Class for Powellites

“Did you win?”

“Win what?”

“Your Anthony Powell Lady Molly prize.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Augustus Sly told me.”

Augustus Sly told her. That was a turn-up. I thought that he thought that she was a metaphor and refused to talk to her.

“And when is he going to tell me about the bottoms in Vienna that I sent him to investigate?”

“Things carry on without your participation, you know. So, did you win?”

“No,” I said.

“Oh, I thought that Lady Molly as a gentleman detective was a winner. Who did, then?”

“That Robin Bynoe. I didn’t get even an honourable mention.”

“Oh, him. Was his any good?”

“Not bad. A bit wan. It entirely lacked the rousing finale that I had provided in mine, when Lady M cries, ‘One of you in this room is the murderer and tonight the member of the House of Lords leaving us is …’”

“Did you go to the presentation?”

“And the subtle interplay between Lady Molly and Brandreth, her chronicler, who is vain and stupid and doesn’t really understand what’s going on.”

“An original touch. So, did you go to the presentation?”

“I was in New York anyway,” I lied, “and I thought that they might change their minds at the last minute. Robin Bynoe read his winning story out loud in a modest voice and a badly-fitting suit.”

“Did you volunteer a few words of your own, causing outrage and a non-fatal medical incident on the part of the host?”

I looked at her sharply.

“Widmerpool, Le Bas,” she said.

“I know, I know,” I said. “Never apologise, never explain. No, I didn’t.”

She considered this.

“If you had volunteered a few words of your own, what would you have said?”

That was cunning. I was so impressed by her use of the conditional mood, which I believe does not come naturally to a Mandarin-speaker, whose verbs behave in a much more straightforward manner than ours, that I considered her question seriously.

“Any discussion about Lady Molly,” I said, “involves questions of class. She is a dowager marchioness, formerly gracing the pinnacles of the English social world, now living in a middling part of London with a barely middle-class second husband. They keep an open house, blind to social distinctions or those of dress, intellectual achievement or even species. The Anthony Powell Society has an online discussion list. It has contributors from around the world, and they occasionally alight on Lady Molly and wrestle with questions of class in England in the 1930s.”

Amy interrupted. “I write to that discussion list. I pretend to be Australian.”

She guffawed. I ignored her.

“Sometimes it seems to me that, in spite of the subtle insights the contributors to the online discussion list bring to most of the subjects they discuss, their approach to class can be heavy-handed. There is not a monolithic set of rules; Powell would have been the last to think that there was. I mused randomly about quite different class indicators – not whether class distinctions can be justified, just how they work – and I thought of four. Of course, there are many more.

“The most obvious is what we might call the Mitford one: the erection of subtle but irrational verbal rules that those inside comply with and outsiders fail: ‘looking glass’ not ‘mirror’, and so on. Lady Molly sails through this test instinctively: compliant but without judging.

“Two and three: on the one occasion that I met Prince Charles I couldn’t help noticing his shoes. They were well-made black oxfords, old beyond the point that anyone else would have thrown them out, but burnished to that sort of shine possible only for those with extensive availability of staff. Even the shreds of old leather hanging off them were shining. What class, I thought, what dandyism! And as I stared at them, royal platitudes playing about my ears, I couldn’t help thinking of Don Simpson…”

“Yellow man. Television…”

“No, Amy, Don: Hollywood royalty; he produced Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop with Jerry Bruckheimer in the Eighties. Mr Bruckheimer is still with us but Don Simpson sadly died in the early Nineties of a surfeit of cocaine and mullets. The reason I thought of him was that after he became Hollywood royalty he developed a dress style of his own. He would wear no trousers but Levi’s, and he would never wear a pair of Levi’s twice. At the end of the day he would throw them out, unless his staff could find a homeless person with sufficiently stocky legs on whom to bestow them. He undoubtedly thought that this was classy, and I agree that it was dandyism of a high order: the opposite of Prince Charles’s.

“And lastly, at something of a tangent, I thought of the Nobility of Failure, the concept whereby melancholy paralysis was traditionally prized among the Japanese upper classes. A samurai warrior would sit impassively in his tent, throwing away a winning position and gaining respect as a result – often of course posthumously.

“The samurai test of class would have had little appeal for Lady Molly. There were failures in South Kensington but not heroic ones. Curiously, though, it has a resonance for Stringham and Moreland, both of whom I think passed through the door there.

