- The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s by Humphrey Carpenter
Allen Lane, 244 pp, £18.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9532 7
Humphrey Carpenter is a practised biographer; he can do groups as well as single persons, but he admits that this group set him a new problem, which was that he remained throughout unsure whether it really existed. The Movement (a rather localised, mostly Oxford affair) and the Angry Young Men (more London, more of the theatre) were certainly the inventions of journalists, but they took on a kind of reality when the public was induced to view the young men in terms of those inventions, and also when the writers concerned noticed that the mirror of gossip did, however distortedly, reflect them. And whatever they thought they were doing, they could hardly not know that it would give rise to large, vague speculations about the cultural condition of England.
Vol. 24 No. 24 · 12 December 2002
A footnote to Frank Kermode’s review of Humphrey Carpenter’s The Angry Young Men (LRB, 28 November): around 1960 I was returning from abroad but was stopped by an immigration official who demanded further proof of my status. I had little on me, but in one pocket chanced on my membership card for the Establishment Club. ‘Well, I am a member of the Establishment,’ I said, to which he replied, without twitching a muscle, so that to this day I don’t know whether the old deference was still with us or we were sharing a private joke: ‘Oh well sir, if you are a member of the Establishment, that’s fine,’ and waved me through.
Vol. 25 No. 1 · 2 January 2003
I read with astonishment a sentence in Frank Kermode’s piece on the Angry Young Men (LRB, 28 November 2002): ‘Other Oxford notables who crossed the path of those aspirants included … Wallace Robson, a young don with a fearsome reputation for learning and judgment, a man whose attacks on the entire literary canon he was employed to teach were of a ferocity even Amis, by his own admission, could not aspire to.’ Can this possibly refer to the Wallace Robson who became my graduate supervisor in 1964?
Some told me I was lucky to get him as a supervisor, but no fortunate surprises emerged from our intermittent meetings over three years. These were rare, as Robson was notoriously difficult to pin down. ‘Ring me,’ he said at our first meeting. ‘I don’t answer letters.’ At the other end of the telephone he was prone to become silent, presumably in the hope that his interlocutor would believe the line had gone dead. I managed to intercept him as he was scuttling to his college. He whipped a tiny diary from under his jacket and began chanting in his widely imitated sing-song voice: ‘Yes, I’m awfully busy this week. Yes, awfully busy next week. Yes, and the week after. Yes, and the week after that.’ I could see, around the edges of the diary, that its pages were perfectly blank. An appointment many weeks ahead was made, but Robson had nothing to write with so his diary remained intact. When I turned up, he was in the middle of a tutorial.
Eventually, inside the dingy room cluttered with signs of fearsome learning, I tried to explain an argument by invoking a comparison with a novel by Patrick White. There was a slight quiver from the chair where he sat. ‘I’ve never read anything by him,’ he said with finality, using the tone in which he announced that he did not answer letters. I mentioned White because I had heard Robson had actually been to Australia, where he spent most of the time confined to lodgings with a mounting pile of dirty washing, until someone took pity on him and told him what to do with it.
His reading certainly did not include my work in progress, though he did glance through a few pages once. About six weeks after I had sent them to him, I managed to get into his room, and waited while he searched among the piles of books, open and face down on every surface, and found the letter, still unopened. He flopped into a kind of throne, tore open the envelope, and began flicking through the pages. ‘Yes. That’s all right.’ He flicked over another page. ‘Yes, that seems to be all right.’ Another flick. ‘Yes, I think that’s all right.’ And so he went on, through about twenty pages in as many seconds. ‘Yes. Well that’s all right,’ he said finally, and then silence. I waited. Was there anything else?
‘Well yes. I’m concerned about whether my argument comes across clearly.’
He looked into space. ‘Yes, I think it’s all right. I don’t understand it myself, but my mind doesn’t work in those regions.’
Bruce Clunies Ross
Vol. 25 No. 2 · 23 January 2003
Bruce Clunies Ross’s portrait of the late Wallace Robson (Letters, 2 January) is certainly recognisable, though his undergraduates probably got more from him than did graduate students like Clunies Ross, since at Oxford the weekly tutorial was statutory, and Robson’s wide-ranging and humanistic mode of criticism, always mindful of ‘the common reader’, was perhaps better suited to undergraduate teaching. He did, however, take only one of my essays to read, and never returned it. He would, of course, listen to us reading our essays aloud, but rarely if ever commented on them. Instead he would take one point and in a single sentence segue from it into his own rapt monologue, his eye fixed on the furthest corner of the ceiling.
These monologues were riveting. His winding explorations were both meditative and unconventional, always trying to get to the heart of the matter. (‘Central’ was one of his favourite terms of praise.) He was an admirer of Leavis, though deploring the downgrading of Shelley. ‘Leavis was wrong about Shelley,’ he said, discussion-stoppingly, when I retailed some Leavisian point about ‘When the lamp is shattered’. He could also be memorably pithy or witty. On Leslie Stephen, he remarked: ‘Ah, yes. Hours and Hours and Hours in a Library.’ On André Malraux: ‘The avant-garde of the day before yesterday.’
He may have lost our essays, and it was exasperating when the most I could wring from him in the way of comment on two mock exams was that the second was better than the first. (‘Well, was it … better?’ ‘Ye-e-es. Better. Better.’) But I also felt braced by his refusal to reassure and to talk down. He showed that literary criticism could be, as he once put it, ‘both a discipline and a joy’.
University of Kent, Canterbury
Wallace Robson’s former pupils will have difficulty recognising Frank Kermode’s account of him (LRB, 28 November 2002). ‘Ferocity’? Yes, but only about colleagues. I recall one tutorial interrupted by a phone call from Helen Gardner. Wallace listened, interspersed an occasional, characteristically drawn-out ‘Yes’, and finally said, with the mildest possible hauteur, ‘don’t take that tone of voice with me,’ and put down the receiver. As for his ‘attacks on the entire literary canon’, he had a mesmerising sensitivity to word, text and idea. Once, having referred to the lines about the Incarnation in Dryden’s ‘Religio Laici’, he asked if we realised they were about the Divine Condescension. There was a pause – one learned to respect them. ‘“Condescension”: a beautiful word until they ruined it.’
Wallace Robson did indeed have a reputation for being disorganised, evasive and lazy about things he was not very interested in. An undergraduate magazine at his college, Lincoln, got into trouble for publishing a cartoon based on a famous Victorian painting, with the caption: ‘When did you last see your tutor?’ Bruce Clunies Ross makes a strong and vengeful case against him, but there was another side to Robson, as I can attest: a few years before Ross, he supervised my own thesis. We got on well and remained friends after I left Oxford. I found him helpful; we met as often as I felt I needed to, about once a term. I was then in my late twenties, and had a fairly clear idea of what I was doing.
Robson’s reputation for learning and judgment, which Frank Kermode refers to, was entirely justified. He wrote essays rather than monographs; he was not productive in the way that would satisfy a research assessment exercise, but his three collections – Critical Essays (1966), The Definition of Literature (1982) and Critical Inquiries: Essays on Literature (1993) – are acute and wide-ranging. His bad behaviour with Ross may reflect the fact he was getting fed up with Oxford in the 1960s. After a brief unhappy spell at Sussex, he went to Edinburgh as Masson Professor, where he seemed contented and succeeded in running a department. His marriage, rather late in life, certainly helped. He could be very good company and a provocative talker; on the last occasion that I saw him he remarked over lunch, in that hypnotic, droning voice: ‘I’ve been rereading Evelyn Waugh – so much better than Dickens.’
Vol. 25 No. 3 · 6 February 2003
A passing allusion to Wallace Robson in my review of Humphrey Carpenter’s Angry Young Men (LRB, 28 November 2002) has caused some readers to remember him with resentment and some with admiration. I feel uneasy about my original remark because I didn’t make it clear that I was reporting an AYM view rather than my own. I was friendly with Robson for almost forty years and never doubted that he was a learned and gifted if not very productive critic. Had I been writing primarily about him I could have added anecdotes of his often weirdly unexpected but usually pleasant ways of talking. He did sometimes express amazement that some of the great canonical books (The Faerie Queene comes to mind) were taken seriously; this was part of his conversational charm. But you could be sure that he knew those books and could speak differently of them on a proper occasion. Bernard Bergonzi (Letters, 23 January) gets him about right. I remember him saying of Barthes’s Le Plaisir du texte that an interest in that kind of criticism marked the difference between professionals and amateurs, and firmly associating himself with the latter. He meant that he was an old-style man of letters, a profession that does not proscribe oddity and yet remains a serious occupation. He once wrote that the duty of the university teacher of English was to ‘bring the student up against a recalcitrance in his subject-matter’; and that was what he tried to do. Evidently some liked the experience, and some did not.