Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930)

 At Archie Schwert’s party the fifteenth Marquess of Vanburgh, Earl Vanburgh de Brendon, Baron Brendon, Lord of the Five Isles and Hereditary Grand Falconer to the Kingdom of Connaught, said to the eighth Earl of Balcairn, Viscount Erdinge, Baron Cairn of Balcairn, Red Knight of Lancaster, Count of the Holy Roman Empire and Chenonceaux Herald to the Duchy of Aquitaine, ‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘Isn’t this a repulsive party? What are you going to say about it?’ for they were both of them, as it happened, gossip writers for the daily papers.

I tend to prefer older novels to contemporary novels and poetry because they are more unexpected, diverting, free from our narrow and oppressive modern morality and better written. Go any distance into the past and the characters will have better manners and the narrator write a more grammatically  correct English than you get nowadays. There will also be old phrases which I dimly remember from my youth which have now vanished, swamped by all-conquering Americanisms. And, sometimes, you just get scenes which are odder and more unexpected than earnest, issue-led modern fiction can allow itself. Thus, at the opening of Evelyn Waugh’s beautifully written, impeccably well mannered, but ultimately devastating 1932 novel, Vile Bodies, we read:

High above his head swung Mrs Melrose Ape’s travel-worn Packard car, bearing the dust of three continents, against the darkening sky, and up the companion-way at the head of her angels strode Mrs Melrose Ape, the woman evangelist.

Not the kind of sentence you read every day.

Crossing the Channel

Vile Bodies opens on a cross-channel ferry packed with an assortment of Waugh-esque eccentrics, including a seen-it-all-before Jesuit priest, Father Rothschild, a loud and brash American woman evangelist, Mrs Melrose Ape, and her flock of young followers; some members of the fashionable ‘Bright Young People’ aka ‘the Younger Set’ (Miles Malpractice, ‘brother of Lord Throbbing’, and the toothsome Agatha Runcible, ‘Viola Chasm’s daughter’); two tittering old ladies named Lady Throbbing and Mrs Blackwater; the recently ousted Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Walter Outrage, M.P.; and a hopeful young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes, who has been writing a novel in Paris.

Although there are passages of narrative description what becomes quickly obvious is that Waugh is experimenting with the novel form in a number of ways. One is by presenting short snatches of conversation and dialogue between a lot of groups of characters briskly intercut. No narratorial voice gives a setting or description, there is only the barest indication who’s talking, sometimes no indication at all. You’re meant to recognise the speakers by the style and content of what they say. It’s like the portmanteau movies of the 1970s, like a Robert Altman movie, briskly cutting between short scenes of  busy dialogue.

The book as a whole is a concerted satire on the generation of ‘Bright Young Things’, the privileged young British aristocrats and upper-middle-class public schoolboys who were adolescents during the Great War and who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge in the early 1920s, throwing themselves into a lifestyle of wild abandon and endless partying in the rich man’s quarter of London, Mayfair.

As you might expect, we not only get accounts of their activities, but the point of view of their disapproving elders and betters. Here’s the former Prime Minister, who we often find in conclave with Lord Metroland and Father Rothschild:

‘They had a chance after the war that no generation has ever had. There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade — and all they seem to do is to play the fool. Mind you, I’m all in favour of them having a fling. I dare say that Victorian ideas were a bit strait-laced. Saving your cloth, Rothschild, it’s only human nature to run a bit loose when one’s young. But there’s something wanton about these young people to-day.’

The younger generation’s frivolity is exemplified in the way Adam’s engagement with his fiancée, Nina Blount, is on again, off again, on again, their breaking up and making up punctuating the novel right till the end, in a running gag.

To start it off, Adam telephones Nina to tell her that the customs officials at Dover confiscated his novel and burned it for obscenity. She is sad but has to dash off to a party. In London he checks into the eccentric Shepheards Hotel (note the posh spelling), Dover Street, run by the blithely forgetful owner, Lottie Crump, who can never remember anyone’s name (‘”‘You all know Lord Thingummy, don’t you?’ said Lottie”). Lottie was, apparently, based, as Waugh tells us in his preface, on ‘Mrs Rosa Lewis and her Cavendish Hotel’.

Here Adam discovers the posh and eccentric clientele, including the ex-king of Ruritania (my favourite), assembled in the bar (the parlour) and wins a thousand pounds on a silly bet with a fellow guest. So he rushes to phone up Nina to tell her their wedding is back on again. She is happy but has to rush off to a party, as she always does.

Adam goes back to the group of guests, all getting drunk, and an older chap who calls himself ‘the Major’ offers the advice that the best way to invest his money is bet on a horse. In fact, he knows a dead cert, Indian Runner, running in the forthcoming November Handicap at twenty to one. So Adam drunkenly hands over his newly-won thousand pounds to the Major to put on this horse. The reader little suspects that this, also, will become a running gag for the rest of the book.

Then Adam stumbles back to the phone in the hallway and rings up Nina to ask her about this horse.  It is a comic premise of the novel that the world it portrays is minuscule and everybody knows everybody else, so it comes as no surprise that Nina just happens to know the horse’s posh owner and tells him it’s an absolute dog and will never win anything. When Adam explains that he’s just handed over his £1,000 to a Major to bet on it, Nina says well, that was foolish but she must dash for dinner and rings off. As usual.

Phone dialogue

A propos Adam and Nina’s conversations, Waugh prided himself that this was the first novel to include extended passages of dialogue carried out on the phone. Something about the phone medium offers the opportunity to make the characters sound even more clipped, superficial and silly than face-to-face conversation would:

‘Oh, I say. Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.’
‘Oh, Adam, you are a bore. Why not?’
‘They burnt my book.’
‘Beasts. Who did?’

Beasts and beastly. Dreadful bores. Ghastly fellows. I say, old chap. That would be divine, darling. Everyone speaks like that, and focusing on the dialogue brings this out.

Gossip columns and the press

Vile Bodies is wall to wall posh. That was its selling point. Waugh tells us that the ‘Bright Young People’ were a feature in the popular press of the time, as the characters in Made In Chelsea or Love Island might be in ours. Hmm maybe the comparison with a TV show is not quite right. After all, the characters appear in the gossip columns of the papers and some of the characters are themselves part of the set who make a career on the side writing about their friends.

When I was younger there were gossip columns by Taki in the Spectator and Nigel Dempster in the Express and Daily Mail. I imagine the same kind of thing persists today. Obviously people like to read about the goings-on of the rich and privileged with a mixture of mockery and jealousy. That’s very much the mix Waugh was catering to. He’s well aware of it. He overtly describes the ‘kind of vicarious inquisitiveness into the lives of others’ which gossip columns in all ages satisfy.

But over and above the permanent interest in the comings and goings of the very rich, the subject of the dissolute younger generation just happened to be in the news at the time and so Waugh’s novel happened to be addressing a hot topic at just the right moment. He was instantly proclaimed the ‘voice’ of that generation and Vile Bodies was picked up and reviewed, and articles and profiles and interviews were spun off it, and it sold like hot cakes. His reputation was made.

Interesting that right from the start of his writing career, it was deeply involved in the press, in the mediaVile Bodies is, on one level, about the rivalry between two gossip columnists for popular newspapers, and feature scenes in newsrooms and even with the editor of the main paper. Two of his books from the mid-30s describe how he was hired by a newspaper as a temporary foreign correspondent, the two factual books, Remote People and Waugh in Abyssinia. And he used the experiences and material from both books as material for his satirical masterpiece about the press, Scoop (1938). If we look back at Decline and Fall with this in mind, we notice that a number of key moments in that book are caused by newspaper reports, and that many of the events are picked up and reported by and mediated by the Press.

Waugh’s 1930s novels are famous for their bright and often heartlessly comic depiction of the very highest of London high society, but it’s worth pointing out how the topic of the Press runs through all of them, and the extent to which his characters perform their roles and are aware of themselves as performers (see below).

Bright Young People

Anyway, back to Vile Bodies, it is a masterpiece of deliberately brittle superficial satire, the text’s fragmentation into snippets of speech enacting the snippets of apparently random, inconsequent conversation overheard at a party, the world it comes from being one of endless parties, endless frivolity, which he captures quite brilliantly.

‘Who’s that awful-looking woman? I’m sure she’s famous in some way. It’s not Mrs Melrose Ape, is it? I heard she was coming.’
‘Who?’
‘That one. Making up to Nina.’
‘Good lord, no. She’s no one. Mrs Panrast she’s called now.’
‘She seems to know you.’
‘Yes, I’ve known her all my life. As a matter of fact, she’s my mother.’
‘My dear, how too shaming.’

It’s a set, a group, a clique. They all know each other and many are related, couples, parents, children, aunts, cousins. Waugh’s novels themselves partake of this cliqueyness by featuring quite a few recurring characters. Figures we first met in the previous novel, Decline and Fall, include Lord Circumference and Miles Malpractice, little David Lennox the fashionable society photographer. Lord Vanbrugh the gossip columnist is presumably the son of the Lady Vanbrugh who appeared in D&F and Margot Maltravers, formerly Mrs Beste-Chetwynde who was a central character in the same novel, also makes an appearance under her new name, Lady Metroland, hosting a fashionable party. (She confirms her identity by whispering to a couple of Mrs Ape’s angels that she can get them a job in South America if she wishes, the reader of the previous novel knowing this would be at one of Lady M’s string of brothels there). And quite a few of these characters go on to appear in Waugh’s later novels. The effect is to create a comically complete ‘alternative’ version of English high society, with its narrow interconnectedness.

Thus we know from Decline and Fall that Lord Metroland married Margot Beste-Chetwynde. She was heiress to the Pastmaster title. Therefore her son, Peter Beste-Chetwynde, in time becomes Lord Pastmaster. Margot caused a great stir in Decline and Fall by going out with a stylish young black man.  Here in Vile Bodies there is a sweet symmetry in discovering that her son is going out with a beautiful black woman. Hence Lord Metroland’s grumpy remark:

‘Anyhow,’ said Lord Metroland, ‘I don’t see how all that explains why my stepson should drink like a fish and go about everywhere with a negress.’
‘My dear, how rich you sound.’
‘I feel my full income when that young man is mentioned.’

Sociolect

The snobbery is enacted in the vocabulary of the text. Various social distinctions are, of course, directly indicated by possession of a title or one’s family. But also, of course, by how one speaks. Obviously there’s the question of accent, the way the upper class distinguish themselves from the middle and lower classes. But it’s also a specific vocabulary which marks one off as a member of the chosen, its sociolect – not only its slang but a very precise choice of key words which mark off a group, signal to other members one’s membership of the group and of course, signal to everyone else their very definite exclusion. Thus:

Divine Mrs Mouse thinks a party should be described as lovely. When her daughter describes the party she’s just been to as divine her mother tut tuts because that single word betokens the class above theirs, indicates that her daughter is getting above her station.

‘It was just too divine,’ said the youngest Miss Brown.
‘It was what, Jane?’

Because it is a word very much associated with the hardest core of the upper classiest of the Bright Young Things, represented in this book by the wild and heedless party animal, Miss Agatha Runcible.

Miss Runcible said that she had heard of a divine night club near Leicester Square somewhere where you could get a drink at any hour of the night.

Bogus This is another word much in vogue to mean simply ‘bad’ with the obvious overtone of fake:

  • ‘Oh, dear,’ she said, ‘this really is all too bogus.’
  • Miss Runcible said that kippers were not very drunk-making and that the whole club seemed bogus to her.

In fact their use of ‘bogus’ is cited by Father Rothschild as one of the things he notices about the younger generation. He takes a positive view of it, suggesting to his buddies Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland that the young actually have very strict morals and find the post-war culture they’ve inherited broken and shallow and deceitful. (In this way ‘bogus’ for the 1920s was similar to what  ‘phoney’ was to be for Americans in the 1950s as popularised by Catcher In The Rye, ‘square’ was for hippies, and ‘gay’ is for modern schoolchildren).

Too ‘Too’ is an adverb of degree, indicating excess. Most of us use it in front of adjectives as a statement of fact, for example ‘This tea is too hot’. But the upper classes use it as one among many forms of exaggeration, indicating the simply superlative nature of their experiences, their lives and their darling selves. Used like this, ‘too’ doesn’t convey factual information but is a class marker; in fact its very factual emptiness, its semantic redundancy, highlights its role as a marker of membership:

  • ‘I think it’s quite too sweet of you…’
  • ‘Isn’t this too amusing?’
  • ‘Isn’t that just too bad of Vanburgh?’

