D.A.N. Jones

D.A.N. Jones was formerly assistant editor of the Listener.

Allendistas

D.A.N. Jones, 5 November 1992

For the British, South America is perhaps the darkest of the continents: only rarely and faintly has it entered our history, provoked our armies, disturbed our empire and commonwealth. ‘Ford Cortina,’ said the late Poet Laureate, rather sniffily: ‘it sounds like a South American.’ We can’t easily imagine what it’s like to be one: their fiction is obscured by the charms of Magical Realism. Their political spasms trouble us less than those of Europe or Africa, Bosnia or Somalia. We might meet them in our student days. I remember a Chilean who rebuffed the college manciple: ‘Are you asking me or are you telling me – peasant?’ Similarly, Tony Gould met a Chilean caballero, when they were Cambridge undergraduates, some thirty years ago. He was called Cristian Huneeus, a young man of landed family, a gentlemanly left-winger and already a published novelist. In those days, British readers were not so interested in South American fiction as they have since become, and few indeed were those who took an interest in South American politics – apart perhaps from worrying about the imperious interventions of North Americans, so eager to counter the threat of Communism in their hemisphere.’

Old Ladies

D.A.N. Jones, 20 August 1992

Marguerite Yourcenar was a highly honoured French writer, the first woman to be elected to the Académie Française, but her mother came from the Low Countries. The mother died in 1903, eight days after the daughter’s birth: her married name was Fernande de Crayencour (from which the pen name ‘Yourcenar’ was constructed) and her maiden name was de Cartier de Marchienne. In 1974, Marguerite Yourcenar published Souvenirs pieux (the first volume of her memoirs, Le Labyrinthe du monde), but it is a ‘memoir’ that never deals directly with the author. The book is about Fernande, her family and ancestors, over several centuries in what is now called Belgium. They were people who could take the concept of ‘pious memories’ quite seriously or, at least, formally.

Top Sergeant

D.A.N. Jones, 23 April 1992

Fred Zinnemann’s movie, From Here to Eternity, came out in 1953. I saw it in 1955, when I was a conscript soldier in Hong Kong. Since it was a story about a peace-time army in an exotic station (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii), eventually surprised by the Japanese attack of 1941, it seemed to me and my fellow-rankers markedly relevant to our situation – though we were less unprepared for invasion and insurrection than those surprised Americans at Pearl Harbor. The movie (and James Jones’s novel, on which it was based) presented that peace-time army as a community wherein a vicious and slothful officer might neglect his duties, turning over his responsibilities to the Top Sergeant, while the Other Ranks (or the Enlisted Men, as the Americans say) might be unjustly convicted of trumped-up offences and made to suffer cruel and unusual punishments. A young British soldier might say to himself: ‘Yes, it is all true. Armies are like that – so why are you rather enjoying this life?’’

’Oly, ’Oly, ’Oly

D.A.N. Jones, 20 December 1990

Only one of these five memoirs can be fairly called secular – quite unconcerned with the consolations of religion, untroubled by the complications. This is From Early Life by the oldest of the five authors, the novelist and scientist ‘William Cooper’: he was born in 1910 and brought up (as Harry Hoff) in the town of Crewe in Cheshire. Seniors in his family were determined chapel-goers, but Cooper-Hoff looks back at his childhood, over eighty years, with the quiet smile of a tolerant agnostic: his light, amused impressions illustrate the way England has become more secular than other nations, during this century. Though he claims to have an unreliable memory, he can remember being a beautiful baby of two, in 1912, and screaming at a parson who approached his pram, saying: ‘Hello, my little man.’ He can remember moving up from the Infants to the Big School, where the headmaster brandished his cane at the morning assembly, announcing: ‘You’re going to sing “ ’Oly, ’Oly, ’Oly” – I’ll cut some of you in two.’ The boys were trundled across the road for an Anglican church service once a week. He remembers being baptised when he was nine, at the instigation of his piano teacher, who wanted him in the church choir. Young Harry was quite pleased with the fuss. Though his father came of a ‘good Baptist’ family and his mother from a ‘good Wesleyan’ family, neither was ‘given to going to chapel’ and only rarely did they threaten young Harry: ‘If you go on like this, you’ll be sent to Sunday School next week!’’

Motiveless Malignity

D.A.N. Jones, 11 October 1990

Ever since 1958, when his play The Birthday Party opened in London, Harold Pinter has been admired by the judicious for the witty realism of his dialogue and the engrossing mystery of his omissions – particularly his omission of motive, his blank refusal to explain why: why his characters are behaving so weirdly, why they are saying such terrible things. He had written a novel, The Dwarfs, in the early Fifties, before he began writing plays, but he did not offer it for publication: he turned part of it into a play (with the same title) which was, he now says, ‘quite abstract, mainly, I believe, because I omitted the essential character of Virginia from it’. Last year, he went back to his old novel and prepared it for its present publication, mainly by cutting it down: despite the omissions, there is not quite so much mystery as usual about the motivation of the principal characters, Virginia and the three young men, Pete, Len and Mark, all Hackney people. Being of the same generation as Pinter and, like him, a London grammar-school boy, I claim to understand these young people of the Fifties, to recognise them with a sort of nostalgia, to take pleasure in their realistic conversations, their cross-talk or stichomythia.’

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