When the Mediterranean Was Blue

John Bayley

  • Cyril Connolly: A Nostalgic Life by Clive Fisher
    Macmillan, 304 pp, £20.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 333 57813 9

His friends used to say that Cyril Connolly had been sent into the world for one purpose: to be talked about. He was an object of fascination to everyone who knew him. It was not exactly that he was a legend, or that there was anything romantic or Byronic about him. Though his funny face had great charm he was the reverse of handsome: John Sparrow, in one of his feline mots, remarked that ‘the trouble with Cyril is that he is not so beautiful as he looks.’ But he was a living repository of nostalgia, and of the most stylish sort of self-pity; and these, if properly served up, can be a potent ingredient of literary popularity. Everyone has something to look back on, and to be sorry for themselves about; and Connolly acted as a focal point for the regrets and frustrations of his literary generation. He was a mixture of Pan and Peter Pan. Clive Fisher, who has written a very good book on Noel Coward, was quite right to give this elegant study the subtitle ‘A Nostalgic Life’.

Being Anglo-Irish helped the nostalgia. Connolly senior had been a Major in the British Army and when he retired became an expert conchologist – shells to shells, as one might say – whose exhaustive study remains a classic. He was devoted to his only son, but the devotion was only fitfully and guiltily returned. The grown-up Cyril’s idea of practising economy, during one of his periodic financial panics, was to deny his thirsty parent, when he came to call, the glass of sherry he craved but was too shy and too mannerly to ask for. Mother retired to South Africa, where she formed a relationship which excluded her husband, though she retained a rather scatterbrained affection for Cyril. One of the mature Cyril’s many nostalgias was for the ‘big house’ in southern Ireland which had once been in the family.

His schooldays gave him the real source and subject of his imaginative life, the vanished Arcadia in which triumph had been both ardently pursued and easily attained. In later life he was perpetually nostalgic over the grail of the unwritten masterpiece – our sole aim and justification, as he told his writer friends; but masterpieces do not come except through grinding effort and unceasing hard work, gloomy attributes which Cyril had never needed when young and hence remained disinclined for as he grew older. Though he joined in the chorus of contempt and hatred which it was fashionable for the middle-class English literati of the time to feel for their schooldays, the reality was another matter. He knew that his real home had been the condemned playground. Anthony Powell comments on the odd fact that Connolly’s chosen and not uncherished home in later years was not some castle in Spain or a Dordogne farmhouse but a bald redbrick villa in an Eastbourne street, well away from the sea but not so far from his one-time prep school, St Cyprian’s.

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