Letters of Cicero edited and translated by L.P. Wilkinson (1966)

This is an old book (published in 1966) containing 196 pages of Cicero’s most interesting letters, selected and translated by L.P. Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s introduction is a bit waffly but conveys the key facts: Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 BC and rose to high office in Rome. Having studied philosophy and oratory in Greece, he went on to become the premiere lawyers and orator of his time. He then rose through the set series of official posts or magistracies (the cursus honorem), attaining the post of consul in 63 BC, aged 43. It was towards the end of that year that he had to deal with the notorious Cataline conspiracy.

After a brief exile in 58, to flee his political enemies, in the later 50s he played a key role in trying to effect a compromise between the partisans of Caesar and Pompey. In 51 he was sent to serve as governor of the province of Cilicia in the south of modern-day Turkey, a post he filled with conspicuous rectitude. But it meant he was absent from Rome as the great political crisis between Caesar and Pompey came to a head.

When civil war broke out in January 49, Cicero agonised about choosing a side and eventually plumped for Pompey, still hoping the latter could become the leader who could restore what Cicero optimistically called the ‘harmony of the orders’, and so followed Pompey and his army when they crossed the Adriatic to Greece. After Caesar decisively defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Cicero returned to Rome, where he reluctantly acquiesced in the dictatorship of Caesar.

It is from this period of withdrawal from political life that date most of his written works, including books about oratory, law, the ideal republic, on the duties of the citizen, the nature of the gods and many more.

After the assassination of Caesar in March 44, Cicero threw himself behind the cause of the dictator’s 18-year-old great-nephew, Octavian, in opposition to the crude and brutal Mark Antony, against whom he wrote several vitriolic diatribes. This proved to be a miscalculation, for only a year later Octavian made peace with Antony to form the Second Triumvirate (along with Lepidus), the three partners drew up lists of political enemies to be ‘proscribed’, and Antony put Cicero at the top of his list of opponents to be killed. And so he was.

Cicero’s correspondence

Cicero’s correspondence is ample but slow to get going. There’s nothing from his youth or young manhood i.e. the 90s, 80s or 70s BC. The first letter dates from 68 BC but between that date and 65 there are only eleven letters. There’s nothing from his early career as a lawyer or his campaign to be elected consul. The latter is a particular shame as his consulship, in the year 63, coincided with the conspiracy of the senator Catiline to overthrow the state, which Cicero was instrumental in uncovering. Cicero was instrumental in rounding up the ringleaders (in Rome; Catiline himself remained at large in Italy) and then took the lead, after a fiery debate in the senate, in executing them. (See Sallust’s Catiline Conspiracy and Plutarch’s Life of Cicero.)

Cicero’s correspondence doesn’t become continuous until the year after his consulship, in 62 BC. But from that year until July 43 (when Cicero was executed on the orders of Mark Anthony) more than 900 letters survive, about 835 by him and 90 addressed to him. Of his own letters, half (416) were addressed to his friend, financial adviser, and publisher, Titus Pomponius Atticus, who he describes as:

my constant ally in public affairs, my confidant in private, my partner in every conversation and project.

He wrote so many letters to Atticus because the latter had (very wisely) withdrawn from Rome altogether to live in Athens. In fact ‘Atticus’ is a nickname referring to Pomponius’s preference for Greek culture. Cicero’s other 419 letters are to a wide range of friends, acquaintances and relatives, some 94 named individuals in all.

It is important to note that Cicero and Atticus were not only friends of long standing (possibly they went to school together) but had the further tie that Cicero’s brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, was married to Atticus’s sister, Pomponia – although it was an unhappy marriage, something Cicero refers to in some of his letters.

Wilkinson

Wilkinson’s introduction is a bit waffly, generalising about how loveable Cicero is and so on, fondly indulgent of his narcissism as most other commentators are. Wilkinson is much better in the short linking passages which precede each batch of letters, generally only a couple of paragraphs long but in which he briefly explains the historical context of each batch and what we know of the events Cicero is describing, from other sources. These linking passages are concise and fascinating.

In the moment

Cicero’s letters are so interesting for two reasons. I suppose the obvious one is that he was a central, or central-ish, figure in the high politics of the last decades of the Roman Republic. I found it dazzling that he writes letters to, and receives replies from, all the key players – Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus and Octavian.

But he could have done this and the letters still be boring. The real secret of their appeal is Cicero’s immense and eloquent involvement in the politics of his time and because his letters plunge you into the moment. All the histories of late republican Rome which I’ve read, ancient or modern, are written with the benefit of hindsight i.e. they often mix up events with their consequences, giving a sense that events were fore-ordained, fated to happen and are a foregone conclusion, regarding them as done and dusted and fodder for thematic analysis.

Wilkinson’s brief introductions, by contrast, give you a snappy resumé of events up to the moment when the next batch of letters start, and then plunge you into the present of the letters in which none of the characters know what is going to happen next.

And all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history, that never sleeps or dies,
And, held one moment, burns the hand. (from To a writer on his birthday by W.H. Auden)

As we read the letters, we are living in the dangerous present, alongside Cicero, sympathising with his efforts to figure out what the hell to do, given the immense press of fast-moving events. As the letters progress, they become more and more dramatic and immersive, and genuinely gripping, as gripping as any thriller.

Political parties?

One thing which surprised me in Wilkinson’s introduction is how confidently he talks about political parties with a capital P – the People’s Party, the Senate Party, the Knights Party. Obviously these were not political parties in the modern sense. All the authorities emphasise this. Instead they were loose and flexible affiliations, generally clustered around powerful individuals, because that was the structure of Roman society at large. The Roman ruling class was based on the notion of rich patrons who were surrounded by a host of ‘clients’, who benefited from their largesse and in return offered services. It was a subtle, complicated, ever-changing flux of relationships – personal, familial, military and political.

Given all this, I was surprised to read Wilkinson very much using the language of ‘parties’ and surprised at how acutely it shed light on events which had been more personalised in other accounts. All the accounts I’ve read tend to focus on individuals and their rivalries and hatreds, for example between Marius and Sulla. But Wilkinson recasts this in terms of ‘parties’.

Thus he sees the rivalry between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla as not only a fierce personal and professional rivalry (which it undoubtedly was) but as a struggle between the People’s Party of the former and the Senatorial Party of the latter. He explains how Gnaeus Pompey at first appeared to follow in Sulla’s footsteps but, during the 70s, left the Sullan cause and helped pass a series of laws which rolled back all the laws Sulla put in place at the end of the 80s to try and bolster the power of the senate.

Alongside Pompey, was Marcus Licinius Crassus (born 115 BC, so 9 years older than Cicero) the richest man in Rome, who Wilkinson puts at the head of the Equites or Knights, the class of often very rich businessmen who sat, as it were, just beneath the senate in terms of power and prestige.

And coming up on the outside was the young, but poor, and extremely ambitious Julius Caesar, born in 100 BC and so 6 years younger than both Pompey and Cicero. By temperament, and family ties (his aunt had been Marius’s wife) Caesar was the rising star of the People’s Party.

Pompey sponsored a bill which removed control of the juries in trials from the Senate and gave a third of juries to the Equites, thus securing the support of the Knightly Party. And then, after being awarded enormous powers to rid Rome of the pirate scourge 67 BC, Pompey won such overwhelming popularity with the People that he was given huge powers to go east and deal with the ongoing problem of King Mithradates VI of Pontus in 66.

When you see Crassus, Pompey and Caesar as not only extremely ambitious individuals, but as representatives of interest groups or ‘parties’, it makes even more sense that in 60 BC Caesar persuaded the other two to join him in an informal pact to manipulate elections and laws and award each other official positions which suited their interests – the first triumvirate.

Cicero’s initial hopes for Pompey

Wilkinson begins his collection with a letter from Cicero to Pompey, written in 62, the year after Cicero’s consulship (when, as he never stopped reminding people, he claimed to have more or less single-handed saved Rome from overthrow by Catiline and his conspirators).

At this point, before the triumvirate was set up, Cicero was still hero-worshipping Pompey and hoping that he would become an enlightened leader and centre of a circle of intellectuals (such as himself). More importantly that Pompey could straddle the interest groups of the different parties (senate, knights and people) and so effect what Cicero called ‘the harmony of the orders’ i.e. put an end to the continual conflict between the different ‘parties’ and reconcile them to work together for the good of Rome.

Pompey had dramatically demonstrated his dedication to the constitution when, upon returning to Italy from his triumphs in the East, he didn’t march on Rome as Marius and Sulla had done, but simply disbanded his army and returned as a private citizen at the beck of the senate. Good man.

(This first letter establishes a recurring theme of the correspondence which is Cicero’s enormous sense of his own importance. Cicero never loses an opportunity to brag at length how the whole world recognises how he single-handedly saved the state during the Cataline crisis.)

Thus, in this first letter, he expects that, despite his (Pompey’s) recent letter to him (Cicero) being restrained and distant, nonetheless, once he arrives in Rome and learns what a hero Cicero is, he (Pompey) will be all the readier to allow Cicero to consort with him in private and in politics. ‘Once you realise how heroically I saved Rome you will want to hang out with me’.

Timeline of Cicero’s letters

63 BC

Cicero serves as consul. November to December the Catiline conspiracy. After a debate in the Senate a vote was taken choosing to execute the known conspirators and, as a result, Cicero promptly led five of them to Rome’s gaol where they were garrotted without a trial. This prompt but rash action, in a moment of national crisis, was to haunt Cicero for the rest of his life and be used against him by his enemies who claimed it was illegal and itself deserving the death penalty. It was the threat of prosecution for it which sent Cicero into self-imposed exile in March 58. And it helps explain the boastfulness when you realise every time he mentioned it he was also in part exonerating himself, building up his defence with everyone he spoke to or wrote to.

62

First letter to Pompey insisting he ought to take him (Cicero) seriously as the man who saved Rome the year before.

61

January: Long gossipy letter to Atticus mentioned the scandalous affair of Publius Clodius Pulcher impersonating a woman to enter Caesar’s house during a women-only religious ceremony. Bitchy remarks about Pompey. June: Cicero describes the trial of Clodius in colourful terms. Cicero intervened to demolish Clodius’s alibi, thus making a mortal enemy who terrified him into exile three years later. From mid-61 to 58 Cicero missed the help of his brother, Quintus Cicero, who went to serve as governor of Asia Minor.

60

January: Cicero complains to Atticus about not having anyone to trust. June: another letter about Clodius’s ongoing intrigues. He was rumoured to have had incestuous affair with his sister, Clodia, who features in the poetry of Catullus as his beloved ‘Lesbia’. Clodia was married to that year’s consul, Metellus. Cicero says she’s a disgrace and he ‘hates’ her.

Julius Caesar invited Cicero to join with him, Crassus and Pompey in what would become known as the Triumvirate. Cicero declined out of loyalty to the constitution.

59

Julius Caesar takes up office for a year as consul. He brings in a Land Bill for the settlement of his servicemen. He ignored the opposition of the senate and vetos by the tribunes i.e. a clear indication that the triumvirate were going to ignore constitutional checks. Next, the tax collectors got a remission of one third on the price they’d paid to collect taxes in the East, to please their representative, Crassus. As his reward for organising all this, the other two arranged for Caesar to be made governor for 5 years of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyrium and Transalpine Gaul. Caesar also married his young daughter, Julia, to Pompey, in order to cement their political bond. She was 17 and Pompey was 47, but in fact he became devoted to her.

