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

Reflections on the monotony of poetry

Reading Poetry In the Thirties and then The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, an unexpected theme emerges which is:

The boring repetitiveness of so much of the poetry; the extraordinarily narrow range of language and the incredibly restricted vocabulary it uses.

When I was at school they told me English had the biggest vocabulary of any European language. You wouldn’t have thought so from reading these poems.

So many of the poems seem like the result of moving an extremely limited number of verbal counters into slightly varying combinations.

The monotonous repetition of a handful of ‘poetic’ buzzwords eventually drains them of all meaning and makes many of the poems feel very samey.

Here’s an A-list of the key, numbingly repeated, buzzwords, at least some of which appear in every poem in these collections:

blood, breast, death, dream, eye, heart, love, pain, red, star, sun, tears, time

What would happen to poetry if these words were simply banned? Or if poets were fined for using them? Almost all the poems in both anthologies would disappear in a puff of banality.

It’s odd, it’s a bit mad even, that poets like to swank about fighting cliché and dead language when in fact reading poetry often feels like being force-fed whole boxfulls of dusty old clichés.

A B-list of overused ‘poetic’ words would include:

bone, breath, clock, dark, dream, earth, fate, flesh, future, grave, life, light, memory, moon, night, road, sorrow, space, year, world

Well over a hundred thousand words to choose from and the poets bang on with the same 20, round and round like a donkey tied to a well.

So many of the poets think they’ve done their job if they’ve strung together ‘blood’, ‘death’ and ‘time’ in a vaguely novel arrangement but in a way, as I read the hundredth poem about ‘blood’ flowing from the ‘red’ ‘rose’ of the dying ‘earth’ etc, I began to think they were undoing something, draining these words of power, and draining their own indignation and compassion by failing to find new words, new vocabulary to express it.

Spender manages, all by himself, to drain the word ‘world’ of any meaning, overtones or symbolism by his obsessive use of it in almost every poem he wrote (and his autobiography is titled World Within World).

The pleasure of older poetry This is why it’s more enjoyable to read old poetry, the more enjoyable the further back in time you go, because you are increasingly likely to be pleasantly surprised by odd and unexpected vocabulary or by different meanings attached to words which have been bled dry in our time.

The success of W.H. Auden Looking at the poetry of the thirties from this angle – on the question of lexical variety – also sheds a different light on Auden’s success. Put simply, Auden had a larger vocabulary than anyone else. In his poetry you can hear Auden continually reaching for unexpected and novel words and combinations. Sometimes they feel contrived, but at least he’s making an effort to refresh poetry from new sources.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive.

‘Nip’ and ‘solder’ and ‘tableland’, God what a relief not to be reading about ‘blood’ and ‘hearts’ and ‘love’ and ‘time’ and ‘tears’ and ‘graves’. To be fair Auden uses these latter poetic keywords as much as anyone else – but he goes beyond what you could call Baseline Poetic Vocabulary, to deliberately refresh and expand its possibilities.

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

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing…

‘Octaves of radiation’, nobody could accuse that of being poetic cliché.

I’m not saying both books don’t contain good poems, lots of them, the Val Cunningham anthology is a marvel of diligent research in the archives turning up all kinds of obscure treasures and is a huge cornucopia of delights. BUT the downside of such profusion is the reader can’t help noting the obsessive repetition of the same images and phrases again and again and eventually longs for real variety of diction and phrasing.


Examples

At five the man fell under the trees
The watch flew off stopped at a moon
Of time staring from the dead wrist (Stephen Spender)

World world O world
Youth without promise in our long days
A sun reflected in the muddy stream
An eye duller than last night’s dream (Edgar Foxall)

Death stalked the olive trees picking his men
His leaden finger beckoned again and again (John Lepper)

Backed to the brown walls of the square
The lightless lorry headlamps stare
With glinting reflectors through the night
At our gliding star of light (Stephen Spender)

And on the hillside
That is the colour of peasant bread
Is the rectangular
White village of the dead (Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Why do you not take comfort then, my heart? (Ewart Milne)

It is night like a red rag
drawn across the eyes

the flesh is bitterly pinned
to desperate vigilance

the blood is stuttering with fear  (Laurie Lee)

Time stops when the bullet strikes
Or moves to a new rhyme;
No longer measured by the eyes
Leap, pulse-beat, thought-flow  (Tom Wintringham)