“As to the Prince Charles or Don Simpson question, obviously Lady Molly’s sympathies would have been with the Prince, but I don’t think that dandyism did much for her in principle. My point is that the Simpson model, which seems to be the default position for many commentators, possibly because it’s simple, works for some aristocrats, English and American alike, but it doesn’t work for Lady Molly. It doesn’t work for lots of people. It’s all more complicated than that. Of course this is why we need Anthony Powell to demonstrate it for us.”

“You could have said that to them. It’s in whole sentences and not abusive as regards any group of people.”



Ruminating on the Titanic

Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,” said Augustus Sly.

“Don’t you start,” I said.

“Well, why the rendezvous in West Ham Park? Do you have a concern that we might be overheard?”

I hesitated for a moment. The real reason for meeting outdoors was that, of the two most obvious indoor locations, my house was ruled out because the better half had taken to being vocally critical – in my view over-critical – of Augustus Sly’s dress sense, and the last time I had visited his flat it had been hard to talk, as the sound of the South African mouse in his wainscoting had become much worse: both as to the volume and as to the self-pity.

“It’s a lovely day,” I said. “And Bella needs an airing.”

It certainly was lovely. It was quite early in the morning and the sun shone on the dew that covered the grass. Indian women jogged past heavily encumbered by their saris. Pensioners with dogs called to each other and, with time, coalesced into quite large wagon trains that progressed in a stately fashion from one side of the park to another. At weekends the activity is more organised. There is running, with signposts and sponsored water, and groups of five or six women toning their muscles together; but this was a weekday and activity, such as there was, was individual. In the distance a man gestured with his arms. It might be tai chi; it might be insanity; at my distance it was impossible to tell.

“I love the Park,” I said. “I like the fact that everyone has their own little projects and everyone progresses at their own speed, and we can watch them in a detached way.”

“Like God,” said Augustus Sly.

“That’s true, I suppose. I was thinking, more like the opening sequence of the film Titanic. You remember that we see as if from an anachronistic helicopter the passengers promenading around the deck, each up to their own little schemes – all to be resolved in the course of the film – through the magic of recently invented CGI techniques. Unfortunately the CGI techniques were then so primitive that everyone walks at exactly the same speed, with their arms coordinated like soldiers’; in years to come we will all laugh at it for being so clumsy.

“I always wondered,” I said, “why the painter Carel Weight didn’t paint more pictures of people in parks. He often painted people progressing at their own speeds, up to their own little schemes, but rarely when he painted parks.”

“Were your wonderings crowned with a conclusion?”

“No. And he denied it. There’s a thesis for you: Social Interaction and Avoidance in Parks.”

“Where’s the colon in that? There has to be a colon if it’s a thesis.”

Parklife: Social interaction and Avoidance in Urban Recreation Space.”

“Anyway, I don’t need a thesis, I’ve got one: you,” said Augustus Sly. (Augustus Sly’s ongoing doctoral thesis is about this blog.) “And what have you been up to? You’ve been rather quiet.”

“Ah,” I said. “Two things. One was what I wanted to speak to you about.”

“Tell me the other one,” said Augustus Sly.



“It’s the Anthony Powell Society,” I said. “They have a competition. You have to write about Lady Molly’s secret life. I’m planning to submit.”

“I suspect she had none.”

“I suspect that’s the point. But I’m thinking along the lines of Lady Molly as gentleman detective.”

“Good idea,” said Augustus Sly. “Very golden age. She had the advantage that at any given time she could bring everyone in her drawing room to order and say, ‘And one of you is the murderer,’ and have a good chance of being right.

“And who will be her Dr Watson? Jenkins?”

“Too obvious. I’m toying with Brandreth.”


“Whenever there is a doctor in the novel it usually turns out to be Brandreth, who, indeed, was at School with the narrator.”

“I hope that you are not planning to put anything about it on your blog. Few of your readers know who Lady Molly is, let alone Dr Brandreth.”

“Of course not. Well, possibly just in the restricted access part.”

“And what’s the other thing?”

I produced my iPad with a flourish and showed him the two bottoms: Schiele’s and the photograph of Maria.

“Ah,” said Augustus Sly, scrutinising them. “Austro-Hungarian, obviously. Who is the painter?”


“Of course. Hang on. There was no colour photography in Schiele’s day. The painting must be a modern forgery.”

