Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings (1994)

He even became quite fond of several of his pupils, and described to like-minded friends the pleasure he took in caning them.
(Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, page 139)

Evelyn Waugh 28 October 1903 to 10 April 1966 (aged 62)

This is a long book, 724 pages, 627 of actual text i.e. without notes and index, but a hugely enjoyable read. I began to write my review as a chronological account but, as with my reviews of lives of Ian Fleming and Somerset Maugham, it just got too long. Too much happened to these fascinating authors. Instead I’m going to do it by themes.

Selina Hastings

It helps that Hastings is herself part of the posh world she describes, being the titled daughter of an earl – Lady Selina Shirley Hastings, eldest daughter of Francis, 16th Earl of Huntingdon – herself educated at private school and Oxford. (Indeed, according to her Wikipedia entry, ‘She and her sister, Lady Harriet Shackleton, are in remainder to several ancient English baronies, including those of Hastings and Botreaux.’) Hence the ease and confidence with which she writes about Waugh’s world, and the aristocratic characters and notable dynasties in it. She writes about this or that eminent personage of Waugh’s generation as if they’re old friends.

‘That’

After a while I noted a stylistic tic Hastings has which is to say of this or that person of the time (the 1930s, 40s and 50s) that they are ‘that noted figure’, ‘those notorious sisters’, and so on. She is signalling that she is inside this world, she is part of this world, that for her, with her privileged upbringing confidently swimming in the world of the English aristocracy, these figures from the literary world or aristocratic world are so well known that she assumes everyone knows about them.

  • …that most influential reviewers, Arnold Bennett (p.180)
  • Peter Rodd’s father was that exquisite flower of diplomacy, one-time ambassador in Rome, Sir Rennell Rodd. (p.260)
  • Evelyn, together with Duff and Diana and Chips Channon, stayed at the Palazzo Brandolini as guests of that indefatigable social climber, Laura Corrigan… (p.265)
  • Gabriel Herbert was 22, a handsome, amusing, athletic girl, daughter of that dashing adventurer, Aubrey Herbert 285
  • the fourth Earl of Carnarvon had purchased a large expanse of that beautiful peninsula 287

This biography puts forward no great theories or revelations, but invites you to immerse yourself at great length (the Minerva paperback edition is 724 pages long) in Waugh’s world. It is a big, juicy Christmas cake of a book and a hugely enjoyable read. I like biographies which give you the confident feeling, no matter how spurious, that human beings and the society they move in can be understood.

Father, Arthur Waugh

Evelyn’s father, Arthur, was a author, literary critic, and publisher. Arthur attended Sherborne public school and New College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry for a ballad on the subject of Gordon of Khartoum in 1888. Arthur wrote a biography of Tennyson and achieved notoriety by having an essay included in the notorious Yellow Book magazine. From 1902 to 1930 he was Managing Director and Chairman of the publishing house Chapman and Hall, the publishers who were to publish most of his son’s novels. In 1893 Arthur married Catherine Raban and their first son Alexander Raban Waugh (always known as Alec) was born on 8 July 1898. Our hero, Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh, was born five years later on 28 October 1903.

Bad relations with father

Evelyn’s relationship with his father was difficult and strained for at least 4 reasons:

1. Arthur idolised his first son, Alec, who went on to fulfil every paternal dream, becoming head boy at his school, playing for the First XI and First XV, writing poetry and generally being an all-round star pupil. For his boyhood and adolescence Evelyn was always in the shadow of his brother, a situation he exaggerated and dramatised in the short story ‘Winner Takes All’.

2. Arthur didn’t hide that he wished his second child had been a daughter.

3. As a young man Arthur delighted his friends with reading from literature in which he did all the voices. As a father of small children this was entertaining, but as he got older his manner hardened into a perpetual playing, mimicking, quoting and play-acting. After dinner the whole family would be taken to the ‘book room’ and subjected to readings from Pinero or singalongs from Gilbert and Sullivan. This began to grate on Evelyn’s nerves when he was a boy and by his later teenage years he had developed a real antipathy to his father (p.449). He hated the way it was impossible to break through Arthur’s pose of bonhomie to have any genuine communication. When he was irritated with him, Waugh referred to his father as ‘Chapman and Hall’, the publishing firm he was managing director of.

4. Easygoing, joking, Gilbert and Sullivan Arthur found his son’s character unnecessarily hard, haughty, vindictive and cynical. Once he became successful and well known Evelyn In the manner of the Bright Young Things he often said the kind of wounding and hurtful things which his hardened peers accepted and enjoyed, but which made Arthur very uncomfortable.

Home in North London

Initially the family lived in Hillfield Road, West Hampstead but in 1907 moved to a house Arthur designed and had built and named Underhill in the London suburb of Golders Green, which still abutted farms and fields. From 1910 to 1916 Waugh attended Heath Mount preparatory school. Although physically on the short side, Waugh didn’t lack confidence in his intellectual powers. He was a bully, he physically bullied smaller boys, including the famous photographer Cecil Beaton who never forgot or forgave him.

Family holidays were spent with the Waugh aunts at Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Here Waugh became deeply interested in high Anglican church rituals and served as an altar boy at the local Anglican church.

Waugh’s diary

But the key fact about him is that he wrote: he kept a detailed diary (which has survived), he wrote stories and poems which were published in the school magazine, which he edited, he wrote all the time, perfecting a style of clipped, witty gossip.

Lancing College

Alec had been sent to the same public school as his father, Sherborne, but in 1915 he was discovered in a homosexual relationship and expelled. All would have been hushed up if Alec hadn’t gone on – after joining the army and in intervals of officer training – to write a novel, The Loom of Youth, openly describing the gay affair at a school which was recognisably Sherborne. The result was that Waugh , much to his irritation, couldn’t go to Sherborne and instead was sent to Lancing public school on the South Downs (just the kind of aggrieved second bestness which he dramatised in ‘Winner Takes All’).

These days a year at Lancing College costs £37,000 plus all the extras (uniform and kit) x 6 years = easily £225,000.

Hastings is very good at conveying the atmosphere of Lancing which was founded in 1848 by Nathaniel Woodard, a member of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican church which aimed to reintroduce the pageantry and beauty and mystery which had been lost at the Reformation. The school is noted for the enormous chapel which dominates all the other buildings and, being built on a hill, the entire locality. The foundation stone was laid in 1868 but wasn’t completed and dedicated (to St Mary and St Nicholas) until 1911, shortly before Waugh arrived.

What comes over from Hastings’ evocative account is:

  • the extreme religiosity of the school, with compulsory attendance at daily prayers plus the full roster of Anglican feasts
  • the fantastic complexity of the rules and regulations which governed every aspect of dress and behaviour, with different rules for each year group and even for each of the four houses within the years – reading Hastings you begin to understand why order and ritual in every aspect of their lives, continued to structure the perceptions and ideas of this generation for the rest of their lives
  • the boys were treated as ‘men’, and much was expected of them in terms of duty and responsibility
  • the variety and eccentricity of many of the masters
  • the overwhelmingly arts and humanities nature of the syllabus
  • the surprising amount of homosexuality: it’s hard to understand why Alec was expelled from Sherborne when Hastings describes in detail, with quotes form letters and diaries, intense love affairs which Waugh had with a number of his fellow pupils: pretty younger boys were liable to be courted and wooed by rivalrous older boys, which resulted in all kinds of emotional tangles

Maybe what comes over most, though, is that although Waugh write continuously, pouring out stories and poems which populated the school magazine and continuing his astonishingly precocious diary, his first love was art and design. He was extremely interested in calligraphy and scribing. He was encouraged by masters of an artistic bent and spent some time visiting an eccentric aesthete who lived near the school and owned a full range of pens and knives and inks and precious papers. Waugh developed a real skill for art and design, designing the covers for books and magazines. He was thrilled when one of the masters took receipt of an old-style luxury printing press and was allowed to use it.

All of this is described in detail in the abandoned fragment ‘Charles Ryders’ Schooldays’ which appears to be a straight from life description of a few days from Waugh’s last year at Lancing.

Hertford College, Oxford

The drinking and writing continued on to Oxford. Waugh attended Hertford college. What surprised me is the extent of the homosexual activity. There are lots of descriptions of parties where the men danced with each other or snogged in corners or on sofas, descriptions of Evelyn rolling on sofas tickling the tonsils of another undergraduate. He had intense, long affairs with Richard Pares and Alastair Graham.

Graham was a small, beautiful young man who matched Evelyn in drinking but with pronounced aesthetic tastes. Graham sent him love letters with photographs of himself naked. It is from the period of this affair that Evelyn based his image of perfect, heady Romantic Oxford, and the portrait of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead is based on Alastair Graham.

Waugh did next to no work, no one ever saw him with a book open or reading and repeatedly came close to being expelled. He had won a  £100 annual scholarship to study History, a subject in which, it turned out, he had absolutely no interest, to the immense frustration of the senior history don C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. The pair quickly came to dislike each other, Cruttwell’s lofty criticism of his attitude driving Waugh to real hatred. Hastings amusingly shows that Waugh got his revenge by naming a whole series of negative characters Cruttwell, for example the murderous lunatic in Mr Loveday’s Little Outing was originally named Cruttwell.

Instead of reading and studying, Waugh drank heavily all the time (see his recommendation to Tom Driberg to be drunk p.91 and his advice to be drunk all the time p.97).

Hastings describes the immense influence on his peers of the aesthete Harold Acton, part of the set of rich young aesthetes known as the Georgeoisie, also featuring Brian Howard, founder member of the Hypocrites Club. Acton dedicated his 1927 book of poems, Five Saints, to Waugh and Waugh dedicated his first, breakthrough novel, Decline and Fall, to Acton. As the years went by Acton was to surprise everyone who knew and adulated him at Oxford by never really making his mark in the world of letters, whereas Waugh surprised everyone who’d known him as a hopeless drunk at Oxford by turning out to be one of the most notable writers of the mid-century.

In the summer of 1924 Waugh took his final exams and got a solid Third after which his tutor cancelled his scholarship for the ninth and final term which he required to qualify for a degree. He left in high dudgeon with no prospects of a career.

Nicknames

Hastings brings out the way this post-war generation revelled in consciously infantile behaviour and language. They gave nicknames to each other and wrote and talking in a deliberately juvenile manner. Waugh loved nicknames, which pack his letters and diaries and fictional characters. As examples, he nickamed:

  • his father ‘Chapman and Hall’, after the firm he worked for
  • his brother ‘Baldhead’ or ‘Baldie’
  • among the Lygon set Waugh nicknamed himself ‘Boaz’ or ‘Bo’, Maimie Lygon became ‘Blondy’, Dorothy Lygon ‘Pollen’ or ‘Poll’, Maimie’s Pekinese dog was ‘P.H.’ (standing for Pretty Hound)
  • in his letters to Diana Cooper he was known as ‘Mr Wu’
  • his future wife’s mother, Mary Herbert, was known as ‘Mrs What What’ as this is what she said all the time
  • once remarried, Waugh’s pet name for his second wife, Laura, was ‘Whisker’
  • the house he bought at Stinchcombe was nicknamed ‘Stinkers’
  • it ran in the family: in letters to Alec’s wife Joan, Arthur Waugh refers to his wife, Kate, as ‘Mrs Wugs’ (p.412)

Teaching

Waugh left Oxford in the summer of 1924 with no plans and no career and no training. Exactly like the hero of his breakthrough novel, Decline and Fall, he looked for work as teacher in the kind of private school he attended and an agency found him a post at ‘Arnold House’, a preparatory school at Llandullas on the ‘bleak, beautiful Denbighshire coast’ where he commenced duties in January 1925 (p.127).

Thus commenced four years of drift and unhappiness. He was alright at the teaching although useless at games which never interested him. He savoured the quirkiness and eccentricities of the other masters, all fodder stored away for his first novel, but he was miles away from his partying friends in Oxford and London.

What made things worse was that when, during the holiday, he returned to London he had gotten embroiled in a love affair with the sexy, promiscuous, hard drinking but aloof Olivia Plunkett-Greene who slept with everyone but him, making him fall deeper and more bitterly in love with her. She was the basis for the fabulously fearless Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies.

‘Olivia as usual behave like a whore and was embraced on a bed by various people.’ (Waugh’s diary quoted p.141)

He took with him to Wales the manuscript of a novel titled The Temple at Thatch, but when he sent a copy to his friend the influential aesthete Harold Acton, Acton’s comments were so critical and dismissive that Waugh burned the only manuscript in the school furnace (p.135).

What really comes over from Hastings’ account of this period is the intensity of Waugh’s drinking. He got very drunk every night, and often started during the day. Some friends were scared by the intensity of his intake and his diary records thoughts of suicide. His autobiography records a particularly vivid suicide attempt, where he went down to the Welsh coast, stripped off and waded out to sea intending to drown himself (p.136).

All this was expressed in the relationship with Olivia, who herself drank till she passed out (by 1936 she had become an alcoholic and retired from society to live with her mother).

Writing

Waugh quit the post at Arnold House in order to be closer to London and took a job at a school in Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. His diary records that his status among the boys was transformed when he bought a motorbike (p.143) but he had only been here a few weeks when he sacked for allegedly making a drunken pass at the school matron (p.149).

He then secured a teaching post at a school in Notting Hill at £5 a week. Between all these short jobs he came home to stay with his parents at Underhill, the family home in Golders Green, under the increasingly disapproving glare of his father.

He still regarded himself as first and foremost a draughtsman, and enrolled in London courses in printing, cabinet-making and carpentry. Throughout his life Waugh applied metaphors and similes from carpentering and cabinet making to constructing well crafted novels.

His writing career didn’t exactly blossom. Having destroyed his draft novel, he managed to get a highly experimental short story, ‘The Balance’, published in a 1926 anthology published by his father’s publishing house, Chapman and Hall (p.145). He researched and wrote an extended essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which was printed privately by his lover, Alastair Graham. And it was on the basis of this that an Oxford acquaintance, Anthony Powell (Eton and Oxford) now working for the publishers Duckworths, commissioned a full-length biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which Waugh wrote during 1927 (pp.158 to 160).

It’s worth pausing at this point to reflect on how he got started as a writer. Obviously he had to be able to write and to have written things worth reading, but he had huge advantages: his father was managing director of the publishing house which published his first short story; his brother was an established novelist ready with tips and advice; his lover privately published his first extended work; and a friend from Oxford commissioned him to write his first published book.

The Establishment

That is how it works; the network of families and friends met through public school and Oxford which dominated the literary world, the professions, politics and the City for most of the twentieth century. Arguably Waugh’s main subject was also the focus of his life, which was gossip and stories about the intricately interlinked network of aristocratic families which dominated English life, linked via marriage, school, Oxford, the army, business and politics into a great matrix of power and influence wielded to protect and promote each other. The network of power and influence which satirists of the 1960s called ‘the Establishment’ and which still dominates English to this day: David Cameron Eton and Oxford; Boris Johnson Eton and Oxford.

Giving individual examples is not very impressive because it’s only the sheer number of examples of the intermeshing of families of power and influence on every page, it’s the cumulative affect of the matrices of power, which really conveys the ubiquity and control of this class.

Journalism

Waugh was never a qualified, full-time journalist. During this unsettled period he spent a couple of months (April to May 1927) as a trainee journalist at the Daily Express, during which, by his own account, he filed no stories and spent a lot of time at the cinema. Or, as usual, getting drunk (p.151). It was the first of several skirmishes with journalism which were to build up to his comic masterpiece, Scoop. The general conclusion is clear: the journalists he saw in action were lying scoundrels who mostly fabricated their stories or exaggerated trivial events into ‘stories’ using a defined and limited set of rhetorical sleights of hand. He wrote pieces for magazines and newspapers to the end of his career, but never lost his amiable contempt for journalism and journalists.

First marriage, to she-Evelyn

In 1927 he met the honourable Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred Gardner, the daughter of Lord and Lady Burghclere, who was sharing a flat with Pansy Pakenham (p.153). Waugh was on the rebound from the final failure of his intense and troubled relationship with Olivia Plunket-Greene, Gardner was tiring of being pursued by half a dozen suitors. Photos of her at the time confirm written accounts that she was boyish in appearance and no conventional beauty. She’s was described as unusually immature, almost childish (‘young for her age’, p.155), she referred to Proust as Prousty-Wousty, to all her acquaintance as angel face or sweety pie – and this in a generation which Hastings goes out of her way to describe as consciously, modishly immature and childish.

Portrait of the two Evelyns by Olivia Wyndham (1928)

Hastings gives a fascinating account of Evelyn’s proposal which was so casual as to be barely noticeable, along the lines of, ‘Why don’t we try it and see how it goes?’ Gardner, who had (allegedly) already been engaged nine times, thought about it over night and next day replied, ‘Yes, why not?’ (p.163).

They were both 24, very immature, on the rebound from other relationships and also both wanted to escape the smothering tutelage of their parents. They both thought that getting married would set them free of parental restraint and define their adult identities.

Unfortunately, it didn’t, but first ‘the Evelyns’ had to negotiate permission to marry with Gardner’s mother, the formidable Lady Burghclere. She successfully blocked Waugh getting a job at the BBC (p.168). When Waugh submitted the MS of Decline and Fall to the publisher Duckworth’s, the head of the firm, Gerald Duckworth’ brother was married to Evelyn Gardner’s aunt, Margaret, and was well aware of the family’s snobbish disapproval of Waugh, and so turned the novel down. This is how it, the English establishment, works. Someone’s cousin, brother, sister, mother, friend they were at public school or Oxford with intervenes to help out, give a leg up, or block their ambitions, in which case your turn to another set of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts or uncles to help you out.

27 June 1928 the Evelyns got married despite all Lady B’s objections, almost on a whim, in a disgustingly low church (St Paul’s, Portman Square, p.175)), with few friends or family present. The writer Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) gave Gardner away. Harold Acton (Eton and Oxford) was the best man. Brother Alec (Sherborne and Oxford) was a witness. A friend, Joyce Fagan, had moved out of a bijou little apartment in Canonbury and passed it on to the newly-married couple at a rent of £1 a week.

September 1928 Decline and Fall published to universal good reviews, from old timers such as Arnold Bennett and J.B. Priestly to new kids on the block like Cyril Connolly (Eton and Oxford). Waugh invited these important contacts to dinner or luncheon at the flat, and they were all enchanted by the 25-year-old pixies.

Literary agent

Alec introduced Waugh to his literary agent, A.D. Peters ( Haberdashers’ Aske’s and Cambridge) who was to be central to his career (p.182). Peters immediately started finding Waugh commissions to write articles about the younger generation for magazines and papers. Hastings features numerous passages describing Peters’ complex and aggressive negotiations on his client’s behalf with newspapers, magazines and publishers, both in Blighty and America. Several themes emerge:

  • the books were divided into two categories:
    • hardly anybody liked his travel books, they didn’t sell, and Peters failed to find American publishers willing to take several of them on at all
    • the novels were mostly well reviewed and received but during the 1930s he never had a bestseller and so was permanently strapped for cash
  • this explains why Waugh continuously hustled for jobs from papers and magazines, endlessly coming up with ideas for features and articles: the problem here was that he often knocked them off at such great speed that magazines (such as Vogue, Harpers, Nash’s and so on) quickly became cautious and took to turning down Waugh articles and stories
  • and this relates to something Hastings doesn’t explicitly state, but which becomes apparent as you read through the book, which is that Waugh didn’t really have many opinions about anything, or not opinions that could be translated into interesting articles; fresh off the back of Decline and Vile Bodies he could make some quids by claiming to be a spokesman for the generation of Bright Young Things; but by mid-1930s his actual opinions – conservative, reactionary Catholic in thrall to a rose-tinted image of the landed aristocracy was not very saleable

Travel books

Waugh came up with the idea of writing articles about a cruise, which could then be compiled into a book as he was, throughout the 1930s, to come up with wizard wheezes for travel books. A number of his pals were good at this – Hastings refers to ‘the intellectual avidity of Robert Byron…the exuberance of Peter Fleming’ (p.269) [both of whom went to Eton and Oxford] – and it was an obvious way to go on an adventure and be paid for it.

