Heroes of Our Time
- The Monument by T. Behrens
Cape, 258 pp, £11.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 224 02510 4
- The Passion of John Aspinall by Brian Masters
Cape, 360 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 224 02353 5
Suicide was thought damnable in the Middle ages, and I expect there are those who will be brought to feel by the first of these books that the Middle Ages had a point. The Monument commemorates a young couple who lived together for 17 years in a solitude à deux and who then took their own lives – incompetently and lingeringly. Representatives of the few people they had come to know in the course of their wanderings round the world were left to clear up. Suicide tends now to command sympathy, even when the reasons for it are hard to understand. Not everyone who reads the book will be able to sympathise with Justin and Ursula, or to believe that they understand them. But there will also be those who will stay with it for its relish of damnation.
This is one of the many books which address the snobbery of the English, which flash at their readers the lawns of their country houses, the baize of their gambling-tables, which describe the behaviour of those virtuosos of ostentation and disregard who have in common a contempt for commonness, for the middle class. It could be said of such books that their chief resource is the eccentricity which has long amounted to a convention of upper-class life. Literary careers can be founded on the impersonation and adulation of privileged behaviour: but the books which have been written and inspired by English snobs and sports are by no means all boastful or complicit. The supreme text of recent years is James Fox’s account of Lord Lucan and his set, with their boffes de politesse. There is a touch of Lucanian zombiness in The Monument, and the peer himself takes part in The Passion of John Aspinall.
Patrician insolence has quite often appeared to express a perception of the activities of the levelling Labour governments which have come and gone since 1945. But there’s more of that in the second of the books than there is in the first. T. Behrens’s story begins at a time when, as at other times in this century, the patriciate, and the merely rich, had slipped down into marked collusion with the smart, with upstarts and bohemians. They have been apt at such times to turn, for diversion and instruction, to foreigners and to members of the working class. These strangers were sexual, artistic. Theirs was the charm of not being bourgeois, and the foreigners among them could be, or could come across as, princes, pretenders to a throne, descendants of a khan. What survived, in the late Fifties, of the Chelsea set welcomed a refugee from Hungary, after the Soviet invasion of that country. This was Ursula of the long blonde hair, who had fled what survived of ancestral estates – on one view of the matter – and had made her courageous way across Europe, shot at and winged by border guards, to Vienna, and on to London, where she fell among art historians and was counselled by Anthony Blunt. Like the author of the book, who is a painter and who was then at the Slade, she discovered, he tells us, that ‘the people with the beautiful faces were also, mysteriously, the ones it was most fun to be with.’ The self-proclaimed ‘honesty’ of the wild, well-born stranger was doubted, but her fascination prevailed. She married an art dealer, Kenelm, understood to be seriously ill, and conducted daring affairs, one of them on the Métro with her friend Monique’s friend Gianni: ‘Gianni and Ursula leapt on just as the doors were closing, but Monique, who was now a few yards behind them and whose movements were hampered anyway by her arthritis, was left standing there as the train moved out. Ursula and Gianni got off at the next station but one, having brought their growing mutual admiration to a startling climax wedged solid among the rocking mass of sober commuters. After a quick tidy-up they took the next train back to the Gare de Lyon where Monique had had only twenty minutes to wait.’ Were the other passengers all sober? Startling the commuter is a game in which it is best to think so.
Chapter Five opens with the information: ‘Ursula and Kenelm had known my parents for some time, having been introduced originally by a mutual friend. Kenelm had then sold my father a pair of 18th-century cupboards.’ And so it was that Ursula met Justin, the writer’s moody adolescent brother, and ran away with him.
Away! They were off on their 17 years of Tristan and Isolde, and of Morecambe and Wise, for Justin, who could appear to have lost his old charisma, became the straight man of the duo, constantly mending things. They lived frugally but in style. They rented a flat in Rome and built a house in Greece. Here they are, unisex and colour-supplement-magnetic in an Italian ‘working-class’ restaurant: ‘Justin and Ursula, with their measured dignity and impeccable, interchangeable clothes – perhaps soft leather waistcoats over silk shirts and linen trousers in colours that rarely overstepped the narrow arc of the spectrum between cream and ochre – were immediately noticeable.’ They turned nomadic and mingled with the nomads of the Sudan, where they were to consider building a further house and perhaps settling down. They swam, they talked, they wrote their diaries and stories, and were at ease in a succession of remote and sticky places. Ursula’s bad back was religiously exposed to unmanageable African horses and jolting lorry rides. England’s wealthy and wonderful – their scams and scrapes, their portfolios, clubs, night-clubs, champagne and cocaine, the Cockney accents of their young ones, their gossip-columnists and their art historians, their zombies and their zoos and safaris – were avoided.
[*] The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy (Oxford). Kiernan’s book will shortly be reviewed in this journal.
Vol. 10 No. 12 · 23 June 1988
Categorised as a living legend, Kenneth Tynan replied that he felt more like an exploded myth. Reading Karl Miller’s review of The Passion of John Aspinall (LRB, 19 May), I suspect some unborn Oxonian legends are now becoming inflated myths. When Aspinall was up at Jesus College (1948-50), I shared language tutorials with him in the English course. Maybe this is why Anglo-Saxon and Middle English were never my strong points. Our tutor, Dobson, though a first-rate philogist and quite a good teacher, was also an Australian, and fascinated by any competition upon which money could be wagered. He and Aspinall talked the whole hour mostly about racing, roulette, poker and the rest. Aspinall and I went down in the same year, he with quite a clatter (see below). I don’t remember him ever ‘glittering’. He had no general conversation and was usually gloomy, as much when he had just won as when he had just lost. He did not enjoy being asked to do the slightest amount of academic work. When I asked him why he bothered to occupy a space so keenly sought by others who really wanted to be there, he told me that his stepfather, Sir John Osborne, had promised him a large sum if he got himself any kind of degree. When I pointed out that with the amount he knew about Eng. Lang. and Lit. he would never get any kind, he replied: ‘I have a plan.’ And so he had (see below).