“Wrong way round. The photo and the painting are kosher. It’s different women.”

Augustus Sly looked more closely.

“I find it impossible to believe that. It’s the same bottom. I’d…”

“You’d put money on it?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly. “But it’s a staggering likeness.”

“The painting is in the Courtauld. I know nothing about the sitter. The photo is of my neighbour. I’m convinced there’s a connection. I want you to investigate it. Can you?”

“Intriguing. I’d probably need to go to Vienna.”

“You have a student card, don’t you?”


“Do you have an information pack?”

“I thought you’d ask,” I said, producing it from my pocket.

“And does your neighbour want to find herself linked to some demi-mondaine of the Viennese Secession?”

“She made it clear that notoriety would not be entirely unwelcome.”

Augustus Sly looked through the information pack, which had been painstakingly assembled.

“Elementary, my dear Brandreth,” he said with a smirk.

“No,” I said.

“No,” he said.

Unexpectedly a cloudburst started, and I regretted being out of doors. Even Augustus Sly’s sordid flat would have been better.

“How is your South African mouse? The one in the wainscoting?”

“Suddenly gone quiet,” said Augustus Sly. “No more self-pity, no more of his ramblings on about the toilet. Nothing at all. I rather miss it. He seems to have been removed elsewhere.”

“I think it shows a proper sense of shame,” I said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly.

To Vienna, to Vienna

What would we do without the Austro-Hungarian Empire to reflect on?

I think of what then seemed, in an age of travel on horseback, its great expanse; of the good abbé, Ferenc Liszt, travelling from town to village to play his piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies to people to whom tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum’ ti tum would otherwise have always remained an unsavoured musical delight; to heroes of stories by Stefan Zweig racing by horse to Vienna to intrigue, marry or die; to Joseph Haydn on the Esterhazy estate, far from anywhere that a man of culture might find congenial, composing his opera The Farewell:

The Farewell, where in the last and most affecting scene the three sisters – all, daringly, cast as contraltos – sing, ‘To Vienna, to Vienna’.

I think of poor old Gustav Klimt ladling gold onto his clumsy paintings, little realising that in a hundred years’ time they would appeal precisely to the new rich of our age, who like all their appurtenances (or what they regard as their appurtenances) – jeans, pictures, food, women – covered with gold. I think of his talented friend Egon Schiele. I think of Dr Freud thinking the unthinkable and, worse, telling it to his couch-bound and corseted patients.

Given my experiences over the last week or so I also think of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These were racially and culturally diverse but as we now know remarkably similar. In the Twenty-First Century we commonly refer to certain bottoms, by way of shorthand, as being of the Austro-Hungarian type. But this similarity became known only towards the very end of the period of the Empire, possibly because of the earlier difficulty of access, in turn due to excessive corseting. Until, partly thanks to Dr. Freud, the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became relatively uncorseted, the clinical similarity of their bottoms was a fact known only to a small number of Viennese libertines.

It is difficult to believe this nowadays.

I have never been able to verify the following story, although I was told it in Vienna. It is that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, when an old man, noticed a young girl working in his kitchen garden. She was bending over, just as my neighbour had. His majesty became inflamed by lust, and, used to having his imperial way, forced himself on the young gardener, who in due course gave birth to the future Frau Schönberg, the wife of the composer. I compared – to his disadvantage – the emperor’s goatish behaviour with my own, which had been cool and scholarly, as Amy and I approached my neighbour’s house intending to tackle the sensitive subject of her bottom, that of Egon Schiele’s model, and their uncanny similarity.

The initial stages of our discussion were made easier since Ijaz had sent her a link to the story on this blog. He sifts my posts with regard to which are most suitable for my various neighbours. Then he puts small notes bearing the appropriate links through their letter boxes. The comments on Anthony Powell he regards as suitable for all, but others he thinks are too smutty for women, for instance. The Jesus and the Rabbit series, on the restricted area of the blog, is embargoed for all. Given that my neighbour featured personally, he sent her the link, so that when we called she already knew what our visit was about. This was a relief.

My neighbour is called Maria, a name that is common throughout Europe, indeed throughout the World. She comes, she said, from Romania. This was discouraging, since Romania was never I believe in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is, however, an intriguing connection as regards language. Because her English is weak we sought a way of conversing. She told us that in her family, for reasons now forgotten, they talked German when outsiders were not around. So we spoke in German and I summarised occasionally for Amy in Mandarin or English: the former if I wished to speak to her privately. As with many people who adopt a foreign language for family speech, Maria’s German was formal and old-fashioned. But at some point I asked her if she was aware of something or other.

