- 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 They came from provincial middle-class homes, their mothers beloved and doting, their fathers withdrawn professional men.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.
He had come up intending to edit Isis, as I had, but he possessed a shrewder knowledge of the way things worked. Unlike the Oxford Union and the political clubs, Isis wasn’t in those days even a nominally democratic institution. Since its foundation in 1892, the magazine had belonged to a printing firm whose proprietors, in the sixth week of each term, appointed a new editor on the advice of the current editor. Jeremy explained to me that talent and hard work, while desirable, were not in themselves enough. Working together, we could make ourselves indispensable to the paper and thus ensure that we both became editors. The proposition was attractive. I readily seized on it, and thus began one of the most valuable relation ships of my life. Because Jeremy sought neither my body nor my soul, I never recognised anything Faustian in our dealing, though the uneven friendship in The Third Man between the dim writer Holly Martins and his demonic school-friend Harry Lime has subsequently struck me as echoing our own relationship.
Any competent biographer ends up knowing his subject’s life far better than do any of the individual witnesses on whose testimony he has drawn, and inevitably he tells them much they didn’t know. Faulks, for example, suggests that two people had major roles in directing Jeremy away from the academic career for which (as the son of the Yorkshire educationalist John Wolfenden, former headmaster of Uppingham and Shrewsbury, and Vice-Chancellor of Reading University from 1950 to 1963) he seemed destined, towards the world of international journalism. The first was Neal Ascherson, two years ahead of him at Eton, a formidable intelligence, who went to Cambridge and subsequently became a distinguished reporter on Eastern European affairs and an influential left-wing thinker. The second was myself, though I believe that Jeremy, an anti-Etonian in the George Orwell mode, was re-inventing me as an image of his ideal self. He had spent two years as a naval officer on the intensive inter-Services Russian course, cut off from normal life. I came from a lower middle-class background, had encountered my first Etonians at Officer Cadet School (most of them distressingly boring, snobbish and stupid), had been an officer with the Parachute Regiment, and arrived at Oxford in contradictory mode as an abstemious churchgoer and a subscriber to Freedom, the anarchist weekly. By the end of the year, partly under Jeremy’s influence, I was a heavy-drinking agnostic, who retained his subscription to Freedom.
Over the next year I became involved with Jeremy on all fronts of my undergraduate life. In the autumn of 1955 we became joint features editors of Isis; the next term he became editor, and I succeeded him in the summer of 1956. I was elected to the Committee of the University Film Society in 1955, and he joined the following year, and while he never took part in Union activities he encouraged me to do so, often providing me with jokes and ideas when I spoke from the floor at the Thursday-night debates. During that time we worked on turning Isis into what we thought of as a tough, professional journal and devised the slogan ‘Isis is written for the Don in the Street, not the Old Lady in North Oxford’. We collaborated on parodies of Time, Punch and Reader’s Digest, and on a scabrous Christmas pantomime called A Pumpkin Named Desire: A Seasonal Perversion in Three Indecent Acts. We also wrote the dialogue for a satirical movie about Oxford life called Folly Bridge, which starred Jeremy’s cousin and closest confidante, Sally Hinchcliffe (a classics scholar at Somerville), and brought its director and producer scholarships to, respectively, the UCLA film school and IDHEC in Paris. Jeremy later wrote of the script having been produced ‘under ideal working conditions – a locked room, a bottle of gin and a typewriter’.
Unlike his father, who had represented Oxford and England at hockey, Jeremy had no interest in sport and I have no recollection of him ever taking any form of exercise. But his cast of mind was playful and the Fifties were a time to exercise it, when everyone was reading Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship and Lifemanship, books that treated life as a comic contest for which people devised or divined concealed rules. It was the decade, too, of what one might call ludic taxonomy. From Arthur Koestler’s 1942 essay we learnt to divide our friends into yogis and commissars; from Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 book to characterise the world’s thinkers as hedgehogs or foxes; from Nancy Mitford two years later to distinguish between U and non-U. From across the Atlantic came David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, which taught us to separate modern man into the two camps of the inner directed and the other-directed.