Our enemies can praise death and adore death
For us endurance, the sun; and now in the night…  (Tom Wintringham)

My life confronts my life with eyes, the world
The world with microscopes; and the self-image
Lifted in light against the lens
Stares back with my dumb wall of eyes (Stephen Spender)

Light, light with that lunar death our fate;
Make more dazzling with your agony’s gold
The death that lays us all in the sand.
Gaze with that gutted eye on our endeavour
To be the human brute, not the brute human;
And if I feel your gaze upon me, ever,
I’ll wear the robe of blood that love illumines. (George Barker)

Swells the seed, and now tight sound-buds
Vibrate upholding their paean flowers
To the sun. There are bees in sky-bells droning
Flares of crimson at the heart unfold. (C. Day-Lewis)

Who would think the Spanish war
Flared like new tenure of a star,
The way our rhymes and writings are?
That Hilliard spilled his boxer’s blood
Through Albecete’s snow and mud
And smiled to comrade death, Salud?  (Blanaid Salkeld)

The horror of the nightmare is that it evades
Your steady look, steals past the corner of the eye,
Lurks in the sides of pictures. Death
Is fearful for the fifth part of a second,
A fear that shakes the heart: and that fear lost
As soon, yet leaves and sickness and a chill,
Heavy hands and the weight of another day.

Here in Madrid, facing death
my narrow heart keeps hidden
a love which grieves me but which I cannot
even reveal to this night   (Stephen Spender)

Enemies hidden in ambush
Hidden among the branches;
Weeping comes to the eyes,
Harvests go up in flames,
And hysterical Death
Over the puddles of blood
Howls and dances in rage,
Leaps and fastens on flesh.  (Pla y Bektrana translated by Rolfe Humphries)

You are stalwart, strong;
Young generations of sturdy miners
Have forged you – iron is in your blood.  (Charlotte Haldane)

Dark falls the afternoon,
Dark amid rain and mud…  (José Moreno Villa translated by Stanley Richardson)

I’m singing in every country
Where I tread through the streets of Time…  (Clive Branson)

When from the deep sky
And digging in the harsh earth,
When by words hard as bullets
Thoughts simple as death…  (Tom Wintringham)

In the night, the cause I fight for
Draws a mist of horror up, damps me with blood..  (Miles Tomalin)

There, in the frond, the instant lurks
With its metal fang planned for my heart
When the finger tugs and the clock strikes.  (Stephen Spender)

Searchlights now wipe the windscreen of the sky,
Which once was clear,
When from the garden we saw planes go by
Not dulled by fear.  (H.B. Mallalieu)

Why are there only three emotions, love or hate or fear? The whole world of subtle feelings and emotion in between these extremes – shyness, demurral, shrugging, hesitation, indignation, humour – is absent.

Out of the singing and the dancing came
Civil dissension, bitter deeds, and cruel;
Out of the poet and the murdered fool
The blood leapt rigid in a rage of shame.  (J.C. Hall)

Why is it either primal day or night?

We’d left our training base
And by the time night fell
Stood facing the universe
Singing the ‘Internationale’  (Clive Branson)

Why is every other thought about death? I appreciate they’re poems about war, but other things happen in war apart from just death.

Too many people are in love with Death (Tom Wintringham)

The map of Spain
bleeds under my fingers, cracked with rivers
of unceasing tears, and scraped with desolation
and valleyed with these moaning winds of death.  (Jack Lindsay)

But even now reproaching stars can sound
from death‘s horizon into which they dive…  (Kathleen Raine)

Fear will alight on each like a dunce’s cap
Or an unguessed disease unless death drops
Quicker than the sirens or the traffic stops  (Bernard Gutteridge)

It’s not that it’s inappropriate to write of death during a war, it’s that the word is just bandied around too easily and too glibly, it’s the monotony of this one boring word which becomes so grinding.

Now we can walk into the picture easily
To be the unknown hero and the death…  (Bernard Gutteridge)

Ask of the eagle that yelped overhead
where in the blaze of death the Spanish workers blocked
the Guadarrama passes with their dead.  (Jack Lindsay)

And any more poets who rhyme ‘death’ with ‘breath’ deserve to be shot.

Why are the only parts of the human body the heart, the eye and blood?