Ichh waaas nit,” she replied.

I smiled to myself. ‘That’s not conventional German, which would probably have been ‘Ich weiss nicht‘. That’s pure Viennese,’ I thought to myself.

Cunningly, I did not say so.

“The time of reckoning is arrived,” said Amy. “Time for our comparison.”

Maria allowed herself to be led away into an adjoining room. I thought again how accommodating she was being about the whole business, which must have struck her as at best bizarre and at worst intrusive. I found the image on my iPad of the Schiele work and Amy took it with her. Thirty seconds passed.

There was a commotion as of something being knocked over. Amy rushed back into the room. I had never seen her so flustered. She was white.

“双胞胎!”she exclaimed.

Maria shuffled through the door, also flustered. Her trousers were around her ankles and she held my iPad in front of her to preserve her modesty.

“Ng?” she said.

Zwillinge,” I said. “Amy says that you could be twins.”

We all sat down, Maria adjusting her clothing first.

“Well,” I said. “We do have something. My gut feeling was right.”

“We have an adventure,” Amy said.

“Will I be famous?” Maria said.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said, “all at once. Do you have any green tea? It always settles the emotions.”

“Only PG,” said Maria. “I’m sorry.”

“I have,” said Amy. “Emergency supply. About my person at all times.”

And from her jacket she produced an envelope full of the leaves. I found a teapot, cleansed it and brewed up. We were all silent and thoughtful.

“What next?” said Maria. “Will I be famous?”

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector called. He wanted to talk about what he called ‘alleged inappropriate sexual approaches concerning your good self at the premises known as ‘Shallow Assets’’’. I invited him in and made him some green tea.

“An Inspector?” I said. “I’m honoured. I would have expected a Detective Constable or a Sergeant at best, if anyone at all. Being an Inspector is after all the summit of the achievement of John Rebus, in spite of his having been at the centre of nineteen much garlanded crime novels.”

“Rebus is imaginary,” said the Inspector. “Sir.”

“Whereas you…”

A glint came into the Inspector’s eye that can only be described as Pirandellian.

“Point taken,” he said. “Sir.”

Pleasantries over, he took a notebook from his pocket and a pencil, the end of which he licked.

“The bedroom door opened,” he said.

“Are you putting words into my mouth, Inspector?”

He put his pencil down and sighed.

“In your own. Sir.”

“The first thing that I noticed was that he was dressed as an Edwardian washerwoman. I was expecting that, you see.”


“Don’t you read my blog? Don’t you do any research?”

“The internet connection, Sir, at the Station. Not reliable. We have to use BT, unfortunately: our service provider. Wheels within wheels.”

“Then I knew that he wasn’t who I was expecting, and thirdly I knew I’d seen him on the television.”

“So this figure from the television: he made you touch his male member?”

“One thing at a time. He advanced on me. With one hand he held up his skirting and with the other he grasped…”

“His male member, yes. And was it erect and proud? Was it glistening, with one drop of moisture on what we call the glans penis?”

“It was erect. More I can’t tell you, as it was inside his washerwoman’s calico drawers.”

“But you could see it through the calico? He was touching himself through his calico?”

The Inspector licked his pencil again: excessively, it seemed, as he then wiped it on his trousers, which were not, since he was a detective rather than in the uniformed branch, of serge.

“Then,” I said, “he got entangled in the rug and fell.”


“A Konya, I would guess. Certainly Anatolian. It was not in the best state of repair.”

“Ah. I thought you meant toupée. Sir.”

“He landed painfully…”

“On his nob end, eh, Sir, eh?”

“..which enabled me to get away.”


“And of course he spoke to me.”

The Inspector put his pencil aside again.

“You see my problem. Sir. How can we accord you victim status as regards inappropriate touching, when you are undeniably a member of what we call the Patriarchy? We have a list of minority groups which are pre-approved for victim status, and you don’t appear to be on it. ”

He gestured at the green tea and my small but obviously valuable etching by Odilon Redon.

“I was mentally frail, at the time.”

“There is that…”

I put down my cup, for fear of damaging it.

