Real Powellites

Towards morning the teleprinter’s bell sounded.

This is opening line to The Military Philosophers, the ninth and – always provisionally – my favourite volume of Anthony Powell’s great novel A Dance to the Music of Time. It is four in the morning some time in 1942 and the cable announced by the teleprinter’s bell is the first news of the slaughter by the Russians of the Polish officers at Katyn. Nick Jenkins, the narrator, decides that it is not necessary to wake Finn, his superior officer, specially to hear of this atrocity, one that colours the rest of the book.

I love the openings to Powell’s books. Who can forget the first sentence of Hearing Secret Harmonies:

Duck, flying in from the south, ignored four or five ponderous explosions over at the quarry.

When you first encounter these words you are embarking on your first leap into the very last book of the series: a bitter-sweet experience.

It’s the first comma that always gets me.

Anyway, towards morning today I thought of the teleprinter’s bell. The better half’s iPhone was giving its brief efficient notifications of the arrival of messages of various sorts: texts, emails, probably not of the slaughter by Russians of Polish officers – Putin has no doubt put overt action of that sort on hold with the announcement of his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize – but requests for money by Polish builders and announcements by Russian friends that they know best what we need in terms of the decoration of our new house.

What an adventure – both decorating a house and sidestepping well-meant but bossy advice from one’s Russian friends. There’s gold in them thar taps!

As for Putin, I salute the thought processes of the worthy Swedes, Norwegians, whatever, who dreamt up his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. He would be an entirely appropriate follower in the steps of Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin and Pol Pot.

Consider also the nonentities who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the great writers – one in particular – who didn’t.

What the better half’s mobile did not do, since she still slept, was make iPhone’s noise for sending a text, which always reminds me of premature ejaculation: a sound that is gratified but rueful, and mildly surprising when encountered in what we are encouraged to call the social space. Nor did my mobile make any sounds at all, as I had switched it off.

But let us return to Anthony Powell, as one constantly does; once entangled in the nets of his addictive and labyrinthine prose one never quite gets away. Anyway, last night there was a delegation from a group describing themselves as Real Powellites. It did not include Lord Gowrie and I think that it cannot have been in any way official. They were visibly angry and the better half said afterwards that if it had been up to her they would not have been allowed in. Specifically they were unhappy about the great man’s designation in my latest post as the ‘Bandersnatch of Frome’. There were hints that my continuing welcome at receptions related to Powell and his works might be at risk: physically so. Let me explain, not least as I am not sure that I got my arguments across in the heat of the meeting last night, what I meant.

First, I didn’t call him a bandersnatch: Amy did. Indeed, I am recorded as demurring, though mainly, it has to be admitted, on the grounds that it was a laboured joke.

Secondly, towards the end of Powell’s life, as evidenced by the Journals, he was waspish about people who deserved better. He was for example much ruder about the notoriously rude Evelyn Waugh than Waugh ever was about him. In fact, as regards Powell, Waugh was scrupulously kind.

Thirdly, what’s wrong with being a bandersnatch? Tenniel evidently thought it was pretty cool, and in The Hunting of the Snark it was the Bandersnatch that terrified the Banker, an achievement that we can all applaud.

I thought more about it in the interval after they stormed out and before we turned up the volume on Strictly again. I wondered if the relation between great artist and fan is not often rather like that between father and child: almost unconditional love and admiration on the part of the child being qualified by a desire to be naughty, to rebel.

Possibly: but there was little naughtiness at the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Anthony Powell Society. There was no naughtiness at all in the demeanour of the Real Powellites in my drawing room.

Moreover I examined my feelings, by way of comparison, about Goya, the one painter whom I regard as being beyond criticism. Do I feel the need to be naughty about Goya?

On the whole not.

There we are.

(Lady Violet Powell, incidentally, Anthony Powell’s wife, records in one of her books of memoirs a visit to the Prado and doesn’t mention Goya at all. Seeing Goya’s paintings in the Prado is for me like being hit over the head with a very pleasurable brick. It’s not unlike the sensation of reading the first sentence of Hearing Secret Harmonies. It’s quite possible however that the great man together with Lady Violet felt differently. It takes all sorts to make a world, as someone remarked somewhere.)

The delegation’s final shot, incidentally, as they huffed out was to point out that Pol Pot’s Nobel Prize was not for Peace but for something quite different. I really hate to think what, and I hope that Putin, if indeed he is honoured by the Swedes, Norwegians, whatever, will not regard it as a challenge.


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