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

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood (1935)

‘I must say, Bill, you’re a nice little chap, but you do have some queer friends.’
(journalist Helen Pratt to the narrator William Bradshaw, page 187)

Christopher William Bradshaw-Isherwood (b.1904) was a key member of the Auden Generation. In fact he first met its leader, W.H. Auden, when they went to the same prep school. Christoper went on to a jolly good public school (Repton – modern boarding fees £37,000 per annum), where he became lifelong friends with the novelist Edward Upward – and then onto Cambridge.

Throughout the 1930s Isherwood wrote novels and essays and collaborated with his friend from prep school, W.H. Auden, on three experimental plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938) – as well as writing an extended prose account of their joint visit to China during the Sino-Japanese War, which was published along with Auden’s poems as Journey to a War (1939).

In January 1939, along with Auden, he sailed for America to make a new life. Auden stayed in New York but Isherwood moved onto California and to a long, successful career as a novelist, critic, screenwriter, devotee of Indian religion, and lived long enough (he died in 1986) to become a gay icon in Reagan’s America.

Right back at the start of his career, though, he wrote the books for which he’s most famous, the autobiographical accounts of his time in Weimar Berlin. (From 1918 until its overthrow by Hitler in 1933, Germany was a parliamentary democracy which came to be named after the town of Weimar where Germany’s new government was formed by a national assembly after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated in 1918. Thus anything from this era is referred to as ‘Weimar’ Germany, ‘Weimar’ Berlin etc).

Berlin had, by the late-1920s, become a byword for sexual, and especially homosexual, license, offering a freedom of lifestyle and sexuality which couldn’t scarcely be imagined in starchy, repressed, between-the-wars England, and which still hasn’t really arrived in Puritan England nearly a century later.

The first of the Berlin novels was Mr Norris Changes Trains, published in 1935. It is often combined with its 1939 sequel, Goodbye to Berlin into a single volume, The Berlin Stories, and together these formed the basis of the well-known 1972 movie, Cabaret. I remember arriving at them as a schoolboy having already read quite a lot of French literature with its explicit descriptions of sex and drugs, and being bitterly disappointed at their utter tameness and their prissy, public schoolboy tone. Now, returning to them years later, I appreciate them for what they are, hilarious social comedies.

Mr Norris Changes Trains

This is a bloody funny book. For the first 100 or so pages I smiled or laughed out loud regularly.

The narrator is William Bradshaw. He is an English tutor in Berlin. He appears to be 27 when the novel begins, for he is 28 a year later (p.129). It is autumn 1930. He is on a train back into Germany he meets ‘Arthur Norris, gent.’, a much older man, fat, fussy, nervous, who wears an outrageous wig, worries about his passport, his papers, is widely travelled, calls everyone ‘dear boy’.

William returns to his Berlin boarding house and his pupils but we hear next to nothing about them or his work. Instead the narrative focuses almost entirely on the larger-than-life figure of Arthur Norris. He is an eccentric, a posing exponent of out-of-date values and manners, he ‘risks’ the poor wine on the train, orders champagne with everything, delights in gossip and fine art.

Soon after his return to Berlin William goes round to Arthur’s flat (at 168 Courbierestrasse, a real Berlin street) where the eccentricity builds up. Arthur’s apartment has two doors right next to each other, one is the private entrance, one is marked ‘Import/Export’. A sinister young man with a big head opens the door, takes his coat, and visibly disapproves of his visit. Arthur flusters though, takes William by the hand and escorts him round the oddly arranged flat.

Over the course of successive meetings at cafes and restaurants, William learns that Mr Norris is a relic of the legendary Oscar Wilde circle from back in the 1890s. That’s when his beloved mother died and he came into a small fortune which, however, he managed to blow in just two years (p.45). Two years during which he met the divine Oscar and his circle, gossip is made about the scapegrace Frank Harris, and Mr Norris has a fund of stories which date from the late 1890s or the early 1900s, or the glory years just before the war when he had a large apartment overlooking the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, with decorations designed by himself and a unique collection of whips! (p.51)

Now he has very much fallen on hard times and tries to keep up the appearance of a cultured and flamboyant man of business, but in reality he is up to his neck in debt (£5,000!) and Schmidt – the sinister young man who opened the door – is his minder, receiving all the money deriving from Mr Norris’s dubious and mysterious ‘business ventures’, managing the numerous debtors in a blunt brutal manner which Mr Norris could never bring off, and in exchange taking 10% of the transactions.

He was one of those people who have not only a capacity, but a positive attitude for doing their employer’s dirty work. (p.46)

In fact, over scattered conversations in cafes, restaurants or his flat, Arthur slowly reveals he has had quite a few brushes with the law and then that he actually went to prison, Wormwood Scrubs, for 18 months. Something to do with embezzlement or misappropriated funds.

So the humour derives mostly from the outrageous pretensions, lies and evasions of Mr Norris, as well as his humorous turns of phrase. He is, in his way, a sort of Falstaff, pompously fond of all the good things in life while completely unable to afford them. He is a great comic character.

Arthur certainly gave things away with an air. He knew how to play the Grand Seigneur. (p.173)

But the humour is aided by Isherwood’s stone cold, precise and sometimes malicious eye for detail. The narrator reports everything with exceptional lucidity. Not only that but he disarms us with suddenly blunt turns of mind, which are often very funny, and which Arthur comments on:

‘Really William, you’re so unkind. You say such sharp things.’ (p.37)

For example:

As he spoke he touched his left temple delicately with his finger-tips, coughed, and suddenly smiled. His smile had great charm. It disclosed the ugliest teeth I had ever seen. They were like broken rocks. (page 7)

These moments are designed to show us that Isherwood has a kind of unblinking, unflinching clarity of observation. But their tactlessness, and their abrupt surprising appearance are also very funny.

‘This is Olga, our hostess,’ Arthur explained.
‘Hullo, baby!’ Olga handed me a glass. She pinched Arthur’s cheek: ‘Well, my little turtle-dove?’
The gesture was so perfunctory that it reminded me of a vet with a horse. (p.32)

Key to all these effects is the William/narrator persona. He laughs at everyone’s jokes, he gets on with (almost) everyone, he dances, he drinks but doesn’t get angry or maudlin. He knows what to wear, how to eat correctly at smart restaurants, he is tactful and polite. Quite a few paragraphs start with the simple sentences: ‘I smiled’, ‘I grinned’ or ‘I laughed’. He is flattering company. He is the perfect, well-mannered English house party guest and excellent company.

(I took the trouble of counting and the word ‘smile’ appears 80 times in the novel, ‘laugh’ 55, and ‘grin’ 14. The point being that all this smiling and laughing subconsciously nudges you towards reading the book in a good mood — rather as the hundreds of mentions of ‘death’ and ‘blood’ make the Penguin Book of Civil War Verse such a grim read.)

