s based on this notion of the ‘doomed’, sensitive young men. No no no. Start again. He wakes up one fine morning and decides he is going to throw all that sentimentalism out and write a Great Marxist Poem. Right. Now. Sit down. Get blank sheet of paper. Pen in hand. Er…

God, this is hopeless. He looks in the mirror and sees himself for what he is:

It was the face, he thought, of a self-fancying spoilt darling, of the overvalues don from a bourgeois family who had been unreasonably expected and had himself expected to do something exceptional, to be different from the common crowd, to be a great poet, a genius, whereas the truth very probably was that he had no talent at all, that he was a pampered young or no longer quite so young shirker who considered himself too good for the kind of everyday job in which he might perhaps have been of some slight use to the community. (p.34)

But even here, there is a big difference between looking in a mirror and, in a sentimentally depressed kind of way, confronting yourself (or a rather dramatised version of yourself), a big difference between doing that – and actually going out and getting a useful everyday job.

Suicidal thoughts

Alan melodramatically concludes that his life is a failure and decides to walk to the nearest cliff and throw himself off. But he is so entranced with the soulful beauty of the idea that without even realising it, he walks out the boarding house, under the hawthorn arch, into the lane and in the opposite direction from the clifftops, walking in a dream up to Peg’s aunt’s house before he realises it. He moons around looking through her bedroom window, hoping against hope that she is still there, but she isn’t.

Then Alan does find himself walking up to the cliffs, looking out over the scintillating sea, thinking about jumping off and realising it’s impossible, it’s hopeless, he’ll always be this miserable unless he makes some seismic change, finds some kind of ‘way of escape’.

(That phrase prefigures Graham Greene’s use of it for the second volume of his autobiography, Ways of Escape, published in 1980. They had all the advantages life could give them, these young men of the 1930s, but they still managed to be desperately unhappy.)

As he stands on the cliff Alan thinks maybe he should join the church, become a vicar, yes, ‘In his will is our peace’. He spies the Congregationalist church down in the village and remembers visiting the Congregationalist chapel of his grandparents. Hmm. It was quite grim. Maybe something more ornate. Maybe Catholicism. Great poets had been or had converted to Catholicism, it was meant to be easy once you’d made the initial leap of faith.

Or what about Marxism? Yes it was on the side of the ‘doomed’, against the hated ‘poshocrats’, maybe it would help him to write his poetry.

Communism was the only force in the world which was uncompromisingly on the side of the doomed and against those who wanted to keep them doomed. It was the enemy of his enemies: it aimed at the overthrow of a society which was dominated by poshocrats and public-school snobs and which had no use for the living poets. It demanded that its converts should believe not in the supernatural nor in anti-scientific myths but in man. If he joined the Communist Party he might be able to write poetry again (p.43)

Summary

All this happens in just one chapter, the first 40 pages or so, the first eighth of this 240-page-long book.

I initially found its upper-middle-class locutions and earnestness (‘Oh super idea, Richard!’) silly and off-putting. But if you bear with it, then my experience was that the story slowly grows on you and turns into an engaging portrait of a naive, confused young man.

Upward is a patient and very detailed chronicler – he describes in detail the appearance of a room, its furniture, and curtains and mirrors – and in the same meticulous way describes dialogue, people’s appearances and precisely how Alan feels at every moment, how his feelings are swayed and buffeted by trivial incidents. It’s a key quality of Upward’s mind and approach which he attributes to his alter ego in the narrative.

In revulsion from the platitude he tried to be more precise (p.161)

Once I got past Alan and Richard’s naive poshness I realised that most sensitive, bookish, young people have probably had one or more of these experiences, and began to respect and enjoy the precision with which Upward depicts them.

The rest of the plot

Chapter 2

It is the end of October 1931 (p.46). Alan has come down to London for an interview to work as a teacher. The chapter opens as he travels by tram to an office of the Communist Party. He’s scared to go in, thinking they’ll despise him.

They would be intelligent, politically experienced people who would see him as he was; yes, and who would see through him, would guess the self-regarding quasi-religious motives, the sickly wish for his own salvation, which had brought him to them. (p.46)

In the event it’s a shabby room with some people preparing leaflets, others hanging around. The apparent leader Ron Spalding takes pity on the shy young man, says they need more posh people to help them, and suggests he goes out leafleting with a couple of the comrades, young Elsie Hutchinson and Wally Ainsworth (p.53). An election is coming up and they’re leafleting for the local communist candidate, Joey Pearson.

With chapter 2 the book immediately gets more grip and drive. The reality of the shabby hall is described with Upward’s trademark attention to detail, as are the half dozen communists. What stiffens it, though, is that right from the start the characters discuss the current economic and political situation in concrete terms, the number of unemployed, the reality of unemployment benefit, recent bills and votes in Parliament – and combine this with the sweeping generalisations about the crisis of capitalism which they have learned about in Engels and Marx. Out leafleting with Wally the pair discuss Feuerbach, Plekhanov, Lenin.

Leafleting complete, Alan says goodnight to Wally and walks away feeling elated.

He had found a place among people who wanted him and with whom, however inferior he might be to them in courage and in strength of will, he felt an affinity because they were members of the lower class to which he too, the would-be poet, in a sense belonged. He would do all he could to be worthy of them and of the great cause for which they were working. From now on he would be dedicated to the Revolution. (p.46)

Chapter 3

It is four months since his first contact with the party (p.86), so presumably January 1932. Alan has a teaching job at a boys school, Condell’s (‘‘It calls itself an Academy and likes to pose as a public school.’ p.60). He devotes a page (p.110) to describing in detail how much he despises its shameless aping of public school customs and terminology.

In part one of the chapter Alan has just plucked up the courage to pin a leaflet about a communist party meeting to the staff noticeboard. This is spotted by the Second Master, and triggers a fascinating debate between the two of them. It’s almost a dramatised version of a political pamphlet.

Alan says the crisis of capitalism is inevitable, as Marx predicted. The other teacher, Aldershaw, points out that Marx predicted the revolution would break out in the most advanced capitalist countries whereas in fact it occurred in by far the most backward, Russia. Alan counters that both Lenin and Stalin had written that Marx was indeed wrong about this and the revolution of necessity broke out in the weakest link of the capitalist system.

Aldershaw highlights another wrong prediction of Marx’s, that the proletariat would become steadily more impoverished until revolution became inevitable. Alan counters with mass unemployment. Aldershaw says modern young men have motorcars and the cinema and cigarettes and radios, a lifestyle his own parents couldn’t have dreamed of. Alan counters that malnutrition statistics show mothers and children aren’t getting enough to eat. Aldershaw counters that’s because most mothers are completely ignorant of the basics of diet and nutrition and send their kids with packed lunches full of buns and jam tarts.

Alan says society will never be free till all businesses are owned by the people. Aldershaw counters that lots of businesses are run by shareholders. Alan says workers will only be free when the state owns everything and Aldershaw lures him into asserting this is the case in the Soviet union.

Aldershaw says the Soviet Union is the worst place in the world to be a worker because if you make a wrong word of criticism about the system or Stalin you’ll be hauled off to a labour camp. Alan asserts that the camps are necessary because of reactionary and bourgeois elements who are trying to sabotage the worker’s paradise. Communists accept a temporary phase to dictatorship because it is a step on the path to a totally free and equal society. Aldershaw counters that no dictatorship ever willingly evolved into anything else. Dictators cling onto power until they’re overthrown.

Alan counters that dictatorships which oppress the Negro or try to keep women economically subservient to men deserve to be overthrown, but dictatorship in the name of communism i.e. creating a free society, can be justified.

Several points about this exchange.

  1. It is very well done. Upward really captures the way both men become steadily more infuriated that the other one isn’t seeing the obvious sense of his arguments.
  2. It suggests how schematic the entire novel is, how carefully constructed so that each episode contributes to the whole.
  3. It is striking how contemporary these arguments seem, especially about overcoming racism and women’s equality. They were written 50 years ago and put into the mouths of characters from 90 years ago, giving the reader the strong impression that some things never change.

In the second half of the chapter Alan, upset from this argument, tries and fails to keep discipline over his class. They obviously despise him and make a hissing noise as he approaches his classroom. He ends up shouting at them and giving detention to a particularly repellent spotty oik (Dibble) who answers back. Then subsides behind his desk feeling, as so often, like a complete failure.

Chapter 4

Description of a workers march on Trafalgar Square which starts in a street with warehouses, presumably in the East End. Alan learns to his surprise that Roy, the leader of their cell who greeted him so kindly on his first visit, has been arrested and is in gaol on charges of burglary – he and mates stole timber from a timber yard. He’s been expelled from the Party.

Upward pays attention to the detail of people’s appearance and behaviour, to what Alan sees and feels, as the disciplined march is blocked by a police cordon and he lets himself be led away through back streets to the Square by the tall and reckless comrade Bainton. When they get there Whitehall is cordoned off by mounted police and then a file of riot police move in with truncheons and start battering the workers, hitting many to the ground.

As the crowd disperses Alan gets a bus and notices comrade Elsie is on it. He is attracted to her again, goes and sits with her and tries to make conversation but she mostly upbraids him for failing to attend recent meetings.

Chapter 5

It is 18 months since Richard and Alan were at the seaside village (p.116), so presumably the autumn of 1932. Alan is called to see the headmaster of the school. While he waits for the appointed hour (9.30am, after Assembly) Alan looks out the window at the autumnal trees and experiences a characteristic series of thoughts about the squalid reality of being an educator upholding the corrupt capitalist system. He vows to become utterly mechanical in his tuition, an automaton, reserving his energy for working with ‘the Party’ in the evenings.

Unfortunately, the headmaster is pretty critical of the way Alan can’t seem to control or win the respect of his class. Alan is coming up to the end of his first year’s probation. The head doesn’t sack him, as he fears, but says he’ll have to toughen up. The boys need to be driven. And has he considered beating some of the offenders?

