Vernon Scannell is not the first British poet to have been keen on boxing and, apparently, quite good at it: we may think of Lord Byron and Robert Graves. But few others, surely, have written and worried so concernedly about the ethics of this sport, its moral justification. Ring of Truth, his first novel since The Big Time in 1965, returns hungrily to Scannell’s old problem. Can deliberate wounding be good sport? Scannell tells of dangerous, exciting weeks in the life of Dave Ruddock, a boxer from Leeds, acknowledged as Middleweight Champion of the World. ‘He had not lost a fight since he was 13 ... Schoolboy Champion of Great Britain, Junior ABA and Senior ABA Champion, a Lonsdale Belt, the European title and then the pot of gold, the Championship of the World – 11 years without dropping a decision.’ Dave Ruddock is feeling pretty good. We read on the dust-cover that Scannell himself has been a National Schoolboy and Senior Amateur Boxing Champion: he has also done a little professional boxing (under the name of ‘Johnny Bain’) and travelled with a fairground boxing-booth. While writing about Dave Ruddock, he must have been thinking: ‘I too could have been a contender!’
There are other challenges in Ring of Truth. David Ruddock’s wife, a pious Roman Catholic, feels challenged by the Pope’s visit to Britain and wonders if she ought to become a Bride of Christ. Dave’s young brother, a professional soldier, is called to fight in the Falklands, meeting the reluctant challenge presented by the conscripts of the Argentine junta. The father of the Ruddock brothers, once a physical-training instructor in the British Army, is pretty well pleased with his sons’ combative energies and skills: but even he has his pleasant confidence challenged by the reality of his sons’ risks and wounds. The Ruddocks’ mother feels that men’s fights are none of her business: she is challenged rather by the split between Dave and his wife, when Dave finds a more loving and lovable girl. Mrs Ruddock senior hears about Dave’s amour from her daughter-in-law.
‘The car mileage was just proof,’ says Mrs Ruddock junior. ‘I could tell a month ago he’d got a fancy woman, the way he acted. He didn’t come near me unless he had to. He hasn’t – you know – bothered me for four or five weeks.’
‘Bothered you?’ The mother-in-law snaps on the tell-tale idiom. ‘By! You sound like a Victorian lass ... Being bothered. I mean – look, you can talk to me straight, love – d’you mean you don’t like it?’
The younger woman blushes and looks into the fire. ‘I like a cuddle and a kiss,’ she admits. ‘But it’s when they get – you know – nasty. Crude. You know.’ Mrs Ruddock senior releases a deep sigh. She has a duty to look after this unsuitable daughter-in-law; but she must also prepare herself to accept and acknowledge Dave’s new ‘fancy woman’.
As Vernon Scannell grows older he becomes more expert or plausible in his attempts to understand women’s ideas and imagine their conversations when no men are present. Is he a ‘sexist’? He is certainly not the kind of man who finds women boring. But he did once complain in a poem about poetry readings: ‘There are always more women than men.’ (Does he complain that there are always more men than women at boxing-matches?) The well-timed reissue of his autobiography of 1970, The Tiger and the Rose, gives us some excuse to consider his life and character – helpful toward the appreciation of his writing (as with Byron and Graves, again).
None of the women in Ring of Truth can appreciate boxing: Scannell sets up women characters to argue against the sport. Dave Ruddock’s mate, Tom, persuades him to appear on Radio Leeds, to be interviewed by Tom’s girlfriend. She says reproachful things: ‘You know quite well that the kind of blow you’ve been trained to deliver could kill a man.’ Dave ponderously replies:
Women don’t understand boxing ... You’ll hear a boxer say something like ‘I knew I had hurt him so I went in for kill.’ Now, he doesn’t mean it, not like you mean ‘hurt’ or ‘kill’. You never feel vicious ... You’ve got to have a bit of danger, a bit of pain, or there wouldn’t be no point, would there?
The interviewer does not understand. She goes home to Tom and he tries to tell her that boxing is remarkable for its ‘purity’. He claims that a boxing match is ‘a moment of truth’ – to be distinguished from more rational expressions of courage, during wars, natural disasters, Acts of God. ‘The soldier’s being used by politicians. The hero of the flood or fire’s manipulated by special circumstances. With the fighter it’s an end in itself.’ Scannell has tried out similar arguments in his own nonfictional voice, in The Tiger and the Rose; but he is evidently not quite satisfied with them.