This way of observing the world suggested that there were no natural laws, that nothing was absolute or determined. Instead men imposed their own rules – which obviously fitted in with, and justified, Jeremy’s homosexuality, a deliberate challenge to a false social and natural order. One of his favourite books was The Great Gatsby, the story of a self-constructed man; he once signed a piece ‘Jaye Wolfstein’, a pseudonym intended to evoke both Jay Gatsby and his Jewish underworld associate Meyer Wolfsheim. (Jeremy claimed to be partly Jewish on his father’s side and liked to be called J or Jay.) Another character who fascinated him was Whitaker Chambers, the brilliant Communist agent who left the Party, became an influential writer on Time magazine and attained notoriety when he named Alger Hiss as a spy in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. I recall him walking down the High Street casting a movie version of Chambers’s highflown autobiography Witness from Oxford characters, starting with Maurice Bowra as Chambers.
The interest in Chambers was part of a general fascination with espionage, double agents and the underside, at once glamorous and sordid, of respectable diplomacy. Jeremy was the first person I came across who admired Ian Fleming, and I still have an edition of Live And Let Die that he plucked from the ex libris shelf of Boots Library for a shilling in 1956 and presented to me on the spot.
Two other things were in the air – death and drink, which in Jeremy’s case went hand in hand. Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus appeared in English in 1955, and its discussion of the absurdity of existence and the rational option of suicide had great appeal. In the same year Waiting for Godot and the first plays of Ionesco crossed the Channel and the terms ‘commitment’ and ‘absurd’ entered into common usage. One of Jeremy’s heroes was the war photographer Robert Capa, who had been blown up by a mine in Indochina in 1954 at the age of 41. The ideal life, we often joked, would have been to have spent the Twenties drinking with Fitzgerald and then been killed in Spain alongside John Cornford and Julian Bell. Jeremy fell immediately for James Dean on seeing East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause. A few years later he was even more passionately drawn to the Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski, who like Jeremy wore dark glasses and walked around beneath a dazzling cloud of weltschmerz.
Like many of his contemporaries Jeremy started to drink heavily during his National Service. His sexual promiscuity began at the same time – but to this he had a more cynical approach. He did not believe in romantic love and rather despised those who did, especially gays. I particularly recall two men associated with Isis who fell in love with him and, after those little flings Jeremy called ‘bunnymoons’, were cruelly rejected and excluded from his life. One of them, who later became an eminent Africanist and died of Aids, came to see me in tears, seeking an explanation for such cruelty and asking me to mediate. I once went around with a girl who I thought was devoted to me, then discovered that she was really smitten with Jeremy and was using me to be close to him. Her revelation led to an acrimonious break-up, a situation that Jeremy thought highly amusing.
Cultivating his public persona, Jeremy played down his dedication to scholarship and exaggerated his commitment to journalism. Faulks correctly quotes me as saying that Jeremy claimed you got a First between five and seven in the afternoon, and infers from this a belief that two hours of concentrated work a day would suffice. In fact, this was a piece of advice given to Jeremy by his father and I have always understood it in a symbolic, carpe diem sense – that you should employ to good effect those hours that other undergraduates traditionally waste, by, for example, taking tea in the afternoon and gathering at the bar before dinner. Faulks, in my view, overestimates the distance between Jeremy and his father. In those days an unhappy childhood was a sine qua non for a serious writer, and in sharing this view Jeremy was the same as any of us. But more often than not he spoke warmly of his father, took his advice seriously, and knew that Sir John (as he became in 1956) took a close interest in what he wrote.
Looking back some forty years, I think he wrote better than any of us, in a style we aspired to. He judged himself by harsher standards than he brought to bear on others, and was my key writer when I came to edit Isis. I doubt if any Oxford undergraduate – and I include Peter Fleming and Kenneth Tynan – has written so wide-ranging, witty and intelligent a group of pieces over such a short period as Jeremy wrote for Isis that summer. They always turned up on time, perfectly typed and at the right length. Their subjects included T.E. Lawrence, John Gordon (for a series on contemporary journalists), homosexuals in fiction, novels by British academics, an analysis of the week’s news as reflected in the press, and a hard-nosed short story called ‘So I Never Saw Paris’.