Men, worlds, nations,
pay heed, listen to my cry pouring out blood,
gather together the pulses of my breaking heart
into your spacious hearts,
because I clutch the soul when I sing.  (Miguel Hernandez translated by Stephen Spender)

Scorched and splintered lie its stones,
Blood is dust with flesh and hair…  (Miles Tomalin)

There are over 650 named muscles in the human body, over 200 bones, and scores of other fluids besides blood and tears. But only blood and heart and eye are ever mentioned, and not just occasionally, but over and over again, three body parts endlessly re-arranged by a madman.

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view. (John Cornford)

Why are the only things above us the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars? The clouds come in a hundred forms, the weather is complex and changeable, constellations and stars twinkle.

The sun warmed the valley but no birds sang
The sky was rent with shrapnel and metallic clang.

Ten years of sun and shadow. Ten years of the premonition of love and the omen of death… (H.B. Mallalieu)

Why is the only flower any of them have heard of ‘the rose’?

Can’t you smell the rose held in their teeth
Tighter than death?  (Clive Branson)

The centre of my heart like a red tree
Puts forth a hand and indicates the common red rose  (George Barker)

Why are there only two colours, red or black? It’s extraordinary, when we know that the human eyes can distinguish between about ten million shades of colour, that all the colours the poets in this collection refer to are red and black.

Out of the newsprint blows this wind of honour,
pause reading amid the traffic blast. Seal down,
red as the heart, the oath that we must swear
if we are still to live on such an earth  (Jack Lindsay)

Why is the only animal the dog? OK, the ox also appears a few times. There might be a few chickens. Are they all the animal species which exist in Spain or which poets can imagine?

The world is full, full of millions of things, hundreds of thousands of plants and animals and fungi, the entire range of modern machinery and technology, thousands of colours or moods of weather or human feelings, the thousands of words for the millions of intricate specificities of life.

It’s amazing how much of all that is left out of these poems, excluded by their narrow notions of poetic correctness, by their over-concern with a handful of ideas and images, with their incredible poverty of vocabulary and imagination.


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Poetry of the Thirties edited by Robin Skelton (1964)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from It was easier by Ruthven Todd, 1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from Instructions by Charles Madge, 1933)

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

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

(from Hymn by Rex Warner, 1933)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from Elegy in Spain by George Barker, 1939)

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

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

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

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

(opening of The Witnesses by Auden)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from Meeting Point by Louis MacNeice, 1939)

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

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

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

(Opening of The Magnetic Mountain poem 20)

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

(To Benjamin Britten by W.H. Auden)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Token by F.T. Prince

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But hang on…

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

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

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

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

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


Some poems from the thirties

Lullaby by W.H. Auden (1937)

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

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

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

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

In Westminster Abbey by John Betjeman (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Armies by Stephen Spender (1939)

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

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

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

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

A Letter from Aragon by John Cornford (1936)

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This on a quiet front.

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

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

Missing Dates by William Empson (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The poets

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

Related links

The Auden Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Snapshots of the real derelict industrial England:

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

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

… love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union

References to kinky sex:

The hard bitch and the riding-master,

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

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

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

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

Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Spender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis MacNeice

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

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

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

Possibly his most famous short poem or lyric is Snow.

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

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

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

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

… I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips

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

World is crazier and more of it than we think

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

Autumn Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterlife of the Auden Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auden emigrates to America

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

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

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

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

The left-behind

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

The Mendelson revival

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

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

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

And even made it into a Richard Curtis movie:

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

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

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

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


Related links

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

Although this book is over 20 years old, the issues it addresses (the anti-scientific tendency of much traditional literature and the inappropriate use of poetic writing in bogus pseudo-science – versus the hard scientific fact and clear scientific thinking Dawkins promotes) are still very current, and since Dawkins is still writing books attacking non-scientific ways of looking at the world (such as his most recent tome, Outgrowing God, published just last year) I think it’s still worth reviewing this one as an analysis of his overall style and approach.

The aim

The full title is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and the book’s purpose is simple: For thousands of years humans have written poetry or concocted religious myths and symbols to explain the puzzling world around them. But (Dawkins says) the scientific worldview as we now have it explains more or less everything about the world around us from bacteria to supernovas and, if properly understood, is far more beautiful and inspiring than the poetry, myths and legends it supersedes.

