This Charming Man
- The Collected and Recollected Marc edited by Mark Amory
Fourth Estate, 51 pp, £25.00, November 1993, ISBN 1 85702 164 9
It sometimes happens that an exceptionally talented person dies rather young, leaving behind him friends, still in their prime, who happen to be good writers – witness the posthumous celebrations of Shelley and D.H. Lawrence. Mark Boxer was famous at Cambridge; he was even famous for the manner of his leaving it; and then, without serious intermission, he became and remained famous in London. And so, throughout his life, he was unwittingly acquiring eulogists.
The blurb of this book calls him ‘irresistible’, and the contents concur. They include a lavish visual celebration of Marc as cartoonist and caricaturist, and a collection of pieces by eloquent friends. They celebrate his skills as artist and as editor, and above all his charm. He edited, at various times, Vogue and Tatler, and the Sunday Times Colour Supplement, as well as supplying pocket cartoons for several dailies.
Karl Miller, who knew him well both at Cambridge and in London, describes Boxer in his autobiography as ‘both Figaro and the Count’, which may suggest not a blend of patrician wilfulness and backstairs cunning but internal strife between the two. Presumably you had to know him well to get an inkling of that. More obviously he was handsome, dandyish, an upper-class socialist. He liked cricket, bridge (with, among others, the ‘Machiavellian’ David Sylvester), chess (with Martin Amis, who felt humbly as if he always had, or anyway always ought to have, the black pieces). Women found him instantly attractive. And he rode a motor bike.
The illustrations here are more than adequate reminders of his dash and industry. On the whole, as one might expect, the samples of the late Sixties String-Along strips fare least well, the satire having fallen, as satire will, under the rule of time, become a shade dusty and arcane. In pocket cartoons he was bright but perhaps never quite the equal of the doyen of the genre, Osbert Lancaster.
Among the ‘portraits’ or caricatures, of which we are offered well over a hundred, there are many brilliant successes and few failures. The editor has forsworn annotation, but has instead chosen figures still not in too rapid recession from the public memory, though politicians do dim fast and there are lots of them here. Marc occasionally offers little emblematic hints on interpretation, a camera for Cecil Beaton, and, for Margaret Thatcher, a ‘No Milk Today’ tag hanging from her nipple. Bernard Levin, who alone appears twice in the book, is once parked under the bosom of Arianna Stassinopoulos. Marcia Falkender holds the PM, a ventriloquist’s dummy, on her knee. Tom Driberg is adjacent to a Gents. So far so good. But why is Germaine Greer represented as the Venus de Milo, and with a tear running down her cheek? I can only guess why Shirley Williams is carrying a copy of the News Chronicle, or why Jimmy Hill has an Arab headdress, or why Lord Home stands bat in hand before a broken wicket.
Craig Brown says that in his caricatures Boxer mixed ‘the base and the suave’, but there is not a lot of baseness here, not much of the Rowlandson; and such fluent drawing can hardly help flattering the sitter. What Brown calls Boxer’s ‘beauty of line and spikiness of insight’ gives interest even to the fairly uninteresting. In fact there is not a lot of spikiness, the line flows pleasingly around Noel Annan and caresses George Weidenfeld, though without forgetting to make his eyes wander and his mouth disappear. Huw Weldon holds his teacup in a very refined way, though his partly averted face is aggressively tense. Clive Jenkins is a smiling serpent, Muggeridge has an accusing face and defensive hands. Betjeman, looking amusingly miserable, is on his knees. Among the bull’s-eyes are Robin Day, Ian Paisley, David Owen, Douglas Hurd, Kenneth Baker, David Mellor, Alan Bennett. There are a few outers: Jonathan Miller, Stephen Spender, Alfred Brendel, Melvyn Bragg – but even in these he is good on the hair, which, according to Craig Brown, was what he always homed in on.
Rosemary Sayigh, Boxer’s sister, provides the most intimate of the recollections. In 1931, when Mark was born, the family, though still housing a nanny and pedigree dogs, was in decline. It remained mindful of its distinguished ancestors, one of whom was ‘governess to the last of the tsars’ and another the friend of ‘the Methodist preacher John Wellesley’ (I should like to have known who this man was, provided he wasn’t John Wesley). The father began an autobiography under the thoughtlessly chosen title Diary of a Nobody, and the mother was devotedly left-wing but firmly upper-class in speech and habits. During the war, however, she took in paying guests and kept goats. After the war there was no restoration of the family fortunes, and the marriage broke up. It seems that Boxer inherited little except swarthy good looks.
Good fortune, perhaps transmitted by some recessive gene, ensured that a susceptible Provost of King’s saw him playing the title role in his public school production of Saint Joan. Laughing off the boy’s incompetence at Latin – a subject then required of all who went to Cambridge – the Provost, on the spot, offered him a place in King’s. All this we learn from Sayigh’s affectionate, unsentimental and very well-written piece.