Sebastian Faulks hasn’t drawn on this rich vein of material – surprisingly, because it throws light on Jeremy’s ideas. The story, for example, is narrated by a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking heterosexual, who adopts the persona of ‘a talented journalist on the verge of self-destruction, needing only the love of a good woman to pull him together’ and narrowly escapes marriage to a beautiful socialite. The essay on dons’ fiction (in which he criticised iris Murdoch, the author then of just two novels, for writing books that were ‘almost entirely disorganised: a strange fault for a philosophy don’) attracted an angry response from John Wain, who had worked under Jeremy’s father at Reading, protesting that he had never written about university life. His letter was followed by this comment, initialled ‘J.W.’:
Surely Mr Wain’s novels must be regarded as ‘Dons’ Fiction’ even if they were written during a year’s leave of absence in Switzerland. After all Mr Wain seems to find it difficult to tear himself away from the stationery of the University of Reading. And I notice that his alleged approval of provincial universities has already driven him to leave them.
Jeremy loathed Reading, and once remarked that only three interesting things had happened there – the incarceration of Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence losing the manuscript of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and the meeting between Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse in the Patrick Hamilton novel of that title. But he had a devoted reader there, and I believe that the most revealing piece Jeremy wrote that term was directed at Jack Wolfenden, who in 1954 had been appointed by the Home Secretary (the egregious, homophobic David Maxwell Fyffe) to head a Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. The Wolfenden Report, published in the early autumn of 1957, recommended making life easier for homosexuals acting in private and more difficult for prostitutes working in public; it didn’t become law until 1966, when Labour were back in power and Jeremy was dead.
In ‘A Sensitive Treatment’, his perceptive piece on the homosexual in literature, Jeremy wrote:
There is another aspect, though, of the homosexual in society, and that is his alleged irresponsibility. The ideal example of this is Daniel, in Sartre’s Les Chemins de la liberté, walking the deserted streets of Paris in 1940, as the Germans march in, and feeling neither patriotism nor rebellion, but a detached interest in what the Germans look like. Of course, this is a problem; why should the homosexual work or fight for the society that condemns him, why shouldn’t he just look after himself and grab what fun he can? But this is a temperamental matter rather than a specifically homosexual one. For every James I and Villiers there is a Hadrian and Antinous; for every lecherous costumier a hard-working schoolteacher. Few men work or fight out of abstract allegiance to society, and fewer still calculate first whether society gives them their money’s worth.
I saw Jeremy several times a week during our final year yet only one encounter still comes vividly to mind. When I emerged at midday from the Examination Schools, having completed my last paper in law finals, he was waiting for me on the steps. But instead of the traditional champagne he was holding a half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker. In the bright sun of that warm, cloudlessly blue June afternoon we walked up the High Street, passing the bottle back and forth, deliriously happy, decades of hope stretching out before us. One of us said: ‘The world is our ether.’
Over the next year, when Jeremy was with the Times and I was in America, we corresponded regularly. But a distinct chill entered our relationship when I got married in the States and on my return to England went to work for a daily newspaper in Bristol. I had not lived out the role of reckless, undomesticated foreign correspondent in which he had cast me and he made a desperate attempt to distract me from the straight and narrow. Late in 1958, he arranged for me to be invited to work on a magazine in Beirut (a journal I subsequently suspected of having Intelligence connections), but being reluctant to desert my pregnant wife I rejected the offer. However, when in the spring of 1959 I came to London as a producer for BBC Radio, he offered me a room in a house in Oakley Street, Chelsea that he shared with several friends. (The £25 rent was split between as many people as spent the week there.) Nobody would have dared invent such a ménage for a TV sit-com. The cast, in addition to Jeremy and myself, included the son of the former head of British Army Intelligence, who had been studying accountancy for years without sitting an exam and whose great-grandfather had fought at Waterloo (the family was noted for late marriages); a cheerful lawyer, who was to be Deputy Secretary of the Law Society; a one-legged member of the diplomatic service and future ambassador; and, at various times, a future editor of New Society and the wonderfully louche Kit Lambert, who was to create and manage The Who and go to an early grave as a drug addict. Several pieces of broken furniture (which had to be paid for when the house was vacated) were casualties of some over-enthusiastic rehearsals for John Arden’s Live Like Pigs, which were held there when the director, Anthony Page, couldn’t find room at the Royal Court.