My advice

However, in my opinion, if you want to be inspired, watch a David Attenborough documentary about the natural world or a Brian Cox one about the stars, because this book is a hilariously silly, shallow, ragbag of random quotes, fragments of science mixed up with countless personal anecdotes, snippets from newspapers or TV and, above all, a relentless stream Richard Dawkins’s pet peeves and trite opinions.

Do not read this book.

Dawkins shares his opinion of modern journalists (lamentably anti-science)

Dawkins opens the book with a sustained attack on a shopping list of contemporary authors who have written disparagingly about science, including Bernard Levin (who once wrote an article specifically about Dawkins God, Me and Mr Dawkins 11 October 1996 – hence the enmity), Simon Jenkins, A.A. Gill, Fay Weldon (author of a ‘hymn of hate’ against science in the Daily Telegraph) and so on and so on.

Dawkins quotes articles in the newspapers, or letters he has received, or questions he gets asked at the end of his lectures, or anecdotes about students of his, to demonstrate that anti-scientific prejudice and ignorance is everywhere – There are creationists under the bed and anti-evolutionists hiding in the closet. It isn’t safe to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without someone spouting unscientific rubbish or promoting astrology or showing the deepest scientific illiteracy. Fools! Knaves! Dawkins has no patience with error.

This is dramatically, profoundly, hugely wrong. (p.90)

Dawkins shares his opinion of British poets (lamentably anti-science)

And then – oh dear, oh dear – Dawkins takes it upon himself to be the judge of a raft of classic poets including Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth, Blake or Yeats or Lawrence.

Dawkins has located quotes from all of these luminaries lamenting the ‘death of romance’ and the role science has played in ‘dis-enchanting the world’ so, as usual, Richard loses no time in telling us that they were all dead wrong in thinking science dis-enchants the world: if only they’d understood modern science, they’d have written poetry ten times as good!!

Dawkins then goes on to prove that he has absolutely no feel for poetic writing or for the luminous quality of poetry:

  1. by the way he quotes schoolboy tags and the most obvious ‘greatest hits’ moments from the most obvious Great Poets
  2. by the way he treats poems as rhythmic verse i.e you can do a prose summary, and then evaluate them on whether or not they show the ‘correct’ attitude to the scientific worldview
  3. and by the way he has rummaged through the diaries and letters and table talk of the Great Poets to find quotes of them stating anti-scientific or anti-rationalist opinions

Which he considers case closed. He cannot entertain the idea that poetry might not be written to put forward clearly defined and logical points of view, but might be an alternative way of perceiving and expressing the world and what it is to be human…

He refers to D.H. Lawrence who (allegedly) refused to believe that moonlight is reflected sunlight (that sounds too pat and too stupid to be true), but even if it were, you kind of know what Lawrence is talking about. We have evolved over tens of millions of years to find night-time eerie and the changing shape and movement of the moon uncanny. Is it possible that part of a poet’s role is to respect ancient beliefs, to excavate and re-express deep ancestral feelings, no matter how irrational?

Not in Dawkins’s view. No! They were all wrong wrong wrong about science and deserve to be sent to the back of the class. He speculates that:

Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science from some of his inspiration. (p.27)

If only the Great Poets were more like, well, like Richard Dawkins!

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

He fills the book with his own Daily Mail prejudices and bêtes noirs.

Post-modernism is rubbish Once again we get his shallow critique of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – ‘the meaningless wordplays of modish francophone savants‘ – which he dismisses in a sentence as existing merely ‘to impress the gullible’ (p.41).

Now maybe a lot of French post-war philosophy is pretentious twaddle, but, for example, Derrida’s attempt to rethink the entire tradition of writing as a way of encoding authority which constantly undermines itself because of the looseness and deeply unfinishable nature of writing, or Foucault’s histories of how power is wielded by supposedly ‘objective’ academic disciplines and public institutions, or Roland Barthes’ explorations of how texts have lives of their own, determined by structures or levels of activity which have hitherto been overlooked – these are all fascinating intellectual endeavours, certainly more worth spending time reading about than the Daily Mail philistinism of Dr D.

It’s a telling irony that soon after a passage attacking writers and journalists (Bernard Levin, Simon Jenkins et al) for their shallow, ignorant dismissal of science as being a worldview which they don’t like — Dawkins himself carries out just such a shallow, ignorant dismissal of post-modern philosophy, for being a worldview which he doesn’t like.

