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Posts Tagged ‘autobiography’

Will This Do by Auberon WaughWill This Do? The First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh, Auberon Waugh (Century 1991)

If the Holocaust continues to increase its hold on the hearts and minds of all right-thinking folk, it seems quite possible that Auberon Waugh’s body will one day be dug up and put on trial for the disrespect shown by its former occupant, before being ritually burnt and scattered to the four winds.

Unless, that is, other professional victims get their hands on it first. AW told jokes about the most inappropriate subjects, from the “three million years of persecution” suffered by the Jews to the graves of still-born West Indian infants, and remarked of himself that his “own small gift” was for “making the comment, at any given time, which people least wish to hear” (pg. 215). Contemplating his use of this gift and “all the people I have insulted”, he later admits to being “mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist” (229).

But it is the august author of his existence who will concern more readers, and certainly no aficionado of Evelyn Waugh can afford to neglect the autobiography of his eldest son. Waugh père put on a performance for the world and even for his friends, and this book is rather like seeing behind the scenes at a play. Readers will see EW from the wings, as it were, though they should always remember that AW inherited his father’s love of fantasy as well as much of his literary talent. Of one episode from his military service AW remarks: “I have told the story so often now that I honestly can’t remember whether it started life as a lie” (105).

This may also apply to the infamous “three bananas” devoured with sugar and “almost unprocurable” cream by his father under the “anguished eyes” of his children, to whom the fabled fruit had been sent in the depths of post-war austerity (67). The story is a dramatic way of illustrating AW’s judgement that EW’s “chief defect was his greed” and of explaining why AW “never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.” It may be untrustworthy for that very reason.

It may also have been an act of posthumous revenge, working off some of the resentment and even dislike AW felt for his father before leaving home. In 1944, dragged away from his games to meet EW, who was home on leave, AW “would gladly have swapped him for a bosun’s whistle” (30); later, he faced the problem of living with a father who set the emotional climate of his entire household:

The dejection which was liable to seize him at any moment — sparked off by little more than a bad joke, a banal sentiment, a lower-middle-class epithet — made him awkward company at times. When he was in the grips of a major depression, or melancholy as he called it, he was unendurable. (36) … He was a small man — scarcely five foot six in his socks — and only a writer, after all, but I have seen generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quail in front of him. When he laughed, everyone laughed, when he was downcast, everyone tiptoed around trying to make as little noise as possible. It was not wealth or power which created this effect, merely the force of his personality. (43)

But he did not think his father could have been “pleased by the effect he produced on other people”, and concluded that he “spent his life seeking out men and women who were not frightened of him” — and then usually getting drunk with them, “as a way out of the abominable problem of human relations” (43). Their own relations were marked by “distinct cordiality” (112) in the last five years of EW’s life: after suffering a near-fatal accident on National Service in Cyprus, AW even wrote “a maudlin, deeply embarrassing letter telling him how much I admired him” and sent it to his bank to be released “in the event of my predecease” (112).

Despite this, EW’s death “lifted a great brooding awareness not only from the house but from the whole of existence” (186). That presence played encores, however, as when AW experienced misgivings about his apostasy from Catholicism:

It is hard to believe that these kindergarten assemblies bear much relation to the ancient institution of the Church as it survived through the Renaissance. The new Mickey Mouse church … is surely not a reduction of the old religion. It has nothing to do with it, being no more than an idle diversion for the communally minded. Or so it seems to me. But whenever I have doubts, it is my father’s fury rather than Divine Retribution which I dread. (pg. 187)

These passages will reinforce the image of EW that readers bring to the book; elsewhere, AW may contradict it. It’s surprising to read how EW entertained the “Stinchcombe Silver Band” every Christmas at Piers Court and got “great roars of laughter out of them as he ribbed them about their tipsiness” (49). But AW claims that while the “common touch was certainly not something he cultivated … in rather a surprising way, when he needed it, he had it”. He then defends EW against the accusation, levelled by the real-life model for “Trimmer” of the War trilogy, that EW had been “detested by the men who served under him”. Not so: the reverse was true, according to correspondence AW received after reviewing Trimmer’s autobiography for Books and Bookmen.

The mischief-making apparent in that choice of reviewer is something else that readers may find enlightening, because Will This Do? is describing a particular British class and culture. On his National Service AW saw two Wykehamists rejected by their school-fellows after failing the War Office Selection Board. He noted “the ruthlessness of the British establishment” and the “cruelty” that “flourishes in the law and wherever public school Englishmen are given power over each other”.

AW reveals the limitation of his perspective here, perhaps, because ruthlessness and cruelty are not a monopoly of public school Englishmen, but his readers’ understanding of his father’s novels may be deepened by his descriptions of those things in action, his own amongst them.

AW also offers insights into Catholic psychology. When he reveals one of his father’s secrets, he has to cover up his role after the secret finds its way into the papers:

‘It was not I who sold you to them, although I have a theory as to who did.’ Readers will observe how, with typical Catholic casuistry, there is no actual untruth in this letter, as I had not actually sold the information to Rose, merely told it to him by way of passing the time of day. (127-8)

And he muses on what might have been had he taken a different degree:

My exhibition [scholarship examination] had been in English, but my father advised me that this was a girl’s subject, unsuited to the dignity of a male. Lord David Cecil had been rather upset when I told him this, staying at Portofino before my first Oxford term. I had forgotten he was Professor of English at Oxford. … Perhaps I should have stayed the course in English, instead of finding myself lumbered with this rubbishy PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics]. (148)

For the immediate future, however, the most significant passage in the book may be a description from AW’s National Service during the Cyprus emergency of 1958, when the island’s Greek inhabitants wanted union with Greece and its Turkish inhabitants wanted secession. A party of Greeks were “dropped on the Nicosia-Kyrenia main road” to make their way home after “questioning and document-checking”. Unfortunately, they were dropped near a village of Turks, who mistook them for a war-party:

The Turks poured out of the village and quite literally hacked them to pieces. It was a very messy business. Nine Greeks were killed and many others mutilated. Hands and fingers were all over the place and one officer wandered around, rather green in the face, holding a head and asking if anyone had seen a body which might fit it. (103-4)

EW ended his preface to Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond (1964), set during the Crusades, with the claim that “It is highly appropriate that this, his last work, should end with the triumph of Christian arms against the infidel.” His own son saw the conflict beginning again, as predicted by Hilaire Belloc, the “terrifying old man with a huge white beard” (16) whom AW met in extreme youth in his maternal grandmother’s house at Pixton. Will AW’s maturity prove to have fallen in the sun-lit patch between the shadows of the Second World War and serious racial and religious conflict in Europe?

