The Art of Self-Defeat

Noël Annan

  • Faces of Philip: A Memoir of Philip Toynbee by Jessica Mitford
    Heinemann, 175 pp, £9.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 434 46802 9

Although I was Philip Toynbee’s exact contemporary, I did not know him all that well: but I was always struck by the quite exceptional devotion of those who did. They found him lovable; and when he and Ben Nicolson founded a luncheon club they flocked to it. He was affectionate and generous, marvellously funny but convinced that the world in which he lived was insufferable and that he must do what he could to save it. One or two of his close friends may have wondered whether a memoir should be written; and then put the idea from their minds, remembering those touching and boring notices in the Times which read: ‘NM writes: Colonel Jocelyn Lethbridge – always known to his friends as “Stubby” – will be long remembered and sadly missed not only by them but by the regiment and at the club. Always one for a joke, Stubby combined unswerving loyalty with a lovable talent for organising others, etc, etc.’

Such an unworthy thought never crossed Decca Mitford’s mind. She, too, is always one for a joke. I like jokes, there can’t be too many of them for me, so I enjoyed her book, which is written with irrepressible Mitford brio. There’s a high-spirited acknowledgment of help received from Patrick Leigh-Fermor (easily the best of her correspondents) in removing from her MS such campus jargon as ‘on-going’, ‘explicate’ and ‘comedic scenarios’. I only wish he had cut out ‘long-remembered’ and ‘sadly missed’. What’s odd is how she can time the punchlines of her stories to a tee and yet use phrases which you find in the glossies. But I like the way she plonks down her version of some imbroglio and then, if one or other of the wives or daughters doesn’t agree, plonks down theirs. Her book is really about their friendship and as much about her as him. There are splendid descriptions by others who knew him: ‘his complexion cratered here and there like a planet’ ... ‘his sliced-melon grin’ ... ‘his laugh like the hiss of a soda-fountain’ ... ‘yet it was a strong distinguished face, however battered, with a high thoughtful brow.’ And there are splendid descriptions of the kind of conspiratorial expression which would pass across that face, ‘a sort of roguish, humbug, hypocritical wink’. His friends will recognise him at once. On the other hand, those who never knew him may feel that some of the hilarious stories, the comic songs and the tremendous hoot when we all fell bottled down the stairs, or whatever it was, are dead beyond recall, and look at one with reproachful eyes, like haddock on a fishmonger’s slab.

At first sight Philip Toynbee’s life resembles the paradigm of a progressive. Sib-jel after the birth of younger brother, so parents pack him off to boarding-school; revenges himself when grown up on awful, snobbish mother by burlesqueing her upper-class values and becoming known for Appalling Behaviour. Runs away from Rugby to help Esmond Romilly bring down the public schools. Joins CP at Oxford, leaves it after defeat of Spanish Republic. Can’t endure seeing the Establishment take over the war against Hitler so oscillates between guilt for not being in a fighting unit and ridicule of the War Effort on Horizon lines (‘We hate the class war, we hate the sex war, we hate the war’). In the late Forties, strong Orwellian anti-Stalinist. In the Fifties, CND. In the Sixties, approves of alternative culture, smokes pot, not much concerned when son is busted from school for doing the same. In the Seventies, becomes a Green, goes to encounter groups and founds a commune, but living off the land proves less attractive to communards than meditation. He meditates too, and finds God: naturally not the God of any recognised religion, but a bloody-minded God who makes him strike the board and cry, No more, and hauls him back after each rebellion.

And yet he was not trendy. His own voice spoke through his reviews in the Observer uninfluenced by current styles. Not for him the Leavisite mixture of innuendo and self-righteousness intended to convict writers of holding improper thoughts. He always spoke with respect for others and considered their dignity when he disagreed with them. It is true that whatever ideology had him in its grasp at any given time he followed with astonishing and uncomfortable fidelity. Arriving once on the Mitfords’ Scottish island and hearing the radio announce that the Russians were resuming nuclear testing, the Toynbee family disappeared next day and, journeying thirty miles by sea and road, returned bearing a bottle containing a thousand aspirins. All was now well. Inadvertently they had left their own euthanasia kit at home, but now they could kill themselves and their children if nuclear war began.

