- Rebecca’s Vest: A Memoir by Karl Miller
Hamish Hamilton, 186 pp, £14.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 241 13456 0
On the train, sunk on dusty and sagging cushions in our corner seats, Lotte and I spoke of our attachment to one another. I was as weak as I could be when I got off the train. We made our way to the gates of Downing, where – I hope in candour, meaning to show her what I was – I gave her my terrible diary to read in a terrible tea-room, while I entered the college, at five p.m. sharp for my little chat.
This is Karl Miller, aged 18. His ‘little chat’ would be with F.R. Leavis, who subsequently admitted him to Downing College as a student. ‘Lotte’ was his older woman, an exotic foreign dancer of whom we will not be hearing a lot more. The ‘terrible diary’ was the record of his life-experience so far. On the evidence of the diary, Miller would probably always have a Leavis and a Lotte in his life. Leavis could be seen as his reward for teenage virtue, for highmindedness, hard reading, for having been solemn and severe in his intentions. Lotte was the culmination of some other, darker strain – a strain that was already proving something of a strain.
Miller had always known that it was there. He had been told about it by the women who had brought him up. He had been born with it. Miller’s Scottish parents separated just a few months before his birth. Their short marriage had been spent in London, where Mr Miller, a painter of landscapes, had declined to make ends meet. Mrs Miller, née Connor, returned to Scotland in protest against her husband’s feckless ways: ‘concealed about her person’ was wee Karl. This was in 1931. After the boy’s arrival in the August of that year, Mrs Miller set off to make her living as an accountant for various hotels and shops. She lodged the new baby with her mother and three sisters in a mining village near Edinburgh.
From time to time the child received visits from his mother, but the real bringing-up was done by Grandmother Connor and the three live-in maiden aunts. ‘For the first five years of my life I barely knew where my father was or who he was.’ In the stern but witty Connor household both of his parents were reckoned to be faulty. The absentee father, though, came in for the greater weight of disapproval. The aunts thought him a bohemian, a drifter, a bad lot. And when Karl was caught looking a bit dreamy, they would say that the Miller in him was beginning to show through.
Young Karl, of course, had no idea of what ‘the Miller in him’ meant; he would investigate this later, or attempt to. As an infant he was left to imagine both the best and worst. There was a shadowy glamour in styling himself ‘orphan’, in having guardians instead of parents, and there was glamour, too, in the idea of a birthright, or birthwrong, which ran counter to the puritanical right-thinking of the Connors. His awareness of an unearned disapproval was to afford a secure basis for self-pity but also for a kind of grieving self-respect. And when literature became his friend, he was gratified to discover that some great writers had often felt as he did. Over the years there had been some mightily distinguished miseries. He began to cherish the idea of himself as peculiar and wild, as an interesting alien, a species of foundling or foster-child. Sooner or later his innate unruliness might disconcertingly spring into play.
But if it did, who would be more disconcerted – the guardian Connors or the growing boy who was himself half-Connor? Now and again the modest but watchful Connor household would be visited by Uncle Bob, a former miner who had risen to become a high-up sort of civil servant, an OBE, no less. The boy Karl observed with admiration Bob’s air of ‘frigid Olympian quiet’, ‘the awe’ of his ‘presence’. His visits ‘disclosed a high grand somewhere else, where human beings were grave and important’. Against this, Karl set the image of his artist-dad touring the countryside with his easel, paints and turpentine, his knapsack of Ryvita and prunes, looking for scenery to paint. This free spirit had no ‘success’ as a painter, no praise, no money, no evident ambition: he had neglected to join up, join in. There was something seductive in his example but, for a half-Connor, there was also a disturbing admonition: ‘He did not complain, and he went on with his art to the end. I liked that in him, and I disliked and feared the filial converse in myself – a dependence on others and on the opinion of others.’ But then Uncle Bob, the successful man of the world, did not seem too nervous about what others thought of him. Indeed others seemed anxious of his good opinion. Did this mean, then, that there would always be two kinds of freedom: of opting-in or opting-out? And what would become of the grown-up who wanted to do both, who wanted to be praised for wanting to do both – praised or forgiven? Or, best, praised and forgiven.