Turn for a moment to John Masters’s strangely similar novel, Man of War. It is an apologia for another sort of fighting man, a professional soldier. The hero, Dusty Miller, squeezes his way into the British Army during World War One, aged only 16; when World War Two comes around, he is a valued senior officer. But in between these peaks he is seen soldiering in less acceptable arenas of conflict, educating himself. In 1926 he is helping a British government defeat British strikers; in 1935 he is combating a Congress Party demonstration for independence in India; in 1938 he is fighting in Spain, alongside Nazis and Falangists. The author was himself a soldier: he retired from the British Army in 1948, as a lieutenant-colonel with the DSO and OBE, and he died in America, aged 68, in 1983. (So he was about ten years younger than his hero, Dusty Miller.) John Masters’s dialogue is even more didactic than Scannell’s, perhaps because he was concerned to explain Britain to American readers. Another thing Masters has in common with Scannell is his habit of setting up a female character to make obvious complaints against the hero’s fighting. Jungians might call this ‘anima projection’.
Dusty Miller meets his future wife, an athletic and artistic American, in India in 1933. She says in superior American (‘more drawl than twang’) accents: ‘I like Quetta all right, but I don’t think much of the army. It seems such a waste of this glorious country here to sit in stuffy classrooms studying how to kill people and blow up things.’ This complaint gives Miller the chance to reply:
We’re a necessary evil, I hope ... A country contains lots of things that its people think are worth protecting ... There have to be people ready and trained to do that defending ... I try to make myself better at it, so that when the time comes I won’t fail.
Two years later, Miller tells the same woman that he has been advised by a British superior (a Merlin-like officer called Morgan Lloyd) that he ought to gain experience in the Spanish Civil War. The woman naturally supposes that he will fight for the Spanish Republic and is furious when he explains that Britain needs him to serve with Franco’s mob.
We already have hundreds of volunteers on the Republican side ... Spain is in the field of manoeuvre. Hitler has sent the Condor Legion. We must have competent men on the spot ... Darling, I am a trained staff officer. I can see and learn and bring back the lessons we in Britain must learn.
The woman he is arguing with is, despite her charms, something of an Aunt Sally.
So it is with Ring of Truth. Arguments put up by women against men’s fighting are made out to be naive – the truth being too complicated for their pretty heads. Vernon Scannell’s novel is largely didactic: though the conversations are sometimes ‘true-to-life’ (as if tape recorded in a pub snug), they are more often artificial and rhetorical, designed to instruct the audience and provoke thought (almost like the discussions of agriculture offered in the BBC’s semi-documentary, The Archers). An editor could have pulled out half this talk and still left us with the exciting story of Dave Ruddock’s women and Dave Ruddock’s big fight – very well described, blow by blow.
When I reached the page where Dave Ruddock boasts of having defeated ‘Johnny Bain’, I put down the novel and picked up the autobiography, to check my memory. Yes, I was right. ‘Johnny Bain’ was the name Vernon Scannell used when he was a professional boxer – and he also used it as a pseudonym when entering literary competitions in the weeklies. It is worth reading The Tiger and the Rose before Ring of Truth, so that one may have Scannell’s straightforward memories of Leeds and London gyms, and the resemblances and differences he sees between boxing, soldiering and the writing of poems, to serve as a background to his imaginative use of the same material in the fiction of Ring of Truth.
His autobiography is like his novel, in that the grave arguments are kept separate from the racing, punchy narrative. The Tiger and the Rose has one chapter headed ‘Then’, describing an army experience: this is followed by a chapter headed ‘Now’, with an older Scannell gravely reflecting upon the incidents. The alternating ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ chapters form a good pattern for telling a life-story, worth copying by any novelist who wants his story to look like a biography.
This is exactly what John Masters has attempted in Man of War. His chapters run: ‘December 1936, India’, ‘June 1919, England’, ‘March 1938 Spain’ ... The scheme works well, presenting the essence of Dusty Miller at different stages of his life, brushing up against real people like Attlee, Nehru and Mosley, in a set of snapshots out of chronological order. No reader, though, would mistake this novel for a ‘real’ biography, a true story. Dusty Miller is a touch too good to be true: his political correctness derives from John Masters’s hindsight.