Could it be that there are multiple worldviews, countless worldviews, and that we get along best by enjoying their diversity? No! Wrong wrong wrong!

Children’s book awards are vulgar Dawkins gives an account of attending an awards ceremony for children’s science books where the audience was encouraged to make insect noises, which he found insufferably ‘vulgar’.

Computer games are vulgar In much the same way, in The Blind Watchmaker, he dismissed ‘vulgar’ arcade computer games (not as dignified and worthy as the computer game he had devised, of course).

The ‘Top 20’ shows how vulgar people are This kind of lofty condemnation of ‘popular’ interests and tastes comes, of course, from a long line of lofty and contemptuous Oxford intellectuals, and sits alongside his fastidious disapproval of the so-called ‘Top 40’ and how easy it is to promote ‘worthless pop singles, an attitude of fastidious elitism which made me laugh at the end of The Blind Watchmaker. Later on he finds the space, for obscure personal reasons, to go out of his way to tell us that the activity of bodybuilding is an ‘odd minority culture’. Possibly. But not as odd as writing a book supposedly about science and going out of your way to include a paragraph disapproving of body building.

The X-Files is anti-scientific Dawkins takes the time to explain why he dislikes the popularity of the TV show The X-Files – namely, because of the way it foregrounds the spooky, irrational explanations for the weird occurrences it depicts (p.28) – which is so frightfully anti-science.

Douglas Adams is masterly By contrast, he wants us to know that he approves of the ‘masterly’ science comedies of Douglas Adams (p.29).

Science fiction is serious literature! Science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov et al:

seems to me to be an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature (p.27)

Oh yes, if Dawkins ran literature departments, things would be different! Out with Derrida and Barthes, in with Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov!

Dr Dolittle is not racist Dawkins finds time to share his opinion that Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books do have a little racism in them, but then that was the universal worldview of the 1920s, so it is silly for ‘pompously correct librarians’ to ban them. And, anyway, Dolittle’s love of animals is superior to the speciesism which even the most politically correct of our own time are still prey to (p.53).

Ruskin didn’t understand science I was actively upset when Dawkins quotes a passage of Ruskin about how people prefer myths and stories to the cold empirical facts – and then goes on to ridicule Ruskin’s attitude not by countering his views but by retelling the hoary old anecdote about the great critic and social reformer’s disastrous wedding night.

It stood out to me as a moment of gross insensitivity and schoolboy bullying. Ruskin was a genius, who struggled to transform the way the philistine British thought about art and design and handed his cause on to the young William Morris. To drag up this hackneyed anecdote is in the worst possible vein of Daily Mail ad hominem philistinism.

Summary

a) Dawkins is a modern reincarnation of just the kind of literal-minded, unbending, unsympathetic and impenetrably dense philistine who forced so many of the Great Poets – Shelley and Byron and Browning, Lawrence and Auden – to flee claustrophobic, puritanical, judgemental England for hotter, more laid-back climes.

b) There seems to be no subject too trivial or too minor for Dawkins not to be able to use it as the pretext to share with the reader his trite and obvious opinions and prejudices, or to prompt another anecdote from his endless store of ‘fascinating’ encounters.

Imagine if David Attenborough interrupted his voiceover about humming birds or polar bears to share an anecdote about a distinguished professor he had a squabble with over dinner at his Oxford college, or took a minute to explain to his viewers why Star Trek is better than Dr Who, or why Douglas Adams’ novels are criminally under-rated.

You’d think he’d gone mad. But that’s what most of this book is like.

Snobbism

Although Dawkins goes out of his way to sound reasonable he can’t help quite frequently sounding like a snob, fastidiously distancing himself from the ghastly taste of the mob. Richard – alongside the Daily Mail – laments how standards have slipped and once-mighty institutions have pandered to popular taste. O Tempora! O mores!

In his chapter rubbishing horoscopes and astrology, Dawkins quotes surveys in which most people say they read horoscopes just for entertainment:

Their taste in what constitutes entertaining fiction is evidently different from mine!

Indeed. Dawkins has told us several times that he cycles through the streets of leafy Oxford. I wonder if he’s ever thought about people like me who have to fight their way onto over-crowded tube trains, or flop exhausted at the end of the day onto a muggy bus, brain dead and pick up a copy of the Metro or Standard to leaf through, treating the horoscopes as much the same as all the other brainless twaddle in it which helps pass the time if you are very, very tired. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live, maybe…

I chortled when he referred to the Radio Times as ‘that once-respected organ of the BBC’ (p.124). Could anyone sound more pompous?