“That man, that man,” I said, and I gesticulated as I did so, “he ruined my life. He stole from me my late middle age.”

I was briefly in tears.

(I love that sentence. It’s borrowed from the great novelist Anthony Powell [The Military Philosophers, published by Heinemann, 1968, p 158]. The narrator is in liberated France towards the end of the Second World War. Peace is in sight. ‘For some reason it was all too much.’ He is ‘briefly in tears’. That is dignified. That is as it should be: not like our debased age where no encounter, particularly if televised, is complete without a lengthy recital of one’s feelings and recourse to the waterworks.

Just now, of course, I was teasing.)

The Inspector advanced on me, caring in his eyes. Maybe they have an afternoon on ‘counselling training’ at Staff College these days. He laid his hand on my knee. It was a meaty thing, and I speculated about where it had been as he fought his way up through the ranks.

“I so understand. But we have to be careful,” he said, “Sir. Some of the people who come to us, not victim status at all. Slags, most of them. Filth. White trash. Little whores. You should hear the stories the young police officers tell. Forcing themselves on the lads…”

He mouthed the phrase “BJ” silently and primly.

“… as young as ten, some of them.”

The Inspector removed his hand from my knee and mopped his chin with a tissue that he found in his clothing. He put his notebook in his pocket, wiped his still slobbery pencil with a dry bit of the tissue and placed that in another pocket.

“I think we’ve got enough here to have our friend bang to rights.”

“Have you identified him?” I said.

“A great pity that no one came forward in his lifetime: like you, Sir, someone with courage.”

“What do you mean, his lifetime? He’s not dead.”

“Dead these two years, Sir, and more…”

“It’s not Savile, you silly Inspector, it’s not a ghost, it’s one of the other ones, and he’s very much alive, and apparently still preying on the mentally frail.”

The Inspector took out his notepad and pencil again, but seemed at a loss for words.

“What in earth would be the point of building a case against Savile’s ghost?” I said. “Isn’t it a bit late for that? You missed the boat with him, I’d say.”

“It would send a very clear message,” said the Inspector.

“Who to? The undead?”

The inspector looked at me with dignity. Now I had put myself in the wrong. He put his notebook away for the last time.

“You’ll be hearing from us,” he said.

He stood at the door of the room, hesitating. Clearly there was something more.

“I suppose you want a blow job,” I said.

He smiled broadly.

“Well, go and find a Sergeant.”

Anthony Powell: a Neighbour Speaks

The better half and I were coming back from the shops when we fell in with our neighbour Ijaz. He was coming back from prayers. It was Friday and he was dressed, not in the Lands End fleece that he tends to sport, but, as were others of our neighbours – the men, of course – in the white cotton outfits that they have for prayers. Very nice they look in them too. Some of the younger ones spoil the effect a little by completing the ensemble at ground level with exposed shins, grubby socks and trainers. I cannot believe that there is any religious injunction as regards trainers, the invention of which after all post-dated the death of the Prophet by some time. Anyway, Ijaz doesn’t wear trainers.

He indicated that the better half should go ahead. He wanted to speak to me man to man.

“Your blog. I speak for the Street, you understand. Some concern…”

“My goodness,” I said. “I never would have thought that I had Followers so close to home.”

“Very much so. The pirates, Amy, very good.”

“Thank you. Amy is currently helping her mother with the New Year,” I said. “In China. Or Kettering.”

“The Street likes Amy very much. Very good.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “And Uncle Edgerton..”

“No, the Street doesn’t like Uncle Edgerton…”

“Very few people do…”

“But that’s not the point,” said Ijaz. “Last month. Two posts only. Both smutty.”

“No, no.”

“Smutty,” Ijaz said in a tone that did not admit of contradiction. “Normally I encourage my unmarried daughters to read alablague, and the staff too on their one day a week off, but how can I do so if there is to be a relentless tide of smut?”

“I’m sorry. As you’ve seen from across the road I have been confined to the house with flu and then Ukrainian carpenters. I suppose that they must have that effect. No accounting. What would you prefer?”

“The Street likes it when, inshallah, you write about Anthony Powell, the novelist.”

Again, I was most surprised.

“Mm, Powell. He could be smutty, of course, in an oblique way. One thinks of Glober’s cushion, stuffed with the pubic hair of the women he sleeps with. And his little pair of scissors.”