‘It was just too divine’ contains a double superlative, the adverb ‘too’ but also the adjective ‘divine’ itself, which is obviously being used with frivolous exaggeration. The party was divine. You are divine. I am divine. We are divine.

Such and so Grammatically ‘such’ is a determiner and ‘so’ is an adverb. So ‘so’ should be used in front of an adjective, ‘such’ in front of a noun phrase. In this narrow society, they are both used in much the same way as ‘too’, to emphasise that everything a speaker is talking about is the absolute tip top. After listening to someone telling us they had such a good time at such a wonderful party and spoke to such a lovely man, and so on, we quickly get the picture that the speaker lives a very superior life. To get the full effect it needs to be emphasised:

  • Such a nice stamp of man.’
  • ‘It seems such a waste.’
  • Such nice people.’
  • Such a nice bright girl.’

There’s an element of risk in talking like this. Only a certain kind of person can carry it off. Trying it on among people who don’t buy into the entire elite idea, or among the real elite who know that you are not a member, risks ridicule.

So talking like this is a kind of taunt – I can get away with this ridiculous way of speaking but you can’t. The epitome of this verbal bravado is Miss Runcible, whose every word is littered with mannered vocabulary and superlatives, flaunting her superlative specialness, daring anyone else to compete.

Simply Paradoxically, for a very self-conscious elite, the pose is one of almost idiotic simplicity. Consider Bertie Wooster. His idiocy underpins his membership of the toff class. He is too stupid to do anything practical like have a job and his upper class idiocy is a loud indicator that he doesn’t need a job, but lives a life of privilege. Well one indicator of this attitude is use of the word simply.

  • ‘I simply do not understand what has happened’
  • ‘Nina, do you ever feel that things simply can’t go on much longer?’
  • ‘Now they’re simply thrilled to the marrow about it .’
  • ‘She’d simply loathe it, darling.’
  • ‘Of course, they’re simply not gentlemen, either of them.’

Darling Preferably drawled, a usage only the very confident and suave can get away with.

‘Darling, am I going to be seduced?’
‘I’m afraid you are. Do you mind terribly?’
‘Not as much as all that,’ said Nina, and added in Cockney, ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’

Terribly Another denoter of frivolous giddy poshness, since the time of Oscar Wilde at least, via Saki and Noel Coward. Terribly and frightfully.

  • ‘No, really, I think that’s frightfully nice of you. Look, here’s the money. Have a drink, won’t you?’
  • ‘I say, you must be frightfully brainy.’

-making Many of these elements have survived the past 90 years, they continued into the equally frivolous Swinging Sixties and on into our own times, though often mocked, as in the TV series Absolutely Fabulous (1992 to 1996). A locution which is a bit more specific to this generation, or certainly to this book, is creating phrases by adding ‘-making’ to the end of an adjective. Thus:

  • ‘Too, too sick-making,’ said Miss Runcible.
  • ‘As soon as I get to London I shall ring up every Cabinet Minister and all the newspapers and give them all the most shy-making details.’
  • Miss Runcible said that kippers were not very drunk-making and that the whole club seemed bogus to her.
  • ‘Wouldn’t they be rather ill-making?’
  • ‘Very better-making,’ said Miss Runcible with approval as she ate her haddock.

The usage occurs precisely 13 times in the novel, mostly associated with the most daring character, fearless Miss Runcible, and Waugh pushes it to a ludicrous extreme when he has her say:

‘Goodness, how too stiff-scaring….’ (p.174)

This locution made enough of an impression that Waugh singled it out in his preface to the 1964 edition of the novel for being widely commented on, and even taken up by a drama critic who included it in various reviews: ‘”Too sick-making”, as Mr Waugh would say.’ Did people actually say it, or was it a very felicitous invention?

Cockney

In my review of Decline and Fall I noted how much Waugh liked describing Cockney or working class characters and revelled in writing their dialogue. Same here. Thus a taxi driver tells Adam:

‘Long way from here Doubting ‘All is. Cost you fifteen bob…If you’re a commercial, I can tell you straight it ain’t no use going to ‘im.’

This turns out not to be a personal foible of Waugh’s. In Vile Bodies we learn that mimicking Cockney accents was highly fashionable among the creme de la creme of the Bright Young Things.

  • ‘Go away, hog’s rump,’ said Adam, in Cockney,
  • ‘Pretty as a picture,’ said Archie, in Cockney, passing with a bottle of champagne in his hand.
  • ‘Look,’ said Adam, producing the cheque. ‘Whatcher think of that?’ he added in Cockney.
  • ‘Good morning, all,’ she said in Cockney.

At university I knew very posh public schoolboys who had a cult of suddenly dropping into very thick Jamaican patois which they copied from hard-core reggae music (the extreme Jamaican pronunciation of ‘nay-shun’ kept recurring). Same kind of thing here – upper class types signalling their mockery and frivolity by mimicking the accents of the people about as far away from them on the social spectrum as possible.

Alcohol

Everyone’s either drunk, getting drunk or hungover. Their catchphrase is ‘Let’s have a drink’.

‘How about a little drink?’ said Lottie.

The American critic Edmund Wilson made the same comment about the literary types he knew in 1920s New York, and in general about ‘the Roaring Twenties’, ‘the Jazz Era’. Everyone drank like fish.

They went down the hill feeling buoyant and detached (as one should if one drinks a great deal before luncheon). (p.173)

Everyone was nursing a hangover. Everyone needed one for the road or a pick-me-up the next morning, or a few drinks before lunch, and during lunch, and mid-afternoon, and something to whet the whistle before dinner, and then onto a club for drinks and so on into the early hours. At luncheon with Nina’s father:

First they drank sherry, then claret, then port.

It goes without saying that these chaps and chapesses are not drinking beer or lager. Champagne is the unimpeachable, uncritisable, eternal choice for toffs and all occasions.

  • (Unless specified in detail, all drinks are champagne in Lottie’s parlour.)
  • Archie Schwert, as he passed, champagne bottle in hand, paused to say, ‘How are you, Mary darling?’
  • Adam hurried out into the hall as another bottle of champagne popped festively in the parlour.

Drinking heavily and one more for the road and still partying at dawn are fine if you’re in your 20s (and well off and good looking). Give it 40 years and you end up looking and talking like the Major in Fawlty Towers as so many of these bright young things eventually did.

Ballard Berkeley as Major Gowen in Fawlty Towers

The extended scene at the motor races (Chapter Ten) contains a very funny description of four posh people becoming very drunk. Their progressive inebriation is conveyed entirely via their speech patterns, which become steadily more clipped and the subject matter steadily more absurd, so that when a race steward comes round to enquire where the  driver of the car they’re supporting has gone to (his arm was hurt in an accident so he’s pulled into the pits and his car is empty) they immediately reply that he’s been murdered. When the steward asks if there’s a replacement driver, they immediately reply, straight faced, that he’s been murdered too.

‘Driver’s just been murdered,’ said Archie. ‘Spanner under the railway bridge. Marino.’
‘Well, are you going to scratch? Who’s spare driver?’
‘I don’t know. Do you, Adam? I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if they hadn’t murdered the spare driver, too.’

Since they each drink a bottle of champagne before lunch, the three posh friends start to come down at teatime and Waugh is as good on incipient hangovers as on inebriation.

The effect of their drinks had now entered on that secondary stage, vividly described in temperance handbooks, when the momentary illusion of well-being and exhilaration gives place to melancholy, indigestion and moral decay. (p.177)

More on this scene below.

Politics

The satirical point of view extends up into political circles, one of the jokes being that several of the most extreme and disreputably hedonistic of the Bright Young People are, with a certain inevitability, the sons and daughter of the leaders of the main parties and, since one or other of them is in power at any given moment, children of the Prime Minister.

In fact the mockery extends to the novel’s cheerfully satirical notion that the British government falls roughly every week. In the opening chapter we meet the Prime Minister who’s just been ousted, Outrage, and in the same chapter the supremely modish Miss Runcible. Only slowly does it become clear that she is, with a certain inevitability, the daughter of the current Prime Minister (Sir James Brown).

Half way through the book this Prime Minister is ousted because of stories about the wild party held at Number 10 which climaxed with his half-naked daughter, dressed as a Hawaiian dancer, stumbling drunkenly out the front steps of Number 10 and straight into the aim of numerous press photographers and journalists. Disreputable parties held by Tory toffs at Number 10? Well, it seems that in this, as so many other aspects of British life, nothing has really changed since the 1930s.

Moments of darkness

The best comedy, literary comedy as opposed to gag fests, hints at darker undertones. Shakespeare’s comedies tread, briefly, close to genuine cruelty or torment as, for example, in the hounding of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Comedy generally is an unstable genre. For a generation or more we’ve had the comedy of cruelty or humiliation or embarrassment. I find a lot of modern comedy, such as The Office too embarrassing and depressing to watch.

Waugh’s comedy goes to extremes. It often includes incidents of complete tragedy which are played for laughs, or flicker briefly in the frivolous narrative as peripheral details, which are glossed over with comic nonchalance but which, if you pause to focus on them, are very dark.

It’s there in Decline and Fall when little Lord Tangent has his foot grazed by a shot from the starting gun at school sports day, the wound gets infected and he has to have the foot amputated. A lot later we learn, in a throwaway remark, that he has died.

Flossie’s death

Something similar happens here when a young woman, Florence or Flossie Ducane, involved in a drunken party in the room of one of the posh guests at the posh Shepheard’s Hotel attempts to swing from a chandelier which snaps and she falls to the floor and breaks her neck. Adam sees a brief report about it in the newspaper:

Tragedy in West-End Hotel.
‘The death occurred early this morning at a private hotel in Dover Street of Miss Florence Ducane, described as being of independent means, following an accident in which Miss Ducane fell from a chandelier which she was attempting to mend.

1. All kinds of things are going on here. One is the way moments of real tragedy provide a foil for the gay abandon of most of the characters. Each of these momentary tragedies is a tiny, flickering memento of the vast disaster of the First World War which looms over the entire decade like a smothering nightmare – all those dead husbands and brothers and fathers who everyone rushes round brightly ignoring.

(There’s a famous moment in the story, when Adam is hurrying to Marylebone station to catch a train out to the country pile of Nina’s father [Doubting Hall, Aylesbury], when the clock strikes 11 and everyone all over London, all over the country is still and quiet for 2 minutes because it is Remembrance Sunday. Then the 2 minutes are up and everybody’s hurly burly of life resumes. When I was young I read the handful of sentences which describe it as an indictment of the shallowness of Adam and the world, barely managing their perfunctory 2 minutes’ tribute. Now I see it as a momentary insight into the darkness which underlies everything, which threatens all values.)

2. On another level, the way Adam reads about Flossie’s death in a newspaper epitomises the way all the characters read about their own lives in the press; their lives are mediated by the media, written up and dramatised like performances. They read out to each other the gossip column reports about their behaviour at the latest party like actors reading reviews of their performances, and then, in turn, give their opinions on the columnists/critics’s writing up, creating a closed circle of mutual admiration and/or criticism.

3. On another, more obviously comic, level, what you could call the PR level, Adam smiles quietly to himself at how well the owner of the Shepheard’s Hotel, Lottie Crump, handled the police and journalists who turned up to cover Flossie’s death, smooth-talking them, offering them all champagne, and so managing to steer them all away from the fact that the host of the party where the death occurred was a venerable American judge, Judge Skimp. His name has been very successfully kept out of the papers. Respect for Lottie.

Simon Balcairn’s suicide

Then there’s another death, much more elaborately explained and described. Simon, Earl of Balcairn, has his career as a leading gossip columnist (writing the ‘Chatterbox’ column in the Daily Excess) ruined after he is boycotted by Margot Metroland and blacklisted from the London society through whom he makes his living. He gets Adam to phone Margot and plead to be admitted to her latest party, one she is giving for the fashionable American evangelist, Mrs Ape, but she obstinately refuses. He even dresses up in disguise with a thick black beard and gatecrashes, but is detected and thrown out.

Convinced that his career, and so his life is over, Simon phones in one last great story to his newspaper, the Daily Excess, a completely fictitious account of Margot’s party in which he makes up uproarious scenes of half London’s high society falling to their knees amid paroxysms of religious guilt and renunciation (all completely fictitious) – then, for the first time completely happy with his work, lays down with his head in his gas oven, turns on the gas, inhales deeply, and dies. It is, and is meant to be, bleak.

