Francis Wyndham talks about himself to Alan Hollinghurst

AH: I was thinking about the unusual shape of your career as an author – having written a collection of stories during the war when you were in your late teens and not published them for thirty years, then later publishing two books, one of which is almost entirely about the period of the war. The war seems to be a magnetic subject in what you’ve written. I wondered what sort of war you’d had.

FW: I had very much the same sort of war as is described in the books. I was in my teens. I was first at Oxford, then called up, invalided out of the Army, and did a TB cure. So the theme of those first stories in Out of the War, and to a certain extent of The Other Garden, is the war as seen by people who aren’t participating in it. The reason I wrote about it then was that it was what was going on at the time, and the reason, I think, why I write about the war now is because it isn’t what is going on at the time. I sent a few of those stories to publications but they were rejected, and the whole collection was turned down by a publisher. I thought, well, they aren’t any good, so I forgot about them, and wrote other things – reviews, interviews. Then when I came back again to try and write fiction in the late Seventies I didn’t feel that my responses to what was going on around me in the present were fine enough. It seemed to me much easier to write about the past, partly because so much of art is selection, and memory and forgetfulness have done the selection for you in a way – what I did remember, I remembered for a reason. Also, though I don’t think my stories are particularly libellous, I felt a sort of embarrassment at writing about people I know, which was solved simply because most of the people I wrote about in Mrs Henderson and The Other Garden are dead. It’s not so much that I’m obsessed by the war or by that period of my life. In a way, the theme of those books and of the early stories is a side of life which is boring and vacant, but which was rather dramatised by the fact that the war was going on. People like myself were immobilised in one way or another. So that’s a ready-made paradoxical situation. I think what I’ve always wanted to do in fiction is to write about that – the hours and hours and hours, the enormous proportion of life which is spent in a kind of limbo, even in people’s active years. It seems to me that isn’t sufficiently celebrated in fiction. The obvious reason why it isn’t is that it’s so terribly boring.

AH: But boredom can be made fascinating. There is a sort of unspoken intensity about these periods of suspended animation, and one does feel that they are somehow deeply typical of life. I can’t think of anybody else who has really done this, or has come near to doing it so well. In this state of mind your characters become preoccupied with trivial, ephemeral things which take on a comic resilience of their own. Were you very absorbed in popular music and cinema?

FW: Yes, very much in the cinema, but I think almost everybody was then. It was a fairly universal thing. It later was turned into a camp thing but it wasn’t necessarily that at the time. I can’t think what the equivalent now would be – television isn’t quite right for various reasons. It was a sort of lingua franca. Like people now talk about EastEnders – then it would have been films, but the movies were more dreamlike, more romantic. I remember when I was at Eton, I hated games and somehow managed to get out of them by saying I had sinus trouble. My housemaster said: ‘You must lake some exercise, why don’t you bicycle?’ So I bought a bicycle and would go into Maidenhead, take my school cap off, and go and sit in the cinema – when I should have been doing other things. Later on it stood me in very good stead, because when I went to the Sunday Times Magazine in the Sixties it was about the time of a certain camp interest in cinema, and I commissioned endless, endless articles about Hollywood things. I found that I’d actually become a kind of expert in Hollywood glamour-films. About the music, I was never a serious jazz buff or anything like that – it was just as with everybody in those days. You had a favourite film-star and a favourite tune – you had a tune on the brain. I was always mad about some singer or mad about some tune. I didn’t have very good taste particularly, but that wasn’t the point. It was an alternative. I mustn’t make myself out to be a total idiot because I wasn’t – I was quite intelligent. But along with this intelligence went this other goofy kind of thing.

AH: What was Eton like?

FW: I kind of ducked it. I sometimes really wonder if I was there. I sometimes feel I’m one of those people who pretends he went to Eton, because I can’t remember anything about it. But I think I did go there. I hated school really – though nothing awful happened to me there. I felt I was being forced to do something I didn’t want to do. It was such an effort just to turn up at the right place. And sometimes it’s got a funny joke name and you don’t know what it means: you’ve got to be at Toggers or something. I hated all that. But I had a very nice housemaster – George Lyttelton of the dreaded Letters – who allowed me to educate myself. He thought it was rather amusing that I was reading Proust, though he didn’t think it was a frightfully good idea. I was always, as a child, fascinated by things considered unsuitable for children. Of course, I didn’t really understand them but I was very excited and glamoured by it all. I suppose excitement and glamour come into reading a lot. I’m talking about what I was like so long ago, but I think there is a way in which one never changes. One changes tremendously in some ways, but there’s something about how one was then that remains. And maybe that’s why I’ve so far written about that period of my life.

AH: Re-reading the Out of the War stories, I’m amazed by their finesse. They breathe self-confidence. It seems to me extraordinary that after failing to place them you decided that you weren’t cut out for fiction. Where were you living at this time?

FW: I lived in a house in Trevor Square, just opposite Harrods. I moved there with my mother immediately after the war in 1946, and stayed there for absolutely ages.

AH: How literary was your family?

FW: Well, my mother was the daughter of Ada Leverson, who was a friend of Oscar Wilde: he called her the Sphinx. She was very literary. I don’t think my mother would have said she was literary herself, though she did later write books, which were published. My father was much older than my mother. She was a VAD in the First World War, and through that became a great friend of my half-sister – my father’s daughter – and then met my father; he was nearly sixty when I was born. He was a soldier, but he loved writing, he loved the Russians.

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