“Couldn’t do that these days,” said Ijaz. “Brazilians. My goodness! We speak man to man, you understand.”

“Curiously,” I said, “I have been thinking about Powell particularly over the last few days. One of the things that has always bothered me is that Nick, the narrator and the author’s alter ego, is the ultimate cool operator. Nothing fazes him. He’s funny. He copes with monsters and they don’t realise that they’re being coped with. He flirts with Pamela Flitton and is, uniquely, unscathed. I always dreamt of meeting Powell. I thought he’d be great company.

“Then I read the Journals, which he wrote towards the end of his life. They’re not very Nick-like at all. Powell is frequently querulous – which Nick never is – even to the point of harrumphing. I realised that it was lucky that no meeting had never taken place, because he would probably not have liked me. Moreover – and this is a terrible indictment for a novelist – he would have disliked me because I fell into some large category that he had come to condemn without further thought, like having long hair or not voting Conservative. Nick never did that.”

“Mm,” said Ijaz. “Ng.”

“But recently I have been reading the Memoirs – To Keep the Ball Rolling. You’ll remember that he wrote them after the last volume of Dance was published but before the Journals and the two final novels.

“And here’s what’s strange.”

“Vrm…,” said Ijaz.

“The first three volumes are funny, digressive: cool like Nick. Then in the fourth volume he starts going on about his holidays. I don’t think they’re Saga Tours, but that sort of thing, and he starts harrumphing. He calls long hair among men ‘Absolomism’, which is not funny, it’s not clever and it’s only to show off. You can see exactly the point where he starts harrumphing.”

“Mmmn,” said Ijaz. “Your wife…”

“Is it just old age? What is it, old neighbour, old fellow-ratepayer? Give me counsel.”

“No,” said Ijaz. “Pay no rates. Disability. Leg. Pain. Uurgh! Chest. No rates.”

“I am sorry,” I said, “to broach unwittingly a sensitive subject. Of course no rates. But à nos moutons! Is it anno domini? Do you feel, as you count your life out in weekly prayer meetings, an increasing impulse to harrumph? I know I do.”

“No, yes,” said Ijaz. “The Prophet …”

“Another thing. Still Powell. People talk about the unreliable narrator. People say, ‘Yes but imagine what Widmerpool would have said. Imagine his take on the same facts. Very different. Not stupid. Not by any means. An alternative approach to the same circumstances. Less imaginative but not entirely unacceptable. Trying to get a mountain of work done and Nick, who was supposed – paid – to help, is mooning on about the boyhood of some Persian notability. Right to be irritated. Imagine Dance written by Widmerpool.’”

“There,” said Ijaz, more firmly, “I can help you. This book, it exists. This is another novel in a series: Strangers & Brothers by one C Snow. Narrator Lewis Eliot. He is Widmerpool! He is fat and lives to work. He is humourless and pompous. He deals with charming people but he only tells us that they are charming because he can’t make charm in his book any more than he can make humour. You can see the characters like Nick, the cool, allusive ones. You can see that Mr Lewis Eliot, although it’s his book, has no idea what’s going on, for all his relentless analysing. There you are my friend, Strangers & Brothers, by C Snow: Widmerpool’s Dance!”

I stared at Ijaz in disbelief.

“You cunning old bibliophile,” I said. “You took the words out of my mouth.

“Anyway,” I said. “Cut to the chase. I thought of doing a post along just those lines. What do you say?”

“The Street likes it very much when you write about Anthony Powell, the novelist. Not smut. Your wife, I believe has reached your front door and is shouting.”

More Talking about Books

At the end of November something significant happened for lovers of the novels of Anthony Powell: particularly the mean ones.

His great work A Dance to the Music of Time comprises twelve volumes. These were originally published in hardback between 1951 and 1975 and then separately in paperback. The paperback publishing programme changed when Powell fell out in mid-series with Penguin, so that there is an incomplete set of Penguin paperbacks and then complete sets published later by other publishing houses. In due course they published the novel in four volumes – three each – which was a good idea, and entitled them Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, which was a bad idea. Nick Jenkins, the narrator, spends Autumn fighting the Second World War: it was a melancholy business but he was only in his thirties, as indeed he is at the onset of Winter. The Folio Society apparently published the four-volume version in hardback, no doubt with their customarily winsome artwork, but I have never seen it.

There are also American equivalents as well as translations into other languages.