This feel for the darkness which underlies the giddy social whirl, and the complicated psychological effect which is produced by cleverly counterpointing the two tones, becomes more evident in Waugh’s subsequent novels, Black Mischief (1932) and A Handful of Dust (1934). In this novel he describes it as

that black misanthropy…which waits alike on gossip writer and novelist…

And it appears more and more as the novel progresses, like water seeping through the cracks in a dam. Nina starts the novel as the model of a social butterfly, utterly empty-headed and optimistic. After she and Adam have a dirty night in Arundel i.e. sex i.e. she loses her virginity, she ceases being so much fun. She finds the parties less fun. She starts to squabble with Adam. About half way through the novel she is, uncoincidentally, the peg for an extended passage which sounds a note of disgust at the book’s own subject matter (which is where, incidentally, the title comes from):

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’
(…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris–all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…. Those vile bodies…)

Waugh cannily sprinkles among the witty dialogue and endless parties a slowly mounting note of disgust and revulsion.

Comedy is adults behaving like children

From the moment of her deflowering Nina grows steadily more serious, almost depressed. You realise it’s because, in having sex, she’s become an adult. Things aren’t quite so much bright innocent fun any more. At which point I realised that the appeal of the Bright Young Things is, in part, because they behave like children, drunk and dancing and singing (OK, so the drinking is not exactly like young children) but at its core their behaviour is childish, persistently innocent and naive.

The Bright Young People came popping all together, out of some one’s electric brougham like a litter of pigs, and ran squealing up the steps.

Much comedy is based on adults behaving like children. It’s a very reliable way of getting a comic effect in all kinds of works and movies and TV shows. It occurs throughout this book. There’s a funny example when, at Margot Metroland’s party, the ageing ex-Prime Minister, Mr Outrage, gets caught up in the exposure of Simon Balcairn infiltrating the party in disguise but, because of the obscure way the thing is revealed with a variety of pseudonyms and disguises, the PM becomes increasingly confused, like a child among adults and he is reduced to childishly begging someone to explain to him what is going on. The comic effect is then extended when he is made to confess he experiences the same bewildering sense of being out of his depth even in his own cabinet meetings.

‘I simply do not understand what has happened…. Where are those detectives?… Will no one explain?… You treat me like a child,’ he said. It was all like one of those Cabinet meetings, when they all talked about something he didn’t understand and paid no attention to him.

Mr Chatterbox

Balcairn’s suicide creates a vacancy for a new ‘Mr Chatterbox’ and Adam happens to be dining in the same restaurant (Espinosa’s, the second-best restaurant in London) as the features editor of the Daily Excess, they get into conversation and so, with the casualness so typical of every aspect of these people’s lives, he is offered the job on the spot. ‘Ten pounds a week and expenses.’

Adam’s (brief) time as a gossip columnist turns into a comic tour de force. Just about everyone Simon mentioned in his last great fictitious account of Margot’s party (mentioned above) sues the Daily Excess (’62 writs for libel’!) with the result that the proprietor, Lord Monomark, draws up a list of them all and commands that none of them must ever, ever be mentioned in the paper again. This presents Adam with a potentially ruinous problem because the list includes ‘everyone who is anyone’ and so, on the face of it, makes his job as gossip columnist to London’s high society impossible.

He comes up with two solutions, the first fairly funny, the second one hilarious. The first one is to report the doings of C-listers, remote cousins and distant relatives of the great and good, who are often ailing and hard done by. The column’s readers:

learned of the engagement of the younger sister of the Bishop of Chertsey and of a dinner party given in Elm Park Gardens by the widow of a High Commissioner to some of the friends she had made in their colony. There were details of the blameless home life of women novelists, photographed with their spaniels before rose-covered cottages; stories of undergraduate ‘rags’ and regimental reunion dinners; anecdotes from Harley Street and the Inns of Court; snaps and snippets about cocktail parties given in basement flats by spotty announcers at the B.B.C., of tea dances in Gloucester Terrace and jokes made at High Table by dons.

This has the unexpected benefit of creating new fans of the column who identify with the ailments or  afflictions of these ‘resolute non-entities’.

The second and more radical solution is simply to make it up. Like a novelist, Adam creates a new set of entirely fictional high society characters. He invents an avant-garde sculptor called Provna, giving him such a convincing back story that actual works by Provna start to appear on the market, and go for good prices at auction. He invents a popular young attaché at the Italian Embassy called Count Cincinnati, a dab hand at the cello. He invents Captain Angus Stuart-Kerr the famous big game hunter and sensational ballroom dancer.

Immediately his great rival gossip columnist, Vanbrugh, starts featuring the same (utterly fictional characters) in his column, and then other characters begin to mention them in conversation (‘Saw old Stuart-Kerr at Margot’s the other day. Lovely chap’) and so on. This is funny because it indicates how people are so desperate to be in the swim and au courant that they will lie to themselves about who they’ve seen or talked to. It indicates the utter superficiality of the world they inhabit which can be interpreted, moralistically, as a bad thing; but can also be seen as a fun and creative thing: why not make up the society you live in, if the real world is one of poverty and war?

But Adam’s masterpiece is the divinely slim and attractive Mrs Imogen Quest, the acme of social desirability, to whom he attributes the height of social standing. She becomes so wildly popular that eventually the owner of the Daily Excess, Lord Monomark, sends down a message saying he would love to meet this paragon. At which point, in a mild panic, Adam quickly writes a column announcing the unfortunate news that Mrs Quest had sailed to Jamaica, date of return unknown.

You get the idea. Not rocket science, but genuinely funny, inventive, amusing.

Father Rothschild as moral centre

Adam and Nina are invited to a bright young party held in a dirigible i.e. airship.

On the same night their more staid parents, politicians and grandees attend a much more traditional party for the older generation at Anchorage House. The main feature of this is the Jesuit Father Rothschild sharing with Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland a surprisingly mild, insightful and sympathetic view of the behaviour of the young generation. They have come into a world robbed of its meaning by the war, a world where the old values have been undermined and destroyed and yet nothing new has replaced them. A decade of financial and political crises ending up in a great crash. No wonder they make a point of not caring about anything. Genuinely caring about someone or something only risks being hurt. Hence the vehemence of the display of aloofness, nonchalance, insouciance, darling this and divine that and frightfully the other, and refusing point blank to ever be serious about anything.

In fact, Father Rothschild is given an almost apocalyptic speech:

‘Wars don’t start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions.’

And this was written a few years before Hitler even came to power. Everyone knew it. Everyone sensed it. The coming collapse. The bright young things are laughing in the dark.

A touch of Auden

W.H. Auden often gets the credit for introducing industrial landscapes and landscapes blighted by the Great Depression into 1930s poetry, but it’s interesting to notice Waugh doing it here in prose. In a plane flying to the South of France, Nina looks down through the window:

Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle a horizon of straggling red suburb; arterial roads dotted with little cars; factories, some of them working, others empty and decaying; a disused canal; some distant hills sown with bungalows; wireless masts and overhead power cables; men and women were indiscernible except as tiny spots; they were marrying and shopping and making money and having children.

One episode in the sad and dreary strand of English poetry and prose through the middle half of the twentieth century, E.M. Foster’s lament for the cancerous growth of London in the Edwardian era, D.H. Lawrence’s horrified descriptions of the mining country, John Betjeman’s comic disgust at light industrial towns like Slough, Philip Larkin’s sad descriptions of windswept shopping centres. But during the 1930s it had an extra, apocalyptic tone because of the sense of deep economic and social crisis.

Other scenes

The movie

Adam goes back to visit Nina’s father for a second time to try and borrow money, but is amazed to walk into the surreal scene of a historical drama being filmed at her father’s decaying country house (Doubting Hall, set in extensive grounds) by a dubious film company The Wonderfilm Company of Great Britain, run by an obvious shyster, a Mr Isaacs. (Worth noting, maybe, that Waugh has the leading lady of the movie, use what would nowadays be an unacceptable antisemitic epithet. Waugh himself has  some of his characters, on very rare occasions, disparage Jews, but then they disparage the middle classes, politicians, the authorities and lots of other groups. Their stock in trade is amused contempt for everyone not a member of their social circle. Waugh comes nowhere near the shocking antisemitism which blackens Saki’s short stories and novels.)

Isaac is such a shyster he offers to sell Adam the complete movie, all the rushes and part-edited work for a bargain £500. Adam recognises a crook when he sees one. But his prospective father-in-law doesn’t, and it’s a comic thread that, towards the end of the novel, old Colonel Blount has bought the stock off Isaacs and forces his reluctant neighbour, the Rector of his church, to stage an elaborate and disastrous showing of what is obviously a terrible film.

(It is maybe worth noting that Waugh had himself tried his hand at making a film, with some chums from Oxford soon after he left the university, in 1922. It was a version of The Scarlet Woman and shot partly in the gardens at Underhill, his parents’ house in Hampstead.)

The motor race and Agatha

Adam, Agatha Runcible, Miles Malpractice and Archie Schwert pile into Archie’s car for a long drive to some remote provincial town to watch a motorcar race which a friend of Miles’ is competing in. It’s mildly comic that all the good hotels are packed to overflowing so they end up staying in a very rough boarding house, sharing rooms with bed which are alive with fleas. Early next morning they do a bunk.

The car race is described at surprising length, with various comic details (in the pits Agatha keeps lighting up a cigarette, being told to put it out by a steward, and chucking it perilously close to the open cans of petrol; this is very cinematic in the style of Charlie Chaplin).

There is a supremely comic scene where Miles’s friend brings his car into the pits and goes off to see a medic – one of the competitors threw a spanner out his car which hit our driver in the arm. A race steward appears and asks if there’s a replacement driver for the car. Now, in order to smuggle his pals into the pits in the first place, Miles’ friend had handed them each a white armband with random job titles on, such as Mechanic. The one given to Agatha just happened to read SPARE DRIVER so now, drunk as a lord, she points to it and declares: ‘I’m spare driver. It’s on my arm.’ The race steward takes down her name and she drunkenly gets into the racing car (she’s never driven a car before) her friends ask if that’s quite wise, to drive plastered, but she replies: ‘I’m spare driver. It’s on my arm’ and roars off down the course.

There then follow a sequence of comic announcements over the race tannoy as it is announced that Miss Runcible’s car (‘No 13, the English Plunket-Bowse’) has a) finished one lap in record time b) been disqualified for the record as it is now known she veered off the road and took a short cut c) has left the race altogether, taking a left instead of a right turn at a hairpin corner and last seen shooting off across country.

Our three buddies repair to the drinks tent where they carry on getting drunk. When ‘the drunk major’ turns up, promising to pay Adam the £35,000 that he owes him thanks to the bet he promised to make on a racehorse, they each have a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Eventually it is reported that the car has been spotted in a large village fifteen miles away, town where it has crashed into the big stone market cross (‘ (doing irreparable damage to a monument already scheduled for preservation by the Office of Works)’).

Our threesome hire a taxi to take them there and witness the car wreck, mangled against the stone post and still smoking. Villagers report that a woman was seen exiting the car and stumbling towards the railway station. They make their way to the railway station and the ticket seller tells them he sold a ticket to London to a confused young woman.

(It may be worth noting that this entire chapter, with its extended and detailed description of competitive car racing, was almost certainly based on a real visit to a car race Waugh made, to support his pal David Plunket Greene. The real life race, which took place in 1929, is described, with evocative contemporary photos, in this excellent blog.)

Agatha’s end

To cut a long story short, after interruptions from other strands, we learn that Agatha sustained serious enough injuries in her car smash to be sent to hospital. But that’s not the worst of it. She had concussion and has periodic delusions, so she is referred on to ‘the Wimpole Street nursing home’. Here, in Waugh’s telegraphic style, we are given impressionistic snippets into her nightmares in which she is driving always faster, faster! and the comforting voice of her nurse trying to calm her as she injects her with a tranquiliser.

There’s a final scene in this strand where several of her pals pop round to visit her, bringing flowers but also a little drinky-wink, then some other appear and before you know it there’s a full scale party going on in her room, someone brings a gramophone, they all dance to the latest jazz tune. They even bribe the staid nurse with a few drinks and things are getting rowdy when, inevitably, the stern matron arrives and kicks them all out. Carry on Bright Young Things.