The odd thing is that Hastings makes it crystal clear that Waugh hated travelling. He invariably ended up feeling sad and lonely and was often excruciatingly bored. In fact the account of his first trip to Abyssinia, Remote People, includes three short interludes entirely devoted to the problem of boredom. Reviewing the book Rebecca West made the witty point that a writer who writes about boredom almost invariably creates boredom in the reader (p.240), but I found this to be wrong.

I have travelled widely on my own (Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Thailand) and can vouch for the fact that there often are moments or days of excruciating loneliness and boredom. So I found the short passage in Remote People about boredom more interesting than some of the straight travel writing. It felt more personal and more true in much the same way as his reporting on the coronation of Haile Selassie was painfully accurate about its shabbiness and lack of glamour, or his description of the ‘famous’ monastery at Debra Lebanos as sordid and squalid.

Although he fibbed about some of the details, there is, overall, about the travel books, as the letters and diaries, a fundamental honesty, a self-exposing, excoriating, merciless honesty about himself and others  in Waugh’s writing which is, even when it’s unattractive, admirable.

Anyway, it’s interesting to learn that his four travel books were not well received. Publishers and reviewers didn’t like them as much as the novels and they didn’t sell anywhere near as well. I agree they don’t have the well wrought artfulness of the novels but I enjoyed the three that I read for what you feel is the blunt unvarnished truth of Waugh’s reporting and therefore accurate descriptions of faraway places in a long ago time which will never return.

His wife’s betrayal

Wasn’t a sudden, impulsive thing. Hastings gives good reasons why the Honourable Evelyn Gardner became unhappy.

  1. She never really loved Waugh, she liked him and admired him.
  2. She was a sickly child. In February 1929 they boarded the Stella Polaris for a cruise round the Mediterranean. This turned into a nightmare as Gardner fell very seriously ill and by the time they reached Port Said was taken off the ship and stretchered to the British hospital with double pneumonia and pleurisy. Despite his intense concern and nursing his sick wife every day, Waugh managed to turn in a creditable travel book, Labels, but Gardner continued to be frequently ill when they got back to London. A subconscious plea for more attention? Or indication of underlying unhappiness?
  3. Trouble in the bedroom: Hastings doesn’t give details but quotes Gardner saying Waugh was no good in bed and her suspicions that this was because he had learned all his sexual technique from sex with men (p.196); elsewhere Hastings links this with his sexual shyness and lack of confidence around women.
  4. Both Gardner and Waugh married to escape from being at home and dominated by parents. They thought it would make them free and independent. Instead, once the initial euphoria had worn off, they realised they were alone and in difficult financial straits, as neither of them had a job.
  5. Gardner’s loneliness. Precisely in order to earn some money Waugh had to take himself off to a study or, more often, go out of London altogether, to stay with friends or in country inns, so he could concentrate on writing. Gardner was a fun-time 1920s party girl, and hated being left at home all alone night after night.

Hence, Waugh encouraged her to go out and socialise, recommending a close cadre of ‘safe’ male friends, one of whom was John Heygate (Eton and Oxford) (p.192). She spent more and more time with him, dashing, clever (job as assistant news editor at the BBC) and eventually, in July 1929, sent Waugh a letter saying she’d fallen in love with Heygate and wanted a separation (p.193).

Waugh was devastated. The cosy new base he’d built for his professional and personal life came crashing down. Hastings quotes friends who say that from that point onwards, a new note of cynicism and anger entered his personality and his work. Disgusted, he managed to see Gardner only once more in the rest of their lives (at the legal divorce proceedings).

Waugh based the very commonplace, drab and casually immoral character John Beaver in A Handful of Dust on Heygate. It is interesting to learn from Heygate’s Wikipedia article that:

  1. He did marry Gardner, in 1930, which was jolly decent of him – but they were divorced in 1936.
  2. He was very right-wing, a Nazi sympathiser, and attended the 1935 Nuremberg Rally in the company of his friend the writer Henry Williamson, next to Unity and Diana Mitford. Lovely people.

Childishness

Hastings repeatedly emphasises the childishness of Waugh and his friends (p.251-25 3). From one point of view the whole affair with and marriage to Gardner was an apotheosis of childishness. She was famous in her circle for her lisping childish pronunciation, for giving everyone nursery nicknames, for looking and dressing like a pre-pubescent boy (a page boy, in Diana Mitford’s description).

But it wasn’t just them. Hastings considers their entire generation cultivated a childish irresponsibility. Maybe it was a rebellion against their heavy Victorian and Edwardian parents, and against the enormous tragedy of the Great War which their older brothers fought and died in. But calculated frivolity and heedless hedonism was, of course, the signature mode of the bright young things of the 1920s, and much of this had a deliberately childish aspect, a refusal to grow up or take anything seriously.

In Waugh’s fiction this is probably best exemplified in various plotlines in Vile Bodies but in his social life Hastings shows how it was a deliberately cultivated pose in some circles of friends, for example the Lygon sisters. Hastings quotes postcards and letters they sent each other written in fake baby language, or with the interpolations of a fictional stupid character named Tommy (actually a joke at the expense of a neighbour of the Lygons, Tommy MacDougall, ‘a dashing master of foxhounds’, p.252) who interrupts the main text to ask stupid questions rendered in misspelt capitals:

When we meet again it will be gay and terribly exciting and not at all like a biscuit box
WY LIKE A BISKIT BOCKS PLESE?
Wait till you are a little older Tommy and then you will understand.
(quoted page 252)

I am going to live in Oxford all the summer and write a life of Gregory the Great.
WHO WAS GREGRY THE GRATE?
He was a famous pope, Tommy.
(quoted page 301)

This style of gushing naivety is used by Waugh in the funny short story ‘Cruise’ which consists of postcards from an archetypally dim, naive, semi-illiterate flapper on a cruise back to her parents. The story uses a phrase which recurs in the actual Lygon correspondence, obviously a catchphrase of their group or the time, which is to use the gushingly simple-minded phrase ‘God how sad’ for anything which goes wrong from tea not being nice to riots in foreign cities (eventually abbreviated in letters to ‘G how s’.p363). If you say it in a posh 1920s flapper voice it is quite funny.

Another notable group slang phrase was ‘lascivious beast’ for priest. For the rest of his life, in letters to close friends, Waugh regularly referred to priests he was meeting in England or abroad and even in Rome, as ‘lascivious beasts’ or just ‘beasts’.

The three Lygon sisters and their fabulous country estate at Madresfield were very important psychologically to Waugh after the trauma of his divorce from Gardner. He recreated a fake childish world with them, which was maintained in their lively correspondence, and he dedicated Black Mischief to ‘Mary and Dorothy Lygon’ when it was published in October 1932.

Conversion to Catholicism

Obvious roots:

  1. He was a very earnestly seriously Christian schoolboy.
  2. Many people of his generation and in his immediate circle converted to Catholicism in the late 1920s.

The most interesting thing about Waugh’s conversion is that it wasn’t romantic or mystical, it was entirely intellectual (pp.225, 227, 229). Talking it over with Catholic friends and then with one or two high society Jesuits he came to the intellectual conviction that:

  1. Christianity explained the world, humans and morality
  2. Catholic Christianity, established in Rome by the martyr Saint Peter, was the oldest, truest, most universal, most enduring form of Christianity (p.225)

And that was it. From this intellectual conviction he never strayed. Details of liturgy and practice, aspects of theology, his emotions or feelings about religion, all these could change and he could happily take the mickey out of them because none of it altered his deep intellectual conviction about the fundamental truth of Roman Catholicism.

Evelyn always insisted that his response to his faith was purely intellectual and pragmatic. (p.487)

Thus Waugh could jokingly refer to priests as ‘lascivious beasts’ and any amount of levity and satire about individual churchmen without a qualm because it wasn’t a question of respecting this or that piety; for Waugh Catholicism simply was the universal truth about the world, whether he was serious and solemn about it or messing about with friends. His own personal attitude didn’t change the Truth. The Truth carried on regardless of anything he wrote or thought or said, that was its appeal.

It didn’t do any harm that entering the Catholic church meant joining a small, embattled, unfashionable elite, and that Waugh identified solely with the old, aristocratic Catholic families and with only the best high society Jesuits – that suited his snobbish elitism very well. But it wasn’t the fundamental motive.

Politics

Waugh wasn’t very interested in politics (‘contemptuous as he was of political life and all politicians’, p.495). Arguably the one enduring subject of his work, diaries and letters was Gossip about people he knew or knew of. Even when he was ‘reporting’ from Abyssinia what excited him most was the court gossip as bruited among the catty diplomatic circles.

His politics followed his religion in the sense that he believed that Absolute Truth resided elsewhere, the human nature is fallen and deeply flawed, that perfection can never be achieved in this world and all attempts to achieve it inevitably end in repression. He handily defined his credo in an extended passage from the travel book he was commissioned to write about Mexico, Robbery Under Law, published in 1939 just as the world plunged into another world war. Because it’s so central to everything he wrote it’s obviously a carefully worded and thorough credo, it’s worth repeating in full:

Let me, then, warn the reader that I was a Conservative when I went to Mexico and that everything I saw there strengthened my opinions.

I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth; That his chances of happiness and virtue, here, remain more or less constant through the centuries and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives; That the balance of good and ill tends to revert to a norm; That sudden changes of physical condition are usually ill, and are advocated by the wrong people for the wrong reasons; That the intellectual communists of today have personal, irrelevant grounds for their antagonism to society, which they are trying to exploit.

I believe in government; That men cannot live together without rules but that they should be kept at the bare minimum of safety; That there is no form of government ordained from God as being better than any other; That the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace.

I believe that the inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of elimination; That men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes; That such a system is necessary for any form of co-operation work, more particularly the work of keeping a nation together.

I believe in nationality; not in terms of race or of divine commissions for world conquest, but simply thus: mankind inevitably organizes itself in communities according to its geographical distribution; These communities by sharing a common history develop common characteristics and inspire local loyalty; The individual family develops most happily and fully when it accepts these natural limits.

A conservative is not merely an obstructionist, a brake on frivolous experiment. He has positive work to do.

Civilization has no force of its own beyond what it is given from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all.

Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity.

Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace.

Fascist Spain and Italy

This explains Waugh’s support for Mussolini, when Fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, and for the forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Waugh visited Abyssinia three times and was appalled at the poverty, cruelty (read the description of Addis Ababa prison in Remote People) and barbarity of much of the country, which wasn’t a country at all but an empire of subject peoples held together by force. He saw Italy as bringing European law and order and culture and, above all, Religion, to a corrupt and failing country.

I was shocked when I first read of his support for the ‘noble cause’ of Franco and the nationalists in Spain but it, of course, makes perfect sense. The Spanish socialist government may have been democratically elected but it embarked almost immediately on a campaign of closing churches and arresting priests. If you believe the Catholic Church is a vital connection between the creator God and his people, as Waugh very deeply did, then this simply could not be allowed and Franco’s intervention to restore law and order and preserve the church of course received Waugh’s initial support. Until it became clear that the Franco forces were committing atrocities every bit as bad or worse than the communists he vilified – at which point he washed his hands of the whole affair.

Waugh’s Second World War

One quote says it all:

The ordinary soldiers disliked [Waugh] to such an extent that for a time [his superior officer, Lieutenant] Laycock felt obliged to set a guard on his sleeping quarters. (p.445)

Despite being every bit as committed to the war effort as his alter ego, Guy Crouchback, in the Sword of Honour trilogy, and despite showing real bravery in the face of enemy attack (Stuka divebombing in Crete) Waugh was universally disliked in the army. He had no idea how to deal with the ordinary working class soldiers, veering between heavy sarcasm and shouted orders, both of which failed to command affection or respect (‘He bullied and bewildered them’, p.445). His commander in 8 Commando, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock (Eton and Sandhurst), told him he was so unpopular as to be virtually unemployable in the army (p.445).

He was an outsider to all the regular soldiers, bluff philistine types who instinctively took against this ‘bookish chappie’ with his smart repartee and corrosive cynicism. And when he did manage to wangle a place in a commando unit (as Crouchback does) Waugh was easily outclassed by genuine aristocrats such as Lord Randolph Churchill. His brown-nosing snobbish hero worship of these real blue blood types was so obvious, and repellent to onlookers, that Hastings is able to quote several written accounts describing it. His toadying to anyone with a title was a running joke with the WAAFs at the headquarters of Combined Operations (p.419).

Lord Lovat (Ampleforth and Oxford), the deputy brigade commander, wrote of Waugh:

‘I had known him vaguely at Oxford, and, while I admired his literary genius, had marked him down as a greedy little man – a eunuch in appearance – who seemed desperately anxious to “get in” with the right people.’ (quoted page 450)

I was surprised to learn that when Lovat ordered the scruffy, ill-disciplined Waugh to go to a barracks in Scotland to re-undergo basic training, and Waugh objected and took his complaint to Lovat’s superior, General Haydon, the latter sacked him on the spot for insubordination. This was August 1943. Waugh remained in the army but without a post or position. This marks the end of his romance with the army. From now on he just wanted to get out, to return to civilian life and resume his career as a writer.

This disillusion and demotivation is strongly conveyed in the short prologue and epilogue to Brideshead Revisited where it is assigned to the novel’s narrator, Charles Ryder.

Waugh’s real wartime career closely followed the narrative of the Sword of Honour trilogy, or the trilogy was very closely based on his own experiences. But having read Hastings’ account makes you realise that Waugh’s greatest achievement in the novel was putting Crouchback on the same social level as the blue blood heroes he describes, and accepted by his fellow officers. Waugh was an outsider because he was a social-climbing, bookish cynic. In the trilogy Waugh converts the reasons for Waugh’s outsiderness – bookish, sarcastic, cynical, bad at handling soldiers – into the far more noble and romantic and acceptable reasons for Crouchback’s outsiderness, namely long-running depression over being dumped by his wife and a stern commitment to Catholic values which none of the other officers understands.

Sex

It’s strange that sexual problems in the bedroom appear to have contributed to the swift collapse of Waugh’s first marriage, and that Hastings periodically thereafter describes him as lacking sexual self-confidence, strange because his diaries and letters are full of sexual encounters – homosexual ones at school and Oxford and for a while afterwards in London, and then various encounters with prostitutes abroad. In Tangier, January 1934, Waugh explored the red light district and visited a brothel where he bought a 16 year old girl for 10 francs:

but I didn’t enjoy her very much because she had a skin like sandpaper and a huge stomach which didn’t show until she took off her clothes & then it was too late.
(Diary quoted p.297)

He then takes a 15 year old concubine whose face is entirely covered in blue tattoos and he thinks about setting up in an apartment of her own for his sole use (p.297). I was very struck by Waugh’s own account of being in an Italian brothel and paying for a big black guy to sodomise a white youth on a divan, all artfully staged and arranged for the viewing pleasure of Waugh and his friends.

I suppose there’s all the difference in the world between staging such events or, in more general terms, paying for sex, and having to manage consensual sex with a female partner, with someone you have to talk to later, arrange all the domestic chores, go out to dinner with and so on. That is an infinitely more complex situation to deal with and Waugh wouldn’t be the first man to find it demanding and intimidating.

Waugh writes the word ‘fuck’ quite a lot. One of his female correspondents deprecated his use of the word in a letter to her, so it was obviously not freely used in his posh circles. I was struck by the bluntness of a letter Waugh wrote his second wife, Laura, about taking leave from the army at Christmas 1942, just after she had given birth to their third child:

There is an hotel at Shaftesbury with a very splendid sideboard. I think we might take a week end there soon when you are fuckable. (quoted page 444)

which certainly gives an indication of the way he wrote to her, and maybe spoke to her, but it is not necessarily indicative of the bluntly physical attitude he actually took to sex because we know from his countless other letters, that he cultivated a range of voices and styles (baby talk, high gossip, satire, facetious descriptions of army life) in his letters, depending on who they were written to. Everything he wrote was written for effect.

(The really surprising thing about that letter is that it was preserved and published. Who gave permission for it to be published? I wouldn’t want my casual notes or texts to my wife to be published for the world to read.)

Music

Strikingly, Waugh had no feel at all for music and hated almost all forms of it. At one point he comments that listening to Palestrina was purgatory while, at the other end of the musical spectrum, he loathed the loud jazz which became more and more dominant in London nightclubs as the 1920s progressed.

If you don’t perceive music as the complex interlinking of melody, harmony, rhythm and syncopation, you tend to register it simply as noise and ‘racket’. Waugh’s loathing of music took most concrete form in his detestation of the ‘wireless’, the new-fangled radio which came in during the 1920s and became more and more and more popular during the 1930s and 40s. His was one of the few middle class households in the country which didn’t possess a wireless and so didn’t listen to Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast about the outbreak of war in September 1939 (p.383).

Witness his short story ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’, lampooning a man who hates the wireless; or the scenes in Unconditional Surrender where Guy is convalescing in an RAF hospital whose ‘long-haired boys’ have radios everywhere in the building cranked up to full volume blaring out jazz music which drives Guy so mad he phones a friend and begs to be taken away.

Anti-Americanism

‘God, I hate Americans’, quoted on p.299

The brash, superficial, loud, vulgar consumer capitalism of America came to epitomise everything Waugh hated about the modern age (p.221). Like most British writers he came to rely on sales in America to keep him solvent but that didn’t stop him being very rude about America and Americans in correspondence and, sometimes, to their faces.

Evelyn had always referred with patronising contempt to Alec’s fondness for America, and since the war had come to regard the United States as the apogee of everything that was tasteless, vulgar and barbaric. (p.511)

This is exemplified in the easy-to-overlook joke at the start of The Loved One where the two British protagonists are depicted on the verandah of a rundown bungalow at dusk, surrounded by decay, thick vegetation and the sound of cicadas, so that you think they must be in some god-forsaken colony in darkest Africa or the Far East and only slowly do you discover that they are in fact in Hollywood. Hastings pulls out some choice quotes from his huge correspondence:

The great difference between our manners and those of the Americans is that theirs are designed to promote cordiality, ours to protect privacy. (p.512)

My book [Brideshead Revisited] has been a great success in the United States which is upsetting because I thought it in good taste before and now I know it can’t be. (letter to John Betjeman, quoted p.512) [Betjeman went to Marlborough and Oxford]

Post war

The last 100 pages of the novel are marked by three themes:

1. Writing for money

Waugh continued to write a lot but the quality was often poor. Hastings records the umpteen commissions he received from magazines and newspapers, driving a very hard bargain, demanding the maximum rate possible, and then very often disappointing with work which was so hurried or roughshod, the magazines quite frequently refused to publish it or asked for their money back.

Of similar dubious or debatable quality are his handful of post-war stories, the novellas ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ (genesis, writing and reviews summarised pages 500 to 502) and ‘Love Among the Ruins’ (in Hastings’ opinion, ‘a nasty little tale’, p.553) and the oddity which is The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (origin and writing described pages 560 to 567).

The Loved One is another oddity, which begins well and is full of lusciously funny details, but somehow fizzles out: he fails to find a plot to match the comic richness of his subject (American funeral homes). (Its genesis, writing and reception described on pages 514 to 522.)

Students and fans often overlook the overtly Catholic books he wrote, such as the novel about the Roman Empress Helena, discoverer of the ‘True Cross’ (1950) which was slammed in his own day and has never sold well (described pages 538 to 541). The 1930s biography of the Elizabethan martyr Thomas Campion (1935) and the biography he promised to write of his good friend, Catholic convert and Jesuit priest Ronald Knox (The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox, 1959) [Knox attended Eton and Oxford].

Then there were two poorly received travel books ‘The Holy Places’ (1952) and ‘A Tourist in Africa’ (1960). In 1961 he was paid £2,000 by the Daily Mail to go back to British Guiana on the eve of independence and write five articles on his impressions. These were so flat and incurious the Mail printed only one and demanded their money back (p.606).

The exception to all of this, and all the more remarkable for the mediocrity of the rest of his post-war output, are the three novels of the Sword of Honour trilogy (Men at Arms, described page 546 to 551; Officers and Gentlemen pp.571 to 573; Unconditional Surrender pp.594 to 599) which I find magnificent, richly funny, fascinating with social history, and deeply moving.