The cast

  • Arthur Norris – ‘I’m generally at my best in the witness box’ (p.42)
  • Schmidt – Arthur’s malicious assistant or minder (p.18)
  • Baron von Pregnitz aka Kuno – a scary drawling nightclub denizen, rimless monocle screwed intimidatingly into his pink face as if by some horrible operation (p.28)
  • Anni with the thigh boots who Arthur likes being whipped by (p.32)
  • Fraulein Schroeder – William’s ancient landlady, who enjoys dressing up and flirting with Arthur
  • Helen Pratt – Berlin correspondent to one of the weekly political magazines, tough as nails, no-nonsense, statistics and Freud, very earnest about Sex (p.38)
  • Fritz Wendel – German-American man about town, likes playing bridge (p.39)
  • Olga – enormous, wobbling hostess of decadent parties i.e. everyone gets blotto, men dance with men

Events, dear boy

Things happen. They have to in a novel. Early on Mr Norris takes William to a New Year’s Eve party to see in 1931 (p.30) at the house of a certain Olga, an enormous good-natured woman. Everyone is very drunk and Isherwood describes being drunk at a party very well. People appear, disappear, he finds himself with his arms round someone, dancing with two or three people at once. He is introduced to the slightly sinister Baron von Pregnitz, then to Anni a bored prostitute wearing leather boots up to her knees. Later on William staggers down the hall, blunders into a room and finds her standing with a whip in hand while fat Mr Norris is on his hands and knees polishing her boots and she is whipping him for being such a naughty boy. Neither of them minds him blundering in, in fact Anni says he can be next.

Anni lives with Otto, her pimp, an enormously strong, good-natured working class man, middleweight champion of his local boxing club (p.57). It is a recurring comic motif that he insists on shaking William’s hand whenever they meet, and crushes it so hard, it takes a while for William to recover feeling in it. Or slaps people so hard on the shoulder that they nearly fall over.

In a surprise development, Mr Norris takes William along to a Communist Party meeting, a hall full of Berlin’s working class, to which he makes a surprisingly impactful plea of solidarity with the poor peasants and workers of China!). William goes along and meets Anni and Otto there (chapter five). It is very funny when all four of them return to Arthur’s flat, open a bottle of wine,m and jovially refer to each other as Comrade Arthur, Comrade Otto and so on.

It is, of course, a scam. Desperate to pay off his debts, Mr Norris has fibbed to the head of the Berlin Communists, a short extremely self-contained man named Bayer, that he has ‘important contacts’ in Paris etc. He never explains it properly to William but the general idea is that he becomes some kind of go-between or messenger.

Mr Norris plans to host a party on his 53rd birthday but William gets there to find everyone gone – Arthur pawned his carpet to pay for it but when Schmidt saw what he’d done and he demanded all the money from the pawnbroker and only left Arthur a few marks.

Arthur tells William that Otto and Anni broke up after they argued about the Party and Otto smacked Anni so hard he knocked her back over the bed and against the wall so hard she dislodged the picture of Stalin which fell to the floor and its glass shattered. Anni runs off and next thing Otto knows she’s shacked up with a guy he knows who quit the Communist Party to join the Nazis. Otto goes right round to the bar or Lokal where this guy, Werner Baldow, and is just being thrown out for the second time when some police passing by and, when he starts attacking them too, arrest him so that he ends up sending a couple of weeks in gaol. (pp.72-73)

As it happens William and Arthur glimpse Otto from a window when Arthur is summonsed to Berlin police headquarters for a, er, meeting. Arthur is so nervous he asks William to accompany him, which our man does. There’s a typically light-hearted / facetious exchange as they emerge from the restaurant where they have a boozy lunch before going into police HQ:

‘Be brave, Comrade Norris, think of Lenin.’
‘I’m afraid, ha ha, I find more inspiration in the Marquis de Sade.’ (page 64)

It turns out to be a friendly enough chat with the authorities but it is just to let Arthur know that they know that he is linked with the Communists and they’re keeping an eye on him.

Half-way hiatus

There is a hiatus half-way through the book, a caesura. Arthur suddenly disappears. William goes round to discover the flat in Courbierestrasse empty and abandoned. A few weeks later William receives a letter from Prague in which he apologises for his sudden disappearance (p.83).

The political situation in Germany deteriorates with more violence in the streets and hysteria in the newspapers (pp.90-92). Nearly six months later William himself goes back to England for an extended break, which includes ‘four months in the country’. He promises to write but doesn’t.

When he finally returns to Berlin in October 1932, and tramps up the familiar stairs of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house, he is delighted to discover Arthur has returned! Not only that but he seems to be surprisingly flush and so, being the bon-viveur that he is, insists on immediately taking William to a wildly expensive restaurant. William gives us an amusing description of Arthur’s morning toilette which goes on for some time and involves plucking and make-up.

Mr Norris takes William to dinner at a restaurant where they find Baron von Pregnitz aka Kuno. They’ve had some kind of a fight and Mr Norris rather desperately tries to be the life and soul of the conversation, before making his excuses and leaving, making it clear he’s dumped William for Kuno to seduce, which the latter tries to do in a taxi home, while William successfully fights him off (chapter ten).

(It’s worth remembering that in an earlier chapter, Arthur and William had visited Kuno at a wonderful lakeside mansion he has and discovered it packed with a collection of almost naked, beautiful, tanned and fit young men, who oil themselves, sunbathe, swim in the pool and play practical jokes on Kuno. Gay paradise.)

November 1932. Germany’s confused political situation deteriorates. Everyone is making backroom deals, including Hitler. There is another general election and communist party support increase while the Nazis lose two million votes.

Mr Norris’s murky affairs appear to go downhill. He had been receiving mysterious telegrams from Paris which William and Fraulein Schroeder steamed open. They appeared to come from a woman named Margot and described his presents to her – must be a code, William decides.

One thing leads to another and finally, in a coy and roundabout way, Arthur explains to William that Kuno aka Baron von Pregnitz, now something in the German government, has an interest in a German glass manufacturer. Now his contact in Paris – ‘Margot’ – is interested in going into business with him. What they need to do is to arrange for Margot and Kuno to meet, not on German soil. Slowly Arthur reveals that he himself cannot go because he would find it ‘difficult’ to return to German soil, so, er, would William very much mind accompanying Kuno to Switzerland. Even more suspicious is when Arthur explains that Kuno mustn’t know – the rendezvous when it happens, must appear to be chance.

And so William finds himself kitted out with a new dinner jacket on a train to Switzerland. it didn’t take much persuading to get Kuno to agree to go – after all, we’ve seen that he’s already made one pass at William, he must have thought his chance had come. Their first morning in the sweet Alpine resort is Boxing Day 1932 (p.141).

Here, in chapter thirteen, the book veers into spy thriller / Eric Ambler territory. Over the coming days our duo (William and Kuno) meet several characters – a Mr van Hoorn and his son Piet, tall blond and striking in a Viking way – a French popular novelist Marcel Janin who Isherwood satirises for the brisk superficiality of his research (maybe it’s a lampoon of someone famous – this book has no notes or introduction, it would be nice to know).

