Sha-sha-sha through the open windows

John Bayley

  • Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of ‘Horizon’ by Michael Shelden
    Hamish Hamilton, 254 pp, £15.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 241 12647 9
  • Coastwise Lights by Alan Ross
    Collins Harvill, 254 pp, £12.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 00 271767 0
  • William Plomer by Peter Alexander
    Oxford, 397 pp, £25.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 19 212243 6

The war is a long way back and young people take little interest in it, or in the feel of what was being said and written at the time. Lawrence, Yeats and Eliot go marching on, attracting obedient attention from each new generation of students, but this form of academic perpetuity does not extend to the writers who give each literary age its actual and particular flavour. Once it was Sir John Squire and Edward Shanks – obviously the most significant and influential voices of the time. During or just after the last war it was Connolly and Koestler and Spender, William Plomer, Alun Lewis, Dylan Thomas, Peter Quennell. Some still have life or fame or both, some not: but then, not now, was their moment.

Was Connolly himself any good as a writer? The question means little because the point of Connolly turned out to be Connolly not producing the masterpieces which he touchingly felt to lurk just a few months’ hard work away. He was not, like Byron or Stendhal, both a poet or a novelist and a legend. At the same time he was obsessed with the possibility. Probably the best account of his youthful self is in the first volume of Anthony Powell’s memoirs, Infants of the Spring. ‘He was one of those individuals – a recognised genus – who seem to have been sent into the world to be talked about. Such persons satisfy a basic human need. Connolly’s behaviour, love affairs, financial difficulties, employments or lack of them, all seemed matters of burning interest.’

The self-obsession with literary status, with the uncertainty, as Powell puts it, ‘whether it is better as a writer to be a success or a failure’, makes his more ambitious surveys of the literary scene, Enemies of Promise or The Condemned Playground, seem oddly feeble and indecisive today. His casual journalism was far better: witty, irreverent, unmistakable, a keen pleasure to read in the Sundays till the day of his death. I recall his comment on the pretentious lamentations of some Italian existentialist. ‘Duro formaggio, old bean.’ I also have memories of his own lamentations in The Unquiet Grave about his ‘marked Palinuroid tendencies’, and his fancy for an imaginary ancestor Palinurus Palinurus, ‘the common Mauritanian lobster, dapple-plated scavenger of the resounding sea’, who is invoked to ‘free us from guilt and fear’. All that is affected perhaps, but not pretentious: though it would attract few readers today, the book had something genuinely winning and intime about it. Barbara Pym’s journal records her love of it, as of the books of Denton Welch, another colourful figure from Horizon and the Connolly epoch. That common Mauritanian lobster, apparent survivor from the days of Gérard de Nerval and the dandies of Paris, touched an unexpected chord in the common reader of our own Home Counties. The success of The Unquiet Grave amazed its author.

It probably also finalised his block. Many of its obiter dicta, including probably the famous mot about the thin man inside the fat man, dated from the commonplace book of a much earlier period, almost undergraduate days. This is revealed by Anthony Powell, to whom it was submitted for possible publication when he was a junior at Duckworth’s in 1927, Connolly characteristically pleading: ‘If your firm doesn’t like it, make some excuse when you give it back to me. Say the Autumn List is already full, or something like that. Not just that they don’t think it good enough to publish.’ The same diffidence made him choose later the sobriquet of Palinurus, the steersman of Aeneas in Virgil’s poem (after whom the lobster presumably was named). Perhaps he saw himself as the expert helmsman who nodded off and drowned on his way to a masterpiece. He inscribed in Powell’s copy:

An artist he of character complex;
Money he loved, and next to money, sex.
No roses culled he from the Muses’ garden;
Neurosis held him in the grip of Auden.

It was the arrival of Auden and politics that helped to unnerve Connolly, who belonged by temperament to the earlier aesthetic epoch; but where fashion was concerned he was nothing if not agile, and he adjusted with enthusiasm, Enemies of Promise having to be reconstituted in part to fit new left-wing urgencies.

That sort of agility and power of accommodation was the making of Horizon, though it was possibly the unmaking of Connolly the artist. Successful periodicals have some unspecifiable magic about them, always emanating from the personality of the editor, but the remarkable popular success of Horizon – together with the also short-lived Penguin New Writing, it was the periodical in the war, and throughout the Forces – was in its strange flair for what might be called Mandarin Democracy. It reconciled the toughs with the aesthetes, proletarian writers with the Logan Pearsall Smith generation (Connolly had been for a time his secretary); Orwells with Sitwells; the new Continental heavyweights like Giono, Sartre and Camus with snugly parochial English eccentrics. It inaugurated a new society of letters, open and unstuffy, which in a sense still continues.