After taking part in a BBC programme promoting a faith healer who claimed to be the reincarnation of a 2,000-year-old dead doctor, Dawkins clashed with the commissioning editor of this programme. He was horrified that the BBC should:

lend the weight of its long built-up reputation by appearing to accept the fantasy at face value (pp.125-6)

It’s so often the BBC which draws the ire of the Mrs Angry’s from Tunbridge Wells… and so it is for Dawkins. I smiled when he described David Frost as:

a veteran British television personality whom some government saw fit to knight… (p.126)

‘Whom’. I know it’s technically correct but I don’t like using ‘whom’ precisely because Dawkins is typical of the kind of people who still use it, the kind of people who perpetually think the BBC is going to the dogs.

The long chapter demolishing astrologers and fake magicians is an orgy of supercilious superiority to the immoral tricksters who make money be exploiting a gullible public, aided and abetted by intelligent people in places like the BBC who really should know better!

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

I’ll begin with a personal anecdote. (p.138)

The book is jam packed with chatty stories and anecdotes from people he’s met, and letters he’s received, and newspapers articles he’s read, and debates he’s taken part in, and lectures he’s given, and children he’s chatted to, and anecdotes about his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his parents, and uncle and aunt.

  • I am told on good authority that defence lawyers in the United States sometimes object to jury candidates on the grounds that they have had a scientific education (p.83)
  • A colleague tells me of a time when he was up for selection on a jury… (p.84)
  • I had a schoolfriend who claimed that he could recognise any member of the 80-strong residence in which we lived purely by listening to their footsteps. (p.88)
  • I had another friend from Switzerland who claimed that when she walked into a room she could tell, by smell, which members of her circle of acquaintances had just left the room. (p.88)
  • I once received a lawyer’s bill, the last item of which was ‘Time spent making out this bill’ (p.106)
  • My wife Lalla Ward recalls an occasion when an American starlet approached the director of the film they were both working on with a ‘Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?’ and received the immortal rebuff, in a thick Austrian accent, ‘I am a Do Not Disturrrb sign.’ (p.118)
  • I once met a woman who was employed full time to invent these stories [Elvis sighted on Mars-type stories] for an American publication… (p.124)
  • I recall an entertaining dinner with a philosopher who told me the following story: One day in church he noticed that a priest, in a kneeling position, was hovering nine inches above the church floor. (p.133)
  • I remember once trying to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. (p.141)
  • I used a similar illustration in one of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1991. (p.145)
  • My wife once bought for her mother a beautiful antique watch with a pink face. (p.154)
  • During this particular minute, my thoughts have strayed to a schoolfellow called Haviland (I don’t remember his Christian name, not what he looked like) whom I haven’t seen or thought of for 45 years. (p.159)
  • Daniel Dennett has told me of a conversation with a philosopher colleague who had read Wonderful Life as arguing that the Cambrian phyla did not have a common ancestor – that they had sprung up as independent origins of life! (p.207)

He spends a page and a half describing the time his parents persuaded little Richard and his sister to put on blindfolds and led them out to the garden where they sat them in a wooden frame which they persuaded the children was an airplane, trundled it along the ‘runway’ and then lifted it into the air and zoomed it around the garden, sometimes brushing against low-hanging branches of trees.

This anecdote is the basis of a couple of pages of complete speculation about why credulity, the ability to believe anything they’re told, might be an evolutionary advantage in human children – but how adults should grow out of it and apply serious scientific standards of scepticism and an informed understanding of statistics to every aspect of their lives.

But why? Why can’t people believe what they want to? In reality they already do, and always have, and always will. Charming, page-long anecdotes about Richard’s upper-middle-class childhood aren’t going to change anyone’s minds, they just warm the hearts of the upper-middle-class book reviewers who, as a result, shower his books with praise (enthusiastic blurbs on the back of this book come from A.S. Byatt [private school and Oxford] and Matt Ridley [the fifth Viscount Ridley, Eton and Oxford]).

On and on it goes in an endless burbling stream of jolly gossip which is entertaining because it’s so inconsequential and vain, a self-satisfied family album of preening opinions.