Ring of Truth and Man of War should be quietly popular, often borrowed from public libraries; but they are not the ‘literary’ sort of novel that reaches the Booker short list. For a ‘literary’ prize nowadays, you need a magical country, futuristic-cum-antique – like the territories teenagers survey in their Science Fiction or Tolkienish fantasies – through which some miserable, deformed person plods an allegorical path, pursued by flying monks or alchemical vivisectors. Thus, R.M. Lamming has won a prize with The Notebook of Gismondo Cavaletti, a dramatic monologue delivered by a miserable, deformed person in 16th-century Florence, with Savonarola getting burnt, Leonardo da Vinci being callously scientific and plenty of beautiful Florentines being cruel. We half-expect Pippa to pass, as in Savonarola: A Tragedy, by L. Brown.
Max Beerbohm, we remember, apologised for the fact that Brown’s tragedy lacked plot and conclusion. Brown died, before he could pen the fifth act, crying: ‘The thing must be judged as a whole.’ R.M. Lamming similarly leaves us up in the air. Will Gismondo pour acid on his handsome enemy’s face? ‘The clock ticks. Decide. Decide.’ There is no decision, only an enigmatic conclusion (‘It took no more than that rare form of patience, which observes a design as a whole ...’), surely an echo of L. Brown’s Savonarola?
Still stronger, though, is the influence of R. Browning’s monologues about beautiful, cruel Italians. The very name ‘Gismondo’ recalls Browning’s poem, ‘Count Gismond’ (and it seems a pity that R.M. Lamming keeps calling her hero ‘Gismo’ – an American word, meaning ‘gimmick’ or ‘doohickey’). There is a real flavour of Browning in Gismondo’s revengeful musings about his patron’s handsome son and his own deformity, the blotch on his face, steadily growing. If we set out part of Gismondo’s journal as if ‘twere verse, it seems not unlike Browning’s spluttering iambics:
Patience! Sweet saints, am I mad? ... I have the mirror.
It’s true; the blotch increases. Yet Maëstro
Ruccelli talked of it as if ’twere nothing.
Is it indeed such ‘a modest flaw’? And could it
Be said: ‘Now here’s a man who’s worth employing ...’?
Could it be said? Shall scales fall out of my eyes,
And I discover a world in which these things
Aren’t monstrous? Shall I hope? Courage, Gismondo.
Yes, but the folly of hoping too much. I must
Calm these thoughts, wait. And yet – look outward, eyes.
It wouldn’t take much tidying-up (the odd is’t and ’twere) to turn this sort of prose into a narrative poem that might have been published seventy years ago. Admittedly, some critics of the time might have dismissed it as fustian and tushery but I am not so cocksure. Despite all the parodies, the Italianate-English literary tradition still has a resonance; we may remember John Heath-Stubbs’s poem about the abused Malvolio sliding off to Venice, with ‘Iago’ as his new name. There is something real and memorable about Gismondo’s obsession with his blotched face in a world of ‘looks-ism’. Is he suffering from persecution mania, or really being persecuted, or both? What has his case to do with the horned, winged lizard, put together by heartless Leonardo, the vivisectionist? This prose-poem holds an irrational attraction.
Much more rational, more Shavian, is Buchi Emecheta’s story of her imaginary country, Shavi. It is on the edge of the Sahara and has something in common with the tribal kingdoms of northern Nigeria, as seen by the more romantic and xenophilic writers of the south – like Miss Emecheta herself. The Highlanders of North Britain had a similar appeal for the 19th-century English. Geography repeats itself: the people of Shavi have a northern simplicity and straightforwardness, a sense of decorum and due ceremony expressed in their deadpan, poker-faced response to life’s hardships and problems.
The Rape of Shavi is the story of a peaceable African kingdom suddenly disturbed by an aircraft full of frightened white people. Are they lepers or albinos? The Shavians discuss the arrival, rationally – except for the priest, Anoku (a parody of Enoch Powell), and the intellectual idiot, Mensa (a parody of MENSA, our national club for IQ devotees). At the Shavi council meeting,
Mensa, the great bungler, got up again in his jerky way. The trouble with Mensa was that he was fond of doing his thinking aloud, thereby boring his listeners. The men of Shavi respected someone who did his thinking by himself, and spoke only when those thoughts were refined enough to be listened to ... Mensa, the bungler, was about to trivialise the whole issue.