Alan zones out of the entire conversation, becoming absorbed in the reflection of the autumnal trees outside the window in the glass frontage of a bookcase, making first the books, then the trees come into focus. I don’t think I’ve ever read that experience, of completely zoning out of a conversation, be described in such minute detail. I am coming to appreciate that this is what Upward does very well. The real minutiae of experience.

For a while he fantasises that he can pack in teaching and go back to being a poet by the sea, and indeed he fantasises in great detail the experience of walking down to the sea and watching the scintillating waves. Then the headmaster’s voice brings him back to reality. No, he tried that and it was an abject failure. He finds himself saying ‘Yes Headmaster, yes I will strive to take your advice,’ rising as in a dream and leaving the room.

Only his devotion to the Party prevents him falling into bottomless misery and despair.

Chapter 6

The local communist party cell has been renting the upper floor of a coach-house. Alan arrives early for a meeting. We are introduced to the ten or so party members. Alan is hopelessly starry-eyed about them, convinced they know so much more about the ‘real’ world than the ghastly middle-class intellectuals he knew at university. Take Eddie Freans, Eddie works on building sites but in his spare time is a practical inventor. Alan is in awe of his true working class roots.

Eddie might have his moments of naiveté but about things that were really important he had a far better understanding than was to be found in the university-educated intellectual chatterers of whom Alan had met too many. For those, and for members of the middle class generally, Alan could never have the respect that he had for Eddie; and in spite of the things Alan had in common with them – education, accent, manners – he felt much closer to Eddie than to them. He was happier and more at home with Eddie, just as he was happier and more at home with the other comrades here… (p.127)

Turns out this is the meeting where the members vote whether to accept Alan as a member of the Communist Party, they do by a unanimous vote. He is asked why he wants to join, what motivated him to make contact with them in the first place. He had a little speech prepared:

He had intended to say that in the conditions of modern monopoly capitalism the independence of the middle class was being increasingly undermined and would soon cease to exist and that the only hope for individual members of his class was to go over to the side of the workers against the monopoly capitalists, and that therefore he had decided to contact the Party. (p.130)

This is actually how all the other members talk and might have gone down well. However, with typical clumsy scrupulosity, Alan realises that is too stereotyped and insincere, and the Party is all about truth! So he actually shares with them that his first motivation came when he was leading prayers in a class at a prep school where he was teaching and was disgusted that he, an atheist, was put in this position, and realised it was not just him, but millions put in false positions by the system, which needed to be completely overthrown. That was the moment he first realised he had to be a communist.

There’s an embarrassed silence, followed by nervous laughter and Alan realises, yet again, that he’s done something wrong. Then the meeting gets down to an extended discussion of the current economic and political situation, which is rammed full of Marxist analysis and Marxist rhetoric and Upward describes very carefully and precisely. Characteristically, Alan finds himself zoning out of the discussion and imagining the whole room being blown up in the coming war between fascists and communists so misses half the discussion.

Afterwards, they lock up the room and go their separate ways. Alan is walking part of the way with Elsie and manages to persuade her to go up a dark alley as a ‘short cut’, where he tries – extremely clumsily – to embrace her. Upward gives an excruciating account of what a tangle he gets his arms in as he attempts a smooch, ending up placing his cheek next to hers and then has a go at a fumble, cupping her breast in the summer dress and then, toe-curlingly, pinching what he thinks is her nipple but might just be a seam of the fabric. During this entire thing Elsie remains utterly silent and unresponsive. When Alan eventually gives up they resume walking to the end of the lane and Alan says a lame goodbye. Well, he blew that.

Communist Party members:

  • Elsie Hutchinson, ‘wore glasses, had a sullen-looking mouth, and whose fuzzy hair rising to a point above her forehead and jutting out sideways at her temples had the effect of a triangular frame.’ (p.53)
  • Jimmy Anders –
  • Willie Dean Ayres, head round as a ball (p.128)
  • Beatrix Farrell, Ayres’ wife, posh (p.128)
  • red-haired Jean Pritchet (Anders’ girls, p.128)
  • Mike Bainton, irreverent and a little insubordinate, he leads Alan away from the marchers blocked in the East End, and by side routes to the main meeting. In chapter 8 he is expelled from the party for his deviant views i.e. denouncing Stalin’s takeover of the
  • Wally Ainsworth, ‘a happy-faced man of about thirty-five, with sallowly chubby cheeks reminiscent of those squeezable rubber faces that used to be made as toys for children.’ (p.53)
  • Eddie Frearns, slim, thinfaced, works in a small workshop which makes lampshades (p.126)
  • Harry Temley, 22, thickset, works as a mechanic (p.125)
  • Jock Finlayson, branch secretary of the AEU (p.127)
  • Sam Cowan, trade unionist and orator (p.127)
  • Lily Pentelow, recently elected to an important position in the Co-op movement (p.128)

Chapter 7

Back at the school. In the playground some of the boys make the contemptuous pssssssing noise they seem to make whenever Alan appears. Infuriated, Alan pounces on the probable leader, Childers, and tells him to report to the Master’s room. He is going to cane him. The entire chapter rotates around this event. He has to borrow a cane off a master who is infinitely more confident and self-assured than Alan.

The boy is waiting outside the master’s room at the assigned time, Alan takes him into the room although it’s the other master who really sorts things out, arranges the desk so there’s enough swing room for the cane, and then stands at the door while Alan administers six of the best. Upward gives a very detailed description which makes you realise how difficult caning actually is to administer. You must be sure to hit the exact same spot on the buttocks six times in a row.

Afterwards the boy stands, says ‘Thank you, sir’, and leaves without a backward glance. Alan feels wretched.

Back in the staff room the report of what he’s done triggers a discussion among the other masters. Almost all of them vigorously approve, the boy Childers is a frequent offender. But their very enthusiasm suddenly prompts a vehement outburst from Alan condemning caning as primitive and barbaric. That throws cold water on everything. Once again Alan has displayed his uncanny knack of throwing away an advantage, of making himself the least popular person in the room.

Staff members:

  • The Head Master
  • Sidney Bantick the Head Master’s assistant, with his black jacket and striped city trousers (p.114)
  • Aldershaw – who Alan has the extended argument about Marxism with in chapter
  • Ampleforth – a very reserved man
  • Barnet, the only master who stands up for Alan, in fact expresses his own extreme disgust with capital punishment
  • Benson – ‘pale-faced and strongly built, moving with large strides, his big glasses calling attention to his pale eyes which had no expression in them.’ (p.145)
  • Brook – disciplinarian, assists at the caning
  • Buckle, ‘brown-eyed pale-faced and physically strong’ (p.180)
  • Gus Chiddingford, ‘rotund’ popular joker
  • Hefford, Head of English
  • Langton, ‘one of the Maths men’
  • Lexton, ‘a bumptious extroverted younger member of the staff who taught Classics’
  • Moberley, the Handicraft man
  • Railton, ‘very tall’, older than the others, tight skin over his skull but heavy eyelids (pp.186, 188)
  • Ransome, ‘a Classics man’

Chapter 8

A meeting of the CP is held and Ben Curtis attends, to judge Mike Bainton on charges of criticising the Soviet Union in public. He’s been overheard slandering the workers’ paradise while doing a holiday job on Bognor beach.

Bainton repeats his criticism to the members. In the Soviet Union congresses have been held less and less frequently. Now the USSR has signed a treaty of non-interference in each others’ affairs (November 1933) and joined the League of Nations (15 September 1934). Bainton sees this as selling out the international revolution and thus betraying the world’s working classes.

As so often, Upward shows us how Alan drifts off during this speech, visualising the early revolutionary workers, and the travails the workers’ paradise had been through.

Then other members stand up to denounce Bainton. He is immediately recognised as being a Trotskyite heretic, i.e. someone who continued to push for world revolution while the official line was the Soviet Union needed forst and foremost to survive in the capitalist world and therefore some compromises with capitalism and imperialism might be called for.

The members vote unanimously to expel Bainton, and he votes with them, though it’s impossible to tell whether he’s being ironic. When Elsie and Alan leave the meeting they cut Bainton, though both feel bad about it, and try to rationalise this snubbing of a man who had been a good friend till an hour earlier.

if the Party were to disappear from the world there would be no hope for humanity. The showing of kindness to a few deviationist human individuals could lead to disaster for human beings in general. At a time when decaying capitalism had taken the form of Fascism in Germany and Italy and was preparing for an all-destructive war, and when only the Soviet Union stood unequivocally for international peace, anyone who like Bainton spread propaganda against the Soviet Union was objectively helping Fascism and working to bring violent death to millions of men, women and children. He was a traitor not only to the Party but to humanity. (p.171)

Alan feels a sort of exultation because he has suppressed his natural fellow feeling for Bainton in a higher cause. By this point I am really admiring Upward’s unflinching honesty.

The same honesty he applies to part two of the chapter where Alan walks with Elsie who suddenly asks if she can come back to his flat. Alan’s heart skips a beat, this can only mean one thing and is a big surprise after his hideous fumblings up a back alley.

But once again it turns into a peculiar scene. Upward describes with mechanical clarity Alan’s shyness. She sits in the only armchair, he sits at the further edge of the divan, three quarters of a room away. They discuss a ramblers meeting she’s leading. Bursting with tension he eventually picks up a cushion and throws it at her, then bounds to her side and puts his hands on her cheeks stroking them, then has a hurried feel of her breasts in her vest, slips down into the cramped armchair as she squeezes up then slips his hand up her skirt and does something up there for ten minutes or so, during which her expression never changes, they don’t say a word, they don’t kiss.

