Heroes of Our Time

Karl Miller

  • The Monument by T. Behrens
    Cape, 258 pp, £11.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 224 02510 4
  • The Passion of John Aspinall by Brian Masters
    Cape, 360 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 224 02353 5

Suicide was thought damnable in the Middle ages, and I expect there are those who will be brought to feel by the first of these books that the Middle Ages had a point. The Monument commemorates a young couple who lived together for 17 years in a solitude à deux and who then took their own lives – incompetently and lingeringly. Representatives of the few people they had come to know in the course of their wanderings round the world were left to clear up. Suicide tends now to command sympathy, even when the reasons for it are hard to understand. Not everyone who reads the book will be able to sympathise with Justin and Ursula, or to believe that they understand them. But there will also be those who will stay with it for its relish of damnation.

This is one of the many books which address the snobbery of the English, which flash at their readers the lawns of their country houses, the baize of their gambling-tables, which describe the behaviour of those virtuosos of ostentation and disregard who have in common a contempt for commonness, for the middle class. It could be said of such books that their chief resource is the eccentricity which has long amounted to a convention of upper-class life. Literary careers can be founded on the impersonation and adulation of privileged behaviour: but the books which have been written and inspired by English snobs and sports are by no means all boastful or complicit. The supreme text of recent years is James Fox’s account of Lord Lucan and his set, with their boffes de politesse. There is a touch of Lucanian zombiness in The Monument, and the peer himself takes part in The Passion of John Aspinall.

Patrician insolence has quite often appeared to express a perception of the activities of the levelling Labour governments which have come and gone since 1945. But there’s more of that in the second of the books than there is in the first. T. Behrens’s story begins at a time when, as at other times in this century, the patriciate, and the merely rich, had slipped down into marked collusion with the smart, with upstarts and bohemians. They have been apt at such times to turn, for diversion and instruction, to foreigners and to members of the working class. These strangers were sexual, artistic. Theirs was the charm of not being bourgeois, and the foreigners among them could be, or could come across as, princes, pretenders to a throne, descendants of a khan. What survived, in the late Fifties, of the Chelsea set welcomed a refugee from Hungary, after the Soviet invasion of that country. This was Ursula of the long blonde hair, who had fled what survived of ancestral estates – on one view of the matter – and had made her courageous way across Europe, shot at and winged by border guards, to Vienna, and on to London, where she fell among art historians and was counselled by Anthony Blunt. Like the author of the book, who is a painter and who was then at the Slade, she discovered, he tells us, that ‘the people with the beautiful faces were also, mysteriously, the ones it was most fun to be with.’ The self-proclaimed ‘honesty’ of the wild, well-born stranger was doubted, but her fascination prevailed. She married an art dealer, Kenelm, understood to be seriously ill, and conducted daring affairs, one of them on the Métro with her friend Monique’s friend Gianni: ‘Gianni and Ursula leapt on just as the doors were closing, but Monique, who was now a few yards behind them and whose movements were hampered anyway by her arthritis, was left standing there as the train moved out. Ursula and Gianni got off at the next station but one, having brought their growing mutual admiration to a startling climax wedged solid among the rocking mass of sober commuters. After a quick tidy-up they took the next train back to the Gare de Lyon where Monique had had only twenty minutes to wait.’ Were the other passengers all sober? Startling the commuter is a game in which it is best to think so.

Chapter Five opens with the information: ‘Ursula and Kenelm had known my parents for some time, having been introduced originally by a mutual friend. Kenelm had then sold my father a pair of 18th-century cupboards.’ And so it was that Ursula met Justin, the writer’s moody adolescent brother, and ran away with him.

Away! They were off on their 17 years of Tristan and Isolde, and of Morecambe and Wise, for Justin, who could appear to have lost his old charisma, became the straight man of the duo, constantly mending things. They lived frugally but in style. They rented a flat in Rome and built a house in Greece. Here they are, unisex and colour-supplement-magnetic in an Italian ‘working-class’ restaurant: ‘Justin and Ursula, with their measured dignity and impeccable, interchangeable clothes – perhaps soft leather waistcoats over silk shirts and linen trousers in colours that rarely overstepped the narrow arc of the spectrum between cream and ochre – were immediately noticeable.’ They turned nomadic and mingled with the nomads of the Sudan, where they were to consider building a further house and perhaps settling down. They swam, they talked, they wrote their diaries and stories, and were at ease in a succession of remote and sticky places. Ursula’s bad back was religiously exposed to unmanageable African horses and jolting lorry rides. England’s wealthy and wonderful – their scams and scrapes, their portfolios, clubs, night-clubs, champagne and cocaine, the Cockney accents of their young ones, their gossip-columnists and their art historians, their zombies and their zoos and safaris – were avoided.

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[*] The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy (Oxford). Kiernan’s book will shortly be reviewed in this journal.