But, long story short, the excitement exacerbates Agatha’s shredded nerves and, towards the end of the narrative, we learn in a typically throwaway comment from one the characters, that Agatha died. Adam:

‘Did I tell you I went to Agatha’s funeral? There was practically no one there except the Chasms and some aunts. I went with Van, rather tight, and got stared at. I think they felt I was partly responsible for the accident…’

The fizzy bubbles mood of the opening half of the novel feels well and truly burst by this stage. Characters carry on partying and behaving like children but it feels like the moral and psychological wreckage is mounting up like a cliff teetering over them all.

Nina’s infidelities

The on again, off again relationship between Nina and Adam comes to a head when she declares she’s in love with a newcomer in their social circle, a man who speaks in even more outrageous posh boy phrases than anyone else. In fact, she casually informs Adam, she and Ginger got married this morning. Oh.

But this is where it gets interesting because Nina is such an airhead that she can’t really decide, she can’t make up her mind between Adam and Ginger. She goes off on a jolly honeymoon to the Med with him, but doesn’t like it one bit, he’s off playing golf most of the day. If you recall, Adam and Nina had had sex, at the hotel in Arundel, so there’s a more than emotional bond between them. Anyway, long and the short of it is she agrees to see him, to come and stay with him and, in effect, to start an affair with him as soon as she gets back to London.

It is all done for laughs but Waugh doesn’t need to draw the moral, to go on about psychological consequences, to editorialise or point out the moral implications for Nina and her set. All of this is conspicuous by its absence. It is left entirely to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Waugh’s text has the chrome-covered sleekness of an Art Deco statuette, slender, stylish, quick, slickly up to date.

He is the English F. Scott Fitzgerald, giving a highly stylised depiction of a generation in headlong pursuit of fun, drinks, drinks and more drinks, endless parties, with the shadow of the coming psychological crash looming closer and closer over his narratives.

The completely unexpected ending

The cinema show

Comedy of a sort continues up to the end, with the scene I mentioned before, of gaga old Colonel Blount, accompanied by Nina and Adam who are staying with him for Christmas, insisting on taking his cinematographic equipment round to the much put-upon local Rector, spending an age setting it up, and then blowing his entire household fuses in showing the terrible rubbish film which the director Isaacs has flogged to him.

It is a great comic scene if, to my mind, no longer as laugh out loud funny as the early scenes, because my imagination has been tainted by a silly death (Flossie), a suicide (Simon Balcairn), the nervous breakdown and death of pretty much the leading figure int he narrative (Agatha).

Anyway, after the power cut, the Colonel, Adam and Nina motor back to Doubting Hall for Christmas dinner and are in the middle of boozy toasts when the Rector phones them with the terrible news. War has broken out. War?

The last world war

In an extraordinary leap in subject matter and style, a startling break with everything which went before it, the very last scene discovers Adam, dressed as a soldier, amid a vast landscape of complete destruction, a barbed wire and mud nightmare derived from the grimmest accounts of the Great War and stretching for as far as the eye can see in every direction. It is the new war, the final war, the war Father Rothschild warned against, the war they all knew was coming and which, in a way, justified their heartless frivolity. Nothing matters. Jobs don’t matter, relationships don’t matter, sobriety or drunkenness, wild gambling, fidelity or infidelity, nothing matters, because they know in their guts that everything, everything, will be swept away.

Waugh’s humour continues till the end, but it is now a grim, bleak humour. For floundering across the mud landscape towards Adam comes a gas-masked figure. For a moment it looks as if they will attack each other, the unknown figure wielding a flame thrower, Adam reaching for one of the new Huxdane-Halley bomb (for the dissemination of leprosy germs) he keeps in his belt. God. Germ warfare. The utter ruined bottom of the pit of a bankrupt civilisation.

Only at the last minute do they realise they’re both British and then, when they take their masks off, Adam recognises the notorious Major, the elusive figure who took his money off him at Shepheard’s all those months (or is it years) ago, to bet on a horse, who he briefly met at the motor racing meet, and now gets talking to him, in that upper class way, as if nothing had happened at all.

‘You’re English, are you?’ he said. ‘Can’t see a thing. Broken my damned monocle.’

Now the Major invites him into the sanctuary of his ruined Daimler car, sunk past its axles in mud.

‘My car’s broken down somewhere over there. My driver went out to try and find someone to help and got lost, and I went out to look for him, and now I’ve lost the car too. Damn difficult country to find one’s way about in. No landmarks…’

It is the landscape of Samuel Beckett’s post-war plays, an unending landscape of utter devastation, dotted with wrecks of abandoned machinery and only a handful of survivors.

Once they’ve clambered into the car’s, the Major opens a bottle of champagne (what else?) and reveals a dishevelled girl wrapped in a great coat, ‘woebegone fragment of womanhood’. On closer examination this turns out to be one of Mrs Apes’ young girls, the laughably named Chastity. When quizzed, Chastity ends the narrative with a page-long account of her trials. It turns out that Margot Metroland did manage to persuade her to leave Mrs Ape’s religious troupe and go and work in one of her South American bordellos –so this fills in the details of the 3 or 4 girls we met during Decline and Fall who were being dispatched to the same fate.

Only with the outbreak of war, she returned to Europe and now presents in a breathless paragraph the story of her employment at a variety of brothels, being forced into service with a variety of conquering or retreating troops of all nations. The Major opens another bottle of champagne and starts chatting her up. Adam watches the girl start flirtatiously playing with his medals as he drifts into an exhausted sleep.

So, Waugh is pretty obviously saying, all of Western civilisation comes down to this: a shallow adulterer, a philandering old swindler, and a well-worn prostitute, holed up in a ruined car in a vast landscape of waste and destruction.

Aftershocks

Vile Bodies is marketed as a great comic novel and it is, and is often very funny, but as my summary suggests, it left me reeling and taking a while to absorb its psychological shocks. The deaths of Flossie, Simon and Agatha, and Nina’s slow metamorphosis into a thoughtless adulterer, all steadily darken the mood, but nothing whatsoever prepares you for the last chapter, which is surely one of the most apocalyptic scenes in the literary canon.

I had various conflicting responses to it, and still do, but the one I’m going to write down takes a negative view.

Possibly, when I was young and impressionable and first read this book, I took this devastating finale to be an indictment of the hollowness of the entire lifestyle depicted in the previous 200 pages. Subject to teenage moodswings which included the blackest despair, I took this extreme vision of the complete annihilation of western civilisation at face value and thought it was a fitting conclusion to a novel which, from one point of view, is ‘about’ the collapse of traditional values (restraint, dignity, sexual morality).

But I’m older now, and now I think it represents an artistic copout. It is so extreme that it ruins the relative lightness of the previous narrative. All the light touches which preceded it are swamped by this huge sea of mud.

And it’s disappointing in not being very clever. Up to this point any reader must be impressed, even if they don’t sympathise with the posh characters, by the style and wit with which Waugh writes, at the fecundity of his imagination, and the countless little imaginative touches and verbal precision with which he conveys his beautifully brittle scenarios.

And then this. Subtle it is not. It feels like a letdown, it feels like a copout. It’s not a clever way to end a noel which had, hitherto, impressed with its style and cleverness. It feels like a suburban, teenage Goth ending. It’s not much above the junior school essay level of writing ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’.

A more mature novel might have ended with the funeral of Agatha Runcible and recorded, in his precise, malicious way, the scattered conversations among the usual characters, momentarily brought down to earth and forced to confront real feelings, before swiftly offering each other and drink and popping the champagne. In this scenario the Major might have turned up as a fleeting character Adam still can’t get to meet, Nina unfaithful thoughts could have been skewered, Margot Metroland’s society dominance reasserted despite heartbreak over her dead daughter, Lord Monomark appointing yet another bright young thing as Mr Chatterbox, the ousted Prime Minister Mr Outrage still utterly confused by what’s going on, and maybe a last word given to sage and restrained Father Rothschild. That’s what I’d have preferred.

Instead Waugh chose to go full Apocalypse Now on the narrative and I think it was a mistake – an artistic error which became more evident as the years passed and the world headed into a second war, which he was to record much more chastely, precisely, and therefore more movingly, in the brilliant Sword of Honour trilogy.


Credit

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1930 by Chapman and Hall. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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

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

The Ascent of F6

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

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

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

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

On The Frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

It feels like an ambitious school play.

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


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

Family Britain: The Certainties of Place by David Kynaston (2009)

Two more massive ‘books’ contained in one hefty 700-page paperback describing Britain after the war, the first one – The Certainties of Place, under review here – covering the period 1951-5 in immense detail. The main historical events are:

  • The Festival of Britain (May – August 1951)
  • October 1951 the Conservatives just about win the general election, despite polling quarter of a million fewer votes than Labour
  • Death of George VI (6 February 1952) and accession of young Queen Elizabeth II
  • 3 October 1952 Britain explodes its first atom bomb (in Western Australia)
  • The Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash on the morning of 8 October 1952 – 112 were killed and 340 injured – the worst peacetime rail crash in the United Kingdom
  • The North Sea flood on the night of Saturday 31 January / Sunday, 1 February
  • Rationing: tea came off the ration in October 1952 and sweets in February 1953, but sugar, butter, cooking fats, cheese, meat and eggs continued on the ration
  • 2 June 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
  • 27 July 1953 end of Korean War
  • 12 August 1953 Russia detonates its first hydrogen bomb

The book ends in January 1954, with a literary coincidence. On Monday 25 Lucky Jim, the comic novel which began the career of Kingsley Amis was published and that evening saw the BBC broadcast the brilliant play for voices Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas who had in fact died two months earlier, on 9 November 1953.

Tumult of events and impressions

But reading Kynaston’s books is not to proceed logically through the key events of the period accompanied by political and economic and diplomatic analysis: it is to be plunged into the unceasing turbulent flow of day-to-day events, mixing the trivial with the serious, it’s to see the world from the point of view of a contemporary tabloid newspaper – the Mirror and the Express competing for the title of Britain’s best-selling newspaper – with the big political issues jostling for space with the winner of the Grand National and gossip about the stars of stage and radio – and above all, to read quotes from a thousand and one contemporary voices.

Without any preface or introduction, the text throws you straight into the hurly-burly of events, festooned with comments by an enormous casts of diarists, speech-makers, article-writers, commentators, eye-witnesses and so on.

Thus at the top of page one it is Saturday 28 April 1951 and King George VI is presenting the F.A. Cup to the winners, Newcastle. Three days later, on Tuesday 1 May 1951 he is at Earls Court for the British Industries Fair. On Thursday 3 he is on the South Bank to open the new Royal Festival Hall and inaugurate the five-month-long Festival of Britain – ‘a patriotic prank’, according to the song Noel Coward wrote about it, ‘madly educative and very tiring’, according to Kenneth Williams (25).

What makes Kynastons’s books hugely enjoyable is the vast cavalcade of people, from kings to coal miners, via a jungle of ordinary housewives, newspaper columnists, industrialists, famous or yet-to-be-famous writers, actors, civil servants and politicians.

a) They are fascinating on their own account b) Kynaston deploys them not just to discuss the big issues of the day but quotes them on day to day trivia, the appearance of London, the menu at posh clubs, the ups and downs of rationing, the tribulations of shopping in the High Street. The breadth of witnesses, and the range of activities they describe, helps to make the reader feel that you really have experienced living in this era.

Labour exhausted, Conservatives win

Overall, the big impression which comes across is the way the Labour Party had run out of ideas by 1951, and how this contributed to their defeat in the October 1951 general election. (It is fascinating to learn that they only held an election that October because the king told Attlee he was going on a prolonged tour of the Commonwealth in 1952 and would prefer there to be an election while he was still in the country. Attlee duly obliged, and Labour lost. Thus are the fates of nations decided). (There is, by the by, absolutely nothing whatsoever about the Commonwealth or the British Empire: this is a book solely about the home front and domestic experiences of Britain.)

Labour were reduced to opposition in which they seem to waste a lot of energy squabbling between the ‘Bevanites’ on the left of the party, and the larger mainstream represented by Hugh Gaitskell. The bitter feud stemmed from the decision by Gaitskell, when Chancellor, to introduce charges for ‘teeth and spectacles’ in order to pay for Britain’s contribution to the Korean War (started June 1950).

The quiet Labour leader, Clement Attlee, now in his 70s, was mainly motivated to stay on by his determination to prevent Herbert Morrison becoming leader.