2. Comic dislike of his children

Waugh genuinely disliked small children and his own were no exception.

I abhor their company because I can only regard children as defective adults, hate their physical ineptitude, find their jokes flat and monotonous…The presence of my children affects me with deep weariness and depression. (quoted op.527)

The Waugh children (all 6 of them) were exiled to the nursery and, as soon as possible, sent off to prep schools. Waugh hated Christmas because of all the noise and disruption and had a little private party when they went back to their schools (p.527ff.). Waugh cultivated the pose of a father who detested his children and, although this must have been horrible to experience, it is often very funny to read about, especially when expressed in his deliberately outrageous letters.

His eldest son, Auberon Waugh (1939 to 2001: Downside and Oxford) went on to become a novelist, journalist and literary editor. He wrote an autobiography describing his unhappy childhood in detail and said that, as a boy, he would happily have swapped his father for a bosun’s whistle (p.528).

3. Boredom and depression

Above all, Waugh was bored bored bored, often bored to death. He drank to excess to stave of boredom and depression, and the against-the-fashion pose of young fogey he cultivated in the 1930s, and which came to seem out of place during the People’s War, crystallised into the persona of an angry, overweight, red-faced old buffer after the war. Waugh knew what he was doing; the persona he cultivated is described with precision in the self-portrait which opens The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:

It was his modesty which needed protection and for this purpose, but without design, he gradually assumed this character of burlesque. He was neither a scholar nor a regular soldier; the part for which he cast himself was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously, before his children at Lychpole and his cronies in London, until it came to dominate his whole outward personality. When he ceased to be alone, when he swung into his club or stumped up the nursery stairs, he left half of himself behind and the other half swelled to fill its place. He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright and antiquated as a cuirass.

Hastings picks up the word ‘pomposity’ and quotes a passage from a letter to Diana Cooper:

Women don’t understand pomposity. It is nearly always an absolutely private joke – one against the world. The last line of defence. (p.568)

All this is interesting because you don’t find in fiction, or anywhere nowadays, a sympathetic explanation of the quality of pomposity. The idea of it being a sort of private joke is thought provoking, an insight into the way all kinds of people’s odd manners might be taken as very personal jokes against the world…

Hastings gives example after example of Waugh’s astounding rudeness to everyone he met, no matter how powerful and influential – the bitter arguments he had with even his closest friends, and the well-attested rows he had with his long-suffering wife, Laura.

One of the most loyal friends of  his later years was the tough-minded socialite Ann Charteris (1913 to 1981) who had three husbands, first Lord O’Neill, secondly Lord Rothermere and then the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming (Eton and Sandhurst). Hastings quotes comments about Waugh from several of his close woman friends such as Diana Cooper and Nancy Mitford, but Ann Fleming put her finger on it when she wrote to her brother, Hugo, in 1955:

‘Poor Evelyn, he is deeply unhappy – bored from morning till night and has developed a personality which he hates but cannot escape from.’ (quoted p.558)

Not only was he a martyr to boredom but to insomnia and since the late 1930s had been taking various sleeping draughts which he mixed, against all medical advice, not in water but with creme de menthe. It was when he began, in addition, dosing himself with bromide that he developed first the physical and then the mental symptoms so accurately described in Pinfold.

He was invited to stay at the Flemings house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica where he was irascible and ungrateful. Ann Fleming again: ‘Poor Evelyn – killing time is his trouble and not a night without sleeping pills for twenty years’ (quoted p.571).

And when Nancy Mitford asked him, after he had paid her a bad-tempered visit in Paris, how he could reconcile behaving so badly and speaking so spitefully about everyone with his religion’s words about  loving your neighbour as yourself:

‘He replied rather sadly that were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible…& anyway would have committed suicide years ago.’ (quoted p.505)


Credit

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings (1994) was published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1994. All references are to the 1995 Mandarin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh (1952)

‘I’m what’s called a “conducting officer”. I take American journalists round fighter stations. But I shall find something else soon. The great thing is to get into uniform; then you can start moving yourself round. It’s a very exclusive war at present. Once you’re in, there’s every opportunity.’
(Lord Ian Kilbannock explaining to Guy the importance of getting on in a war, Men at Arms)

Men at Arms is the first in what developed into a trilogy of novels about the Second World War which Waugh named The Sword of Honour trilogy. It tells the story of devout Catholic, conservative, standoffish but honourable and frequently depressed fellow, Guy Crouchback:

Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young, now, in heart and step…

The novel starts with the outbreak of the Second World War and follows Guy’s long, clumsy and sometimes very funny progress through the military machine, with a world of details about the farcical bureaucratic aspects of army life.

But the book also includes, like a persistent background hum, Guy’s deep Catholic faith and his feel for the ‘old’ values of religion and an older traditional way of life embodied in the figure of Guy’s venerable father, Mr Crouchback.

And the book’s other understated but persistent theme is for Guy’s loneliness and isolation, his unhappiness, sometimes sinking as low as actual despair. For too long, the narrative tells us, Guy has inhabited a ‘dry, empty place’ of the soul.

The Crouchback family

How so? Well, Guy’s character is carefully constructed to evoke the same kind of pity and compassion he was seeking to evoke in Brideshead Revisited, the sense of the decline and fall of a once noble family, the sense of quietly heroic old buffers trying to keep up ancient values and dignity in a world gone to hell.

Guy’s father is over 70, a quiet, decent man of deep devout Catholic faith who has nobly weathered a series of setbacks. He is the representative of a family which can trace its lineage back to the time of Henry I. For centuries the Crouchback family have lived in a country estate named Broome, somewhere in north Devon. But the family suffered a) personal and b) financial setbacks.

On the personal front, Mr Crouchback’s wife gave him four children then died young, leaving him with a permanent sense of sadness. Worse was to come because, at the outbreak of the Great War, the eldest son and heir, Gervase, went straight from his Catholic private school, Downside, into the Irish Guards, where he managed to get himself killed on his first day in the trenches. Then the second son, Ivo, always a loner and oddball, when he was 26 went missing from home and was discovered months later, holed up in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was deliberately starving himself to death. He was brought home but the damage was done and he died soon after.

There was an only daughter, Angela, who married a non-Catholic, an ambitious chap who’s gone on to become a successful Conservative MP, Arthur Box-Bender.

And Guy himself. Guy also ‘married out’ of the family religion, marrying the beautiful non-Catholic socialite, Virginia. He took his younger son’s share of the diminished family fortune and settled in Kenya, running a farm beside a mountain lake where the flamingos rose at dawn first white then pink. Wow. But his wife pined and said she needed to go to England for a break and then, after 6 months or so, wrote to announce she was leaving him, for a mutual friend named Tommy Blackhouse.

‘Poor Guy, you did get in a mess, didn’t you? Money gone, me gone, all in one go. I suppose in the old days they’d have said I’d ruined you.’
‘They might.’

Now, Guy is a Catholic, his father is a Catholic, his sister is a Catholic and so they all take it for granted that, although he can get divorced according to the law of the land, he cannot be divorced in the eyes of God. In other words, he will never be able to remarry, never be able to have children, in particular a son. Therefore the family name is doomed to die out. This is the pessimistic scenario Waugh has engineered for his characters, one source of the sense of loss and mild depression which hangs over the figure of Guy Crouchback.

His non-Catholic brother-in-law Box-Bender is just the most prominent of their friends who think this is all nonsense: Guy should just remarry, have children, reclaim the home farm, revive the estate and the family name. Where’s the problem? When Guy meets up with his ex-wife again in London, she also is blissfully light-hearted about it all:

‘You never married again?’
‘How could I?’
‘Darling, don’t pretend your heart was broken for life.’
‘Apart from my heart, Catholics can’t remarry, you know.’
‘Oh, that. You still keep to all that?’
‘More than ever.’

But Box-Bender, Virginia and all the rest of them are pagans, non-believers, not part of the clique, not part of sinn fein (Irish for ‘ourselves’), of the cosa nostra (Italian for ‘our thing’), of the special ones. They are not Catholics, and Catholicism, at least in Waugh’s hands, is not only a theological but a sociological marker, which sets the believer apart and, though he doesn’t overplay this, pretty obviously marks them as morally and spiritually superior to everyone else around him.

So much for a) the personal; as to b) the financial situation, in the aftermath of the First World War the estate became slowly too large and costly for Mr Crouchback to run. So he sold off the contents (attending the auction himself), let the house to a convent and retired to a hotel in Matchet, a nearby seaside resort.

However, it is important for Waugh and his characters that the ancient rituals do not completely die out and so ‘the sanctuary lamp still burned at Broome as of old’ and Guy’s father attends mass there once a year.

So, both financially and personally, the Crouchback family has fallen a long way and Guy is its embattled, lonely, often depressed last representative.

Guy is a loner

Guy’s Kenya period is underplayed, referred to only in a couple of sentences. Much more is made of the family’s Italian property, ‘Castello Crouchback’, on the idyllic Italian island of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, a property bought by Guy’s grandfather back in the time of Queen Victoria. In fact the novel opens with a historical passage describing the first arrival of those grandparents on a yachting holiday at the island and their decision to buy the run-down ruins.

You might have thought these opening passages would afford luxury descriptions of pre-war Italy, and they do, a bit, but what they’re really for is to establish a) the penumbra of sadness which hangs over Guy ever since his wife left him eight years earlier, and b) the way he can never really make friends. He’s always an outsider. The Italian villagers take to nearly all the other expats on the island, they are sympatico, but Guy is not simpatico.

He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town. He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico.

Guy is lonely. Inside him is a blankness, an emptiness he can’t put into words, his imagination a prey to mournful images:

Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world.

It is against this complex family and personal background that the declaration of war comes on 3 September 1939 and (like many other men) Guy is hugely relieved to escape the frustrations and unhappiness of personal life, and make a clear and unambiguous commitment: to return to England to serve his king and country and fight against unambiguous evil.

Guy back in England

All the above is explained in a sort of prologue to the book. The main action of the novel opens with the declaration of war and Guy packing his stuff to return from his Italian island home to England to serve king and country.

Guy arrives in London hoping to find a role in the army straightaway. He goes to his club, Bellamy’s, every day. Everyone is in turmoil. Everyone has evacuated their families from their London places and sent them down to the country. Box-Bender is locking up his London place and moving in with two male friends. Guy embarks on a campaign to get himself into the army, buttonholing military friends and writing countless letters to ministries and old contacts. No joy.

So he goes to stay with his sister Angela at her home in Gloucestershire.

Box-Bender’s house was a small, gabled manor in a sophisticated village where half the cottages were equipped with baths and chintz.

In a typically comic/farcical detail, their hallway is stuffed with crates of ‘Hittite tablets’ evacuated from the British Museum.

Guy is impressed by Arthur and Angela’s son, Tony, young and keen, who’s already got himself a place in the army, lucky blighter. They gossip about all the local families, some who’ve left the country altogether (the Abercrombies have decamped to Jamaica) and about the numerous accidents resulting from the blackout. Scandalised reports of the crime wave prompted by the blackout, lots of muggings.

After staying the night Guy travels down to see his father at the pub, the Marine Arms, in Matchet, where he took rooms as a long-term resident after he relinquished the estate at Broome. Like everywhere in England it’s in a tizzy because of the war, packed with an unusual numbers of guests, some of the staff have been conscripted etc. In the dining room, his father introduces him to Tickeridge, a hairy old cove who’s a major in the Halberdiers. When Guy expresses a genuine wish to be in the army, Tickeridge says he’ll see what he can do. Ha! Contacts. It’s not what you know, or who you know – it’s who your father knows!

Guy joins the army

And so Guy finds himself one of a new cohort of officers in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, nicknamed the Apple Jacks and the Copper Heads, a fictional regiment which is going to be central to his career in the army and all three novels. His closest associate is a lightly eccentric fellow called Apthorpe.

Both being that much older, they find themselves referred to as ‘uncle’. Lots of detail of army protocol, an extension of the strict rules around correct dress which were drummed into him at school, then university. Regimental traditions. Pen portraits of the other new officers, namely de Souza, Sarum-Smith, Leonard and a slightly shifty chap called Trimmer.

Guy joins his regiment

Guy joins the Halberdiers at their peacetime barracks. There is basic training and squarebashing i.e. drill on parade grounds. There is a lot of fuss about dressing correctly for different functions at different times of day, for example, the officers have to dress appropriately, and immaculately, for dinner in the mess hall.

It is obvious to me, at any rate, how life in the army follows naturally from life at prep school, life at private school, life at Oxford or Cambridge, and then life in the kind of upper class country house which Waugh idealises. What they all have in common are servants who do all the drudgery, change bedding, do all laundry, clean shoes and boots and cook and bring drinks. Their country houses are full of servants, their junior boys fag for the seniors at private school, there are ‘scouts’ to clean their rooms at Oxford and waiters bring meals in hall dinners, but on the other side of the ledger, in return for all these privileges, it is expected that the beneficiary, the boy growing up in a country house, at private school or Oxford, and then an officer in a good regiment, will follow the rules and there are lots and lots of rules governing all aspects of behaviour, dress, speech and thought.

It is a world of huge privilege but also of tremendous constraints. There is often no legal punishment for breaking the rules, but the army has a wide variety of sanctions for chaps who do not behave like an officer and a gentleman, and the narrow society of London clubs which Guy moves in also has its sanctions, its ability to cut or snub anyone who behaves incorrectly.

Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook

We are introduced to the feared and renowned figure of Ben Ritchie-Hooke, who will become their brigadier. I don’t really understand the structure of the British army, but I think what is happening is that , now war has been declared, all regiments, which had been allowed to dwindle in peacetime, are being rapidly up to full strength, recently retired officers asked back in and new officers being recruited. This is the new intake of officers which Guy is part of. First they will be trained, then newly recruited and conscripted ordinary soldiers will arrive and be put in their charge. At some point the regiment will become fully operational and Ben Ritchie-Hook will come into full command.

Throughout the first part of this novel this process takes place, observed from Guy’s point of view, sometimes, confusing the reader, sometimes confusing even Guy who’s in the thick of it.

Anyway, Ritchie-Hook is an almost Monty Python level of a caricature of a senior army officer. He wears an eye patch and a black leather glove on one hand, having lost an eye and fingers and thumb in battle. A sharp line is drawn between the initial commander in chief of the barracks who oversees thorough but pedestrian training, and the terrific change in mood which takes place when Ritchie-Hook arrives and takes over. He is all about biffing the enemy.

For example, the initial rifle range practice consists of long boring afternoons loading your gun, lying down, firing at a distant target, and having the target monitor flag whether you got a hit, a bullseye etc. By contrast, under Ritchie-Hook the brigadier himself runs up and down the trench at the end of the range waving a stick with a tin hat on it above ground level and defies his men to hit it. Later they have to crawl on their hands and knees just under a barrage of live fire.

Ritchie-Hook is a wonderful comic creation and the trigger for a series of comic incidents. For example he first appears at a drinks party held by a senior officer where, through a series of verbal misunderstandings, he mistakes Guy for Apthorpe the fellah who was in Africa for years, gruffly dismissing the fact that one of his officers seems to have spent the 1930s in Italy, no good that, don’t like the sound of that – which of course refers to Guy who keeps very silent about the fact for the rest of the evening. Comedy of manners.

but he also allows Waugh to create the kind of war he wants, which is farce. If you read war books from the Great War you are left in no doubt that it was a tragedy of enormous scale. Anyone coming to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy expecting the same will be surprised. It is overwhelmingly concerned with the boring humdrum details of training and office politics (as officers jostle for promotion) and bureaucracy and pettifogging rules, interspersed with moments of ludicrous farce. Only at the very end are any guns fired in anger and then only a dozen or so and for a few pages, on a tiny night-time excursion onto a beach in Africa which is over half an hour after it began and achieves nothing.

Southsand prep school

The officers are sent to a place called Kut-al-Imara House at Southsand-on-sea. It is a preparatory school, vacated by staff and pupils so the army can take over. Its rooms are named after World War One battles and, as Guy explores it on arrival, he paints a very vivid picture of a certain kind of lower league school, redolent of embarrassment and shame.

He leant against a coil of antiquated iron pipes and was surprised to find them hot. They seemed to lack all power of radiation; a yard from them there was no sensible warmth. He could imagine a row of little boys struggling to sit on them, tight-trousered boys with adenoids and chilblains; or perhaps it was a privilege to sit there enjoyed only by prefects and the First Eleven. In its desolation he could see the whole school as it had been made familiar to him in many recent realistic novels; an enterprise neither progressive nor prosperous. The assistant masters changed often, he supposed, arriving with bluff, departing with bluster; half the boys were taken at surreptitiously reduced fees; none of them ever won a scholarship or passed into a reputable public school or returned for an Old Boys’ Day or ever thought of his years there with anything but loathing and shame. The History lessons were patriotic in design, turned to ridicule by the young masters. There was no school song at Kut-al-Imara House. All this Guy thought he snuffed in the air of the forsaken building.

It’s one more image which brings the reader up short and makes you realise just how much Waugh was writing for readers of his own class and not for the humble likes of you and I. And also one more example of the way this class obsesses about its prep and private schools. It’s a common observation that Waugh’s generation of writers – including George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden and many others – never really seem to have escaped the clothes, drill, mannerisms and world view inculcated by an English public school system which reached a kind of acme in their day.

And then the equally commonly commented-on fact that so many of the institutions of English public life – the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, the quadrangles of the inns of court for lawyers, the quads and committee rooms of Westminster, the parade grounds and officers messes of the army – are a continuation of that ordered, regimented, elite, blinkered, narrow but highly effective view of life.

The characters frequently compare this or that army regulation to ‘school’, the narrator compares this or that situation to something similar at a public school. It comes as no surprise when a prep school moves into Malchett and hire old Mr Crouchback as a supply teacher, teaching, of course, not maths or geography or something useful, but, of course, Classics, ancient Greek to be precise. Apthorpe even takes Guy, one drunk night, in a taxi out to the location of his prep school Staplehurst, now, he discovers to his horror, demolished and a modern estate built over it. Sic transit…

Anyway, life at Southsand is the backdrop for Waugh giving a thousand and one little details of army life, starting with the typical ‘foul-up’ that Guy and his cohort of officers arrive at Southsand station an hour after the bus arranged to pick them up had left and having to make their own way by taxi. Bureaucratic cock-up typical of hundreds and hundreds more which Guy will become used to in army life.

There are comic incidents. At a guest night for the regiment the officers end up getting drunk and playing a game of rugby with a waste paper basket and when everyone piles onto Guy his knee is painfully wrenched. It swells up and so for weeks afterwards, he wears a bulky dressing, needs a cane to walk and is excused drill practice.

When his fellow older officer, Apthorpe also manages to injure his leg on a drunken night out, the two eldest new officers, who had both already gained the ambivalent nickname ‘uncle’, both appear limping and using canes, to general hilarity. The comedy is like that. Schoolboy comedy.

Similarly, Guy discovers he can’t actually see the targets at the firing range at the statutory 300 yard distance, thus discovering that he needs glasses, but on a whim, instead has a monocle made by a local optician, which solves his firing range problem but, of course, also contributes to making him a figure of fun.

Another little plot strand is the Italian restaurant kept by Mr Pelecci which they take to frequenting, chatty Mr Pelecci often sitting with them and chatting about the news. They don’t at first realise that he is a spy.

Catholic theology on Guy’s marriage

The officers are allowed out to explore the town. Guy and Apthorpe join the town yachting club, chiefly for its bar. He meets a Mr Goodall, Ambrose Goodall, who turns out to be a Catholic convert with a hobby of studying the old Catholic families of England. They have lunch and dine and go to the yacht club bar and it emerges that Goodall knows the history of Broome and Guy’s own family. And then, in the context of another family, in passing remarks that, theologically, it is no sin or crime for a man to have sex with his divorced wife as, in the eyes of God, she has never been separated from him. Although Virginia has been unfaithful, he hasn’t, and so the marriage is still, theologically speaking, valid.