Then he stops whatever he was doing (‘the activity of his hand’), she stands up, they kiss mechanically, she goes over to the mirror and adjusts her clothes and hair. Is that it? Watching her, he is overcome by repulsion from her, she is definitely from a lower class than him, with a rougher accent and manners. And then he feels disgust at himself for his petit-bourgeois mentality.

As usual, Alan demonstrates his gift a) behaving clumsily and b) making himself miserable.

Chapter 9

The chronology of the book is leaping ahead. Hitler has reoccupied the Rhineland (p.183).

Back at the school Alan has been given a gizmo to raise money for the ‘The Teachers’ Anti-War Movement. It is a battery with a power plug and lots of sockets. You pay 4d, put the plug in one of the sockets, if it lights up you get 1/6. He takes it to the games room for masters and is, predictably, confused and humiliated. Maybe Alan Sebrill is one of the great losers of English literature.

Alan tries to persuade them that Hitler reoccupying the Rhineland is just the first step. Next it will be Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. (Was anyone that prescient in 1936? Easy enough to be from the vantage point of 1962.) All the masters in the games room ridicule him. They’ve nicknamed him ‘the Red Menace’ (p.150) or, more amusingly, ‘Rasputin’ (p.180).

There’s an extended description of four masters playing a game of snooker and all their posh banter which is quite funny, but which Upward recites with the attitude of a scientist examining specimens.

Afterwards one of the sceptical teachers gives the battery gizmo a go and loses half a crown to Alan. It’s typical of Alan that he doesn’t understand betting or odds.

He bumps into Barnet and has a conversation in which Barnet agrees with pretty much everything he says, especially the inevitability of a war, and Alan suggests he joins the Communist Party.

Chapter 10

It’s September (1936?). Alan is on the train from his parents’ house up to London. He and Elsie have arranged to be married but, typically, he has already said yes but backed out of it twice. He doesn’t really want to marry her, but sees it as his duty to marry a fellow party member. He also wants to overcome the class gap between them. When Elsie had come to visit, his parents had displayed ‘undisguised and snobbish disapproval of her’ and then, on the railway station platform he had spotted a public school friend, Tom Cumbers, with an unmistakably posh young woman, classy-looking, well dressed… and Alan had felt mortally ashamed of his rough girlfriend with her sometimes ‘pug-nosed’ appearance (p.201), turned his back to try and hide himself and her from the public schoolfriend and – cringingly – told her he couldn’t marry her.

He is a feeble twerp.

Yes, it is 1936 because as soon as he meets Elsie at the ticket barrier they start talking about the Spanish Civil War. For a moment Alan thinks he sees Jimmy Anders in the crowd, Jimmy is due to go off and fight in Spain any day now. His cousin had volunteered to drive an ambulance but has returned wounded (his right arm was amputated).

Elsie takes Alan by tube and bus to a street where new maisonettes are being built. She’s chosen one for them to live in once they’re married. She shows him round. It’s an interesting piece of social history. It’s clean but small and cramped. He looks out the window and sees a big cedar tree like the one at his parents’ spacious home in the country and all of a sudden is flooded with despair that his life has come down to this.

He turns on Elsie and says he can never live here. She is beginning to say she can find another place when he goes further and says he can never marry her. She is stunned. He knows he has to say something irrevocable, and so now says: ‘Oh Elsie, you are so ugly.’

The second he says it, he regrets it, and tries to take it back. Elsie is sensible. She simply says she is not ugly, and some of the men she’s gone out with have told her she’s very attractive. Now, seconds after trying to get out of it, Alan finds himself more determined than ever to marry her and live the life of a communist poet.

Chapter 11

Well, they appear to have reconciled because this chapter opens with Alan and Elsie sitting in armchairs opposite each other in their maisonette. They discuss a review in the New Statesman in which Robert Jordan complains that modern poetry is too obscure. This upsets Alan who seems to think of himself as a poet even though he doesn’t appear to write poetry and has never had anything published.

Wally Ainsworth arrives. They are scheduled to go to a meeting of the British Union of Fascists that evening. It is at least 1937 because the conversation references the coronation of George VI (12 May 1937). They set off for the meeting. Barnet questions a young lad why he’s selling the British Union of Fascist newspaper, Action. Because the Jews are ruining the country, the lad replies. Barnet reveals that he is a Jew and he is not ruining the country. The boy is confused.

The communist group continues to the meeting and Upward describes with characteristic precision the exact appearance of the hall, the look of the fascist stewards they have to pass, the look of other members of the audience.

Alan shares his reflections on the nature of fascism’s appeal to the petite bourgeoisie, shopkeepers, small businessmen, workshop owners, people who aspire to be part of the haute bourgeoisie, and ape its snobbery and pretensions but are economically insecure and thus anxious and thus desperate to blame someone (the Jews) and adulate whoever will save them (the Leader).

The  Leader appears and speechifies in respectful silence for 20 minutes before cranking up a gear and beginning to blame the Jews for everything. At this point Alan and the other communist party members stand and walk out. That’s all they intended to do – make a peaceful protest.

Barnet, the schoolteacher, who Upward had implied was Jewish in chapter 9, is delayed because he lays out leaflets saying ‘Smash Fascism before Fascism Smashes You’. For a moment stewards close in on him and you think there’s going to be a fight. But Alan stands his ground in front of Barnet and the threatening steward straightens up and lets them leave.

Elsie has told Alan she thinks she is pregnant.

Chapter 12

Elsie’s baby is nearly due so it must be eight months later. The chapter opens with Alan plunged in real misery, about his job, the baby, the coming war, the triumph of fascism, his non-existent poetic career. The future seems like a tidal wave of slime heading for him, for everyone. He doesn’t want to wake up. He doesn’t want to go to work.

He casts his mind back to a few days earlier when there was a knock at the front door of the maisonette. It was Holyman, an old boy from the school come to show them how to put on gas masks. They were talking about Chamberlain and Czechoslovakia so it must be the autumn of 1938. Holyman shows them how to put on the gas mask and explains how babies will be placed inside gas insulators. Elsie is querulous. When Holyman leaves she bursts into tears of unhappiness and wishes she’d never got pregnant.

Now back to the present as they both wake up together. She is heavily pregnant. He has fantasies about dressing, walking to the station but going on straight past it, to the coast, the cliffs, to the countryside, anywhere except to his wretched job.

Chapter 13

The Munich Crisis (September 1938). Alan is at school taking round a letter to the Prime Minister demanding that he not submit to Hitler over the Sudeten Crisis for the other masters to sign. No fewer than 15 have signed and it is a symbolic victory when the most sceptical among them, Brook, also signs. To Alan’s surprise the Head Master also signs, but with a few patriotic provisos, reminding Alan that England never had, and never would, break a promise; but that supporting the Czechs was the Christian thing to do. Alan suppresses his disagreement with all this and thanks him.

This segues into a really good scene where Alan tries to get one of the last of the masters, Benson, to sign, and the man turns out to be a Christian pacifist, a really thorough-going and intelligent pacifist. For pages (pp.249- ) Upward stages a very stimulating debate between the two sides – we must stand up to Hitler versus violence only begets violence, look at the last war where both sides ended up losers; except now it will be fought with much more destructive weapons.

What makes In The Thirties so enjoyable is that Upward gives his ideological opponents a very fair crack of the whip. Like the extended debate with Aldershaw, this one with Benson forces Alan onto the defensive. When he says the final war of communism which overthrows capitalism will lead to a world of perpetual peace, he can hear how unbelievable it sounds, and Benson scores a big point when he says that, even if communism did triumph the world over, the communists would fall out with themselves as they already had in Moscow.

As he works his way systematically through the arguments, Upward forces you to consider which side you would have been on. In autumn 1938 would you have encouraged Britain to enter into a catastrophic war simply to uphold France’s treaty commitment to Czechoslovakia?

In fact the argument takes on a surreal twist because when Alan insists on the necessity of struggle, that struggle defines and will always define humanity, they both end up speculating about humanity carrying that struggle on into outer space, into colonising the planets and so on, as the conversation strays into H.G. Wells territory. Benson refuses on principle to sign anything which might provoke violence. Not only that but he points out, quite simply, that it the precious letter will never be read or, if it is, chucked in the waste bin.

A few days later Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement and returns home promising peace in our time. Alan is disgusted, convinced that such kowtowing to Hitler makes Chamberlain and his cabinet more than appeasers but active allies of fascism.

This interpretation seems wildly wide of the mark.

Chapter 14

‘Nearly ten months after Munich’ i.e. July 1939.

The concluding chapter is deliberately and carefully lyrical. It is set entirely in a ramble by a large group of communist party members in the North Downs. Alan is with Elsie and quite a few others. As they climb into a wood Alan notices, with the same kind of intensity he had had back on the Isle of Wight, the extraordinary variety of shapes made by trees and branches, old and new. Light plays amid the branches and he is suddenly seized by a sense of poetry, that there is a spirit in the woods, some special message, but it won’t come.

Only when they emerge from the woods and all camp down to eat their sandwiches and drink coffee from thermos flasks, does it come to him. To some extent, throughout the book, his strong sense of a poetic vocation had been set against the iron logic and demanding work of the party. Now, suddenly, the two are reconciled, the two modes of thinking become one and he has an uplifting and inspiring vision of the future.

