Here is Alan Mason‘s latest post on his favourite books of the twentieth century. If you would like to read the rest of Alan’s posts on twentieth century writing click here.
There was an “accelerando” (faster) feel to this decade, as the economy expanded and a whole series of new opportunities presented themselves. Not only were people better off but their expectations were more optimistic. All things seemed to be possible; men even got to the moon. In the world of art it was the USA which made the running, in the “op art” and “pop art” movements. Andy Warhol produced an art based on screen prints of popular icons like Coca Cola or Marilyn Monroe (1). Her portrait was actually a painting, but made to look like a screen print.
Roy Lichtenstein turned the blown-up “dot-printed” comic book images (2) into another aspect of “pop art”. This was an art which appealed to proponents of the “cult of youth” which was coming to dominate national cultures in Europe, USA and other “Western” countries.
In Britain, all this was in marked contrast to the graceless, and rather coarsely realistic nudes of Lucien Freud, and the distorted, pain-racked figures of Francis Bacon (3).
The reconstruction of the fifties had been replaced, in the sixties, by active destruction of sound old buildings and their replacement by new designs. The tower block became a hated symbol of this movement. It has been said of Plymouth, as well as other cities, that the developers of the nineteen sixties did more damage to the historic centres than the wartime Luftwaffe raids ever did. The demolition of sixties tower blocks by controlled explosions became a popular spectator sport of later decades.
The poet, John Betjeman was a major influence on attempts to save Victorian architecture from needless destruction (2).
Of the eight books listed below, only one (8) deals with current sixties issues. The rest look back to the recent past, perhaps with a more reflective attitude in a time of peace and prosperity. Two of them, (1, 7,) take us back to the early nineteenth century.
|1 Flashman||George MacDonald Fraser||1969|
|2 Summoned by Bells||John Betjeman||1960|
|3 Cancer Ward||Alexander Solzhenitsyn||1968|
|4 The Fox in the Attic||Richard Hughes||1961|
|5 The Emperor of Ice Cream||Brian Moore||1965|
|6 The Sword of Honour Trilogy||Evelyn Waugh||1964|
|7 Wide Sargasso Sea||Jean Rhys||1966|
|8 The Child Buyer||John Hersey||1960|
1 Flashman……………………………….George MacDonald Fraser…………………………………………………..1969
There are twelve “Flashman” novels, published between 1969 and 2005. They provided a breath of fresh air and irreverence to the genre of historical novels. Each one is characterised by the cowardice, lecherousness, marital infidelity, dishonesty, lying and cynicism of the hero, Harry Flashman.
In early nineteenth century Britain, there was no State school system. There were only private schools. The so-called “public schools” like Eton, Harrow, Winchester, and Rugby, were only “public” in the sense that anyone could apply to go there, as long as they had enough money to pay the fees. In practice, they were almost exclusively schools for children of the wealthy. Ironically, many of them were medieval foundations, (5) for the children of the poor. Their take-over by the rich is one of the great unprosecuted crimes of British history.
These public schools, in the early nineteenth century, were a byword for corruption, bullying, drunkenness, and low educational standards. A revolution in organisation and teaching began, associated with the name of Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby School. These revolutionary changes were described in a fictional account of the life of a new boy to Rugby, called “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” by Thomas Hughes.
This book had a pernicious influence on British schools throughout the nineteenth and halfway through the twentieth century. It describes and praises the whole apparatus of the “house” system, worship of sporting prowess, emphasis on Latin and Greek, and disparagement of Science, Mathematics and the Arts. Unfortunately, the 19 C grammar schools adopted these ideas, and they were eventually transferred to the 20 C secondary modern and comprehensive schools. The Flashman books appeared as the “Tom Brown” philosophy was breaking up. Essentially, Flashman represents the old arrogant, ignorant, drunken, lazy oaf that Thomas Arnold tried so hard to tread down, so that better boys might rise to prominence in Rugby School.
As the novel opens, it quickly establishes the social attitudes of Flashman and his father, a local country squire. Flashman leaves Rugby and rides to London, to see his widower father who has acquired a mistress.
“I explained, ‘I’ve been expelled,’ I said, as cool as I could.
`Expelled? D’ye mean thrown out? What the devil for, sir?’
`What d’you make of this, Judy?’ he said to the woman.
`I take it this is a relative?’ she says, letting her fan droop towards me. She had a deep husky voice, and I shivered.
`Relative? Eh? Oh, dammit, it’s my son Harry, girl! Harry, this is Judy … er, Miss Parsons.’
She smiled at me now, still with that half-amused look, and I sized up her points while the father got himself another glass and damned Arnold for a puritan hedge-priest. She was what is called Junoesque, broad-shouldered and full-breasted, which was less common then than it is now, and it seemed to me she liked the look of Harry Flashman.(6)
‘Well, what’s to be done with
I had been thinking this over on my way home, and said straight out that I fancied the army.
`The army?’ he growled. ‘You mean I’m to buy you a commission so that you can live like a king and ruin me with bills at the Guards’ Club, I suppose?’
`Not the Guards,’ (7) I said. ‘I’ve a notion for the 11th Light Dragoons.’
‘You’ve chosen a regiment already? By gad, here’s a cool hand!’
I knew the11th were at Canterbury, after long service in India, and unlikely for that reason to be posted abroad. I had my own notions of soldiering.
`Dragoons, damme! D’ye know what a cornet’s commission costs? Impudence, eh, Judy?’
Miss Judy observed that I might look very well as a dashing dragoon.”
It seems that Flashman Senior was unimpressed by the reforms of the public schools and that his son was only prepared for a military career if it avoided fighting and service abroad. In those days commissions in the British Army (7) were purchased. This meant that only the wealthy could rise to high rank. It also meant that the best and most effective officers were denied promotion.
This was the year 1839; young Queen Victoria had been on the throne for two years, when Flashman joined the 11 Hussars. Their new commander was James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, later to find fame in the Crimean War, leading ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. When the regiment is transferred to Paisley, in Scotland, Flashman seduces Elspeth, the daughter of wealthy local mill-owner. He is challenged to a duel by Elspeth’s uncle, a retired professional soldier, and ignominiously has to accept marriage to Elspeth.
Cardigan tells Flashman, “Haw-haw. This mawwiage will not do. Did you not think of your position? Of the wegiment? If I am asked and who is Mr Fwashman’s wife? Oh, her father is a Gwasgow weaver, don’t you know?”
Cardigan is adamant, and so is Flashman’s father, and consequently, our hero has to resign from the regiment and transfer to India, and raft of future troubles.
“There may be better countries for a soldier to serve in than India, (8) but I haven’t seen them. You may hear the greenhorns talk about heat and flies and filth and the natives and the diseases; the first three you must get accustomed to, the fifth you must avoid — which you can do, with a little common sense — and as for the natives, well, where else will you get such a docile, humble set of slaves? I liked them better than the Scots, anyhow; their language was easier to understand.”
“In the first place, I messed at the Fort with the artillery officers in the native service, who were a poor lot, and whose messing would have sickened a pig. The food was bad to begin with, and by the time the black cooks had finished with it you would hardly have fed it to a jackal. It was obvious that I would be better shifting for myself, so I found Basset, the hussar officer whom I had brought with me from England, gave him a fistful of money, and told him to find a cook, a butler, a groom, and half a dozen other servants. These people were to be hired for virtually nothing.
I’ve said that I have a gift of languages, but it was only when I came to India that I realised this. My Latin and Greek had been weak at school, for I paid little attention to them, but a tongue that you hear spoken about you is a different thing. Each language has a rhythm for me, and my ear catches and holds the sounds; I seem to know what a man is saying even when I don’t understand the words, and my own tongue slips easily into any new accent.