The point of the chapter is that William is on tenterhooks trying all the time to guess who ‘Margot’ is that Kuno is supposed to be making contact with. There are various distractions, for example Piet and Kuno seem to form a gay friendship based on athletic skiing, and William has a hair-raising conversation with Piet who explains that Europe needs to be cleansed of its rotten Jews by a strong leader. Eventually, on day three of this mystery, William comes across Mr van Hoorn and Kuno deep in a whispered conversation in a corner of the lounge. Aha. He must be ‘Margot’.

It is just at this moment that William is handed a telegram which triggers the final crisis of the book. It simply reads: ‘Please return immediately’ and is signed Ludwig, an alias used by Bayer, head of the Berlin Communist Party. Something is up. William makes his excuses, packs his bag, catches a train back to Berlin, takes his bags to the flat – Arthur is out – takes a taxi to Communist Party headquarters. Here there is:

The big reveal

Bayer reveals that Arthur has, all this time, been spying for French security – on the communists or anyone else he can information about – sending reports to ‘Margot’ in Paris (p.157). Not only that, but the communists have been using him to send disinformation to the French. Not only that, but the Berlin police know all about it, as they made clear on a visit to Bayer a few days earlier. And now Bayer is, very generously, passing it on to William.

The ‘business’ trip to Switzerland was arranged so that ‘Margot’ – an official from French security – could make an approach to Kuno, not because he is a businessman (I didn’t think he was) but because he is now in the German government. The French are approaching him to see if he wants to spy for them. Bayer calmly lucidly explains that this makes William an accessory to an attempt to suborn an official of the German government. (It’s why Arthur didn’t want to go or be involved.) In other words – William could find himself in a German prison sentenced as a spy.

Listening to this William passes through the gamut of emotions – humiliation, embarrassment, mortification – but with this final revelation blazes with anger. Bayer restricts himself to advising William to be more careful how he picks his friends, and mildly suggests he might want to pass this all on to Arthur and shakes his hand. In a daze in a dream in a dazzle William stumbles down the stairs, out the building, into a taxi and charges up the stairs of Fraulein Schroeder’s boarding house.

Arthur has (conveniently for the theatrics of the situation) returned and William lets him have it with both barrels. Arthur tries to manage it all with his ‘dear boys’ and pooh-poohing but as William reveals that the communists know he’s been betraying them and the police know, too, Arthur’s confidence wilts and then collapses.

Arthur looked up at me quickly, like a spaniel which is going to be whipped. (p.161)

Eventually William’s rage blows over and he starts feeling sorry for the shattered old man before him.

He sat there like a crumpled paper bag, his blue eyes vivid with terror. (p.161)

He says there’s only one thing for it. Arthur has to get out of the country before he’s arrested. Already William’s noticed a detective has been posted outside the boarding house. They discuss it then William packs Arthur along to a travel agency (where the detective follows him) and he returns declaring he has, rather improbably, bought tickets for Mexico. He’ll catch a train to Hamburg, then get the boat.

There is then a Big Psychological Moment – a moment when the scales really drop from the narrator’s eyes:

Mr Norris tentatively asks William whether – given the fact the police don’t know everything yet and that there might be a big reward for more information and William stands to gain from it – whether… he’s going to tell on him…

And in a flash William and the reader realise that Arthur judges everyone by his own standards, thinks everyone can be bought and corrupted, that anyone is willing to betray his friends if the price is right.

William is at first scandalised and insulted by the imputation, by even the suspicion that he might betray his friend. But then he realises… he is the one at fault. All the time he had been projecting his own public schoolboy, English code of honour onto someone who really is from a different time and set of values. His bad. (There is also the deeper implication – that William might not understand anything which is happening around him).

Arthur washes and brushes up and they go for a last meal together but, although they giggle like schoolboys at the detective who so blatantly follows them and even enters the restaurant and has his own meal, the old spirit, the old closeness has gone.

Next morning Arthur liberally gives away those of his belongings he’s not taking with him, dispensing gifts to the porter, the porter’s wife and the porter’s son, and some of his wonderful silk underwear, incongruously, to Fraulein Schroeder.

After a final lunch (these characters and their eating out!) Arthur has packed his bags and moved them into the hall ready to depart when there’s a flurry of excitement. After banging on the door  Schmidt his old minder-bully bursts in, very drunk, looking down at heel, demanding his money and, when he sees Arthur has packed his bags, accusing him of doing a runner. Real violence might have broken out except that, in a moment of Joe Orton farce, it is feeble old Fraulein Schroeder, so angry at having her lovely Herr Norris threatened like this, who runs at Schmidt from behind, taking him unawares, pushing him into the front room (‘like an engine shunting trucks’) and quickly locking the door on him.

William accompanies Arthur to the train station. There is a prolonged and excruciatingly embarrassing farewell during which Arthur pours out wishes and regrets which make William’s toes curl. ‘He was outrageous, grotesque, entirely without shame.’

Coda

The last chapter is a sort of coda or envoi. The Falstaffian figure of Mr Norris departs early in January 1933. His departure disenchants William who for the first time looks around him and sees the dire situation Germany is in. On 30 January 1933 President Paul von Hindenburg, as a result of backroom deals, appointed Hitler as Chancellor. It is William’s acquaintance, the tough journalist Helen Pratt, investigating the uptick in arrests and rumours of torture, who tells William that Bayer, the communist leader, is dead. A Jewish friend suddenly becomes very fearful.

The whole city lay under an epidemic of discreet, infectious fear. I could feel it, like influenza, in my bones.

William realises he’s got various Communist Party papers in his possession, which Bayer had given him to translate into English, and realises how incriminating these would be if the authorities discovered them. He and Fraulein Schroeder hide them. He lies awake at night hearing vans driving past wondering if one will stop and he’ll hear the thunk of Nazi boots on the stairs.

Otto turns up on their doorstep, dirty and dishevelled. His old rival, Werner Baldow, had turned up with six of his stormtroop but Otto escaped through the skylight and has been on the run ever since. They feed and wash him and in a few days he says he’ll leave and try to make his way to the French border. He has a list of comrades who are said to be dead. Of Anni his whore he knows nothing and doesn’t care. Olga the big hostess was protected by having an important Nazi as a client. She’ll be fine.

There is a wonderful bittersweet moment when William shows Otto a postcard from Arthur in Mexico. Otto’s face gleams, he is convinced Arthur is still true to the communist faith, is out there in Mexico making speeches and raising money, old Hitler had better look out when Arthur gets back. ‘Yes of course that’s what he’s doing,’ William lies, with the perfect poise we’ve come to expect of him.

He and Fraulein Schroder give him some food, a penknife and a map of Germany and wave him off. William never hears from him again. Three weeks later William returns to Britain, Helen Pratt comes to visit him, immensely fired up by her award-winning journalism about the new Nazi regime, full of scoops and insider info. She tells him that the police caught Baron von Pregnitz (Kuno) for spying, tailed him to a train station and then chased him into a public lavatory where he locked himself in a cubicle and tried to blow his brains out.