As he sat and continued looking up at the trees, he could not suppress a contrary and a stronger feeling, a gladness, a conviction that the poetic life was not a fraud, not a mirage, was good, was possible. It was possible because he knew from within himself that he was capable of it…

A time would come when human beings would know how to remove the social obstacles which they themselves had been forced to set up against happiness. Then the poetic life could be lived – though he would be dead – by others whose inborn bent would be similar to his. There would be a world in which everyone would have freedom for self-fulfilment, would be expected, would have the prime social duty to become whatever he was born to be. (p.272)

Here on a sunny slope, surrounded by friends and party members, he has an utterly optimistic view of the future. He wants to share it with his wife and – typically – spends some time trying to find just the right words, not sentimental, not patronising, that would express just what he feels for her. He leans over and tells Elsie:

‘I’ve been thinking how admirable you are.’ (p.274)


Details

I slowly came to appreciate Upward’s way with very carefully imagined and precisely described scenes. To give a small example, it takes a couple of pages to describe Alan trying to persuade a sceptical Brook to sign the letter. When he does, Brook takes it from his hands and presses it up against the wall of the school corridor to sign. Except that the school walls are covered in roughcast render and Alan immediately sees that if he tries to write on it, Brook will inevitably tear the paper with his pen. Quick as a flash, he proffers the schoolbook he’s holding in his hand, for Brook to use to write on. Suddenly I could see and almost feel the texture of that roughcast wall, and felt the sudden panic in Alan’s mind that his petition would be torn and ruined.

The novel is full of hundreds of little details like that, which add verisimilitude and clarity to the scenes and situations, making them that much more imaginable and enjoyable.

The rasping of Alan’s shoes against the brickwork of Peg’s aunt’s house as he humiliatingly pulls himself up and through the scullery window is more closely described than the act of sex which, apparently, follows it.

And the reader is reminded of the intense passage back at the start when Richard and Alan go walking along the shoreline intensely noticing everything, leaves, shells, rock shapes, strata, waves.

Upward is well aware that it’s a feature of his style. He even makes a joke about it at the end of the book. After the passage where Alan has made an enormous list of the different shapes and analogies the tree trunks remind him of, he realises:

He had lost the excitement of the wood in the interesting detail of the trees…

In other words, he quite literally can’t see the wood for the trees. But it’s OK. In the euphoric final pages of the novel, details and overall narrative are integrated, the poetic life becomes one with the struggle for a better future, the details and the pattern coalesce – he can see the wood and the trees.

Politics

There is a great deal of thinking about communism in the book. Alan starts by expressing an inchoate longing for the certainties of communist doctrine, then turns up ready with thoughts to his first meeting, and then listens to other communists debating current politics. He himself gets caught up in political arguments, namely the two extended arguments. 1. with Aldershaw which amounts to a checklist of objections to communism and their refutations and 2. with Benson when he really struggles to combat Benson’s powerfully consistent Christian pacifism.

Any time he’s with other party members, even with the party member who becomes his girlfriend (Elsie) the subject is likely to change at the drop of a hat into an extended Marxist analysis of the contemporary crisis of capitalism, or musings about party policy, or how a good communist ought to behave.

Communism dominates the book. It is a novel about an idealistic young communist.

Indeed it’s a striking feature of the book that, whereas the Alan character is depicted as hopelessly confused, self-conscious, timorous and clumsy, the political speeches given to the characters are solid, thoughtful pieces which stand up to analysis even 60 years later.

I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that the book isn’t really from the 1930s but was published in 1962 i.e. Upward had had 30 long years to mull over these issues, to see what the unknown future turned out to hold in story, to read, study and listen to Marxist thinkers cleverer and clearer-minded than him.

However, coming fresh from reading Ian Kershaw’s magisterial survey of European history in the 1920s an 30s – To Hell and Back – what interested me was the logic of the communists’ opposition to socialists, a fundamental problem with The Left throughout the period which Kershaw sees as one of the causes of the rise of Fascism.

Because the communists have an iron-strict confidence they are the side of History and the Future, they despise any softening of their calls for the complete and utter overthrow of the system. It is fascinating to read the historical interpretation that the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution could and should have spread to Europe, and was only stopped by the Social Democrats. Here is party member Willy Dean Ayres explaining:

The only way out from this present crisis was by proletarian revolution and by the abolition of the capitalist system, which was strangling the forces of production, and this way could and should have been taken all over Europe during the period following the 1917 Revolution in Russia. What had prevented it from being taken? Mainly the political attitude of the Social Democrats, who instead of co-operating with the Communists had preferred to try to help capitalism to its feet again and had even been responsible for the suppression by violence of workers’ risings. The Social-Democrats had acted as the faithful backers of senile capitalism, but later, when the crisis deepened and disillusionment began to spread among those sections of the working class who had hitherto trusted them, they were no longer useful to the capitalists. ‘Capitalism in extreme decay,’ Dean Ayres was at the moment saying, ‘is forced to use other means, more openly dictatorial and more crudely demagogic, to maintain itself in power. The Social-Democratic hostility to revolution brings not a gradual progress towards Socialism but – as we have seen in Italy and recently in Germany – the temporary victory of Fascism.’ (p.135)

I, as a left-liberal, read Kershaw’s analysis as tending to blame the hard-line communists for the splits which so weakened the Left during these crucial years. And there’s no doubt from all the objective accounts of the Spanish Civil War, beginning with George Orwell’s, that it was the Stalinist hard-line of the communist party which prompted it to attack the anarchist party in Barcelona and led to the localised but intense and bitter civil war between the parties of the Left, which Orwell describes in Homage to Catalonia.

So it’s fascinating to read, in lots of places throughout this book, the opposite point of view being presented – that the communists were the only real force capable of a) overthrowing capitalism and b) taking on fascism, and that it was the fatal weakness of social democrats propping up the defunct capitalist system which a) dragged out its demise unnecessarily b) left so many working people so immiserated that they threw in their lot with the fascists and their easy promises of renewal.

Fascinating to read that other side of the argument put with logical and imaginative conviction.

Credit

In The Thirties by Edward Upward was published in 1962 by William Heinemann. I read the 1969 Penguin paperback. References are to the online version, see below.


Related links

It’s symptomatic that none of the three volumes of The Spiral Ascent appears to be in print. You can pick up the first volume on Amazon for as little as £4 second-hand, but each successive volume seems to double in price. My Penguin copy cost £1 in Oxfam. Or you can download all three novels in the series from the The Spiral Ascent website.

The 1930s

George Orwell

Graham Greene

History

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

On The Frontier by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1938)

This is the third and final theatrical collaboration between the poet W.H. Auden and the novelist Christopher Isherwood. Their previous two plays had been written for and performed by the highly political and experimental Group Theatre. They had been encouraged to use a mixture of prose and poetry and to write about ‘political’ subjects.

The Ascent of F6

Their previous work, The Ascent of F6, had been about the rivalry between two colonial powers, Britain and the fictional ‘Ostnia’ for control of a fictional African country called Sudonia. The natives believed whoever got to the top of the big mountain on the border between the two colonies – named F6 by geographers – would rule both. We are introduced to stereotypes of British Establishment types, including a blustering general, a scheming newspaper proprietor, and the Foreign Secretary and then the play follows the team of British mountaineers who set out to climb F6.

Three points: when it comes down to it the play is less about politics and more about the struggle in the mind of the lead character, the charismatic mountaineer Michael Ransom, who worries that if he succeeds he will be turned into a celebrity and even be tempted to use his power over the British public, possibly not for good i.e. be tempted to become the Strong Leader which a craven public is crying out for.

2. We meet two representatives of this craven public in the shape of Mr and Mrs A, who are given verse choruses throughout the action, who read the papers, listen to the radio, grumble about the trains and the weather and their crappy little suburban lives. They pop up in the boxes nearest the stage, are revealed and then disappear using clever lighting and are, generally, the most enjoyable part of the play.

3. The end is awful. Auden & Isherwood eventually tried out three different endings but none of them worked because they didn’t really know what they wanted to say. There’s lots of talk about the mountain being haunted by a ‘Demon’, but in the first version, when Ransom finally reaches the top, the Demon is revealed as being his own smothering, dominating Mother. Whatever this weird ending was trying to say, it was too obscure and psychological in origin to work on the stage.

On The Frontier

Despite these problems, F6 was a surprise success and was even broadcast, live, on a very early version of the new BBC television service on 31 May 1937.

This motivated Auden and Isherwood to try something more commercial, with an eye to getting a proper West End success. They attempted a more serious story and this time the verse – which had been such a highlight of F6 – was rigorously cut back.

On The Frontier reuses the fictional nations of Ostnia and Westland, who share a common border and hate each other. The play has three sets of characters. By far the most enjoyable is Valerian, Captain of Industry, owner of a vast combine which owns and runs most of the town beneath his looming plate glass offices. He is camp and droll, an Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward figure, loftily ironical about the ‘people’s’ pathetic dreams of freedom, but just as dismissive of the ridiculous new ‘leader’ whose risen to the top of the pile in Westland after a recent revolution. He is served by an impeccable butler named Manners, who reminds me of Nestor, butler to Captain Haddock in Tintin.

The main set of characters are two families, the Thorvalds of Westland and the Vrodnys of Ostnia, and the main theatrical innovation or feature of the play is that although these two families lives in houses hundreds of miles apart, in their respective countries, on the stage, in this play, they appear in the same space at the same time. The stage is simply divided in two and we watch the Thorvald family bicker and squabble on their side, and the Vrodnys argue and make up on theirs – at the same time. This allows for all kinds of counterpointing, for example when each family listens on the radio to the announcement of war from their respective leaders, the Leader of Westland and the King of Ostnia.

The main counterpoint is that the young man in the Thorvald household, Eric, is in love with the young woman in the Vrodny household, Anna. Yes, it is Romeo and Juliet. But cheesy though it sounds, I bet this made for quite dramatic stagecraft, for on several occasions the lights go down on their bickering families and the two lovers step into a spotlight to declare their love, and ask why the world is so violent and divided etc etc. Trite sentiments, but even reading it cold on the page you can see that it must have been quite visually dramatic.

And of course you realise this is that the title refers to: the frontier between the two countries runs right down the middle of the stage and between Eric and Anna.