Summer: Cicero writes to Atticus telling him the actions of the triumvirate have created a climate of fear, disgust and universal despair at the loss of political freedoms and the state of ‘general servility’. Cicero tells Atticus how at the gladiatorial shows and the theatre Pompey is hissed and booed. Caesar offers Cicero a job as one of the 20 Land Commissioners deciding which land should be assigned to ex-soldiers, but Cicero realises it’s a trap i.e. will associate him with the regime and lose him the support of ‘loyalists’.

58

The Triumvirate arrange for the patrician Clodius to be adopted into a plebeian family so he could be elected as one of the ten tribunes of the plebs. Clodius introduced laws which benefited them all. Caesar encouraged him to persecute Cicero because the triumvirs feared his continued opposition to them jeopardised their programme.

Thus it was that Clodius was encouraged to propose a law threatening exile to anyone who executed a Roman citizen without a trial. Cicero, having executed members of the Catiline conspiracy four years previously without a formal trial, was the clear target of this proposal. After senators and colleagues failed to offer him the assurances he needed, Cicero wisely departed Italy for Greece. A few days later Clodius put forward another bill formally exiling Cicero and confiscating his property. Cicero’s house on the Palatine Hill was destroyed by Clodius’ supporters, as were his villas in Tusculum and Formiae. On the ruins of the Rome house Clodius had a temple dedicated to Libertas built.

The more dangerous, because principles and unbending, opponent of the triumvirs, Cato, was, via another of Clodius’s proposals, sent as governor to Cyprus to get him out of the way.

[What strikes the casual reader of both the general background and Cicero’s letters is how immensely personalised this all was. It’s as if ‘the state’ only consisted of half a dozen people who make and break friendships like schoolboys in a playground.]

April: a letter to Atticus from Brindisi saying he’d love to come to Athens. A sad and moving letter to his wife, Terentia, who he calls the ‘best and most devoted of wives’. She has stayed behind in Rome to see their houses confiscated etc. Practical arrangements about what to do with their large staff of slaves now they have no house. Love to his wife and daughter (married to Piso) and little son, Marcus.

 57

Caesar has gone to Gaul to take up what would turn into 8 years of successful campaigning (see Caesar’s Gallic Wars). Having created a leader of street gangs and proposer of strident laws in Publius Clodius Pulcher, Pompey found him impossible to control, and begins to lobby for Cicero’s return. Clodius’s gangs riot but Pompey helped set up a rival and opposing gang leader, Titus Annius Milo, and got him elected tribune of the plebs, who proposed a law repealing Cicero’s exile. The start of a five year period of unpredictable street battles between the rival gangs and supporters. For example, on 23 January 57, when Clodius tried to use a force of gladiators to block a move to recall Cicero from exile, Milo arrested Clodius’ gladiators. Milo was subsequently attacked by Clodius’ gangs. Milo attempted to prosecute Clodius for instigating this violence but was unsuccessful. The warfare between Milo and Clodius’s gangs became a feature of Roman life. But meanwhile, with the support of Pompey and that year’s consul, Lenthulus Spinther, Cicero’s exile – which he had spent mostly in Salonika – was ended.

September: letter to Atticus rejoicing at being back in Rome. Far more than that, it celebrates in hyperbolic terms what Cicero describes as widespread celebrations of his return, so that at every city and town he was feted by cheering crowds, received delegations of civic worthies etc. Cheering crowds at the gates of Rome, in the forum, on the Capitol. He is immediately back in the buzz of political life and makes a speech in support of a motion to award Pompey control of the corn supply, seeing as there’s a shortage. Fascinating detail of the way the consuls proposed the law giving Pompey control of the corn supply throughout the empire for 5 years, but then Messius introduced an amendment giving Pompey a fleet and army and complete authority over regional governors. Superpowers. This is evidence for the case that the Republic collapsed not because of a handful of ambitious men, but because it was no longer up to administering such a huge area. Anyway, he also hints that all is not well in his household, first hint of deteriorating relationship with Terentia.

November: description of how a mob led by Clodius knocked down Cicero’s half-rebuilt house then incited them to set fire to Cicero’s brother’s house and then ran amok through the city promising to free slaves who joined them. He describes how on 11 November he and his entourage were proceeding along the Sacred Way when Clodius’s gang appeared and produced stones, clubs and swords so that Cicero et al were forced to take refuge in a friend’s house and barricade themselves in.

Clodius is a one-man evidence for the argument that the collapse of law and order in Rome set the scene for the end of the republic. Cicero describes feeling resentfully jealous of Milo and his complete lack of scruples, Milo openly saying he will murder Clodius if he can (though it would be four more riotous years till he did).

56

February: Letter to his brother Quintus describing the attempted trial of Milo. When Pompey attempted to speak for him, Clodius’s gang erupted in shouts and catcalling, then a near riot broke out and Cicero fled. In the following days there was a meeting of the senate, proposals that the riots amounted to sedition. Cato made a violent speech against Pompey who then stands and makes a measured reply. Cicero makes the shrewdest comment on Cato that I’ve read:

from the highest principles he sometimes does the state harm (p.39)

Pompey confides in Cicero that there is a conspiracy against his (Pompey’s) life. He thinks Crassus is encouraging Cato’s attacks while continuing to fund Clodius’s gangs. Cicero allies himself with Milo and the constitutionalists.

April: a sweet letter to Atticus asking him to send some of his slaves or servants who are expert at book management to help restore his library.

In April 56 Cicero made a career-changing mistake. He still thought he could break up the Triumvirate with a view to restoring traditional senatorial rule. The strategy he chose was to launch an attack on Caesar’s Land Bill, which sequestered land to give to his war veterans. But it had the opposite effect, for Pompey supported Caesar’s measure. Indeed it led to the entrenching of triumvirate power when Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and 120 senators to a meeting at Lucca in his province of Cisalpine Gaul, where the pacts behind the Triumvirate were reconfirmed. They agreed that Caesar’s command in Gaul was to be extended by a further five years, that Pompey and Crassus would be consuls for 55, the former with responsibility for Italy and Spain, but remaining in Italy to keep an eye on Rome while the latter went hunting for glory against the Parthian Empire in the East. He had for some years been complaining about the spinelessness of the ‘nobles’, especially when they failed to stand up to Clodius about his exile. Now his patience snapped and he washed his hands of the senatorial party (‘had they not led me on, then ratted and thrown me over…I must finish with them’), made his peace with the Triumvirate (‘let me endeavour to make friends with those that have power’) and retired from politics, concentrating on his writing (p.55).

May: The famous letter to the historian Lucius Lucceius unashamedly sucking up to him and suggesting he write an historical account of the Catiline conspiracy giving pride of place, of course, to Cicero’s heroic achievements in saving the state! Interestingly, he describes in detail his conviction that a mere chronicle of events is boring; what brings it alive is describing the vicissitudes of fortune, the rise, setbacks and triumphs of individuals. This is interesting in itself but indicates the gulf between the ancient and modern world: what interests us is analysis which is undertaken on the basis of a whole range of modern theories, economic, sociological, political, Marxist along with various schools of psychology. By contrast with the web of sophisticated interpretative theories which modern readers and commentators have at their fingertips, the ancients had just one: Fortune and its impact on the rise and fall of great men.

May: letter to Atticus bemoaning his situation whereby if he speaks out about what is right in politics, he is thought mad; if he agrees with the triumvirate, he is thought servile; if he says nothing, he feels crushed and helpless.

May: letters to Lentulus Spinther who, as consul in 57, supported Cicero’s return from exile and is now governor of Cilicia. Cicero describes how the triumvirate have succeeded in gaining their goals beyond their wildest dreams and how he is being realistic and attaching himself to Pompey. He laments that he once looked forward, after a lifetime of service, to giving independent advice in the Senate. But now that vision and world have disappeared. There is now only a choice between ‘humbly agreeing or disagreeing to no purpose.’ ‘The whole essence of the Senate, law courts and the State in general has changed’ (p.61).

55

Cicero sent his brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, to join Caesar in Gaul. Caesar repelled an incursion by two Germanic tribes and then made his first expedition to Britain. In November Crassus departed Rome to sail to Asia (Turkey) with a view to heading on to Syria to raise the forces for his ill-fated campaign against the Parthian Empire.

April: letter to Atticus from his country house in Cuma where he laments his impotence in politics but:

The more I am robbed of my relish for material pleasures by the thought of the political situation, the more comfort and recreation I find in literature. (p.61)

September: long letter to Marcus Marius giving descriptions of a festival which the former missed and Cicero says he would have hated, describing the bad plays, terrible acting and excessive props; the grimness of the gladiator games and animal hunts, with a word for how the killing of the elephants elicited not pleasure but horror.

54

Cicero’s brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero, took part in Caesar’s second expedition to Britain, which is referred to in Cicero’s letters to him. Julius Caesar’s daughter, Julia, died, aged just 22, leaving her husband, Pompey, bereft. She had provided an important link between the two men and from this point they began to drift apart. Caesar tried to re-secure Pompey’s support by offering him his great-niece in marriage, but Pompey declined.

Spring: an uneasily sycophantic letter to Julius Caesar recommending a friend and colleague Gaius Trebatius Testa for service in Caesar’s army in Gaul.

June: letter to his brother Quintus Cicero. These letters reveal an effort by Cicero to really ingratiate himself with Caesar, to seek his friendship and approval. He regrets being slow to cultivate Caesar’s friendship and promises his brother he will now speed up. These letters with their record of who he’s recommending to who for what position or post, with whose support or opposition, take us into the network of friendships, family and professional and political obligations, alliances, rivalries and enmities which characterised Rome.

September: a famous letter to his brother describing the building works being done to the latter’s villa at Arce and problems with the builder, Diphilus.

October: fascinating letter to his brother describing progress on his book on politics, The Republic. He had cast it in nine books in the form of discussions between Scipio Africanus and his literary circle in the 120s BC. However, when he had it read out at his house in Tusculum in the presence of (the 32-year-old) Gaius Sallustius Crispus, the latter said it would have much more power if it was set in the present day and had Cicero himself as a speaker. This shook his confidence in his conception and he’s now reconsidering.

December: letter to Gaius Trebatius Testa who, as we saw, Cicero recommended to Caesar to be his legal counsel.

53

In June 53 Marcus Crassus was killed leading Roman legions against the Parthian Empire at the Battle of Carrhae in Syria. (See the description in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus.) The Triumvirate was thus ended and became a duumvirate, with an uneasy peace between Caesar and Pompey lasting for the next four years. Milo made a bid for one of the consulships for 52 while Clodius was standing for the praetorship. Milo had won popular support by staging extravagant games and enjoyed the support of the Optimates but Pompey supported Clodius. Milo and Clodius’s supporters clashed in the streets leading to such a breakdown of order that the elections were declared void.

52

In January 52 Milo and Clodius and their respective entourages met by chance on a provincial road outside Rome and a scuffle turned into a fight during which Clodius was wounded then killed. Clodius’s followers brought his body back to Rome and laid it in the Senate House which, after more rioting, they set fire to and burned down. As a result the Senate elected Pompey as sole consul for that year to restore order. Cicero was pleased that the man who had him exiled was now dead and, when Milo was brought to trial for murder, defended him in a speech which became famous, Pro Milone. True to the spirit of the times, though, Clodius’s supporters made such a racket and surrounded the proceedings in such number that Cicero was intimidated into delivering the speech poorly and it couldn’t be heard (though he took care to have it published soon after). Milo was convicted and sent into exile at Massilia.