After a fortnight listening to my servant, Timbu and asking him questions, I was speaking Hindustani well enough to be understood, and I paid him off. For one thing, I had found a more interesting teacher. Her name was Fetnab, (9) and I bought her from a merchant whose livestock consisted of wenches for the British officers and civilian residents in Calcutta. She cost me 500
rupees, which was about
guineas, and she was a bargain. I suppose she was about sixteen, with a handsome enough face and a gold stud fixed in her nostril, and great slanting brown eyes. Like most other Indian dancing girls, she was shaped like an hour-glass, with a waist that I could span with my two hands, fat breasts like melons, and a wobbling backside. If anything she was a shade too plump. After my first two days with her I thought less and less about my new wife Elspeth.
However, I put her to other good uses. In between bouts we would talk, for she was a great chatterbox, and I learned more of Hindi from her than I would have done from any munshi (male teacher). I give the advice for what it is worth: if you wish to learn a foreign tongue properly, study it in bed with a native girl – I’d have got more of the classics from an hour’s wrestling with a Greek wench than I did in four years from Arnold in Rugby.”
Let us now cut to the chase. Flashman eventually ends up in Afghanistan, as part of an ill-judged British military expedition which ends in disaster for the civilian and military personnel involved. Five thousand British soldiers marched on the “Retreat from Kabul” on 6 January 1842 and only a handful of survivors (10) managed to escape back across the Khyber Pass (11) to the safety of India.
Does this sound familiar? Here we are, 170 years later and a modern British military expedition is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan. There is an old saying, “Those who fail to study their history may be compelled to repeat it.” Perhaps it would have been sensible for the Republican President of the USA, George W Bush, and the Labour Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, to have read a copy of “Flashman” before embarking on the present intervention in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a violent and corrupt tribal society set in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. (11) It was in Flashman’s day, and it is now. Liberal democracy cannot flourish in such a climate and it is foolish to suppose it can. Over 400 British military personnel have died in this present conflict. Did they die in vain, or more brutally, were their deaths pointless? No politician can afford to admit this, but many British servicemen, and their families directly associated with the conflict, conclude that this is true. The deaths of the British soldiers in the military expedition to Afghanistan described in “Flashman” were equally pointless. We can admit this now at such a distance in time.
Those readers who wish to see a conventional history of the British expedition to Afghanistan and the “Retreat from Kabul” in 1842 are recommended to consult, “Signal Catastrophe” by Patrick McCrory, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 1966.
The foreword by Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templer says baldly that this is a “classic example of how such an operation should not be organized.” He goes on to point out, “the impossibility of controlling by force of arms alone, a country where the mass of people are against the ‘foreigner’. It could be said that the lesson has not been learned in the modern world.” He refers accurately to the “crafty, brave yet treacherous Afghans.”
The author, (12) George MacDonald Fraser was not a historian, but he was a soldier who had served in the Burma Campaign during WW2 and knew the realities of warfare in fighting the Japanese invaders. After the end of the war he served in the Middle East and North Africa, before returning to civilian life as a journalist. He spent many years as a journalist, but was always keen to become a full-time writer of books. He conceived the idea, in 1966, of turning Flashman, the fictional bully and coward, of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” into the hero of a novel. It was instantly popular, and led to a whole series of similar novels. Each one is thoroughly researched, so the historical background is accurate. For example, “Flashman” contains thirty detailed references to the historical events mentioned in the book.
2 Summoned by Bells…………………..John Betjeman………………………………………………………………..1960
This is a curious work, part poetry, and part prose autobiography. I think it is an interesting book because it is about “acceptance” within the English class system of the early twentieth century. The author, John Betjeman, was a poet for most of his adult life, but eventually became an architectural preservationist, a TV personality, and finally a national treasure; so that he ultimately achieved the acceptance he craved so much as a young man.
The Betjeman family were of Dutch origin. In modern Britain exotic foreign names are common, but in the early twentieth century, before mass immigration, unusual names stood out like a sore thumb among the broad sweep of British surnames. Many immigrants simply anglicised their names, so that when Mr Mirrenovski left Russia, he dropped the “ovski”, in Britain. His daughter, the actress, Dame Helen is proud of her Russian ancestry but retains her anglicised surname.
The Betjemans had come to Britain in the 17 C and added a final “n”, to sound German, because of anti-Dutch feeling during the Fourth Anti-Dutch War. The final “n” was dropped during WW1 because of anti-German attitudes. One feels a degree of exasperation with the family, who assumed that the English were able to follow such subtleties. It would have been simpler to call themselves “Betts” and keep their Dutch origins as a private family matter.
The opening of the book highlights the joys and anxieties of the author’s childhood. As a small boy he knew the ancient county of Middlesex, (“the land of the Middle Saxons”) as a pleasant rural region on the edge of London, but over his lifetime saw it steadily built over, until it was just part of the urban sprawl. In the mid-sixties I lived and worked in London for a year, and was surprised to discover I was in the old Middlesex. My work was in Tottenham, then the new borough of Haringey, and I lived in the borough of Enfield. Betjeman’s poetry is full of regret for the loss of the rural Middlesex of his childhood. (14)
“Here on the southern slope of Highgate Hill
Red squirrels leap the hornbeams. Still I see
Twigs and serrated leaves against the sky.
The sunny silence was of Middlesex.
Once a Delaunay- Belleville crawling up
West Hill in bottom gear made such a noise
As drew me from my dream-world out to watch
That early motor-car attempt the steep.”
We note the pleasure in London suburbia, the attachment to Middlesex, and the use of trade-names that are now historical curiosities. The poet goes on to examine the issue of wealth and class. The Betjemans were distinctly middle-class, in business, and well-to-do but not rich. (A brougham, pronounced bro um, was a light closed carriage drawn by a single horse. It carried about four people.)
“Mysterious gravel drives to hidden wealth
Wound between laurels—mighty Caenwood Towers
And Grand Duke Michael’s house and Holly Lodge.
But what of us in our small villa row
Who gazed into the Burdett-Coutts estate?
I knew we were a lower, lesser world
Than that remote one of the carriage-folk
Who left their cedars and brown garden walls
In care of servants. I could also tell
That we were slightly richer than my friends,
The family next door: we owned a brougham
And they would envy us our holidays.”
“In fact it was the mother there who first
Made me aware of insecurity
When war was near: “Your name is German, John”—
But I had always thought that it was Dutch…
That tee-jay-ee, that fatal tee-jay-ee
Which I have watched the hesitating pens
Of government clerks and cloakroom porters funk.
I asked my mother. “No,”
she said, “it’s Dutch;
Thank God you’re English on your mother’s side.”
O happy, happy Browns and Robinsons!”
John Betjeman’s father ran the family business, located in “The Angel” district of Pentonville in Central London, a few miles from his home in Highgate. The biggest seller was “The Tantalus”, a range of elegant wood and silver, lockable drinks cabinets in different sizes, to prevent the butler from topping himself up on the family’s sherry. With the social changes of the 20 C and the disappearance of house-servants, the Betjeman’s business was doomed.
My dear deaf father, how I loved him then
Before the years of our estrangement came!
I think my father loved me when we went
In early-morning pipe-smoke on the tram
Down to the Angel, visiting the Works.
”Fourth generation—yes, this is the boy.”
