Seeing the light

Patricia Beer

  • Part of a Journey: An Autobiographical Journal 1977-1979 by Philip Toynbee
    Collins, 398 pp, £9.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 00 211696 0

‘I like the revivalist coup de foudre for its recognition that true revelation can instantly change a man, so that his sins simply fall away from him, to be replaced by present joy and future hope.’ Philip Toynbee introduces Part of a Journey with a Which-type survey of the various concepts, and consequent terminology, of religious conversion, at one point making it sound like the best china (‘ “Rebirth” should be kept for very special occasions’) and the next like an unpretentious hock (‘I’ve always liked “Amendment” for its modesty and dryness’).

He does not really recommend the coup de foudre, however. Though he likes the idea, he perceives its attendant difficulties. ‘The danger of “seeing the light”, “being saved” etc is that this tremendous experience may deceive the newly converted into believing that his spiritual journey is over.’ He is perfectly right, as any ci-devant member of a hellfire sect can confirm. In the testimony meetings of my youth, so much weight was put on the essential instantaneousness of conversion that it was a point of honour to be able to specify the actual date of one’s salvation, and those who could not name the day and therefore had to fall back on some formula such as ‘Once I was blind, now I see,’ did not show up at all well and were regarded as rather second-class sinners.

Philip Toynbee gives himself no airs as a sinner. He is capable of an occasional rhetorical flourish about ‘the stews and gutters of Babylon’ and his own early apprenticeship to drunkenness, gluttony and lust, but the rakehelly vocabulary, which suggests a storybook rather than a confession, and the fact that his companions in these haunts – referred to by their Christian names but with full identification in a footnote – are part of our national heritage of cardboard villains, make the whole situation sound quite cosy. And for the most part he regards himself, bleakly, as ‘not so much a sinner as a meagre man’ and prefers the comment of an old friend that he used to be a bit of a lad, which he considers to be ‘a useful phrase to remember when falling into too noisy a grovel about past sins’. Certainly he trounces the early Christian saints for ‘moaning that they were the worst sinners in the world. Surely they’d simply fallen over backwards into another kind of self-conceit.’ The fact remains, however, that he had an unusually profound sense of sin, apparently induced and reinforced in childhood: ‘This first expulsion from school must have greatly strengthened my conviction of sin, for my mother’s accusation had now been endorsed by a quite separate authority.’

Philip Toynbee’s quest, of which we are shown two years (1977-1979), with flashbacks, was nothing if not gradual. Not for him the blinding light from heaven, the fall from the horse, and the long swoon leading into a lasting new consciousness. Physically he may have known something like this. In the preface he describes how he underwent a course of ECT, and it does sound rather like the stages of St Paul’s experience, though more prolonged. But spiritually it was quite otherwise. He was always on the road to Damascus: ‘The process has been very slow, partial and recidivist; the moments of change so imperceptible that I have always doubted whether they really qualified.’

He saw himself as a pilgrim, not only metaphorically but literally: a real pilgrim, moreover, not one who goes by luxury coach. When he and his wife journeyed to Chartres in the early autumn of 1979, though he spent money freely, he tramped through cabbage fields. He dressed up and acted as the parfit gentil knight might have done ten pilgrimages later. Even his vocabulary changed: ‘the word “vigil” suddenly presented itself.’

On this occasion he admitted that his idea of ‘a stern pilgrimage in which many trials of patience and courage would have to be met’ was a fantasy, and he frequently laughed at it. But it was a deadly serious matter too. When he arrived at the Channel he exclaimed in Holy Grail earnestness: ‘What I most fear now is that I may have to turn back.’ And when he reached the cathedral he felt that his ‘entrance seemed more like an ordeal than a long-awaited pleasure: the first real test after so many fanciful ones on the way.’

Spiritually, the visit to Chartres seems to have been a great success. It is significant that what stands out most from his account of this pilgrimage is the incident of the schoolboy with his satchel who came through the north door of the cathedral, walked across its whole width ‘and out through the south door, never once glancing to either side. Clearly this was his daily short cut home from school.’

Part of a Journey is long, but in one important respect it might have been helpful if it had been longer. A record of two years is not enough to show how external events may have provoked significant inner happenings. In his own diary Like it was, Malcolm Muggeridge makes a comment which is relevant here. He speaks of St Augustine, ‘living at a time rather like ours, barbarians sacking Rome etc, and taking little or no account of these events’. Toynbee does not take much explicit account of barbarians sacking Rome etc either, the sinking of the Cambridge boat and the possible close-down of the Observer in 1978 being the nearest he gets. There is no reason why he should be topical, but contemporary history must have affected his soul and spirit in ways which would evade a relatively limited diary.

The importance, to those experimenting with eternity, of what time does and brings is so apparent in Muggeridge’s journals that his method – the chronological covering of decades – is worth comparing with Toynbee’s. In 1936, Muggeridge, waking early in depression, was supported by the thought that ‘the grey light just beginning to touch the sky had broken for aeons thus, and would break for aeons more.’ Less than ten years later the Bomb destroyed that kind of comfort.