If it does, EW’s shade may raise a shadowy glass in Elysium. As Britons can see from its vigorous survival in Northern Ireland, religion thrives on hatred and conflict and, Machometo adiuvante, the Church may yet throw off the leaden cope of The Second Vatican Council. Despite the despair such reforms brought to his father before his death, AW’s final, objective judgment is that “Evelyn Waugh detested the modern world but did rather well out of it” (123).

He himself, blessed with a more equable temperament and unridden by the demon of “melancholy”, could be said to have done even better but to have left a less enduring mark. Nevertheless, one of the charms of his autobiography is that it preserves some Evelynian ephemera: had they not been recorded here, history might have lost the handwritten Augustan prose instructing visitors on the vagaries of a lavatory at Piers Court and the Yardley’s Lavender Hair Tonic that EW put on his head when he changed for dinner (43).

EW writes in The Loved One (1948) of how death strips “the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence” from the body, leaving it “altogether smaller than life-size”. Will This Do? preserves a few tufts of his own pelt and although as the years pass the book will, alas, be read increasingly out of an interest in the father, not the son, AW had no illusions about his own importance in the scheme of things. It’s true that he may have laid booby-traps of fantasy and exaggeration in the stories he tells about his father, but what more appropriate rite of filial pietas could he have performed?

[A review first published in 2006.]

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Front cover of A Mathematician's Apology by G.H. HardyA Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (1940)

The World Wide Web is also the Random Reading Reticulation – the biggest library that ever existed. Obscure texts and ancient manuscripts are now a mouse-click away. A Mathematician’s Apology is neither obscure nor ancient, but it wasn’t easy to get hold of before it became available online. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. And now I have.

Alas, I was disappointed. G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) was a very good mathematician, but he’s not a very good writer about mathematics. And in fact, he didn’t want to be a writer at all, good, bad or indifferent:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds. (Op. cit., Section 1)

But is philosophy of mathematics work for second-rate minds? At the highest level, I don’t think it is. The relation of mathematics to reality, and vice versa, is a profoundly interesting and important topic, but Hardy doesn’t have anything new or illuminating to say about it:

It may be that modern physics fits best into some framework of idealistic philosophy — I do not believe it, but there are eminent physicists who say so. Pure mathematics, on the other hand, seems to me a rock on which all idealism founders: 317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is, because mathematical reality is built that way. (Section 24)

He experienced and explored that mathematical reality, but he can’t communicate the excitement or importance of doing so very well. I wasn’t surprised by his confession that, as a boy: “I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively” (sec. 29). He says it wasn’t until he had begun his degree at Cambridge that he “learnt for the first time … what mathematics really meant” (ibid.).

In this, he was very different from someone he helped make much more famous than he now is: an unknown and struggling Indian mathematician called Srinivasa Ramanujan, who sparked Hardy’s interest by sending him theorems of startling originality and depth before the First World War. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England, but barely mentions his protégé here. All the same, his respect and even perhaps his affection are still apparent:

I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both [J.E.] Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’ (sec. 29)

Very few people could have done that: a mere handful of the many millions who lived at the time. So it would be wrong to expect that Hardy could both ascend to the highest peaks of mathematics and write well about what he experienced there. He couldn’t and A Mathematician’s Apology supplies the proof. That’s a shame, but the text is short and still worth reading. Hardy had no false modesty, but he had no delusions of grandeur either:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

It was valuable: that is why Hardy is still remembered and celebrated, sixty-seven years after his death. He is also still famous as an atheist, but you could say that he spent his life in the service of Our Lady – Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World.

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Poems and ParachutesA Hell for Heroes: An SAS Hero’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Theo Knell (Coronet 2012)

I Am A KameraMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe., David Kerekes (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Where’s the Beef?Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler (1925)

No Plaice Like OlmEuropean Reptile and Amphibian Guide, Axel Kwet (New Holland 2009) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of A Hell for Heroes by Theo KnellA Hell for Heroes: An SAS Hero’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness, Theo Knell (Coronet 2012)

The title and sub-title suggested that this book would be heavily sentimental or highly warnographic or both. But it turned out to be one of the most interesting, enlightening and well-written war-books I’ve ever read. If it’s not ghosted – and it doesn’t seem to be – Theo Knell must be a very intelligent man. More unusually still, he can write good prose and help you understand what war and soldiering are like: loud, frightening, mind-and-marriage-destroying. I’m not so sure about the vers-libre poems that end some chapters. They’re interesting to read, but they aren’t as skilful or understated as the stories that precede them.

His first stories are about his childhood, which was disturbingly violent and loveless. Lots of children wouldn’t have survived it. In some ways he didn’t, but it made him tough and good at fighting, so he chose the army as a career. Like many others, he was also looking for family and comradeship: there is no bond like the bond of facing death together. Knell has come close to dying many times and can give you some idea of what it’s like. One of the earliest times was on what seemed at first like a routine armoured patrol through a country district in Northern Ireland. An armoured car got a puncture and the patrol stopped while it was repaired. Then a Land Rover drove up from behind carrying technicians on their way to repair a TV mast. They received permission to proceed and carried on up the road. A few seconds later, there was a huge explosion. When the patrol went to investigate, they found a twenty-foot crater in the road:

Although they had initially been invisible, as I now looked around me it became apparent that what I had thought were pieces of rubble were in fact human body parts, arms, legs and chunks of raw flesh. As I took in what lay before me the corporal said something that shook me to the bone:

“That landmine was meant for us. The Ferret getting a puncture and that Land Rover coming along the road when it did was the best bit of luck we’ll ever have, though the same can’t be said for them.”

… There were few visible signs of blood, considering that five men had been literally blown apart, but the smoke, with its smell of iron mixed with cordite, had now invaded my nose, mouth and throat and still hung mercilessly all around us. (“Like a Demon at My Shoulder”, pp. 84-5)

You don’t have to be a psychopath to be a soldier, but it must help at times. Knell isn’t a psychopath, but he’s done things that are very cold and callous from the civilian point of view. Later, in “No Second Chances”, he describes sniping against a sniper, who’s rumoured to be a “Russian or East German” brought in by the IRA to kill a difficult target. It’s a real version of Ian Fleming’s short story “The Living Daylights”. He also writes about the hardships of training and selection, a vomit-inducing practical joke on a parachute jump, serving as a mercenary in Africa, working as a bouncer and saving someone’s life as a medic. It was a difficult job and required all his skill. But he was warned not to do it:

“Don’t work too hard, mate. He won’t thank you for taking him home in that state. Although his wife and kids will initially thank you, he will never forgive you.” Sadly he was right. Although I managed to keep the injured man alive, albeit confined to a wheelchair, he never did forgive me, and although he didn’t die until some years later, he never spoke to me again. (“Angel of Death or Mercy?”, pg. 193)

You have to experience war to fully understand it, but this book will take you as close as paper can go.