In his last term at Cambridge Boxer was sent down for publishing in Granta a poem by Anthony de Hoghton. It was held by the proctors to be intolerably rude to God. There was a legendary mock-funeral in King’s Parade. Richard Wollheim, who was at Oxford, approaches Boxer slowly by way of de Hoghton, the rich fat poet, maintaining, rather against the evidence adduced, that de Hoghton was interesting and talented. He is said to have got his poem into Granta behind Boxer’s back. When Wollheim finally gets on to Boxer himself he writes of him with appropriate elegance, offering, among other aperçus, the surprising but credible opinion that Boxer was afraid of being laughed at.
His talents as editor are variously celebrated: by Meriel McCoey (‘serious as well as mischievous ... often mysterious’, sometimes rather mean) and by David Sylvester. Vicki Woods, attending to his appearance, describes him as ‘clearly the most handsome man in the history of the world’; and Martin Amis testifies that he was ‘embarrassingly handsome’. George Melly, who did captions for Boxer’s pocket cartoons, represents him as lovable but sometimes ill-tempered. It is from time to time suggested, as by Wollheim, that he was not entirely secure, that he was not entirely happy, and perhaps not entirely well. What is unmissable is the affection and admiration in which he was held and the dismay all felt at his death; so this is in every way a proper and handsome memorial.
Vol. 16 No. 5 · 10 March 1994
Craig Brown’s remark, cited by Frank Kermode (LRB, 24 February), that Mark Boxer always ‘homed in on the hair’ in those enjoyable caricatures of his made me think of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Morte Darthur and wonder whether ‘Marc’ might have been directly influenced in this by Beardsley. Then Morte Darthur led me to wonder why it should ever be supposed, as Tom Shippey, in the same issue, tells us it repeatedly has been, that a man who put the words that Sir Thomas Malory did into the mouth of Sir Launcelot could not be both a knight and a rapist himself: need we look further than the words put into the mouth of Sir Meliagrance confronting Queen Guenever (in the edition which Beardsley illustrated. ‘As for all this language, be it as it may, for wit you well madam, I have loved you many a year, and never or now could I get you at such an advantage as I do now, and therefore I will take you as I find you’)? And Malory then led me to wonder whether P.N. Furbank seriously disputes that in 20th as in 15th-century England there are systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric relates in all sorts of still understudied ways.
Trinity College, Cambridge
Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994
Lord Runciman asks (Letters, 10 March) whether I would seriously dispute that in 20th as in 15th-century England there are ‘systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric relates in all sorts of still understudied ways’. The answer is that I certainly would not – how could I? To be honest, I do not understand why he asks, and wish he would explain.
Vol. 16 No. 8 · 28 April 1994
P.N. Furbank (LRB, 24 February) might not have needed elucidation of my letter in the previous issue if the editor hadn’t cut out of it a phrase about ‘the slippery rhetoric of class’. Furbank’s review of Michael Argyle’s The Psychology of Social Class seemed to me to imply that the rhetoric is, in effect, the reality, and that academic sociologists and social psychologists who try to measure ‘class’ objectively only succeed in making themselves look foolish. Of course we don’t always get it right. But I am relieved that Furbank agrees (if he does) that our efforts are not inherently misconceived.
Trinity College, Cambridge
The final sentence of W.G. Runciman’s letter (Letters, 10 March), in its original version, ran as follows: ‘And Malory then led me to wonder whether P.N. Furbank, whose remarks about the slippery rhetoric of “class” can be as well illustrated by reference to Malory as to anyone, seriously disputes that in 20th, as in 15th, century England there are systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric does indeed relate in all sorts of still understudied ways.’
Editor, ‘London Review’
P.N. Furbank writes: I was puzzled by Lord Runciman’s original letter, but his new one makes all clear, and I am afraid his worst suspicions are confirmed. I do think that, in the matter of social ‘class’, the rhetoric is the reality, and that (to be brutal) academic sociologists and social psychologists who try to ‘measure’ class objectively only succeed, as he puts it, in making themselves look foolish. Let us put the matter this way. The language of ‘class’ only began to be employed in Britain round about the time of the first Reform Bill, being then taken over a decade or two later, to very different effect, by Proudhon and Marx. Now, the uses to which this language was put, and is still put, is a very rich and important study, but one needs to be clear about what one is studying. It is, in the first place, not something objectively ‘out there’, in the world, nor is it something which it makes sense to speak of ‘measuring’. To use ‘class’ language is a form of social (and often also political) action; for it is inherent in the concept of ‘class’ that to classify others in this way is automatically also to be classifying oneself, it being an absurdity to imagine one can both use the system and yet stand outside it. In using ‘class’ terminology one is manoeuvring socially or politically against one’s fellow citizens. Thus, a sociologist or a social historian is bound in logic to give up any idea of using ‘class’ terminology in his profession (what he does in his private life being quite another matter). All he can do, by way of studying ‘class’ scientifically, is to examine what is going on when ‘class’ language is used (i.e. analyse it as a belief system and form of rhetoric). This, to my mind, is a most important study, much neglected; and, as I argued in my review, a great deal of it can best be done by introspection. In this respect the student of ‘class’ has an advantage over the ethnographer, who is less likely to share the belief-system of the community he or she is studying. But to imagine you can use the language of ‘class’ scientifically, and even (as some social historians do) use it about people who did not use it themselves and employed a quite different language, strikes me as a hopeless illusion.