Once he was with his friends the clown in him boxed the ears of the philosopher. A kind of honesty told him that movements and organisations always pervert the truth, and he could never take his role in any of them without self-mockery. Staying for a week with a miner, he kept beneath his bed a suitcase in which was a white tie and tails ready for some deb dance. Which was good and which was evil, deb dances or the Party, who could say? At Oxford he harangued the Christ Church bloods one night from a window in Peck-water: ‘Join the Party, comrades, it’s the easiest way to get a girl.’ (Shouts of ‘Good old Toyners’: later he was fined a pound by the Party. The Cambridge of John Cornford would have regarded such frivolity as monstrous.) He was consistently irresponsible and enjoyed, rather than feared, the thunderbolts that followed. In Brussels in 1945 he used to dress up as a padre in battle-dress and dog-collar: but Miss Mitford does not record that he used to go to the railway station and greet troops returning battle-weary from the front by asking them if they were saved. It was he who needed to ask that question – whether he would be saved from court-martial. Brigadier Williams, Montgomery’s chief intelligence officer, intervened, so it is said, to save him from disgrace, as Harold Nicolson had done – twice – when he was seconded to the Ministry of Economic Warfare. ‘We sent him home to London,’ said Bill Williams, ‘by a very slow train.’ No one except Guy Burgess and Captain Grimes was saved more often; and surely no one ever had more ‘extended leave’ as he was moved on from one exasperated commanding officer to another. He had a war rich in comedy but low in heroism.

He was a famous boozer. His grandmother was a Howard, and he had only to smell a cork to start reeling. As he did a great deal more than smell corks, he was not just tipsy but blind drunk at most social gatherings, time and again sick over somebody’s carpet if they were lucky. He went after bottles in a strange house like a terrier after a rat. But however helpless he became, until the moment when he fell pole-axed he would remain affectionate and endearing. (To this there were some exceptions. Not a word here about his celebrated blind with Donald MacLean in Cairo which ended, after they had been drinking all night, with their breaking into and breaking up an unknown American girl’s flat in search of more drink in the morning.) After the war he took to living in the country, where he could write secure from the lures of London. The Isle of Wight might have been thought far enough: but no, back he came to London for this or that party, lingering for days until drink and futile infidelity broke up his first marriage. Eventually, during his second marriage, he was to settle in Monmouthshire, which proved far enough.

Why did he need to clown and drink? Was it because, despite appearances, he was shy and unable to meet people with ease – a quality he admired in Romilly? Or was it his fear of death, so intense when he was young and conquered only when he came to die? Or was it some extension of his ego? All novelists are egoists who spin their characters from observing themselves as much as other people and choose subject-matter from their experience. But Philip Toynbee’s ego was gigantic. Decca Mitford remembers him keeping on saying as he read Hons and Rebels in manuscript: ‘Not nearly enough about ME.’ He was obsessed by himself, his development, his past and future. Unlike most egoists, he never bored his friends with talk about himself: he was too good a mimic, too inspired a raconteur, and above all too considerate and dedicated a self-mocker, ever to embarrass others unasked with his woes. He had real talent for the conventional narrative novel: his early novel about a prep school still seems to me the best and most desolating evocation of the feelings of masters and boys that I have read. His relationship with Giles Romilly and Jasper Ridley was wonderfully described in Friends Apart, even if his portrait of Ridley is said by those who knew him not to resemble Ridley at all; he knew how to convey his puzzlement at finding such totally different characters not merely sympathetic but essential to him during those undergraduate days. But he put aside these talents as unworthy and renounced them for the experimental novel. ‘What I am trying to do in Pantaloon,’ he said, ‘is to write something like a modern equivalent of Don Quixote, the Prelude, Faust and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, all in one. That is to say a tragi-comic epic whose hero is representative of the years 1914-50.’ His novels were now to be written in verse, not prose. ‘I find myself increasingly anxious,’ he wrote in Two Brothers, ‘to eliminate all sense of narrative in what I write ... The name of Olaf, the rather problematical young listener (since he never speaks there is no obligation to believe in him), is seldom used, and on one occasion he is addressed by the wrong name ... a mosaic of insights, a constellation of enlightening moments ... a loose prosodic form, a first very long and discursive line of anything between twenty-five and thirty-five syllables (but never either more or less) followed by two lines of five stressed syllables each.’ Far better judges than I, such as Frank Kermode and Stephen Spender, have admired these books; and Wystan Auden and Leonard Woolf are said to have spoken well of them. Certainly he saw himself as the heir to Virginia Woolf and his novels were written for those who enjoy the long conundrums of Joyce. But after four volumes no publisher would go on with the series and six volumes remain in manuscript.