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I Am A Kamera

Front cover of Mezzogiallo by David KerekesMezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe., David Kerekes (TransVisceral Books 2014)

August 1956. Teenage anti-communist Mirima Kerekes flees to the West as Soviet tanks rumble into Bucharest to crush a desperate popular uprising. A month later, Mirima is in the sea-side town of Bootle, north-west England, finding her feet in a new country and a new culture. Soon she will have a son, David, future editor of Headpress Journal and author of acclaimed counter-cultural texts Killing for Culture (1992), Sex Murder Art (1998) and Backstage Bootle (2011).

But Mirima left a brother behind in Bucharest, also called David. He remains a distant enigma, a mysterious, rarely mentioned figure throughout his nephew’s childhood and teens. It is not until thirty years later, following the fall of feral dictator Antonin Ceauşescu, that the British David Kerekes is able to travel to Eastern Europe and meet his uncle for the first time.

Mezzogiallo is the story of that momentous meeting and its continuing consequences, an extended meditation on fate and free will as the British David struggles to come to terms with the horrific family secret he uncovers behind the former Iron Curtain. As he writes in his introduction:

Once I gained my uncle’s confidence he began to open up to me, but it was not till near the end of my initial stay in the country that he finally revealed the truth about his life under communism. I was aghast to discover the reason for my mom’s silence about her brother all those years: my namesake, my uncle David, had worked for the secret police throughout the years of Ceauşescu, photographing and recording people without their knowledge for the files of the brutal regime that had crushed private life without remorse or conscience. He told me that he had once driven 150 kilometres to look inside someone’s bathroom and take some hairs from their comb. But there was worse to come – a confession that shook me to my core.

Despite himself, my uncle revealed, he had enjoyed the spying and the prying and the sense of power they gave him. In stumbling words, racked by a deep sense of shame and futility, he confessed to me that photographing people, recording their private conversations, keeping files on their quotidian activities, had given him serious thrills. He described how he had once quivered with excitement as he hid under the floorboards of a private home, listening to someone exercise on a rowing machine. In short: he had been a dedicated voyeur, filling the emptiness of his own life by spying on the lives of others.

Securitate archive

Securitate archive


My horror was unbounded. Anyone who knows Headpress, the Journal of Strangeness and Necrophilia, knows that I have devoted my life to offering a fiercely intelligint, passionately non-normative alternative to the ever-increasing voyeurism of the British mainstream – the spying-and-prying peddled by The Daily Mail, by the über-ennui’d teens who take secret photographs and videos of others, then exchange them online with their like-minded peers. And yet here was my mom’s brother doing the exact same thing as had horrified me for so long in Britain. But could I condemn him for it? What if I myself had been born under communism? Might I too not have worked for the secret police? Might I too not have become a dedicated voyeur, gloating over secretly obtained photographs and recordings, relishing the sense of power they gave me?

I could not deny the truth: perhaps I might. Shaken and disturbed, I constantly pondered the words of the great Romanian philosopher Eric Hoffer: “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

Did this not help explain my uncle’s behaviour? Had not communism, by destroying his individuality and sense of purpose, rendered life meaningless to him and forced him, in compensation, to become the voyeur he confessed he was? Deep questions. Dark ones, also. I knew that it would be years, even decades, before I could process them to my own satisfaction and write the book that they deserved. (Introduction, pg. viii)

Mezzogiallo is the book in question. David goes on to describe how, on future trips to Eastern Europe, he was able to examine the thousands of files created by his uncle for the secret police using cameras and microphones hidden not only in private homes, but also in libraries, banks, courts, schools, hospitals and more. He will be shocked by both the detail and the futility of his uncle’s activities – the prolonged, obsessive recording of the most minor details of everyday life. Yet David points out that capitalist society has gone in the exact same direction, both at the level of the state and at the level of the ordinary voyeuristic citizen. All David Kerekes’s books are characterized by feral intelligence and fetid honesty. But Mezzogiallo: Ferality. Fetidity. Eastern Europe. is arguably his ferallest, fetidest interrogation of the human condition to date…


Coming soon on Papyrocentric Performativity…

• A review of Nekro-Feral: The David Kerekes Story, David Slater (TransVisceral Books)

Press Release: Divided into three throbbingly thrilling thanato-themed sections – “Nekro-Kid”, “Nekro-Teen” and “Nekro-Dult” – Nekro-Feral is an intimate and revealing portrait of a transgressive icon by the man who was his simul-scribe on Killing for Culture, inarguably the most sizzlingly seminal survey of snuff-stuff ever set to cellulose…


Thiz Iz Siz-Biz…

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Front cover of Outsider II by Brian SewellOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

I’m slipping. When I said I hoped that the art-critic Brian Sewell would live to write the second volume of his autobiography and say more about Salvador Dalí, he had already written it and devoted an entire chapter to Dalí. Further, as a committed Guardian-reader, I’d already read a review of the book in Britain’s premier purveyor of progressive performativity. My memory must be suffering from all the drink, drugs and debauchery. I think the recycled title confused me too. I also think this is the better half of the autobiography. For one thing, it explains more clearly why Sewell matters and why so many people admire him, including me:

I am one of the brave brotherhood of those who have been publicly insulted by Norman Rosenthal. By a Bond Street dealer who thought his stock and reputation impugned I have been beaten about the head and shoulders with a wet umbrella – clammily unpleasant but, unfurled, an ineffective weapon. I have been punched in the right eye by a young painter, the blow so heavy that it disrupted sight for several weeks and the bruise spread over my cheek and neck before it faded, pummelled by a lesbian clad from top to toe in black leather (for me an occasion of almost helpless laughter), and jostled from their exhibition by video artists who shut down their contraptions and turned off the lights as soon as I entered their room in the Camden Arts Centre. These small events, the screams of feminists and the low booing of billiards players in the Chelsea Arts Club, are expressions of rage easier to tolerate than the closing of ranks by those who run the art establishment, whose defensive refrain “He’s only an art critic” they believe excuses them from taking notice of anything I write or say. Even Nicholas Serota once felt it proper to terminate a discussion with “I’m a museum director and you’re only an art critic” when he thought he’d lost an argument. To compliant critics, however, serving their purposes, these panjandrums are quite prepared to drop to the low kowtow. (ch. 11, “The Venomous Critic”, pp. 205-6)

If Sewell had been compliant, he’d almost certainly have been knighted by now. But he’ll go to his grave as plain “Brian Sewell” and that is undoubtedly the way he wants it. At eighty-one and in poor health, he knows his grave isn’t far off: the sixteenth and final chapter is entitled simply “Death”. He describes the failure of his flesh – “My spine crumbles, my hips creak, and like most men of my age I have had the dreaded slippery finger of the urologist probing my prostate gland” (pg. 272) – but says he fears dementia even more than impotence and incontinence. He doesn’t fear being dissected after death, however, or the irreverence of medical students:

Ideally, what is left of me should be buried in the garden with the bones of the dozen dogs already there, nourishing the roots of yet another tree. (Loc. cit., pg. 274)

Dogs appear a lot in this book. So does buggery, both active and passive: “I give as good as I get and I don’t have to pay for it” he says he once said to an offer of sexual service (pg. 134). That’s in chapter eight, “The Blunt Affair”, which is devoted to the unmasking of Sewell’s friend and lover Anthony Blunt as a Soviet agent. Not that Sewell admits to being Blunt’s lover: for all the candour elsewhere about bath-houses (ch. 5, pg. 74), bumming in barracks (ch. 3, pp. 46-7) and banging one out for Salvador Dalí (ch. 4, pp. 54-5), he’s discreet about his sex-life when he wants to be.

His refusal to abandon Blunt is another example of his failure to be compliant and earn himself a knighthood. I’m less sympathetic with it than I am with his disdain for modern art and female artists, but it’s another example of Sewell, as a homosexual, putting loyalty to another homosexual above his loyalty to humanity. I don’t think that’s putting it too highly: communism was an evil and ugly system and Sewell has to pretend that Blunt was naïve in his politics, “drifting”, “uncertain” and “trapped by affections and unwise personal loyalties” into becoming “a Communist spy of sorts” (loc. cit., pg. 147). And it is true that Blunt led a detached and unworldly life:

One episode particularly amused Michael [Kitson] – in search of a restaurant we passed a McDonald’s and Anthony murmured, “How strange to find a Scottish restaurant in Düsseldorf.” (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 127)

But Blunt spied on behalf of a system that did not allow people, scholars or otherwise, to lead detached, unworldly lives. Under Stalin, even poached eggs were subordinated to politics:

…for many years practically every work published in the Soviet Union or its dependencies was studded with references to Stalin and his glorious intellect. This applied even to manuals of physics, cookery books, and so on, though it was still possible to distinguish between ritual homage and genuinely Stalinist works: there was not really any such thing as “Stalinist physics”. (Main Currents of Marxism: Volume III, The Breakdown, Leszek Kołakowski, ch. vii, “György Lukács: Reason in the Service of Dogma”, pg. 254, Clarendon Press, 1978)

But there was definitely a Stalinist art-criticism and Blunt would have had to conform to it. And conformity might not have saved him from arrest, torture and execution: Stalinism destroyed countless innocent people, because terror was the fuel it ran on. Sewell notes that Blunt turned the Courtauld Institute “from a finishing school for witless girls into a seminary with a worldwide reputation”, then regrets his failure to do the same elsewhere:

The pity is that his political life was not subject to such a transformation … It is difficult to believe so intelligent a man … At heart he had no politics … he was touched by Britain’s evident poverty in the Thirties, touched by the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, touched by the inevitability of conflict with Germany, but it is to be doubted that he had any profound interest in the political reasons or remedies for them … How then could so scrupulously scholarly a man, so dry, precise and considered in everything he wrote of art and architecture, be such a fool as to put his scholarship at risk for a political philosophy in which he had virtually no belief? (ch. 8, “The Blunt Affair”, pg. 147)

And Sewell’s answer? It was all down to “Guy Burgess, with whom he perhaps never went to bed but who won from him undying loyalty”. For “Burgess” read “Blunt”, for “Blunt” read “Sewell”. Sewell, of course, didn’t embrace Blunt’s politics, but if Sewell had been Blunt’s age, would he too have become “a Communist spy of sorts” and worked for Stalin? It seems entirely possible. There’s food for homophobic thought there, alas, as there is elsewhere in the book for Islamophobic and antisemitic thought. Sewell is no more an Islamophobe or antisemite that he is a homophobe, but he may supply material for bigots in his descriptions of homosexual gang-rape and cruelty to animals in Muslim countries (ch. 7, “Turkey”, passim) and in catty remarks about members of another much-oppressed group:

… Norman Lebrecht, [big-time Mahler-booster and] former music critic of the Daily Telegraph. … Never was a favourite so puffed-up with amour-propre, so arrogant and so thick-skinned; never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked and sought to oversee. (ch., “The Evening Standard”, pg. 198) … [I] accepted [the] invitation knowing nothing of the programme but expecting it to be an evening of Schubert or Richard Strauss. It was not; it was an exquisite punishment knowingly inflicted – entirely of Sondheim unrelieved. I would rather have had a tooth drawn. (ch. , “Loose Ends”, pg. 255)

His remarks about Salvador Dalí’s halitosis and projectile-mastication, on the other hand, are candid, not catty. Sewell says “I wished he farted more and breathed less” (pg. 57), but Dalí himself “knew his breath was foul and claimed that [it] kept flies from perching on the wings of his moustache; when one once did it was made immortal in a photograph” (ibid.). That’s in chapter 2, “Salvador Dali in Cadaques”, which is perhaps the most interesting and entertaining part of the book. Dalí is one of my favourite artists, but I’d never seen him in quite the light cast by Sewell’s recollections:

He was one of only two men I have known capable of sputtering, not only on himself with a napkin tucked below his chin, but over every neighbour at a table for four with napkins on their laps. The other man was Bernard Crick, founder of the Orwell Prize for political journalism, who, on the occasion of giving it to me, ruined a favourite tie in plain green silk, bought because it it perfectly matched (or so I thought) the green of Dali’s velvet [suits]. (pg. 57)

Sewell met Dalí because, having adopted “two beach dogs, Scipio and Hannibal”, on holiday in Catalonia, he was cutting up “the windpipe and lungs of a sheep, complete, intact and very bloody” outside a café. Dalí and Gala “whispered to a stop” near him in a “great green pre-war Cadillac” (pg. 51). Dalí, “dressed top to toe in velvet of a dark green to match the car”, then approached Sewell, who he supposed had been waiting for him:

“Do you know who I am?” he asked, his attitude imperious. “Of course. You’re Dali,” I replied – and to this day I do not know whether he was flattered that I knew or disappointed that he had been denied another opportunity to announce to all in earshot, “I am Dali.” “And you’ve been waiting for me” – half question, half accusation. He seemed surprised when I said that I had not. To me, but not apparently to him, it was a preposterous notion that anyone would lie in wait for him with the dogs, the blood, the knife, the windpipe and the lungs as an elaborate ruse to draw him into conversation, but this is indeed what he supposed. (Loc. cit., pg. 51)

This chance encounter produced an invitation to Dalí’s house, with its giant egg and phallic swimming-pool, and a Debris Christ in whose “left armpit” Sewell was invited to “masturbate (again the excessive rolling of the r)”. He nonchalantly obliged while Dalí “clicked” a “camera” and “fumbled in his trousers” (his own, that is, not Sewell’s) (pp. 54-5). Sewell doubts that there was film in the camera, suspecting mere “camouflage for a voyeur who, though brazenly addicted to the habit, was still, at his age, both embarrassed by residual shame and unwilling to admit to homosexuality” (pg. 56).