Helen also introduces the final thought and lasting motif of the novel, which is she discovered Pregnitz was being blackmailed by none other than Schmidt, Arthur’s venomous minder-blackmailer. This leads us into the final sequence where the narrator shares with us a series of hilarious-gruesome postcards from Arthur which recount how he moved from Mexico to California where he was hoping to manage a tidy little deal, but who should turn up and ruin it but SCHMIDT. Arthur elopes to Costa Rica – but Schmidt follows him there – ‘may try Peru’ says one brief postcard. But even there Schmidt follows him. He cannot shake him off. By this time the pairing has become allegorical, mythical, the two are tied together like Faust and Mephistopheles, condemned to torment each other for all time. In his very last postcard, Arthur is forced to admit that they are, reluctantly, going into partnership.

And thus the book ends on this complex note, all the preceding frivolity seriously undermined by the final ten pages detailing Nazi brutality and murders, and then this quasi-religious final image of a pair of rascals ‘doomed to walk the earth together’. The very last sentence returns to the comic mode, but now with all kinds of complex overtones.

‘Tell me William,’ his last letter concluded, ‘what have I done to deserve all this?’

Very funny. A comic masterpiece.


Gay culture

Knowing that Isherwood was gay, and would go on to become something of a gay icon, changes the way we read the book. There is the obviously gay character, Baron von Pregnitz and his villa full of tanned half-naked young men. That’s quite a hauntingly sensual image.

Mr Norris himself is a more complex creation. On the one hand he is very associated with the 1890s and the Oscar Wilde circle – what could be more gay? On the other hand Isherwood – presumably because he had to because of the times – makes his peccadilos solidly heterosexual – he may have naughty French erotic literature and he may like to be whipped as he polishes his dominant’s boots – but the naughty books are about schoolgirls and the person holding the whip is definitely a woman (Anni). I.e. the latent homosexuality of the character has been changed into acceptable, if still risqué, heterosexuality.

Despite this camouflage, the book can be seen as a kind of handing on of the torch. Mr Norris educates, shows and displays the camp values and behaviour of that older, late-Victorian and Edwardian, gay generation. William observes and analyses them, and in some measure absorbs them into his good-humoured schoolboy-in-Berlin persona, before taking them with him to sunny California.

The novel stands alone, but can also be interpreted as part of a gay lineage, a tradition, handing on the torch of a subterranean set of behaviours. In his introduction to a recent edition of this book, the gay American novelist Armistead Maupin describes meeting Isherwood at the end of his life, who was kind enough to read the manuscript of his first novel. Like Mr Norris Changes Train, Maupin’s novel rotates around a number of characters in a boarding house and thus, at one remove, invokes the outrageous, camp, very funny and sad persona of Mr Norris. It’s really Maupins idea that he was taking part in a gay lineage or tradition, I’m just pointing out that the entire novel can be read in this light.

Isherwood disowned it

Like many of the 1930s writers, Isherwood came to dislike and even despise his younger self and his early works, for their shallowness and immorality. Not their sexual immorality, the deeper immorality of seeing the real suffering, poverty, prostitution and violence around him in Berlin but thinking it was all frightfully exciting and fun, purely the raw materials for an Englishman’s novels – which is pretty much what the Berlin stories do.

Twenty years later, when Isherwood was invited to write an introduction to a memoir by the real-life person Mr Norris is based on, the memoirist, critic and crook Gerald Hamilton, he took the opportunity to put the record straight:

What repels me now about Mr Norris is its heartlessness. It is a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation. The ‘wickedness’ of Berlin’s night-life was of the most pitiful kind; the kisses and embraces, as always, had price-tags attached to them, but here the prices were drastically reduced in the cut-throat competition of an over-crowded market. … As for the ‘monsters’, they were quite ordinary human beings prosaically engaged in getting their living through illegal methods. The only genuine monster was the young foreigner who passed gaily through these scenes of desolation, misinterpreting them to suit his childish fantasy.

On this reading, the narrator’s endless good humour and incessant laughing is not a sign of his wonderful bonhomie but of his ignorance and superficiality. It encourages us to remember the couple of places where Isherwood explicitly refers to the narrator’s behaviour as immature, callow and schoolboyish.

We sniggered together, like two boys poking fun at the headmaster. (p.168)

Well, maybe this attitude of regret was appropriate enough for Isherwood in later life, but I don’t think we need to be limited by his perspective. Things have moved on since he wrote that. I can think of at least two comic movies about the Nazis which have been well received in our times (Jojo Rabbit and Life is Beautiful) and nobody seems to have questioned the 1972 movie Cabaret for its comic or silly interludes.

And then, the ending of the book, the last chapter, doesn’t at all treat the dangerous times, the Nazis’ arrival in power, the terror of his Jewish friends, at all frivolously. I thought he was being hard on himself.

Lastly, this novel is funny, and funny is good. We need more humour and less anger in the world. For a lot of the book the German background is irrelevant, it could have been set in Paris or any other European capital, any of which would have had communists and fascists fighting against a sense of looming disaster. And wherever it had been set, any novel describing a bunch of posh, amused characters drinking and diletantting against the backdrop of the Great Depression might have prompted the author to later berate himself for not being more sensitive to the poverty and sufferings of the poor, or to the political catastrophe just round the corner.

Don’t beat yourself up, Christopher. It’s a very funny book, Mr Norris is a comic masterpiece and the crisp witty prose it’s written in is a delight to read.


Related links

Weimar Germany

Novels from or about the 1930s

Poetry of the Thirties edited by Robin Skelton (1964)

Even before they were quite over, the Thirties took on the appearance of myth… It is rare for a decade to be so self-conscious… (Robin Skelton in his introduction)

Robin Skelton (October 1925 – August 1997) was a British-born academic, writer, poet, and anthologist. In 1963 he emigrated to Canada and taught at universities there. He appears to have written an astonishing 62 books of verse (some of them, admittedly, explanations of theory & metre), five novels, 15 non-fiction books and some 23 anthologies.

This Penguin paperback edition of poetry from the 1930s is similarly profuse. It contains some 169 poems by no fewer than 43 poets, a very wide-ranging selection.

Some of the poets are super-famous – W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, John Betjeman.

Some more niche, like the Surrealist poets David Gascoyne, Hugh Sykes Davies and Philip O’Connor.

Some wrote little but have cult followings, like the fierce young communist John Cornford or the eccentric academic William Empson.

Many are worthy but dull, like the famous but boring Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender.

Some are famous for other things e.g. Laurie Lee, who went on in the 1950s to write the phenomenally successful memoirs Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning but is represented here by three minimalist lyrics written in Spain.

And half a dozen or so of Skelton’s choices are of pretty obscure figures – Clere Parsons, Ronald Bottral, F.T. Price, Roger Roughton. Who? Did Skelton make some of these up? It would be funny if he had.

What the breadth of this selection is obviously designed to do is to make us look far beyond the usual suspects, particularly the over-hyped Auden Group poets, and consider a much wider range of Thirties poet – and in this it works.