Caesar was granted permission to stand for the consulship in his absence, being far away on campaign in Gaul – but a powerful party in the Senate wanted him both stripped of his command in Gaul and prevented from holding office back in Rome. Marcellus specified the date 1 March 50 for when Caesar should be relieved of his role. This was to become the crux which sparked the civil war.

51

May: letter to Atticus complaining about the behaviour of his sister, Pomponia, to her husband i.e. Cicero’s brother, Quintus. ‘I never saw anything so polite as my brother or as rude as your sister’ (p.71).

Before he left for Cilicia Cicero secured Marcus Caelius Rufus, a clever unprincipled young man, to be his eyes and ears in Rome (see section, below).

May: first of Caelius’s letters explaining that he has sub-contracted writing out a really thorough account of all the acts of the senate and the assemblies, plus all stories, rumours, jokes and gossips, to another hand. This is just an accompanying letter with highlights.

June: letter to Atticus en route to Cilica, stopping over at Athens. He has behaved well and prevented his staff using their privileges to requisition or spend excessively. But oh he is not looking forward to this governorship.

June: letter to Gaius Memmius who was the dedicatee of Lucretius’s famous poem On the nature of the universe. It’s in fact a boring letter about the preservation of a building once belonging to Epicurus.

July: a suite of letters telling Atticus about the journey by boat from Athens via various islands to Epidaurus.

August: Caelius writes with news of the debate about the end of Caesar’s command in Gaul.

Cicero writes to Atticus saying his governorship commenced on his arrival in Laodicea on 31 July and he is bored to death. He describes the state of the province of Cilicia, which has been mulcted by his predecessor and Roman tax collectors: on all sides he hears complaints about the amounts demanded and the brutality of his predecessor as governor, Appius Claudius Pulcher, in punishing anyone who objected. As the natives have realised, Cicero is determined to be fair, they flock to him in adulation.

[It’s worth pausing a moment over this Appius Claudius Pulcher (97 to 49) because he’s such a good example of the way family ties were vital in understanding the minutiae of Roman politics and society. Appius Claudius Pulcher was head of the senior line of the most powerful family of the patrician Claudii. The Claudii were one of the five leading families (gentes maiores or ‘Greater Clans’) which had dominated Roman social and political life from the earliest years of the republic. He was also the elder brother of Publius Clodius Pulcher the rabble rouser who was responsible for driving Cicero into exile in 58. In the summer 55 Appius married his younger daughter to Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus Pompeius (born c.79 BC), thus ensuring his election to the consulate for the following year. He served as consul in 54, along with Cato’s brother-in-law Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Then he was proconsul for Cilicia for two years, 53 to 51, when Cicero took over. Elected censor in 50 with Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (cos.58), Appius was promptly prosecuted for electoral bribery by Cicero’s new son-in-law Publius Cornelius Dolabella. At some stage he had married his other daughter to Marcus Junius Brutus and so Brutus now came to his defence, along with the famous advocate, Quintus Hortensius, and he was acquitted. It’s important to note that Cicero was very cautious and politic both in his letters to Appius and in any comments about him because he knew he would need Appius’s support to be voted the triumph he so dearly hoped for. Thus the byzantine personal relationships of Roman society and politics.]

Letter to Appius laying out how friendly and positive Cicero has been, and reproaching Appius for refusing to meet him, moving to the furthers part of the province and taking the cohorts with him.

There’s a running thread in letters of Caelius to Cicero asking for panthers for the games which, as aedile, he is charged with arranging. Where are my panthers? Just give the orders for them to be captured. Caelius has sent people to arrange their transport back to Rome.

October: Caelius writes to tell Cicero the latest developments in Rome on the issue of whether Caesar can stand for consul in his absence. Caesar wants to do this is so he can pass straight from being commander of the army in Gaul to being consul without a break. If there is a break and he returns to Rome as a private citizen, he knows that his enemies have compiled a list of his alleged misdemeanours in Gaul and will immediately prosecute him, with the very real risk that he will be sent into exile and stripped of citizenship, thus ending his career.

November: letter to Caelius. It always comes as a surprise to realise how military these men are. Thus Cicero gives a detailed account of the military affairs of his province, his various campaigns against enemy peoples and the fact that his writing this letter from a Roman army which he is supervising in the siege of Pindenissus, on Mount Amanus (which he was to take after 57 days). This was the military campaign upon which Cicero was later to base his (repeated) request for a triumph to be held in his honour.

50

Caelius writes to tell Cicero that Appius is being impeached for corruption during his governorship of Cilicia, but that Pompey (whose son is married to Appius’s daughter) is actively supporting him. [Later that year, in August, Cicero learns that his daughter, Tullia, fairly recently widowed, has married Publius Cornelius Dolabella. This placed Cicero in an awkward position because this same Dolabella led the prosecution of Appius for corruption at the same time as Cicero was trying to cosy up to him (Appius).]

February: a long letter to Atticus demonstrating in great detail Cicero’s attempts to be fair to natives in the case of the Roman moneylender Marcus Scaptius who was insisting on repayment of a debt from the people of Salamis on Cyprus at a rate of 48% compound interest. Cicero calls off the moneylenders soldiers, who had been threatening the Salaminians, and remits the interest to 12%.

May: a letter from Cato explaining why he proposed a vote of thanksgiving to Cicero in the Senate to recognise his good governance of Cilicia (p.94).

At the end of July Cicero’s governorship expired, he packed his bags and left Cilicia. But he didn’t reach Italy till November and Rome till January 49. During the second half of the year the political situation in Rome darkened. Various factions were lobbying for Caesar to return from Gaul and surrender his command, some in order that he could take up the consulship, some that he be arrested, or other types of legalistic intervention. The point being that everyone agreed that Caesar’s return would trigger some great crisis.

August: In a series of letters, Caelius gives a running commentary, explaining that the crux is that Pompey insists Caesar cannot take up his consulship until he has given up his army; but Caesar refuses to give up his army because only with it does he feel safe. Caesar has suggested that both he and Pompey give up their armies at the same time, but Pompey refuses. Impasse (pp.97 and 100).

October: Cicero writes to Atticus that he has received letters asking for his support from both Pompey and Caesar. The former he assesses as doing the right thing by the constitution, but the latter has incomparably the stronger army. So what should he do?

A comic note is introduced in the fact that, as the republic slides towards civil war, Cicero’s main concern is fussing to Atticus about lobbying the senate to be awarded a triumph for his campaigns in Cilicia.

Some of the letters describe the moment when Gaius Scribonius Curio went over to active support of Caesar, having been paid an enormous bribe to do so. Curio had been elected tribune and promptly used his veto to block any attempt to recall Caesar or separate him from his army. On 1 December 50 he proposed yet again that Pompey and Caesar lay down their arms simultaneously but it was vetoed by other tribunes. Instead Pompey accepted command of the army in Italy, just as Caesar was heading over the Alps with the army of Gaul. On the day his term of office expired (10 December) Curio went straight to Caesar at Ravenna and urged him to march on Rome. Caesar had his loyal supporter Mark Antony lined up to step into Curio’s shoes as tribune and continue supporting him.

December: At Pompeii Cicero met Pompey who was friendly and supportive of his request for a triumph. Pompey tells him his estrangement from Caesar is complete. In his last letter before civil war breaks out, Cicero laments that they should all have resisted Caesar before he was powerful. Now he is too powerful. But he equally laments that there is no obvious patriotic party in Rome, just different interest groups none of which have the Republic, as such, at heart.

49

In early January, Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio, proposed to the senate that Caesar be forced to lay down his military command in Gaul. The new tribunes, Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius, tried to use their veto against this but were physically ejected from the Senate. In fear of their lives, they fled Rome and reached Rimini on the north-east coast of Italy on 10 January. On the night of 11 January Caesar led his legions across the little river Rubicon. The significance of this was that the Rubicon formed the border between Cisalpine Gaul, where Caesar legitimately was governor and military commander, and Italy proper, where he was not, and where to lead legions was expressly against the law.

Cicero arrived in Rome after his long, roundabout journey back from Cilicia the next day, on January 12. His letters explode with drama as panic grips Rome and Pompey and his supporters first of all flee Rome to the south-east, then move on to Brundisium which they barricade and fortify, and then depart Italy altogether for north-west Greece.

During these feverish days Cicero sends letters to his faithful freedman and servant, Tyro, with updates on the situation, and to Atticus agonising about what to do. For me what stood out is a sentiment he repeats several times, which is the discovery that ‘on both sides there are people who actually want to fight.’ (p.108) This is the truth that dare not speak its name in liberalism: the college-educated middle class and women want peace; but there is always a significant minority who let themselves get worked up enough to declare peace shameful etc and determine to fight come what may, ‘Death or glory’ etc. Thus the eminently sane, rational and civilised Cicero is bewildered to discover ‘the amazing passion’ which has gripped so many of his acquaintance in Rome.

Very quickly Cicero realises ‘the improvidence and negligence’ of his side, of Pompey, the senate and the consuls, none of whom have made adequate preparations. He realises immediately that it was a fatal mistake for the Pompeians and constitutionalists to abandon Rome.

On 16 February he writes to Pompey himself, saying he is holding the area south of Rome he was tasked with (the senate divided Italy into provinces and assigned governors for the duration of the crisis). But he writes to Atticus fairly certain that Pompey will flee and, sure enough, on 17 March Pompey evacuated his army of 30,000, plus most of the senate, the 2 consuls and tribunes across the Adriatic to Greece. Cicero tells Atticus about a face to face meeting with Caesar who begged him to come to Rome to discuss the issue further. (Persuading Cicero to stay would be a big propaganda coup for Caesar and persuade many other waverers to say and thus validate his regime.)

In April Cicero decided to join Pompey but not because he thought it would save the republic, which he now regards as finished; or because he thought Pompey would win, having displayed such indecision and fear. But in case people think he is ungrateful to the man who helped end his exile.

April: Cicero’s friend Marcus Caelius is on Caesar’s side and writes an impassioned letter warning him not to go over to Pompey, especially at this point when it has become clear Caesar will win. What would be the point?

May: his beloved daughter Tullia had a baby boy, born prematurely. In June he wrote to his wife, Terentia, telling her he is aboard the ship which will take him across the Adriatic to join Pompey, and to go and stay in one of their country houses and so avoid the war areas.

48

During the next few troubled years there are few letters. Having secured the flight of Pompey and his army, Caesar marched all the way to Spain where he defeated all of Pompey’s seven legions and secured the peninsula. In September he returned to Rome and undertook a suite of reforming legislation. In the spring of 48, having built up sufficient fleet, Caesar took his army across the Adriatic and besieged Pompey at Dyrrhachium. Here he suffered a confusing defeat so struck camp and headed east into Greece to relieve pressure on a Caesarian legion facing attack by Pompey’s father-in-law Scipio. Pompey shadowed Caesar and eventually, against his better judgement was persuaded by his camp followers of politicians, to give Caesar battle. He lost the battle of Pharsalus in August 48 and fled to Egypt where he was murdered. Cicero missed Pharsalus having remained ill at a camp on the coast. After the defeat, he opted not to join the hard core Pompeians – Labienus, Cato, Scipio and Pompey’s sons – but returned to Italy where he was grudgingly allowed to stay in Brundisium by Mark Antony who Caesar had appointed his deputy in Rome while he pursued the war in Egypt, Asia and Spain.

November: Cicero writes to Atticus bewailing his fate. How can he secure his return to Rome? He is worried about is family. He doesn’t regret joining Pompey and is upset by his miserable murder.