Then the individual volumes became available on Kindle. And what happened at the end of November was that that the four-volume version also became available on Kindle, occasioning a small saving.

I immediately bought it. As in life, I am now embarking on Winter.

All this gives rise to musings about what books, and Kindle files, are for. Coincidently, having just moved house, I am trying to assemble a library. For the first time in my life I have a room so designated, and I have spent the last few days shoehorning a vast pile of books, acquired over decades, onto appropriate shelves. Some will make it, others will not. Some important and indeed loved works are going on the Oxfam pile, on the grounds that they will always be available and probably better taken electronically than in the form of a dilapidated paperback. On the other hand my enormous collection of Michael Moorcock, never found in hardback, never to be reread and probably too frail to be subjected to real life any more, has pride of place.

At the other extreme there are authors where one is attempting to assemble a collection of first editions. Alice Thomas Ellis is complete. Penelope Fitzgerald is halfway there. With Anthony Powell himself I have made a creditable start, but will never be able to complete the set as the early novels are far too expensive. The later Powells I already have as first editions, simply because I bought them on the day they came out, but in those days I didn’t realise about first editions and so they have been, like my childhood teddy bear, loved to death and have needed to be replaced with sensible copies with Near Fine dust jackets.

There have been false starts. I read all the novels of Elizabeth Taylor in Virago paperback decades ago and loved them. Recently I thought that I would build up a collection of her first editions: they weren’t that expensive. I bought At Mrs Lippincote’s, and reread it. I thought that it was good but not that good: so it is my only Elizabeth Taylor first edition and I have moved capriciously on.

Of course a library is also a bit of personal PR: I will admit to Jane Austen in garish 1970s paperback, but it is on Moorcock and Penelope Fitzgerald that I want to be judged.

It is a truism that soon we will have our books only either electronically or in a form that we treasure as objects: because of beauty or rarity or funkiness. People say that this will mean the end of the paperback and they are probably right, although I would except my Moorcocks – on all three grounds – and I imagine that in years to come bibliophiles, meeting together, will want to dig out their copies of Morrissey’s Autobiography, an instant Penguin Modern Classic forsooth, and agree, over a companionable single malt: ‘What a tit.’

What is the point of buying a first edition?

Partly it is rarity: the same impulse that leads people to collect postage stamps or unique ‘states’ of etchings. That is rather dull.

Partly they are beautiful: although not as beautiful as a good reproduction, and probably less smelly, given the effects over the years of damp, cats and cigarettes.

I think that mainly it is because the first edition is the novel shorn of its reception. No one knew then if it was going to be a classic. The back cover features quotations from reviewers, not of course of the novel itself but the author’s earlier works. We can marvel how they got it wrong; we can wonder yet again, ‘What exactly was the point of Peter Quennell?’. Less prestigious publications, with no reviews available, may have instead advertisements of Woodbines or the like. The artwork will be contemporary: it will strike as dated or quaint – or funky, like the Moorcocks.

It will probably, compared with today, be built to last: bound not glued, a nice weight to it.

And Kindles – apart from the obvious advantages of instant ordering and Tube-compatibility?

One thing I have noticed while putting the library together is that omnibus editions tend to be no longer legible to my rheumy old eyes. With the Kindle, you can have the words as large as you like – and you get a choice of typeface.

You can’t browse through a Kindle file as well as a printed book but you can word-search. This is a boon for Powellites:

When is Nick Jenkins first called by his Christian name? Not until halfway through volume two.

Was Uncle Giles really disturbed picking up a hooker in Shepherd Market? Simple to check. (I don’t think so.)

Even the Handbook can’t help us with these important questions.

And how am I planning to embark on Winter? Book in bed and Kindle on the Tube: a judicious combination; but more book, I hope, as Christmas comes.

Talking about Books

The Angel, said Amy, had continued to bless their relationship.

“That of Alfredo and the woman from the train?”

I had had, incidentally, to explain about the Angel to Amy, as I had not told her about either my first encounter or my subsequent investigations.

“I haven’t seen much of Alfredo recently,” I said. “I thought he might be avoiding me. What about the settled domestic commitment?”

“This is a woman,” Amy said. “She is head teacher. She is called Lesbia Firebrace.”

The name was faintly familiar. I thought for a moment.

“No, she isn’t. Lesbia Firebrace is fictitious. She is a head teacher in the novel Two Worlds and Their Ways by I Compton Burnett. Great name, but this obsession with English literature, Amy, is getting out of hand.