I can’t help feeling that P.N. Furbank must be missing the point. The letter from Lord Runciman to which he refers was surely a brilliant parody? Even if we are not so sure of the exact target.
Vol. 16 No. 10 · 26 May 1994
The exchanges between P.N. Furbank and Lord Runciman about the use of ‘class’ as a term for describing social inequalities, past and present, leaves unsettled, indeed undiscussed, the problem of what language could replace it (Letters, 28 April). In his review of Michael Argyle’s The Social Psychology of Class (LRB, 24 February), Furbank argued that the deployment of ‘class’ categories could never claim to be ‘scientific’: the term and its variants were too treacherously rhetorical. Lord Runciman’s attitude to this charge is not easy to describe. Pained bafflement, perhaps, at coming upon such distressing stuff from an LRB reviewer? A fuller answer than he so far has given would be valuable. Meanwhile, the question remains: how should social inequalities be described – unrhetorically? Furbank suggests that since ‘class’ language only emerges in the 1830s, the social historian for earlier periods should use the language of the time. So, when Richard Holmes asserts that, in 1811, Harriet West-brook’s father was ‘achieving that most difficult piece of English social navigation: moving from the lower middle class to the upper middle class’ (Shelley: The Pursuit), the terms are anachronistic. But what others were available? Shelley himself was ‘gentry’ (son of a landowner, knight and MP). Mr West-brook, having made money in ‘trade’ and retired to a house near Belgrave Square, though not ‘gentry’, would have surely thought himself ‘a gentleman’, indignantly rebutting any suggestion that young Harriet was other than a ‘lady’. Hadn’t he educated her at that expensive Clapham school attended by Shelley’s sisters? Yet he would have had to agree that the young man with whom she eloped was socially her superior, and even perhaps his.
Turning to fiction, there was the Bennet family and their friends, shortly to enter public life. The Bingley sisters, carefully forgetting that their late father’s fortune derived from ‘trade’, sneer at the Lucases for their all-too-recent commercial connections. Elizabeth rejects, with confidence, Lady Catherine de Burgh’s assumption of social superiority to her family, Mr Bennet also being a landowner, if on a far smaller scale. But the ‘gentleman’ idea in Austen’s work, here as elsewhere, refers not to the ownership of property, nor to where the money comes from, but to social style, easy manners, a ready flow of small talk, together with the self-discipline required by codes of etiquette, and (presumably) also to dress. This seems to be the force of ‘gentlemanlike’, as in: ‘Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.’ The implied similitude – ‘gentlemanlike’ – is a little puzzling. Does it point to a reservation? Despite Wickham’s scoundrelly behaviour, his qualifications as a ‘gentleman’ are not brought into question. On the whole, in interesting contrast with Victorian usage, ‘gentleman’ seems to have little or no ethical or intellectual content. Bingley’s brother-in-law, the empty-headed Hurst, ‘merely looked the gentleman’. Austen, that is, is less interested in social stratifications, save as an observable fact about the world she depicts, than in the moral and intellectual qualities that particular ‘gentlemen’ might or might not possess. For all its keen and detailed observation of early 19th-century Home Counties life, her novel thus offers no general language for describing social changes that were in process, and which Richard Holmes attempts to describe in his remarks about Shelley’s father-in-law. Becoming ‘Lady Shelley’ would have been thought by Harriet, as also by her circle, as socially advantageous a move as Mrs Bennet thought Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy. If the language of ‘class’ is anachronistic as a general description of such events, the language of the period (as used by Austen) is no substitute. Furbank’s argument thus seems to condemn the social historian, if not to silence, then to the mere accumulation of detailed cases incapable of being generalised.
The other aspect of his analysis (that to use ‘class’ language is always to engage in rhetorical manoeuvring) is harder to cope with. For if ‘class’ is allowed its full claim, the user is contemplating our species as a botanist or zoologist contemplates plants or animals, allotting him or herself the authority of a more powerful ‘kind’, and – here is the rhetorical move – inviting readers to share the flattering illusion. But ‘class’ is commonly used to mean no more than ‘group’, rough-and-ready perhaps, but usage often is.