47

June: To Atticus he says he understands Caesar is in a tight spot in Alexandria. Meanwhile he just wants to be allowed to leave Brundisium, no matter how angry the Caesarians are with him. He is saddened by news of Marcus Caelius Rufus.

Caelius sided with Julius Caesar against Pompey in the civil war, warning Cicero not to align his fortunes with Pompey. In 48 he was rewarded with the office of praetor peregrinus. However, when his proposed program of debt relief was opposed by the senate and he was suspended from office, he joined in a rebellion against Caesar which was quickly crushed and Caelius was killed.

Cicero is troubled by the divorce of his beloved daughter Tullia from Dolabella who turns out to be a swine. If Dolabella divorces her Cicero will get back the dowry he paid for her, which was not inconsiderable.

At the end of 47 Cicero divorced his wife of 30 years, Terentia. He has confirmed that she has been swindling him over money for years, and he is fed up with her bad temper. It’s worth noting she was a true religious believer and devout in her worship of the gods, something Cicero teased her about.

46

After campaigns in Egypt, Asia Minor and Spain, Caesar finally returned to Italy. Here he met with Cicero and formally pardoned him, allowing him to return to Rome. He kept his head down, settled in his country estate at Tusculum, and devoted himself to literature. Many commentators think these among the most momentous years of western civilisation, for in the next three years he produced a series of works which invented philosophical discourse in Latin and popularised to the Romans and, later, for all western civilisation, the ideas of the great Greek philosophers.

In December 47 Caesar crossed to Tunisia to take on the Pompeian forces there. It took till April when he wiped them out at the battle of Thapsus. Cato, the great politician and inflexible moralist, committed suicide at the garrison city of Utica.

Cicero agonises about whether to deliver a eulogy for Cato, who was great but unwise. Any praise will only bring criticism on his head from the Caesarians.

April: letters to Marcus Terentius Varro, the polymath and a prolific author, giving the advice to lie low and study, to live with their books and, if they can no longer advise from the senate, to offer advice from the library and study.

July: five letters to Lucius Papirius Paetus, who has warned him about anti-Cicero gossip in Caesar’s circle, reassuring him that his policy, now that Caesar has triumphed utterly, is to do or say nothing to offend Caesar or his supporters. He discusses the merits of opening a sort of school for student orators, amid jokes about haute cuisine and eating peacocks, the kind of luxury talk Cicero absent from his letters till now. He describes a dinner party with unexpectedly celebrity company (Cytheris, a famous actress) and how, nowadays, deprived of political action and the freedom to speak his mind independently, there’s nothing he enjoys more than dining with friends, addressing his wit to whatever subject crops up and turning grumbling into laughter. In various ways he reformulates the same basic thought: that he is lucky to be alive and that they must obey the powers that be:

What will happen is whatever pleases the powers that be; and power will always be with those that have the arms. We ought therefore to be happy with what we are allowed. (p.139)

[The calendar: throughout 46 and 45 Caesar carried out widespread reforms. The most notable of these was reforming the calendar. Because of the discrepancy between the Roman year of 355 days and the actual solar year of 365.242 days, a large discrepancy had opened up, with the Roman calendar 2 months out of true. Caesar consulted mathematicians and had 67 extra days inserted between November and December 46, gave some of the months extra days to being the total up to 365, and instituted the idea of adding an extra day to the calendar every four years. A reform which survives, in essentials, to this day.]

45

After defeat in north Africa the surviving Pompeians rallies in Spain, under the great survivor Titus Labienus and Pompey’s sons. At the end of 46 Caesar went there with an army and eventually brought them to battle and defeated them at Munda on 17 March 45.

To Cassius he writes a brief letter explaining his new mode of life, explaining that: ‘I am ashamed to be a slave, so I make a show of being busy over other things than politics’ (p.140)

In February his beloved daughter Tullia died, leading to a series of letters from condoling friends, Cicero’s replies, and then his plans to have a permanent shrine built to her.

March: long letter from Servius Sulpicius offering carefully thought through advice on managing his grief. Cicero movingly explains to him that he had lost everything else in life, all his public works and political actions and the law courts, everything, and Tullia was the one good thing left to him and now she is dead.

In all these letters Cicero refers to Caesar rather spookily as ‘he’ by whose patience and generosity they now live, creating the sense of an all-powerful dictator who suffers his subjects to live and a painful sense of having lost his freedom to say and do whatever he wants. Against this backdrop it is striking to have a letter (March) addressed directly to Caesar and recommending to his service a young man named Precilius.

More correspondence with Atticus about buying the land and paying for a mausoleum to be erected to Tullia. Then (May) he has clearly published a eulogy to Cato because he writes about the invective against Cato written by Caesar. He doesn’t give a summary or even any of the arguments, which is irritating because the invective has disappeared, but then Cicero’s letters contain almost nothing about the content of his or anyone else’s writings, a big omission.

May: Atticus seems to have suggested Cicero write a letter to Caesar full of advice but Cicero says he can’t bring himself to; not out of shame, although he is ashamed to be still alive, but because he can’t find anything to say. ‘I would rather he regretted my not writing than disapproved of what I wrote…’

June: a letter to Atticus about some of the philosophical discourses he’s working on and, as usual, he doesn’t discuss the philosophy at all, but just the mechanics of the writing, namely who to dedicate the work to (he is dedicating his dialogue On Aims to Brutus, as Atticus has advised) and swapping round the names of some of the characters who appear in other dialogues, to please figures like Varro, Catulus and Lucullus.

July: this theme continues in a letter he writes to Varro accompanying a copy of his dialogue, the Academica, explaining that he has cast him, Varro, as one of the chief speakers, himself (Cicero) one of the others. As usual there is no indication whatsoever of the content, the subject matter or the actual arguments.

July: he tells Atticus he attended a triumph given to Caesar in Rome, where the dictator’s statue was next to Victory’s. He had been nerving himself to write some kind of official letter of advice to Caesar, such as ought to come from such a distinguished statesman, but seeing this procession put him off.

December: Cicero describes to Atticus that Caesar came and stayed in person at one of his country homes. The throng was immense – he brought 2,000 soldiers! But Caesar was affable and polite, did some administrative work, walked along the seashore, had a bath and at heartily a well prepared meal. They kept off politics and discussed literature so nothing unwise was said and Cicero didn’t offend his guest and so the whole visit passed off without embarrassment. But he wouldn’t like it to happen again.

December: a letter to Manius Curius describing the scandalous incident whereby on the last day of the year, the sitting consul Quintus Maximus died in the morning and, hearing this, Caesar gave the consulship for the remainder of the year i.e. for the afternoon and evening, to a friend Gaius Caninius Rebilus. This allows Cicero to make a few weak jokes, such as: During Caninius’s consulship no-one had lunch. And: Such was Caninius’s vigilance that during his entire consulship he didn’t sleep a wink! But he declares himself sickened by Caesar’s contemptuous, offhand treatment of the great offices of state.

[Personally I find this attitude a little hard to credit and to sympathise with. It would make sense if the republic whose loss Cicero laments had been a Scandiniavian style paradise of social democracy. But even a reading of his letters indicates the political instability sometimes descending to chaos of the previous two decades, from the Catiline conspiracy through to the violent street fighting between Clodius and Milo’s gangs in the late 50s, with politicians routinely attacked in the street and fleeing for their lives. To a very senior political figure like Cicero ‘freedom’ might have a particular meaning, namely that he could speak out and play a role in the senate. But the reader suspects that to many ordinary Romans, peace and stability was more important than ‘freedoms’ none of them enjoyed, and that’s without mentioning the up to 20% of the population who were slaves. Persuasive though Cicero’s self pity can be, this is essentially rich man’s discourse.]

44

Caesar’s assassination on 15 March in a meeting of the senate came as a great shock to Cicero. Although the conspirators ran out of the building waving their bloodsoaked daggers and shouting Cicero’s name (!) he was not approached to join the conspiracy and was, apparently, as surprised as everyone else. There is a gap around the event itself and the first letter we have is from 7 April, 3 weeks later.

[To my surprise he describes the assassins – or liberatores as they liked to style themselves – as ‘heroes’ who have behaved ‘most gloriously and magnificently’. He says the assassination ‘consoles’ him (p.160). At the same time the impression his letters give is of chaos in domestic politics, as the Senate votes to ratify all Caesar’s reforms but at the same time to declare an amnesty for the assassins. He shows the first signs of realising that assassinating the dictator won’t lead to the restoration of the republican constitution, but to a further sequence of civil wars because the republican constitution was irreparably broken. He also describes (albeit sketchily) something other accounts miss, which is the immediate impact of Caesar’s assassination on the empire. Thus war seems to be continuing against Parthia, but to everyone’s surprise there isn’t a widespread uprising in Gaul, whose leaders politely report to the Roman governor, Aurelius, that they will follow his orders. Having read Caesar’s long, gruelling account of his Gallic Wars, I am very surprised there was no uprising in Gaul and would be interested to read an explanation why.]

April: letter to Atticus lamenting the fact that by the second day after the assassination, which happened to fall on the feast of the Liberalia, it was already too late to move decisively to restore the republic, because on that day the Senate met and agreed that all of Caesar’s acts and laws should be confirmed, that his funeral be held in the Forum and his will read in public. Nobody suspected that Mark Antony would seize the opportunity to not only read the will, but show the mob Caesar’s body, and his toga gashed with bloody holes, and so inflame them that they would grab firebrands from the funeral pyre and run off to burn down the houses of the leading conspirators (and Cicero’s house, though he had no part in the conspiracy) with the result that the so-called liberatores (chief among them Brutus and Cassius) would be forced to flee the city they had supposedly liberated.

In April Octavian arrived in Rome, Caesar’s great-nephew who he had adopted as his legal heir. The Caesarians, led by Mark Antony, spurned him so he realised he’d have to worm his way up the ladder using the republicans. And so he curried favour with Cicero, among others.

April: letter to Atticus explaining that Octavian is staying with him and is surrounded by people breathing slaughter against the liberators. Already Cicero has a bad feeling that ‘our side’ will go under. Amazingly, he admits to wishing Caesar were still here because at least he had principles. In his absence Mark Antony is proposing all sorts of corrupt procedures, based on memos fraudulently claimed to have been signed off by Caesar, specifically a request to recall one Sextus Clodius from exile.

He writes in praise of Dolabella who had had a memorial to Caesar which his supporters had erected in the Forum demolished and its constructors thrown off the Tarpeian rock or crucified!

There’s a running thread of concern over his student-aged son Marcus, who is studying philosophy in Athens. Atticus gives reports of him, as does a friend, Trebonius, who looks him up in Athens. This is the same conspirator Trebonius who was tasked with keeping Mark Anthony in conversation outside the building where the other conspirators murdered Caesar.

June: he hears that the Senate will appoint Brutus and Cassius commissioners for supplying Rome with corn from Asia Minor and Sicily. Then he describes to Atticus the scene when he visited Brutus at his place in Anzio and, in front of the latter’s wife and children, was asked whether he, Brutus, should accept the Senate’s commission. He was in the middle of doing so when the impetuous Cassius burst in. Good God, it’s like a movie, it’s like being in the room with Lenin and Stalin arguing, it’s history at first hand. I am surprised to discover that Cicero thought Mark Antony should have been murdered at the same time as Caesar. Now he is emerging as the central political figure, but far more corrupt and tyrannical than Caesar had been. And the liberators who, as we’ve seen, he knows well and meets and advises, they have ‘No plan, no principle, no system’ (p.169).

