When the Mediterranean Was Blue
- 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.
There he had met George Orwell and Cecil Beaton, and the three began to develop their characteristic talents: Orwell by reading Gulliver’s Travels and brooding satirically on the horrors to be enshrined later in Such, Such Were the Joys; Beaton by singing ‘If you were the only girl in the world’ in a voice ‘small but true’, and with what he also memorably described in A Georgian Boyhood as ‘an unsettling persuasiveness’. Connolly himself was less precocious, but did his best as the all-purpose old-fashioned aesthete. When he and Orwell went on to Eton the master who prepared him for Confirmation in the school chapel was inadvertently more perceptive about Connolly’s future than the boy himself. ‘He has not any very romantic ideals. His point of view is more that of a journalist than of a scholar or scientist.’ Absorbed, with Harold Acton and Brian Howard, in the creation of a daring aesthetic manifesto to be called ‘The Eton Candle’, Connolly would have been greatly disturbed by this deflating prophecy, which was soon to be echoed by a boy called Jessel, one of his friends and contemporaries, after the final blaze of Connolly’s school glory. ‘You’ve got a Balliol scholarship and you’ve got into Pop – you know, I shouldn’t be surprised if you never did anything else the whole of your life.’
Oxford, indeed, proved something of a false start and anti-climax to anyone who arrived there with what K. Clark (already ‘a polished hawk-god in obsidian’) called ‘the millstone of promise hung round his neck’. Sligger Urquhart, the Dean of Balliol, a famous figure memorably evoked in A Dance to the Music of Time, seems in fact to have been one of those curiously mild and withdrawn homosexuals who never say or do anything themselves, but who in some way inspire the wit and morale of their young friends, invisibly sharpened their swords and urge them on in pursuit of the glittering prizes. ‘Though he would not have relished the comparison,’ observed Clark, ‘Sligger was in fact the perfect hostess.’ By never saying anything of the faintest interest he encouraged others to show off. Such success at second-hand was an art often cultivated in that vanished epoch, and Connolly was one of the many who profited from it.
He was to profit, too, from the ambiguous kindness and patronage of Logan Pearsall Smith, brother-in-law of Bertrand Russell and bachelor son of rich American Quakers. He was famous for the trouble he took over his polished style, and was compiling A Treasury of English Aphorisms. He employed Connolly as his secretary and research assistant, and his influence, as mild and pervasive as that of Sligger, was equally enduring. Connolly obliged by recasting his bons mots, turning ‘the young know what they want; the old are sad and bewildered’ into ‘the old know what they want; the young are sad and bewildered.’ Well, yes. The charm of Pearsall Smith’s Trivia, a slim volume, laboured at over the years with studied negligence, barely survives today except in a few jokes. One of its more memorable reflections was: ‘Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.’ Years later John Betjeman professed great delight and astonishment that this sheltered acolyte of the fine arts should have had such a strong attachment to Reading.
Nonetheless The Unquiet Grave, in its time at the end of the last war Connolly’s most successful work, owes almost everything to Trivia and to the methods of its compiler. Nor is that dispraise; although both books now have the air of survivals, belonging, in a rather rich and satisfying sense, to the mythology and atmosphere of an epoch which had vanished some time before their own. The 1890s nostalgia of The Unquiet Grave, souped up with Connolly’s brilliant and unnerving sense of contemporary fatigue and depression, happened to strike at the right moment in the present a characteristic note of the past. At the end of the war most people wanted, even if only unconsciously, to go back rather than to go forward. Connolly replaced the violons de l’ automne with the ‘sha-sha-sha of the plane trees’, as an open car raced down Route Nationale 7, bound for pre-war sun and the blue Mediterranean. But the nostalgic impulse was the same. Philip Larkin once told Connolly at a party, in a burst of shy alcoholic confidence, that The Unquiet Grave had ‘made’ him. It certainly inspired him. Gavin Ewart described it as ‘the Great Missing War Poem of World War Two’. Perhaps Logan Pearsall Smith had come close to writing the War Poem of World War One? The indirections and resonances of art, particularly the kind of conscious verbal art that Connolly picked up from Pearsall Smith, can take peculiar forms.
The older aphorist paid an unfailing stipend to his junior, even when the latter was absent, as he frequently was, on some foray to Paris or weekend in a great house. Possibly Pearsall Smith, with puckish malice, recollected these absences when he passed over Connolly, whom everyone expected to get the money, in his final legacy; ignoring likewise the claims of later secretaries such as Peter Quennell and Robert Gathorne-Hardy, he bestowed the prize on the latest incumbent, the young John Russell. It was a bitter blow at the time to Connolly, who never found it easy to remain solvent, and who tended with an insouciance which has something rather admirable about it to have little eye for the main chance. In Paris, as it happened, he had fallen in love with an American heiress, Jean Dukewell, but it was not her money that attracted him at the time. Jean had just the attributes to bewitch a brilliantly odd but basically unconfident young man whose previous experience of love had been either crudely or aesthetically homosexual.
Jean promised to marry him, or at least to live with him, but when she returned for a couple of months to America Cyril went to visit Harold Nicolson, who was something of an admirer, in Berlin. Fond as he was of playing to the gallery and pleasing his friends, Cyril wrote daring little playlets sometimes performed in the presence of the Ambassador, Sir Horace Rumbold. ‘Cyril was always the pimp, Christopher Sykes the carpet-seller and I was the slave-girl,’ recalled another visitor. An amorous Nicolson wrote afterwards to the author that ‘I was jealous of your being young and free and so bloody clever ... you fiddle with what I really believe is genius.’