Introduction

Skelton arranges the poems by theme, not by poet, juxtaposing poems on the same topics by widely different authors in order to compare & contrast approaches and styles, making the anthology what he describes as a kind of ‘critical essay’.

Period Anything published in a periodical between 1 January 1930 and 31 December 1939, extended to the end of 1940 in the case of poems which first appeared in books, which have a slower turnaround.

The Thirties generation Skelton only includes poets born between 1904 and 1916. Anyone born after 1904 had no conscious experience of the idyllic pre-war Edwardian civilisation. They came to adolescence during the Great War or the turbulent years afterwards leading up to the 1926 General Strike and had barely learned how to party before the 1929 Wall Street Crash inaugurated the Great Depression.

At the other end of the period, some poets born in 1916 were still recognisably of the generation but much after that and they came to maturity just as the second war started and so belong to a different generation.

Schoolboy view of war Almost all the poets of the Thirties went to public schools which had officer training corps, maps on the walls showing the progress of the Great War and jingoistic masters. Their parents, teachers, newspapers and books gave them a vivid impression of the heroic camaraderie of war. (Remember the anti-war poems of Siegfried Sassoon were known only to a tiny literary circle and the anti-war sentiments which we take for granted didn’t really become widespread until the 1960s.)

It is no surprise that the poetry of a generation which grew up during the Great War for Civilisation is stuffed with images of war: armies, soldiers, the Enemy, the Leader are routinely referred to, and there are maps, lots of maps, and ‘frontier’ is a particularly resonant buzzword (Auden’s play On the Frontier, Edward Upward’s first novel, Journey to the Border).

Now over the map that took ten million years
Of rain and sun to crust like boiler-slag,
The lines of fighting men progress like caterpillars,
Impersonally looping between the leaf and twig.

(from It was easier by Ruthven Todd, 1939)

You above all who have come to the far end, victims
Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;
Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence
Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving
The nerve for action, the spark of indignation-
Need fight in the dark no more, you know your enemies.
You shall be leaders when zero hour is signalled,
Wielders of power and welders of a new world.

(from The Magnetic Mountain poem 32 by Cecil Day-Lewis, 1933)

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(poem XVI from In Time of War by W.H. Auden, 1939)

Movements They wanted to be part of a larger community, the era was characterised by movements, gangs and cliques. There were lots of manifestos and anthologies with prefaces earnestly explaining why the poetry of their generation was different. Not only that but the poets felt that they had to embody the new values they promoted. The literary culture was high-minded and unforgiving, epitomised by the high standards of the magazine New Verse (1933-39) which flayed any poet who ‘sold out’ to the establishment. When C. Day-Lewis agreed to me a judge for some book club he was mercilessly attacked for selling out.

Chums The accusations that the movement was based round a small clique of pals who boosted each other’s works was reinforced by the way the Auden Gang did collaborate, for example that Auden and his best friend Christopher Isherwood collaborated on no fewer than three plays – The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938) – as well as a joint account of their visit to China during the Sino-Japanese War, Journey to a War (1939). Auden and MacNeice co-wrote an account of their visit to Iceland, Letters From Iceland (1937), and the leading composer of the new generation, Benjamin Britten, was also a collaborator, writing music for F6 and Frontier, as well as setting poems from On This Island and music for the documentary film Night Mail for which Auden wrote the verse commentary.

New ‘New’ was a buzzword, new verse, new times, new politics, new men. Art Deco was an entirely post-war style they grew up with, new suburbs were being built, in new styles, flats and maisonettes suggested new types of urban living, memorably expressed (if with the obscurity typical of his earliest poems) by Auden:

… Publish each healer that in city lives
Or country houses at the end of drives;
Harrow the house of the dead; look shining at
New styles of architecture, a change of heart.

(from Poem XXX by W.H. Auden, 1929)

Two key early anthologies of the era which helped introduce the young generation to a wider audience were New Signatures (1932) and New Country (1933), both edited by Michael Roberts, and the most influential magazine was New Verse edited from 1933 to 1939 by the combative poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson. New Writing was a popular literary periodical in book format founded in 1936 by John Lehmann and committed to anti-fascism, which featured works by the new young writers.

Even Oswald Mosley’s first independent political party was initially named simply the New Party (founded February 1931) before it morphed into the British Union of Fascists (October 1932). Everything had to be new.

Politics The Great Depression began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 when the poets were in their early 20s and lasted until 1933, during which huge swathes of the industrial economy collapsed throwing millions out of work. The international nature of the crisis (which began in the USA and affected America worst) convinced many intellectuals that capitalism was entering its last great crisis. The entire political and economic system from the king through the Houses of Parliament seemed incapable of dealing with the social impact of the crash.

These confident young men castigated it as ‘the old order’, ‘the dying order’, ‘the old gang’ and routinely castigated pompous, top-hatted ministers presiding over a country where the poor were living in squalor.

In England the handsome Minister with the second
and a half chin and his heart-shaped mind
hanging on his thin watch-chain, the Minister
with gout who shaves low on his holly-stem neck…

(from The Non-Interveners by Geoffrey Grigson, 1937)

The economic crisis had only just begun to recede when Hitler came to power in Germany (in January 1933). For anyone on the Left (which was almost all of the poets) the accession to power of an overt anti-semitic fascist in Europe’s largest country was a disaster, and from then on virtually each new month brought shocking news as Hitler banned trade unions, all other political parties, murdered his opponents, passed discriminatory laws against Jews and so on.

All this took place with the tacit acquiescence of the liberal democracies Britain and France, which increased the contempt and vehemence of the young poets for their cowardly elders. By the mid-30s Hitler was trebling the size of Germany’s army, navy and air force amid the sense of an accelerating stampede towards war which affected all of Europe and produced a tone of political anxiety in most writers.

Whatever their precise position, the poets reflected the general sense that ordinary life was overshadowed and dominated by menacing political issues, and a widespread feeling that poetry must address the huge issues of the day.

This underlies one of the verbal tics of thirties poetry which is use of the word ‘now’ used to mean, right here, right now‘, now this second, to convey a sense of burning urgency, that this – the Spanish war, the threat of communist revolution, is happening now, wake up!

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers…

(from Look, stranger by W.H. Auden, 1935)

The nowness of the poet’s present moment is contrasted with the Glorious Future which is just around the corner, come the revolution.

Communism The biggest group or ‘gang’ was World Communism which owned All of History and the Future of The Human Race. Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, Edward Upward, Hugh Sykes Davies, John Cornford and David Gascoyne are just some of the notable writers who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain during the 1930s, some of them writing earnest books arguing that communism represented the Future of Humanity and of Art (C. Day-Lewis Revolution in Writing, 1935, Stephen Spender Forward from Liberalism, 1937). The 19 February 1937 edition of the Daily Worker featured an article by Spender – I Join The Communist Party – and an editorial giving you a flavour of the oleaginous tone of communist propaganda:

The Communist Party warmly welcomes comrade Spender to its ranks as a leading representative of the growing army of all thinking people, writers, artists and intellectuals who are taking their stand with the working class in the issues of our epoch…’ (quoted in Cunningham, page43)

Louis MacNeice was one among many who tried to express their revolutionary feelings in verse, but being MacNeice, he characteristically humanises his views with everyday observation and imagery:

But some refusing harness and more who are refused it
Would pray that another and a better Kingdom come,
Which now is sketched in the air or travestied in slogans
Written in chalk or tar on stucco or plaster-board
But in time may find its body in men’s bodies,
Its law and order in their heart’s accord,
Where skill will no longer languish nor energy be trammelled
To competition and graft,
Exploited in subservience but not allegiance
To an utterly lost and daft
System that gives a few at fancy prices
Their fancy lives
While ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet
Must wash the grease of ages off the knives.