Seduction of Virginia

This leads to disastrous episode where Guy tracks Virginia down in London. She is, typically for him and the circles they move in, staying at Claridge’s hotel. He moves into a room down the hall and she is initially delighted to bump into him, as she is delighted to bump into everyone, darling, during this beastly ghastly war. He invites her round for drinks and it is then that he puts his arm along the back of the sofa and makes an attempt to kiss her. Virginia thinks he’s being ridiculous. If you’re going to do it, do it properly, and puts down her drink and kisses him back.

But then she asks what’s brought this one and Guy makes the disastrous mistake of explaining the theological position i.e. she is still his wife in the eyes of God and it is still theologically permitted for him to have sex with her. This shocks and horrified her much more than if it were a casual attempt at sex and she stands up and moves to the fireplace expressing horror, at which point Guy really screws things up by venting 8 years of frustration and accusing her of being a tart. Then there is a big silence when they both react to what has happened and been said.

Virginia: ‘You take too much for granted.’
Guy: ‘That’s an absolutely awful expression,’ said Guy. ‘Only tarts use it.’
Virginia: ‘Isn’t that rather what you think I am?’
Guy: ‘Isn’t it rather what you are?’

Guy grovellingly apologises, more because it’s bad form and poor manners than untrue, and they sort of patch things up. But, later, leaving Claridge’s, the incident does have the positive effect that it seems to have laid a ghost. His true feelings for Virginia have come out and he feels some sense of closure. It is  14 February 1940.

Apthorpe

His fellow ‘new’ officer, Apthrope, is arguably the dominant figure of the novel. Indeed the three main sections the book is divided into each use a Latin word to describe the three stages of Apthorpe’s progression, namely: Apthorpe Gloriosus, Apthorpe Furibundus and Apthorpe Immolatus where gloriosus is self evident, furibundus means ‘frantic, frenzied, maddened’ and immolatus means ‘having been immolated or sacrificed’.

Apthorpe’s character fascinates Guy from the start, his comic obsessions and behaviour. Thus, when Apthorpe is promoted to rank of captain ahead of Guy, he insists Guy salute him, and asks him to ask all the other new officers to do so, too. This, apparently, was technically correct but not necessary and makes Apthorpe look like a pedantic fool; in fact his fellow officers play various games with the act of saluting or not saluting when Apthorpe expects it which drives the poor man into a frenzy.

A platoon of signallers are billeted with the Halberdiers and Apthorpe insists they conform to Halberdier discipline and procedure, which leads to a long and increasingly embittered feud with their commanding officer, Dunn, which eventually escalates up to commanding officer level. Although he has been promoted. Apthorpe is acquiring a reputation as an eccentric.

Apthorpe and the saga of the Thunder-Box

One of Apthorpe’s eccentricities has been carrying round an enormous amount of lumber and ‘kit’ and ‘gear’ with him which he insists was vital to his much-mentioned but obscure ‘time in Africa’. ‘Somewhere among these possessions lay something rare and mysterious which Apthorpe spoke of as his “Bush Thunder-box”.’

This develops into the book’s best-known comic sequence, the kind of extended comic digression which characterised the best of his 1930s comic novels, reminiscent of Basil Seal’s scams in Put Out More Flags. The thunder-box is a beautifully made Edwardian chemical toilet, a cube of solid wood, which opens to reveal a porcelain seat and bowl. But why? asks Guy: there are toilets just down the hallway. ‘The clap old chap,’ Apthrope confidently explains. ‘A chap can never be too careful.’ So Guy watches Apthorpe surreptitiously, one evening, when the other chaps are in the game room, haul this big box out of the general lumber room and drag it across the prep school playing fields into a little games storeroom hidden among the bushes. For a couple of days Apthorpse disappears for ten minutes at a time and only Guy knows where he’s going.

However, disaster strikes when one evening Apthorpe encounters fearsome Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke exiting the clump of bushes which conceal his secret. Both are forced to salute each other but very uneasily. Apthorpe tells Guy the terrible news but worse is to follow. Next day Apthorpe goes for his daily evacuation and is horrified to see a sign pinned on the little outhouse saying the place is out of bounds to everyone below the rank of brigadier.

Apthorpe anxiously discusses the situation with Guy and ropes him into moving the dread device. So one evening they sneak down to the outhouse and manhandle it some distance away to another hiding place, returning very satisfied with their work. A few evenings later Apthorpe makes his usual excuses and slips off and a few minutes later Guy hears a muffled explosion. He knows at once what it is, and sets off running across the playing fields and into the bushes. He discovers a dazed Apthorpe sprawled on his face a few yards from the thunder-box which is now a splintered smoking wreck. Ritchie-Hook, in one of his famous practical jokes, had rigged the thing with a small explosive device.

The sequence of events themselves are fairly funny, but what turns it into award-winning farce is the tremendous seriousness with which Apthorpe takes it all, and the completely straight-faced way Guy plays along with him.

Penkirk

The regiment is moved to Penkirk not far from Edinburgh in a camp of tents. A castle is nearby. Here Apthorpe’s eccentricities continue to flourish. It is here that he commences his long-running vendetta against the officer in the Signalling regiment.

It is here that the first division of commands is given and Guy is bitter to be given only a platoon while Apthorpe is promoted above him. Only later does a friendly superior explain this is because Apthorpe is actually fingered for promotion into purely administrative positions whereas the Brigadier doesn’t want anyone in command of actual fighting units who hasn’t started out with experience of commanding a platoon. That cheers him up a bit.

A new commander is assigned, one Hayter, who Guy comes to dislike. There is a great deal about relations between the new officers of his rank and the complex array of commanding officers who come and go as the regiment is restructured and reorganised.

There is a long sequence which Waugh cleverly arranges around the one hundred and forty-three questions in the Army Training Memorandum No. 31 War. April 1940 which all the officers receive and are ordered to complete.

On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, replacing the hapless Neville Chamberlain. It is worth lingering over what Waugh, or at least his character Guy, thinks of him:

Guy knew of Mr. Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George.

He thinks he’ll be better than the other chap. But this is a novel and another character, Major Erskine, who, in the dim-witted nature of these characters is thought to be ‘brainy’ because he reads novels and is a bit scruffy, this Erskine is made to say, prophetically:

‘Churchill is about the only man who may save us from losing this war.’

The difference between history and novels is in novels opinions, ideas, perspectives are distributed among different characters for dramatic effect. Might be worth also quoting the place where Waugh gives his clearest explanation of Guy’s motive for fighting, for taking part in this war:

[Guy] was a good loser, but he did not believe his country would lose this war; each apparent defeat seemed strangely to sustain it. There was in Romance great virtue in unequal odds. There were in morals two requisites for a lawful war, a just cause and the chance of victory. The cause was now, past all question, just. The enemy was exorbitant. His actions in Austria and Bohemia had been defensible. There was even a shadow of plausibility in his quarrel with Poland. But now, however victorious, he was an outlaw. And the more victorious he was the more he drew to himself the enmity of the world and the punishment of God.

Note the complete absence of political analysis. Waugh doesn’t, for example declare his protagonist an enemy of fascism or Nazism (in fact, having lived in Italy for most of the 1930s, Guy has a relaxed attitude to the reality of Italian fascism on the ground). Certainly not in the way that English left-wing or liberal thinkers thought of Nazism as unambiguously evil and a threat to all notions of freedom. Guy just seems to think that in invading Poland, Nazi Germany has gone a bit too far. And then this phrase ‘the enmity of God.’ Is Waugh serious? Well, his character probably is. Guy is a devout and in many ways simple Catholic, with a simple sense of right and wrong.

The flap

All this is taking place in the spring and early summer of 1940 which saw, in the wider world of war, the Russian invasion of Finland and the German invasion of Norway, this latter prompting a badly organised and chaotic British attempt to land troops and hold the German advance. (Waugh’s earlier novel, Put Out More Flags, includes towards the end a passage describing the ill-fated involvement of one of the characters, Cedric Lyne, in this badly organised fiasco.) And then, of course, the evacuation of Dunkirk, 26 May to 4 June 1940.

All kinds of rumour reach our chaps and this is a useful social history aspect of the novel, what makes it more than history, that it doesn’t record what happened, but what educated people of the time thought was happening and was going to happen.

Aldershot

So they’re sent to Aldershot in Surrey, with some description of the surrounding sandy heathland. Apthorpe distinguishes himself again by, the second he’s put in charge when the commander in chief is briefly absent, causing a great panic when he claims he has reports of German paratroopers landing.

Maps of Calais are issued as if they’re going to be shipped across to fight there, the officers memorise them, discuss lines of defence and so on. Guy’s platoon is dominated by the impressive figure of Company Sergeant Major Rawkes. Guy leads his men on a training exercise on the big barren heathland, everyone gets lost, some men go absent without leave, no-one knows what is going on, rumours fly in all directions.

Tony

Guy receives two letters from his father, the first one (2 June 1940) lamenting that his nephew, Tony, appears to be missing presumed killed in France, the second one (12 June 1940) with the reassuring news that he is in fact a prisoner of war, but the doleful commentary that a) it was shameful that his regiment surrendered to the Germans, but they were ordered to and b) it is likely to be a long war and so a shame that such a fine fellow is going to spend the best years of his young manhood behind bars. He receives both letters on the day the Germans march into Paris, 14 June 1940.

The world has shifted on its axis. Nobody expected France to fall at all, and certainly not so quickly. Now Britain really is alone. Churchill gave his ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech on 4 June 1940.

North Cornwall

The regiment is moved to Cornwall. Waugh details the boredom of hanging round not knowing what the future holds. There are wild rumours that the Germans are about to take Limerick in Ireland and the Halberdiers are about to be shipped over to defend it. Much studying maps of Limerick. Nothing happens. The officers have to cook up ways to keep the men entertained, lectures (Guy gives a well received one about wine making, knowledge he gained in Italy). Football. Evening games of bingo which, surprisingly, Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke recommends and calls ‘housey-housey’.

Extraneous figures came to add to the congestion. An odd, old captain like a cockatoo in the gaudy service-dress of a defunct regiment of Irish cavalry. He said he was the cipher officer and was roped in to lecture on ‘Court Life at St. Petersburg’.

Seen from Waugh’s perspective, army life is one surreal and farcical event after another. This is what makes the books so supremely readable and enjoyable, the tone of quiet humour which suffuses them, occasionally rising to moments of supreme farce.

South Cornwall

Then they are ordered to pack up everything and shunted on a series of trains across to the South Cornwall coast where they are ordered to guard several miles of heavily barbed wired beach. Top brass come for an inspection and one of the intelligence officers goes out of his way to emphasise the risk of fifth columnists, a concept and phrase which had only recently been coined, by General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

This leads to an incident when Guy has a touch of the Apthorpes and reacts with paranoia when two officers turn up at his HQ (a requisitioned hotel) claiming to be from A Company, the 5th Loamshires. Guy suspects them of being fifth columnists, is impressed by their accurate seeming papers and posh English accents, but nevertheless instructs the sergeant major to take over the bren gun next on the clifftop and cover the pair as they’re taken down for a dip in the sea by a soldier he deputes for the job. If they make one funny move, the sergeant major is to shoot them. The dismay of Sergeant Major Rawkes who had, until this moment, thought Guy wasn’t too bad, for an officer, is very funny.

Brook Park

They’re ordered to pack up yet again and entrain for Brook Park in Surrey. Here occurs an event which the sardonic and witty fellow officer, de Souza, nicknames ‘the Languishing of Leonard’. Early on we had met officer Leonard’s wife, Daisy, who is distinctly not the right class, who drops her aitches and speaks out of turn at dinners or drinks for the regimental officers. She has followed her man from base to base, taking hotel rooms and now announces that she is pregnant. She kicks up an immense fuss and wants Leonard seconded to a safe domestic posting so he can be with her. Very sheepishly Leonard falls in line with her demands, secures his posting, from which point onwards the Adjutant, or acting head of the regiment, requests that his name never be mentioned again. Shame.

Liverpool

Next thing they know they are given two days leave (Guy goes to visit his father and finds him, of course, knee deep in the classics text he’s teaching the little chaps at the evacuated prep school) before returning to barracks at which point the entire regiment is packed up and sent to Liverpool.

After the usual chaos, embarking, disembarking and so on, they finally set sail to the Bay of Biscay, are joined by a fleet and sail on to the coast of Africa, near Dakar, to be precise (capital of what is now Senegal).

Here the fleet moors and numerous high level meetings are held. Initially Brigadier Ritchie-Hook is excited because they are finally going to get to land and biff the enemy. But this turns to bitter frustration when the raid is called off. The ordinary soldiers celebrate but Guy is called to a meeting of senior officers, namely the Brigadier, Colonel Tickeridge and the ship’s captain.

The beach raid in Africa

Ritchie-Hooke is furious that the raid has been called off because naval intelligence has some aerial photos of the beaches which could be interpreted to indicate that they’re criss-crossed with wire. But in this little meeting he is gleeful because he and Tickeridge have persuaded the captain of the ship to let them send a tiny little landing party to ascertain whether this is true. And Guy is to lead it.

He is told to go and choose a dozen men who will be taken aboard a launch by a navy captain, shuttled ashore under cover of darkness, faces blacked, carrying minimal equipment. Their mission is to ascertain the existence or not of ‘wire’ and capture a souvenir, a coconut, say, as proof of their trip.

The atmosphere of tense excitement is beautifully conveyed. There’s a beautiful little description as Guy and his men wait in the hold for the little sally-port, or door low down in the side of the ship, to be opened so they can climb a short distance down a rope ladder into the launch:

The lights were all turned off in the hold before the sally-port was opened by one of the crew. It revealed a faintly lighter square and a steamy breath of the sea.

Well, to be brief, they chug onto the beach, slip over the side and wade through the warm water, tiptoe up the ashore and do, indeed, find wire, rows of wire amateurishly strung across it. Then sounds and someone starts firing and then lots of guns start firing. Guy blows his whistle for general retreat but one of his chaps goes haring forward into the darkness. The rest return to the boat unharmed and the sailor captaining it reports everyone present and correct but Guy knows he saw someone else and goes back to check.

Just as well he did, for he discovers one of his men crawling back through the dunes, wounded in the leg. Guy curses, runs forward, supports him arm over shoulder back to the launch, heaves him in and the launch turns and putters back to the ship. As he helps him Guy realises this disobedient man is none other than… Ben Ritchie-Hook. Not only that, but after he is manhandled into the launch he slips into Guy’s lap the object he’s been hugging close all this time. It is the severed head of an African soldier.

The ‘gruesome’ in Waugh

What to make of this? It is at the same time farcical, comic and gruesome. But readers will remember this is the sometimes puzzlingly extreme tone he takes in many of his books. It is as if part of his approach to humour is to occasionally crank it up to broad farce, and then sometimes to take farce way over the top into The Gruesome.

It’s easy to forget that in his very first novel, Decline and Fall, when the young innocent Paul Pennyfeather finds himself in prison, he discovers that the padre is none other than one of his teachers at the crappy private school he taught at in Wales, Prendergast, who has retrained as a chaplain, and how the prison governor with his fancy ideas, decides it is a good thing to try and reform one of their most notorious prisoners by allowing him to express himself in the carpentry shop – and how this prisoner takes the first opportunity to saw off the padre’s head.

Ritchie-Hooke later explains that the man raised his gun at him so Ritchie chucked a grenade which blew him to bits, one of the bits of which was the head (which he proceeded to ‘trim’ a bit). The beheading of the African is no more offensive than the decapitation of Prendergast i.e. a bit offensive against good taste and restraint. What definitely is offensive is the way Ritchie-Hook refers to the head as his ‘coconut’ and so does everyone else concerned during the incident’s repercussions.

The repercussions are that Ritchie-Hooke has gone too far this time and is recalled to London for a bollocking and possibly the end of his military career. Guy was only obeying direct orders but finds himself also condemned to have a black mark against him.

Freetown

Having abandoned the attack on Dakar the allied fleet sails on to Freetown, the port capital of Sierra Leone (a British colony which remained secure during the war). Damaged ships turn back. The two ships carrying the Halberdiers dock and they go ashore.

There is a new brigadier. He calls Guy in, tells him that during the journey he was promoted captain but that, in light of his involvement in the Dakar fiasco, he has been demoted again. He is to be recalled to London. He will be flown there along with Ritchie-Hooke as soon as the latter is fit enough to travel.

Here in Freetown he makes his second mistake. Apthorpe took the opportunity of leave to go up country. Now word comes back that he is ill. In fact he has been brought back by native bearers in a Victorian style ‘sheeted hammock’ and deposited in hospital.

The brigade major gives Guy permission to visit Apthorpe and recommends he take a bottle of whiskey along, it’s always a nice gesture, though strictly speaking advised against. Guy does so and has a long rambling encounter with Apthorpe who is genuinely ill. Guy slips the whiskey under his bedclothes. A nurse coming in smells it on their breath and says the doctor has forbidden it but Guy lies and says he just gave Apthorpe a nip from his flask.

During this interview Apthorpe, in his comically earnest and tragic way, entrusts Guy with a last wish, which is to ensure that he (Guy) hands over Apthorpe’s legendary pile of kit and equipment to his old friend ‘Chatty’ Corner (who we met earlier in the book when he attended one of the regimental drinks parties). Guy promises and leaves.

A few days later the brigade major calls him in to tell him that Althorpe is dead. Drank the whole bottle of whiskey in a day. Guy is shocked but then more shocked to learn that he is being blamed. The brigade major was the one who suggested the idea, but now holds him responsible.

(Throughout Apthorpe’s dying scenes there is another thread of Waugh’s irrepressible cheeky comedy, which is that Apthorpe solemnly assures him that when he told him, all the way back at the start of the book, that he had two aunts, he was, in fact, fibbing: he only has one. Guy accepts this deathbed confession with a straight face. But this misconception, that Apthorpe had two aunts who will grieve his loss, is then repeated by every other officer and official involved in the case, adding a wonderful thread of humour to counterpoint the rather grim fact of his actual death.

Again, as in the story of the decapitated African, grim death is inextricably intertwined with farce. It is a conscious policy.

So anyway, now Guy has two black marks against him. A flying boat lands in the harbour. It is to take him and Ritchie-Hook back to London and at this point the novel ends.

Cutaway ending

Except that, as Guy flies back to Blighty and an uncertain future, Waugh uses his characteristic technique of cutting away from the protagonist to have him and his plight be discussed by people at some distance from the action who, therefore, treat it with the levity and half attention we all give to gossip about people we half know or have vaguely heard of. It is a home counties version of the Alienation Effect. It is half humorous, half-despairing. It is the way human life is, never really understood, immediately transformed into gossip, all our lives, ultimately, dust. Sarum-Smith and de Souza attend the funeral of Apthorpe, laid to rest in the English cemetery in Freetown, and then remark on the fact that both of the oldest ‘new’ officers, the ones they nicknamed ‘uncle’, have left on the same day (one being buried, the other flying home under a cloud):

‘Both Uncles gone the same day.’
‘Funny, I was thinking the same. I rather preferred Crouchback on the whole.’
‘He seemed a nice enough fellow. I could never quite make him out. Pity he made an ass of himself.’
Already the Second Battalion of the Halberdiers spoke of Guy in the past tense. He had momentarily been of them; now he was an alien; someone in their long and varied past, but forgotten.

The old truth: life is intense tragedy to the person living it, but comedy to everyone else.


Waugh’s worldview

Snobbery

Only members of his class count. The narrator is scornful of anyone outside his circle and its very limited extension into the narrow circle of People Like Us.

The vulgar middle class

Throughout his works Waugh is snooty about people who make a living through trade, shopkeepers, merchants, and what you might call the lower professions, accountants and the like. Thinking about the professions, the very big gap in his oeuvre is the legal profession. If you think about Dickens, his works are full of lawyers and legal cases. None in Waugh. The central profession is, in the 1930s comedies, journalism and, in the novels from Put Out More Flags, the army.

The working classes

The working class is invisible except for servants, publicans, waiters and waitresses (in civilian life) and batmen, valets, servants and drivers (in the army). Oh and the actual soldiers, the common soldier, the private. Almost none of these are mentioned and none are named. When Guy takes his little troupe ashore at Dakar the sergeant has a name but none of the men. They are anonymous extras.