I cannot think of anyone (except Tynan) who really glittered in what we must now call the Aspinall Years. We ex-servicemen, who were in the majority, found ourselves continually being told by visiting OK-names from the Twenties and Thirties how boring, sub-fusc, beery and stolid we were. Even to be beery was not easy, since pumps often ran dry, pubs closed a day or two a week, and you had to scour the city for a decent pint. The press also mounted regular invasions only to return to Fleet Street with stories about how dull we had become. Even those few who were determined to re-live Brideshead could only be described as intermittently gilded. I recall the Hon. Milo Cripps (now Lord Parmoor) issuing invitation cards in gold paint on silver backing: ‘COME TO AN ORGY!’ It shows how likely such an event seemed that I didn’t even bother to attend. You needed ration books for almost anything – Tynan still owes me a page of sweet coupons. His famous purple suit would not have remained in the memory of contemporaries in any earlier (or indeed later) Oxford generation.
Those who were famous in the university needed to do something – act or direct in OUDS/ETC, speak at the Union, write or edit Isis, Cherwell, or some mag they invented themselves. Tynan worked hard in all three worlds. It may be that there was another world of ‘gamblers, ravers, spendthrifts and eccentrics’ which I never entered. But since I spent much of my three years chasing up scandal and controversy for the Isis (also stringing for Time and the Express), I ought at least to have heard rumours of it. Two old friends, both of whom wrote gossip columns in the undergraduate press, agree that Aspinall was not one of their regular cast. He certainly did not compel my attention much – and even our tutor seemed interested in his information rather than his personality.
His final exams did cause a bit of a stir. I think it was the Anglo-Saxon paper. A to B, we were assigned near desks. As we went in, he whispered to me, rather generously in the circumstances: ‘Don’t be distracted by what happens later on.’ Sure enough, half-way through the paper, he rose to his feet like a man fighting in his sleep, staggered a row or two, and collapsed. All round, people got up to help, imagining it was some form of heart attack. I was able to carry on scribbling, not even turning my head, delighted with my much-needed start over the rest. I was told later that his plan had been to begin the exam, be taken ill with an apparent seizure, and thus qualify for an Aegrotat and his stepfather’s reward. If so, he failed to fail according to the rules. It was said that the Professor of Forensic Medicine was summoned, sniffed his breath, and instantly identified the self-administered cause. I believe Sir John stumped up nevertheless, perhaps out of admiration for his chutzpah.
Of course, this is just one man’s impression of time and place, but I think my view would be borne out by what was written, both by and about us, while it was happening. I do not believe that any observer would recognise what we experienced at the end of the Forties as what in the hindsight sagas of the Eighties they now call ‘the gilded Oxford of the Fifties’. Perhaps I should add that I met Ned Sherrin the other day, just after he had interviewed Aspinall about the book. He was happy to tell me that when he questioned Aspinall about his Oxford days Aspinall vividly recalled Tynan but had no memory at all of me.
In his otherwise fair-minded article about John Aspinall your contributor Karl Miller refers to the Observer as ‘the country’s most snobbish newspaper’. Does he mean that it deluges us with trivia about the Royal Family, like the popular papers? That it employs as regular pontificator Sir William Rees-Mogg, as does the Independent? That it has Lord Dacre on its books pages, like the Sunday Times? What can he mean? In an effort to understand, I looked up your Mr Miller in the contributors’ column, but there were no details about him. Perhaps he is secretly a baronet or something, and therefore understands these matters better than the rest of us.
Karl Miller writes: If he can manage a letter like this, Bruno Nightingale should surely be writing for the Observer. It was once a great newspaper, and is still a good one. I don’t suggest that Neal Ascherson is snobbish, or that John Naughton is, or that the news pages are. But it has too much of its own kind of snobbery. It is far too interested in top persons, eminent politicians, media stars and media magnates, and, yes, in toffs and royals. It is far too interested in Herbert von Karajan, and his cars, and his like. Has Mr Nightingale missed the recent ‘where are they now?’ feature on former ‘eligible’ – i.e. upper-class – bachelors? He can’t have missed the subsequent in-depth account of Viscount Lindley’s salmon mousse. Has he not noticed that the paper takes rather more pleasure in referring to the Brigade of Guards than it does in referring to the Royal Corps of Signals? Snobbery looks down as well as up, and there is plenty of that, too, in this liberal newspaper. There is a case now before the courts which relates to an occasion in 1984 when, as the paper has explained, its columnist Alan Watkins ‘made passing reference to somebody he then considered “a minor character” ’. This somebody, or nobody, was the Labour politician Michael Meacher, who was charged with telling people that he was the son of a farm worker (which the father was for a while, and after a fashion). The sneer was directed, not at farm workers, but at the minor character who had claimed conversance with them, and at whom the paper is still sneering with the arrival of Meacher’s foolish libel action. Does Mr Nightingale think the sneer uncharacteristic of the Observer? Has he forgotten the writings of Peter Hillmore? A word in Alan Brien’s ear: all that glitters is not gold, and smart sets aren’t always all that smart. The references to this particular Oxford group were not meant to be starry-eyed