There’s a third group, a chorus of 5 men and 3 women who play different roles to punctuate the main action, for example playing workers hanging round outside a factory at the beginning; or five Englishmen reading out loud from five British different newspapers which each report the mounting international tension in their stylised and biased ways; to soldiers firing from two opposing trenches, once the war gets going.

Because for all the fine talk, and all the stylish one-liners of the urbane Valerian, and despite the Leader (actually a gruff and tired and confused former peasant i.e. not at all a homicidal Hitler or Mussolini) pledging to withdraw his troops and declare a non-aggression pact – despite Eric and Anna pledging their troth in the spotlight – despite everyone’s good intentions, in incident on the border – a bomb explosion in which civilians from both sides are killed – triggers both countries’ latent hatred and contempt of the other, and they go to war.

Inevitably the war drags on and we see the homes of the two families become steadily more shabby and denuded. Not only that, but beloved members of the families are killed off as the conflict drags on.

And, just to rub it in, a plague breaks out which starts devastating both countries. The Thorvald family has included Martha, Dr Thorvald’s unmarried sister, a frustrated spinster who takes out her frustration by hero worshiping The Leader with a zeal which embarrasses the rest of the family. Well, rather inevitably, she‘s the one who develops symptoms of the plague and, once she realises it, breaks out in hysterics –  a classic example of Auden’s psychological theories that frustrated desires breed actual physical disease.

And Valerian, the amusingly cynical industrialist? As the war escalates first his loyal lieutenant, Schwartz, rushes in to tell him he’s leaving the country, emigrating to South America, the army’s collapsed, the war has turned into a civil war. Then he has a page-long prose speech yelling out the window at the rabble beneath, explaining that their ‘revolution’ will be defeated, how he and his ilk own the papers, the radio, and will spread lies and disinformation about their atrocities (this can be read as an upper-class denunciation of all revolutions but some aspects of it seem to refer to the way the Republican side was defeated in the Spanish Civil War).

Then the Storm-trooper Grimm bursts in (a character we’ve met earlier in the play, being strong and silent). Now he has rebelled. Shockingly, he tells Valerian he’s just shot dead the Leader, in his office elsewhere in the same building.

Now we discover he is a man with a grudge. At one stage in its growth Valerian’s conglomerate deliberately undercut all the small high street shops which, as a result, went bankrupt. Grimm’s father kept one. The family was reduced to poverty. His father shot himself. Young boy Grimm made a vow to meet the man who destroyed his family. It’s taken him years to enter the Storm Troopers and rise this far. And now he’s face to face with the man who did it (Valerian) holding a gun. Valerian begs for his life and offers Grimm gold, jewels, cash. It’s an extended scene in which the initiative passes between them because as Valerian talks on Grimm slowly loses his murderous impetus, while Valerian becomes more confident. Eventually Valerian oversteps the mark, passing from speculation about Grimm’s love life, or lack of, to his mother and that’s a bad mistake. Suddenly incensed, Grimm shoots him dead. Oh well.

Anyway, both Eric and Anna die. That’s it. Shame. The pity of war. The futility of conflict. Romeo and Juliet.

The play ends with Eric and Anna rising from their respective deathbeds, drifting back into the central spotlight where we’ve seen them several times before, and delivering the authors’ message, such as it is – classic Auden which invokes very generalised ideas of The City and Justice and Love and Dignity:

Now as we come to our end,
As the tiny separate lives
Fall, fall to their graves
We begin to understand.
A moment, and time will forget
Our failure and our name
But not the common thought
That linked us in a dream.
Open the closing eyes,
Summon the failing breath,
With our last look we bless
The turning maternal earth.
Europe lies in the dark
City and flood and tree;
Thousands have worked and work
To master necessity.
To build the city where
The will of love is done
And brought to its full flower
The dignity of man.
Pardon them their mistakes,
The impatient and wavering will.
They suffer for our sakes,
Honour, honour them all.
Dry their imperfect dust,
The wind blows it back and forth.
They die to make man just
And worthy of the earth.

Thoughts

Difficult to tell whether this would have worked in a theatrical setting. With good lighting, in the presence of an expectant audience, and with good actors speaking the words, maybe. But on the page it remains quite cold, reading like standard Auden fustian. By the time of its first performances (six nights in Cambridge from Monday 14 November 1938, and one night only in London on Sunday 12 February 1939), everyone in England had been traumatised by the Munich Crisis of the previous September and everyone on the Left was upset by the slow grinding failure of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (which was declared over on 1 April 1939).

Against this deeply grim political backdrop the two happy-go-lucky public schoolboys’ stab at covering contemporary anxieties just doesn’t feel deep or worked-out enough – the characters are ciphers, the plot is ludicrous. Maybe the characters dropping like flies are doing so, as the concluding chorus puts it, in order ‘to make man just and worthy of the earth’ – but these seem like pretentious lines which the preceding ‘drama’ hasn’t really justified.

Instead the most obvious thing you get from reading this closing passage cold, is its Christian feel. It is, in effect, a prayer asking God to forgive ‘them’ i.e. us.

In a later memoir Isherwood revealed that throughout their collaborations he had the devil of a struggle preventing Auden slipping into Christian attitudes; whenever Isherwood’s back was turned, Auden had the characters flopping down onto their knees and praying about something or other, and the climax of this play seems to be a classic example of this tendency.

It feels like an ambitious school play.

Lastly, the whole cartoon concept of these two stereotypical nations, ‘Westland’ versus ‘Ostnia’, kept reminding me of the warring nations Freedonia and Sylvania in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, an anti-war satire which has aged far better.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1936)

Very enjoyable, quite funny at moments, very clever and zips along at speed until the climax which I completely failed to understand.

Act I

A British colony, Sudoland, is troubled, the natives are restless, and our colonial rival, Ostnia, threatens to invade across the border. At  meeting of notables, the Foreign Secretary, Sir James Ransom, explains that there is a legendary mountain, F6, slap-bang on the border between the two colonies. Native tradition has it that a) the mountain is haunted and b) whoever climbs to the top of this mountain will rule over both colonies for a thousand years. Just recently we received a telegram telling us that the Ostnians have sent an expedition to climb the mountain, is on its way now.

The notables Ransom is addressing – General Dellaby-Couch, a fuddy duddy old general; excitable Lady Isabel Welwyn; and cynical newspaper magnate Lord Stagmantle – react with dismay… until Sir James announces that we, the British, are planning a counter-expedition. Who will lead it? Why, his own brother Michael Ransom, one of the world’s leading mountaineers!

But Michael is a completely different kettle of fish from his successful Establishment brother. They appear to have been twins and James was always the brash, confident, favoured one while Michael was slightly smaller, more private.

This explains the opening scene. The curtains rise to reveal Michael at the top of a peak in the Lake District very bitterly and cynically denouncing Dante, who he’s been reading. Michael mocks Dante for his fake high-mindedness, mocking the speech of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno which mentions ‘Virtue’ and ‘Knowledge’. Michael doesn’t believe in that guff. After a lengthy monologue the voices of his mountaineering mates call him to climb back down with them.

Michael’s cynical, disillusioned attitude explains why, when his brother unexpectedly pays him a visit at the mountaineering hostel (actually a pub, the Lakeland Pub) where he’s hanging out with four of his mountaineering buddies (David Gunn, Teddy Lamp, Ian Shawcross and the Doctor, Tom), and makes him the offer of leading this fully-funded mountaineering expedition to one of the great mountains of the word… Michael turns him down. Michael’s not interested in being anyone’s hero.

Until that is, Sir James plays his trump card, introducing their mother, who walks through the door and asks him to climb the mountain for her. She gives a speech comparing the lives of the two brothers, how he was the smaller, weaker of the twins, but she always loved him best. Michael can’t refuse. He says yes.

Act II

Cut to a monastery on the Great Glacier of F6. Monks are chanting, carrying a funeral coffin. This is where Michael and his team are resting before starting the climb.

There is dissension in the team. Earnest Ian Shawcross is very upset by the way David Gunn is always mucking about and stealing things. Shawcross desperately wants to make sure he gets to the top.

In a strange scene a monk brings in a crystal to the room where the mountaineers are staying. One by one they all go over and look into the crystal and see visions in it, telling the others what they see. Only Michael (who they all jokily refer to as MF) is silent about what he saw.

The Abbot of the monastery enters and has a conversation with Michael. Michael confesses that what he saw in the crystal is the wild adulation which will greet him if he climbs to F6, the first European to do so. It’ll be reported in all the papers, he’ll get home to a hero’s welcome. And he’ll be offered power, people will want him to save the country and save them. He’s terrified by all this and asks the abbot how he can escape it. The Abbott says there is a way to escape: stay in the monastery and renounce his way of life.

This passage brings out what you could call the Christian negativity underpinning the whole play. It comes over in the play’s poor view of human nature, irredeemably corrupted. The Abbott tells Michael: ‘the human will is from the Demon’. From reading even this far you can see why Auden temperamentally could have no truck with communism, which is optimistic, confident that human beings can control their destiny and build a better future.

Michael sees himself as being tempted, like Christ on the mountain, tempted with visions of the adulation he will receive when gets home from the weak and unhappy. Acting on this, when the Abbot has left, Michael asks his comrades to cancel the climb, but they think he’s mad and insist they go on, they’ve come all this way, England expects etc. And so, feeling weak and wretched, he gives in and agrees to the climb going ahead.

In the next scene they’re on a rock ledge and, after various bits of banter, Lamp, the sweet 24-year-old botanist, climbs over the ledge and down a bit to look at some interesting flowers and a sudden avalanche carries him away.

In the next scene the doctor and Ransom are waiting in a tent on a ridge above the previous location for the other two to arrive. They discuss who Ransom is going to choose to make the final ascent with him. Only two men can go. The Doctor reviews MF’s options i.e. who should it be out of Shawcross and Gunn? In a weak moment he asks if he can go, but realises this is foolish, he is by far the oldest of the team and it will require stamina.