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Others had visionary hopes for the new world and new way of living the revolution would usher in:

After the revolution, all that we have seen
Flitting as shadows on the flatness of the screen
Will stand out solid, will walk for all to touch
For doubters to thrust hands in and cry, yes, it is such…

(from Instructions by Charles Madge, 1933)

In less skilful hands, communist urgency could degenerate into not much more than abuse:

No more shall men take pride in paper and gold
in furs in cars in servants in spoons in knives.
But they shall love instead their friends and their wives,
owning their bodies at last, things they have sold.
Come away then,
you fat man!
You don’t want your watch-chain.
But don’t interfere with us, we know you too well.
If you do that you will lose your top hat
and be knocked on the head until you are dead…

(from Hymn by Rex Warner, 1933)

By contrast with the above, John Cornford, who volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and died fighting, aged just 21, really means it. From his personal hesitancies emerges a revolutionary anthem. He only wrote a handful of poems before his early death. In Full Moon at Tierz he expresses doubts and worries, but out of them comes the burning conviction of a revolutionary anthem.

Freedom is an easily spoken word
But facts are stubborn things. Here, too, in Spain
Our fight’s not won till the workers of the all the world
Stand by our guard on Huesca’s plain
Swear that our dead fought not in vain,
Raise the red flag triumphantly
For Communism and for liberty.

(from Full Moon at Tierz: Before The Storming of Huesca, 1936)

The Spanish Civil War When General Franco staged his coup against a democratically elected socialist Spanish government in July 1936 he expected to seize power within days. Instead his putsch turned into a gruelling and barbaric three-year-long civil war. Once again, as in their boyhoods, the poets read daily accounts of battles and statistics about dead and wounded in their daily newspapers.

The Spanish Civil War brought together many of the issues these writers were obsessed with – war, working class solidarity, communism, the struggle against fascism. Many of the poets travelled to Spain, it became was a mark of revolutionary virtue and commitment, most as journalists and commentators, a handful to actually fight. Several young English poets and critics actually died on the Republican side – Christopher Caudwell, Julian Bell, John Cornford, Ralph Fox.

Madrid, like a live eye in the Iberian mask,
Asks help from heaven and receives a bomb:
Doom makes the night her eyelid, but at dawn
Drawn is the screen from the bull’s-eye capital.
She gazes at Junker angels in the sky
Passionately and pitifully. Die
The death of a dog. O Capital City, still
Sirius shall spring up from the kill.

(from Elegy in Spain by George Barker, 1939)

By the end many had become bitterly disillusioned by the lies and betrayals they discovered on their own side, the anti-fascist side. George Orwell was only one of hundreds who realised that war, any war, isn’t as simple and pure as their schoolboy heroics had imagined. Skelton makes the point that for many of that generation, the Second World War came as an anti-climax after the immense emotional investment they’d made in Spain and the immense disappointment and disillusion they felt when all of Spain was finally conquered by Franco’s fascists in early 1939, and the war declared over.

Bourgeoisie Virtually all the poets came from the professional classes and attended exclusive private schools, and were acutely embarrassed by it. They keenly identified with the workers, with the unemployed, with the poor, they wanted to take up their cause. They wanted to joint their gang but they didn’t know how. Edward Upward’s novel In The Thirties amounts to a long description of the mortal self-consciousness and embarrassment a typical public school product feels when he becomes a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and finds himself having to talk to the Great Unwashed.

This makes most of their poems loudly proclaiming solidarity with the working class risible. All too often the threats against ‘the rich’ and ‘the idle’ and ‘the upper classes’ and ‘the poshocracy’ amounted to little more than masochistic self-hatred, the result of liberal guilt about their own privileged upbringings, and a lot of the people they threatened were, on closer inspection, their mummies and daddies and uncles and aunts.

You dowagers with Roman noses
Sailing along between banks of roses
well dressed,
You lords who sit at committee tables
And crack with grooms in riding stables
your father’s jest…

(opening of The Witnesses by Auden)

Orwell’s hatred of this middle-class play-acting knew no bounds. In a letter he dismissed Auden and Spender in particular as ‘parlour Bolsheviks’.

The common people That said, there was a new cultural and academic interest in the sociology of ordinary people, the common people, evidenced by, for example the Mass-Observation social research organisation founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson (Harrow, Cambridge), poet Charles Madge (Winchester, Cambridge) and film-maker Humphrey Jennings (the Perse school, Cambridge), or the amateur ethnography of George Orwell (himself educated at Eton), namely Down and Out In Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

In this spirit, many of the poets and many of their 30s poems tried to capture the lives of the common people without being (too) patronising.

Now the till and the typewriter call the fingers
The workman gathers his tools
For the eight-hour-day but after that the solace
Of films or football pools
Or of the gossip or cuddle, the moments of self-glory
Or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,
The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking
In the empty glass of stout.

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

August for the people and their favourite islands.
Daily the steamers sidle up to meet
The effusive welcome of the pier, and soon
The luxuriant life of the steep stone valleys,
The sallow oval faces of the city
Begot in passion or good-natured habit,
Are caught by waiting coaches, or laid bare
Beside the undiscriminating sea.

(from To A Writer On His Birthday by W.H. Auden, 1935)

Traditional forms The super-serious Modernism of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (and their continental equivalents) which crystallised just before the First World War, promoted free verse i.e. each line is free-standing and not constrained by having to fit into a preconceived stanza or rhyming scheme. In fact rhyme was generally dropped from Modernist poems as childish and Victorian.

But the thirties poets rejected this rejection, and brought traditional forms and rhymes and rhyme schemes back into fashion. Partly they were reacting against their earnest forebears, partly it was in a bid to make poetry more popular and accessible, partly because it’s just lots of fun to write ballads or sestinas or terza rima or sonnets or couplets and so on.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky…

(from As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden, 1939)

All the old forms were revived but given a modern spin, filled with thirties urban imagery or modern psychology. Louise MacNeice used rhyme schemes in his best poems but with subtle innovations to match the dreamy subtlety of the moods he captures.

Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs):
Time was away and somewhere else…

(from Meeting Point by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Later on Auden tended to divide his poetry into Poems and Songs and it is no accident that his younger contemporary at Gresham’s public school, Benjamin Britten, throughout his career set many of Auden’s lyrics to music.