Interest in it revives too, as is shown by this excellent book by a young man who was born in the Midwest at the time of Horizon’s demise and is now professor of English at Indiana State University. The fact that he can have no inside knowledge of the epoch and its atmosphere is wholly advantageous: he sees it from a different and detached perspective, although he is obviously fascinated by Connolly and sympathetic to him, even mildly paternal. As enfant terrible and little boy who needed comforting and looking after, Connolly and his engagingly ugly mug had a charm that women fell for. He gave them a lot of grief while remaining comic, to himself as well as to them, and not cold or manipulative. His first wife Jean Bakewell, an heiress from Philadelphia, affectionate, tolerant, and as hedonistic as he was, should have suited him perfectly, and indeed for a while did so. The most infectious passages in the The Unquiet Grave are about their time together, ‘peeling off the kilometres to the tune of “Blue Skies”, sizzling down the long black liquid reaches of National Sept, the plane trees going sha-sha-sha through the open windows’. The writing is genuinely alive with what Connolly called ‘erotic nostalgia’. Both Powell and Michael Shelden emphasise his capacity for self-inspection, elevated to a comic art, on the subject of his own tastes and weaknesses (‘MESSAGE FROM THE ID: “If you would collect women instead of books I think I could help you” ’), and the acceptance of a scarcely very edifying abjectness which made him say that he ‘wanted to be Baudelaire and Rimbaud without the poverty and suffering’, or lament the truth of his one-time employer Logan Pearsall Smith’s dictum that ‘one can’t be fashionable and first-rate.’

Shelden does not make use of Powell’s account, nor does he quote the memorably bitchy but somehow reassuring judgment of Elizabeth Bowen that Jean Connolly was really ‘a big soft crook’. Without extenuating her husband, it suggests that she was not really cast for the role of victim. He liked women who were good at looking after him, but also good at looking after themselves after he had ditched them. Another such was Lys Lubbock, who not only looked after Connolly but managed the whole business of Horizon with extraordinary devotion until after the war when, the promised marriage not materialising and the editor being very much occupied elsewhere, she escaped to America and became the wife of a clever young psychologist. Sonia Brownell also worked on Horizon, resisting the advances of George Orwell until his terminal illness and the great success of 1984.

Connolly tended to implore the previous lady to take him back after it was too late. He and Barbara Skelton quarrelled violently in the car on the way to their wedding and their way back from it; and he was soon desperately telegraphing Lys to come and rescue him. The redoubtable Barbara, who had been the mistress of King Farouk, possibly contributed a germ of influence to the formidable figure of Pamela Flitton in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Where such entanglements were concerned, Connolly was a comic masochist, not a tragic one; and in that sense very different from his partner and fellow editor, whose money kept Horizon going. This was Peter Watson, one of the heirs to a margarine fortune, a gentle, tormented, highly cultivated man whose contribution to the success of the magazine was, as Shelden indicates, by no means limited to financial support. Unfortunately he needed and lived with a series of young American psychotics who traumatised his life. At one moment he had the luck to fall in love with a really nice and good youth, Waldemar Hansen, later a writer and expert on Oriental art: but after some months of blameless domesticity and mutual support Watson fell out of love and into renewed need for his ex-partner. This sinister young man, Norman Fowler, was with him when he drowned in his bath; and although nothing was proved and the Police took no action, gossip failed to exonerate Fowler, whose mental disturbance involved fantasies of disaster and drowning, from some responsibility in the death. He inherited most of Watson’s money and bought a hotel in the West Indies, where, exactly 15 years later, he was himself found drowned in a hot bath.