Ransom says he’s made his mind up. The other two (Shawcross and Gunn) arrive and Gunn is immediately all fuss and trivial, interested only in the hot chocolate and oatmeal and natters on and even sings a nonsense song… until Shawcross snaps. Shawcross is extremely tense and demands who Ransom has chosen to take to the summit. Is it him? The others try to calm Shawcross, but he is hysterical and demands to know.

Ransom announces he is taking David, the inspired amateur, scrounger, petty thief and irritating joker. Shawcross is distraught. He berates himself as a failure, says he isn’t a man. Ransom tries to explain that: now he recognises his weakness, now he has self knowledge, he is a man. Michael he is sending him back to England to live, to be useful, and not go on this mad cock-and-bull expedition up a bloody mountain precisely because he is a serious man who will do much good. But Shawcross can’t accept it, can’t cope, rising hysteria. Suddenly he breaks free of the others, struggles out of the tent, runs to the precipice and throws himself over the edge.

Scene IV Ransom is supporting Gunn in a blizzard as they struggle towards the summit. Gunn is exhausted, cannot walk, is delirious, has a short speech and dies of exhaustion. Not going well, is it? The extremity of this short scene (barely 2 pages) prompted Auden to write some of the worse verse of the play, sub-Shakespearian bombast.

Scene V I barely understood a word of the final scene. Michael has arrived at the top of the mountain. A veiled figure sites right at the top, is it the legendary Demon of the Mountain? The chorus recites some poetry, then his brother James appears wearing full Foreign Office ceremonial dress.

Michael staggers on stage wearing his mountain climbing gear. Suddenly onto the stage comes a full set of chess pieces. James’s pieces include the General, Lady Welwyn, Lord Stagmantle, Michael’s include Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn.

Mr and Mrs A – two characters who have commented on the action all the way through – ask questions about their miserable lives and the three named characters – then James – answer them in various shades of pompous officialdom.

Then James and Michael play chess with the life-size pieces, without dialogue, occasionally saying ‘Check’. Michael wins and James collapses. Michael appears to have killed him. The General, Lady Welwyn and Lord Stagmantle recite a poem accusing Michael of murdering one of England’s favourite sons, as they jostle each other, leap on each others’ backs and ‘behave in general like the Marx brothers.

A light goes up to illuminate the Abbot at the back of the stage wearing a judge’s wig and bearing the crystal. Monks enter, lift James’s body onto a stretcher and carry him out. Stagmantle and Isabel recite what was to become the most famous poem from the play

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The Abbott accuses Michael of killing his brother. Michael hysterically points at the veiled figure on the summit of the mountain and says the Demon did it! The Abbott (wearing a judge’s wig, remember) calls his witnesses, and one by one Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn appear, worn and bloody from their deaths, to accuse Michael.

Bewildered Michael ‘appeals to the crystal’ and the Abbott lets him look at it again. Michael looks up and says he didn’t mean it, it’s not his fault. The Abbott tells him it’s too late and says ‘the case is being brought before the Crown’, indicating the veiled figure seated on the summit. A Chorus recites an Auden poem. The Chorus and all the characters cry at Ransom that he must die, die for us, die for England!

Panic-stricken Michael turns to the figure at the top of the mountain as there’s the sound of an avalanche and all the other characters disappear. The figure’s draperies fall away to reveal… Michael’s mother, lovely as a young woman. There follows a cryptic passage of verse alternating between the Chorus and the Mother sort of addressing the meaning of the play and the choice Michael has made.

During this chorus the stage slowly darkens, and then is reillumined by the red light of the rising son. The stage is empty except for the dead body of Ransom on the mountain top.


Thoughts

What was that about? Was it his confused fantasia, was it a stream of consciousness hallucination brought on by his extreme exhaustion? Or the opposite, a ‘realistic’ depiction of a highly modern, self-consciously staged and artificial poetic event?

The first audiences like the play but didn’t understand the ending. Auden and Isherwood revised it not once but twice, with the result that there were three published versions with different endings. Later in life, Isherwood acknowledged that they never did get the ending right. But you can see this is because they didn’t know what they wanted to say.

The first part – the setup taking the mickey out of Establishment types – was easy. The scenes on the mountain, once they’d decided they’d do away with the other mountaineers one by one, almost wrote themselves. But the climax where they had to explain what the play was about? They couldn’t.

Within a year, a critic had suggested that the play dramatised nothing about politics and society but really dramatised Auden’s own personal dilemma: he had become ‘the Voice of a Generation’ and he didn’t want to be. He seemed to be a leader of all these other poets and writers but was, himself, wracked with doubts. He seemed to be leading them along a path (of socially committed poetry) which would lead some to destruction (to betray their talents) and didn’t want the responsibility.

The only way out was to kill the Auden figure amid a welter of Chorus poetry, but unfortunately this personal psychological way out didn’t make for very satisfactory theatre. In fact it doesn’t make sense and invalidates much of the preceding. The heavy symbolism of the Establishment figures, the rivalry with Ostnia and the deaths of his comrades, all these important issues are just waved away.

The strong man and other themes

A recurrent feature of Auden and Isherwood’s writing of the time was anxiety about ‘the truly strong man’ (anxiety about whether they’re being true ‘he-man’ types run through the Letters From Iceland which were written immediately after F6).

Some critics work these up into being a ‘discussion’ of masculinity. In this play you could say Michael Ransom ‘represents’ the conflict in one figure between the idea of doing the Heroic Thing, making a Proud Achievement for the Nation (i.e. climbing F6) – everyone’s stereotype of the Strong Man — but he inside knows that this achievement and giving in to public adulation would be weakness; for him, being truly strong would be to cancel the expedition, not to climb the mountain and to return to a quiet life of anonymity in England.

It’s a sort of interesting issue but I can’t get very worked up about it for three reasons:

  1. it’s obviously such an entirely personal obsession of Auden’s, maybe Isherwood’s too, it feels very close to the other schoolboy obsessions and jokes which pepper their writings
  2. and indeed, from one angle, it feels like a dramatisation of the very common plight of all weedy intellectuals who are in awe of big strong types, the wallflower anxieties of the Rick Moranis character in Ghostbusters
  3. it has been swept away by 80 years of identity and gender politics so as to be barely detectable as an issue

For an up-to-the-minute discussion of masculinity I refer you to the Barbican’s recent enormous exhibition on the subject:

Finally, these issues – a bit like the Christian symbolism which sort of appears, now and then – feel trivial in comparison to the artistic inventiveness of the play – it’s quick and fun, full of special effects, and of dazzling poetry!

Auden’s verse

On one level there’s a plot and there’s some ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ and ‘issues’ you’re meant to take seriously. Maybe. But on another level, the play amounts to a barrage of Auden’s verse. There’s reams of it. About 30 pages of the 84 pages are in verse, choruses and lyrics. They cover a wide range of subject matter and affects. There are larky lyrics:

The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
The lighthouse keepers
Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, ‘Wait till I return,
I’ve got a date with Love.’

There’s a Chorus which echoes the action in typically elliptical, hieratic verse.

Acts of justice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.
Still the dark forest, quiet the deep,
Softly the clock ticks, baby must sleep!
The Pole Star is shining, bright the Great Bear,
Orion is watching, high in the air.

Descriptions of England’s countryside wasted by the Depression.

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep,
For toads croak in the cistern; the aqueduct chokes with leaves:
The highways are out of repair and infested with thieves:
The ragged population are crazy for lack of sleep;
Our chimneys are smokeless; the implements rust in the field
And our tall constructions are felled.

Gossipy descriptions of types of profession and character.

The cat has died at Ivy Dene,
The Crowthers’ pimply son has passed Matric,
St Neots has put up light blue curtains,
Frankie is walking out with Winnie
And Georgie loves himself.

Highly schematic call and response verse reminiscent of T.S. Eliot at his most portentous.

Give me bread   Restore my dead
I am sick   Help me quick
Give me a car   Make me a star
Make me neat   Guide my feet
Make me strong   Teach me where I belong

And Mr and Mrs A with their eternal worrying and complaining:

Mrs A
Give me some money before you go
There are a number of bills we owe
And you can go to the bank today
During your lunch hour.

Mr A
I dare say;
But as it happens I’m overdrawn.

Mrs A
Overdrawn? What on earth have you done
With all the money? Where’s it gone?

Mr A
How does money always go?
Papers, lunches, tube-fares, teas,
Toothpaste, stamps and doctor’s fees,
Our trip to Hove coast a bit, you know?

Theatrical effects

So the play is not enjoyable because of its themes of the public versus the private man, or its garbled treatment of ‘redemption’ but despite them. Despite the garbled plot, the play is packed full of not only a very wide range of types and registers of verse, but this is combined with a load of snappy stage effects.

Central is the idea that the two boxes nearest the stage i.e. not on the stage but set back from all the action, are populated by Mr and Mrs A, a dowdy suburban pair, he with his wretched job as a clerk in a miserable office, she eternally grumbling and complaining.

They appear regularly throughout the play commenting directly or obliquely on the main action (when the newspapers announce Britain is sending an exhibition to climb F6 they spout patriotic pride, when it is announced that Lamb has died they recite a funeral poem). Their appearance is indicated when the lights onstage dim to darkness and lights come up to illuminate their box.

But the box idea is taken further when one of them is populated with a radio which blares out official BBC announcements. And then by the announcer themselves in BBC black tie making announcements which also commentate on the action. Lord Stagworthy even appears in the box to make a pompous radio announcement full of clichés, ‘no more fitting grave for our brave boy etc’.

But this entertaining piece of satire them segues into Mrs A declaiming a relatively serious stretch of verse saying that the dead man (Lamp) is not now subject to age and the slow decay of ideals and mind and body. When the Mother appears she declaims a long passage of Shakespearian blank verse to describe the childhood of the two boys.