Almost comically, there is a letter about Cleopatra who Cicero heartily disliked and found insolent and aloof. She had been staying in Rome under Caesar’s protection and fled the city when he was murdered.

There’s a slight oddity which is that the manuscript collections include 2 letters from Brutus and Cassius to Mark Antony. He was consul for 44 and they were praetors so they had to do business, but very uneasily since he had vowed to capture and execute them but had to acquiesce in the Senate’s decision to send them to governorships in Greece. They had asked Cicero whether they should return to Rome, even briefly, before they set out and he strongly advised against it.

August: Cicero tells Atticus he had set sail for Greece when a wind blew him back to Italy and he got messages of a big meeting happening in the Senate and none other than Brutus came to see him on foot. He praised Piso, Caesar’s father in law, who publicly stood up to Antony in the Senate.

Cicero returned to Rome but refused to attend the meeting of the Senate on 1 September when Caesar was officially deified. Antony made a furious speech criticising him for this. Cicero replied with a speech known as the first Philippic, because modelled on the famous speeches of Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon. This prompted Antony to a furious invective and triggered Cicero’s second Philippic. This is important because this animus led Antony, the following year, to condemn Cicero to death.

September: Cicero writes to Cassius in Athens telling him Antony is seeking any excuse for a massacre and to have him killed, making it unsafe for him to visit the Senate. So we are right back to the days of street violence and extreme instability of the 50s before Caesar made himself dictator.

November: Cicero tells Atticus he has received a letter from Octavian outlining his plans, which is to bribe ex-servicemen to his cause, which Cicero takes to be opposing Antony, and inviting him to a secret meeting at Capua. Meanwhile Antony is marching 3 legions towards Rome. Cicero asks Atticus what he should do, who he should support, and whether he should leave his rural idyll for Rome as things seem to be coming to a head?

43

In June 46 Antony had passed a decree declaring himself governor of Hither Gaul instead of Decimus Brutus. On November 28 he learned that two of the four legions he had summoned from Macedonia had gone over to Octavian, so he took the other two and marched north to Hither Gaul where he besieged Decimus in Modena. Cicero played an important role in Rome, supporting the two new consuls who took office on 1 January, Hirtius and Pansa, and rallying anti-Antony forces with his Philippics. He based his position on support for Octavian as the least worst option. War was declared on Antony on 2 February.

February: a letter to Trebonius wishing he had not taken Antony aside on the Ides of March but had arranged to have him murdered, too. Now Antony has marched north, Cicero describes his leading role in rallying the Senate and trying to reintroduce Republican practices. He now sees Octavian rallying the ex-servicemen and detaching 2 of Antony’s four legions as preventing the latter instituting a new tyranny.

In the next few months Cicero played a central role, co-ordinating efforts by republicans around the empire. He corresponded with Brutus in the Balkans, Cassius in Syria, Trebonius in Asia Minor, Cornificius in north Africa, Pollio in Spain, Plancus and Lepidus in Transalpine Gaul and Galba and Decimus Brutus in Hither Gaul.

He warns Brutus against mercy. ‘If you are going to be merciful, civil wars will never cease’ (p.185).

In April there were two battles at Modena. Mark Antony defeated Pansa but was worsted by Hirtius. Octavian defended the camp against Antony’s brother, Lucius. A few days later, Decimus Brutus sallied out from the city and defeated Antony though both consuls were killed. But Antony got away.

April: Cicero writes to Brutus telling him the news, and describing ‘the boy’ Caesar, remarkably mature and shrewd at 19. He hopes that as he matures, he will be guided by Cicero and the republicans. He then swanks that when news of the first victory at Modena was brought, the population of Rome came flocking round his house and carried him, cheering, to the Capitol and set him up on the rostrum.

Antony fled north over the Alps. Lepidus, Brutus’s brother-in-law, went over to him and was declared a public enemy.

June: Pollio, governor of Hispania, writes to explain that he has kept his legions loyal to the Republic, despite the efforts of Antony and his brother to bribe them away.

June: a very shrewd letter from Brutus to Atticus in which he criticises Cicero for recklessly encouraging Octavian. In short: he thinks Cicero, with good intentions, has ended up supporting a man who will turn out to be more of a tyrant than the one they overthrew. Brutus powerfully expresses the belief in the Republican system i.e. no man should be above the law, for which he was famous in his day and ever since.

July: Cicero’s last letter is a long one to Brutus explaining and justifying his policy, the core of which is support for Octavian, justifying the various honours and ovation he got the Senate to award him, on the basis that he is their bulwark against the corruption and tyranny of Antony, and that he, Cicero, can guide and control and moderate a young man of just 19 who likes to call him ‘father’. In all this, he would prove to be terribly wrong.

When the Senate refused to vote Octavian the proposed honours he marched his army back to Rome and demanded one of the consulships left vacant by the deaths at Modena, the other one for a kinsman, Pedius. He revoked the outlawry of Antony and Dolabella, and secured the condemnation of Caesar’s assassins, confirming Brutus in his fears. Having unoutlawed him, Octavian proceeded to meet Antony in November 43 on an island near Bologna and formed the second triumvirate with him and Lepidus. The three then drew up lists of political enemies to be proscribed i.e. murdered. Top of Antony’s list was Cicero. Octavian held out in defence of his ‘father’ for 2 days but gave in on the third. Cicero was tracked down to a country estate and murdered by bounty hunters on 7 December 43.

Wilkinson ends his text not with a summary or conclusion or analysis, but by excerpting the last few chapters of Plutarch’s life of Cicero, describing in the detail his final flight to the country, and his tracking down and decapitation by the assassins. His head and hands were cut off and taken to Rome where Antony had them nailed to the rostrum in the forum as revenge, being the head and hand which wrote the Philippic speeches which so incensed him. A visual image of the barbarity which Cicero fought against all his life but which always lay implicitly within the Roman culture he loved so much and which, in the end, did for him so brutally.

Thoughts

What an extraordinary record these letters are, what an amazing insight into the actual dynamics of power at the highest level, during one of the most intense and fascinating periods of world history. And what an amazing character Cicero emerges as, wise, foolish, passionate, ever-thoughtful, highly literate and educated, an effective administrator and military governor in Cilicia, a fluent and attractive writer and, in the end, tragically deluded by the ‘boy’ Octavian.


Themes

Cicero’s narcissism

As all the other sources I’ve read point out Cicero is hilariously self-obsessed. Quite quickly you get used to him describing how important he is, how he single handedly saved the state during the Catiline Conspiracy, how wherever he goes crowds flock out to see him and call his name. He comes across as a pompous, fuss, narcissistic booby.

As a result it’s hard to take him very seriously as either a politician or philosopher. It beggars belief that this man who frets about his sister-in-law’s behaviour, about the number of statues in his country home, who insists that wherever he goes he is mobbed by crowds calling his name, was seriously invited by Caesar, Pompey and Crassus to join the triumvirate.

Philosophy and writings

As to philosophy, these is none in the letters. He refers to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers by name but only to gossip about meeting them, dining with them and so on. There isn’t a word about The Good Life or The Ideal Citizen or any of the other issues Cicero wrote formal essays about. He mentions that he is working on the texts, such as the six volumes of The Republic, but describes or explains none of the actual ideas.

This is a striking gap or lack. Keats’s letters shed all kinds of light on his poetic theories and practice; Cicero’s letters shed no light at all on the ideas expressed in his essays and dialogues. Possibly this is because they were all secondary, in the sense that he was basically copying out ideas developed by Greeks. He had few if any original ideas of his own and therefore didn’t need to discuss them or work them through with correspondents. He administered his philosophical and political ideas, as a good governor administrates his province.

Atticus

It is sweet and lovely to read Cicero’s many letters to his friend Atticus in which he swears deep friendship and affection. I can see why the correspondence inspired all those humanists of the Renaissance who wrote so many essays about the value of friendship.

Quintus Tullius Cicero

The letters to his brother about a) the latter’s sister, who was married to his best friend Atticus, b) endless building works to the latter’s mansion and c) his service with Caesar in Gaul and on the expedition to the new island of Britain, are fascinating and very human.

Marcus Caelius Rufus

Caelius, born in 82 BC was an orator and politician. He is famous for his trial for public violence in March 56 BC when Cicero defended him in the speech Pro Caelio which is widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of oratory from the ancient world. He is recipient and author of some of the best letters, with Cicero routinely begging him for the latest gossip during his exile in Greece and governorship in faraway Cilicia. There is a comic running thread with Caelius pestering Cicero to supply him with panthers, exotic animals which he wanted for the games he was organising as curule aedile in 50 BC. Cicero refuses, saying paying from public funds for a panther hunt would be against the reputation for good government he is trying to create.

Roman mosaic showing a wild animal hunt in North Africa (third century AD) Musée Archéologique d’Hippone (Algeria)

Tiro

Cicero’s beloved freedman, secretary, amanuensis. After Cicero’s death it was Tiro who edited and published Cicero’s letters to the immense benefit of western civilisation. It’s logical that Robert Harris makes Tiro the narrator of his 2006 novel about Cicero, Imperium.


Related links

Roman reviews

  • The letters of Cicero
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 1
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 2
  • On the nature of the gods by Cicero 3

Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future by Evelyn Waugh (1953)

‘State be with you.’
(Blessing in the New Britain satirised in Love Among The Ruins)

Waugh knocked off Love Among the Ruins as a response to the Labour Party’s victory in the February 1950 general election, which threatened five more years of socialist rule. It is another novella satirising the modern world, comparable in length to Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947).

Love Among The Ruins is obviously intended to be a scathing satire on the direction post-war Britain was taking but it prompted a very negative response from the publishers Waugh sent it to. One said: ‘It seems to me sad that this man’s talent should be wasted on such a story’. Another: ‘The theme is almost implausibly apt for satire by Waugh and yet his handling of it is, for the most part, dull-witted and tedious.’

In response Waugh quickly withdrew Love Among The Ruins from the market. He spent three years revising it and then issued it as a volume in its own right in 1953. The volume was notable for its satirical use of illustrations. It took illustrations from a book about the statues of the 18th century sculptor Canova and gave them satirical titles or adjustments, as in the depiction of the bearded heroine, Clara.

Waugh’s humorous reworking of a Canova image to depict the bearded ‘heroine’ of ‘Love Among the Ruins’

Having read some of these negative comments I was expecting Love Among The Ruins to be bad, but I enjoyed it. Sub-titling it ‘a romance of the near future’ links it to the fictions of H.G. Wells who called his science fictions ‘romances’. But its vision of a technocratic future, no matter how light and satirical, evokes other resonances and echoes, from Brave New World (1932) to Nineteen Eight-Four (1949) and associates it with contemporary science fiction visions of troubled futures, such as the all-female future depicted in John Wyndham’s novella, Consider Her Ways (1956).

The plot

Mountjoy prison

We are in England in the near future. Waugh tells us the current government is the Bevan-Eden coalition (p.444) – so it’s not set in the middle future under unknown leaders, but only a few years hence under very well-known political leaders. Its most popular stroke was the Incitement to Industry Act of 1955 which has consolidated the now-permanent government, so only a few years after he was writing…

The narrative opens in a ‘modern’ prison, Mountjoy, which is run according to all the latest fashionable principles, based on the foundational idea that people are not responsible for their actions; if they commit crimes, it is due to failings in the social services.