These questions, and questions of this sort, are at the heart of Karl Miller’s subtle and affecting memoir, as they have been at the heart of much of his writing about literature, in Doubles, he explored themes of duality, of divided identity, in works ranging from James Hogg to Martin Amis. In Rebecca’s Vest he encounters these same tensions as shapers of his own experience, his own divided self. As he discovers when he comes to read through his adolescent diaries, Miller is both revealer and concealer. His candour is both eager and constrained. The habit of reticence is in conflict with the impulse to tell all. In the diaries this can make for some comical confusion. Forty years on, Miller’s oblique, allusive, cannily self-scrutinising style is the perfect instrument for establishing a truce.
The book takes us from 1931 (or soon after) to the mid-Fifties. The early chapters show Miller, the proud custodian of secret sorrows, maturing into an exam-passing, mildly priggish literary novice. A turbulent poet, he was also a good prefect, and ‘dux’ of his school. When, as editor of the school magazine, he wanted to print something shocking, he would do it under a false name. Although his inclinations as a reader were sentimental and gloom-hungry, he also managed to instruct himself in the ways of literary-critical reproof. By the time he presented himself for Dr Leavis’s inspection, he was already in the habit of awarding marks-out-of-100 to the literature of several great traditions.
Leavis, of course, knew nothing of the Miller diary, in which the virgin student of Sons and Lovers declared that ‘the emotional life of each individual is centred on sex, which is the most potent and important force in life.’ The diarist’s own body, it so happened, had gained nothing from such insights; it resembled, he said, ‘a door which has not been opened for many years; it is rusty, difficult to open and overgrown with weeds.’ D.H. Lawrence could offer little assistance when it came to opening that weedy door. His general effect on the young Miller was to exacerbate his ‘morbid melancholies’. And Lawrence took a hard line on self-abuse – as Miller himself would no doubt have preferred to at the time.
Aldous Huxley at least suggested a few practicable affectations. With Sebastian in Time Must Have a Stop, Miller believed himself to have ‘a certain affinity – the same poetic sensibility and the same obsessing, irresistible sensuality’. A speech by Rampion in Point Counter Point is transcribed with high resolve by the tremulous young learner: ‘Civilisation is harmony and completeness. Reason, feeling, instinct, the life of the body – Blake managed to harmonise everything. Barbarism is lopsided.’
And so, too, was the diarist as he sat in the back row of Edinburgh’s New Victoria Cinema with ‘Sheena’, who was herself not wholly balanced, at least in her attitude to ‘the most potent and important force in life’: she had but ‘half an ear at most for the discourse of freedom and nudity’. Even so, some progress was attempted and achieved. The diary speaks of the couple’s ‘quiet, unimpassioned sensuality’ and goes on to boast that ‘we were to shock everyone around us ... with the tenderness of our love-making.’ One of the shocked wrote a letter, to ‘apprise’ the Connors of their boy’s ‘split personality’. It did not occur to him ‘that my womenfolk had been reading the journal of my secret life and that there was no such spy.’
The would-be author, then, already had a readership. ‘They treat me like an outcast,’ he wrote on the next page of his journal, ‘I shall break out soon.’ As well as the diary, there were Miller poems of a Dylan Thomas-ish persuasion and a Miller radio play based on the life of Drummond of Hawthornden. Miller’s liking for this great complainer continues to this day, and there is a fine chapter on him in Rebecca’s Vest. For the woeful adolescent, though, Drummond’s cries of a ‘disastered Me’ had an exquisitely companionable ring: ‘when I read him at school it was like looking in a mirror. I wasn’t altogether pleased with what I saw – with all there was of the moping belletrist, the smoothly self-rehearsing specialist in misfortune, to be found in his verse. But he became my chum.’ This taste for grief: did it betoken a sterile, eroding self-absorption, or was it the mark of something more ample and impressive – an extra soulfulness, perhaps? Adolescents like to portray themselves as doomed – but what if this one really was doomed, doomed to go on feeling doomed, till Doomsday?
In Miller’s case, we would now say, he need not have worried. ‘Many are cauld but few are frozen’ was a joke he liked to think he had made up, and it is his sense of the ridiculous that sees him through. He can’t help but smile at his own unsmiling ways. And he can’t suppress his appreciation of the ridiculous in others, Rebecca’s Vest is a book about self-pity but it is crammed with jokes, and when Miller writes about other people the ones he likes best are the ones who make him laugh.