“Moreover,” I said, “Lesbia Firebrace is not a lesbian, although rather a number of the members of her teaching staff appear to be.

“Furthermore,” I said, “what is the woman from the train called?”

“Ah. Alfredo don’t know. He won’t ask. Too late to ask.”

“I suppose that it would be embarrassing to ask someone their name when they have granted you the freedom of their loins in a kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company.”

“Waugh,” said Amy.


I thought that, as frequently, she had said ‘Ah’.

“Waugh. Freedom of loins. J. Flyte. Waugh. ”


Brideshead Revisited.”


I said it.

“J Flyte grant C Ryder freedom of loins. Of course,” Amy said, “absolute difference kiosk of West Cornwall Pasty Company and Wodehousesque ocean liner with state room, waiting staff, storm and orphans.”

“’Wodehousian’, conventionally,” I said. “Don’t know why. But enough, please, Amy, of these literary references. It’s overpowering. They are an inappropriate accompaniment to a pleasant and lazy Sunday afternoon’s chat, with green tea, at Great Secret Miss.”

She looked hurt – as well she might. Great Secret Miss is hers, not mine, to decide what should happen there.

“New to me,” she said, “Eng. Lit., as you say. I think you are my good friend. Help me please with Eng. Lit.”

“Of course,” I said, “but please stop showing off.”

“OK. ‘Freedom of loins.’ Bad taste, I think.”

“Yes I think it is a bit overwrought. Is that really what he wrote? Not as overwrought as Orphans of the Storm, though, which is how I recall that the chapter is titled. There is a distinct feeling that Waugh once had an adventure on a Wodehousian ocean liner, about which he continued to nurse excitable memories and that he put it in his book; as the years go by the fictional bits fall off leaving the rather rude autobiographical substructure showing through. Compare Anthony Powell, where the structure never intrudes on the lives of the characters, in spite of the efforts of the Real Powellites to treat the great work as if it were an acrostic and the characters mere ciphers for people Powell had met and whom we have to track down.”

“Like Peter Quennell!”

Amy shouted this. I held up an admonitory finger.

“Yes. No show off. But why always they talk about Peter Quennell? He model for this, he model for that. Peter Quennell, who he? What he do that is interesting? Let him forget!”

I have always thought the same thing, myself.

“But ‘freedom of loins’,” Amy said. “I don’t understand. What freedom? Freedom is choice, Mrs Thatcher say. What freedom? Chose back passage sometimes?”

She had the grace to blush.

I admonished her. “You forget, perhaps,” I said, “that you are referring to a member of the English aristocracy.”

“Ah yes, I remember. Of course. J Flyte. Honourable. Probably back passage compulsory, then. Do you give people freedom of your loins?”

I sidestepped this impertinent question.

“I think it means girls. That may seem discriminatory to a reader of the present day, but I think that Waugh would have been surprised to think that C Ryder had been said to make available to J Flyte the freedom of his loins.”

Amy reflected.

“I gave freedom of my loins to court of appeal judge once. Bad mistake. Took freedom away again pretty damn quick.”

A look came onto her eye. I recognised it.

“Don’t say it!”

But she did.

“’But that was in another county, and besides, the judge is dead.’

“Hampshire,” she explained.

“Shakespeare,” she added.

“Marlowe,” I said.

We lapsed into silence.

“Little room for freedom on the floor of the kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company,” I would have thought,” I said, “granted or otherwise.”

“First time, no need freedom. All hammer and tongues. Later different when they know each other.”

“I wonder where they go now. Alfredo’s stopped coming to our flat, and I can’t believe that Ms Firebrace, or whatever she’s really called, is very keen on their using hers, given the settled domestic commitment.”

“No, not,” said Amy. “Alfredo says Ms Firebrace very good. ‘Accommodating,’ he says. He says she will grant freedom of her loins too, maybe.”

“To him? Together?”

“That for negotiation.”

“Italians!” I said.

I wondered how these negotiations would take place if the name of one of the women was unknown to Alfredo and the other a literary pseudonym. Again we lapsed into silence. Amy looked at her watch. She gestured to one of her girls, pointing at me.

“More green tea,” she said.

Then she turned to me.

“I am very much looking forward to a further conversation with you about books,” she said, and went off into the back.