When I was a student – about the time of Hiroshima – I was being taught that the prevalence of a particular kind of melancholy in the early 17th century was partly a result of the distress caused by the discovery that the heavenly bodies, previously thought to be immutable and incorruptible, were in fact as changeable as everything else. At the time this seemed to me very fanciful. By 1950 it no longer did. The knowledge that nowadays nobody can count on aeons of anything, such as dawn breaking on the earth – that is to say, it might continue to break but there would be no one about in the quad – makes Muggeridge, and most of us, feel melancholy from time to time. It enters into Toynbee’s thinking too, of course:

Talking to Father C. at Tynmawr. He said he thought God would intervene at the last moment to prevent us destroying ourselves by nuclear war. Why did his confidence seem so strange and alien to me? For I also believe that God can intervene directly in the world. Yes, but not so simply and directly as that, or why is history what it is?

This is the expression of a settled fear. Even in Toynbee’s skilful flashbacks there is no hint of a time when it was not there, or of the difference its presence made to him.

This said, one has to add that it is extraordinary how much information about his own past Toynbee does manage to work into this two-year journal: it is an almost complete autobiography. Take the visit to Chartres, for example, where while seeming to concentrate on his first glimpse of the cathedral from the train, he interpolates: ‘I’d been to Chartres once, and many years, before, but must have done no more than my usual ten-minute tour of the cathedral between drinks.’ This glancing parenthesis gives a much livelier impression of his previous drinking habits than the allusion to the gutters of Babylon does. His account of a recent caravan holiday in the Wylie valley includes a useful aside about his memories of Wilton in 1941, at the time of his first marriage when he was an intelligence officer at Southern Command. It is all very deftly and economically done.

The construction of the book is in keeping with Toynbee’s declared views about his own technique. ‘Ever since I began to plan Tea with Mrs Goodman – which appeared in 1947 – I’ve seen that for me the only way of writing is to string together a necklace of sharp occasions and to conceal as best I can any narrative or explanatory thread.’ A necklace of more or less sharp occasions is exactly what Part of a Journey is. The narrative threads are there too – three of them in particular: the fluctuating progress of Toynbee’s depressive illness, the decline and fall of the commune started by him and his wife in the house where they formerly lived, and his successive attempts to publish the final volumes of his verse novel Pantaloon. The first story is harrowing and commands one’s deepest sympathy. The second is tragi-comic and brings one out in a rash of irritation at the unworldliness that courted so many troubles and humiliations. The third is even more agonising than the first: ‘It will be recognised one day as the great work which I know it to be. (Know it to be? Know it to be!) But the real pain had only been postponed, and began to attack me quite viciously in bed last night.’ The stories are not exactly concealed but they keep going underground – to their common source probably. The searches for health, the good life and professional success are subordinated to the main quest, which is for goodness itself.

Yet the history of Pantaloon provides the sharpest occasions of all, for it is as a was that Toynbee seeks God. The numerous reviews and articles of his own that he includes in this journal are no mere padding, I feel. Being a writer by profession and personality, he approaches God as a fellow professional: not a writer exactly, though he accords Him total respect as creator and author; more as the Great Editor in the sky, whose decision is final. And He reviews too.

Toynbee brings his own skills as reviewer into his search for God. He has what he calls ‘an obsessive involvement with devotional and theological works’, but he keeps his senses clear. He can smell from afar the mystical bilge which abounds in this kind of book. ‘Slush,’ he says, and ‘Windy poetics’; and he is right. He relates how once he even had to deny himself potentially helpful companionship, when it went along with poor writing. His effusive admiration of the spiritual autobiography of Lois Lang-Sims led him to suggest a meeting and friendship, but when she sent him her novel these overtures collapsed completely, for it was very feeble and he could not hide his opinion. He records only one incident where his literary judgment was overcome by his moral enthusiasm: the case of James Kirkup’s poem about Jesus which he publicly defended against the charge of blasphemy. The poem may or may not be blasphemous – I myself would say it is not – but it is such an indefensibly bad poem qua poem that it must have gone against his grain to support it at all.

Part of a Journey reminded me in so many ways of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (the first version) that when I had finished it I read De Quincey again. I heard the news of Philip Toynbee’s death just as I had got to De Quincey’s famous passage about such news being worse in summer: ‘I find it impossible to banish the thought of death when I am walking alone in the endless days of summer; and any particular death, if not more affecting, at least haunts my mind more obstinately and besiegingly in that season.’ De Quincey, in spite of persistent bad dreams, ended his confessions on a note of hope, and so does Toynbee. He concludes with a quotation from Pasternak which he must have felt to be a clincher. It is vague but clearly suggests resolution and enlightenment and possible peace of mind: ‘Everything that happens in the world takes place not only on the earth that buries its dead, but also in some other dimension which some call the Kingdom of God.’