The most important political fact of the period was that the Conservatives accepted almost every element of the welfare state and even of the nationalised industries which they inherited from Labour.

Experts are quoted from the 1980s saying that this was a great lost opportunity for capitalism i.e. the Conservatives failed to privatise coal or steel or railways, and failed to adjust the tax system so as to reintroduce incentives and make British industry more competitive. To these critics, the 1950s Conservatives acquiesced in the stagnation which led to Britain’s long decline.

Rebuilding and new towns

What the Conservatives did do was live up to their manifesto promise of building 300,000 new houses a year, even if the houses were significantly reduced in size from Labour’s specifications (much to the growling disapproval of Nye Bevan), and to push ahead with the scheme for building twelve New Towns.

I grew up on the edge of one of these New Towns, Bracknell, which I and all my friends considered a soulless dump, so I was fascinated to read Kynaston’s extended passages about the massive housing crisis of post-war Britain and the endless squabbles of experts and architects who claimed to be able to solve it.

To some extent reading this book has changed my attitude as a result of reading the scores and scores of personal accounts Kynaston quotes of the people who moved out of one-room, condemned slums in places like Stepney and Poplar and were transported to two bedroom houses with things they’d never see before – like a bathroom, their own sink, an indoor toilet!

It’s true that almost immediately there were complaints that the new towns or estates lacked facilities, no pubs, not enough shops, were too far from town centres with not enough public transport, and so on. But it is a real education to see how these concerns were secondary to the genuine happiness brought to hundreds of thousands of families who finally escaped from hard-core slum conditions and, after years and years and years of living in squalor, to suddenly be living in clean, dry, properly plumbed palaces of their own.

At the higher level of town planners, architects and what Kynaston calls ‘activators’, he chronicles the ongoing fights between a) exponents of moving urban populations out to new towns versus rehousing them in new inner city accomodation b) the core architectural fight between hard-line modernist architects, lackeys of Le Corbusier’s modernism, and various forms of watered-down softer, more human modernism.

It is a highly diffused argument because different architects deployed different styles and solutions to a wide range of new buildings on sites all over the UK, from Plymouth to Glasgow: but it is one of the central and most fascinating themes of the Kynaston books, and inspires you to want to go and visit these sites.

Education

The other main issue the Conservatives (and all right-thinking social commentators and progressives) were tackling after the war was Education. The theme recurs again and again as Kynaston picks up manifesto pledges, speeches, or the publication of key policy documents to bring out the arguments of the day. Basically we watch two key things happen:

  1. despite the bleeding obvious fact that the public schools were (and are) the central engine of class division, privilege and inequality in British society, no political party came up with any serious proposals to abolish them or even tamper with their status (a pathetic ineffectiveness which, of course, lasts to the present day)
  2. instead the argument was all about the structure of the state education system and, in Kynaston’s three books so far, we watch the Labour party, and the teachers’ unions, move from broad support for grammar schools in 1944, to becoming evermore fervently against the 11-plus by the early 1950s

Kynaston uses his sociological approach to quote the impact of passing – or failing – the 11-plus exam (the one which decides whether you will go to a grammar school or a secondary modern school) on a wide variety of children from the time, from John Prescott to Glenda Jackson.

Passing obviously helped propel lots of boys and girls from ‘ordinary’ working class backgrounds on to successful careers. But Kynaston also quotes liberally from the experiences of those who failed, were crushed with humiliation and, in some cases, never forgave society.

The following list serves two purposes:

  1. To give a sense of the huge number of people the reader encounters and hears quoted in Kynaston’s collage-style of social history
  2. To really bring out how the commanding heights of politics, the economy, the arts and so on were overwhelmingly ruled by people who went to public school, with a smattering of people succeeding thanks to their grammar school opportunity, and then a rump of people who became successful in their fields despite attending neither public nor grammar schools and, often, being forced to leave school at 16, 15, 14 or 13 years of age.

Public school

Politicians

  • Clement Attlee (Haileybury and Oxford)
  • Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Westminster and New College, Oxford)
  • Anthony Blunt (Marlborough and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Guy Burgess (Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Austen Butler (Marlborough and Cambridge)
  • Winston Churchill (Harrow then Royal Military College, Sandhurst)
  • Kim Cobbold (Governor of the Bank of England 49-61, Eton and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Stafford Cripps (Winchester College and University College London)
  • Anthony Crosland (Highbury and Oxford)
  • Richard Crossman (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Hugh Dalton (Eton and Cambridge)
  • Sir Anthony Eden (Eton and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Michael Foot (Leighton Park School Reading and Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Sir David Maxwell Fyfe ( George Watson’s College and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Hugh Gaitskell (Winchester and Oxford)
  • Gerald Kaufman (Leeds Grammar School [private] and Queen’s College, Oxford)
  • Harold Macmillan (Eton)
  • Harold Nicholson (Wellington and Oxford)
  • Sir John Nott-Bower (Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tonbridge School then the Indian Police Service)
  • Kim Philby (Westminster School and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Enoch Powell (King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • John Profumo (Harrow and Oxford)
  • Shirley Williams (St Paul’s Girls’ School and Somerville College, Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Lindsay Anderson (film director, Saint Ronan’s School and Cheltenham College then Wadham College, Oxford)
  • Diana Athill (memoirist, Runton Hill School and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford)
  • John Betjeman (poet, Marlborough and Oxford)
  • Cecil Beaton (photographer, Harrow and Cambridge)
  • John Berger (art critic, St Edward’s School, Oxford and Chelsea School of Art)
  • Michael Billington (theatre critic, Warwick School and Oxford)
  • Raymond Chandler (novelist, Dulwich College, then journalism)
  • Bruce Chatwin (travel writer, Marlborough)
  • Dr Alex Comfort (popular science author, Highgate School, Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Richard Davenport-Hynes (historian, St Paul’s and Selwyn College, Cambridge)
  • Robin Day (BBC interviewer, Bembridge and Oxford)
  • Richard Dimbleby (Mill Hill School then the Richmond and Twickenham Times)
  • Richard Eyre (theatre director, Sherborne School and Peterhouse Cambridge)
  • Ian Fleming (novelist, Eton and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst)
  • John Fowles (novelist, Bedford School and Oxford)
  • Michael Frayn (novelist, Kingston Grammar School and Cambridge)
  • Alan Garner (novelist, Manchester Grammar School and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Graham Greene (novelist, Berkhamsted School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Joyce Grenfell (Francis Holland School and Mlle Ozanne’s finishing school in Paris)
  • Alec Guinness (actor, Fettes College)
  • Frank Richards (writer for popular comics, Thorn House School in Ealing then freelance writing)
  • Christopher Hill (Marxist historian, St Peter’s School, York and Balliol College, University of Oxford)
  • David Hockney (artist, Bradford Grammar School [private], Bradford College of Art, Royal College of Art)
  • Ludovic Kennedy (BBC, Eton then Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Gavin Lambert (film critic, Cheltenham College and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Humphrey Lyttelton (Eton, Grenadier Guards, Camberwell Art College)
  • David Kynaston (historian, Wellington College and New College, Oxford)
  • Kingsley Martin (editor of New StatesmanMill Hill School and Magdalene College, Cambridge)
  • Frances Partridge (Bloomsbury writer, Bedales School and Newnham College, Cambridge)
  • Raymond Postgate (founder of Good Food Guide, St John’s College, Oxford)
  • V.S. Pritchett (novelist, Alleyn’s School, and Dulwich College)
  • Barbara Pym (novelist, Queen’s Park School Oswestry and Oxford)
  • William Rees-Mogg (editor of The Times 1967-81, Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Richard Rogers (architect, St Johns School, Leatherhead then the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London)
  • Anthony Sampson (social analyst, Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Raphael Samuel (Marxist historian, Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Maggie Smith (actress, Oxford High School, then the Oxford Playhouse)
  • David Storey (novelist, Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield then Slade School of Fine Art)
  • AJP Taylor (left wing historian, Bootham School in York then Oriel College, Oxford)
  • E.P. Thompson (Marxist historian, Kingswood School Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Alan Turing (computer pioneer, Sherborne and King’s College, Cambridge)
  • Kenneth Tynan (theatre critic, King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Magdalen College, Oxford)
  • Chad Varah (founder of Samaritans, Worksop College [private] Nottinghamshire then Keble College, Oxford)
  • Angus Wilson (novelist, Westminster School and Merton College, Oxford)
  • Colin St John Wilson (architect of the British Library, Felsted School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
  • Laurence Olivier (actor, prep school and choir school of All Saints, Margaret Street)

Grammar school

Politicians

  • Barbara Castle (Bradford Girls’ Grammar School and and St Hugh’s College, Oxford)
  • Roy Jenkins (Abersychan County Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford)
  • Margaret Thatcher (Grantham Girls’ School and Oxford)
  • Harold Wilson (Royds Hall Grammar School and Oxford)

The arts etc

  • Paul Bailey (novelist, Sir Walter St John’s Grammar School For Boys, Battersea and the Central School of Speech and Drama)
  • Joan Bakewell (BBC, Stockport High School for Girls and Cambridge)
  • Stan Barstow (novelist, Ossett Grammar School then an engineering firm)
  • Alan Bennett (playwright, Leeds Modern School and Exeter College, Oxford)
  • Michael Caine (actor, Wilson’s Grammar School in Camberwell, left at 16 to become a runner for a film company)
  • David Cannadine (historian, King Edward VI Five Ways School and Clare College, Cambridge)
  • Noel Coward (dance academy)
  • Terence Davies (film director, left school at 16 to work as a shipping office clerk)
  • A.L. Halsey (sociologist, Kettering Grammar School then London School of Economics)
  • Sheila Hancock (actress, Dartford County Grammar School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)
  • Tony Harrison (poet, Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University)
  • Noddy Holder (musician, Walsall Grammar school until it closed, then T. P. Riley Comprehensive School)
  • Ted Hughes (poet, Mexborough Grammar School and Pembroke College, Cambridge)
  • Lynda Lee-Potter (columnist, Leigh Girls’ Grammar School and Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Roy Porter (historian, Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell then Christ’s College, Cambridge)
  • Terence Stamp (actor, Plaistow County Grammar School then advertising)
  • John Sutherland (English professor, University of Leicester)
  • Dylan Thomas (poet, Swansea Grammar School)
  • Dame Sybil Thorndike (actress, Rochester Grammar School for Girls then the Guildhall School of Music and Drama)
  • Philip Toynbee (communist writer, Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Colin Welland (actor, Newton-le-Willows Grammar School then Goldsmiths College)
  • Kenneth Williams (actor, Lyulph Stanley Boys’ Central Council School)
  • Raymond Williams (Marxist social critic, King Henry VIII Grammar School, Abergavenny and Trinity College, Cambridge)

Secondary modern / left school early

  • Alice Bacon (Labour MP in favour of comprehensive schools, Normanton Girls’ High School and Stockwell Teachers’ Training College)
  • Raymond Baxter (BBC presenter, Ilford County High School, expelled after being caught smoking)
  • Aneurin Bevan (major figure in the Labour Party, left school at 13)
  • Jim Callaghan (Labour Prime Minister 1976-79, Portsmouth Northern Secondary School, left school at 17)
  • Ossie Clarke (fashion designer, Beamont Secondary Technical School then Regional College of Art in Manchester)
  • Hugh Cudlipp (Howard Gardens High School for boys, left at 14)
  • Ian Jack (Dunfermline High School, left to become a journalist)
  • Clive Jenkins (left school at 14, Port Talbot County Boys’ School)
  • Stanley Matthews (cricketer, left school at 14 to play football)
  • Herbert Morrison (St Andrew’s Church of England School, left at 14 to become an errand boy)
  • Joe Orton (playwright, Clark’s College in Leicester)
  • John Osborne (playwright, Belmont College, expelled aged 16)
  • John Prescott (failed 11 plus, Grange Secondary Modern School and Hull University)
  • Alan Sillitoe (novelist, left school at 14)

Sociology

There are definitely more sociologists quoted in this book than in the previous two, especially in the very long central section devoted to class, which seems to have been the central obsession of sociologists in that era. Kynaston quotes what seems to be hundreds but is probably only scores of sociologists who produced a flood of reports throughout the 1940s and 50s, as they went off to live with miners or dockers or housewives, produced in-depth studies of the social attitudes of East End slums, the industrial north, towns in Wales or Scotland, and so on and so on.