But what interests me is not Waugh’s snobbish, privileged, entitled elitism, as such. It’s more to do with the way that, operating within this closed, super-narrow, elite worldview – the upper class, private school and Oxbridge, country house and the-old-regiment kind of world, bolstered by the exclusiveness and elitism of his upper-class Catholic faith – enables his discourse, allows the texts to be written. A writer can’t write about the entire world; you have to pick a subject. Waugh isn’t trying to describe the great shambling chaos of the modern world. His bright, alert, highly regimented, policed and orderly world is the unshakeable foundation which allows him to create these comic, satirical and, occasionally, devastating fictions.

The elitism is as much a genre as a worldview, with its own customs and conventions. If, for the purpose of reading and enjoying his books, you accept this worldview, then the interest moves on from anatomising the worldview itself, to enjoying the way Waugh subverts, bends and occasionally breaks it.

Private schools and prep schools

Authors of his generation just can’t get away from memories of their childhood prep schools and boyhood private schools. They make endless comparisons to them, something reminds them of this or that at prep or public school, somehow prep schools are always cropping up as actual items: thus the location of training in Southsea is a requisitioned prep school and Mr Crouchback finds a private school evacuating to near his hotel and is invited to become a teacher, a Classics teacher, of course. I wasn’t at all surprised when (in the third book in the trilogy) de Souza tells Guy:

‘All army courses are like prep schools–all that welcoming of the new boys.’ (Unconditional Surrender, page 97)

It’s the first point of comparison for all these privately educated men.

Mental illness

I’ve mentioned it repeatedly in my reviews of Waugh’s novels, but a surprising number of them feature characters or passages dealing with mental illness or mental breakdown. Thus the nervous collapse of Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies, the teetering on the brink of shocked breakdown of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, the decline into depressed alcoholism of former High Society doyenne Angela Lyne in Put Out More Flags, the mental collapse of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, not one but two suicides in The Loved One. Several of his short stories are about homicidal lunatics (Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing and The Sympathetic Passenger).

In the trilogy Waugh continues his interest in several ways, at several levels. Guy’s elder brother, Ivo, has a complete collapse into psychosis and starves himself to death. Guy himself has been down enough to qualify as depressed and there are plenty of descriptions of his sense of hollowness, emptiness and futility:

He [was] himself destitute, possessed of nothing save a few dry grains of faith.

His brother-in-law, Box-Bender, frankly expects Guy to go mad at any moment, like his older brother, which doesn’t help. And then there’s something odd, ‘rum’, about the central figure, Apthorpe, mounting in eccentricity all the way through to his final collapse.

It feels like madness is constantly lurking just around the corner in any Waugh text. For the most part Waugh manages to keep the lid on it, contain it, and express it in socially acceptable form as a sense of the ludicrous or the farcical. But sometimes, pop! madness or despair emerge into the open.

Influence of film

1. As I’ve pointed out in other reviews, the film technique of quick cutting between scenes is something Waugh absorbed and used to great effect, most notably in an early novel like Vile Bodies but more subtly throughout all his fictions. He is still using it liberally throughout the trilogy, which often features sequences of 2 or 3-page scenes, moving quickly from one setting to another.

2. At moments, like so many of us, like so many characters in twentieth century fiction, Guy compares his behaviour to what people would do in a film and finds himself failing to live up to the Hollywood ideal of dashing masculinity.

3. And then, sometimes, he just takes the mickey out of movies, very amusingly:

Once Guy saw a film of the Rising of ’45. Prince Charles and his intimates stood on a mound of heather, making a sad little group, dressed as though for the Caledonian Ball, looking, indeed, precisely as though they were a party of despairing revellers mustered in the outer suburbs to meet a friend with a motor-car who had not turned up.

An awful moment came when the sun touched the horizon behind them. The Prince bowed his head, sheathed his claymore and said in rich Milwaukee accents: ‘I guess it’s all off, Mackingtosh.’

Influence of books

The comparing oneself with cultural ideals comes over more clearly in his comparisons with popular fiction. Early on in the book Guy recalls a story of derring-do he was read at prep school (naturally) during the Great War, and which inspired him and his friends with images of dashing heroism. The memory comes when the Brigadier addresses the men:

‘Gentlemen,’ he began, ‘to-morrow you meet the men you will lead in battle.’

It was the old, potent spell, big magic. Those two phrases, ‘the officers who will command you…’, ‘the men you will lead…’ set the junior officers precisely in their place, in the heart of the battle. For Guy they set swinging all the chimes of his boyhood’s reading…

‘…”I’ve chosen your squadron for the task, Truslove.” “Thank you, sir. What are our chances of getting through?” “It can be done, Truslove, or I shouldn’t be sending you. If anyone can do it, you can. And I can tell you this, my boy, I’d give all my seniority and all these bits of ribbon on my chest to be with you. But my duty lies here with the Regiment. Good luck to you, my boy. You’ll need it”…’

The words came back to him from a summer Sunday evening at his preparatory school, in the headmaster’s drawing-room, the three top forms sitting about on the floor, some in a dream of home, others – Guy among them – spell-bound.

This passage explains much, about ideals and identity and the centrality of his bloody private school in both of them. But it also, on a comic level, gives rise to a recurring trope which is when Guy finds himself in a tight corner and wonders what this ‘Truslove’ character from his boyhood stories would have done in his place. Thus he refers, later on, to an officer volunteering for a mission ‘Truslove style’, and ironically nicknames the farcical episode on the beach of Dakar ‘Operation Truslove’.

It is a variation on the deep central issue I’ve mentioned above, of the way so many men – well, writers, anyway – of this generation, never escaped their public school manners, morals and essentially immature, schoolboy worldview.


Credit

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1952. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

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Evelyn Waugh reviews

Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (1942)

‘[A uniform] is the best possible disguise for a man of intelligence. No one ever suspects a soldier of taking a serious interest in the war.’
(Colonel Plum to Basil Seal in Put Out More Flags, page 150)

Background

In his preface to the 1966 edition, Waugh tells us Put Out More Flags was the only book he wrote for pleasure and it shows. It isn’t exactly a comic masterpiece like Decline and Fall or Scoop, it isn’t a scandalous portrait of a generation like Vile Bodies, it isn’t scarred by a devastatingly bleak conclusion like Black Mischief or A Handful of Dust. Instead it is suffused by a warm, deep sense of English patriotism, embodied in a surprisingly buoyant good humour, occasionally rising to real laugh-out-loud comedy.

Waugh wrote Put Out More Flags on a troopship back from Crete after the island fell to the Nazis in 1941. He had been serving in the army for two years (experiences which would be transmuted into the wonderful Sword of Honour trilogy). Now, as the ship sailed slowly around the entire coast of Africa, he had time on his hands, so he took advantage of the enforced idleness and wrote all day every day,  completing the first draft in just a month.

Subject

The narrative covers the period of the Phoney War or what some humourists called the Bore War, between Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939 and the sudden German attack on France in June 1940, a long nine months during which we were technically at war but there was no direct attack on Britain. The narrative is divided into four simply named sections, Autumn, Winter, Spring, with a brief epilogue, Summer.

The return of Basil Seal

In part, Waugh wanted to find out what had happened to the characters he’d created in his previous novels. As Waugh himself puts it:

The characters about whom I had written in the previous decade came to life for me. I was anxious to know how they had been doing since I last heard of them, and I followed them with no preconceived plan, not knowing where I should find them from one page to the next.

The narrative opens with Basil Seal, the dashing scapegrace who was at the centre of Black Mischief, because Waugh obviously realised he could use Basil as an entry point to different aspects of English life.

1. Thus we hear for the first time about Basil’s extended family and in particular his sister, Barbara Sothill, who lives at a classic Waugh country house, Malfrey, beside a lovely village in a lovely part of the Midlands, somewhere. This allows Waugh to do lovely descriptions of the countryside and repeat the rather sentimentalised vision of the English country squire he had deployed in A Handful of Dust.

But the house now wears a mournful aspect: Barbara’s servants have mostly gone off to work in factories, and her husband, Freddy, has rejoined his reserve regiment. To her own surprise, Barbara has  become the billeting officer for her district, that’s to say she has responsibility for finding accommodation for evacuees from the nearest city (Birmingham) among the local villages. This is played for laughs as Barbara, previously a welcome sight to friends and neighbours, now becomes a scourge, the arrival of her car in the drive now the prelude to requests to the tremendous inconvenience of putting up ghastly working class families or children.

2. Basil’s mistress is Angela Lyne. In what develops into an interesting and moving storyline, we watch Angela hurry back from the South of France immediately after war is declared, back to a service flat in Mayfair and then… then something happens. She holes up in her bedroom and becomes addicted to listening to the news on the radio and… takes to drinking, takes to asking her maid for a drink early in the morning and then… takes to wearing dark glasses, at home, during the day, even with the curtains drawn. It’s a really interesting portrait of someone badly undermined by the declaration of war, someone thrown off their game, made ill by uncontrolled thoughts.

Insofar as Angela was once a luminary of London high society she is also a kind of entrée into that world, occasionally leaving her seclusion to attend a party given by the egregious Lady Metroland, no matter how peripherally, in every Waugh novel since Decline and Fall.

Also, Angela has a husband, Cedric Lyne. They’re in their later thirties now and it is very sympathetically handled, the way Cedric was initially upset when his wife began an affair with Basil, thinking it would all blow over, accepted it was going to last a bit longer, and only slowly realised Basil was in the fact the love of her life. They remain married because, well, the fuss my dear, of getting divorced. So disruptive. More importantly, being a ‘divorced woman’ would close society doors to her, and being in society is her life, and so she persuades Cedric not to divorce her but to continue living on at the family place in the country where he has poured the energy which should have gone into being the head of a happy family into, instead, collecting, importing and installing grottos from around southern Europe.

3. Thirdly there is Basil’s mother, the rather formidable Lady Seal, on first name terms with the Prime Minister, a type of the grand old lady of London society, who is endlessly fussing and fretting about her errant son.

Sir Joseph Mainwaring

Sir Joseph is a minor character who provides great amusement. He is an old friend of Basil’s mother. He enjoys her company but dreads the conversations they have to have about her scapegrace son’s future. As soon as war is declared Lady Seal conceives the ambition to get Basil into ‘a good regiment’. For people like her the war isn’t so much a thing to be fought and lost – or their assumption is simply that England, being in the right, will win – it is about having the right sort of war.

Thus she persuades a very reluctant Sir Joseph to invite Basil for lunch at his gentlemen’s club, the Travellers, with the aim of introducing him to the Lieutenant-Colonel of a (fictional) regiment, ‘the Bombardiers’ who, as Waugh goes on to say with typical bitchiness, is ‘-an officer whom Sir Joseph wrongly believed to have a liking for him’.

Basil’s luncheons at the Travellers’ with Sir Joseph Mainwaring had for years formed a series of monuments in his downward path. There had been the luncheons of his four major debt settlements, the luncheon of his political candidature, the luncheons of his two respectable professions, the luncheon of the threatened divorce of Angela Lyne, the Luncheon of the Stolen Emeralds, the Luncheon of the Knuckledusters, the Luncheon of Freddy’s Last Cheque – each would provide both theme and title for a work of popular fiction.

The lunch with the Lieutenant-Colonel is a predictable and amusing disaster, Basil turning up unshaven and unkempt, and making a disastrous impression. He follows this up with a visit to the L-C in his office which goes even worse, with the old boy almost choking with fury at Basil taking for granted that he will be quickly promoted and able to leave the boring old Bombardiers behind. He barely escapes the old boy’s office without a serious shouting-at.

So much for Sir Joseph. After this abortive attempt to help Basil, he settles down to become a bit character, pompous possessor of ‘a peppercorn lightness of soul, a deep unimpressionable frivolity’, occasionally wheeled on to give opinions and predictions about the war which are consistently and hilariously wide of the mark.

A theory of gossip

A word about gossip. Waugh loved gossip. If his novels weren’t enough of an indication, we have Waugh’s extensive letters and diaries which show what a tremendous party animal, socialiser, snob and social climber he was. From private school through Oxford and on into London’s society and literary circles, it was very important to Waugh to cultivate friends in the right places, be au courant with the young party set, and hobnob with the finest titles he could manage.

So far, so biographical. The point I want to make is the distinctive effect this has on his fiction. This is that no matter what happens to the main characters, Waugh always shows us its impact on ‘society’, on other people gossiping and commenting about them. There are always two levels: the level of the main events happening to the central protagonists; and then a fog of rumour and gossip about them.

In A Handful of Dust an entire extra layer is added to the narrative by the way Waugh describes not only the central tragedy of the accidental death of little John Andrew, but the way every step of Tony Last’s response is reported, repeated, commented on and analysed by outsiders, people not directly connected, people in London’s endless parties who get the facts wrong, twist the facts, and end up making Tony the bad guy in his divorce with Brenda in which, as we the readers see and know, he is utterly innocent.

Although the word ‘gossip’ sounds trivial, I think the way Waugh deploys it in most of his novels reflects a profound truth about human life. Gossip is, in fact, how most of us are perceived in society – not as the brave, clever, hard-working people we think ourselves to be, but as other people see us: the cranky one who’s always getting into arguments, the boring one who always sits in the corner, the scruffy one who always arrives late, who got drunk and did something embarrassing at the Christmas party, and so on.

Most of us live our lives very much for-ourselves and only occasionally overhear what other people really think about us. And when it happens, it is without exception profoundly disturbing to overhear friends or work colleagues everso casually dismissing you, reducing you to a few crude strokes of caricature, to the punchline to a few unrepresentative anecdotes. ‘But I’m more than that,’ you want to protest, ‘I am all these wonderful feelings and perceptions and thoughts and intuitions!’ Not to other people, you aren’t. To other people you’re the one who’s rubbish at telling jokes, gets drunk and argumentative at parties, and broke the office photocopier. A ridiculous caricature.

Lots of people rattle off John Donne’s quote about ‘No man is an island’, but it would be far more accurate to say no person can escape the comments, jokes, criticism, and behind-their-back sniggering of family, friends and work colleagues. No one.

Waugh’s fiction brilliantly conveys this sense that, despite our fondest illusions, we may like to think of ourselves as people-for-ourselves but can never escape mostly being people-for-others. The mistreatment of Tony Last in Handful of Dust, the way his behaviour is misrepresented and traduced by everyone else in the story, even his own servants, is probably the epitome of this vision of humans trapped in a web of other people’s commentary, but it is present in all Waugh’s novels – the notion that all human lives are lived on two levels: first, the actual events themselves and the feelings and motivations of the main actors; and then the limitless way all these fine feelings and high motivations are eclipsed by the superficial rush to judgement of hundreds of strangers who don’t the know the first thing about you but gleefully repeat the most malicious distortions of what you said or did.

Most of the time Waugh plays it for laughs but sometimes to bring out the intense bitterness his characters feel at society’s misunderstanding and judging them (as in Handful of Dust). That’s one it its strengths, as an approach to fiction, this deployment of ‘society’ as a kind of permanent chorus on the action, is that it can be either comic or tragic, as required. But it is always there. Not the fashionable ‘Other’ of sociology and literary theory, much worse: the others, the potentially endless ranks of people who don’t give a toss about you or, if they think about you at all, it’s as a monster, a bully, an oaf, or a fat figure of fun.

In the deftness with which he captures this often overlooked aspect of society, I think Waugh is more profoundly realistic than many more supposedly ‘serious’ novelists.

In this book this aspect of society is epitomised by the incident of Angela at the cinema. As mentioned above, the once supremely confident and renowned Mrs Angela Lyne undergoes a sort of breakdown, taking to her bed, obsessively listening to the radio news and drinking. Her only escape is now and then to totter down the road to the pictures.

One of the recurring characters, Peter Pastmaster, son of Lady Metroland, has a) joined the army b) decided he ought to get married so, in a comically frivolous way, is dating three of the most eligible young heiresses in London. One evening he’s taking one of them, Molly Meadowes, to the pictures and they come across Angela making a fuss because she can’t get the kind of ticket she wants, down at the front. As Peter and Molly push through the queue to get to her, Angela trips and sits down with a bump and the commissionaires are starting to make a fuss. So they pick her up, call a cab, and take her back to her flat, leaving her in the hands of her maid, Grainger.

And then – and this is the point in mentioning it – Waugh shows us how this fairly simple event gets quickly blown up by society gossip into a legend about a roaring drunk Angela getting into a fight with the commissionaire and cabby before being rescued by Peter. Nothing goes ungossiped about. Nobody can escape their life being pawed and prodded and simplified and ridiculed.

(There’s also something profoundly psychologically true in the way that the little escapade of helping drunk Mrs Lyne back to her flat brings Molly and Peter together. Molly thinks it’s sweet the way naive Peter doesn’t even realise Angela is drunk. And she is touched by his genuine chivalry and concern. And so she decides to marry him, a fact Peter proudly announces to his mother, Lady Metroland, later the same evening.)

Left wing intellectuals

So the book reintroduces us to a number of recurring characters from the previous novels, but there are also some new developments. One is a departure for Waugh, a comic description of left-wing bohemians. This is the social set revolving around the fiery painter Poppet Green. A bit like in Vile Bodies Waugh establishes the speech patterns or the recurring topics of conversation in Poppet’s circle so that he can drop snippets of their conversation into larger chapters; so he can cut away to brief dialogue between Poppet and comrades for a quick page before cutting away to something else, having established their tell-tale topics of conversation.

We generally know we’re in that milieu because Poppet and all her friends talk endlessly about communism, and the proletariat, and Russia, are very quick to throw the accusation of ‘fascist’ about (how nothing changes in the ‘progressive’ mind) but above all, how they obsess about the two noted communist poets and best friends, Parsnip and Pimpernell. This pair and their fierce and urgent poetry are seen as the ne plus ultra of the proletarian pose in the arts, literature, specifically poetry.

It helps if you know that Parsnip and Pimpernell are Waugh’s (very effective) comic nicknames for the poet W.H. Auden and his best friend, the playwright Christopher Isherwood. For the entire decade of the 1930s Auden’s thrillingly modern poetry had dominated the world of literature, capturing everything, describing everything, making all political issues more burning and urgent with his brilliantly modern tone of voice and imagery of factories and cars and planes and skyscrapers.

However, just as his reputation was at its height, and just as the political world they had described so well finally reached the crisis they had predicted for so long, with the outbreak of war against international fascism…that’s the moment when Auden and Isherwood, in real life, decided to leave England and emigrate to America (in January 1939). And so, in this fictionalised caricature of events, the great debate which rages among Poppet Green and her friends, is whether Parsnip and Pimpernell were right to abandon their country in its time of need… or did they do the right thing, by staying loyal to their muses and their ART?

The name of the poet Parsnip, casually mentioned, reopened the great Parsnip-Pimpernell controversy which was torturing Poppet Green and her friends. It was a problem which, not unlike the Schleswig-Holstein question of the preceding century, seemed to admit of no logical solution for, in simple terms, the postulates were self-contradictory. Parsnip and Pimpernell, as friends and collaborators, were inseparable; on that all agreed. But Parsnip’s art flourished best in England, even an embattled England, while Pimpernell’s needed the peaceful and fecund soil of the United States. The complementary qualities which, many believed, made them together equal to one poet, now threatened the dissolution of partnership.

In the five novels and four travel books up to this point, Waugh had shown himself a master of depicting the English upper classes partying in Mayfair or at home in their delightful country houses. Describing the rougher, avowedly left-wing and ‘radical’ world of bohemia and the arts is a notable departure of milieu but one he brings off very well. Poppet and her creatures’ endless internecine bickering over ideology and the ‘correct’ line to take is very funny in itself and shows the reader just how little changes in the harshly judgemental and accusatory progressive mindset.

Ambrose Silk

A doyen, a leading figure in this world, although older than many of the others and not as politically engaged as the young firebrands, is the gay, Jewish aesthete Ambrose Silk. The novel contains a number of new characters, but Silk is the one, standout, major new character. He is a great creation and joins Basil as the other major protagonist of the story.

For Ambrose has depths. He is unhappy. He feels like a man out of time. He is an aesthete. He should have been born in the age of Oscar (Wilde) and Aubrey (Beardsley). He goes along with the fashionable political chatter of Poppet Green and her salon of fashionable communists, but feels alienated from them.