The smell of sawdust still brings back to me
The rambling workshops high on Pentonville,
Childhood holidays in Cornwall were another potent source of poetic inspiration for Betjeman, as he contrasts the natural beauty of the rugged seascapes of the Pentire headland (17) with the contrived beauty of objets d’art for the wealthy. Asprey’s showrooms sold antiques, fine art, jewellery and expensive small furnishings.
“Well now, my boy, I want your solemn word
To carry on the firm when I am gone:
Fourth generation, John—they’ll look to you.
They’re artist-craftsmen to their fingertips …
Go on creating beauty!”
What is beauty?
Here, where I write, the green Atlantic bursts
In cannonades of white along Pentire.
There’s beauty here. There’s beauty in the slate
And granite smoothed by centuries of sea,
And washed to life as rain and spray bring out
Contrasting strata higher up the cliff,
But none to me in polished wood and stone
Tortured by Father’s craftsmen into shapes
To shine in Asprey’s showrooms under glass,
Betjeman was born in Highgate, London in 1906, and was educated in preparatory schools before going to Marlborough public school. Intriguingly, as a prep school boy, he was taught by the poet T S Eliot, who was known as “the American master”. At Marlborough he took up “High Church” Anglicanism, which is characterised by an enthusiasm for rich vestments, ritual and medieval church architecture. This religious position remained with him for the rest of his life, although his poetry contains uncertainties about the strength of his faith.
He was a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, but spent much of his time in following his own interests rather than his prescribed courses, and he left without a degree. (The interested reader is directed to the Wikipedia article on “John Betjeman” for a detailed account of his curious University problems.) He did a variety of jobs after university, before settling on architectural journalism. On the outbreak of war in 1939, at the age of 33, he was rejected for military service and worked for the Ministry of Information. He continue to publish books of poetry, and after the war he began radio broadcasting and appeared in specialist television programmes. He was particularly praised for a 1973 TV presentation called “Metro-land”.
Originally, “Metro-land” was an advertising slogan invented by developers selling houses along the line of the Metropolitan Railway in the 1920s and 30s. Betjeman’s programme focused on his enthusiasm for rural Middlesex by following the history of the Metropolitan Railway. For most Londoners this was simply one of the many underground “Tube” lines in the capital, but Betjeman was more interested in the fact that for most of its length it ran above ground in very rural surroundings. It went as far as Brill in Oxfordshire, and Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire (19).
The irony of the “Metro-land” advertising was that it encouraged the idea of rural conditions along the railway, but continual building destroyed the very rurality it promoted. Betjeman did not seem to engage with this contradiction, in his enthusiasm for preserving architectural Victoriana. In his later years, Betjeman suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and he died at the age of 77 in 1984, at his Cornish home, in the village of Trebetherick. He was buried in the churchyard of the remote and ancient St Enedoc’s Church near Padstow, Cornwall.
3 Cancer Ward ………………………………Alexander Solzhenitsyn ………………………………………………………..1968
“Cancer Ward” may seem to be a rather grim choice, but is actually an uplifting and optimistic book (20). When I first read it, as a middle-aged man, I had never spent days in hospital following surgery, but found the book very worthwhile. Now, thirty years later, I can view it with the new perspective of having been a surgical patient in a men’s cancer ward. In these days, when we describe everything in euphemistic terms, the ward names, “men’s surgical”, “urology”, “gyny”, and “cancer” have disappeared, to be replaced by the neutral “John Snow Ward”, or “Elizabeth Fry Ward” etc.
The novel is set wholly within a hospital (21) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the wilds of Central Asia, (22) then part of the Soviet Union, during 1955. It is interesting to compare Russian experiences of medical care with those of patients in Britain. In both countries, medical care was provided by the State, on the basis of need, and paid for by taxation. In Soviet Russia, top Party officials had access to private shops, private holiday centres and private medical attention, based on their seniority. In Britain, the wealthy could afford to pay for private medical care and they were able to avoid the State-run National Health Service.
To my surprise, the book reveals that the medical profession in Russia had a lower status than it had in Britain. It was also dominated by women doctors and surgeons, in marked contrast to the British situation. These two factors are, no doubt, connected. The other issues which emerge from the novel are also common to Britain and Russia. One is the care and compassion of the nursing staff, despite, or because of, the firm discipline to which they were subjected at that time. The other is the friendship and support of the patients for each other. It remains a universal truth, that once you get to hospital, it is clear that there are patients who are very much worse off than you are, and you need to be grateful for this.
Research has led to great improvements in operating methods, and in post-operative care of cancer patients, compared with the fifties. Curiously, there are two of our modern procedures that were well within the technologies of the mid-twentieth century, had their importance been understood at the time. Patients are now fitted with tight stockings to guard against deep-vein thrombosis, and they are supplied with oxygen by face masks, for at least a day after their operations.
The book cover notes that, “Solzhenitsyn, (23) like Kostoglotov, the central character of this novel, went from concentration camp to cancer ward and later recovered.” The book has a strong allegorical basis, in comparing the political system of the Soviet Union with the health of a hospital patient. As Kostoglotov remarks, “A man dies from a tumour, so how can a country survive with growths like labour camps and forced exile?
It is possible to read and enjoy the novel purely as an account of doctors, nurses and patients without knowing anything of the historical background. As in most Russian novels, one needs to know a little about the Russian social usage of names. The main characters have four names; a personal name, a patronymic or father’s name, a family name, and a pet name. Thus the young woman doctor (24) treating Kostoglotov is called Vera Kornilyevna Gangart. Sometimes she is referred to as “Vera Kornilyevna” (Vera, daughter of Kornily) and often simply as “Gangart”, her German surname, or family name. Her close friends call her “Verotchka” which is a pet name. Fortunately, most of the lesser characters are given only a single name.
The book begins with the questions of Pavel, a minor Government official and loyal member of the Communist Party. He is asking the kind of questions that are in the heads of most cancer patients.
“1. No cancer whatsoever
On top of it all, the cancer wing was ‘number thirteen’. Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov had never been a superstitious person but his heart sank when they wrote ‘Wing 13’ down on his admission card. But this clinic was the only place where they could help him in the whole republic (of Uzbekistan).
`It isn’t, it isn’t cancer, is it, Doctor? I haven’t got cancer?’ Pavel Nikolayevich asked hopefully, lightly touching the malevolent tumour on the right side of his neck. It seemed to grow almost daily, and yet the tight skin on the outside was as white and inoffensive as ever.
`Good heavens no, of course not.’
Dr Dontsova soothed him, for the tenth time, as she filled in the pages of his case history in her bold handwriting. She was no longer a young woman; her face looked pale and utterly tired.
Unforeseen and unprepared for, the disease had come upon him, a happy man with few cares, like a gale in the space of two weeks. But Pavel Nikolayevich was tormented, no less than by the disease itself, by having to enter the clinic as an ordinary patient, just like anyone else. He could hardly remember when last he had been in a public hospital, it was so long ago. Telephone calls had been made to top Party officials but to no avail.”
As explained earlier, the hospital was in Tashkent, Central Asia, (22) so that many of its patients are Uzbeks and Kazakhs, (25) but perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s most poignant descriptions are of Dyoma, the youngest patient in the ward.
“In the men’s cancer ward everyone waited for the rounds quietly and without much movement.
An old Uzbek called Mursalimov, a collective-farm watchman, was lying stretched out on his back on his neatly-made bed. As usual, he wore his battered old skull-cap. Next to him Egenberdiev, a middle-aged Kazakh shepherd, was not lying but sitting on his bed, legs crossed as though he was sitting on a rug at home. With the palms of his large, powerful hands he held his big, round knees. He did not toss about, fidget or shout. At meal times, he would eat everything on his plate steadily and without fail and then sit like that for hours quite peacefully, gazing into space.
