Remembering the Movement, and researching it

Frank Kermode

  • The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s by Blake Morrison
    Oxford, 326 pp, £8.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 19 212210 X
  • The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse 1945-1980 by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 299 pp, £7.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 19 214108 2

It seemed to be happening only yesterday, but Blake Morrison was born in 1950, and for him the Movement is something you have to work on in a library. So it suddenly comes to seem rather remote, as deep in the past as those files of the Spectator where he found the famous pieces by J.D. Scott and Anthony Hartley, or the scripts of John Wain’s Third Programme magazine First Reading, or copies of the Reading limited editions of Wain and Amis. Mr Morrison claims to have eschewed gossip and attended instead to such questions as: ‘Did the writers know each other? Is there any evidence of mutual admiration, mutual influence, or collaboration?’ It is almost as if he were seeking information about Spenser, Gabriel Harvey and the Areopagus. Yet most of the poets he is writing about are ascertainably hale and not yet eligible for the Old Age Pension; even the few living elders they respected are still around, and capable of spry conversation – Empson, Fuller, Graves. Mr Morrison, of course, knew this, and addressed some inquiries to relevant survivors. Some responded – not Amis, I notice, and not Larkin, for reasons no doubt easily guessed at; but Conquest, doyen of the group, co-operated, and so did Davie, who is quoted more than anybody, though in my view (and in that of certain members of the group) he was never really in the middle of it, partly because he was an interloper from Cambridge, and partly because of all the talents assembled his was the least identifiable with the Movement’s mood and programme.

Still, researchers have to use what material there is, and although there is a certain air of unreality in this study, a Martian postcard quality, it’s well enough and conscientiously done. Morrison decides, unsurprisingly, that there really was such a thing as the Movement, that it wasn’t a ‘gigantic confidence trick’ to get the Spectator over a circulation crisis; less unsurprisingly, he goes on to describe it as ‘a literary group of considerable importance ... probably the most influential in England since the Imagists’. He believes that a lot of good poems (‘key texts’) in the post-war period originated in the play of influence between members of the group, and by extending the term to include writers who weren’t among the New Lines poets, but nevertheless felt some sympathy with them, he makes a fair case. Whether he’s right to maintain that the Movement was as central to the Fifties as the ‘Auden Group’ to the Thirties depends a bit on whether you believe, as he does, that there was a ‘Movement ideology’ existing in some significant relation to the social and political mood of the time.

Robert Conquest’s anthology came out in 1956, the year of Suez, so the ‘ideology’ must have been formed during the administrations of Churchill and Eden. The first Attlee Government carried out the programme enthusiastically endorsed by the troops in 1945, but the second, hampered by the exhaustion of its leaders and the smallness of its majority, did little, and it was easy to feel that six years after the end of the war many of its more depressing aspects, such as ruins and rationing, were here to stay. But in 1951 the 13 continuous years of Conservative rule began, and so, in a way, did the post-war period. Labour in opposition devoted itself to a masochistic doctrinal argument which ended only with Gaitskell’s defeat of the Left in 1961. But often people no longer found ideology very interesting, and indeed its end was announced.

These facts have a bearing on the mood of the Movement. When John Holloway, in an article here quoted, spoke in 1956 of ‘the recent social revolution, gentle though real’, he was of course talking about something that happened between 1945 and 1950. Part of the cost of the revolution was the measure of privation I’ve already mentioned: the queuing for your weekly egg and shilling’s worth of meat, the bread, petrol and clothes coupons, the terrible shortage of beer. All that soon ended, and so did the revolution. But some effects of the war and its immediate aftermath persisted. It seemed possible to opt out of the old class system; as Holloway observed, it was no longer inevitable that lower-class talent should be ‘decanted’into the upper class. New writers could stay where they were, in the provincial universities perhaps; enjoying, or reconciled to, a mildly proletarian life-style, free of the affectations of the metropolitan literary world.

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