The central social fact of the era was that about 70% of the British population belonged to the manual working class. And therefore, for me, the obvious political question was and is: why did this country, which was 70% ‘working class’, vote for Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964? What did Labour do wrong, in order to lose the votes of what should – on paper – have been its natural constituency?

This central question is nowhere asked or answered. Instead I found myself being frequently distracted by the extreme obviousness of some of the sociologists’ conclusions. Lengthy fieldwork and detailed statistical analysis result in conclusions like such as the working class are marked off from the ‘middle class’ by:

  • lower income
  • by taking wages rather than a salary
  • their jobs are often precarious
  • they are more likely to belong to trade unions
  • have distinctive accents
  • wear distinctive types of clothes (e.g. the cloth cap)
  • have poorer education
  • have distinct manners and linguistic usages (for example calling the mid-day meal dinner instead of lunch)

Other revelations include that the children of working class parents did less well at school than children of middle-class parents, and were less likely to pass the 11-plus, that rugby league is a northern working class sport compared with the middle-class sport of rugby union, that cricket was mostly a middle and upper middle class interest while football was followed obsessively by the proles, that the proles read the News of the World and the People rather than the Times and Telegraph.

As to the great British institution of the pub, in the words of the Truman’s website:

Saloon bars were sit-down affairs for the middle class, carpets on the floor, cushions on the seats and slightly more expensive drinks. You were served at the table and expected to dress smart for the occasion. You would also pay a premium on the drinks for this and usually there would be some entertainment be it singing, dancing, drama or comedy. You would generally be served bitter and in half pints.

Public bars, or tap rooms, remained for the working class. Bare wooden floorboards with sawdust on the floor, hard bench seats and cheap beer were on offer. You didn’t have to change out of your work wear so this was generally were the working class would go for after work and drink in pints, generally of mild.

Altogether this central section about class in all its forms takes some 150 pages of this 350-page book – it is a seriously extended analysis or overview of class in early 1950s Britain drawing on a multitude of studies and surveys (it’s almost alarming to see how very, very many studies were carried out by academic sociologists during this period, alongside the regular Mass-Observation surveys, plus ad hoc commercial surveys by Gallup and a number of less well-known pollsters).

And yet almost nothing from this vast body of work comes as a surprise: Most kids in grammar schools were upper-middle or middle class i.e. it’s a myth to say grammar schools help the working and lower working classes. IQ tests can be fixed by intensive coaching. The working classes liked football. The most popular hobbies (by a long way) were gardening for men, and knitting for women. Pubs were a place of comforting familiarity, where you would find familiar friends and familiar drinks and familiar conversations in familiar surroundings.

Compared to all the effort put into these studies, there is remarkably little that comes out of them.

Some of the sociologists mentioned or discussed in the text

  • Kenneth Allsop reported on Ebbw Vale
  • Michael Banton, author of numerous studies of race and ethnic relations
  • LSE sociologist Norman Birnbaum, criticising positive interpretations of the Coronation
  • Betting in Britain 1951 report by The Social Survey
  • Maurice Broady, sociologist who studied Coronation Day street parties (p.305)
  • Joanna Bourke, socialist feminist historian
  • Katherine Box, author of a 1946 study of cinema-going
  • British Institute of Public Opinion survey
  • Professor of cultural history, Robert Colls, author of When We Lived In Communities
  • Coal is our Life sociologial study of Featherstone in Yorkshire by Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Cliff Slaughter
  • Mark Clapson, historian of suburbia and Milton Keynes
  • David Glass author of Social Mobility in Britain (1954)
  • Geoffrey Gorer 1950-51 People survey of what class people saw themselves as belonging to
  • historian Richard Holt writing about football
  • 1949 Hulton Survey on smoking
  • Roy Lewis and Angus Maude authors of The English Middle Classes (1949)
  • F.M. Martin’s 1952 survey of parental attitudes to education in Hertfordshire
  • Mass-Observation 1949 survey, The Press and Its Readers
  • Mass-Observation survey 1947-8 on drinking habits
  • Mass-Observation survey 1951 on drunkenness in Cardiff, Nottingham, Leicester and Salford
  • Peter Townsend, social researcher (p.118)
  • Margaret Stacy studied Banbury (p.136)
  • T.H. Pear author of English Social Differences (1955)
  • Hilde Himmelweit study of four grammar schools in London
  • Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy (1957) which reminisces about working class Hunslet
  • sociologist Madeline Kerr’s five-year study The People of Ship Street in Liverpool (1958)
  • Tony Mason, football historian
  • Leo Kuper vox pops from Houghton in Coventry
  • John Barron Mays’ study of inner-city Liverpool in the early 1950s
  • Ross McKibbin author of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1955
  • Gavin Mellor research into football crowds in the north-west 1946-62
  • Peter Miskell’s study of the cimema in Wales
  • John Mogey, author of a study of the Jolly Waterman pub in St Ebbe’s, a suburb of Oxford
  • Alison Ravetz, author if a study of the model Quarry Hill estate in Leeds
  • Doris Rich authored a study of working men’s clubs in Coseley
  • James Robb, author of a study of Bethnal Green in the late 1940s
  • Elizabeth Robert conducted extensive interviews in north-west England into education (p.161)
  • Robert Roberts, author of The Classic Slum (1971) about Salford either side of the war
  • Rowntree and Lavers, author of the study English Life and Leisure
  • Alice Russell, historian of occupational welfare
  • sociologist Mike Savage (pp.148, 159)
  • American sociologist Edward Shils
  • Brian Simon, communist teacher then at Leicester University
  • Eliot Slater and Moya Woodside interviewed 200 servicemen just as the war ended about education
  • 1953 report on Southamptons’s housing estates
  • Peter Stead, author of a study of Barry in south Wales
  • Avram Taylor, historian of working class credit
  • Philip Vernon, professor of Educational Psychology at London University’s Institute of Education
  • John Walton, historian of Blackpool landladies
  • Michael Young, author of Is This the Classless Society (1951) among many others
  • Ferdynand Zweig, wide-ranging sociological investigator of the post war years

As far as I could see all of these studies were focused on the working class, their hobbies, activities, beliefs and attitudes – as well as an extended consideration of what ‘community’ meant to them. This latter was meant to help the town planners who agonised so much about trying to create new ‘communities’ in the new estates and the new towns, and so on – but two things are glaringly absent from the list of topics.

One is sex. Not one of the researchers mentioned above appears to have made any enquiries into the sex lives of their subjects. Given our modern (2019) obsession with sex and bodies, it is a startling omission which, in itself, speaks volumes about the constrained, conservative and essentially private character of the time.

(There are several mentions of homosexuality, brought into the public domain by several high-profile prosecutions of gays for soliciting in public toilets, which prompted a) righteous indignation from the right-wing press but b) soul searching among liberal politicians and some of the regular diarists Kynaston features, along the lines of: why should people be prosecuted by the law for the way God made them?)

Secondly, why just the working class? OK, so they made up some 70% of the population, but why are there no studies about the behaviour and belief systems of, say, architects and town planners? Kynaston quotes critics pointing out what a small, inbred world of self-congratulatory back-scratchers this was – but there appears to be no study of their educational backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices – or of any other middle-class milieu.

And this goes even more for the upper classes. What about all those cabinet ministers who went to Eton and Harrow and Westminster? Did no one do a sociological study of private schools, or of the Westminster village or of the posh London clubs? Apparently not. Why not?

And this tells you something, maybe, about sociology as a discipline: that it consists of generally left-wing, middle-class intellectuals and academics making forays into working class territory, expeditions into working class lives as if the working class were remote tribes in deepest New Guinea. The rhetoric of adventure and exploration which accompanies some of the studies is quite comic, if you read it in this way. As is the way they then report back their findings in prestigious journals and articles and books and win prizes for their bravery as if they’ve just come back from climbing Everest, instead of spending a couple of weeks in Middlesborough chatting to miners.

It’s only right at the end of the 150 or so pages of non-stop sociological analysis of ‘the working classes’ that you finally get some sociologists conceding that they are not the solid communities of socialist heroes of the revolution that so many of these left wingers wanted them to be: that in fact, many ‘working class’ communities were riven by jealousies, petty feuds and a crushing sense of snobbery. Umpteen housewives are quoted as saying that so-and-so thought she was ‘too good’ for the rest of us, was hoity-toity, told her children not to play with our kids etc. other mums told researchers they instructed their children not to play with the rough types from down the road.

People turned out to be acutely aware of even slight differences of behaviour or speech and drew divisive conclusions accordingly. The myth of one homogenous ‘working class’ with common interest turns out to be just that, a myth. THis goes some way to answering my question about why 70% of the population did not all vote for the workers’ party, far from it.

Above all, what comes over very strongly in the voices of ordinary people, is the wish to be left alone, to live and let live, and for privacy – to be allowed to live in what Geoffrey Gorer summed up as ‘distant cordiality’ with their neighbours.

‘You don’t get any privacy in flats,’ declared Mrs Essex from number 7 Battersea Church Road  (p.339).

Contrary to the ‘urbanists’, like Michael Young, who wanted to help working class communities remain in their city centres, large numbers of the ‘working classes’ were about to find themselves forced (by the ‘dispersionists’, the generation of high-minded, left-wing planners and architects who Kynaston quotes so extensively and devastatingly, p.340) to move into windy new estates miles from anywhere with no shops or even schools. Those that did remain near their old communities found themselves forced into high-rise blocks of flats with paper-thin walls and ‘shared facilities’ next to new ‘community centres’ which nobody wanted and nobody used and were quickly vandalised. It is a bleak picture.

Love/hate

Lindsay Anderson (b.1923) was ‘a British feature film, theatre and documentary director, film critic, and leading light of the Free Cinema movement and the British New Wave’ (Wikipedia).

But in Kynaston’s opinion, Anderson’s 10-minute film O Dreamland, shot in the Margate amusement park of the same name, ‘marked the start of a new, increasingly high-profile phase in the long, difficult, love-hate relationship of the left-leaning cultural elite with the poor old working class, just going about its business and thinking its own private, inscrutable thoughts (p.220).

Here it is, disapproval and condescension dripping from every frame.

Lady authors

For some reason women authors seem more prominent in the era than male authors. It was easy to compile a list of names which recurred and whose works I really ought to make an effort to familiarise myself with.

  • Jean Rhys b.1890 (private school and RADA)
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 (home schooled by her father, a house-master at Harrow School)
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 (private school and art school)
  • Catherine Cookson b.1906 (left school at 14 to take a job as a laundress at a workhouse)
  • Barbara Pym b.1913 (private school and Oxford)
  • Doris Lessing b.1919 (private school till she left home at 15)
  • Lorna Sage b.1943 (grammar school and Durham)
  • Sue Townshend b.1946 (secondary modern South Wigston High School, left school at 14)

Links

Austerity Britain: A World to Build 1945–48 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories (to date; the plan is to take them up to 1979) have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contains two ‘books’:

Should one review the portmanteau volume – Austerity Britain (692 pages long in its current Bloomsbury paperback edition) – or the two ‘books’ it contains? I’ve chosen the latter option, because each of the ‘books’ is so dense and packed with information that they require separate posts.

Approach

What makes the books so delightful and addictive is that they are an oral history. Rather than the stats and graphs of an economic history, or the acts and votes of a political history, or the treaties and negotiations of a diplomatic history, Kynaston’s account quotes at length from diaries, letters, journals and accounts kept by the widest range of people alive during the period, as they react to events large and small, national, international and parochial.

Fairly regularly he stops to consider this or that ‘issue’ – rationing, nationalisation, town planning – in what you might call the traditional historical way, describing key publications or speeches in that area. But then he swiftly returns to the more gossipy main stream of his approach, to quote housewives, workers, local officials.

The result is to be led through the key events and debates of the period, but to see it overwhelmingly in human terms, in the words of the people who shed and led debate but also the reactions of the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Some of the voices

The Famous

  • Neil Kinnock, future leader of the Labour Party, aged 3 when the war ends in 1945
  • Patrick Stewart, 5, moved along by a policeman for singing outside a polling booth in 1945
  • Bill Wyman, bassist with the Rolling Stones, starts grammar school, 8
  • Glenda Jackson, aged 9 when the war ends, starts grammar school in 1947
  • Alan Bennett, 11, spent VE Day in Guildford
  • Kenneth Tynan, drama critic to be, now Birmingham schoolboy, 18
  • Humphrey Lyttleton, 24
  • ultra-royalist James Lees-Milne, diarist, architectural historian, worked for the National Trust, 36
  • Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon literary magazine, 41
  • Noel Coward, playwright, aged 45
  • J.B. Priestley, novelist and radio broadcaster, 50
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, 53, commenting on the insanity of the atom bomb
  • Harold Nicholson, British diplomat, author, diarist and politician, 58
  • Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, politician and diarist, 58

There are hundreds more but this gives a flavour. Kinnock is quoted as remembering the prefab house his parents moved into. Bill Wyman remembers how going to grammar school in 1947 cut him off from his working class roots, though the boys at his new school teased him for being poor. Lees-Milne is very posh and quoted liberally throughout with his generally negative reactions to the Labour government.