Exhortation But if there’s one thing an expensive education at private school and then Oxford or Cambridge gives you it is the confidence to tell other people what to do. The classic thirties poem is packed with accusations and exhortations and instructions and orders. It addresses people, directly, like a speech or sermon or talk or assembly address by the head master. One characteristic device was to address as ‘you’ a range of professions and jobs. It made it sound like you, the poet, a) grasped the multifarious nature of modern society, and b) had a huge audience across all professions and types. But always the tone is warning, minatory, threatening, urgently telling these simple folks that the Disaster is coming, the Great Social Upheaval is just round the corner, they’d better bloody wake up before it’s too late!

Fireman and farmer, father and flapper,
I’m speaking to you, sir, please drop that paper;
Don’t you know it’s poison, have you given up all hope?
Aren’t you ashamed, ma’am, to be taking dope?
There’s a nasty habit that starts in the head
And creeps through the veins till you go all dead:
Insured against against accident? But that won’t prove
Much use when one morning you find you can’t move…

(Opening of The Magnetic Mountain poem 20)

The drums tap out sensational bulletins;
Frantic the efforts of the violins
To drown the song behind the guarded hill:
The dancers do not listen; but they will.

(To Benjamin Britten by W.H. Auden)

Headmaster All this telling people what to do meant that, without realising it, many of the 1930s ‘rebels’ ended up sounding as high-minded and didactic and evangelical as the school chaplains and headmasters and gammon-faced imperialists they loved to mock. This verbal tic, the direct address of the hypothetical reader, you you you, at first gives the poems a sense of vigour and confidence but after a while feels like someone is poking you in the chest with their forefinger.

You that love England, who have an ear for her music,
The slow movement of clouds in benediction,
Clear arias of light thrilling over her uplands,
Over the chords of summer sustained peacefully…

You who go out alone, on tandem or on pillion,
Down arterial roads riding in April,
Or sad besides lakes where hill-slopes are reflected
Making fires of leaves, your high hopes fallen…

You who like peace, good sticks, happy in a small way
Watching birds or playing cricket with schoolboys,
Who pay for drinks all round, whom disaster chose not…

(from The Magnetic Mountain poem 32 by Cecil Day-Lewis, 1933)

This frequent use of the accusatory ‘you’ is accompanied by recurring use of the imperative mood, telling readers they must do, act, look, see, listen, consider, think about the important Truths the poet is telling them.

Think now about all the things that made up that place… (Geoffrey Grigson)

Enter the dreamhouse, brothers and sisters… (Cecil Day-Lewis)

Consider these, for we have condemned them… (Cecil Day-Lewis)

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman… (W.H. Auden)

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep… (W.H. Auden)

For many of the 30s poets were not only the products of top public schools (‘five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery’, as Orwell described the experience), but then went back to become teachers in them, too, swearing to do it all differently, to be more enlightened, tolerant but ending up sounding dismayingly like their own teachers. And a schoolmasterly, hectoring tone is regularly found across all their poems. Think now could be the visionary poet telling his readers to wake up to the international situation: or it could be the Head of Latin telling his dopey pupils to make sure their adjectives agree in number and in gender.

At the time they felt they were making vital distinctions between the previous generation and their own. Looking back, they all sound like part of the same big squabbling family.

Schoolboys It is no accident that so much of this sounds like squabbling children. At the time and subsequently many of the writers realised their privileged private schooling had kept them away from the harsh realities of life as it was lived by 99% of the population and placed a steel wall between them and ‘the working classes’.

Much of the poetry prolonged into adulthood a silly, giggling, schoolboy mentality, a jokey cliquiness that those outside it (i.e. almost everyone) loathed about the chummy insiderness of the Auden Gang. Allen Tate thought they were ‘juvenile’. Orwell wrote a long essay about how much damage his prep school did him (Such Such were the joys, 1948), as did Cyril Connolly in the autobiographical section of Enemies of Promise (1938).

Auden himself (of course) nailed it in his birthday poem to his friend Isherwood, remembering how, as young men just out of Oxford:

Our hopes were set still on the spies’ career,
Prizing the glasses and the old felt hat,
And all the secrets we discovered
Were extraordinary and false…

(from To A Writer On His Birthday by W.H. Auden, 1935)

Ways of escape Part of the reason for joining a gang, group or movement is because you don’t have to face the world by yourself. Thus Stephen Spender looking back at his motivation for going to Spain says he was driven on:

‘by a sense of personal and social guilt which made me feel firstly that I must take sides, secondly that I could purge myself of an abnormal individuality by co-operating with the workers’ movement.’

Many of the writers were plagued by personal anxieties and neuroses, not least the king of them all, Auden himself, but many others were aware of this conflict between their own private anxieties and their wish to present a brave, heroic, communist front to the world. This double-mindedness, this self-consciousness, watching themselves think and feel, was a characteristic of the age.

And now I relapse to sleep, to dreams perhaps and reaction
Where I shall play the gangster or the sheikh,
Kill for the love of killing, make the world my sofa,
Unzip the women and insult the meek.
Which fantasies no doubt are due to my private history,
Matter for the analyst…

(from part III of Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

Freud Auden’s father was a doctor, in fact a professor of public health among other things. He owned a complete edition of Freud’s works and young Wystan read them along with everything else he could get his hands on. Thus by the time he arrived at Oxford he was able confidently to psychoanalyse all his friends (before or after sleeping with them).

Most of all Auden had an ascendency over his friends which was due to his being versed in psychoanalysis and therefore in a position to diagnose their complexes… Auden… seemed a lone psychoanalyst at the centre of a group of inhibited, neurotic patients – us.’ (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, pp.19-20)

Freud was one of the numerous modern thinkers whose ideas Auden played with in his poems like toys and Freud’s psychosexual theories influenced all the writers. Indeed Freud is the subject of an extended and highly impressive obituary poem Auden wrote right at the end of the decade, in his magisterial, end-of-the-thirties manner.

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of a whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living.

Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished
to think of our life from whose unruliness
so many plausible young futures
with threats or flattery ask obedience,

but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes
upon that last picture, common to us all,
of problems like relatives gathered
puzzled and jealous about our dying.

For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
and shades that still waited to enter
the bright circle of his recognition

turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he
was taken away from his life interest
to go back to the earth in London,
an important Jew who died in exile…

(from In Memory of Sigmund Freud by W.H. Auden, 1940)

Freud seemed, to traditional liberals, to have freed the new generation from its Victorian repressions. But he had other uses than the strictly scientific or psychological.

Surrealism The French group who invented surrealism and automatic writing, who fetishised coincidences and the unconscious, took Freud as their inspiration and ideology. Obviously people had read about them for a decade or more but the Surrealists made a big splash as a result of a famous exhibition held in Mayfair in 1936 which brought together the best of European Surrealist painting and was visited by record crowds and covered even in the popular press.