‘In the New Britain which we are building, there are no criminals. There are only the victims of inadequate social services.’ (p.437)

Thus the prison is a place not of punishment but rehabilitation and ‘Remedial Repose’ (at moments the satire on progressive, modern attitudes to crime and rehabilitation reminded me of Kingsley Amis’s We Are All Guilty).

Thus Mountjoy prison is at first deliberately described so that the reader mistakes it for a luxury hotel, what with its fountains, and flower gardens and a string quartet playing in the grounds, its stables and its chandeliers. In fact it becomes clear it is what was once a grand country houses belonging to the old aristocracy, which has been requisitioned and turned into a rehabilitation centre for criminals, a place for Preventive Custody and Corrective Treatment. (To be precise, Mountjoy Castle had been the ancestral seat of a maimed V.C. of the Second World War, who had been sent to a Home for the Handicapped when the place was converted into a gaol. Waugh neglects no opportunity to ram home the amorality and shabbiness of the new regime).

Miles Plastic

The narrative opens on the night before the criminal in question and hero of the story, Miles Plastic, is due to be released back into the community, allowed to resume being A Citizen, now he is a fully rehabilitated man. Miles is the epitome of The Modern Man. His parents were ruined by the State (presumably death duties, land taxes and all the other impositions of Socialism), reduced to poverty, forced to divorce, he was handed over to an aunt who died of boredom from working in a factory, and so he was raised in an orphanage.

Huge sums were thenceforward spent upon him; sums which, fifty years earlier, would have sent whole quiversful of boys to Winchester and New College and established them in the learned professions. In halls adorned with Picassos and Légers he yawned through long periods of Constructive Play. He never lacked the requisite cubic feet of air. His diet was balanced and on the first Friday of every month he was psychoanalysed. Every detail of his adolescence was recorded and microfilmed and filed, until at the appropriate age he was transferred to the Air Force. There were no aeroplanes at the station to which he was posted. It was an institution to train instructors to train instructors to train instructors in Personal Recreation. (p.434)

I can see how more critical reviewers might have thought this was a bit obvious, but I thought Waugh carried it off. It has a nice tone of amusement throughout, amusement laced with contempt for the people he is satirising.

Mountjoy doesn’t have punishment breaking of rocks, it has community singing. The governor isn’t a governor, he’s a ‘Chief Guide’.

Miles’s trial

Thus when Miles carried out an act of arson, burning down the air force buildings and killing half the people in it, he wasn’t treated as a psychopath, but handled sympathetically and diagnosed by a psychologist who judged that incendiarism was a perfectly normal part of adolescence which shouldn’t be bottled up. Now, after two happy years of luxury living, Miles is being ‘released’ or returned to the community.

Soapy and Mr Sweat

There is a comic passage where a couple of the old timers, Soapy and Mr Sweat commiserate with Miles for being let out; they love it here, living in the lap of luxury; they love it so much they want to stay forever and, with that aim in mind, have recently undertaken a little foray and massacred the peacocks which used to stroll round the grounds. If anyone tries to tell them they’re reformed and ready for release, they’ll show the dead birds and thus ensure a lovely further extension to their sentences. The old lags lament the good old days when committing a crime made you a criminal and prison meant prison, you knew where you were; now the authorities call you an ‘antisocial phenomenon’ and say you are ‘maladjusted’ and instead of hard time you get a luxury hotel and ‘Remedial Repose’.

The Minister of Welfare and the Minister of Rest and Culture

Miles’s release ceremony is attended by the Minister of Welfare and the Minister of Rest and Culture of the coalition government. They emphasise that the new programme has its critics, which is why Miles is important. He is considered the First Success of the new way, a ‘vindication of the Method.’

Miles is being sent to Satellite City, the nearest Population Centre. He is issued a Certificate of Human Personality and told to report to the Area Progressive. Transport has been laid on.

Satellite City

Mockery of a new town. The grand architect’s plans have given rise to a shabby reality of glass and concrete. A vast Dome of Security was built but the dome itself is not only invisible from street level but all its windows have been blacked out during various international crises and the concrete has stained and blotched. As to the surrounding buildings:

There were no workers’ flats, no officials’ garden suburb, no parks, no playgrounds yet. These were all on the drawing boards in the surveyor’s office, tattered at the edges, ringed by tea cups; their designer long since cremated. (p.441)

In Waugh’s description of the general air of shabbiness you can maybe detect the influence of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with its descriptions of a future of permanent shabbiness, degradation, pokey apartments in poorly maintained tower blocks. More close to home, it reminds me of the 1970s new town I grew up in, all stained concrete and broken lifts smelling of pee.

The officials subsisted in perpetual twilight. Great sheets of glass, planned to “trap” the sun, admitted few gleams from scratches in their coat of tar. At evening when the electric light came on, there was a faint glow, here and there. When, as often, the power station was “shedding its load” the officials stopped work early and groped their way back to their darkened huts where in the useless refrigerators their tiny rations were quietly putrefying. On working days the officials, male and female, trudged through cigarette ends round and round, up and down what had once been lift-shafts, in a silent, shabby, shadowy procession. (p.441)

There are endless strikes which bring this or that service to a halt. Reminds me of my boyhood in the 1970s. Similarly, Satellite City’s hospital, ‘one of the unfinished edifices, all concrete and steel and glass in front and a jumble of huts behind.’ Use of the word ‘hut’ links it to the kind of structure Waugh saw in Africa and the Amazon i.e. British society is reverting to the level of savages.

The Euthenasia Department

It’s pretty funny that Miles is sent to the Euthenasia Department. And Waugh develops the comic implications very drolly:

Under the Bevan-Eden Coalition the service came into general use and won instant popularity. The Union of Teachers was pressing for its application to difficult children. Foreigners came in such numbers to take advantage of the service that immigration authorities now turned back the bearers of single tickets.

Miles finds himself widely envied by colleagues:

‘Great State! You must have pull. Only the very bright boys get posted to Euthanasia.’
‘I’ve been in Contraception for five years. It’s a blind alley.’
‘They say that in a year or two Euthanasia will have taken over Pensions.’ (p.444)

Contraception is a dead end ha ha. It is run by a Dr Beamish:

Satellite City was said to be the worst served Euthanasia Centre in the State. Dr. Beamish’s patients were kept waiting so long that often they died natural deaths before he found it convenient to poison them. (p.445)

Miles’s job is to open the doors to batches of new clients, make them comfortable, turn on the telly, offer cups of tea while they wait to be ushered through the final door, with its whiff of cyanide, and then the roar of the crematorium ovens…

Clara

Dr Beamish tells him a special client has been sent. Miles fetches her from the VIP waiting room, a beautiful trim young woman with…a golden beard! Dr Beamish is impressed. Obviously a result of ‘Klugmann’s Operation.’ This, apparently, is an operation to sterilise young women which was forced on her when she said she wanted to pursue a career in ballet. A ludicrous symbol of a world which has lost all touch with nature and human nature, which fetishises sterility and death.

The bearded lady makes it quite clear she’s only come because of pressure from the head of her drama department and ballet – after the botched sterilisation procedures they’re all sure she must want to die – but has no intention of being euthenised. Dr Beamish wonders why the silly girl is wasting his time and throws her out. She explains to Miles how much she likes dancing. She finds that Art makes her value life all the more. Her name is Clara.

Lovers

They become lovers. Clara can no longer dance (a ballerina with a beard!) but she helps out at the ballet school. They cohabit in a cubicle of a Nissan hut (a chronic shortage of houses and accommodation being a result of the war which dragged on for years afterwards; another idea embedded in Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Sex is nothing new for Miles, he has been taught about it since toddler years. What surprises him is love, which he’s never been taught about, but which Clara has an instinctive feel for. She has prints of Old Master paintings (sounds like a Fragonard or Watteau) contrasted with the stern, machine-age Legers and Picassos Miles has been subjected to all his life.

They live a simple frugal life, going to their daily jobs, in the evening lying in the fields under the big moon and making love. Summer turns to autumn, and then November, ‘season of strikes’. Clara is growing fat. She goes to see the doctor. On her return they share a glass of wine. (In another instance of the Modern State totalitarianly dominating every aspect of existence, the state now chooses and names the vintage, so this one is called Progress Port.)

Doctor told her she’s pregnant. They are both sad their child will not be born an Orphan, which is much the most preferred way for infants in the New Britain. Then Clara leaves, clears out, disappears without trace. Miles is at first upset, then concerned, then angry, then indifferent.

Clara’s face replacement

Santa-Claus-tide approaches and the shops are full of shoddy goods. Christmas trees have been renamed Goodwill Trees. Someone he works with tells Miles Clara is in hospital. He goes to visit her. The porter doesn’t bother to look up from his television. The corridors are full of muzak from the wireless. Waugh’s vision of uncivil, modern barbarism.

Miles discovers the doctors have performed an abortion on his child, but almost as bad, or worse, they have cut off Clara’s beard and replaced the whole lower part of her face with a rubber flesh-substitute.

Her eyes and brow were all that was left of the loved face. Below it something quite inhuman, a tight, slippery mask, salmon pink. (p.459)

Miles gets up and walks out, walks out the hospital, walks away from Satellite City, walks for hours through the countryside till he is surprised to read a sign saying Mountjoy Castle is nearby. The gates are always open and welcoming in the way of the New Penology, so he walks right up to the building and sets it on fire. Uses a lighter he carries with him to set afire the dry curtains and soon the whole lots goes up. ‘The murderers were leaping from the first-storey windows but the sexual offenders, trapped above, set up a wail of terror.’

Once it is utterly burned to the ground Miles turns and walks away, walking the long road back to Satellite City feeling light of heart and with a smile on his face.

Back to work

Next day Miles wakes to the smell of cheap State sausages cooking in his hostel, dressed and goes to work. I was astonished when there is a reference to Parsnipthe comic name he gave to his caricature of the famous 1930s poet W.H. Auden in Put Out More Flags. Now he is described as a shabby has-been who wants to kill himself, joins the queue for the Euthenasia department but always bottles out. Not today.

Miles turned to the periscope. Only one man waited outside, old Parsnip, a poet of the ’30s who came daily but was usually jostled to the back of the crowd. He was a comic character in the department, this veteran poet. Twice in Miles’s short term he had succeeded in gaining admission but on both occasions had suddenly taken fright and bolted.
‘It’s a lucky day for Parsnip,’ said Miles.
‘Yes. He deserves some luck. I knew him well once, him and his friend Pimpernell. New Writing, the Left Book Club, they were all the rage. Pimpernell was one of my first patients. Hand Parsnip in and we’ll finish him off.’
So old Parsnip was summoned and that day his nerve stood firm. He passed fairly calmly through the gas chamber on his way to rejoin Pimpernell. (p.464)

Clara again

After a hard day at work Miles goes back to the hospital to see Clara. She has succeeded in painting the rubber mask to make it impressively lifelike. He feels cold and distant from her.

Promotion

Next day Miles is told he’s been promoted, is given a suit and bowler hat and a driver who drives him up to the London where he enters the imposing ‘Ministry’. Miles is surprised to discover that the burning down of Mountjoy prison has become a real talking point. And it has changed his status. Instead of being the first of many rehabilitated patients, he is now the Only One. The New Penology has always had its critics and so now, to counter them, the ministers intend to send him the length and breadth of the country to lecture about its wonderful benefits.

They unveil a model of the New Mountjoy they are planning to build and it is, in fact, merely a cardboard packing case. But it stirs something in Miles’s soul, his entire upbringing up to this date is summed up in the object. Stripped of all ornament and pleasure, a fitting place to consign the lifeless inhabitants of a lifeless society.