Sometimes there are bits of science…

Why rainbows appear like they do, sound waves, how we can read the chemical composition of different stars, DNA fingerprinting – there are interesting fragments of actual science, reasonably clearly explained, buried amid all the gossip and personal prejudices.

There’s another explanation of the structure of the eye (repeated from River Out of Eden), a page about qasars, and 4 or 5 pages about ‘Skinner boxes, and the behaviouralist B.F. Skinner’s experiments rewarding animals (pigeons and rats) which led him to notice that animals, too, appear to develop superstitious rituals i.e. if they happened to be doing something (pecking a particular part of the box, or huddling on one particular corner) when some food pops through the chute into the box, then they will repeat the same behaviour again and again in the hope that lightning strikes twice. Like humans who carry out lucky tics and rituals.

There’s a lengthy passage (pp.193-209) attacking Stephen Jay Gould. It’s typical of Dawkins in that he says he respects the great American populariser of evolution, but then goes on to systematically demolish every aspect of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. Gould uses the fossil discoveries in the Burgess Shale to assert that the Cambrian period when they were laid down saw a spectacular and unprecedented explosion of evolutionary growth and diversity, hundreds of wacky designs for life forms, many of which flourished and disappeared. Dawkins powerfully disagrees that evolution works in such bursts and spurts, and lines up a barrage of critics and authorities to demolish Gould’s position, concluding with a quote from Peter Medawar claiming it was a shame that Gould had (before his death in 2002) become the pre-eminent popular exponent of evolutionary theory in the United States because his ideas are ‘confused’ and totally unrepresentative of the mainstream of evolutionary thought (‘in fact the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with…’, p.207).

OK so there’s some science in this passage, as Dawkins explains why he disagrees with Gould but, as you can tell, the explication of the facts of what was found in the Burgess Shale take a poor second place to Dawkins’s argufying about it. The point of these fifteen pages or so is not to explain the thing to you, it’s to convince you that Gould was wrong wrong wrong!

The passage I liked best explained how evolution, among other things, has selected for the correct shapes of key proteins – some crucial proteins have multiple shapes and versions: the correct shapes are the ones which allow them to carry out their life-enabling activities, but it explains why things go disastrously wrong if the body, for whatever reason, starts to produce wrong-shaped alternatives: which is what happens in mad cow disease, when an alternative shape of the prion protein occurs and then triggers a cascade of mishapen prions throughout the body, which leads to holes forming in the brain, and madness.

Moments like this are obviously interesting, but they are oases of sense in a book most of whose text is made up of anecdotes, stories, far-fetched analogies, pitifully simplistic opinions about Great Literature, and a wholesale misunderstanding of human nature.

Conclusion

As to Dawkins’s central point that all kinds of people think unscientifically, don’t understand statistics or probabilities or how DNA fingerprinting works or how the rainbow is made, and instead believe gibberish about horoscopes and astrology and magic tricks… well, so what?

People have always been fools, always will be, as John Gray points out (see my review of his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette). On the whole, people don’t burn witches or lynch strangers or march gaily off to war like they used to, so that’s progress of a sort.

But expecting everyone to suddenly abandon junk TV, sensationalist tabloid journalism, horoscopes and the countless promises of overnight diets and anti-ageing creams, and suddenly, miraculously, become hyper-intelligent, private-school educated, Oxford academic experts in DNA and astronomy is… well… a fatuous fantasy.

Dawkins and Junior

When my son (22 and studying Biology at university) discovered that I was reading Dawkins’s books, he was genuinely outraged. He crossly told me that all Dawkins’s contributions to biology have been discredited, and that his only achievement has been to create in many people’s minds a vision of science and scientists as narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-religious and bigoted – a view which my son has personally found himself having to extricate himself from in student conversations, and which has been extremely socially unhelpful.

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

In a previous book I gave away the number of the combination lock on my bicycle. I felt safe in doing so because obviously my books would never be read by the kind of person who would steal a bicycle. Unfortunately somebody did steal it, and now I have a new lock with a new number. (p.147)

This vignette perfectly captures Dawkins’s spirit of winning naivety and complete ignorance of human nature. Maybe you can see why, in my review of The Blind Watchmaker, I dubbed Dawkins the Mr Bean of Biology.

Credit

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins was published by Penguin in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

Environment

Evolution

Genetics

Human evolution

Maths

Origins of Life

Particle physics

Psychology

Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)
1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)
1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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