There is a secret I have kept so long
My tongue is rusty. What you have said
I knew and have always known. Why do you start?
You are my Michael and I know my own…

This is immediately followed by the stage going to a dead blackout and the voices of a load of newspaper boys hawking the latest editions and shouting their headline.

Evening Moon: Late Night Final!
Young English Climber’s Daredevil Attempt!
The Haunted Mountain: Full Story and Pictures!
Monasteries in Sudoland: Amazing Revelations!

Then lights come up on the Mr & Mrs A stage box to reveal Mrs A who declaims, not in her usual nagging housewife voice, but in a more elevated, ‘poetic’ trance:

I read the papers; there is nothing there
But news of failure and despair:
The savage train-wreck in the dead of night,
The fire in the school, the children caught alight,
The starving actor in the oven lying,
The cashier shot in the grab-raid and left dying,
The young girl slain upon the surgeon’s table,
The poison bottle with the harmless label…

(The sort of thing Auden could rattle off by the yard). Some individual pieces are brilliant and were later published as stand-alone poems (for example the ‘Stop all the clocks’ lyric that became superfamous after Richard Curtis included it in the script of Four Weddings And A Funeral).

But the real point of the play is its imaginative stagecraft – the speed with which it changes scenes and lighting and tone, from naturalistic prose to a whole range of verse, all signalled and highlighted by cunning lighting and sound effects (and the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, impossible to recreate when you silently read the play). Even in a stone cold reading its tremendous energy and inventiveness comes over. it’s a shame Auden and Isherwood couldn’t devise a successful ending to the play but it doesn’t stop the journey through the play to its muddled conclusion from being thrilling and entertaining.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

The Auden Generation

Rex Warner was one of the generation of English schoolboys born in the Edwardian decade who went to public schools during the war, then onto Oxford and Cambridge in the 1920s, where they met, mingled and often had affairs (many of them were gay or bisexual), before going on to start their writing careers at the very start of the 1930s.

They were the generation which gave literature in England in the 1930s its distinctive tone, its schoolboy enthusiasms – for the shiny Art Deco world, for a glamorised black-and-white movie view of spies and fighting, and (since so many of them dabbled with left-wing politics) for sixth-form disapproval of unemployment and a simple-minded sort of communism.

At the time, this cohort of poets and novelists was often referred to as ‘the Auden Group’ and in hindsight is often called ‘the Auden Generation’ because of the enormously influence of the poetry and criticism of W.H. Auden. It includes:

  • Edward Upward b.1903 Repton School, Cambridge, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1934
  • Christopher Isherwood b.1904, Repton School, Kings College London
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904, Sherborne School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1935
  • Rex Warner b.1905 St George’s School Harpenden, Oxford
  • W.H. Auden b.1907 Greshams School, Oxford
  • Louis MacNeice b.1907, Marlborough, Oxford
  • Stephen Spender b.1909 Greshams School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1936
  • Benjamin Britten b.1913 Greshams School, Royal College of Music

All the guys on this list knew each other well from public school or Oxbridge, and collaborated on poems and plays and travel books which brought a new feel to English literature. They were modern and unstuffy, they rejected the values of their fuddy-duddy Edwardian parents. They were unashamed of their homosexuality or bisexuality, and rejected hypocritical old sexual morality.

They rebelled against their parents’ timid Anglican Christianity (‘nothing but vague uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda’ as Auden put it). Many of them e.g. Rex Warner and Louis MacNeice, were actually the sons of clergymen and (with a kind of inevitability which tends to disillusion you with human nature) quite a few ended up many years later reverting to the Anglican faith of their boyhoods (e.g. Rex Warner and, surprisingly, Auden himself).

They revelled in the new 1920s world of fast cars and speedboats, the excitement of air travel and the sheer glamour of steam trains with names like The Flying Scotsman. They were totally at home in the new media of radio and film, typified by Auden’s poetic commentary for a documentary about the London to Glasgow night train in 1936.

Auden’s poetry is significant because it is, arguably, the first in English literature which doesn’t reject the city and fetishise the countryside as most previous poets had. It’s true some English poets had conveyed the squalor of the late-Victorian metropolis, and T.S. Eliot had described 1920s urban crowds seen through the eyes of someone having a nervous breakdown:

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (The Waste Land lines 60 to 65)

But instead of horror or revulsion at the modern world, Auden conveys a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm for a world of factories, mine workings, racing cars, air speed records, ocean liners, electricity pylons. (Spender wrote a poem entirely about electricity pylons striding across the landscape, which led some critics to nickname the group the ‘pylon poets’).

And Auden does it in poetic forms which are popular and accessible. If Eliot’s poetry represents a crisis of Modernity in which sensitive, highly cultivated minds break down before the assault of the modern world and convey this in fragmented works packed with recondite references to the highest of European high culture (Dante, St John of the Cross), then Auden is the opposite.

Totally at home in the 20th century with its crowds and trains and trams and advertising hoardings and jazz bands and radio programmes, Auden knocks off ballads and limericks and lyrics and songs with a devil-may-care insouciance, a slapdash brilliance which a whole generation found inspiring and liberating after the psychologically intense, cramped and unhappy poetry of Modernism with its daunting battery of obscure references. Now poetry could be silly, inconsequential, as wittily throwaway as a Cole Porter lyric.

You were a great Cunarder, I
Was only a fishing smack.
Once you passed across my bows
And of course you did not look back.

It was only a single moment yet
I watch the sea and sigh,
Because my heart can never forget
The day you passed me by.

The Auden Group had all been too young to take part in or even understand, the First World War but, as impressionable teens, were exposed by their schoolmasters to endless stories of British pluck and heroism. They had all taken part in the Officer Training Corps at school and were used to playing at soldiers, wearing schoolboy soldier outfits, using schoolboy compasses and schoolboy maps to take part in pretend battles and missions.

It was this bright-eyed, schoolboy innocence they brought to the world as they found it in the late 1920s and 1930s. On the one hand it was a world of thrilling opportunities, with its hot jazz and dance halls, and radio just one of the new technologies opening the horizons of millions, its fast cars and sleek trains.

But on other hand, these boys were just leaving university and looking for their first jobs as the world was plunged into the economic collapse of the Depression, a world in which something had obviously gone badly wrong if millions were unemployed, factories and mines were shut down, and the destitute of Jarrow had to march on London to beg for work.

This exciting, thrilling modern world with all its cocktails and gizmos was at the same time somehow compromised, wrong, in error, needed to be rejected, rejuvenated, overthrown. Beneath the smouldering heaps of slag which disfigured the landscapes of the Black Country and the industrial North, slumbered the dragon of change, impatient to overthrow the old regime, the Old Gang.

Auden, again, vividly captured the feeling of an entire generation of impatient, upper-middle-class young men that they’d been sold a pup, that something was badly wrong, that society was poised on the brink of some terrible catastrophic change.

It is time for the destruction of error.
The chairs are being brought in from the garden,
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast
Before the storms, after the guests and birds:
In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.
The falling leaves know it, the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground, know it–
This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s:

Orders are given to the enemy for a time
With underground proliferation of mould,
With constant whisper and the casual question,
To haunt the poisoned in his shunned house,
To destroy the efflorescence of the flesh,
To censor the play of the mind, to enforce
Conformity with the orthodox bone,
With organised fear, the articulated skeleton.

You whom I gladly walk with, touch,
Or wait for as one certain of good,
We know it, we know that love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,
More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,
The self-confidence of the falling root,
Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang; would leave them
In sullen valley where is made no friend,
The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in clear lake
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.

Some of this is, admittedly, pretty obscure, but other bits leap out as wonderfully expressive:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

And the whole things conveys the sense of crisis, through a heady mix of 1. details picked out like close-ups in a movie:

…the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,

2. Invocations of northern mythology, not the sunlit references poets usually made to Greek mythology, but something northern, darker, more sinister:

This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s…

3. Snapshots of the real derelict industrial England:

… the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground…

It was a heady mixture of technical brilliance (Auden could and did write in almost every form known to English poetry, as well as inventing a few), brilliant details which leap out at you, great phrase-making, and confident mastery of modern psychology:

… love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union

References to kinky sex:

The hard bitch and the riding-master,

And ominous threat, the vague but powerfully expressed sense that there needs to be sweeping social change if anything is to be fixed, the solution to society’s problems, it:

Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang.

The confidence of his voice influenced an entire generation away from the crabbed, fractured obscurities of Modernism (epitomised by Eliot’s Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos) towards this lighter, more open, confident and often funny tone, oddly combined with its schoolboy enthusiasm for ‘revolution’, for ‘radical’ change – something which, of course, none of them really understood.

(It was this political naivety, this ‘playing’ with radical politics which led George Orwell [b.1903, educated at Eton] to despise Auden, who he described as ‘a kind of gutless Kipling’. He really hated the whole gang. In reviews of their books, Orwell frequently referred to them as ‘the pansy poets’. Two other big names of the Thirties also stood apart from the gang, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, although both were Edwardian-born chaps who attended pukka schools – Greene b.1904, Berkhamsted school, Oxford; Waugh b.1903, Lancing school, Oxford.)

Spain

This sense of Auden’s omnicompetence and omniscience is exemplified in the first half dozen stanzas of the long poem Auden wrote after visiting Spain early in the civil war, titled simply Spain, which was published as a pamphlet in order to raise money for the Republican side.

Spain opens with a succession of stanzas each of which start with the word ‘Yesterday’ and give a visionary review of early Spanish history, building up a sense of the country’s pagan primeval past, before the poem arrives at the plight of the present.

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

It’s the confident tone, and the breadth of knowledge, and the fluent technique which allows him to include all these references in such powerful striding rhythms, which thrilled and influenced all the writers, especially the poets, of the 1930s. Only a few managed to resist, to establish a voice of their own.