He was a glutton for self-punishment, perhaps for self-destruction. He wanted desperately to be remembered as the great creative writer of his generation and yet he said that if he had to choose between being a great writer and a good man, he would opt for goodness. That must command respect, but one remembers Heine’s aphorism: Guter Menschaber schlechter Musikant. He was in fact half a dozen characters out of Dostoevsky: Dimitri Karamazov, Raskolnikov, and more than a bit of Mr Marmeladov. He knew remorse for mischief, he knew guilt, self-abasement, retribution, self-loathing. Perhaps he always wanted to fail. In his youth he made passes at girls more to score up a pass than to bring them to bed. He may have yearned to face danger during the war as his friends Robert Kee and Paddy Leigh-Fermor did, but he made it impossible to do so. Having somehow survived basic training in the Guards depot at Caterham, he was sent to Sandhurst as an officer cadet. He lay in the three-tonner apparently incapably drunk, but as it swung past the Guards sentries at the entrance, he managed to outwit his friends and in a twinkling removed all his clothes. The sight of Guardsmen has been known to affect others in that way, but in such a stalwart heterosexual did not the gesture originate from some hidden compulsion for self-defeat? One does not doubt that the rules he imposed upon himself in writing his poetic novel were a conscious artistic discipline until one begins to wonder whether they weren’t so labyrinthine and complicated because he wanted to tax the comprehension of the reader beyond endurance and make it impossible for his enterprise to succeed.

The penultimate episode in his life has all the elements of self-destruction and abasement. His house had been a comfortable messy place, a garden which he had landscaped with a waterfall. He then decided to turn it into a commune, despite the fact that privacy had become essential for him. Out came the central heating and down came the staircase, and the house was filled up with alternative people. He next ordained that the goal should be total self-sufficiency for the commune: the apple orchard cut down to provide pasture for a cow, electricity disconnected, windmills to do the work; when windmills proved beyond the engineering techniques of the inmates, a scrubbing-board replaced the washing-machine for nappies. This proved too much for the inmates, who found that meditation was a far more pressing activity than heaving a mattock or digging and dunging. No longer was ecological survival the goal: it now became spiritual development in learning to share and eliminate competition, in being open to each other. Quite soon the Toynbees moved out and camped in a nearby house. Eventually, shame struggling with rage for the mastery, the remaining communards were expelled from the house.

By the accounts given here – the most touching and dignified by his eldest daughter – the toll was appalling. The gigantic ego still revolted by the unjust structure of the world decided no longer to protest against it but to live out an alternative life oblivious to the intolerable burden it imposed upon his wife and youngest children. He himself fell into deeper and deeper moods of depression – trapped in the tunnel of his ideals, unable to see a way out of the self-imposed disaster. He realised that the experiment could have succeeded only if he and the inmates had been saints. What made men and women saints? What indeed made them want to be good? These were the questions he pursued in his last book, Part of a Journey. He found he could no longer endure wearing cap and bells to fool with his old friends. The vanities of the world were renounced as he wryly acknowledged that the old days were now a forbidden fantasy. Perhaps friends existed to remind one not to be too solemn: but they had become an unnecessary interruption of the only search that mattered, the search for God.

So he withdrew into himself. The golden bowl was broken and the grasshopper had become a burden. Political action – to change people’s hearts by his own example – had joined other illusions. Just before he was shot down over Germany, Esmond Romilly told Philip Toynbee that the ‘only political motive’ left him was his ‘dismay at human unhappiness’. Forty years later his friend, as he lay dying, had reached the same conclusion.