All this was very un-Connolly, though its own element of sadness and decline comes into the history of Horizon’s ending. In his final ‘Comment’ – he had written very few during the last months – the editor produced his curiously haunting phrase about its being ‘closing time in the gardens of the West’. In his grim political fantasy Orwell had asserted much the same thing. An epoch was over, and as the Fifties began a new era of crises and wars hot and cold, the feel of literature, too, became different, less convivial, more secretive, more impersonal. The photographs are one of the pleasures of this book, particularly one in which Connolly, half-lobster, half-lemur, and wearing a kind of grubby Tyrolean jacket, poses between Tom Driberg and Stephen Spender. There is a kind of innocence about it, the pastoralism which only the past can imitate. Spender, looking like a kindly young schoolmaster, clearly had more to do with the solid success of Horizon than his modest account to Michael Shelden would indicate. Some of his most moving poems appeared in the magazine early in the war, and his achievement as poet, novelist and man of letters spans the age between Horizon and our own, a notable and indeed from that age almost unique example of continuity in distinction.

Another fine poet and editor, Alan Ross, can look back on a long and successful custodianship of the London Magazine: but this second volume of autobiography – the first, Blindfold Games, began what should be a memorable series – again shows how much more colourful his life has been than that of most editors. ‘The coastwise lights of England give you welcome back again,’ as Kipling observes, and Ross, who was born in India, has excelled at such English activities as playing cricket and being a Naval officer. A friend of Connolly, he remarks on the latter’s one-upmanship with a telephone. ‘Whereas there are those who cannot relinquish a conversation without endlessly repeating the same phrases anticipatory to ringing off, Cyril went to the other extreme, simply putting down the phone without any farewells at all.’ He has an excellent phrase, too, for the quality of Connolly’s occasional writings. Whether on writers or politicians, food, art or gardens, everything he wrote was ‘imaginatively rehoused’.

A charm of this book is the way it alternates between accounts of travels, illustrated with a few pages of vivid place-seizing poems, and character sketches of friends, fellow writers and artists – William Sansom, John Minton, Keith Vaughan. Both artists committed suicide by overdose, Vaughan continuing to write his remarkable journal after he had taken the pills and the whisky, the pen eventually subsiding from his hand. One of the best portraits in the book is that of William Plomer, author of that remarkable first novel about South Africa, Turbott Wolfe. His fellow-countryman Roy Campbell praised his achievement in a poem of the time:

Plomer, ’twas you who, though a boy in age,
Awoke a sleepy continent to rage,
Who dared alone to thrash a craven race
And hold a mirror to its dirty face.

His voice was described by Charles Causley as having a faintly ecclesiastical boom, ‘the voice of a mischievous archdeacon with a sideline in African magic’. In his youth he had collaborated with Campbell and Laurens van der Post on the literary magazine Voorslag, then the only thing of its kind in South Africa. Voorslag brought out some of Campbell’s earliest and best poems, like ‘Tristan da Cunha’, whose rhetorical sweep is still authentic magic. Memoirs and studies as good as these do indeed rehouse an age.

Peter Alexander’s biography of Plomer is the most professional of these three books, but it suffers from doing its job exhaustively. Plomer needs doing in impressions, like the sketch of him as the novelist St Quentin in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, or the likeness – the best one – in Stephen Spender’s autobiography World within World. A blow-by-blow account of his career fails to sustain interest, although Alexander, like Shelden, has done an admirably thorough job on the literary life of London from the Thirties through to the Fifties, and on such well-documented episodes as the gruesome murder of Plomer’s young landlady in Bayswater by her deranged husband, a horror that strongly excited Virginia Woolf. Plomer’s ability, charm and homosexuality made him friends among writers, as did his humour. It amused as well as suited him to conceal his sexual nature, and he was delighted when Robert Graves once held forth to him about that of Wilfred Owen: ‘All that about “the poetry is in the pity” – really it’s as if you or I were looking at a battlefield covered with the bodies of beautiful girls.’

Plomer had a rich social experience, which included proposing marriage to Lilian Bowes-Lyon, whom he found too late was already having an affair with his friend Laurens van der Post. He took a conoisseur’s pleasure in high life as well as in the seamy side, becoming a close friend of Ian Fleming, with whom he worked in the war on Naval Intelligence. Each of them, as Alexander remarks, ‘was a great collector of characters’. Perhaps because he was an outsider from South Africa, Plomer suffered from none of the social anxieties that tormented would-be insiders like Hugh Walpole and Somerset Maugham. Adroit, a natural survivor, he used a degree of bisexuality both socially and in his writing. Sado, an impressionistic novel set in Japan, has a hero who is deeply involved both with a young male student and a European woman. The power of Turbott Wolfe comes from its hero’s erotic love for Zulu labourers and miners: a transposed female character picks lovers among them and demands that one of them marry her. The pity, in fact, is in the sex, and so is the message. The best place for it.