‘Does he have a wife?’ the minister asks him, ‘Folk like a man with a wife.’ ‘No,’ replies Miles. Well, on the spot they fit him up with Miss Flower, the ‘gruesome’ secretary who has been assisting at the meeting. And off they’re whisked to the registrar office and are half way through the service when… when Miles realises he is fidgeting with a hard object in his pocket. With a cigarette lighter. He clicks it to light a small flame. A flame. A fire. An earnest of the future.

Thoughts

Endings are difficult. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, up to Clara disappearing before being discovered at the hospital. Up to that point the story flowed very naturally and contained lots of humorous touches. Up to that point it had been a kind of sci fi-political farce, funny because ridiculous. With the running off of Clara the storyline somehow became more serious, almost as if trying to be a serious fiction, with serious people and serious emotions. Once that possibility was allowed in, Love Among The Ruins felt like it lost a lots of its cartoonish spontaneity and sparkle.

Although it ends with a wicked glint in its eye, somehow the end doesn’t quite fit the beginning and certainly doesn’t match the more ‘serious’ tone which threatened to emerge during the Clara-absconding -and-Miles-feeling-bereft passages. It doesn’t quite resolve properly.

Love Among the Ruins is obviously not a classic text by any means. It’s not in the same ballpark as Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is a frippery, a squib, an entertaining lampoon and, like most of his post-war fictions it feels incomplete, lacking something, some quality of real humour or resonance.

Waugh’s animosity against all the aspects of the modern world which he can cram into the narrative feel real and alive, specially in the opening passages but, as soon as he tries to concoct a plot to carry it forward, the text feels contrived.


Credit

Love Among the Ruins by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1953. All references are to its place in the 2018 Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (1942)

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

Background

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

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

Subject

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

The return of Basil Seal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Joseph Mainwaring

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

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

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

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

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

A theory of gossip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left wing intellectuals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambrose Silk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambrose’s magazine

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

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

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

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

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

Basil’s scams

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

The Connollys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ministry of Information and the Ambrose scam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schoolboy japes

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

The war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue: tying up loose ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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


Credit

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

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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

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

Stirrings Still by Samuel Beckett (1988)

So on unknowing and no end in sight.

‘Still’ was one of Samuel Beckett’s keywords, like ‘go’ and ‘on’ and ‘white’ and ‘dark’. All are present in Beckett’s short final prose piece, Stirrings Still. He wrote it between 1986 and 1989 at the request of his old friend and American publisher, Barney Rosset. It was first published in The Guardian on 3 March 1989 and then in a limited edition, autographed hardback version, complete with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy. The Guardian edition included a review of the limited edition by Frank Kermode, and a piece on the history of the work’s publication by John Calder. It was then republished in the posthumous collection As The Story Was Told (1990). So much for its publishing history, what about the content?

Content

Stirrings Still is very short, 1,904 words long. It is divided into three parts, of 868, 697 and 339 words, respectively (46%, 37% and 17%).

Part one

Stirrings Still covers familiar territory: it is night-time; a man who much resembles the author is sitting, by himself, in a plain room and, as if in a dream or a hallucination, sees himself get up and leave:

One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go.

This doubling of the protagonist might once have been a difficult scenario to grasp, but we’ve seen this kind of thing happen in so many modern movies it’s become commonplace, and Beckett himself had used the doppelgänger onstage in his play Ohio Impromptu.

Before the story can properly get going, the text mentions that it is dark, or… maybe it isn’t – and there follows a typical piece of Beckett quibbling about whether it was dark and how the protagonist could know this, the kind of crabbed, involuted, self-referential enumeration of possibilities and permutations which he perfected in Watt back in the mid-1940s and had deployed periodically ever since:

For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came then from the one high window. Under it still the stool on which till he could or would no more he used to mount to see the sky. Why he did not crane out to see what lay beneath was perhaps because the window was not made to open or because he could or would not open it. Perhaps he knew only too well what lay beneath and did not wish to see it again. So he would simply stand there high above the earth and see through the clouded pane the cloudless sky. Its faint unchanging light unlike any light he could remember from the days and nights when day followed hard on night and night on day. This outer light then when his own went out became his only light till it in its turn went out and left him in the dark…

This is fairly comprehensible and is intended to be painfully pedantic. It is noticeable, however, that as the piece progresses it becomes steadily more difficult to understand: sentences become longer, containing multiple clauses but with key pronouns, verbs and punctuation removed to make them harder to parse at first reading.

Now the piece starts again, with the sitting man watching himself get up and leave, and then, even more mysteriously, watching the same figure reappear and disappear, repeating the action over and over.

As when he disappeared only to reappear later at another place. Then disappeared again only to reappear again later at another place again. So again and again disappeared again only to reappear again later at another place again. Another place in the place where he sat at his table head on hands…

This miasmatic section continues as the figure with his head in hands wonders whether the departing figure will reappear as he has done up to now, half hoping, half fearing he won’t.

But then, just as quickly, there’s another burst of comprehensibility when we learn the character used to walk the back roads. This immediately reminds us of the character in Company who talks a lot about walking the old back roads before returning to his room. Same here:

Seen always from behind whithersoever he went. Same hat and coat as of old when he walked the roads. The back roads. Now as one in a strange place seeking the way out. In the dark. In a strange place blindly in the dark of night or day seeking the way out. A way out. To the roads. The back roads.

He is old. He has memories and regrets.

There had been a time he would sometimes lift his head enough to see his hands. What of them was to be seen. One laid on the table and the other on the one. At rest after all they did. Lift his past head a moment to see his past hands. Then lay it back on them to rest it too. After all it did.

That, too, mostly makes sense. But the next paragraph moves us into more overt Beckett territory, as the syntax becomes unclear: by leaving out subject, verbs and conjunctions, the thought process becomes dazed, drugged, Alzheimered:

The same place as when left day after day for the roads. The back roads. Returned to night after night. Paced from wall to wall in the dark. The then fleeting dark of night. Now as if strange to him seen to rise and go. Disappear and reappear at another place. Disappear again and reappear again at another place again. Or at the same. Nothing to show not the same. No wall toward which or from. No table back toward which or further from. In the same place as when paced from wall to wall all places as the same. Or in another. Nothing to show not another. Where never. Rise and go in the same place as ever. Disappear and reappear in another where never. Nothing to show not another where never.

This recurring cycle of disappearing and reappearing takes over the text which specifies how it is impossible to define where it is, or whether it is even happening. Note how part of the effect is the switch in texture between sections which make total sense, or which the mind can immediately grasp – man gets up from chair, man takes to talking the back roads – and the other, far from understandable sections where the prose and syntax become more difficult and fragmented.

One of Beckett’s central effects is the way he creates a rhythmic alternation between these two states or styles or textures, so that, as you read it, you have the giddying feeling of alternating between passages which are relatively easy to understand and then, suddenly, stretches which at first sight are bewildering.

The final element in section 1 is the sudden advent of a new, disturbing theme which shocks us into the comprehensible side of the scale. For in this mental landscape there are ‘strokes and cries’. Of what? Of a whip? Of torture?

Nothing to show not another where never. Nothing but the strokes. The cries. The same as ever. Till so many strokes and cries since he was last seen that perhaps he would not be seen again. Then so many cries since the strokes were last heard that perhaps they would not be heard again. Then such silence since the cries were last heard that perhaps even they would not be heard again. Perhaps thus the end. Unless no more than a mere lull. Then all as before. The strokes and cries as before and he as before now there now gone now there again now gone again. Then the lull again. Then all as before again. So again and again. And patience till the one true end to time and grief and self and second self his own…

These strokes and cries are worrying, very worrying, but even they are swept along as the water rushes to the weir which ends the section, and suddenly tumbles over into the unexpected wish for an end, the wish for ‘the one true end to time and grief and self and second self his own’.

All this – the head in hands, the getting up and leaving, the reappearing, the eternal recurrence, all to the backdrop of the disturbing strokes and cries – all this is subsumed by, is swept on by, is waiting for the advent of, ‘the one true end to time and grief’.

You can see why Beckett hadn’t published this fragment, why it was lying among his notebooks when Barney Rosset’s letter arrived in 1983. It is almost too Beckettian. It contains a number of his most familiar tropes and yet… yet with a strangely rushed air about them. The doppelgänger and the strokes and cries are both given a few paragraphs and yet the whole thing seems to rush up to this final bit, the simple exhausted wish that it would all end.

Part two

If part one opened with the relatively easy notion of a man getting up from his table, part two deliberately opens with a demanding theoretical question of how we know we are in our right minds:

As one in his right mind when at last out again he knew not how he was not long out again when he began to wonder if he was in his right mind. For could one not in his right mind be reasonably said to wonder if he was in his right mind and bring what is more his remains of reason to bear on this perplexity in the way he must be said to do if he is to be said at all?

Is he a reasonable being? Can anyone be a reasonable being? Note how the sentences are deliberately long and confusing. Now the protagonist appears to have emerged into an outdoors space where a clock strikes but is also still at the table.

It was therefore in the guise of a more or less reasonable being that he emerged at last he knew not how into the outer world and had not been there for more than six or seven hours by the clock when he could not but begin to wonder if he was in his right mind. By the same clock whose strokes were those heard times without number in his confinement as it struck the hours and half hours and so in a sense at first a source of reassurance till finally one of alarm as being no clearer now than when in principle muffled by his four walls.

I’m not sure the clock has much meaning but it has a function. Very often in the midst of the most abstract passages Beckett includes something hard and comprehensible. For me this is like an abstract painter deciding to add a splash of red. Red doesn’t ‘mean’ anything but it somehow balances the composition. No doubt many readers will make the clock mean something, but for me it acts as a contrast to the highly abstract language surrounding it. Anyway, not long before we’re back with the cries we learned about at the end of part one. If nothing else, this shows that part one and part two are linked, in case there was any doubt.

Then he sought help in the thought of one hastening westward at sundown to obtain a better view of Venus and found it of none. Of the sole other sound that of cries enlivener of his solitude as lost to suffering he sat at his table head on hands the same was true. Of their whenceabouts that is of clock and cries the same was true that is no more to be determined now than as was only natural then.

The protagonist is puzzled why his footsteps are so quiet but then realises he is in a field of grass, except he is disturbed because all his previous experience of grass involved a limit a border a fence, but there is none here, moreover the grass he remembers was green whereas this is long and light grey verging on white. Maybe his memory of grass is at fault so he stops to take stick, head down in meditation.

But soon weary of vainly delving in those remains he moved on through the long hoar grass resigned to not knowing where he was or how he got there or where he was going or how to get back to whence he knew not how he came. So on unknowing and no end insight.

He has reached a version of Beckett nirvana, unknowing, uncaring moving over an endless vista. Except that:

Unknowing and what is more no wish to know nor indeed any wish of any kind nor therefore any sorrow save that he would have wished the strokes to cease and the cries for good and was sorry that they did not. The strokes now faint now clear as if carried by the wind but not a breath and the cries now faint now clear.

Those strokes and cries again. Are they of torture? I’m thinking so because I’m influenced by having recently read What Where, which is very much about torture. But, rereading the words I realise they could have a sexual connotation, be soft porn strokes and cries, but… Doubtful. No-one enjoys sex in Beckett.

Part three

If part one opened with a very readable sentence – ‘One night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go’ – by part 3 we have moved deep into the disjointed language of radical uncertainty:

So on till stayed when to his ears from deep within oh how and here a word he could not catch it were to end where never till then.