Further down, in the bed by the door, sixteen-year-old Dyoma had his bad leg stretched out. He was continually stroking and lightly massaging the gnawing spot on his shin, his other leg folded up kitten-style, just reading, not noticing a thing. In fact, he read the whole time he was not sleeping or undergoing treatment.
The senior lab-assistant had a cupboard full of books, and Dyoma was allowed to go to the analytical laboratory and change his books for himself.
Ludmila Afanasyevna slowly felt around the edges of the lesion on Dyoma’s shin.
‘Does it hurt without being touched?’
Dyoma’s face was smooth. There was still not a single hair on it. But its permanently tense expression made him look much more grown-up than he was.
`It nags me day and night.’
Ludmila Afanasyevna and Gangart exchanged glances.
`How’s your appetite?’
`I’ve always liked eating,’ Dyoma replied grandly.
`He’s on a special diet now,’ broke in Vera Kornilyevna in her lilting voice, kind-heartedly, like a nanny. She smiled at Dyoma, and he smiled back.
`Transfusion?’ Gangart asked Dontsova the question quickly and quietly.
`Yes. Well, what do you think, Dyoma?’ She gave him another searching look. ‘Shall we go on with the X-rays?
`Of course we go on.’
The boy’s face lit up and he looked at her gratefully. He thought she meant that the X-rays were to be instead of an operation. (What she had really meant was that before operating on Dyoma’s bone sarcoma, its activity has to be suppressed by irradiation to prevent the formation of secondaries.)
Most of the patients, like Solzhenitsyn, successfully recovered from their treatment and illness. Interested readers are recommended to see the wikipedia articles on “Alexander Solzhenitsyn” and “Cancer Ward” for further fascinating details of the author and this book.
In 1955 it was nearly forty years since the October Revolution of 1917, and one of the surprises for me, in the book, was the survival of Christian names among the Russians, given that Stalin and the Communist Party were virulently opposed to any organised religion. For example, among the characters I have introduced, when their unfamiliar Russian Christian names are translated into English, Rusanov is seen as “Paul, son of Nicholas”, Gangart is “Vera, daughter of Cornelius”, and Dontsova is “Ludmila, daughter of Athanasius”.
4 The Fox in the Attic …………………Richard Hughes ………………………………………………………………1961
Richard Hughes is another author whom I feel has been unjustly neglected by the critical world. Perhaps his best known novel is, “A High Wind in Jamaica”, (published in 1929), famous, not for itself, but for a successful film adaptation, released in 1965 starring Anthony Quinn and James Coburn. The novel I have chosen, “The Fox in the Attic” (27) is the first part of the trilogy, which has the collective title, “The Human Predicament”. The second novel was “The Wooden Shepherdess”, but the third novel was unfortunately never completed because of the death of the author in 1976 at the age of 76 while he was still working on it.
The trilogy is set mainly in Germany, during the nineteen twenties and thirties, and concerns an aristocratic young Welshman, Augustine Penry-Jones. While out wildfowling in the Welsh marshes with a companion, he finds the body of a six-year-old girl who has died accidentally. He carries the body back to his rambling old house and rings the police. They plan come next morning to collect the body; meanwhile he must keep it in the house overnight.
Weeks later, at the inquest, the police-surgeon explains that the child has not died of drowning but from a cracked skull. It now appears that Augustine is the sole witness to finding the child’s body, as his wildfowling companion cannot be traced. He realises that for his malevolent neighbours, and the police, he is now their prime suspect. He leaves Britain to visit his relatives in Germany. He goes to stay with Baron Otto von Kessen at the fictional Schloss Lorienburg in Bavaria. The image of the real Schloss Hohenschwangau (ho hen shvan gow) (28) gives some idea of the Baron’s castle and estate during the snows of early November.
“Schloss Lorienburg was built on a precipitous tree-clad mound in a bend of the stripling Danube. Under the small window of Otto’s office, in its deep embrasure, there was nearly a sheer drop of a hundred and fifty feet or so into tree-tops, so that everything nearby was hidden from where he stood. Otto could not see the river for it was almost directly beneath him. He could not see the village, crowded between the river and the hill’s foot. He could not even see the valley, but he could hear – though faintly, through the two thicknesses of glass – the melancholy mooing of the little daily train as it wound its way down the branch line from Kammstadt; and that recalled him.
The unknown English cousin was arriving on that train – cause of all his unease. Bavarian Otto had served in Bavarian Crown-Prince Rupprecht’s Sixth Army during the war, in the 16th Reserve Regiment of Foot. It was at Bapaume he had lost his leg, to an English mortar-shell. Nearly all the time it had been the English he was fighting – Ypres, Neuve-Chapelle, and the Somme. So what was it going to feel like, meeting an Englishman for the first time since the Western Front?
Relatives of course are in a special category: indubitable bonds transcending frontiers connect them. This was not a close kinship; it was merely the kind that old ladies like to keep alive by a lifetime of letter-writing.”
Augustine was greeted warmly by Baron Otto, and he noticed that, “There was something Victorian about Augustine’s hostess, Cousin Adele, with her lace and her chatelaine; but equally something of an earlier, sterner century too….
There was something at least pre-war even about the young girl standing behind her. That cold and serious white face, with its very large grey thoughtful eyes. The carefully-brushed straight fair hair reaching nearly to her waist, tied back in a bunch with a big black bow behind her neck. The long straight skirt with its shiny black belt, the white blouse with its high starched collar…(Mitzi)
But he mustn’t stare! Augustine lowered his gaze deliberately; and behold, curled on the sofa in an attitude of sleep but with his bright eyes wide open, lay a fox.” (29)
It is a deeply reflective book, set against the rising tide of Nazism in the background. As his close relatives are German, the hero of the novel avoids the more obvious kinds of anti-German sentiments, and Nazism is seen only as something which may, in the distant future, come to upset the present even pattern of their lives.
Augustine arrives in Germany just in time for Hitler’s unsuccessful uprising, (“The Munich Putsch”) in the November of 1923. Hitler was given a jail sentence for high treason, but, thanks to the influence of his highly placed collaborator, Field Marshall von Hindenburg, it amounted to five years “light fortress arrest”. He used the time, in the fortress of Lansberg, to write his book “Mein Kampf” (My Struggles) which set out the philosophy and future programme of Nazism. After his early release from the fortress, he posed by its imposing gate (30).
On a personal level, Augustine quickly falls in love with his beautiful young cousin, Mitzi, who is going blind. She wakes one night, thinking it is breakfast time and tries unsuccessfully to find her clothes. Remembering the difference in the sound of the fox yapping in the great hall and in the smaller rooms, she tries yapping to get her bearings. She wakens her old nurse, Schmidtchen (“Smithy”) but also her brother Franz.
“The little fool! What was she up to, rousing the whole house – had she gone out of her mind? He felt so cross with her as he lit his candle, and barged in on her filled with an elder brother’s righteous wrath. Four in the morning! What a time for a girl to stand in her nightgown in the pitch
dark in the middle of her bedroom, yapping!
Mitzi could hardly believe him when he told her the real time, and she burst into tears as he drove her back into bed.
But then suddenly Mitzi heard a ringing slap – and Franz’s scolding voice ceased abruptly. It was replaced in her ears by another voice: a cracked old voice that was chanting a familiar little childhood jingle:
‘Der Mops kam in die Kuche
Und stahl dem Koch ein Ei.
Da nahm der Koch den Löffel
Und schlug den Mops entzwei…
(The Pug Dog came in the Kitchen,
And stole an Egg from Cook,
Then Cook took a Ladle,
And sliced the Pug Dog in two)
‘Dear old Schmidtchen …’how often, long ago, that ditty had served to lull a feverish or a fractious little Mitzi off to sleep!
Mitzi gave a deep sigh. But still the saga continued:
kamen alle Mopse
Und graben ihm ein Grab
(Then came all the Pug Dogs
And dug a Grave for him)
Candle in hand, the old nurse – her dwarfish figure swathed in three dressing-gowns, the few grey locks on her nearly bald head standing out like sea-urchin’s spines – bent over her afflicted young baroness and gave her a troubled, searching look while she continued to intone :
‘Und setzten ihm ein Denkmal
Darauf geschrieben stand:
(And they made a Monument for him
With an inscription which said)
“Der Mops kam in die Kuche
((The Pug Dog came in the Kitchen,
– and so on, round and round: for the song is endless.
But already Schmidtchen’s little Baroness was sound asleep; and as for the young Baron, he had long ago slunk back to his room – his tail between his legs and his boxed ear still stinging.”
In the end, Mitzi decides to enter a Catholic convent, to become a nun, and the disconsolate Augustine leaves Germany to return to England.
Of course, Hughes trilogy is in marked contrast to the far better-known Berlin novels of Christopher Isherwood, “Herr Issyvoo”, who was also staying in Germany during the thirties. He went to Berlin in 1929 with W H Auden, and decided to remain there because of the greater sexual freedom for homosexuals than in Britain. Wisely, he left in 1933 when Hitler and the Nazis came to power, and later on, homosexuals were rounded up for extermination.
His two “Berlin Stories” were, “Mr Norris Changes Trains” (1935) and “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939). Isherwood writes as an outsider, staying in lodgings, and seeking the homosexual demi-monde of seedy bars, night-clubs and cabaret life. (32) His writings formed the basis for the 1951 play “I am a Camera” (film, 1955), and the 1966 Broadway musical “Cabaret”, and the film (1972) starring Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles, based on Jean Ross whom Isherwood met in 1931.
Richard Hughes was born in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1900, to a traditional upper-class family. His father was a senior civil servant who sent Richard to Charterhouse, a leading public school, and then on to Oriel College, Oxford. Richard published his first article as a schoolboy, and at Oxford he collaborated with the poet, Robert Graves, in a poetry publication. His first play was produced in 1921 while he was still at Oxford. It transferred to the West End of London in 1922. He was commissioned to write the first ever radio play, “Danger”, broadcast by the BBC in 1924. He worked mostly as a journalist, travelling widely, and publishing occasional novels, like “A High Wind in Jamaica”, (1929), and “In Hazard” (1938).
He married the painter, Frances Bazley, in 1932, and they had two sons and three daughters. During the Second World War he worked at the Admiralty in London, and after the war he was employed as a scriptwriter for the Ealing Studios. He only wrote four novels, and the second two were; “The Fox in the Attic” (1961) and “The Wooden Shepherdess” (1973).
5 The Emperor of Ice Cream ………….Brian Moore……………………………………………………………………1965
Brian Moore (pronounced bree an) is from Northern Ireland and many but not all of his novels are set there, or in the Irish Republic. He was raised as a Catholic in a fragment of Britain which was fiercely Protestant at that time, and his novels frequently speak of his disenchantment with the Catholic Church and the whole mindset of his beleaguered community. Often the novels describe people with depressive attitudes, and what is, perhaps his most famous work, “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” concerns a lonely, depressed, alcoholic and ageing spinster, trying to cling to her last shreds of respectability in a Dublin boarding house.
By contrast, the hero of “The Emperor of Ice Cream” is a teenage boy, Gavin Burke, with his whole life in front of him. He is a doctor’s son who struggles because he is not strong academically like his brothers and sisters. The family tend to disparage him, and indeed there are few around, to give him any praise or encouragement. For me, the fascination of the book is that 90% of it presents the boy as mistaken and ineffectual, until at the very end the world turns upside-down, and it quickly becomes clear that he was the responsible and sensible one and it was everyone else who was wrong. They had all seriously misjudged him, and his previous efforts.
The American novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger is often presented to young people as the archetypal twentieth century account of teenage angst, but in my opinion, “The Emperor of Ice Cream” is far superior and has a nobler theme. It is set in Belfast during the late nineteen thirties, at the start of World War Two. Although the declaration of war on Germany was made on 3 September 1939, by the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, nothing much happened for several months, so that this period has been nicknamed, “The Phony War”.
The reason for the outbreak of war was Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland, which was in a military alliance with France and Britain. Poland was simply too far away for the French or British to offer much military assistance, and in six weeks all Polish military resistance had been overcome, leading to complete German occupation of the country. In Britain, preparation for war went ahead, in the knowledge that aerial bombardment of the cities and industrial centres was extremely likely. Consequently, a number of quasi-military and civilian units were formed, notably the Home Guard, Air Raid Precautions (the ARP) (34), and the First Aid Parties (35).
Belfast was an important industrial centre with ship-building at its heart, notably with the firm of Harland and Wolff as its leader, and the importance of ships to a maritime power like Britain could not be over-stated. It was in this context, that Gavin Burke in “The Emperor of Ice Cream”, joins the ARP, First Aid Party, where he learns elementary first aid, and is given a green military-style uniform and a round steel helmet bearing the initials, “FAP”. At home, his elder brother puts the helmet on, and mimes a machine-gun going, “Fap, fap, fap.” The Paladin book cover (36) accurately points up the contrast between young Gavin and the smart, well-to-do, scornful crowd behind him. Gavin’s nose just pokes over the picture, in imitation of a widespread 1940s cartoon character.
His father grumbles about his son coming in wearing “a British uniform”. The ambivalence of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland runs through the book. Most Catholics were Republican by conviction, and saw Britain as a colonial power. They wanted to be part of a single island, a united Ireland, but knew this would be almost impossible to achieve because of the violent hostility of the Protestants to such a political change. In this war situation, Catholics envied their co-religionists in the Irish Republic to the south which was a neutral in the conflict.
They also fell into the intellectual trap of thinking, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, or in this context, that Nazi Germany was a friend of Irish Republicanism in Northern Ireland. Any objective assessment of Nazi plans would see this as a totally naive and foolish idea. Germany wanted total control of the whole of Europe, Ireland included. If Britain failed in its struggle, the Irish would find that German colonialism was far more ruthless than anything they had experienced as part of the British Empire.
Any kind of armed resistance would be put down with great severity, and all the civilians of the surrounding district would be killed in reprisal, to discourage future incidents. If necessary, the entire population could be shot out of hand, so that Ireland did not become a distraction from bigger issues. A typical incident was the story of Oradour sur Glane (37), in occupied central France. It was completely destroyed in June 1944 by SS Panzer division “Das Reich” in reprisal for the suspected capture of a senior German officer by French resistance units. The men were rounded up and shot, and the women and children were burned to death in the locked church.
Catholics in Northern Ireland were already aware that Nazi Germany was a violent totalitarian state, which not only treated its enemies abominably, but also its own citizens, if they were Jewish, Communists or Gypsies. What should they do to resist this? Some, like Gavin Burke’s father were reluctant to give any direct support, but they were shamed by the many men in the Irish Republic who left their own neutral country, to come to Britain and join one of the three armed services. Ordinary British servicemen were rightly proud of their Irish comrades-in-arms, but the Irish politicians have a shameful record of discrimination against Irishmen who served in the British forces. It was as late as 2014 that this discrimination was formally ended, seventy-one years after the war finished. It was also in this year, for the first time, that the Irish First Minister laid a poppy wreath at the Cenotaph in Whitehall during the Ceremony of Remembrance.
The Phony War was brought to an end in the summer of 1940, when all the major cities of mainland Britain (37), and also Belfast, were subjected to air raids. This is the period known by the British as, “The Blitz”, derived from the German term “blitzkrieg” meaning ‘lightning war’. Without revealing too much of the plot, this is the point at which Gavin Burke’s FAP training comes into its own. It is not so much that he was able to give first aid, but rather that he was in uniform, part of a trained unit, under orders, with a sense of responsibility for his fellow citizens; a point that his foolish father had hitherto missed.
Much of Brian Moore’s writing is semi-autobiographical, and this is particularly true of “The Emperor of Ice Cream”. He was eighteen in 1939, on the outbreak of war, and after leaving school without qualifications, he joined the ARP. Like Gavin Burke, his father was a physician and his extended family was strongly Republican, and very anti-British.
6 The Sword of Honour Trilogy……….Evelyn Waugh ………………………………………………………………..1964
This trilogy has continued to prove very popular years after it was written. It is composed of three independent novels, “Men at Arms” (39), “Officers and Gentlemen”, and “Unconditional Surrender”. There have been at least two radio versions, broadcast by the BBC, and also a TV version. Although it is about the Second World War, there is little to do with battle; it is more about the people in the book and the way they respond to the challenges thrown up by wartime. Incidentally, it is a witty and humorous work, examining some of the absurdities of military life, and its popularity is partly due this.
The hero, Guy Crouchback, is essentially a man who is out of sympathy with the times in which he lives. He is from an aristocratic English recusant family, which has fallen on hard times. Recusants were English people who kept their Catholic faith after the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, and who refused to attend the Church of England services under the penal regimes of Elizabeth I and James I.
Not surprisingly, the hero, Guy, has somewhat similar war experiences to those of the author, Evelyn Waugh. The aristocratic recusant background represents a wish-fulfilment on the author’s part. At the start of the novel Guy is living in Italy in one of the family homes, in the fictional coastal village of Santa Dulcina della Rocce. On the outbreak of war he decides to leave fascist Italy, ruled by the dictator, Mussolini, and return to England to enlist in the armed services.
He had said goodbye to all his ex-patriate friends and to his Italian neighbours,
“Now there was a last piece of private business to transact. Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young now, in heart and step, he came to bid good-bye to a life-long friend who lay, as was proper for a man dead eight hundred years, in the parish church.
St Dulcina, titular patroness of the town, was reputedly a victim of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, but her place as benefactor had been usurped by another figure whose tomb was always littered with screws of paper bearing petitions, whose fingers and toes were tied in bows of coloured wool as aides-memoire. He was older than the church, older than anything in it except the bones of St Dulcina. His name, just legible still, was Roger of Waybrooke, Knight, (40) an Englishman; his arms five falcons.
His sword and one gauntlet still lay beside him. Guy’s uncle, Peregrine, had learned some of his story. Waybroke, now Waybrook, was quite near London. Roger’s manor had long ago been lost and over-built. He left it for the second Crusade, sailed from Genoa and was shipwrecked on this coast. There he enlisted under the local Count, who promised to take him to the Holy Land but led him first against a neighbour, on the walls of whose castle he fell at the moment of victory.
The Count gave him honourable burial and there he had lain through the centuries, while the church crumbled and was rebuilt above him, far from Jerusalem, far from Waybroke, a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled ; but the people of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce (41), to whom the supernatural order was ever present and ever more lively than the humdrum world about them, adopted Sir Roger and despite all clerical remonstrance canonized him, brought him their troubles and touched his sword for luck, so that its edge was always bright.
All his life, Guy had felt an especial kinship with ‘Il Santo Inglese’. Now, on his last day, he made straight for the tomb and ran his finger, as the fishermen did, along the knight’s sword. ‘Sir Roger, pray for me, and for our endangered kingdom,’ he said”.
(Translating this into modern idiom, “The parishioners had taken to calling Sir Roger, ‘the English saint’, but the parish priest had told them that this was incorrect, because he was not a saint, as only the Church itself can decide on such matters.)
It is typical of Waugh that he introduces this character as his hero prepares to go to war. Sir Roger was unlucky, and he never got to Jerusalem. His manor, instead of being in a green and pleasant English village, was now part of the London metropolitan sprawl, maybe even under the tarmac of Heathrow Airport. It is an omen of the ill-luck and absurdity which accompany Guy’s efforts to become a successful soldier.
In England, desperate to join the Army, Guy manages, by pulling strings with well-placed friends, to get a position as a probationary officer in the fictional regiment called the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. It has a long regimental history, many quaint customs, and a strong esprit de corps. However, Guy’s military training soon begins to turn sour. He and the other trainees are accommodated in the chilly dormitories of a former prep school for young boys. Guy and his fellow officers-in-training take to spending as much of their free time out of their “barracks” in the fleshpots of the fictional local town of Southsand on Sea. They receive a surprise visit from Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, their fierce, one eyed commander (42).
“A message arrived that the Brigadier would see all officers in the mess at twelve o’clock. They sat silent as in a monastery refectory. The Brigadier rose, as though to say Grace. He said: ‘Gentlemen, you may not smoke.’
No charge had been preferred, no specific rebuke uttered but under that solitary ferocious eye all were held in universal guilt. The spirits of countless scared schoolboys still haunted and dominated the hall.
‘Gentlemen, it seems to me that you could all do with a week’s leave,’ and his smile, more alarming than any scowl, convulsed the grey face. ‘In fact some of you needn’t bother to come back at all’.
It was a masterly opening. The Brigadier was no scold and he was barely one part bully. What he liked was to surprise people. He must have known, glaring at his audience, that he had scored a triumph.
‘I came here last night on a friendly visit expecting to find you all happily settled in. I arrived at seven o’clock. There was not one officer in camp. I asked the civilian caterer and learned that yesterday was not an exceptional occasion. He did not know the name of a single member of the mess committee. This does not strike me as being what the ‘blue-jobs’ (men of the Royal Navy) call a “happy ship”.
‘I looked at your work this morning. It was pretty moderate – and in case any young officer doesn’t know what that means, it means damned awful.
You none of you hold His Majesty’s Commission. You are on probation. I can send the lot of you packing tomorrow without giving any explanation.
`Don’t think you’ve done something clever in getting a commission easily by the backstairs. You’ll go down those stairs arse over tip with my foot behind you, if you don’t pull yourselves together.’
Strangely enough the atmosphere was one of exhilaration, because they had been unhappy during the past weeks. They were brave, unromantic, conscientious young men who joined the army expecting to work rather harder than they had done in peace time. Regimental pride had taken them unawares, and at this prep school “camp” they had been betrayed; deserted among dance halls and slot machines.”
Guy has a difficult war, training with a “special operations” group, learning to parachute jump, injuring his knee, and involved in a series of unsuccessful military actions in Crete and in West Africa. He eventually, at the end of the trilogy, finds a useful role in protecting, and helping a band of displaced Jewish refugees in Yugoslavia.
Evelyn Waugh was 36 in 1939 on the outbreak of WW2, and like Guy Crouchback, no longer young, but keen to “serve King and Country” in the Armed Services (43). He was initially commissioned in the Royal Marines, and later transferred to the Royal Horse Guards, serving in the Middle East, and later in Yugoslavia. He was a highly successful novelist, publishing books, before, during and after the war. In his later years, he lived in the West Country of England, with his wife and six children.
7 Wide Sargasso Sea ……………………Jean Rhys ……………………………………………………………………..1966
This is an interesting twentieth century prequel to the nineteenth century novel “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, before the term, “prequel” was coined, in comparison with the much more common term, sequel. The original novel is still widely-read, and continues to be adapted for radio, TV and films (44). (See the wikipedia article on “Jane Eyre” for the breathtaking list of modern adaptations.) It is, perhaps, more popular with women readers rather than with men, because it contains a powerful element of wish-fulfilment. Jane Eyre is plain, poor, and an orphan, trying to make her way in the world. In spite of her disadvantages, she succeeds, and ultimately marries Mr Rochester, who is handsome, personable and wealthy.
It emerges that Mr Rochester has not only been married before, but he is still married when he meets Jane Eyre. His wife is insane and kept out of sight in a high upper-floor of his mansion. For any reader who is unfamiliar with the plot of “Jane Eyre”, I will say no more, and leave you to read the novel in your own time. In her novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea” Jean Rhys explores how Mr Rochester came to marry his first wife. It is set in Jamaica, in the West Indies, as suggested by the Penguin book cover’s reproduction (45) of a painting by Augustus John, entitled “Two Jamaican Girls”.
The heroine of the novel, if that is not a misplaced descriptive term, is Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress from Coulibri in Jamaica (46). The Creoles are descended from the white settlers of the islands of the West Indies, and also the southern seaboard of the United States. Although the Creoles are proud of their “white” status, it has led them to look down on their black neighbours, who make up the labouring poor. Part of the Creole’s insecurity is the suspicion, or the fact that there is a certain amount of black inheritance within their family trees.
It is somewhat surprising that in “Jane Eyre”, an aspiring patrician like Mr Rochester should choose such an exotic person to be his wife. Perhaps the fact that Antoinette Cosway was an heiress is explanation enough. The problem of alienation runs through the novel; the alienation between the Creoles and the black Jamaican people, and the alienation between husband and wife.
The basis of the later madness of Antoinette Cosway is shown to be two-fold. Firstly, the family was mentally unstable; her mother was mentally ill as was her brother. Possibly this was the result of many generations of inbreeding among the small Creole community. Secondly, soon after her marriage, Antoinette’s husband begins to treat her strangely. He changes her name, begins to call her Bertha, eventually declaring that she is mad, and locking her within her room. Finally, he relocates her to England and a totally different social milieu. The author never actually identifies the husband of Antoinette Cosway as Mr Rochester, nor is his “Great House” identified as Thornfield Hall in “Jane Eyre”, but many other clues are provided to link the two novels.
The exploration of racial attitudes permeates the novel in a way that is quite surprising for the nineteen-sixties; it seems much more modern. Antoinette as a child explained,
“I never looked at any strange negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. One day a little girl followed me singing,
‘Go away white cockroach, go away, go away.’
I walked fast, but she walked faster.
‘White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away.’
When I was safely home I sat close to the old wall at the end of the garden.”
Later, a woman gossips about the adult Antoinette, “They say one time he was a preacher in Barbados, he talk like a preacher, and he have a brother in Jamaica in Spanish Town, Mr Alexander. Very wealthy man. He own three rum shops and two dry goods stores.’
She flicked a look at me as sharp as a knife. ‘I hear one time that Miss Antoinette and his son Mr Sandi get married, but that all foolishness. Miss Antoinette a white girl with a lot of money, she won’t marry with a coloured man even though he don’t look like a coloured man. You ask Miss Antoinette, she tell you.’ she says”
The author, Jean Rhys, (47) writes with an intimate knowledge of the West Indian background of the novel. She was born Ella Rees Williams in 1890, in Roseau, Dominica, an island in the British West Indies. Her father was a Welsh doctor and her mother was a third generation Creole of Scottish ancestry. She lived in the Caribbean until aged sixteen, when in 1906 she was sent to England for her continuing education, at the Perse Girls’ School in Cambridge. Her strong West Indian accent caused her problems and mockery at her upper-class girls’ school, and also when she entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
It was only in the late 1950s and early sixties that English regional accents became acceptable for leading characters on the London stage. Before WWI actors and actresses were expected to use “Oxford, or upper-class English”, unless they were playing minor character parts. RADA asked Dr Williams to remove his daughter as she was unlikely to progress on the English stage.
Jean was unwilling to return to the parochial life which awaited her in the West Indies, and took a job as a chorus girl where her accent would be no problem. Her father died in 1910 closing an earlier chapter of her life. At that time there were few job opportunities for women, and the fact that she was attractive led her to make use of her sexuality. She became the mistress of a stockbroker, Lancelot Smith, but it was not a permanent relationship. Pregnancy and abortion were the risks of the profession of semi-prostitution that she had drifted into. Qualified doctors were forbidden by law to perform abortions and women had to make use of back-street operators. Jean almost died as a result of a bungled abortion, but the stress of her experiences at this time encouraged her to begin writing, while she supplemented her income with nude modelling.
During WWI she worked in an Army canteen, and afterwards solved the problem of her upkeep when she married a Dutch journalist, Willem Lenglet, in 1919. Their marriage lasted 14 years and they had a son, who died young and a daughter who survived to adulthood. She divorced Lenglet in 1933 and married an editor, Leslie Tilden-Smith, in 1934. This marriage ended in 1945 with her husband’s death. Her third marriage was in 1947 to Max Hamer, a crooked solicitor who was later jailed for fraud.
Although she had published minor works before this, the British publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea”, in 1966 brought her to national and international recognition. She bitterly commented that, “It has come too late,” and still continued to live in comparative obscurity in various parts of Cornwall and Devon, until her death in Exeter in 1979, at the advanced age of eighty-eight.
On a personal note, in 1959 or 60 I was a member of a student debating team, invited to the West Indian Students Association in Central London. During the preliminary drinks reception, we met the opposing team, and I was in conversation with a stocky white man of my own age. I asked him, by his accent, if he was from the West Country of England. He was very interested by the question. “No, I am from the West Indies, but there is a theory that our accent derives from our forebears who came from the English West Country.” It was years later that I realised that he must have been a Creole, like Jean Rhys.
8 The Child Buyer ………………………John Hersey …………………………………………………………………..1960
This book is about education, a remarkably dull subject when it is spelled with a capital E. However, this is a highly amusing tilt at a whole series of recognisable figures from the world of American education and politics, but the same archetypes are recognisable from our own education system too. The author, John Hersey, (49) had a distinguished career as a journalist, and writer, ending as Master of Pierson College, Yale University.
The story concerns a strange man, Mr Wissey-Jones who arrives in the small town of Pequot with the intention of buying children. The book-cover (50) picks up several characteristics of the “Child-Buyer”, like his piercing eyes, flat fedora hat, folding motorcycle and furry trousers. The format, a series of hearings before a State Senate standing committee, enables the author to stick to dialogue and avoid direct description. It transfers easily to radio, and made an excellent play, once broadcast by the BBC, but never repeated again.
Counsel for the Committee, Mr Broadbent opens with a longwinded and technical legal description which skilfully enables the author to introduce the three Senators handling the investigation.
“MR BROADBENT: This matter falls within the competence and purview of this committee on three counts etc etc I advert to a possible allegation of ‘involuntary servitude’ as it is put etc etc
SENATOR VOYOLKO: Don’t get it. What’s this all about?”
SENATOR MANSFIELD, (presiding): Jack, would you mind translating for Senator Voyolko?