He realizes then that “Dalí, for all the fawning interest of strangers, was alone and could not bear his loneliness – Gala, his anchor in Cadaques since 1930, was not enough” (ibid.). And so, undeterred by his axillary initiation, he accepted Dalí’s hospitality again: that was the first of “four long visits to Cadaques” (pg. 65), which allowed him to observe “a dirty Dali so to speak” and to see “hundreds of drawings that could never be published or exhibited, revealing the depths he had plumbed” (pg. 66). Almost everything in this chapter is quotable, as Sewell describes Dalí’s egomania, eccentricity, neurosis, absurdity, pretension, self-parody and self-mockery. But the chapter ends with the simple, sane judgment that Dalí was “the last of the great old masters” (ibid.).

Sewell has met many other old masters in paint, if not in person, but it isn’t just Dalí who mixes art with absurdity in Outsider II:

At the bottom of the tree were the dozens of dealers who dealt from the back of a van and, in the case of Raymond de Romare, from a caravan; this, badly parked in Duke Street, St James’s, narrowing an already narrow street, was ripped to shreds one day by a passing army lorry, leaving his stock of ghastly paintings lying in the road among the splintered timbers. One of them, on a large sheet of copper, was badly bent; unwilling to pay the cost of a restorer’s attempting to flatten it, he gave five shillings to the driver of a steamroller to drive slowly and ever so gently over it – of which the consequence was a much larger and much thinner sheet of copper with not a flake of paint adhering to it. (ch. 2, “Scratching a Living”, pp. 32-3)

There’s also this, at the end of a section devoted to the charismatic and larger-than-life forger Tom Keating:

On his death in 1984, a partial clearance of his studio gave rise to an outpouring of respect by the art market in the only way it knows – it paid absurd prices at an auction. Christie’s had already held one sale, presumably to settle taxes, the year before, and this second sale was thought to be the last chance to buy a Keating. It was not – sales continued until at last the penny dropped and the salesroom recognised that there must now be a forger of Keatings… (ch. 6, “The Seventies”, pg. 91)

Both halves of Sewell’s autobiography are long and detailed, but they must represent a bare fraction of the memories and experiences that crowd his brain, which “has so long thrilled in wonder at masterpieces of art and architecture” (ch. 16, “Death”, pg. 274). Masterpieces like the mosque converted from a church at Barhal in Turkey, “the masonry as crisp as the day it was cut, the arcaded outer walls as mathematically precise and proportional as any of Bach’s Goldberg Variations” (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 111). Sewell also “fell” into “traps of longing, lust and love” for cars in the days before “art … surrendered their design to the computer” (ch. 15, “Loose Ends”, pg. 269). He says that, at the end of the Second World War, cars returned to the streets of London and Kensington “became an exhibition site of wonders from the Twenties and Thirties, not only of the familiar grandees, Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lagonda, but of such now long-forgotten marques as Autovias and Packards, Salmsons, Railtons and Broughs, Hudsons, Cords and Auburns” (ibid., pp. 268-9).

Yet despite his devotion to man’s art and artifice, Sewell says this of the same trip in Turkey on which he saw the church at Barhal:

There were no bears, but at one point I disturbed an eagle on a ledge — and perhaps have seen nothing more beautiful than the one lazy flap of its wings that set it on a seemingly effortless vertical flight up the sun-warmed cliff behind it. (Loc. cit., pg. 112)

I think that is an example of something many people might not associate with Sewell: his humility. He is a far more interesting and erudite man than most of his critics, but he can echo Landor: “Nature I loved, and next to Nature art.” Landor goes on to say that he “strove with none,/For none was worth my strife”. Sewell can’t say the same: he has thought many people worthy of strife, if not in themselves then for the absurdities and pretensions of the art they produce or promote. Sewell’s sharp tongue and sharp pen have won him many victories, because he is cleverer and wittier than his enemies are. That’s why they have resorted to physical attacks, despite controlling so much of the art-world. Sewell has ruled a small corner of it, but he knows that there is much more to the world than art. Important truths like this are not found in art, for example:

Two in the morning is no time to find that the contents of one’s knapsack are sticky with ginger marmalade. (ch. 7, “Turkey”, pg. 104)

That is Sewell in a nutshell: alive to the absurdity of life and able to describe it memorably. If you’d like to learn more about him and the ginger marmalade, Outsider and its Outsider await.


Previously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Mum, Bum and Caravaggio — review of the first volume of Outsider

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Front cover of Outsider Always Almost Never Quite I by Brian SewellOutsider: Always Almost, Never Quite: An Autobiography, Brian Sewell (2011)

Brian Sewell is an English art-critic who discusses works of art using another work of art: his own voice. His articles for The Evening Standard in London can be entertaining too, but Sewell is rather like Cary Grant or Orson Welles: his voice is the most memorable thing about him. Fluting, melodious and absurdly posh, an instrument of both waspishness and wit, it was acquired, he says, from his unmarried Catholic mother during a childhood in which he had little contact with other children. His real father, the composer Peter Warlock, died, possibly by suicide, before he was born in 1931 and he didn’t acquire a stepfather until much later. His mother refused to give him up for adoption, but she found life difficult with an illegitimate child. Sewell also found life difficult with an unmarried mother, which is perhaps part of why he suggests that she supplemented her meagre income by genteel prostitution.