Didn’t quite get that?

Rest then before again from not long to so long that perhaps never again and then again faint from deep within oh how and here that missing word again it were to end where never till then.

Personally, I find this kind of thing immensely absorbing and rewarding. This is core Beckett, the style he perfected in The Unnamable and then spent 40 years struggling to move beyond because he had taken it to the limit. The technique is relatively simple:

  1. several sentences are mashed together
  2. key words (subject, verb, conjunctions) are removed
  3. all punctuation is removed

to create car crash sentences which are, initially, difficult to parse and understand, but, on rereading, begin to create a miasma of suggestive meanings. And what they suggest is a process of thought which cannot be captured in words. If I wanted to read a manual on motor car maintenance or instructions for operating a new DVD player or government advice on staying safe during a pandemic, I would expect it to be laid out in a logical order and each element clearly explained. But Beckett is at the opposite end of the spectrum from this, trying to capture the workings of a mind which might not even be a ‘mind’, trying to annotate the thought processes of events or perceptions which are beyond thought, beyond any kind of sense.

Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, you can make out the outlines of what is going on in this text. You can piece together a sort of summary of events: a man in a room at the table watches himself get up and leave, sees the same thing happen over and over again, begins to worry about the repetition, is worried by the sound of strokes and cries, steps out, is outside, hears a clock chime, worries about its next chime ringing or not ringing, his footsteps are quiet, it’s because he’s in a field of grass, but not like any field or any grass he can remember, if his memory works, if his mind works, stops to think, closes his eyes, reopens them and can’t decide which direction to go in…

Any prose text has to have a subject, and critics are free to analyse and comment on the events listed in this summary, and on the imagery used. But what I’m driving at is that none of this interests me very much. A little, but not very much. What interests me is the power of the sentences to take the reader to somewhere completely weird and other.

There then all this time where never till then and so far as he could see in every direction when he raised his head and opened his eyes no danger or hope as the case might be of his ever getting out of it. Was he then now to press on regardless now in one direction and now in another or on the other hand stir no more as the case might be that is as that missing word might be which if to warn such as sad or bad for example then of course in spite of all the one and if the reverse then of course the other that is stir no more.

In fact, if anything, Stirring Still is not, in my opinion, obscure enough. A sentence like this is disappointingly comprehensible especially when you re-introduce some sensible punctuation:

Was he, then, now to press on regardless, now in one direction and now in another, or on the other hand, stir no more, as the case might be…

This can be translated as: ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ We’ve got the protagonist to an infinite field of long grey-white grass, he stops to think, he reopens his eyes, he wonders whether to move or not and if so, in what direction. OK. But just when any reader might be expecting there to be further developments… the text, very abruptly, ends with the rather blunt thought that ‘he’, the figure all this seems to be happening to, you know what? He just wants it all to end:

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

And that is the end. Sudden.

Thoughts

On this read-through, then, I felt Stirrings Still is yet another continuation of the extraordinary stylistic breakthrough Beckett made in The Unnamable, but it doesn’t quite have the shock value or verve of so many of his other prose pieces – All Strange Away, Imagination Dead Imagine, How it Is, Enough, The Dead Ones or Company. These are all genuinely weird and creepy, while Stirrings Still…

Stirrings Still is very good, it contains some vintage Beckett tropes, but it feels a little… over-familiar… And also, having read it closely half a dozen times, I’ve come to feel it doesn’t end so much as just stop, with the sudden bolting on of those last sentences about ‘Oh all to end’. They feel like a sop to all those Beckett fans who loved his earlier smash hits, ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on’, and ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Sentimentalists will read this last sentence as the sad cry of a weary old man, and maybe it is. But Beckett characters had been saying more or less the same thing for the previous forty years, except that in many of the other texts they say it with a great deal more… more depth and weirdness.

Who is Darly?

Who is the Darly who is referred to twice in the text?

  • The same place and table as when Darly for example died and left him…
  • A clock afar struck the hours and half-hours. The same as when among others Darly once died and left him…

He’s the same as Woburn in Cascando, the sudden appearance of an improbably specific name in an otherwise sea of bewildering and confusing verbiage arranged in a brainteasing way to convey mental collapse or the struggle to make sense of apparently senseless perceptions.

The sudden eruption of a proper noun like this from the morass of the spavined text introduces two singular moments of colour. Names immediately mean something to any reader; even if we don’t know who the person is, we at least know what a name is, and so the zone around the two mentions suddenly comes into focus, as if something is about to be delivered.

To me the two uses of what is obviously someone’s name perform a structural, compositional function rather than a semantic one. As with the clock, mention of Darly adds a sudden splash of ‘realism’ in an otherwise almost abstract composition. Like a recognisable face suddenly discernible in a modernist collage.

Similar, although with a slightly different flavour, is the mention of Walther in part three. Initially it feels like the Darly reference, a proper name thrown into a sea of abstraction, as a foil or highlight. However, when you learn that the reference is to a poem by medieval poet Walther von der Vogelweide, a favourite of Beckett’s, then instead it feels more like a momentary reversion to the mode of the smartarse younger Beckett, filling his texts with references to obscure European literature in his pre-war stories and novels. Here’s the opening of the poem:

I sat upon a stone
covered one leg with the other
and set my elbow on them
I nestled in my hand
my chin and one of my cheeks.
In this position I started pondering
How one should live in the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The poet has a rational aim and clearly states it. So one purpose of this (rather obscure) reference may be precisely to highlight the gap between the confident rationality of the Middle Ages and the gaping irrationality of both the surreal situations and the broken language found in Stirrings Still.

All that said, once again, if we look closely at the sentence Walter appears in, it isn’t really as broken as it ought to be. It is, in fact, rather tame, specially if (as above) we reintroduce some sensible punctuation:

To this end, for want of a stone on which to sit like Walther and cross his legs, the best he could do was stop dead and stand stock still, which, after a moment of hesitation, he did…

In a sentence like this you can hear the late Victorian or Edwardian prose which lies behind much of Beckett’s supposedly modernist language, a surprisingly starchy and formal register.

the best he could do was stop dead and stand stock still, which, after a moment of hesitation, he did…

Sounds like a Victorian gentleman giving evidence. In a masterpiece like The Unnamable and other weird highlights such as How It Is, Beckett developed a style which reached completely beyond his Edwardian origins and probed into a new linguistic world. But here, in Stirrings Still, the more times I read it, despite the length and obscurity of some of its sentences, what really comes over to me is how unobscure and unrevolutionary a lot of it is. Take the very next sentence after the Walther one: all you have to do is add a few commas to make it look surprisingly conventional:

But soon, weary of vainly delving in those remains, he moved on through the long hoar grass, resigned to not knowing where he was, or how he got there, or where he was going.

This could almost come from an Edwardian children’s story. It could almost be from The Wind In The Willows. It sounds a little like the Terry Pratchett audiobook my daughter was listening to recently, in the sense that long sentences which simply pile together clauses with a series of ‘or’s or ‘and’s –

resigned to not knowing where he was, or how he got there, or where he was going.

often end up sounding like the naive ‘and then and then and then’ of children’s fiction. For sure the next sentence returns to the reassuring obliquities of avant-garde prose:

Unknowing and what is more no wish to know nor indeed any wish of any kind nor therefore any sorrow save that he would have wished the strokes to cease and the cries for good and was sorry that they did not.

But even this has the same breathless, running-three-sentences-together quality you find in a certain kind of children’s book.

Finally, the last few sentences with their sudden introduction of the theme of wanting it all to end, are arguably a reversion to the grown-up, proper thing:

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

But, having come this far down this rather negative analysis, I can’t help feeling that even this sounds a bit like the famous cry from the kids in the back of the car: ‘Are we there yet?’ It certainly feels like a sudden switch, like this Final Thought has been bolted onto something which didn’t really organically lead up to it.

Sentimental interpretation

In fact Beckett was nearly there, at the destination so many of his characters long for. A few months after the luxury edition was published, Beckett died, old and frail in a care home. If we read the final sentences with sympathy, as the cry of an old man wishing for relief, then it can be very moving.

Such and much more such the hubbub in his mind so-called till nothing left from deep within but only ever fainter oh to end. No matter how no matter where. Time and grief and self so-called. Oh all to end.

In this mood, it reminds me of a similar plea by the English poet, W.H. Auden, prematurely worn out by a life of drink and drugs, which was published in his final book of poetry, Thank You Fog, in 1974:

He still loves life
But O O O O how he wishes
The good Lord would take him.

Charitable interpretation

At first sight it’s of only negligible interest to learn that Beckett wrote Stirrings Still for his long-time American publisher Barney Rosset. But your reading completely changes when you learn that Rosset had recently fallen on hard times, having been dismissed as the chief editor at the Grove Press, and had asked Beckett for something with which to launch a new publishing venture, Blue Moon Books.

Now, a strong theme which emerges from a reading of James Knowlson’s wonderful biography of Beckett is that he was a very soft touch, he became known as a fantastically kind, considerate and charitable man, that he could never turn down any requests for financial assistance, whether from friends, family or total strangers.

If we return to Stirring Still’s history we find that Beckett replied to Rosset’s request with the text which makes up part one of the piece, which he had lying around as a fragment, but then took some time, in fact three years, to rustle up the other two parts, to try to give the piece an overall coherence, even though they only amount to four or so pages of text.

Now, the three parts of Stirrings Still do make sense, and they do hang together as three successive stages of psychological collapse, or end-stage visions. There is a definite progression in the narrative and it is described in prose which also becomes progressively more disintegrated. And yet, as I’ve highlighted, it still feels… a little rushed and not quite…

So it sheds real light on your understanding of Stirrings Still to learn that it was written as a favour to an old friend. This real world background knowledge helps to explain the rather cobbled-together nature of the text, which I’ve been increasingly struck by on every rereading.

Maybe Stirrings Still isn’t really the fitting conclusion to Beckett’s extraordinary career as an experimental and highly innovative writer that his fans would like it to be; maybe what it is is a testament to Beckett’s extraordinary kindness and generosity to his friends and to everyone who was in need of his help. Maybe it is less an artistic, than a moral achievement.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

In The Thirties by Edward Upward

Edward Upward

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

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

Upward was characteristic of the group in two other ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In The Thirties

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

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

The doomed

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

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

Richard likes it. It makes them both feel special.

The working classes

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

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

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

Outsiders

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

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

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

Alan’s Audenesque poetry

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

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

Note the use of classic Auden tricks like:

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

Peg

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

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

Sex in the Thirties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a thought.

Peg leaves

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

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

The struggle to write continues

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

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

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

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

Suicidal thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the plot

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several points about this exchange.

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

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

Chapter 4

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

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

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

Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communist Party members:

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

Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

Staff members:

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

Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10

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

He is a feeble twerp.

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

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

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

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

Chapter 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsie has told Alan she thinks she is pregnant.

Chapter 12

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

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

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

Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interpretation seems wildly wide of the mark.

Chapter 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

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

The 1930s

George Orwell

Graham Greene

History

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

A golden age of travel writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking the mickey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacNeice’s contributions include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

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

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

A few themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

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

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

The Ascent of F6

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

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

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

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

On The Frontier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

It feels like an ambitious school play.

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


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

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

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

Act I

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

The strong man and other themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auden’s verse

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

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

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

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

Descriptions of England’s countryside wasted by the Depression.

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

Gossipy descriptions of types of profession and character.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatrical effects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

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

%d bloggers like this: