Here are some quotations from my week’s reading – see if you can place them, or at any rate make a guess at where they might be from. 1. ‘I cannot exaggerate my seriousness about the trivialities of life, lack of know-how, nervousness, shyness – coupled, though of course it is hard to judge how effectively, with masks designed to hide my deficiencies.’ 2. ‘It is by thinking myself back into the person I was then, that I can enter imaginatively into the thoughts and feelings of the fanatic, for instance the committed revolutionary, the persecutor, the gauleiter, the commissar. Perhaps I should be grateful.’ 3. ‘We all know that it is self-centred and dangerous to concentrate too much on becoming prime minister or on making a fortune, but are there no analogous dangers in concentrating on one’s own spiritual progress? Is not a life spent in fighting self-centredness itself self-centred? The problem will always haunt me ... In my own case there is the whole area of family life, duty and love, where my own performance, though it might pass muster externally, could be vastly improved.’
As you can see, it has been a strong week for the Self – or, more accurately, for that ancient English art of seeming to give the Self the really hard time it deserves. Self-deprecation, self-accusation, self-effacement – is it not strange, in a way, that the English should have written self-abuse out of the language by assigning it such narrow, youthful duties?
The three quotations are by 1. Roy Fuller, from Souvenirs,the first volume of his memoirs. The second, Vamp till ready, has recently appeared and its excellence shamed me into tracking down Vol. One. 2. Donald Davie, from his memoirs, just published under the title These the Companions. And 3. Lord Longford, from his Diary of a Year – the year 1981. Each of these books makes much of its own modesty, of its willingness to expose its author’s true and warty face, and there has been a certain interest in comparing the three distinct styles of self-exposure. Longford is quite simply bland: he spots a spiritual weakness rather as you or I might spot a dislodged filling – it irritates him a bit, but we know that he (or He) will get it fixed. As for Longford’s qualms about self-centredness – well, his diary really is a diary. We go with him everywhere, from prison-visits to the Moors murderers (neither of whom seems properly grateful to him for his pains – he hints this once or twice and then lashes the vile hubris which should make him think such things) to all manner of ‘good works’ committees. We have lunch with him at the Garrick and run into lots of nice and funny people, for each of whom we have a cheery word. We now and then spend a spiritual weekend with the Muggeridges, or drop in on Father Doherty for a chat about the possibility of women-priests (‘I am unhesitatingly “for”; Father is just as strongly “against” ’), and we sometimes deliver a well-turned speech in the Lords and bask, as perhaps we shouldn’t, in the praise we get afterwards. If we meet young people, we invariably find them of real interest – they tend to be bright and good-looking and to bode well for the future.
If we are able to separate ourselves from our guide (and it isn’t easy to walk out on him, it must be said), we will usually remark his conscientiousness, his willingness to turn his cheek without surrendering his ground, his energetic decency, his boyish freedom from the constraints of embarrassment, fear of ridicule, etc. And if an appalling vanity seems ever in the wings, we can trust Longford to shoo it off with some ‘tut-tut’ of earnest self-reproach. Is there anything calculated in his ‘lovable’ persona? It is hard to say. He couldn’t – could he? – have bribed Weidenfeld’s proof readers to leave the following intact?
Dinner last night with Malcolm and Kitty. We took with us our enterprising and appealing grandson Benjie Fraser, aged 22, and his enchanting girlfriend, still at St Paul’s. She is the daughter of Caroline (née Blackwood) by her second husband, a Polish musician. Caroline was married earlier to Lucian [sic] Freud and by her third marriage to the illustrious American poet, the late Robert Frost.
Frost and Blackwood? It’s a nice idea, but really ...
In the matter of self-accusation, though, Davie makes Lord Longford seem trivial. The Barnsley poet’s grapplings are sombre and serpentine, and even though he usually comes out of the self-examination room with higher grades than he expected, he does so with a pugnacious defiance that is far more compelling than his Lordship’s shaving-mirror approach to matters of the soul. In Davie, the shifts from defence into attack have the swiftness of genuine neurosis, so that very often the question of ‘sincerity’ seems barely relevant: ‘If I am so literary myself that I sometimes despair of breaking through a cocoon of words to a reality outside them, that is above all my mother’s doing. And I am grateful, mostly; if my universe is verbal, so be it – I am happy in my glittering envelope, and will fight those who would puncture it.’
In Roy Fuller, self-deprecation has nothing to do with self-improvement; there are no moments of confession, no sudden shaping insights into a previously well-tolerated ego. Fuller’s modest murmurs ripple steadily throughout his text; they are to do with manners, on a level with the way he dresses, or cuts his hair, or trims his moustache. His small disclaimers live quite snugly alongside his tiny vanities. Thus, when he recalls meeting two youthful admirers back in the 1930s, it is to be expected that the gratified chuckle will be politely tempered with the ‘placing’ shrug:
He and Rodney ... were in some disbelief that close to the Clark family house could actually reside a contributor to New Writing, as, in a way that now seems baffling, had been reported to them.
I had thought this was the Long Vacation of 1937, in which case the contribution in question would have been the smiling moustaches piece, inadequate trigger for their mild awe.
This habit runs so deep with Fuller that he is barely able to mention one of his own works without making it clear that he’s not boasting. The sting can thus be easily removed from any of his more systematic or thought-out assaults upon the Self. He can tell us about ‘the pointless, show-off side of my nature’, ‘the testy manner I already evinced on such collective occasions’, or sigh contentedly from time to time, ‘What strong confirmation in all this of one’s feebleness still ...’ – and yet it rarely occurs to us that an important, or even real, judgment has been made. It is an attractive enough habit – a mask over a mask. Are we wrong to wonder what the true mask might or might not be disguising?
Not surprisingly, the appeal of Fuller’s memoirs is in his evocations of place and character. Vamp till ready centres on his first steps as a poet in the 1930s and on his early wartime with the Royal Navy. There are memorable hacks and dead-beats flitting in and out of his two worlds – Fuller is of course a lawyer as well as poet – and they gain in vividness as the author himself pales beside them. Again, modesty pays off. Often, though, Fuller’s shy presentation of himself sits oddly with a rather stiffly elevated prose style – a strange combination of Anthony Powell and the ‘aforesaid’ and ‘as has been noted’ of the legal brief – and if one were to be searching for a clue to the author’s true self-valuation, one might start by looking at his syntax rather than at any of his stated sins.
A further feature of the Fuller style – and nothing to do with the topic of self-love – is his occasional, and in the main endearing, use of slang drawn from the period he’s dealing with: i.e. late 1930s, early 1940s. I was born in 1938, but all of the slang words he employs are thoroughly familiar, and – or so it seems to me – now quite out of currency. Some have resurfaced with new meanings – ‘gas’ in Fuller means ‘idle converse’, ‘boobs’ means ‘errors’ – but mostly they are dead: ‘the penny dropped’, ‘vamouse’, ‘pay your whack’, ‘cheesed-off’, ‘bonked’, ‘tickled’ (for ‘pleased’), ‘nitwit’, ‘tripe’. One idly wonders if it’s true that slang words used to enjoy a longer life-span than they do today, and if, when poets of the Sixties come to write their memoirs, they will take any Fullerish pride in recreating terms like ‘laid back’ or ‘right on’. Is all English slang now borrowed from the States? If so, v. off-cheesing, I’d have thought.
I suppose one still-constant source of Anglian demotic is the football terrace, although in the last few years there has been a falling-off from the standards of wit and invention pioneered by Liverpool’s Kop in the early Seventies. Nowadays, it’s all straight, or not-so-straight abuse: ‘Archibald, you fucking wanker, you cunt!’, or ‘Hoddle, you bleeding fairy!’, and so on. Black players still present something of a challenge – as in ‘You could have knocked it in with your lips, Crooks, you cunt’ – but by and large the crowds divide now into two groups: those who sing the current song, or chant the current chant (‘We’ll take more care of you, Archibald’ is answered by the facing terrace with ‘You’re just a Scottish Jew ...’), and those more solitary, verbal types who go in for solo onslaughts on individual players. I have now and then spent some time watching these solitaries in action, and marvelling at the coronary-style vehemence that goes into their performance. It’s not for anybody – the player can’t hear it, for instance – and it’s quite chilling: the purple face, the bulging eyes, the homicidal cadences. Still, no doubt they all listen to a lot of Mozart when they are safely back at home.
To think of soccer crowds is to think of a new season, and I wonder if I am alone among soccer fans in finding the prospect less exciting than usual. The World Cup has supplied us with standards which we must now reluctantly apply to our own heroes. It will be more difficult this year to adore strikers who can’t strike, mid-field players who square-pass their way out of trouble and then disappear, back-fours who spend the whole game planning their next offside trap. Still, no doubt such haughty connoisseurship will crumble as events progress, as the blind will to beat the other side slowly but surely reasserts itself. And, for a Spurs fan ... well, we still have Hoddle, and Arsenal still have Don Howe.
But what of Chelsea? I have had a soft spot for this diverting team since the days of Venables, Tambling, Bridges and (a little later) Osgood and Hudson, but I haven’t been following them lately. For some reason, I have felt guilty about this. Having just read John Moynihan’s The Chelsea Story,though, I’m feeling a bit better: it seems that most people feel guilty about Chelsea at one time or another, guilty about not watching them, or guilty about not taking them seriously, or guilty about always half-expecting them to mess things up. There is a photograph in Moynihan’s book which shows the editor of this paper in uncharacteristically buoyant posture – head thrown back in helpless laughter, arms thrown unbelievingly into the air. He is on the terraces at Stamford Bridge, and his companions are similarly quite cracked up with glee. So ... Chelsea have just scored a splendid goal? They’ve reached the Final of the Cup? No, not at all. The caption reads: ‘Various forms of emotion displayed ... as Chelsea miss a goal from half a yard out against West Ham ... Stamford Bridge, 1961’. For the record, it should be said that there is one grim face in the bunch, that of the poet and publisher James Michie – clearly not a seasoned Chelsea fan.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.