After that isolated childhood and difficult relationship, he went to a semi-private school in London called Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School, which was, he says, less exotic than it sounds. He discovered his talent for English and art there, learnt that he could not understand science or mathematics, and experimented with homosexuality. Then he did National Service in the army, where he learnt to drive, grew mentally and physically tougher, and was raped by a corporal on his own bed, his “yelps, if any, muffled by the pillow” (ch. 6, “National Service as a Squaddie”, pg. 83). He then re-entered civilian life to study art history and work under the Gormenghastly roof of the London art-dealer Christie’s, where he participated in traditions like

…Ridley Leadbeater’s circus at the Front Counter, the distribution of Christmas birds to every member of staff. Ridley had a stake in a smallholding or poultry farm near Nether Basildon and had a contract with Christie’s for the delivery of perhaps a hundred geese and turkeys labelled with our names, but in no discernible order, alphabetical or departmental. This disorder led to bad temper, even panic… and the performance, thoroughly Victorian, perfectly encapsulated the hierarchy of the firm, the lordly directors on the stair looking down on the scramble as though the staff were terriers rat-catching in a barn. I wonder if any of them ever noticed Ridley snatching opportunities to grope the upturned bums presented on these occasions? He was an inveterate… groper of both boys and girls behind the counter, his favourite trick the vicious jabbing of a pencil at the anus of a boy leaning forward to attend a visitor… (ch. 11, “Christie’s in 1958”, pg. 221-2)

It sounds an interesting, if occasionally painful, life, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I didn’t find this an interesting book. There are memorable paragraphs and boring chapters. And a lot of grammatical mistakes. Sewell rambles, spends too long on trivia and says little about what was, after his relationship with his mother, the most important relationship in his life: that with the art-historian Anthony Blunt (1907-83), Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and dedicated Soviet agent. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood after he was exposed, but he never lost Sewell’s love and respect. Perhaps that’s why Sewell writes relatively little about Blunt and why he himself has never received a knighthood. But there are other explanations for the lack of honours: Sewell has been a gleeful gadfly to the art establishment for decades, mocking the pretensions of the Turner Prize and deriding the work of “Young British Artists” like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. That’s why I was disappointed by this book: I admire Sewell’s championing of classical art and his old-fashioned disdain for women’s contribution to it. He is indeed an outsider, but I don’t think he’s a misogynist: he’s simply objective and honest. Nor has he been exclusively homosexual. This is from one of the memorable paragraphs amid the longueurs, when he is seduced by a middle-aged American woman in Paris:

I had no wish to tell her I was queer and it says something about the weakness of a young man’s will and the overwhelming strength of his sexual triggers, that she so easily had her way with me. I remember more clearly than all else the interruption of pleasure as her diamanté spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair… (ch. 9, “Student Life”, pg. 161)

But his sexual will was strong enough to keep him celibate for years after the army, he says, while he considered training for the Catholic priesthood and began his career in art-dealing and art-history. Then he chucked over the Church and plunged into promiscuity, clocking up what he estimates “might amount to a thousand fucks a year” (ch. 13, “Abandoning God”, pg. 263). This candour explains why he writes a warning at the beginning of the book:

I have no doubt that many who admire me – my “doting elderlies” as an old woman friend once dubbed them – will be disgusted. So be it – truth is nothing if not whole. (“Prelude”, pg. xiii)

But Sewell should have remembered another aphorism too: le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire – “the key to being a bore is to say everything”. He writes too much of the truth and doesn’t, in any case, tell the whole truth about his relationship with Blunt. Not that I was very disappointed about that: I would have preferred more about art and artists and less about art critics and art-dealers. But Sewell does convey the genuineness of his scholarship and dedication. Here are two more memorable passages:

In two glass-fronted cupboards flanking the fireplace [at the Courtauld Institute] were his [Roger Fry’s] examples of ancient and ethnic pottery that, for reasons traditional but never understood, the students’ President and Secretary were required once a year to wash. I shall never forget the horror of feeling an unglazed pot of Assyrian antiquity dissolve into a muddy sludge slipping from the fingers of my left hand. (ch. 8, “The Courtauld Institute”, pg. 112)

[The German art-restorer Helmuth Ruheman] believed that cleaning should be thorough and thrust small swabs of solvent into our hands, bidding us swab and swab until we were through the accumulated dirt and varnish and the bright nakedness of the paint layer was revealed. If our swabs were eventually tinged with colour – as they were from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (the tondo version NG. 1033) – he was not in the least perturbed, for his view was that what came off could as easily be put on again. (ch. 10, “A Second Intermezzo: 1957-1958”, pg. 161)

If you wince reading things like that, you will understand why I was disappointed by this book. Sewell himself is interesting and has done and experienced interesting things, but he crowds all that out with trivia and excessive detail. He’s in his eighties now, in poor health, and expresses doubts that he will live to write a second volume of autobiography. I hope he does but if so, I also hope he says more about the encounter with Salvador Dalí I can remember hearing him discuss once on the radio. I had a recording of it, now lost, alas, though apparently he made a TV programme about it for Channel 4 called Dirty Dalí: A Private View (2007). Television has made Sewell nationally famous since I first encountered him in print and on the radio and that is why he has so many “doting elderlies”. I don’t watch TV if I can avoid it, but without his late fame he might never have written this book. Disappointing as it was, I’m glad to have sampled it. The whole truth about Brian Sewell is that he isn’t always entertaining or amusing, but the diamanté pubic plucking, the dissolving Assyrian pot, and the untinctured Botticelli are flashes of his anecdotal skill and help explain why he’s famous. And why people want to read about him.


Proviously post-posted:

Art-BanditOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

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Front cover of Little Wilson and Big God by Anthony BurgessLittle Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (1986)

Mancunians will forgive any faux pas but one: success. In the 1960s and ’70s, the author of A Clockwork Orange became a core component of the M.M.F.T.M.(T.C.) community: Mooch More Famous Than Me (The Coont). In the 1980s, Morrissey would join him, but the two Mancunians already had two big things in common: music and Irish Catholicism. Music is how Mozza made his name and how Buzza originally wanted to make his. Mozza is I.C. on both sides, Buzza was I.C. on one, the side of his birthname, that of the Wilsons:

They did odd jobs, sang and danced, joined foreign armies and disappeared into Belgium, migrated to Dublin, came back with Irish wives. There was a regular tradition of marrying into Ireland, which meant often into Irish families that had taken the boat from Queenstown to Liverpool and wandered inland to Manchester. I ended up as more of a Celt than an Anglo-Saxon. My father broke the tradition by marrying a Protestant of mainly Scottish ancestry – Lowland, hence Anglo-Saxon – but he married her in a church with a Maynooth priest and she converted easily. (pg. 9)

She died easily too, swept away with Burgess’s older sister Muriel in the epidemic of influenza with which Mother Nature reasserted herself after the clumsy, man-made slaughter of the First World War. Whatever man can do, Ma can do better. Arbitrary loss and natural evil are important themes of Burgess’s fiction, but death didn’t just shape his writing: it made him a writer. Given a year to live in 1959, after the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour, he set about creating a pension for his wife:

I did not really believe this prognosis. Death, like the quintessence of otherness, is for others. But if the prognosis was valid, then I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live. I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed on the Brighton racetrack. I would not choke on a bone. If I fell in the wintry sea I would not drown. I had a whole year, a long time. In that year I would have to earn for my prospective widow. No one would give me a job… I would have to turn myself into a professional writer… (pg. 448)

It’s a good way to end a highly readable autobiography, which might be called a B.B. book: Before Burgess, before fame. You’ve Had Your Time (1990), the highly readable sequel, is A.B., After Burgess, after John Wilson made his dead mother’s maiden name internationally famous. But he never forgot his roots:

I am proud to be a Mancunian. I have, after a struggle with a people given to linguistic conservatism, even succeeded in importing the epithet mancuniense into the Italian language… and, lecturing in Rome, I have declared myself a cittadino mancuniense, cioè romano. At the time of my birth, Manchester was a great city, Cottonopolis, the mother of liberalism and the cradle of the entire industrial system. It had the greatest newspaper in the world, meaning the only independent one. The Manchester Guardian debased itself when it grew ashamed of the city of its origin: a superb liberal organ was turned into an irritable rag dedicated, through a fog of regular typographical errors that would have appalled C.P. Scott, to the wrong kind of radicalism. (pg. 15)

That showing-off and opinionated self-importance is characteristically Burgessian, but self-importance isn’t unknown among other Mancunians. You can learn a lot about the northern inferiority complex from this book and about the refinement of it that came with being both northern and Catholic. But Burgess is right to resent certain things. He was always a better and more interesting writer than the southerner Graham Greene, a convert who thought Burgess’s “cradle Catholicism was suspect” (pg. 418). He wasn’t a better writer than the convert Evelyn Waugh, but some of his best writing was inspired by Waugh. The very funny, but also sinister, misunderstanding in The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), the second book of Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy, is obviously Wauvian, but with Burgessian embellishments: it involves an edentate Chinese cook, a cat, and a kitchenmaid, and hinges on the ambiguity of the Malay verb makan, which can mean both “to eat” and “to fuck”.

Burgess says that “the Malay language, and later the Chinese, changed … the whole shape of my mind” (pg. 371), but his fascination with language and languages began well before his encounter with the polyglot gallimaufrey of Malaya. As a child, he was attracted to the exotic French on the label of an H.P. sauce bottle. But he also heard exotic language from his family:

My grandfather would say, if [his wife] Mary Ann had a headache, “Oo’s gotten ’eed-warch.” The “oo” is Anglo-Saxon heo and the “warch” is from weorc. He would translate this for foreigners as “She’s got a headache”, but Lancashire phonemes would cling to the straight English. So, for a long time, with myself. I regret the death of the dialect, which was once a literary medium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes from the Wirral peninsula and would have been intelligible to the mediaeval Wilsons… Since the provincial revolt of the 1950s, the Lancashire accent, especially in its Liverpool form, has become acceptable in the wider world, but the dialect itself is nearly dead. It has no orthography, and there is no literary tradition to elevate it. (pg. 11)

This is another of Burgess’s losses: to have lived long, as he did, is to have lost much. Not just his mother: his mother-tongue too. But the dialect, “automatically comic” in England’s “centralising linguistic culture”, lingered into his adulthood. After the war he moved to the hamlet of Bamber Bridge near Priest-Town Preston. His first wife Lynne could not understand what she was asked when she went into a pub during heavy rain: “Art witshet?” Lancashire lad Burgess could translate this as “Art thou wet-shod?” (pg. 347) Through Lynne, whom he had met while both were students at Manchester University, he encountered another disappearing linguistic tradition. She was Anglo-Welsh and her full name was Llewela Isherwood Jones:

Llewela is the feminine form of Llewelyn. It has noble leonine connotations, but to the students of Manchester it was a joke. The English always have trouble with the Welsh unvoiced lateral unless, like me, they have studied phonetics… Llewela solved the problem for the Sais [i.e., the Saxons] by borrowing the masculine termination and calling herself Lynne. (pg. 208)

But she wasn’t a Cymric incarnation of Burgess’s “darkly Mediterranean” erotic ideal: she was “a tall athletic girl, blonde and blue-eyed, with a superbly developed body” (pg. 206). One of Burgess’s most famous books, Earthly Powers (1980), is about a homosexual writer based on Somerset Maugham; one of his most memorable characters is a homosexual Malay called Ibrahim in Time for a Tiger (1956). But Burgess said book and character were exercises in imaginative sympathy: he never felt inclined that way. If Little Wilson and Big God is anything to go by, he didn’t have time. When he wasn’t studying phonetics, composing symphonies, or translating menus into Latin, he was seeking or shagging women. This is the metaphor he chooses to sum up his introduction to Asia:

I wandered Singapore and was enchanted. I picked up a Chinese prostitute on Bugis Street. We went to a filthy hôtel de passe full of the noise of hawking and spitting, termed by the cynical the call of the East. I entered her and entered the territory. (Part 5, pg. 373)

There’s lots of lechery in this book. And lots of literature, but Burgess didn’t always acquire it in the conventional way. Although his degree would be in English Literature, his first love was music:

In school essays I would refer to the Mozartian limpidity of Addison’s prose or the Wagnerian richness of Thomas de Quincey… I was the only one in a French lesson to be able to say what a casse-noisette was, thanks to Tchaikovsky. I also knew the Faust legend, because of Gounod and Busoni, and could read Cyrillic, having studied in Manchester Central Library the original score of Le Sacre du Printemps. Asked to compare the styles of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and “The Lotus Eaters”, I said one had the austerity of Sibelius and the other the sensuousness of the Venusberg music in Tannhäuser. What I should have said was that one was in blank verse and the other rhymed. (pg. 115-6)

Autodidactism and showing-off: Burgess began both early. He describes composing a symphony in 1934, in his late teens:

The writing of a three-hundred-page musical work is more laborious than the merely literary person is able to appreciate. You can spend four hours scoring a passage which, in fast tempo, may take only a few seconds to perform. The ring finger of my right hand is permanently deformed with the strain of writing that one work alone. It was a highly juvenile work, and the Luftwaffe, in the name of Beethoven, to say nothing of Wagner, was probably right to destroy it in 1941. (pg. 159)

That “merely literary” is a dig at the southern literary establishment, which Burgess felt never accepted him or properly acknowledged his talent. But he didn’t devote much of that talent to writing about the war that destroyed his symphony. It wasn’t the overpowering experience people who didn’t live through it sometimes imagine: it had been anticipated for years and Burgess seems to have spent his military service being buggered about and being a difficult bugger. After yet another brush with authority he remarks: “I felt, as often before, that I was marked” (pg. 275). But he saw no fighting and ran no great risk of death, unlike some of his fellow students at university:

Poor as I was, however, I still insisted on the Friday night booze-up, with Gaunt and Mason and two men from the English second year called Ian McColl and Harry Green. Green and McColl fascinated me. They were coarse, rejecting totally the grace of civilisation, but the English language and its literature were their life. McColl was so soaked in Anglo-Saxon that it was a natural instinct for him to avoid Latinisms and Hellenisms even in colloquial speech. He was quite prepared, like the poet Barnes, to call an omnibus a folk wain or a telephone a fartalker. He knew German but hated the Nazis, who, after all, were only disinfecting their language of exoticisms in McColl’s own manner. He and Green knew there was a war coming, and they did regular infantry drill with the university Officer Training Corps. They were both killed in France in 1940, following the tradition of First World War subalterns, and this they were perhaps prepared to foresee. They never spoke of a future; they were fixed in a present of which the literary past was a part. McColl composed orally an endless saga about two lecherous boozers called Filthfroth and Brothelbreath … Green, outside a pub in the Shambles [a district in Manchester] called The White Horse, exclaimed at the ancient rune [Þ], which the Normans replaced with a digraph, in the definite article. In some arty antique signs, like those outside county town teashops, that rune appears as a Y, but it did not here. “Christ,” Green cried, “they’ve got a proper fucking thorn.” (Part 3, pg. 198-9)

Would McColl and Green have become famous if they had survived the war? Perhaps not, but Burgess manages to “embalm” their “poignant history” in “the magical spices of words”, as Lytton Strachey said of another autobiographer, Cardinal Newman. If Burgess had not memorialized them, they, their “Filthfroth” and “fucking thorn” might now be entirely forgotten: two new-lit candles blown out more than seventy years ago by the breath of Mars. Earlier in the book, Burgess has described a lost photograph of his mother and sister, who both died while he was still a baby. It was “long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites” (pg. 16). The photograph had gone; his memory of it remained; now there is just the description of the memory in a book. McColl and Green are one step nearer reality: remembered and recorded from life. Burgess saved a crumb or two of their mortality from Edax Tempus, Devouring Time, and that is part of the value of this book. It’s about a famous man before he became famous and saves many crumbs from his own and other people’s ordinary lives. But he obviously wanted fame: when he stole “pass-forms” during the war and forged signatures to go on illegitimate leave, he used names like “J. Joyce, E. Pound, E.M. Forster, Lieut for Major” (pg. 281), knowing that they were unlikely to rouse suspicion in the philistine army.

That first forgee is particularly important: Burgess spent the war seeking strength through Joyce, whom he’d first been bedazzled by before the war. “Ironically”, however, the hell-sermons of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) had frightened him back to faith: “I ran to the confessional, poured out my sins of doubt almost sobbing, and received kind absolution and a nugatory penance” (pg. 141). I can’t take the same jouissance in Joyce, but Burgess followed him faithfully from the fairly conventional Portrait through the deepening experimentation of Ulysses (1922) into the poly-performative linguistic maelstrom of Finnegans Wake (1939), which “impressed” the unliterary Lynne “only because the apparent typing chimpanzees had put me into it as ‘J.B.W. Ashburner’” (pg. 215) – John Burgess Wilson used to visit her at Ashburne Hall, a female hall of residence at Manchester University. I can’t say how happy Joyce’s influence has been on Burgess’s writing, but it did sometimes get a little silly. In “The Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, Joyce used older forms of English to create “a series of literary parodies which serve the representation of the growth of the embryo in the womb”. Of his Wagnero-Joycean novel The Worm and the Ring (1960), Burgess says:

In describing the adulterous act of my hero Howarth-Siegfried and Hilda on a school excursion to Paris, I tried to go further than Joyce by hiding the shameful deed in a kind of reversed history of French prose style, with the Strasbourg Oath collapsing into Latin at the moment of climax. This had nothing to do with the Ring of the Nibelungs: it was sheer literary self-indulgence. (pg. 368)

You said it, Buzza. His attempt to “go further” than Joyce reminds me of a scene in the Comic Strip’s “Bad News Tour” (1983), a heavy-metal mockumentary in which a guitarist boasts of having learnt “Stairway to Heaven” when he was only twelve, even though Jimmy Page didn’t write it till he was twenty-two. Burgess undoubtedly had no time for Led Zeppelin, though he contributed strongly, if inadvertently, to the counter-culture with at least one book: the Led Zeppelin drummer Bonzo would be dressing up as a “droogie” after Stanley Kubrick filmed A Clockwork Orange in the 1970s. And Burgess may never have heard of the Smiths and Morrissey, that later Mancunian who committed the cardinal sin of rising to international fame. It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if the two had been swapped at birth, Morrissey being sent back in time and Burgess brought forward. The art of both is rooted firmly in northern England, but Burgess’s tendrils wandered much further: he’s right to contrast Maugham’s Anglo-centric Malayan fiction with his own, which drew on all races of the region and mingled all their languages. Morrissey has written about Hispanic gang-members and sexual encounters in Rome, but he’s never tried to translate The Wasteland into Malay.

For Burgess’s full discussion of A Clockwork Orange, you’ll have to look at part two of the autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, but Burgess’s post-war, pre-independence days in Malaya are fully covered in this, part one. They inspired the Malayan Trilogy, which contains some of his best, funniest, and richest writing, and he says they killed Lynne, who became an alcoholic there through boredom and acquired anaemia because of the climate. Burgess ends the book meditating on the irony of trying to earn money for a wife who would die long before him. He begins it in the middle of the 1980s, meditating in New York on his own survival and the endless struggle he has had with the English language: “Mastery never comes, and one serves a lifelong apprenticeship. The writer cannot retire from the battle; he dies fighting. This book is another battle.” (pg. 6)

Burgess did die fighting and although he never wrote as well as Waugh, very few people have and Waugh did not mix so many ingredients with such gusto into his writing. Little Wilson and Big God doesn’t have the elegance or elegy of A Little Learning, Waugh’s slender essay in autobiography, but I’ve read both books several times and hope to read both again. Burgess’s is much longer and you’ll laugh more and learn more: he always retained an outsider’s fascination with the strangeness of human beings and their languages. The larger strangeness of mathematics and science passed him by, as it did Waugh, and phonetics was as close as he got to science. Burgess’s experiences during the war weren’t as powerful as those of J.G. Ballard, who spent it in a Japanese detention camp, rather than teaching English on the Rock of Gibraltar as Burgess did, but both writers were influenced by a hotter sun and spicier air. One was born east and came west, the other was born west and went east: that shared experience means that their fiction has an un-English richness and extravagance. Ballard’s literary flight, fuelled on science and psychosis, will last longer, but Burgess is in some ways more entertaining and is certainly funnier. There’s Lancashire music-hall in this book, with Catholic guilt, northern chippiness, and some of the “old sharp flavours” of English life that the rising tide of Americanization and standardization would soon wash away. And much more beside, from rejections by T.S. Eliot and pub-encounters with George Orwell to cats feasting on snakes in Borneo and dicing with death driving through the Malay jungle. As introduction to Burgess or explication for his fans, I’d call it doubleplusgood.

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