Connolly, as a magazine editor and essayist, wrote reams of material, but Kynaston quotes him, fascinatingly, commenting on the way the great wall of left-wing / communist solidarity among artists, writers, poets and so on during the 1930s simply evaporated after the war and had quite disappeared by 1947. The problem was that they finally had a ‘socialist’ government and there wasn’t a man or woman in ‘the movement’ who wasn’t bitterly disappointed at the reality (p.235). The same sentiment is expressed by George Orwell, who in his long essay, The Lion and the Unicorn (1942), wrote confidently about the general public’s swing to the Left and the notion of central planning but, by 1946, had become disillusioned (pp.45, 173).

All this was exacerbated by the Berlin Airlift, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the general start of the Cold War. I hadn’t realised that this led to actual legislation banning car carrying communists from public office, with the ruin of many a career.

There are also extensive quotes from key players in politics, from the diaries or letters or speeches of men like Clement Attlee (Labour Prime Minister), Hugh Gaitskell (Minister of Fuel and Power), Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health overseeing the creation of the National Health Service), Ernest Bevin (Foreign Secretary who oversaw the independence of India, Israel etc), Herbert Morrison (Deputy Prime Minister), Stafford Cripps (Chancellor of the Exchequer).

Slowly you get a feel for their personalities, achievements and disagreements. Around them swim all kinds of minor figures, private secretaries, and MPs, and policy makers such as Michael Young, who wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto (Let Us Face The Future), coined the term meritocracy and went on to play a key role in setting up the Consumer Association and the Open University.

The Obscure

Kynaston takes his lead from Mass Observation, set up in 1937 by three Cambridge graduates, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Mass Observation aimed to:

record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events. (Wikipedia)

Kynaston relies heavily on material from the M-O archive now held at the University of Sussex. This takes many forms. M-O carried out tailored surveys on specific issues throwing up statistical results of the numbers in favour or against particular policies. Their contributors often reported on conversations overheard on the street, on the buses or tube, at the theatre etc. And other contributors kept detailed diaries. The most famous of these was Nella Last (1889-1968), who wrote over two million words about everything she died, heard and observed, from 1939 to 1966, making her one of the single largest contributors to M-O.

But Kynaston quotes from a large number of other diarists and recorders, including:

  • Michael Burns, grew up in Tolworth
  • Lawrence Daly, coalminer
  • Alice ‘Judy’ Haines, a young married mother of two living in Chingford
  • Anthony Heap, a middle-aged local government officer from St Pancras
  • Mary King, retired teacher
  • Gladys Langford, deserted by her husband, living alone in the Woodstock Hotel
  • Ernest Loftus, headmaster of Barking Abbey School
  • Edith Palmer, ex-pat’s daughter, late-20s, arriving in England from Kenya
  • Mrs Michael Pleydell-Bouverie who spent three years on behalf of the Daily Mail speaking to ‘the Women of Britain’ about homes and housing
  • Kenneth Preston, a middle-aged English teacher at Keighley Grammar School
  • Marian Raynham, a housewife from Surbiton
  • Henry St John, son of a sweetshop owner, living in Bristol
  • Sir Raymond Streat, head of the Cotton Board
  • Rose Uttin, housewife from Wembley
  • Mrs Madge Waller

Post-war issues

So what do these people comment on and discuss? A huge array of issues and problems which faced Britain right from the moment war ended (Victory in Europe 8 May 1945, Victory in Japan and the final end of the war, 15 August). As stated, Kynaston is not a conventional historian of diplomacy or economics. Issues appear insofar as they impinged on the minds of his huge cast of Britons. None of them are pursued in detail and, after 300 pages, I realised that he rarely comes to a conclusion about any of them. Instead we are presented with a variety of opinions, from top politicians and expert down to housewives and coalminers – and then he moves on.

Domestic affairs

  • Rationing
  • The General Election 5 July 1945
  • The Labour government’s attempts to:
    • nationalise industry
    • set up a National Health Service (launched, after much struggles with the doctors, on 5 July 1948)
  • The housing crisis
  • Education  (everyone accepted the 11-plus, the division between grammar and technical schools, and nobody touched the public schools which were [and are], according to Kynaston, ‘the single most important source of political, social and economic privilege’, p.153)

International affairs

  • Surrender of Germany, suicide of Hitler
  • Atom bombs dropped on Japan
  • Berlin Blockade and airlift
  • June 1947 Marshall Plan
  • February 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia

But most of the people Kynaston quotes have little or no interest in international affairs. After initial relief that the war is over, and then shock at the revelation of the atom bomb, most people sink back into their customary indifference to international affairs (and to politics generally).

Britain might as well not have an empire at all. The independence of Israel and India/Pakistan are not mentioned. Decades ago I read the comment by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, that the tragedy of the British was that all their history took place abroad – by which he meant in the empire.

One of the biggest aspects of the book is the way the British Empire is almost completely absent from it. The people Kynaston quotes are struggling to make ends meet, to find somewhere to live, find a job, and then find food to eat. He quotes a survey of 2,000 adults made in 1948 which revealed that only 49% could name a single British colony. The majority of those surveyed could not name a single British colony.

And so, since so few people knew or cared about the empire, Kynaston devotes much space to popular radio programmes (Woman’s Hour, first broadcast on 7 October 1946 on the BBC’s Light Programme, the popular comedy It’s That Man Again), to the very slow spread of television (only 50,000 sets in 1945). There is more about the Grand National than there is about Gandhi, more about Stanley Matthews (the footballer) than Stalin.

In this book nobody travels abroad (nobody can afford it) but plenty of people have a summer holiday at Margate or Morecambe or at Billy Butlin’s new holiday camps (first one at Skegness in 1936).

Kynaston gives us the results of the key test matches and FA Cup Finals for 1945, 46, and 47, as well as the Epsom Derby, and reports from greyhound races and boxing matches – while all kinds of high-minded middle-class commentators lament that the average working man seems more interested in a pint, a packet of fags and the sports results than he does about the Iron Curtain.

The intellectuals and the masses

This reflects what, for me, is the main impression of the book, which is the enormous divide between the relatively small educated liberal intelligentsia – the policy makers and politicians and thinkers and writers and architects and planners – and the vast majority of the population, still very working class, often illiterate or, as Kynaston puts it:

the profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon (p.267)

Kynaston shows how all of the 1945 Labour government’s policies were not just controversial but opposed by large number of people, even the working people the Labour Party claimed to represent. For example, efforts to pass laws guaranteeing the trade unions representatives on boards of the new nationalised industries (a policy followed in Germany) were rejected by the unions. Why? Because they preferred to negotiate wages from a position of freedom and strength (p.229) It was a mindset which, arguably, crippled British industry for generations.

Similarly, it is fascinating to read how many ordinary people (not just the usual suspects, Tory MPs and toff writers), really hard core working class people, were suspicious of, or actively against, the welfare state, the new system of national insurance and the National Health Service.

The gaping chasm between well-meaning left-leaning university-educated intellectuals and ‘the masses’ is probably best demonstrated in the area of housing. Vast amounts of Britain’s housing stock was destroyed by German bombing. But a fair percentage of what survived was desperately rundown slums, particularly in the industrial cities – London’s East End, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and so on contained acres of slums, houses with no running water, gas or electricity, millions of people living with no indoor toilet.

The chasm comes about when the planners and architects put their heads together to solve the problem. There was debate and argument at all levels, but roughly speaking, people wanted houses with a little garden of their own, and the planners wanted to put them in blocks of flats. People wanted their bombed out city centres to be restored to how they were before the war. Urban planners and go-ahead young architects wanted, on the contrary, to demolish what old buildings were left, and create sweeping new town centres, dominated by pedestrian precincts and car parks, surrounded by ring roads. As he writes of the brave new plan devised to demolish and rebuild central Plymouth:

There was little or no local consultation, with all objections overruled. (p.36)

The opening of the book is devoted to arguments about how to rebuild Britain and, through the thicket of specific details about new schemes for Plymouth or Hull, one gets a really clear feel for the divide between those who know best what the people want, and the people themselves – not least, of course, because Kynaston’s whole book is devoted to the people’s voices. He quotes one of the founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrison:

worried most by the way that planners and others associated with the matter talked as if they were winning over the general public when they were only winning over each other. He had never met any group of people who ‘scratched each other’s backs’ more than planners did. (p.47)

In Bristol the local retail association organised a poll which showed that only 400 were in favour of the new Broadmead shopping centre, while 13,000 opposed it. The planners ignored this and all other opposition, and went ahead and built it.

This Great Divide, this sense of a mass population profoundly alienated from their lords and masters, grows as the book progresses from the May 1945 General Election through to its end point, 5 July 1948, the day the National Health Service was inaugurated. Intellectuals at the time were agonisingly aware of it. Various papers and reports guesstimated that ‘the thinking minority’ ranged from 20% down to a mere 5% of the population (p.55). How could they break out of their bubble to really engage with the great unwashed (an expression coined around 1830 by the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton)?

Ronald

Maybe the single biggest surprise is the couple of pages devoted to the four months spent by American actor, Ronald Reagan at Elstree Studios making a war movie called The Hasty Heart (pp.314-315). Reagan was appalled by the filthy London smogs and rundown hotels, and – although he went out of his way to praise the director and all the other technicians he worked with – it was a grim first-hand sight of socialism in action which, in his view, amounted to stoppages dictated by the militant trade unions, six-hour queues at hospitals, gaunt impoverished passersby and mile after mile of slate-roofed council houses in the rain.

So far so anecdotal: but Kynaston goes on to say that Reagan himself, writing twenty years later in the 1970s, pointed to this trip to Britain – to seeing the ‘natural’ economic order of free markets replaced by rationing and state interference at every level, and the resulting lack of all basic facilities in a culture dominated by the petty tyrannies of trade union shop stewards and local government officials – as a defining moment in his journey to the Right.

So that, considering Reagan’s centrality to world politics during the 1980s and the role he played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, of communism, and even of full-blooded socialism as a viable political programme, there’s a case for saying that these few months in rainy Hertfordshire changed the history of the world.

General impoverishment

Kynaston devotes pages to political debates about Marshall Aid, about the end of Lend-Lease, about the currency crisis and devaluation of sterling, and so on.

But by far the biggest and most enduring subject of the book is RATIONING, the rationing of food and clothing, which not only continued after the war, but got worse, a lot worse. From the poshest in the land down to a variety of housewives, Kynaston’s quotes convey the sheer numbing crushing effect of days and months and year after year of shortages of meat, bacon, milk, sugar, butter, even of bread.

Demobbed soldiers, or visitors from abroad (including the American playwright Tennessee Williams), or British children arriving in Britain back from the colonies (Cliff Richard arriving from India in 1948, aged 8) all noticed how pale and underfed the population looked. For years after the war the gas supply was weak and the electricity was turned off at certain times of day. Witnesses like Harold Nicholson testify that even in the best London clubs, the food came in minuscule portions and was barely edible.

And then in February 1948 the population was afflicted by the coldest winter of the 20th century. Young Roy Hattersley remembers sledging down the middle of usually busy streets (p.199) but thousands of the elderly and the infirm died. And millions had to dig a path from their back doors to their outside toilets.

There are thousands of wonderful anecdotes, gems and insights throughout the book – but the predominating image is of impoverishment and endurance.

The queue for rationed food - symbol of post-war Britain

The queue for rationed food – symbol of post-war Britain

P.S. Obscure novelists

A lot of the people Kynaston quotes are, inevitably, writers, a self-selecting cohort since he is himself a writer dealing with written records which ‘writers’ dominate.