Then Anoku, ‘the skull-headed priest’, has his say, ‘obviously upset that the arrival of the strangers wasn’t being given a mystical interpretation’. He works himself up, until the spirit of his god takes hold of him, making him chant in strange tongues until he finally comes out with clear speech: ‘I see the Ogene river bubbling with blood ... ’
Anoku’s rant provokes a young leftie on the Shavi council to get up and rant in reply. The silent majority on the Shavi council lower their heads, in case their grins spoil their poker faces. They look up, deadpan, to inspect Anoku’s grotesque, passionate face. ‘Anger and disillusionment can make an animal of any dignitary, even Anoku, one of the most respected men in Shavi.’ The Shavian council takes the obvious, rational view. The whites are to be regarded as humans ‘whose only difference was their pigmentation. One by one, each council member promised to make the visitors feel at home. For, they said to each other, “Are we not all immigrants in Shavi, and even on the face of the earth?” ’
The white immigrants, however, do not understand the peaceable kingdom of Shavi. They are clever enough, clever as Mensa, and they have cleverly flown away from Western civilisation in their own private aircraft, through fear of a nuclear war. But their very cleverness makes them ‘rape’ the Shavians – both metaphorically and literally. One of them supposes that the handmaiden the Shavians have accorded him may be freely used for his sexual desires. He takes her by force, she reports the rape to the older women of Shavi and they catch the white rapist in a fishing-net, leaving him in a desert to die. (They keep this secret from the men of Shavi, for it would spoil the reputation of the raped girl, generally recognised as one of the future wives for the future King of Shavi.) This part of the story ends more or less happily, since the raped girl kindly releases the prisoner from the women’s net. Still, the Kingdom of Shavi is pretty thoroughly raped by the white visitors before the book’s ending – and Miss Emecheta’s story seems to suggest that this rape might be all for the best. She is not pleased, though, by the military-rule tendency developing in the Kingdom of Shavi, through too close communication with Western civilisation. This part of the story is relevant to the northern Nigerian tradition of ‘indirect rule’, whereby the self-righteous military men (first British, then African) permit local, civilian government until it becomes offensive to their standards – whereupon they swoop down. Miss Emecheta has long been interested in the influence of Sandhurst and Aldershot upon her nation’s indirect rulers. This is a very good story artfully told: the rational, provoking arguments, about multiracial societies and military law, are dropped into the narrative with a natural, unobtrusive cunning, rare in modern fiction.
Now for two curiosities of publishing. Thomas Lyster: A Cambridge Story is published by Brilliance Books, which (say the publishers) ‘brings you the best in gay and lesbian fiction’. The publishers ‘wish to thank the labour controlled Greater London Council for financial help’. Readers hoping for the lowdown on London’s gay Left will be surprised: this novel is about homoerotic activity among members of CUCA, the Cambridge University Conservative Association. Strange bedfellows, CUCA and the GLC.
The narrator is a young American snob who has read many books about Oxford and wants to make his life as a Cambridge undergraduate as much like Brideshead Revisited as possible. He succeeds, in a downmarket way. Running away from Berkeley, California, in the late Sixties, escaping from the long-haired lefties and hard-hat policemen, he falls in love with Thomas Lyster, a dreaming squire at Cambridge, England, offering all the stability of a Wet Tory, never quite sure whose bed he has been lying on. This plausible, amusing tale may be erotic for some, but not (I think) pornographic.
Eva Bolgar’s Don’t Swing a Cat is a story for those who like to think of women (especially Irishwomen) as witches. (Many readers must have wondered about ‘Ritual Fire’, the ‘A Droichead Beo’ course for traditional matriarchs in Donegal, so eerily advertised on the back page of this journal.) Eva Bolgar tells of a little girl in Ireland who sees some cruel schoolboys torturing a cat: she feels herself to have been transmogrified into a suffering cat and she spends her adult life seeking out those bad males and performing cat-like revenges upon them, taking advantage of the terrorist politics of Belfast. The publishers claim that this story ‘has strong feminist connotations, recalling Brecht’s Pirate Jenny. Perhaps, by aligning “feline” with “feminine”, it demonstrates woman’s role in an increasingly violent society.’ They also tell us that Miss Bolgar is not herself Irish: the cosmopolitan, almost Transylvanian, flavour of the blurb’s biography adds considerably to the flesh-creepiness of her Irish terror story.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.