Cyril was now committed to women, however, and he and Jean had some contented years in Paris and Chelsea, living on her not inconsiderable income. Unfortunately imprudent promiscuity had made it impossible for her to have children: to get her money by marrying her, a Frenchman had tricked her into pregnancy with a damaged contraceptive, and the resulting abortion was a disaster. Connolly would have liked a family, and an aimless life which caused Jean to start drinking heavily led to a gradual drifting apart. They divorced in the war and she remarried, dying of a ruined liver soon afterwards. By that time Connolly had scored a great and in a sense unexpected success with the founding of Horizon.
It would be difficult for today’s generation to understand the impact of that magazine on the contemporary intelligentsia. The times helped it greatly because it was such a relief from the war, although there was nothing ivory tower or escapist about it. From the first it carried the peculiar stamp of Connolly’s personality, and was talked about as he was talked about. He had been lucky of course to find rich backers, but he ran the thing very much himself. Nonetheless it offered him no real sense of fulfilment, since he also cherished his native indolence (he noted disgustedly that Peter Quennell ‘worked from ten to six and wrote more after dinner’), as well as the writer’s block that found its true expression in The Unquiet Grave.
Connolly had hastened at one time to express the left-wing views then appropriate to intellectuals who were by nature apolitical, but emotionally he was a plutophile, or whatever the term is for those most at home in the company of the rich – the civilised rich of course. His own view of the matter was accurate enough. He lamented that his real métier was to be ‘not a writer but a ham actor whose performance is clotted with egotism ... Never will I make that extra effort to live according to reality which alone makes good writing possible: hence the manic-depressiveness of my style, which is either bright, cruel and superficial, or pessimistic and moth-eaten with self-pity.’ Although it is full of self-knowledge there is also a romantic naivety about that which is revealing. In what sense did Flaubert, for example, or Firbank, live ‘according to reality’? To a born creator the shop-soiled concept of ‘reality’ is surely without meaning. He makes it for himself.
Another oddly naive note was struck by his piece in Horizon on ‘The Cost of Letters’, which, as Clive Fisher shows in arresting detail, demonstrated a gratifying consensus among its contributors that it was almost impossible to make a living from writing. The figures (this was around 1947) are quaint in themselves. Taking up Connolly’s plea for state support to the writer, Orwell demanded £1000 a year, Elizabeth Bowen £3500, while Robert Graves could only suggest ‘living off friends’, and V.S. Pritchett, with sturdy virtue, opined that ‘the failures of overwork are fewer than the failures of idleness.’ Evelyn Waugh, on the whole in kindly mood, reported to Diana Cooper in Paris that Connolly was ‘wholly absurd in his serious moments, which are becoming more and more frequent ... he sees himself as a Public Relations Officer for Literature’, but ‘he is a droll old sponge at his best and worth six of Quennell.’
It was Peter Quennell who had christened Connolly’s next wife, Barbara Skelton, ‘Baby’, although as Clive Fisher not inaptly puts it, ‘it was hard to imagine she had ever been pink and predictable and defenceless.’ No doubt the Furies were christened ‘the Kindly Ones’ in the same spirit. Her activities rivalled those of Pamela Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s novel series; before Connolly, King Farouk had been one of her conquests, and she was to abandon Cyril for George Weidenfeld. During the war Cyril at his office had been cherished and supported by at least two devoted ladies who would have liked to marry him, but he evaded them. Meanwhile Horizon had folded and been replaced after a while by Encounter, funded by the CIA, unknown to its editor Stephen Spender or to Cyril, whose intermittently oppressive patronage Spender seems to have borne with remarkable kindness and forbearance. He was to publish Connolly’s last and unfinished attempt in his own inimitable style of demi-fiction, Shade Those Laurels, a title taken from Dryden’s poem in praise of the young Congreve. Of considerable charm, and undervalued even by its author and his exacting friends, the fragment is a spoof on the career of a ‘great’ novelist, whose work turns out to have been written by a committee of malicious cronies.
A page from the novelist’s last unpublished MS is Connolly at his haunted best, musing that ‘tragedy is the human dimension: it is what is present in a lock of hair and absent in a fossil or the bark of a tree.’ Another late jewel in his crown was the little fantasy on Ian Fleming, ‘Bond Strikes Camp’, whose humour has the subtle approval and understanding of all first-class parody. Connolly’s writing was hero-worshipped at this time by the up and coming young Ken Tynan, who referred to his idol as the Supreme Commander and was described by him in turn as the Predator, in contrast, Connolly felt, to old-fashioned men of letters like himself who were ‘ruminants’.
Barbara Skelton herself had a good deal of literary talent, and got more than one novel out of her adventures. Count on Me emerged from a trip to Spain she and Connolly took after their divorce, in company with her latest protector, a rich Canadian artist who was to coin a memorable definition of Connolly’s sexual preference for ‘cool girls in a warm climate’. His final choice at any rate was a happy one, bringing him a family at last and a time of peace in his chosen residence at Eastbourne. However much he might consider himself a writer of failed promise, his achievement as a literary figure, a puckish arbiter who raised morale and punctured pomposity, had in fact been unique; and it is admirably recorded in this sane and humorous biography. Connolly had an unerring eye for cant, and would have blasted the academic and radical establishments of today as he did the fashionable correctnesses of his own decade. But he was also well aware on what side a writer’s bread was buttered, and as long ago as 1937, in the New Statesman, he commented on the real allegiance of the writers of the Thirties, no matter what form of politics they might profess to adhere to. In fact they were ‘the first to grasp how entirely the kind of life they liked depended on close co-operation with the governing classes’. No doubt their successors still grasp that.