Philip French

  • The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives by Sebastian Faulks
    Hutchinson, 309 pp, £16.99, April 1996, ISBN 0 09 179211 8

The smugness, torpor and repression of British life that my generation of undergraduates hated were epitomised in Julian Slade’s long-running musical Salad Days, the story of a pair of inane Cambridge graduate newly-weds living in London with a magic piano. It opened in the summer of 1954, a few months before I went up to Oxford, and featured a jolly song supposedly counselling against nostalgia called ‘We Said We’d Never Look Back’, any three bars of which bring back memories of what I most disliked about those times. Now it is back in the West End, and its revival coincides with the publication of Sebastian Faulks’s percetive study of three men who died young, the painter Christopher Wood (1901-30), the war hero, Richard Hillary (1919-43), and Jeremy Wolfenden (1934-65) who was (or is?) the most spectacular failure of my Oxford generation.

Faulks believes that ‘short lives are more sensitive indicators of the pressure of public attitudes than lives lived long and crowned with honours,’ and his title suggests a connection between death, destiny and Englishness. Faulks was born in 1953 and was thus just 12 years old when the youngest of his subjects died. He notes numerous parallels between the three. They were tall, fair-haired, attractive, yet had physical flaws (Wood was crippled by polio, Hillary was disfigured by appalling burns received during the Battle of Britain, Wolfenden developed eye trouble during National Service). They came from provincial middle-class homes, their mothers beloved and doting, their fathers withdrawn professional men. Each in some way willed or brought about his own death: Wood threw himself under a train while suffering from paranoid delusions; Hillary insisted on returning to active service when he was clearly unfit to fly; Wolfenden drank immoderately, which destroyed his liver at the age of 31. Faulks also suggests that they lived and died in the shadow of war. This is self-evidently so with Hillary, while it can be plausibly argued that the slaughter of the Great War was a determining element in Wood’s background and that the Cold War contributed to Wolfenden’s early death.

The trio differed in their sexuality – Wood was diffidently bisexual, Hillary vigorously heterosexual, Wolfenden openly homosexual. In three crucial respects, Wood and Hillary diverge from Wolfenden. First, they were artists and he was an intellectual. Second, they had not as schoolboys and students excited any great expectations, whereas Wolfenden had been a precocious child, had won scholarships to Eton and Oxford (his examination papers at both are still remembered), received a congratulatory First in PPE, and was elected a fellow of All Souls on graduation. Third, and crucially, they left tangible evidence of their gifts – Wood’s paintings guarantee him a permanent, admittedly minor place in the history of British painting, while The Last Enemy, Hillary’s account of his experiences in combat and as one of the plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe’s guinea pigs at East Grinstead, is one of the classic works of World War Two (I was astonished to learn from Faulks that it is out of print). Wolfenden, on the other hand, died without producing a single book or any extended writing of consequence.

This idea of Wolfenden as a wash-out and the squanderer of a prodigious talent persuaded John Carey, one of his Oxford contemporaries, to find him ‘the least interesting’ of Faulks’s subjects. Not only does Carey challenge Faulks’s claim that ‘in some minor way he represented a generation’: he suggests he was ‘bizarrely untypical’. Carey also thinks it tough on Hillary, the flying ace, to have been bracketed with a bisexual painter, who mixed with louche artistic folk in Twenties Paris, and a homosexual journalist who drank in Moscow with Guy Burgess. But there are quite a number of people who take a different view, and at this point I ought to come clean and admit that I was one of those approached three years ago by Faulks when he was considering a book on the subject of early death and unfulfilled promise, and that (I was not alone in doing so) I suggested the name of Wolfenden. From this point on I shall call him Jeremy, for he was a friend of mine for some years and was the godfather of my eldest son.

I first met Jeremy in December 1954, at the end of our first term, when the editor-designate of Isis, Adrian Mitchell, appointed me as the next term’s deputy news editor and Jeremy as one of his two Union reporters (the other being Christopher Driver). I knew him by reputation. There were people quite as clever as Jeremy, several of them his friends, but somehow word had got around that he was the most brilliant mind of his generation. I had also heard of, and been suitably impressed by, his vacation job on the Times, and had read a devastating ‘Oxford Letter’ he had done for Granta, then Isis’s opposite number in Cambridge, which seemed to have been written by a world-weary cynic acquainted with every social and intellectual stratum of the university and city rather than a freshman who’d been there for five weeks. I also knew him by appearance – the fair hair (its colour aided by bleach), the clip-on dark-glasses worn at all times, the cigarette in the corner of the mouth or held in the hand in such a way that the smoke would turn his fingers oak-brown, the felt hat, dark shirt and light tie, which gave him a gangsterish appearance, though more Guys and Dolls Runyonesque than High Sierra Bogartian. I knew, too, that he was queer (the term ‘gay’ wasn’t used then), though I can’t recall just how that information was conveyed to me. There was nothing of the pansy (a contemporary term he employed to describe a type he despised) about him.

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