And in Cambridge in the Fifties, in spite of rigor Leavis, there was no shortage of comedians, it seems, and no shortage of Lotte-like exotics and eccentrics. Miller, the working-class scholarship boy with a diary-full of solemnities about the meaning of life, might have been expected to recoil from Cambridge’s ‘promenade of wits, dandies, sportsmen, barely parted from their public schools ... and dressed in a weird exacerbation of Edwardian chic – pipe-stem tweed trousers, lapelled and brocaded waistcoats, wilting bow-ties, wafer-thin flat caps’. The diarist himself had once cut a dash up North with his turtle-neck sweaters and chocolate corduroys, but this Cambridge was a revelation: it was a place ‘given over to the worship of wit, style and panache, to a sexual intercourse of Restoration fops, romantic lovers, Brummells, Wildes, Sebastian Flytes, Lermontovs, âmes damnées; death’s-heading it in their midst went the Leavisian man of principle and feeling.’
Even so, Miller’s Cambridge associates tended to be not Leavisian co-death’s-heads but their opposites: smart-set extroverts like Mark Boxer or up-to-something chameleons like Neal Ascherson – ‘his own man, utterly individual’. Perhaps the most affectionate portrait in the book is of the upper-class Scots painter Rory McEwen, a thorough-going and inventive self-inventor. Like Miller’s father, McEwen painted from nature and never truckled for ‘success’. These friends, and there were others, had the knack not just of role-playing but of role-living: they turned into their imaginary selves. And even Leavis, in his way, could be thought of in this light. Although Miller eventually wearied of his tutor’s narrowness and rancour, he writes about him here with warmth, showing him to have been wittier, more ironic than the dandies would have guessed, and more victimised by his own dictatorial excesses than were many of his victims
Several of Miller’s Cambridge set died young, and Miller is a master-elegist. We remember, in Doubles, an account of his dead schoolfriend Sandy Brown. This portrait would have sat well in Rebecca’s Vest: ‘Sandy was late for school, comical, hostile, friendly, formidable. I was a swot, less late for school, and we could not be pally. But I was keenly conscious of him, and perhaps I was to be conscious that it was Sandy, rather than the swots ... who was in touch with the muses.’ The mournful cadences that Miller’s adolescent self once thrilled to are put to strong purpose in his portrayals of the dead. Perhaps an elegist has to be practised in self-pity. Miller’s memorial vignettes are terse and pictorial but in his perfectly judged rhythms we pick up an echo of old Drummond’s style of grief: ‘disastered Me!’
Rory’s illness lasted many months. I remember his sprightly letters from Australia, where he went to consult a doctor. Steroids buoyed him up at times, at the expense of a wild wish to help the world, which sent him to Clarence House to enlist the Queen Mother. At other times, having lost his hair to the steroids, he would sit calmly in his hospital bed, dressed in the white linens of an Indian trouser suit and in a turban planted with a costume jewel and surmounted by an aspiring feather. On one occasion, his watercolour paints and brushes lay by his bed; beside them, evoking the slow sessions of the past, the swift picture of a flower. Back into my mind, too, came a youthful drive with him into the depths of the English countryside to inspect a vicar’s carnations.
After Cambridge, and after an experimental visit to Uncle Bob’s Olympus – a brief stint in the Treasury – Miller was invited to become literary editor of the Spectator, and by the time we get to this point in the narrative we are likely to think that he has stumbled on the ideal job, a job in which his Connor ‘strengths’ would be required to do daily business with his Miller ‘weaknesses’. The exotics could be grateful for his textual severity, his intermittent praise. The swots and death’s-heads could rail against his metropolitan shallowness and glamour. Literary editing is an in-between sort of vocation.
That Miller made a triumphant success of it hardly needs to be mentioned, and least of all in the columns of this paper. The history related in Rebecca’s Vest does not cover Miller’s years with the New Statesman and the Listener, although he does have stories and characters drawn from those later years. This book is about the child who may or may not have turned out to be the father of the man:
I have worked hard, despite myself and in defiance of augury, which had me down in my youth as a wallower and a welterer, a Queen’s Own Scottish Loiterer. Every so often, relatively uninteresting though it may be to confess it, I have even been thought stoical. There are opposites here which keep converging. Finding your courage, holding on, I have experienced as a duality and drama, with self-pity listening to a voice which mentions other people’s troubles, and urges me to try, as they try, to remain alive. I have no plan to commit suicide, and I don’t imagine any of this is uncommon.