Your ears prick up at the famous ones (Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Doris Lessing) but he also introduces us to a cocktail party of less well-known writers from the period, a list which has the effect o making you realise how selective ‘literary history’ is, picking out the half dozen ‘serious’ writers from each era or decade, and letting plenty of other authors drop into obscurity.

It is one of the many many pleasures of the book to come across forgotten authors he mentions, and google them and toy with tracking down and reading their (mostly forgotten) works:

  • Ruby Mildred Ayres b.1881 – one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century
  • Ethel M. Dell b.1881 – author of over 30 popular romance novels
  • Naomi Jacob b.1884 – author and actress
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett b.1884 – novelist
  • Angela Thirkell b.1890 – author of a series of 19 novels set in Home Counties ‘Barsetshire’
  • James Lansdale Hodson b.1891 – journalist and novelist
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 – novelist and poet
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 – Irish novelist and short story writer
  • Mollie Panter-Downes b.1906 – novelist and writer of Letters from England for the New Yorker magazine
  • Pamela Hansford Johnson, Baroness Snow b.1912 – novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic
  • Denton Welch b.1915 – writer and painter
  • Sid Chaplin b.1916 coal miner who wrote novels about mining communities in the North-East
  • Joan Wyndham b.1921 – rose to literary prominence late in life through the diaries she had kept about her romantic adventures during the Second World War

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The Radical Eye @ Tate Modern

In 1990 Sir Elton John went into rehab and completely dried out, abandoning all intoxicants and stimulants. He began to look for a new hobby or activity to focus his, now completely sober, energies on. He’d always liked fashion photographs and had himself been snapped by some of the most famous fashion and music photographers of the 60s and 70s – but a chance encounter with a collector of older works opened his eyes to the dazzling world of classic Modernist photos from earlier in the twentieth century.

He bought some examples, read up on the subject, and soon he was hooked. Over the past 27 years, Elton has built up one of the greatest collections of modern photographs anywhere in the world, which stretches from the start of the twentieth century right up to the present day, including colour and digital photography.

Elton’s collection now exceeds 8,000 prints. He and the curator of what is now known as the Sir Elton John Photography Collection – Newell Harbin – and his photography consultant and first director of the collection – Jane Jackson – worked with Tate to select some 170 images for this show. They are all from the heyday of ‘Modernist’ photography, around 1920 to 1945.

The result is this wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition.

Themes

The exhibition is pure delight. It is divided into seven themed sections – portraits, bodies, experiments, objects, perspectives, abstractions, documents.

The sudden burst of creativity at the end of the Great War partly reflected the collapse of old traditional values in every sphere of life, but especially in art, which abandoned 19th century realism for an explosive diversity of new ways of seeing. It also reflected new technologies, such as the arrival of the Leica camera in 1927 which could contain a whole roll of film and so allowed a sequence of shots of the same object, thus allowing the taking of much more documentary or narrative photographs. At the same time many of the blurrings or odd effects created by photography which had been rejected by the Victorian forebears as aberrations from decorous realism now became actively sought after as striking visual experiments.

Above all, 20th century photography pioneered a revolution in seeing, an entirely new way of valuing the visual impact of all sorts of objects previously overlooked. If shot properly the stamens of a flower or a cluster of pots can look like objects from outer space. If made-up and shot crisply, the human face can have the other worldly clarity of a god.

Portraits On the one hand improved cameras enabled portraits to be created with a dazzling crispness and focus; on the other, modern art had liberated artists to find new ways to crop, angle and compose the human face, bringing out the geometry of lines and shapes buried in it, or creating new and challenging moods.

There’s a wall devoted to a sequence the photographer Irving Penn made in his studio in 1948 when he stumbled across the idea of pushing two background flats together to make a very acute angle for the sitters to pose in. To his surprise, instead of feeling cramped and stressed, many of the sitters felt comfortable and secure and visibly relaxed.

Bodies Unconventional composition and framing, experiments with lighting and focus are just some of the novel techniques used to show the human body in a completely new light, part machine, part god, part zoomorphic architecture.

  • Movement study by Rudolf Koppitz A shot like this demonstrates the way almost all the modernist affects are based on the notion of bringing out the geometric substructure in objects or people (although, as in Art Deco generally, background women here form a kind of curved geometry. The stylisation of their hair and eyes made me think of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s willowy women – e.g. The Golden Stairs (1880) – but the differences highlight the way the interest has shifted from feminine ‘delicacy’ in the Victorian image, to an entirely new aesthetic which emphasises lithe muscularity. The naked woman is sensual, yes – but like a panther!)
  • Nude by Edward Weston (1936) The tendency of the age, of the Art deco 1920s and 30s to seek out the geometric in the organic is particularly obvious in this stunning photo. 1) The female body is turned into an almost abstract shape. Compare and contrast Matisse’s blue nude cutouts from 20 years later. 2) As with so many of these images, the closer you look, the more you see, including the hair on her leg, the sharpness of the toenails, loose threads from the rug.

Experiments shows various photographers playing with collage, distortion, montage, colouring some but not all of the image. The standout is probably –

Objects includes stunning still lifes, converting everyday objects into vibrantly sharp and vivid images.

Documents A million miles away from the Hollywood glamour of Gloria Swanson, the New York stylishness of Duke Ellington or the fashion magazine styling of Norman Parkinson, is the section devoted to the socially conscious photos of the 1930s Depression in America. The most famous photographers form this era are:

  • Migrant mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange Super famous image of the 1930s Depression, but in the flesh it has much more immediacy than any reproduction can convey.
  • Floyd Burroughs by Walker Evans (1936) Ditto. Both Evans and Lange were employed by the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration which was set up in 1935 to combat rural poverty. The administrator, Roy Stryker, in a much-quoted phrase, aimed to ‘show America to Americans.’ A laudable aim but these images are now 80 years old, from the year when Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. Are they documentary resources, liberal propaganda, publicity stills, historical records, works of art? Apparently, some 200,000 photos were taking during the existence of the Administration: are they all works of art?
  • New York by Helen Levitt (1940) She took many snaps of street life in her native New York City.

Abstraction and perspective I found some of the documentary photos a little sentimental and a little patronising. A bit uncomfortable about the image of a homeless, impoverished, desperate migrant mother being converted into an object to be owned by a multi-millionaire, displayed in London’s most popular tourist attraction, for a paying audience of well-heeled visitors, to swoon and feel sorry about.

I preferred the anonymous power of many of the abstractions, and especially the place where the human and the abstract meet – in photos of amazing works of architecture and engineering converted, by characteristically modernist perspective and the use of highly focused black-and-white, into works of stunning abstract beauty.

I grew up in a gas station amid the smell of petrol and tyres. I’ve always loved industrial art. I’ve always preferred the rainbow sheen of oil on dirty puddles to vases of flowers in nice front rooms.

The Ullberg was hanging next to a street scene by English photographer, Norman Parkinson.

This is good, but I much preferred the Ullberg. Although it has the components of a modernist photo, Parkinson’s shot lacks the precision and intensity. The puddles are a bit blurry. Fine. But compare and contrast with the super-clarity of the Ullberg, which is sharp enough to cut you, and also presents a far richer depth of information for the eye and mind.

Both reminded me that, at the wonderful 2011 Royal Academy exhibition of Hungarian photography I learned that to make a classic Modernist street photo you need to do just three things: it must be in black and white – take it from above – and have diagonals in it – lines of paving, tramlines, people marching, or just one person at an angle. Voila!

The curator commentary

The audioguide is worth buying as much for its occasional descent into art bollocks as for its information and insights. How the heart sinks when you see some photos depicting models with masks – you know the curator will be unable to resist talking about the usual antonyms of ‘appearance and reality’, ‘art and artifice’, ‘identity and anonymity’, and so on. Photos of the naked human body will trigger a torrent of verbiage about artists exploring ‘issues’ of sexuality. Worst of all, any female photographer will prompt the usual vapourings about ‘subverting’ gender stereotypes and the pain of being a pioneer in a male-dominated blah blah.

It’s not that these thoughts are particularly wrong, it’s just that they’re so bleeding obvious, and so thumpingly predictable. Almost every exhibition I’ve ever been to sooner or later reveals that the artist was ‘exploring issues of sexuality’ or ‘subverting gender stereotypes’.

It’s a constant source of wry humour that the very art critics and curators who are so keen to talk about art being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ and ‘subverting’, ‘transgressing’, ‘confronting’ and ‘interrogating’ this, that or the other social convention, are themselves so staggeringly limited in the way they think about art, so repetitive and predictable, are such tame conformists to the narrow and well-trodden themes of ‘radical theory’.

Elton John as critic

All of which highlights the biggest single revelation of the exhibition, which is: What an extraordinarily sensitive, insightful, thoughtful and articulate man Sir Elton John is! Every photo singled out for an audioguide commentary by the curators also features some words from Sir Elton -and Elton’s thoughts are consistently more informative, insightful and memorable than the scholarly version.

This, you can’t help feeling, is because they are born out of love. Elton’s deep and genuine passion for modern photography shows in everything he says about it. Sometimes it’s just putting into words an impression which was hovering in the viewer’s mind, such as when he points out that the more you look at Edward Weston’s White door the more pregnant with meaning it becomes, the more ominous and mysterious, the more you want to know what’s through the door. It could be the start of a novel or a movie.

For me his most insightful comment was how classic photographs bear looking at again and again and again, each time noticing something new. These works are hung all around his Atlanta apartment so that he passes by them all day long. And each time he looks and pays attention to one of his photographs, he sees something new in it.

I know this could also be said of painting, drawings, a lot of other forms – but, being here, you can see what he’s driving at because photography, almost by definition, contains more information than any other art form. In a photograph nothing is left blank: the entire visual field is capturing whatever was there in front of the camera. Even the white spaces are recording a reality which often, when you look closer, has something in it. Whereas the white space in a painting might just be white.

Having visited the enormous David Hockney exhibition last week led me naturally to compare these classic photos with the painter’s works.

For a start almost all Hockney’s paintings are ginormous, wall-size, whereas all the works here are small, most are the size of an A4 sheet of paper or smaller.

But to return to Elton’s point, whereas the closer you looked at many of, say, Hockney’s later paintings of the Yorkshire landscape, the less detail there is to see in these enormous broad-brush swathes of paint -here, in these small and exquisite classic photographs, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take Man Ray’s photo of an ostrich an egg. Seen at the distance of a few yards, it looks round and smooth with a nice reflected shine on the surface to give a sense of depth and curvature. But the closer you get, the more you can see the fine pores pitting the surface of the egg, which are brought out by the little patch of reflected light; until only a foot from the image, you realise the surface is completely pocked with holes, almost like a miniature moonscape. And then there’s the detail of the wooden surface it’s on: the closer you get, the more you can see the grain of the wood and the straightness of those lines plays off against the curvature of the egg. And so on.

A lot of this detail doesn’t really come over in any reproductions you see, even in the catalogue of the exhibition itself, which is printed on matt paper and nowhere nearly as attractive as the originals.

None of the reproductions are as grippingly dynamic as the real prints. Only in the flesh can you look closer and closer and closer and see more and more detail. Only in the flesh do you start to get really hooked and really start to see what Elton is on about.

Another example is Dorothea Lange’s famous image of the Migrant woman. It was only looking at the print really close up that I realised that she is holding an infant child whose white corpse-like face is almost hidden by the tree or vertical line on the right hand side of the photo. I thought I knew this image inside out, but seeing a print this close up made me realise I was wrong.

Lots of the photos are like this, revealing depths and then further depths.

This also makes sense of another of Elton’s comments – that photographs tell the truth, whereas paintings lie. There are all kind of political and aesthetic objections to that statement and yet, like everything else the man says, it is persuasive because it carries the conviction of his obvious love and care for these marvellous images.

After all, there is an extraordinary power and depth and truthfulness to these photos. Maybe it’s something to do with their brightly-lit clarity – and that this crisp clarity of image results in a greater density of information per square inch. There is just more going on in a good photo than in most paintings of a comparable size. Subconsciously the mind is registering a whole host of detail, the kind of extraneous detail which most painters consciously leave out, but which are often here to distract and illuminate and shed new perspective. I keep thinking about the woman’s toenails in Edward Weston’s fabulous nude. Or Duke Ellington’s shirt cuffs.

It’s the sheer amount of visual information which a camera captures which both explains why they really do repay repeated viewings, and why so many of them give the impression of flooding and gratifying the eye and the viewing mind.

What great photographs! What a great exhibition! What a great guy!

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

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Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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