Elements of devil-may-care surrealist absurdity and irrelevance can be found in many of the poets and was a feature of Auden’s skipping from image to image, and invocation of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. But a handful of writers devoted themselves more seriously to exploring the surrealist mode, figures such as Hugh Sykes Davies (private school, Cambridge, communist party, surrealism) and above all David Gascoyne (private school, Regents Street Poly, communist party, surrealism).

today is the day when the streets are full of hearses
and when women cover their ring fingers with pieces of silk
when the doors fall off their hinges in ruined cathedrals
when hosts of white birds fly across the ocean from america
and make their nests in the trees of public gardens
the pavements of cities are covered with needles
the reservoirs are full of human hair
fumes of sulphur envelop the houses of ill-fame
out of which bloodred lilies appear.

across the square where crowds are dying in thousands
a man is walking a tightrope covered with moths

(from And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis by David Gascoyne, 1933)

Obscurity Having made the point that many of the poets revived popular forms and rhyme schemes and so on, partly out of a wish to be better understood, there’s no denying that a lot of their poetry is, in fact, quite obscure.

More beautiful than any gift you gave
You were, a child so beautiful as to seem
To promise ruin what no child can have
or woman give…

From The Token by F.T. Prince

Not many poets had the blunt factual subject matter to hand of John Cornford in his Spanish Civil War poems, or were as crudely political and declamatory as Cecil Day-Lewis.

Many tried to express their feelings and emotions as poets always have done, but using the new styles and imagery of the age. The tortured syntax and stylistic quirks unleashed by Auden in his first collection, published in 1930 – omission of the words ‘the’ or ‘a’; use of ‘O’ as at the beginning of a prayer –

O for doors to be open and an invite with gilded edges
To dine with Lord Lobcock and Count Asthma on the platinum benches..

(from O for doors to be open by W.H. Auden, 1936)

And the vague wartime imagery of maps and leaders and ambushes – all these went on to infect a generation who, as a result, often found themselves caught in a mesh of sub-Audenesque mannerisms.

Lord O never let lose this habit
of expected strangeness, a kind
of alertness ambushed in the eye,
at once to strike on, to select
the deep the dangerous uniqueness down in things…

(from Request For The Day by Randall Swingler, 1933)

As a rule, the advice for coping with obscurity or anything you don’t immediately understand in a poem, is to go with the flow, read on past it, don’t let it put you off, and come back later and try to work it out, like a crossword puzzle.

Sometimes things become clearer on reflection, sometimes they’re deliberately obscure and only annotations or explanations by a scholar can help. Other times you can just let the obscurity settle in your mind – after all poetry is not a PowerPoint presentation with clear bullet points, it’s meant to work its way into the mind through other channels.

Take Dylan Thomas, none of his poems make much logical sense, but that doesn’t stop them being magnificent.

But hang on…

So that is a thumbnail portrait of the classic style of Thirties poetry, as exemplified by the gang of Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Day-Lewis and their followers – highly political, highly confrontational, highly engaged. But the range and breadth of Skelton’s anthology is meant to show us that there were lots of other 1930s, too.

Probably the most striking alternative to all of the above is the gentle, Anglican satire of John Betjeman, destined for a long career and the Poet Laureateship (1972). It is surprising to think of him as a ‘thirties’ poet, but he was.

In a completely different zone was the semi-surreal, religious trumpeting of Dylan Thomas, who didn’t go to a spiffing public school (Swansea Grammar School) and who stood outside literary London and its backbiting (though forced to work there during and after the war).

In a room of his own was the eccentric literary critic William Empson. I’ve always liked his poetry because it is larky.

And it’s hard not to be impressed by the diamond hardness of dedicated communist John Cornford, who died aged just 21 fighting in Spain.


Some poems from the thirties

Lullaby by W.H. Auden (1937)

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

In Westminster Abbey by John Betjeman (1940)

Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England’s statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady’s cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.

Although dear Lord I am a sinner,
I have done no major crime;
Now I’ll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.

I will labour for Thy Kingdom,
Help our lads to win the war,
Send white feathers to the cowards
Join the Women’s Army Corps,
Then wash the steps around Thy Throne
In the Eternal Safety Zone.

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

Two Armies by Stephen Spender (1939)

As you know I don’t much like Stephen Spender’s verse. I think it’s a good impersonation of poetry but it’s not the real thing. Here he is trying to write a poem about the Spanish Civil War because it’s expected of him.

Deep in the winter plain, two armies
Dig their machinery, to destroy each other.
Men freeze and hunger. No one is given leave
On either side, except the dead, and wounded.
These have their leave; while new battalions wait
On time at last to bring them violent peace.

All have become so nervous and so cold
That each man hates the cause and distant words
Which brought him here, more terribly than bullets.
Once a boy hummed a popular marching song,
Once a novice hand flapped the salute;
The voice was choked, the lifted hand fell,
Shot through the wrist by those of his own side…

Now here is a poem included in a letter from the front by John Cornford, who fought in Spain, serving with the POUM militia on the Aragon front, where he wrote this poem which was included in a letter home.

A Letter from Aragon by John Cornford (1936)

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: ‘Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.’

Spender is very earnest but he’s posing, he’s playing the part of young lyric poet, he knows he is the Percy Bysshe Shelley of the Movement. But Cornford isn’t playing.

Missing Dates by William Empson (1940)

Empson earned his living as an English professor and critic. He wrote a small number of odd poems. This is the most famous. Read each line slowly.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice (1938)

An example of MacNeice’s deceptively simple lyricism and lulling, cradle rhythms.

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

And death shall have no dominion by Dylan Thomas (1936)

The great clanging cathedral bell of Thomas’s stern verse.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.


The poets

  • Kenneth Allot b.1912
  • W.H. Auden b.1907
  • George Barker b.1913
  • Julian Bell b.1908
  • John Betjeman b.1906
  • Ronald Bottral b.1906
  • Norman Cameron b.1905
  • Christopher Caudwell b.1907
  • John Cornford bb.1915
  • Hugh Sykes Davies b.1909
  • Clifford Dyment b.1914
  • William Empson b.1906
  • Gavin Ewart b.1915
  • Edgar Foxall b.1906
  • Roy Fuller b.1912
  • David Gascoyne b.1916
  • Geoffrey Grigson b.1905
  • Bernard Gutteridge b.1916
  • Robert Hamer b.1916
  • Rayner Heppenstall b.1911
  • Peter Hewitt b.1914
  • Kaurie Lee b.1914
  • John Lehmann b.1907
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904
  • Louis Macneice b.1907
  • Charles Madge b.1912
  • H.B. Mallalieu b.1914
  • Philip O’Connor b.1916
  • Clere Parsons b.1908
  • Geoffrey Parsons b.1910
  • F.T. Price b.1912
  • John Pudney b.1909
  • Henry Reed b.1914
  • Anne Ridler b.1912
  • Michael Roberts b.1902
  • Roger Roughton b.1916
  • Francis Scarfe b.1911
  • John Short b.1911
  • Bernard Spencer b.1909
  • Stephen Spender b.1909
  • Randall Swingler b.1909
  • Julian Symons b.1912
  • Dylan Thomas b.1914
  • Ruthven Todd b.1914
  • Rex Warner b.1905
  • Vernon Watkins b.1906

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