Faulks refers several times to what one friend of Jeremy’s calls ‘the Wolfenden Paradox’, the desire both to be a rebel and to conform. It could have applied to any of us, but in 1959 it described pretty accurately the way Jeremy put on a suit to go to work in the highly respectable world of Printing House Square (that summer he was appointed the Times’s night news editor) and after hours cruised for sex, a physically and legally dangerous pastime. He remained good company, a witty, aphoristic conversationalist. But his manner struck me as more brittle than it had been at Oxford, his drinking was heavier (his immediate reaction to the Budget was to calculate the effect it would have on his liquor bill), and he didn’t seem to be doing any writing. I came across a publisher’s contract for a book on post-war politics that had been pushed into the back of a drawer, and there was at least one other such contract. I put him on the air at Bush House, but though he was fluent enough he came across as a rather colourless, unenthusiastic performer and my colleagues were not encouraged, as I had hoped, to launch him on a broadcasting career.
By 1959, a certain idealism and hope for change had been aroused in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis of 1956. Some had great faith in the New Left that had been created by former members of the Communist Party and newly awakened socialists, and a friend of Jeremy’s became manager of the Partisan, the café-bar where the New Left gathered. The devastating Devlin Report on the fake emergency in Nyasaland, published in the summer of 1959, and the exposure of the appalling conditions of suspected Mau-Mau detainees in Hola Camp in Kenya, were considered to be the final nails in the Tory coffin. We confidently expected that a Labour government led by Hugh Gaitskell would be returned in October. When Macmillan won a landslide victory, a serious depression descended on us all. An atmosphere of cynicism sprang up that was to crystallise in the so-called Satire Boom of the early Sixties. The week after the election I moved out of Oakley Street and thereafter saw Jeremy at widely separated intervals, especially after he went to Paris for the Times in 1960, and then to Moscow for the Daily Telegraph the following year, and on to Washington in 1964. Like everyone else, I was astonished and puzzled by his sudden marriage to a woman ten years his junior, a nanny working for a British diplomat in Moscow. I had planned to see him during a visit to the States in the autumn of 1965, but didn’t feel up to the drinking bout that lay in wait and so abandoned a planned stopover in Washington. Two months later, just after Christmas 1965, he was dead.
Conflicting accounts of his death circulated – a binge that went too far, a fall while drunk, suicide. Much later, rumours began to circulate that he was being manipulated by our SIS, the CIA and the KGB, and that he had possibly been murdered. The first substantial account of Jeremy’s involvement with the espionage business appeared in print 20 years after his death in Phillip Knightley’s The Second Oldest Profession. It proved pretty accurate, and has been considerably fleshed out by Faulks. Possibly during National Service, certainly by his time at Oxford, Jeremy had been approached by British Intelligence and no doubt gladly became a player in the Great Game. On a trip to Russia as a student in 1956, he was targeted by the Russians as a potential agent of influence through his homosexuality and his odd combination of romanticism and cynicism. After that first visit to the USSR he wrote a sympathetic review of Tom Driberg’s biography of Guy Burgess for Isis, causing one friend to say: ‘Guess who the next defector is going to be.’
In Moscow he became friends with Burgess, an extreme and grisly example of the Etonian as colourful rebel. Like many people of his generation, reared on Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, Jeremy found failure more interesting than success. He was set up in Moscow by the KGB, with the usual photographic evidence of his depravity, though this can scarcely have been a surprise as he never concealed his homosexuality or apparently modified his promiscuous conduct. By all accounts he immediately informed the SIS of the situation (though, fearing the sack, not his strait-laced employers at the Telegraph) and they encouraged him to go along with the KGB. What began as a game must have seemed like a nightmare, and he appears to have been cruelly manipulated by the Intelligence Services of three countries. Faulks finds no reason to doubt, however, that the actual cause of his death was ugly and prosaic – liver failure due to acute alcoholism. The inference is that the terrible new pressures had brought about an even greater consumption of booze, though as before he proved capable of functioning professionally despite being almost perpetually drunk.
There is much that remains puzzling about Jeremy’s life and death. And not just things like why he got married, or what secrets of any value he could ever have been privy to. There is little doubt that he failed to foresee the consequences out there in the so-called real world of his fascination with espionage as a comic ritual and of his open profession of gayness as a political gesture of defiance against bourgeois conformity. There is another way of looking at his life, however, which I put forward only tentatively, and that is to see Jeremy as acting out what many people believed, but didn’t dare, or care, to practise. Turning recklessness into a philosophy and a style, he behaved as if life truly was absurd, as if suicide was a serious option, and nothing really did matter beyond a certain point. What others see as the proper subject for a book or play, he made the improper subject of a life.