SENATOR SKYPACK: Look, Senator, this guy tries to buy this kid. We want to know how come.
SENATOR VOYOLKO: Whyn’t he say so? I wish you’d talk in good plain American, Mr Broadback. Three quarters what you say, it’s Greek.”
Some of the characters explain at length the possible motives of other people, or they indulge in shrewd observations that add to the interest of their testimony.
“TESTIMONY OF MR LUKE WAIRY, Chairman Board of Education, Town of Pequot
MR WAIRY: Sir, we concern ourselves at board meetings with bursted boilers. We don’t get into educational matters near as much as some people think.
MR BROADBENT: If you would tell us a bit, in confidence about the people were going to question in this case.
MR WAIRY: You mean you have the prosecutor’s itch young man? I went to law school myself, and we called it ‘D A fever’ right?
MR BROADBENT: I don’t know what you mean. You were about to say on Dr Gozar.
MR WAIRY: She’s a great big man of a woman…sixty seventy years old, been Principal of Lincoln Elementary for 38 years and she’s grown younger every year I’ve known her…But, Mr Counsel I would not try to take her skin off, because the first thing you know, young man, she’ll have broken your whipper off from your snapper.
MR BROADBENT: Mr Cleary?
MR WAIRY: He’s an ambitious young man…seems to have a firm conviction that the world is hostile…he surely believes in the Devil, whose big job is to snatch the hindmost.”
The Childbuyer’s object is to purchase young children of great promise, who are being failed by the shallowness of the current American educational system. They are to be used for the benefit of United Lymphomilloid, the large American corporation for which he works.
“SENATOR MANSFIELD: When you say “buy”, I suppose that you actually buy the child from its parents?
MR JONES (The Child Buyer) It’s not quite so simple, sir. Everyone who has the slightest hold on a child that I begin to dicker for asks—and usually gets—a price.
My purpose? I buy brains. We needed some of the best minds in the country. We found some minds that had certainly been excellent at one time, but they had been spoiled by education or what passes for education…From the point of view of a child with a quick mind he sees that he is punished more than he is rewarded for his brilliance.”
This final sentence is what this very witty book is all about.
John Hersey was born in Tientsin, China, in 1914, to parents who were Protestant missionaries. They all returned to the USA in 1924 when John was ten years of age. His education in the States took him through various schools to Yale University, and eventually Cambridge University in England, on a Mellon Fellowship. He began work on the American magazine, “Time” in 1937 when he was twenty-three. As a fluent Chinese speaker he was transferred to the Chunking Bureau of “Time”, in 1939.
During the Second World War, John Hersey, as a journalist, covered the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy, and the American campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific. Following the end of the Pacific campaign, with the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hersey remained in Japan, to record the reconstruction of the devastated country (51).
His first book of short biographies on the Pacific campaign, (“Men on Bataan”), was published in 1942, and he produced a further 23 books. Perhaps the two best-known of these were, “Hiroshima” (1946) and his first novel “A Bell for Adano” (1944), on the American occupation of a Sicilian town, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. The latter book owes much of its fame to a film version, starring Gene Tierney and William Bendix (52).
Hersey entered academic life and became Master of Pierson College, one of the twelve colleges of Yale University in 1965, where he taught undergraduates techniques of writing both fiction and non-fiction books. During his life, he had married twice, and had five children. He died in his winter home in Key West, Florida, in 1993, at the age of seventy-nine, and is buried in his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
1. “Shot Red Marilyn” by Andy Warhol, 1964 (“The World’s Greatest Art” edited Robert Belton, Star Fire, 2006)
2. “Kiss II” a painting by Roy Lichtenstein (Belton, op. cit)
3. “Seated Figure Red Cardinal” 1960 a painting by Francis Bacon (Belton, op. cit)
4. Original Cover of the first “Flashman” published in 1969 (own copy)
5. The Quadrangle of Sherborne School, Dorset (author)
6. “Lady in Red” a painting by Franz von Stuck (“Franz von Stuck” Taschen, 1995)
7. Grenadier Guardsmen (google image)
8. Princess and her companions on a moonlit terrace (Binney Collection, San Diego Museum of Art)
9. Fetnab (adapted from a google image)
10. “The Last Stand of the 44th at Gandamack” by W B Wollen (Detail from painting, held in the National Army Museum) (“Signal Catastrophe” by Patrick McCrory)
11. The Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and of India (google image)
12. George MacDonald Fraser, soldier and writer, 1925 – 2008 (google image)
13. John Betjeman as a boy (google image)
14. Harefield Church – a 21 st century fragment of lost rural Middlesex (google image)
15. The Big House behind its gates and walls (A painting of Owlpen Manor, Gloucestershire, by Brian Cook, from “Brian Cook’s Landscapes of Britain”, Batsford, 2012)
16. A smaller version of the Betjeman’s “Tantalus” (google image)
17. Pentire Point, near Newquay, Cornwall (google image)
18. Advertising Metro-Land in the Twenties (google image)
19. Rural Metropolitan (google image)
20. Book Cover Penguin Edition (My own copy)
21. The Tashkent hospital of “Cancer Ward” as it looked in 2005 (google image)
22. Tashkent in Central Asia (top of map) (“Family World Atlas”, VWKG, 2008)
23. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, writer, 1918 – 2008 (google image)
24. “Verochka” the radiographer, Vera Kornilyevna Gangart (Author. The head is of Tatyana Domozhilova from a portrait by Vasily Surikov in “Vasily Surikov” by Vasily Kemenov, Parkstone, 1997)
25. An Uzbek, left, and a Kazakh right (google image)
26. Richard Hughes, writer, 1900-1976 (google image)
27. The Penguin Book Cover in 1975 (My own copy)
28. Schloss Hohenschwangau at sunset in November snow (google image)
29. The fox on the sofa (Author, from various sources)
30. Hitler posing at the gate of Lansberg fortress (google image)
31. Der Mops – The Pug Dog (Adapted from a google image)
32. The Film Cabaret (google image)
33. Brian Moore, writer, 1921 – 1999 (google image)
34. ARP wartime poster (above) and practising going into a shelter (“Fifty Years in Pictures”, Ass. Newspapers, 1946)
35. Thurcroft First Aid Party, Rotherham, Yorkshire, 1940 (Thurcroft Website)
36. The Paladin book cover (google image)
37. The ruins of Oradour sur Glane today (google image)
38. The Blitz on the cities of Britain; Coventry above, and Plymouth below (“Fifty Years”, op. cit)
39. Penguin Book Cover (personal copy, 1965)
40. The tomb of Sir Roger Waybrooke also known as “Il Santo Inglese” (Author, adapted from figure 77 of William Marshall, in “Shakespeare’s Heraldry”, by CW Scott-Giles, Dent, 1950)
41. The Church of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce (reconstructed Chapel of San Michele, Italy)
42. Brigadier Ritchie-Hook (Author, adapted from Quentin Blake’s Penguin Book Cover, 1965)
43. Evelyn Waugh during wartime (google image)
44. A modern re-creation of Jane Eyre (google image)
45. Penguin Cover (personal copy, 1966)
46. Port Antonio, Jamaica (google image)
47. The young Jean Rhys (google image)
48. Jean Rhys, writer, 1890-1979 (google image)
49. John Hersey, writer, aged 44 in 1958 (google image)
50. Penguin book cover with “Mr Wissey-Jones” (personal copy, 1964)
51. The devastation of Hiroshima in 1945 (google image)
52. John Hersey’s novel and the film version (google image)
53. Pierson College, Yale (google image)