But then, he feels alienated from everyone. When he finds himself in the kind of fashionable society party he feels just as ill at ease. He gets a comedy job at the Ministry of Information, in the religious department of all places, and, as an atheist Jew, feels out of place among his caricature Catholic, Anglican and nonconformist colleagues.

And Ambrose is clinically paranoid, a prey to fluttery ‘persecution mania’ (p.174). Just as Waugh shows us Sir Joseph Mainwaring on a number of social occasions making wildly inaccurate predictions about international affairs (for example, that Italy is biding its time before allying with Britain and France), so Waugh shows us a series of scenes in which Ambrose anxiously asks the people he’s with whether they think that, if the Nazis win and invade Britain, they’ll come for Jews like him? And ‘communists’ like him? And intellectuals like him? And homosexuals like him?

On all these occasions Waugh goes deep into Ambrose’s thoughts, giving us almost stream of consciousness depictions of his anxiety and alienation, something he rarely does. Most of his characters just act and talk and we see them only from outside. This dwelling on Ambrose’s inner world is most unusual. It sounds like this:

The party left the restaurant and stood in an untidy group on the pavement, unable to make up their minds who was going with whom, in what direction, for what purpose. Ambrose bade them good-bye and hurried away, with his absurd, light step and his heavy heart. Two soldiers outside a public-house made rude noises as he passed. ‘I’ll tell your sergeant-major of you,’ he said gaily, almost gallantly, and flounced down the street. I should like to be one of them, he thought. I should like to go with them and drink beer and make rude noises at passing aesthetes. What does world revolution hold in store for me? Will it make me any nearer them? Shall I walk differently, speak differently, be less bored with Poppet Green and her friends? Here is the war, offering a new deal for everyone; I alone bear the weight of my singularity.

Ambrose’s magazine

Out of this swirl of emotions and worries, Ambrose conceives the idea of publishing a literary magazine. But isn’t this the worst possible timing, people ask, just as a war is breaking out? No darling, Ambrose explains, it is exactly the right time for a magazine which will preserve all that is best in our civilisation. So he persuades the niche and not very successful publishers of his previous books to back him, being Rampole and Bentley. His magazine will breathe the same rarefied atmosphere as the famous Yellow Book and will be called the Ivory Tower.

There is comedy in the way, over the next few weeks, it becomes clear that almost all the articles in the magazine will be written by Basil himself. His publisher says this will spark criticism, he needs to think up some noms de plums to give the sense of a variety of contributors and so he comes up with some ludicrous names:

Ambrose rather let himself go on names. ‘Hucklebury Squib’, ‘Bartholomew Grass’, ‘Tom Barebones-Abraham’.

Above all, Basil realises the magazine will give him an outlet to express his great, romantic (homosexual) love for a good-looking German boy he met and had an affair with only last year, a youth named Hans. He quickly pens a 50-page hymn to the young man’s virility and good looks and vitality. Tragically, although Hans was a keen member of the Nazi Brownshirts, when it was discovered that he was (like Ambrose) Jewish he was swiftly arrest, disgraced and taken away to a concentration camp,  while Ambrose was forced to flee Germany in fear of his life (shades of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin memoirs).

The memoir will, Ambrose breathlessly tells his friends, be titled ‘Monument to a Spartan’ and he shows his friend Basil a copy.

Basil’s scams

Back to Basil for a moment. In the winter section, having signally failed to join the army he goes to Malfrey to stay with his sister. She’s grateful for the company and they soon fall back into the nicknames and games rough and tumble they shared as small children.

The Connollys

Basil gets involved with his sister’s role as evacuating officer and soon discovers there is one particular set of orphaned kids from Birmingham who no-one will touch, the Connolly children:

There was Doris, ripely pubescent, aged by her own varied accounts anything from ten years to eighteen. An early and ingenious attempt to have her certified as an adult was frustrated by an inspecting doctor who put her at about fifteen. Doris had dark, black bobbed hair, a large mouth and dark pig’s eyes. There was something of the Esquimaux about her head, but her colouring was ruddy and her manner more vivacious than is common among that respectable race. Her figure was stocky, her bust prodigious, and her gait, derived from the cinematograph, was designed to be alluring.

Micky, her junior by the length of a rather stiff sentence for house-breaking, was of lighter build; a scrawny, scowling little boy; a child of few words and those, for the most part, foul.

Marlene was presumed to be a year younger. But for Micky’s violent denials she might have been taken for his twin. She was the offspring of unusually prolonged coincident periods of liberty in the lives of her parents which the sociologist must deplore, for Marlene was simple. An appeal to have her certified imbecile was disallowed by the same inspecting doctor, who expressed an opinion that country life might work wonders with the child.

There the three had stood, on the eve of the war, in Malfrey Parish Hall, one leering, one lowering, and one drooling, as unprepossessing a family as could be found in the kingdom.

It should be added that Marlene pees and poos everywhere, indiscriminately. Well, to cut a long story short, after some attempts at trying to park these delinquents with decent folk, Basil has a brainwave. Potential hosts take against them so quickly and totally that one of them offers him money to take them back. Bingo! He realises they are a money-making proposition. And so Basil gets hold of Barbara’s address book and embarks on a campaign of parking the revolting children with the sweetest, nicest, kindest people he can find – almost all of whom ring up within a few days, sometimes a few hours, begging to have them taken off their hands. How much? asks Basil, and start to turn a tidy profit.

What makes it that much more realistic and funny is that flirtatious Doris takes a massive shine to Basil and wants to follow him everywhere and be with him all the time. Basil is a rascal and they soon come to an understanding, namely he is nice to Doris provided she controls her horrible siblings and then obeys orders to play up the second he’s left them with an innocent family.

Meanwhile, as a kind of side order, Basil comes across a nubile recently married young woman whose husband has gone off to join his regiment, is all sad and lonely and so… being the charmer he is, starts an affair with her.

The Ministry of Information and the Ambrose scam

From time to time he travels up to London and hangs around the Ministry of Information, located in Senate House, Bloomsbury (where George Orwell worked, where John Wyndham worked, where half London’s unemployed writers hung around hoping to get a gig, and where Ambrose Silk incongruously gets a job in the Religious Department).

A fluent liar he bluffs his way past security telling them he works for (the non-existent) M.I.13. Utterly at random he is distracted by a very good-looking young woman and follows her down corridors and into the office of one Colonel Plum. He resolves to get a job here, purely and solely to see if he can seduce Susie the sexy secretary, but to do so he finds himself having an impromptu interview with the Colonel in charge of this little unit.

In this absurd interview, Colonel Plum makes it clear he needs to track down and, ideally arrest, enemies of the state. Basil reflects on Poppet Green and her circle of left-wing bohemians, and quickly ad libs:

‘I know some very dangerous communists,’ said Basil.
‘I wonder if they’re on our files. We’ll look in a minute. We aren’t doing much about communists at the moment. The politicians are shy of them for some reason. But we keep an eye on them, on the side, of course. I can’t pay you much for communists.’

What the colonel can pay for is fascists, does Basil know any fascists, he’ll make him a captain in the Marines if he can hand over some fascists? Basil thinks again and has a characteristic brainwave. Ambrose and his essay about beautiful German youth, Hans, a member of the Hitler Youth! Basil tells the colonel he may be onto something, he’ll report back in a few days.

Basil goes his ways, which involve dropping into the office of the Ivory Tower. There are some proofs of the first edition lying around and also a passport, from an Irish priest of all things, a Father Flanagan, S.J., Professor of Dublin University. He wants to visit the Maginot Line in his capacity of correspondent for some Catholic paper and, in the usual chaotic way of the ministry, his application along with his passport have found their way to the religious department of the Ministry of Information, where Ambrose pretends to work. On a whim, Basil nicks it, like he steals so many other random bits and bobs, never knowing when they’ll come in handy or he can flog them for a little cash in hand.

Anyway, he rifles through the proofs and rereads Ambroise’s stirring essay about Hans again. When Ambrose returns to the office, Basil tells him it’s a masterpiece, except for the ending, the bit where the hero is dragged off kicking and screaming to a Nazi concentration camp. Reads like pure propaganda, Basil says, the worst kind of yellow press melodrama, ruins the artistic integrity of the whole.

Ambrose, permanently nervous and paranoid, takes Basil at his word and cuts the final pages of his memoir thus, unintentionally, converting it into a hymn to Nazi youth. A few days later, once it’s printed, Basil triumphantly re-enters Colonel Plum’s office and throws on his desk a copy of Ivory Tower open at the Nazi essay.

The Colonel is delighted, all the more so since the magazine is so obviously a hotbed of Nazi sympathisers, this Hucklebury Squib, Bartholomew Grass and Tom Barebones-Abraham, yes he’s going to arrest the lot of them!

Only as he overhears the Colonel phoning up the police and Special Branch to plan a dawn raid on the magazine’s offices does it dawn on Basil, for the first time, that he might have overdone it a little. It is worth remembering that Basil is prepared to betray one of his closest ‘friends’ and a number of other utterly innocent people (the publishers Rampole and Bentley) purely so that he can get the promised job of captain in Marines and maybe sleep with Susie, ideally both. Basil is charming, funny, and utterly amoral which sounds funny but boils down to the fact that he is a scumbag.

Waugh milks the unfolding disaster for all the comedy he can. Officials interview Mr Bentley, the younger of the two publishers and, seeing the way the land lies, he agrees to co-operate fully and, in a funny scene, proceeds to give detailed descriptions of the magazine’s other contributors, Hucklebury Squib, Bartholomew Grass and Tom Barebones-Abraham, people we know to be utterly fictional but the cops don’t.

In a comic scene written in a deliberately arch knowing style, Waugh describes the arrest of the older partner in the publishing firm, Mr Rampole, his bewilderment at the accusations, his trial, conviction and sending to prison, Brixton Prison to be precise, up the road from me as I write, where, with typically Waughian whimsy, he turns out to be quite comfortable, discovers a taste for reading light literature and gains face, especially with the prison padre, from personally knowing several of the authors. ‘He was happier than he could remember ever having been.’ Waugh likes throwing his characters in prison; remember how half the cast of Decline and Fall end up in chokey and the way Paul Pennyfeather, also, rather enjoys its solitude, the lack of distractions, the luxury of reading all day long. Waugh’s vision of prison makes it sound like a cross between a monastery and a rarefied college library.

So what about Ambrose Silk, the man Basil has told Colonel Plum is at the centre of this dangerous Nazi conspiracy? Basil doesn’t let him be arrested like the publishers but has another brainwave / elaborate scam up his sleeve.

Remember the passport of the Irish priest he pinched in Ambrose’s office? Turns out to be a vital prop or peg for the plot because. For late the night of the arrests Basil bursts into Ambrose’s flat and tells the half-awake wretch that the authorities are coming to arrest him (Ambrose doesn’t need much persuading and doesn’t put up any resistance because, as has been amply emphasised throughout the book, he is a quivering jelly of paranoid fear that ‘they’ are out to get him). Basil persuades him his best course of action is to flee to Ireland in the guise of this Jesuit priest, Father Flanagan and he has brought along ‘a clerical collar, a black clerical vest ornamented with a double line of jet buttons, and an Irish passport’. He hustles Ambrose out of his flat, down the stairs and they are at Euston station waiting for the train to Holyhead in 15 minutes.

‘But what about my flat and my things?’ wails Ambrose at which point Basil has another, simple brainwave. ‘I’ll move in,’ he tells Ambrose,’ and look after everything for you.’ ‘Oh you are so kind,’ smiles Ambrose, in a moment which exemplifies Waugh’s technique of comic and malicious irony. So Ambrose keeps his hat pulled low over his head and tells the rosary beads Basil has provided and catches the train to Holyhead and the ferry to Ireland and then travels as far west as he can in order to escape the pursuing ‘authorities’ In the event he finds a room in a remote village on the west coast, settles in with his minimal belongings and finally finds himself with the peace and time on his hands to write the Great Book he’s been meditating for so long. He, also, rather like Rampole, has found an unexpected peace amid the beautiful Irish scenery.

And thus Basil takes over Ambrose’s luxurious flat which is a far more fitting scene for his seduction of Susie, which proceeds like a dream, especially after he wangles her a promotion at the Ministry, and soon she has moved in with him, the latest in a long line of conquests. In a typical detail which is both funny and heartless, Basil sets Susie to work with needle and silk and embroidery scissors, unpicking the As from the monograms on Ambrose’s crêpe-de-chine underclothes and substituting in their place a letter B for Basil.

Schoolboy japes

The book’s two highpoints are Basil’s scams, the Connolly scam in part one, and the Ambrose scam at the end of part three. From my descriptions you can see how both are really schoolboy japes, species of practical joke. they rank up there with the premise of Scoop, i.e the mistaken identity of William Boot, or the practical joke which launches his entire novel-writing career, the debagging and dunking in a college fountain of Paul Pennyfeather, for which it is Pennyfeather and not the hooligans who assaulted him who are punished. Waugh’s world is one where innocence is always abused and honour is traduced (as poor Tony Last is traduced in Handful of Dust). Clever people play practical jokes on dim people, and Fate plays practical jokes on everyone.

The war

Oh, the Second World War, that one? Well there is comedy or satire in the way that almost all the characters think about the Second World War as an opportunity and worry about whether they will have ‘a good war.’ (An example of a ‘good war’ is that of Rex Mottram, summarised in Brideshead Revisited: ‘His life, so far as he made it known, began in the war, where he had got a good M.C. serving with the Canadians and had ended as A.D.C. to a popular general’. That’s the way to do it: win a medal and get promoted.)

In a brisk, business-like way the older characters remembers friends or brothers or cousins who did damn well in the First War and worry about getting themselves or their sons into the new one as quickly as possible, but only in a ‘good’ regiment, of course, old boy.

Hence Basil’s half-hearted attempts to wangle a commission in the Bombardiers, and the more effective efforts of younger characters lie Peter Pastmaster and Alastair Trumpington to join ‘special forces’.

Sad Angela is visited in her London flat be her sad husband, Cedric, bringing their little boy Nigel.  He’s been allowed out of boarding school to come and see his Daddy. Daddy takes him shopping and buys him a model bomber which the other chaps at his school will think ‘absolutely ripping’. It is a sad interview between two utterly estranged people.

We then follow Cedric as he rejoins his regiment and is dispatched on the ill-equipped and ill-organised British expedition to Norway, which had been invaded by the Germans in April 1940. The narrative gives two extended passages describing Cedric’s experiences: first in the chaotic night-time loading of ships in British port, in which Cedric struggles against a welter of contradictory orders and timings (i.e. symbolic of the generally shambolic nature of the British campaign); and then a very long passage  right at the end of the book describing actual fighting in Norway, where Cedric is ordered to liaise between British units which have become split up by the German advance.

This scene is not remotely funny, but a kind of quintessence of Waugh’s bitter sense of futility. Two things are notable: in terms of content Cedric is dispatched to run across open ground to find A company and tell them to withdraw in the face of the German advance. Waugh is careful to tell us the A company have, in fact, already realised this and packed up and withdrawn; which is to say that Cedric’s brave run across country to their last know position is absolutely unnecessary. Second thing is that, in a very Waugh kind of way, his brave run through a hail of bullets is not described in itself, but through the dialogue of the Colonel and adjutant who watch him through binoculars i.e. the event is commentated on, viewed from a distance, detached, bleakly distant, alienated.

And then Cedric takes a bullet through the head and dies instantly.

Epilogue: tying up loose ends

At which point the narrative cuts away, as so many Waugh narratives cut, exit, leaving a scene briskly and brutally, the more devastating the event, the more brutal the cut.

The last short section is titled Epilogue: Summer. Waugh conveys the calamitous fall of France in June 1940 through the idiotic eyes of Sir Joseph Mainwaring, a useless fuddy-duddy from the old times. The Chamberlain government falls on a vote of confidence and is replaced by the government of national unity led by Churchill (10 May).

I haven’t mentioned at all two second string characters who recur throughout the novel, Alistair and Sonia Trumpington. You might remember Basil finding himself round this couple’s apartment at the start and end of Black Mischief. Here they are revived to form a comic commentary on the main action, with the comic conceit that, after Alistair has joined his regiment, Sonia ups sticks and follows him round the country as he is regularly posted, as soldiers are, to barracks all round the UK. Here, in the final paragraphs his regiment comes to rest on the south coast, tasked with coastal defence, mining the beaches, setting up rolls of barbed wire and machine gun emplacements. And in the evenings, when he has liberty, Alistair spends a few fleeting hours with his loving Sonia who is now pregnant. Ominous times to become pregnant.

But Alistair shares his boyish excitement that Peter Pastmaster and some of the other chaps are setting up new, small, mobile units to be called ‘commandos’. They carry knives and knuckledusters and rope-souled silent shoes and are parachuted behind enemy lines to assassinate VIPs and cause mayhem. He is everso excited!

Basil marries the newly widowed Angela. The jaded, sophistiqué tone of their conversation reprises all those dialogues from Vile Bodies a decade earlier.

‘I shall be a terrible husband.’
‘Yes, darling, don’t I know it.’

Brief mention of Ambrose, holed up in a tiny village on the far west coast of Ireland. It is not enough. He feels the urge to wander in his Jewish soul. Maybe Waugh is setting him up to reappear in a sequel.

We see Rampole in his prison cell, ‘happier than he could remember ever having been.’

Peter Pastmaster is at Bratt’s (Waugh’s ubiquitous fictional gentleman’s club) drawing up a list of officers to join his new unit. They include Basil, ‘a tough nut’.

Cut back to Basil telling Angela he’s going to join a new unit. It will be a lovely new ‘racket’ for the spring. Pulling the wool over old Colonel Plum’s eyes at the Ministry of Information was fun at the time, but:

‘Besides, you know, that racket was all very well in the winter, when there wasn’t any real war. It won’t do now. There’s only one serious occupation for a chap now, that’s killing Germans. I have an idea I shall rather enjoy it.’

The final word is given to Lady Seal, lunching with Sir Joseph. When she mentions Basil’s name his heart, as always sinks. Only this time it is not to beg yet another favour; it is to inform him that Basil has joined a new unit, all by himself, under his own steam. For once Sir Joseph smiles with genuine happiness. For once he says something unarguably true:

‘There’s a new spirit abroad,’ he said. ‘I see it on every side.’

So despite a hundred pages satirising, mocking and ridiculing the English social and military establishment, the novel ends on a resoundingly, if somewhat unexpectedly, patriotic note.

Summary

In Waugh’s oeuvre, it’s easy to overlook Putting Out More Flags because it doesn’t have the defined central protagonist and unified action of most of the other novels. But it does contain some of the best comic scenes in all the pre-war books and in the figure of Basil Seal his most monstrous trickster.  Alongside other more interesting themes, namely the semi-serious, paranoid self-pity of Ambrose Silk and the darker story of Angela Lyne’s strange descent into drunken loneliness, themes which give it a deeper, richer flavour.

If someone who’d never read him asked you to recommend a Waugh novel, I think I’d recommend this or Scoop, probably Scoop because it is more timeless in its satire on the press in general and foreign correspondents in particular, but Put Out More Flags runs it a close second for ripe comedy laced with evocative period observations, for the standout characters of Basil the Rascal and Ambrose the Sensitive Victim, but also for that thread of despair and futility which is always glinting at the edge of any Waugh story.


Credit

Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1938. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

‘We must return to the Present,’ Ambrose said prophetically.
‘Oh dear,’ said Mr Bentley. ‘Why?’

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

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.


Related links

Munich by Robert Harris (2017)

Both men fell silent, watching him, and Legat had a peculiar sense of – what was it, he wondered afterwards? – not of déjà vu exactly, but of inevitability: that he had always known Munich was not done with him; that however far he might travel from that place and time he was forever caught in its gravitational pull and would be dragged back towards it eventually. (p.188)

This is another Robert Harris historical thriller, set during the four nailbiting days of the Munich Crisis of September 1938.

In the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book Harris discloses that the crisis had been an obsession with him even before he collaborated on a BBC documentary about it, to mark the 50th anniversary, in 1988, and he hasn’t stopped being obsessed by it. The acknowledgements go on to list no fewer than 54 volumes of history, diaries and memoirs which were consulted in the writing of this book.