Stephen Spender

Spender was a key figure of the group, went to the same private school as Auden, on to Oxford, then to bohemian Germany, was bisexual, political, published his first poems in 1933, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936, travelled to Spain and wrote extensively about it during the civil war. Over the years he developed extraordinary connections with writers across Europe and became a leading literary figure in post-war Britain, not least as literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967. He was made a CBE in 1962 and knighted in 1983.

But I’ve always his poetry Stephen Spender wet and weedy. He’s too nice. He lacks the peculiar obscurity and the threat which lies behind even the most apparently accessible Auden. And he generally delivers one good phrase per poem and then the rest feels like padding. Here’s his famous pylon poem.

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

It’s a copy, a pastiche, the work of a devotee. Much of it is poor, like the opening line:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made…

The line about the electricity pylons being ‘Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret’ catches most people’s eyes, specially if they’re men. This is the best stanza:

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This has the Auden touch with its explicit reference to threat and danger and sense of the future as being ominous. ‘Whips of anger’ is good. But overall, it is (in my opinion) second rate.

Louis MacNeice

One of the contemporaries who was influenced by Auden (they all were) but maintained his independence was the car-loving, heterosexual Louis MacNiece.

MacNeice wrote funny, stylish poems which took a more mordant, sceptical look at the contemporary world than Auden’s. All Auden’s poems, when you look closely, contain a lot about his own personal unease and psychological issues. For the decade of the 1930s his inclusion of these neuroses (generally the parts of his poems which are most obscure in syntax and imagery) seemed to express the anxieties of the times.

MacNeice was a much more frank and forthright personality and so a lot of his verse has a more objective, external, sometimes journalistic vibe. Even when he starts off writing about workers in a factory, Auden ends up dragging in his own uncertainty and anxiety. MacNeice stays far more impersonal or, when he does express himself, that self is far more straightforward (maybe because he was far more straightforwardly heterosexual).

Possibly his most famous short poem or lyric is Snow.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

It isn’t neurotic or nostalgic or sentimental or depressed as so much poetry can be. It is vigorous and positive. It isn’t dressed in old-fashioned Victorian poetic rhetoric: its vocabulary and speech rhythms are absolutely modern:

… I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips

What could be more prosaic and mundane? Except that, into this banal scene, MacNeice has inserted a world of wonder and, for the purpose, invented a register which allows wonder without any recourse to old-fashioned phraseology or imagery.

World is crazier and more of it than we think

No classical myths or historical figures or lady loves are invoked. Just one man in a room, sitting by a snug fire, peeling a tangerine as it starts to snow outside and suddenly he is struck by how weird and varied the world is. And how wonderful it is to be alive.

Autumn Journal

MacNeice is far more at home in his own skin than Auden. His most famous longer poem, Autumn Journal, is a wonderfully flowing verse diary he kept of the 1938 autumn of the Munich Crisis, recording day-to-day impressions of what he read and felt and saw in the London around him as everyone held their breath while British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew three times to Germany to negotiate with Hitler in a bid to resolve the crisis over Czechoslovakia and prevent a world war.

It opens with a vivid depiction of the fuddy-duddy world of Edwardian colonels and village fairs which Auden, also, often satirised. But whereas Auden shoots out scattergun pellets, flying impatiently from one cinematic detail to another, note how MacNeice is much slower, more patient, describes the scene thoroughly, more like a novel.

Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the ’planes that pass
Northward from Lee-on-Solent. Macrocarpa and cypress
And roses on a rustic trellis and mulberry trees
And bacon and eggs in a silver dish for breakfast
And all the inherited assets of bodily ease
And all the inherited worries, rheumatism and taxes…

(The poem is laid out with more visual inventiveness than above, with successive lines indented to give visual variety. This doesn’t seem to be possible in WordPress.)

Actually, rereading this opening section makes me realise how much this passage depends on the word ‘and’ to create what is, in some ways, a rather simple accretion of detail. Auden leaps from detail to detail giving you a dizzy sense of a master film director; MacNeice says: ‘and another thing…’, giving you the sense of someone leading you into an interesting story.

Whether because of the fear and censorship surrounding homosexual love, or because Auden was so much the intellectual in whatever he wrote whereas MacNeice is much closer to the pie-and-a-pint, ordinary man-in-the-street, MacNeice’s heterosexual love lyrics are simpler and more immediate that Auden’s. Less troubled. Here’s a later passage from Autumn Journal where he’s thinking about his wife:

September has come, it is hers
Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
Trees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace.
So I give her this month and the next
Though the whole of my year should be hers who has rendered already
So many of its days intolerable or perplexed
But so many more so happy.
Who has left a scent on my life, and left my walls
Dancing over and over with her shadow
Whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
And all of London littered with remembered kisses.

Beautiful, non? In its simplicity of diction, flow and candour.

Afterlife of the Auden Group

The arts in the 1930s were a bit like the 1960s. Caught up in fast-moving turbulent times a new generation of writers, poets and artists spearheaded new forms and media and subjects, determined to overthrow the conservative certainties of their parents, especially when it came to sexual freedom and artistic experimentation – many getting mixed up with heady declarations of political and social revolution, which they spent the rest of their lives trying to live down (Day Lewis left the Communist Party in 1938, Spender in fact only lasted a few months as a member and a decade later he was one of the six leading European writers who recorded their disillusionment with communism in the seminal essay collection The God That Failed, 1949.)

And then it all suddenly ground to a halt. The abject failure of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War – ground down to defeat amid internecine conflict and bitter recriminations – broke their boyish idealistic spirit (the Spanish Civil War ended on 1 April 1939). A few months later (September 1939) the Second World War broke out and was not at all the glamorous struggle these public schoolboys had spent a decade anticipating. Literary movements collapsed, people moved away (to America, generally, where Auden and Isherwood fled in 1939).

[Auden’s] departure with Isherwood for America in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, p.276)

The dust settled and a lot of people spent the rest of their lives writing memoirs and essays and documentaries trying to figure out what it had all meant.

Over the 80 or so years since, a small industry has developed of people who claimed to have been there at decisive moments, eye-witnesses to artistic revolutions, friends of the great – magazine editors and critics who were already lionising and mythologising Auden and his mates in the 30s and spent the rest of their lives carrying the torch (or, alternately, expressing the same animosity towards these flashy and over-successful young whippersnappers).

There are now hundreds of books and thousands of academic papers about The Auden Generation, essays galore which pore and pick to pieces every work by every member of ‘the movement’, major or minor.  What started as in-jokes and fooling between friends have been blown up into dissertations which academics have built entire careers upon.

In this respect the Auden Generation are comparable to the Bloomsbury Group which preceded them: at the core were one or two writers or artists of real note (Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury, Auden in his group) and surrounding them concentric circles of steadily less and less interesting or talented figures, often their friends or family or lovers.

They all wrote memoirs explaining how brilliant they all were, and recording every conversation, letter, diary entry and in-joke for posterity, and biographers coming afterwards have added to the pile and the complexity, dwelling at length on who said what to whom or who slept with whom and what every reference in every letter and diary really means — until it becomes difficult to penetrate the sea of obfuscation and really grasp what was important and lasting.

Auden emigrates to America

When you look at the sea of highly professional and deadening commentary which mythologised the group and the era, you can appreciate why Auden just walked away from it all, from England’s small, incestuous and parochial literary scene, and why he took ship to New York in January 1939, with sometime lover and literary collaborator, Christopher Isherwood. Years later he said in an interview:

The Ascent of F6 was the end. I knew I had to leave England when I wrote it…I knew it because I knew then that if I stayed, I would inevitably become a part of the British establishment. (quoted in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, page 195)

A member of the Establishment like Cecil Day-Lewis, appointed poet laureate in 1968.

(Mind you, the main, practical reason for moving to America was that there was more work there for a freelance poet, playwright and critic, and a man’s got to eat. One of their literary enemies, Evelyn Waugh, was particularly scathing about the way Auden and Isherwood abandoned their native country just as the Second World War broke out, putting them into his hilarious 1940 novel Put Out More Flags as the characters Parsnip and Pimpernel).

The left-behind

Relocating to America allowed Auden to carry on developing and evolving (generally in a way his early English fans disapproved of) while the group members and hangers-on left back in England often struggled to adapt their youthfully exuberant style to the realities of post-war, austerity England, and then to the grimly conformist 1950s. None of them were ever so young again or able to recapture the first fine careless rapture of being alive in the exciting, terrible, scary and thrilling decade of the 1930s. Spender became an anti-communist, a reliable stalwart of the Cold War literary scene, eventually knighted for his services to blah blah. MacNeice wrote long boring radio plays. Reading any of them in the 1970s was like reading a sustained lament for a lost world.

The Mendelson revival

Even the American Auden became sometimes intolerably boring. In later life he suppressed a lot of his best work from the 1930s – he came to believe it was meretricious, flashy and immoral – or tinkered, rewrote and generally watered down what he did allow to be reprinted, so that for a long time it was impossible to find or read.

Only after Auden’s death in 1973, when his literary executor Edward Mendelson published a comprehensive volume of everything Auden wrote in the 1930s – The English Auden – were we able to read a) the poems Auden had banned from being reprinted for 30 years or more; b) the original, generally far more dynamic versions of his poems; c) lots of surprisingly attractive ephemera, lyrics from plays or literary magazines which had slipped through the cracks.

Which is why The English Auden isn’t just a handy collection of all Auden’s writing from the period, but 1. an incredible collection of poetry of genius, as well as 2. explaining at a stroke why Auden so dominated the period, creating a voice and style and persona and rhetoric for modern moods and feelings, in an enormous range of formats and genres, which captured a decade as few writers before or since ever have.

And even made it into a Richard Curtis movie:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


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