And this depth of research certainly shines out from every page right from the start. Even before the text proper begins, the book has an architect’s plan of the Führerbau in Munich where the climactic scenes of the book take place, because it was here that the four key European leaders – Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Britain, Daladier, Premier of France, Mussolini, the Duce of Italy and Adolf Hitler, the Führer of Germany – met to resolve the crisis and here that the various backstairs shenanigans of Harris’s thriller take place.

The Munich Crisis

Hitler came to power in 1933 with promises to end reparations to the Allies (France, Britain, America) for Germany’s responsibility for World War One, and to repeal or turn back the provisions of the Versailles Treaty which had stripped Germany of some of her territory and people.

True to his word, Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland (until then a neutral zone) in March 1936. Two years later in March 1938, he sent German troops to annex Austria, thus creating a Greater Germany.

Next on the list were the ethnic Germans who lived in a strip of territory along the periphery of Czechoslovakia, a ‘new’ country which had only been created by Versailles in 1918. Hitler created a mounting sense of crisis through the summer of 1938 by making evermore feverish claims to the land, and then arranging incidents which ‘proved’ that the Czechs were attacking and victimising the ethnic Germans, blaming the Czechs for their aggression and bullying.

Now France had made formal legal obligations to guarantee Czechoslovakia’s safety, and Britain had pledged to come to France’s aid if she was attacked, so everyone in Europe could see how an assault in Czechoslovakia might lead France to mobilise, Britain to mobilise to defend here, the Poles and Russians to pile in, and it would be exactly how the Great War started – with a series of toppling dominoes plunging the continent into armageddon.

Determined to avoid this outcome at any cost, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew twice to Germany to meet Hitler, on the 15th and 22nd of September. On the second occasion he conceded that Hitler could have the Sudetenland with the full agreement of Britain and France – but Hitler moved the goalposts, now demanding the full dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the redivision of its territory among Germany and Hungary and Poland (who also shared borders with Czechoslovakia and had mobilised their armies to seize what territory they could.)

On 26 September Hitler made a speech to a vast crowd at the Sportspalast in Berlin setting Czechoslovakia the deadline of 2pm on 28 September to cede the Sudetenland to Germany or face war. In secret, Hitler and the Wehrmacht had a fully-worked-out plan of invasion and expected to carry it out.

However, in a fast-moving sequence of events, Chamberlain sent a message via diplomatic channels to the Fascist leader of Italy, Mussolini, asking him to enter the negotiations and use his moderating influence on the Führer. Mussolini agreed, and sent a message to Hitler saying he was totally on his side but suggesting a 24 hour delay in the deadline in order to further study the problem.

Thus it came about that a conference was arranged in Munich, to be hosted by Hitler and attended by Mussolini, Chamberlain and the increasingly sidelined French premiere, Daladier.

And thus Chamberlain and his staff flew for a third time to Germany, this time to Munich, destination the Führerbau building, and here it was that over a series of closed-door meetings the four leaders and their staffs thrashed out an agreement.

It was signed by the four leaders the next day at 1.30pm. As one of Harris’s characters makes clear, the final agreement, although ostensibly submitted by the Italians, was in fact a German creation which they had given the Italians to present. The main terms were that the German army was to peacefully complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by 10 October, and an international commission would decide the future of other disputed areas.

One of the most famous aspects of the summit meeting was that the Czech leaders were physically there, but were prevented by Hitler’s orders from attending any of the actual negotiations. They were simply forced by France and Britain to accept all the terms and hand over their border area to Germany. Since this was where all their fortifications were built it left the rest of the country defenceless and, sure enough, the German army invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia just six months later, in March 1939.

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

Map of Czechoslovakia showing the Sudeten territory given to Germany in September 1938 in dark brown

All of Europe had held its breath in case the incident sparked the outbreak of another European war. Chamberlain is quoted in the book, in private and then in a famous speech to the House of Commons, saying how unbelievable it is that they all seemed to be galloping towards the apocalyptic disaster so many of them could still remember (the Great War). It was this attitude – avoiding war at all costs – that underpinned Chamberlain’s strategy. And so when he flew to Munich, and even more when he emerged with a face-saving treaty, scores of millions of people all across Europe greeted the avoidance of war with enormous relief, and Chamberlain was feted as a hero.

Of course, in hindsight, we can see that nothing was going to stop Hitler and his maniacal dreams of European domination, and Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ grew to have an entirely negative connotation of weakness and cowardice, a policy failure which only ended up encouraging the dictator. And there were plenty of politicians and intellectuals at the time who thought Hitler needed to be stood up to, instead of cravenly given in to, and that Chamberlain had made a great mistake.

That said, there are other historians who point out that neither Britain nor France were militarily prepared for war in September 1938 and that the deal, whatever its precise morality, and despite the unforgiveable abandoning of the Czechs, did give both France but particularly Britain a crucial further year in which to re-arm and, in particular, build up an air force, the air force which went on to win the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. It was only by a sliver that we won the Battle of Britain, thus maintaining the island of Britain as a launchpad for what eventually came the D-Day invasions.

If war had broken out in 1938, Britain might have lost and been invaded (doubtful but possible), America would never have entered the war, and Europe might have become an impenetrable Nazi fortress. Chamberlain certainly didn’t achieve the ‘peace in our time’ which he so hoped for; but maybe he did secure a vital breathing space for democracy. Historians will discuss these and other possible variations for generations…

The thriller

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the real-life, historical diplomacy, it is these hectic days leading up to 30 September, which Harris describes in minute and fascinating detail, and from both sides.

Because the book is made up of alternating chapters, following the parallel experiences of two well-placed if junior civil service figures, one on the Nazi side, one in Chamberlain’s staff.

In London we follow the working routine and then increasingly hectic preparations for flying to the conference of Hugh Legat, Oxford-educated Third Secretary in Chamberlain’s staff, very much the bottom of an elaborate hierarchy of civil servants. Through his eyes we see the bureaucracy of Number Ten Downing Street in action, as Legat interacts with his civil service bosses and Chamberlain himself (and his wife), fetching and carrying papers, writing up notes to meetings and so on.

In all these passages you can sense the intense research Harris has put in to document with meticulous accurately the layout of the buildings, the furnishing of each room, who attended which meeting, what they looked like, their personal quirks and nicknames, what was said, etc, in immense detail.

On the German side, we meet Paul von Hartmann, a junior official in the Foreign Ministry, as he, too, goes about various bureaucratic tasks, again gradually giving us insider knowledge of every personage in the German government, with pen portraits of senior civil servants, military figures as well as glimpses of the Führer himself.

Why these two protagonists? Because Harris places them at the heart of the thriller plot he has woven into the real historical events. We now know that during the Munich Crisis a group of senior figures in the Nazi regime and army met to discuss overthrowing Hitler, if the crisis blew up into full-scale war. Hartmann is one of these conspirators and so, through his eyes, we witness one of their meetings and are party to various panic-stricken phone calls among them as the crisis escalates.

None of the conspirators were western liberals. They hated reparations just as much as Hitler, they wanted to unravel the Versailles treaty, they wanted a strong Greater Germany and they were in favour of annexing the Sudetenland. They just disagreed with Hitler’s approach. They thought his brinkmanship would plunge Germany into a war it wasn’t yet militarily ready to win. And so, if the talks failed and war was declared, they were prepared to overthrow the Nazi regime and assassinate Hitler.

To this end they steal secret documents which show that Hitler had planned not only the Sudeten Crisis, and the full-blown invasion of all Czechoslovakia, but has a deeper plan to invade eastwards in order to expand Germany’s Lebensraum. This ‘incriminating’ document is a memo of a meeting Hitler held with his chiefs of staff back in November 1937. It conclusively shows that the Sudetenland is not the end, but only the start of Hitler’s territorial ambitions.

The documents are handed to Hartmann by his lover in the Ministry, Frau Winter, who is part of the plot and stole it from a Ministry safe. At a meeting of the conspirators Hartmann realises he must pass this document on to the British delegation at the conference, and his fellow conspirators agree.

Thriller tropes

It’s at this point that you enter what could be called ‘thrillerland’ i.e a whole series of familiar thriller plotlines and tropes.

  • First tension is raised as Hartmann takes a train out to a Berlin suburb for the meeting of conspirators, convinced he is being followed or watched.
  • Later he makes a copy of a top secret Nazi document and then bumps into people who, he thinks, are watching him too closely, asking too many questions. Do they suspect?

It is, after all, Nazi Germany, which comes with a ready-made atmosphere of guilt and paranoia.

Hartmann then has to wangle his way into the delegation travelling with Hitler by train from Berlin to Munich for the conference. He manages to do this but at the price of raising the suspicions of his superior, an SS Sturmbahnfūhrer, Sauer, a senior figure in the delegation who from that point onwards keeps a very close watch on Hartmann. When Hartmann takes advantage of a short stop he phones his office in Berlin to make sure that Legat is on the British delegation. His paranoia forces him to find hiding places for both the document and the pistol he has brought with him, leading to heart-thumping moments when he returns to check his hiding places and see if they’re still there.

Why is Hartmann so concerned that Legat be on the British delegation. Because they had been friends once, when Hartmann was on a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where Legat was a student. Now he hopes to use Legat as a conduit to the British Prime Minister.

To this end, back in London and a few days earlier, Hartmann had used contacts in England to anonymously drop off less important but still secret Nazi documents at Legat’s flat in Westminster. Legat hears something coming through his letterbox but by the time he’s gone into the hall, the car with the deliverymen is long gone.

When Legat hands these documents into the authorities, he is called to the office of Foreign Office mandarin Sir Alexander Cadogan where he is introduced to a secret service colonel, Menzies. Menzies questions him and Legat reveals his friendship with Hartmann from their carefree Oxford days back at Balliol College in 1932. They had been very close friends and Legat had gone over to Munich that summer to go on a walking holiday with Hartmann in the mountains.

Menzies judges that Hartmann is obviously a member of the German ‘opposition’ (which British security have heard rumours about) and may wish to communicate with Legat in Munich. Therefore he gets Legat’s immediate superior, Cecil Syers (Chamberlain’s Private Secretary) bumped off the British delegation – much to his anger – and Legat replaces him. But with a mission – to be professional and discreet and do nothing to undermine this vital diplomatic mission – but to be alert to an approach from his old friend and to report back on its contents and intentions. Without wishing to, he has in effect been recruited as a spy.

Legat’s presence enables Harris to give the reader a first-hand account of the Chamberlain entire trip, from packing bags at Number 10, the taxi to Heston airport, the flight, the landing, the official greeting, taxis to the hotel, and then on to the Führerbau for the official reception and then meetings with Il Duce and Der Führer.

The descriptions of all these scenes reek of decades of in-depth research. Which kind of plane, the layout inside it, the sound of take-off, what refreshments were served – all of it is utterly believable but also smells a bit of the study, of the careful poring over dry old memoirs and diaries to recreate every aspect of the scene.

Those 54 books listed in the acknowledgments underpin the detailed descriptions of who was wearing what at the diplomatic reception party which precedes the actual talks, who Mussolini was talking to, what Goering was wearing, even down to the expression on Hitler’s face as he first walks down the grand staircase into the assembled diplomats.

All of it reeks of authenticity and former journalist who has done his research to a T, and all of it makes the book a fascinating account of events – right down to the way that Legat literally stumbles upon the Czech delegation (Foreign Office official Masarik and Czech Minister to Berlin Mastny) being kept in virtual house arrest by SS guards directly under Hitler’s orders – a fact he passes on to his own superiors who filter it up to the PM.

So all these descriptions make it feel like you are there. But as to the thriller plot… for once a Harris thriller failed to really catch light for me. It contains umpteen thriller tropes and moments – we share Hartmann’s stress and anxiety as he hides the incriminating document from the SS man who suspects him – and then tries to give this man the slip once everyone is at the Führerbau, the anonymous men who drop the document through Legat’s letterbox and make off in a car in the dark.

Similarly, from the moment Legat is given his spying mission by Colonel Menzies he certainly feels stiff and self-conscious. A big stumbling block comes when his superiors (not knowing about the mission Menzies has given him) instruct him to stay at the British delegations’s hotel and keep the phone line open to London to report developments, thus stymying his intention of going to the Führerbau and searching for Hartmann. Another uptick in the sense of tension.

But in the end Legat evades this order on a pretext, gets to the big Nazi building, almost immediately sees Hartmann, follows him down backstairs to the basement, out into the car park and then through local streets to a busy Bierkeller and out into the garden where they can talk in secret and that talk… is strangely inconsequential. As in, it doesn’t reveal any really big or new facts.

The crux of their conversation is this: Hartmann and his people want war to break out, so that they can recruit as many high-level German officials as possible to their plan to mount a coup and overthrow the irresponsible warmonger Hitler. This is why Hartmann hands Legat the Nazi memo dating from November 1937 which clearly states that Czechoslovakia is only the beginning of Hitler’s plans. It must be given to Chamberlain in order to make him realise that Hitler is a mad warmonger, and the final invasion of Czechoslovakia and much more will happen regardless of agreement in Munich. Chamberlain must see the memo in order to stiffen his resolve to stand up to Hitler, even if it prompts a crisis, even if it prompts war. Good. That is what the conspirators want. Or, as Hartmann puts it:

‘If Chamberlain refuses tonight to continue to negotiate under duress, then Hitler will invade Czechoslovakia tomorrow. And the moment he issues that order, everything will change, and we in the opposition, in the Army and elsewhere, will take care of Hitler.’

Chamberlain mustn’t sign a peace. If he signs a peace treaty then Hitler will be immensely popular inside Germany as the man who created a Greater Germany without firing a shot: all the waverers Hartmann and the conspirators hope to recruit will fall in line behind him. Hitler will become unstoppable. But, Legat points out, this is all hugely speculative:

Legat folded his arms and shook his head. ‘It is at this point that I’m afraid you lose me. You want my country to go to war to prevent three million Germans joining Germany, on the off chance that you and your friends can then get rid of Hitler?’ (p.297-98)

Which Hartmann has to concede, does sum up his position. And when it is stated like that, not only Hartmann and Legat realise how unlikely the position is… but so does the reader. This could never happen, the reader thinks, with the added dampener that the reader of course knows that it did not happen. At the heart of the book is a little cloak and dagger adventure among a handful of men, boiling down to these two old friends, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans and doesn’t change anything.

So the old ‘friends’ have met, exchanged the document, and Hartmann has laid his proposition on the line. What happens in the final hundred pages?

Chamberlain refuses the Nazi memo

Both men return to their delegations and tasks which are described with documentary accuracy. But overnight Hartmann sees no sign of change in the British position and he suddenly decides to abandon diplomacy and care for his cover. He shoulders his way into the British delegation, confronts Legat and forces him to take him to Chamberlain’s room.

There Hartmann begs five minutes of Chamberlain’s time and presents him with the 1937 Nazi war plan. Chamberlain reads it and his reaction is interesting, in a way the most interesting part of the book. Chamberlain says it is entirely inappropriate for Hartmann to have pushed in like this; it breaks the chain of command on both sides, and it undermines the present negotiations; because Chamberlain is interested in the present, not what Hitler may or may not have said 6 months, or a year or five years ago. From the point of view of the professional negotiator, all that matters is what your opposite number says in the room, now. What he says and signs up to now supersedes all previous declarations. I thought that was an interesting insight into negotiating tactics as a whole.

Chamberlain reads the stolen memo but rejects it and its contents and asks Hartmann to leave, and then instructs Legat to burn it. It has no bearing on the present.

This is a very interesting scene in terms of being an education in how actual diplomacy and negotiation works, but it militates the entire basis of the thriller. the Big Secret is out. The Key Document has been shown to the Prime Minister. The Secret men and women risked their lives for, cloak and dagger letter drops in London took place for, which Legat was subbed onto the British Legation for and Hartmann played sweaty cat and mouse with his SS boss for – has finally been delivered and… nothing happens. Chamberlain says: I am ignoring it. Burn it.

Oh. OK. Hard not to feel the tension Harris has built up with all the backstairs meetings and SS searches suddenly leak away like the air from a punctured balloon.

Leyna

Throughout the narrative Legat has dropped occasional hints about a woman named Leyna, who made up the third element in his friendship with Hartmann. Only now, towards the end of the book, do we find out more.

A few hours after they’ve both been turfed out of Chamberlain’s office, Legat is fast asleep in his room at the hotel being used by the British, when there’s a knock and it’s Hartmann who tells him to get dressed. Hartmann takes him outside to car he’s (conveniently) borrowed and then drives Legat out of Munich into the countryside, to a village called Dachau and stops outside the barbed wire fence of the concentration camp there.

To my surprise, Legat is not impressed, and says officials in Britain know all about these camps, Stalin has as many if not more but they have to deal with him, too. Hartmann points out that within weeks, if the Nazis annex the Sudetenland, some Sudeten Germans, now free – communists and Jews and homosexuals – will be behind the wire being worked to death at Dachau. Yes, replies Legat, but then how many would survive the aerial bombing and street fighting which will occur if Chamberlain refuses a settlement and prompts war, which will end up with Czechoslovakia still being occupied and victims still being carted off by the SS.

This is an interesting debate but it has now lost the element of being a thriller. For me this felt like a purely cerebral, intellectual debate about what was at stake at Munich.

Anyway, it turns out this isn’t what Hartmann wanted to show him. Some Dachau guards notice the pair bickering in the car and turn the floodlights on them, so our guys beat a hasty retreat and Hartmann then drives Legat on for a further hour until they arrive at a remote mansion in the country with, Legat notices, the windows barred, no notices on the noticeboard in the cold hallway which smells of antiseptic.

Now we learn two things. Harris gives us a flashback to that summer of 1932, when, after walking in the woods, the three friends drove back into Munich and Leyna insisted on going to the apartment block where Hitler lived, surrounded by Nazi bodyguards.

As the would-be Führer (he was famous but had still not been made German Chancellor) leaves the building Leyna shouts loudly ‘NIECE-FUCKER’ at him. This was based on the rumours that Hitler had had an affair with his niece, Geli Raubel, who he forced to live with him in this apartment block and kept a maniacal watch over. In his absence, on 18 September 1931, Gaubl apparently shot herself dead with Hitler’s pistol. Was he having an affair with her? Was she pregnant with his child? Did she kill herself, or was it a put-up job by party apparatchiks who realised her existence threatened the Führer’s career. Whatever the truth (and historians argue about it to this day) there were enough lurid rumours around to allow Leyna to shout this insult at the future Führer as he emerged from his apartment, and to anger his SA guards, some of whom turn from protecting their boss and give chase to Leyna, Hartmann and Legat. The SA guards chase after our threesome who split up in a warren of alleyways.

Legat finds his way back to Hartmann and Leyna’s apartment. In the melee outside the apartment, someone had punched him in the eye and now it is swollen closed. Layna leans over Legat to apply a poultice, and he pulls her head down and kisses her. They make love. It wasn’t crystal clear to me earlier but now the text makes clear that Leyna was Hartmann’s girlfriend. So she has ‘betrayed’ him, and so has his best friend. Thus there is an emotional and sexual ‘betrayal’ at the heart of this plot which is about numerous betrayals, or betrayal on many levels: Hartmann betraying his Führer; Chamberlain betraying the Czechs, and now friend betraying friend. And so on.

This, frankly, felt a lot too ‘pat’ and convenient to me. Formulaic. It had the thumping inevitability of a cheap made-for-TV movie (which is how the book might well end up, since it has none of the really big action scenes required by a modern movie).

Now, in another development which seemed to me equally clichéd, it turns out that Leyna has ended up here in this mournful, isolated care home for the mentally defective. We now learn that: a) Hartmann found out about Leyna’s ‘betrayal’ and they split up b) she got more heavily into communist politics and married a communist who was subsequently killed in the Spanish Civil War, but c) she continued being an organiser of an underground communist newspaper till she was arrested by the Gestapo and badly beaten. Hartmann points out that Leyna was of Jewish heritage (which I don’t think anybody had mentioned earlier). With the result that the SS beat her unconscious, before or after carving a star of David into her back, and then threw her out of a third floor window. She survived in body, but was permanently brain damaged. Hartmann found out, and used his contacts to get her a place here in this out-of-the-way hospice.

This plot development, coming late on in the story, did three things for me:

1. It is a gross and characteristic example of the brutality of the Third Reich i.e. it has the effect of undermining all the diplomats fussing about precedence back in Munich. I think that is its intention, to show you the brutality behind the diplomatic veneer. But it has the unintended consequence, fictionally, imaginatively of making all the rest of the text, with its precise observations of diplomatic procedure, seem pale and irrelevant.

2. Indeed Hartmann picks up this idea, and makes an impassioned speech explaining that this is what he and Legat didn’t realise when they airily debated national Socialism back at Oxford, what their lofty Oxford education didn’t at all prepare them for: for the sheer bestial irrationality of the regime, its violence, which no diplomatic niceties can contain (‘This is what I have learned these past six years, as opposed to what is taught at Oxford: the power of unreason.’ p.374)

3. But I also couldn’t help the feminist in me rising up a bit and thinking – why does this point have to be made over the mute, unspeaking body of a tortured and disfigured woman – for Leyna is brain-damaged and recognises neither Hartmann nor Legat (p.373)?

Why is the central woman in their menage reduced to silence? Is it, in itself, a sort of feminist point, that the entire diplomatic circus, Hitler’s blusterings and Chamberlain’s prissy precisionism and French cowardice, all this describes the world of men, the men who would soon plunge the entire world into a war in which millions more totally innocent women and children would be murdered?

Back in Munich

Hartmann drives Legat back to his hotel in Munich as the last day of the Munich conference, and the novel, dawns.

Legat is shaving when he hears a noise in his bedroom and gets in just in time to see a man exiting by the door into the corridor. This scene reminded me of numerous Tintin books where the hero gives chase to the ‘strange man’ who turns a corner and disappears, leaving our hero to trudge back to his room half-dressed, bumping into a startled member of the delegation on the way.

Back in his room, Legat discovers that he has, of course, been burgled and that the incriminating Nazi memorandum from November 1937, the one which had been stolen and given to Hartmann to show to Chamberlain, who rejected it and told Legat to destroy – well, Legat like a fool hadn’t destroyed it, and he now discovers that whoever was searching his room found it. What an idiot he’s been. He has jeopardised his friend’s life – and all for nothing!

So Legat finishes dressing and goes along to the Prime Minister’s room where he just about persuades Chamberlain to let him (Legat) accompany Chamberlain to his last meeting with Hitler.

Chamberlain has had the bright idea of requesting a one-on-one meeting with Hitler in order to present him with the text of a speech he (Hitler) made a week earlier, in which he had pledged eternal friendship between Germany and Britain. Chamberlain has had his officials convert this speech into a pledge, a declaration, a binding document. He hopes to persuade Hitler to sign it and thus secure ‘peace in our time’.

And now, thanks to Harris’s clever interleaving of historical fact with spy fiction, Legat gets to witness this meeting at first hand, and so do we. We are given the entire scene in which a translator translates into German the couple of paragraphs in which Chamberlain has recast Hitler’s pledge of friendship between Britain and Germany and, to his slight surprise, Hitler signs it.

And now the delegation packs up, catches its taxis to the airport and flies home. It is only as they land that one of the pair of female typists who have accompanied the delegation, to type up the various notes and memos, corners Legat.

As Chamberlain gets out of the plane and holds an impromptu press conference, waving the little piece of paper with Hitler’s signature on it, this secretary tells Legat that she is also a recruit of British Security, tasked with keeping an eye on Legat. And that she had earlier broken into Legat’s bedroom, professionally searched it, found the incriminating memo and removed it; so that the burglar who Legat disturbed, and who ran off down the corridor, did not have the incriminating memo after all. Hartmann is in the clear.

And indeed in the last couple of pages we learn that Hartmann was not arrested by his hyper-suspicious boss, Sauer, and continued to serve the Nazi regime until he was involved in the 20 July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, at which point he was arrested, interrogated and hanged.

Comment

This is a fascinating and deeply researched description of the Munich Crisis which opened my eyes about the details of the actual negotiations and the issues at stake. But despite early promise, the thriller element never caught fire for me. If you come to the book with the mindset that the whole future of Europe is at stake, then maybe you can make every one of the small tense incidents (secret documents, secret meetings) have a vast world-shattering importance.

But I came to it knowing what came afterwards (i.e. the entire conspiracy fails, is completely inconsequential) which continually poured cold water on attempts to get me excited. Even if both the protagonists had been arrested, tortured and bumped off, it wouldn’t ultimately have made any difference, not if you bear in mind what was about to follow i.e. the deaths of tens of millions of people.

For a thriller to work you have to believe the fate of the protagonists is of total, nailbiting importance. But nice enough though these two young chaps seemed to be, the book failed to make me care very much about them.

Shit and fuck

Part of this was because the characters just seemed too modern to me. They seemed contemporary, not creatures from what is becoming a remote past. Legat and Hartmann and many of the other characters completely lacked, for me, the old trappings, the genuinely old and remote mindset of that period – not only its embedded sexism and racism, but the entire imperial and class assumptions of their time and class. When you read fiction written at that time (late 1930s) you are continually pulled up sort by all kinds of period assumptions, about race and sex and class, not to mention that actual vocabulary and phraseology and turns of speech. The ruling class really did say ‘Top hole’, and ‘I say’, and ‘old chap’, and was drenched in expectations of privilege and deference.

None of this really came over in Harris’s book. Instead the characters came over as entirely up-to-date modern thriller protagonists. They think logically and clearly, with no emotion, like computers, uninfluenced by ideology or the beliefs of their era. Hartmann says he is a German nationalist, but nowhere in his conversations with Legat, or in his thoughts which we are privy to throughout the book, does any of that come across. He is a good German nationalist and yet his attitude to the Nazis’ anti-Semitism could come from a Guardian editorial.

There is little sense that these people belonged to a different time, with its own, now long-lost values and assumptions.

A small but symptomatic indication of this was Harris’s use of the words shit and fuck. His characters think ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ in a way you would never find in, say Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh writing in 1938. Hartmann sees roadsweepers and thinks not that they are shovelling up horse droppings, but cleaning horse ‘shit’.

When Hartmann is lying in the bed of his mistress, Frau Winter, he notes the photo of her husband on her cabinet and wonder if she fantasises, when they make love, that she is ‘still fucking Captain Winter’.

The half a dozen times Harris uses the word ‘fuck’ completed the process of making his characters sound like post-1960s, brutally explicit, modern-day thriller protagonists. The use of ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, for me, not only upset the register of the narrative but begged the bigger question of whether he was at all inhabiting the minds of the people of the day – or simply ventriloquising them from an irredeemably 21st century perspective.

Without a doubt the book is a fascinating account of the nitty-gritty of the Munich meeting, of the nuts and bolts of key events and main players – but it failed for me a) as a thriller, because the Big Secret which is meant to underpin a thriller in fact is revealed a hundred pages before the end and turns out not to matter at all – and b) as a fictional attempt to enter the minds and mindsets of these long-dead people.

All the people felt like they were just waiting to be turned into the characters of another film adaptation, an adaptation in which all the good guys will have impeccably #metoo and politically correct attitudes about everything, who will be fighting for decency as we define it in 2019 – instead of being the much more difficult and potentially unlikeable characters you’d expect to meet from that period.

Munich is an effectively written account of the events, with a clever but ultimately disappointing thriller plot slipped in – but not a very good fictional guide or insight into the lost values and psychology of that remote and ever-more-distant era.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell (1941)

In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius was published in February 1941, well into the Second World War, after Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. It is a long essay, divided into three parts.

  1. England Your England (35 pages)
  2. Shopkeepers at War (19 pages)
  3. The English Revolution (9 pages)

The three essays 1. describe the essence of Englishness and records changes in English society over the previous thirty years or so 2. make the case for a socialist system in England 3. argue for an English democratic socialism, sharply distinct from the totalitarian communism of Stalin.

Now, at this distance of 76 years, the political content seems to me almost completely useless. After the war, the socialist policies carried out by Attlee’s government, thirty years of ‘Butskellism’ and Britain’s steady industrial decline into the 1970s which was brutally arrested by Mrs Thatcher’s radical economic and social policies of the 1980s, followed by Tony Blair’s attempt to create a non-socialist Labour Party in the 1990s, and all the time the enormous social transformations wrought by ever-changing technology – the political, social, economic, technological and cultural character of England has been transformed out of all recognition.

That said, this book-length essay is still worth reading as a fascinating social history of its times and for its warm evocation of the elements of the English character, some of which linger on, some of which have disappeared.

England Your England

By far the longest section is part one which is an extended evocation of all aspects of English character, so powerful, well-written and thought-provoking that it is often reprinted on its own. In its affection for all aspects of England it continued the nostalgia for an older, less commercialised, more decent England which marked his previous book, the novel Coming Up For Air.

What really marks it out is not the truth or otherwise of Orwell’s statements, but the tremendously pithy lucidity with which he expresses them. If they are not true, many of us older white liberals wish they were true. The essay invites you to play a sort of ‘Where’s Wally’ game of deciding whether you agree or disagree with his generalisations, and why. It has a kind of crossword-y kind of pleasure.

What, he asks, is England?

The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Other aspects of Englishness, as Orwell perceived it in 1941, include: solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes, love of flowers and gardening, hobbies and the essential privateness of English life. An Englishman’s home is his castle means he can tell the authorities to buzz off and mind their own business.

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

Religion?

The common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.

This strikes me as true. A kind of buried Anglicanism flavours most mid-century English culture, in Auden the Anglican returnee, Vaughan Williams the agnostic Anglican or Larkin the atheist Anglican. This idea of the softening influence of a non-fanatical, non-Catholic, barely believed religion, leads on to the next idea. If you have read his writings of the 1930s it comes as no surprise when he says:

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as ‘decadence’ or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.

This reminds me of a consistent thread in Kipling’s writing which is righteous anger at the hypocrisy with which the general population despise and abuse soldiers – until they need them!

I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ” We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play… (Tommy, 1890)

This anti-militarism has a comic side in that the English only seem to remember their terrible defeats: the Somme, Dunkirk. As Orwell puts it with typical pithiness:

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

This anti-militarism goes alongside a profound respect for the law; not necessarily obeying it, but knowing it is there and can be appealed to at all times. ‘Oi, you can’t do that to me, I aven’t done anything wrong’ is a universal cry of the English crook and trouble-maker. The law may be organised to protect the property of the rich but it isn’t as absolutely corrupt as in other countries, and it certainly hasn’t ceased to matter, as it has in the totalitarian states.

Abroad? An old saying had it that ‘wogs begin at Calais’ and the recent Brexit vote confirms the underlying xenophobia of the British who have a proud tradition of never learning a word of a foreign language, even if they’ve lived in France or Spain for decades. This rejection of the foreign partly accounts for English philistinism:

The English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual.

Class?

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.

Towards the end of the essay Orwell analyses the role of the ruling class. Basically, they have been unable to get to grips with the modern world and retreated into Colonel Blimpish stupidity.

One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.

The great public schools, the army, the universities, all teach the upper classes to rely on forms and behaviour which was suitable to the 1880s. The fact that Germany was out-producing British industry by 1900, that America was emerging as the strongest economy in the world, that the working classes were becoming organised and demanding a say in the running of the country? Go the club and surround yourself with like-minded cigar-puffing buffoons and dismiss it all as easily as dismissing the waiter.

This refusal to face the world, this decision to be stupid, explains much. It explains the astonishing sequence of humiliating military defeats – in the Crimea, the Zulu War, the Boer War, the Great War the British ruling class, as epitomised by its upper class twit general, consistently failed in every aspect of war-making. In each case initial defeats were only clawed back when a younger, less ‘educated’ cohort of officers took charge.

Orwell continues the sheer stupidity of the ruling class in his description of the terrifically posh Tory politicians who ran British foreign policy during the 1930s. Two things happened: the empire declined and we completely failed to understand the rise of the totalitarian states. To take the second first, upper-class numpties like Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary 1938-40) and Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister 1937-40) were paralysed during the 1930s. They were terrified of Stalin’s communism and secretly sympathised with much of Fascist policy, but couldn’t bring themselves to deal with the vulgar little Hitler. Their upbringing at public schools and running an empire where everyone said, Yes sahib, completely unprepared them for the modern world.

They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns – by ignoring it.

(Lord Halifax’s Wikipedia page relates that he almost created a massive scene when he first met Adolf Hitler and handed him his overcoat, thinking him to be the footman. Exactly. To Halifax’s class, everyone who didn’t go to their school must be a servant.)

And what about the British Empire? On the face of it between 1918 and 1945 the British Empire reached its greatest geographical extent, not least due to the addition of the various mandates in the Middle East carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. But despite the razamataz of the 1924 Empire Exhibition and so on, it’s quite clear that for most ordinary people and pretty much all intellectuals, the age of empire was over. it just took the ruling classes another 30 odd years to realise it. Orwell gives a reason for this decline in belief in the empire which I hadn’t heard before.

It was due to the rise of bureaucracy. Orwell specifically blames the telegraph and radio. In the golden age of empire the world presented a vast playground for buccaneering soldiers and ruthless merchants. No more.

The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

And of course, Orwell had seen this for himself, first hand, as an imperial servant in Burma from 1922 to 1928.

Lastly, the final section of part one describes the undermining of the rigid old class system since the Great War by the advent of new technologies, by the growth of light industry on the outskirts of towns, and the proliferation of entirely new types of middle-class work.

Britain was no longer a country of rich landowners and poverty-stricken peasants, of brutal factory owners and a huge immiserated proletariat. New technology was producing an entire new range of products – cheap clothes and shoes and fashions, cheap movies, affordable cars, houses with inside toilets etc, at the same time as the new industries no longer required thick-muscled navvies or exhausted women leaned over cotton looms, but educated managers, chemists, technicians, secretaries, salesmen and so on, who call into being a supporting class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, etc. This is particularly noticeable in the new townships of the south.

In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely OF the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.

It is fascinating to learn that this process, the breakdown of old class barriers due to new industries, new consumer products and a new thrusting classless generation, which I tended to associate with the 1960s – maybe because the movies and music of the 1960s proclaim this so loudly and are still so widely available – was in fact taking place as early as the 1920s.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together.

2. Shopkeepers at War

In this part Orwell declares that the old ruling class and their capitalism must be overthrown for the simple reason that

private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit — DOES NOT WORK.

The war so far has shown that a planned economy will always beat an unplanned one. Both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have states and economies guided from the top downwards towards clearly articulated political ends (winning wars). A capitalist society is made up of thousands of businesses all competing against and undermining each other, and undermining the national good. His example is British firms which right up to the declaration of war were still aggressively seeking contracts with Hitler’s Germany to sell them vital raw materials required for weapons, tin, rubber, copper. Madness!

Only a modern centralised, nationalised economy can successfully fight off other centralised nationalised economies. This, argues Orwell, is why some kind of socialist revolution must take place. In order to win the war, the British government must, in the name of the people, take over central running of all aspects of the economy.

In this section Orwell gives us a good working definition of socialism, the definition which was promised and then so glaringly absent from The Road To Wigan Pier four years earlier. Maybe it took those four years, Spain and distance from England, to be able to define it for himself.

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc etc) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class system. Centralised ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government.

Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted.

The nature of the revolution

So what would this English revolution consist of? The complete overthrow of the useless ruling class which is bedevilled by its own stupidity and simply unable to see the genuine threat that Hitler posed, able only to read him as a bulwark against Bolshevism and therefore a defender of all the privileges of England’s entrenched ruling class. Away with it in –

a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas — in the true sense of the word, a revolution… It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power… What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old… Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic… Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.

In this section he speaks right to the present moment and lists the agents of defeat, from pacifists through Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts to some Roman Catholics. But the real enemy, he says, is those who talk of peace, of negotiating peace with Hitler, a peace designed to leave in place all their perks and privileges, their dividends and servants. These are the worst, the most insidious enemies, both of the war effort and of the English people as a whole.

3. The English Revolution

We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.

Orwell gives a sweeping trenchant review of the current political scene in England, 1941. All the parties of the left are incapable of reform, the Labour Party most of all since it is the party of the trade unions and therefore has a vested interest in the maintenenace and flourishing of capitalism. The tiny communist party appeals to deracinated individuals but has done more to put the man in the street off socialism than any other influence.

The Labour Party stood for a timid reformism, the Marxists were looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles. Both ignored agriculture and imperial problems, and both antagonised the middle classes. The suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda had frightened away whole classes of necessary people, factory managers, airmen, naval officers, farmers, white-collar workers, shopkeepers, policemen. All of these people had been taught to think of Socialism as something which menaced their livelihood, or as something seditious, alien, “anti-British” as they would have called it.

Therefore, the revolution must come from below. Sound utopian? It is the war which has made it a possibility. The policy of the ruling class in the run-up to the war, the shameful incompetence of the opening year – Dunkirk – have made obvious to absolutely everyone that change is needed. Now, for the first time in its history, a genuinely revolutionary socialist change is thinkable.

A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonising them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.

Here, at the climax of the essay, he gives six practical policies:

  1. Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
  2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
  3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
  4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
  5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
  6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy.

Wow! The verve, the intellectual confidence, and the optimism of these passages is thrilling!

In the final pages Orwell guesses what kind of revolution it will be, namely a revolution ‘with English characteristics’, the characteristics he so lovingly enumerated in the first section. He gives a complicated analysis of the many forces against it, including comparisons with Vichy France and guesses about the strategies of Hitler and Stalin, too complicated to summarise. The essays ends by repeatedly attacking the pacifism and defeatism of English intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals and so-called communists. It is an all-or-nothing struggle. We can’t go back. the world has completely changed. We must recognise these changes, grasp them, and take them forward in a sweeping social revolution which alone can guarantee victory.

It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Wow! It must have been amazing to read this at the time.

And then what happened?

Churchill’s government did grasp the need for total war mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. Rationing was introduced and every effort made to quash luxury. If we ‘won’ the war it was because Hitler made the mad decision to invade Russia at the same time as the Japanese foolishly attacked America. Britain became the baby buoyed up between Russia and America.

And the war was barely over (May 1945) when Britain held a general election (July 1945) which to everyone’s amazement swept the victorious war leader Churchill from power and produced a socialist government with a huge majority. For the one and only time in its history the British enacted a sweep of revolutionary policies, nationalising the entire health service, extending free state education, and nationalising the key industries of coal, steel and so on. Within two years India was granted its independence. Surely these fulfilled most of Orwell’s definitions of revolution.

And yet… Private schools weren’t abolished and continued to serve as a beacon for privilege and snobbery. The banks and entire financial system was left untouched to flourish, continuing to orchestrate an essentially capitalist economy and redistribute money upwards towards the rich. Income was in no way controlled and so soon the divide between rich and poor opened up again. Massive social changes took place and yet – as Orwell had clearly seen, England’s essential character remained unchanged. Attlee’s government achieved much in five brief years but then was tumbled from power and England reverted to being ruled by upper-class twits, the twits who, like all their ilk live in the past, thought Britain was still a global power, and so took us into the Suez Crisis of 1956. But by then Orwell was long dead.

Conclusion

This is a brilliant long essay, one of the greatest in all English literature, a wonderful combination of nostalgic description for an idealised England, with a fascinating analysis of the social and political scene of his day, and then onto a stirringly patriotic call to fight not only to defeat fascism but to create a new, fairer society. It is impossible not to be stirred and inspired by the combination of incisive analysis, the novelist’s imaginative evocation of English character, and then a speech-writer’s stirring peroration.

However, it is all too easy, in my opinion, to let yourself get swept along by the unashamed patriotism and the bracing insights into ‘the English character’ so that you end up acquiescing in what turned out to be Orwell’s completely inaccurate predictions of the future and his completely unfounded faith in an English revolution.

A social revolution of sorts did take place during and immediately after the war, but what made it so English was the way that, deep down, it didn’t change anything at all.

London 1940 - seat of a socialist revolution?

London 1940 – seat of a socialist revolution?


Credit

The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1941. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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