Every Rusty Hint

Ian Sansom

  • Anthony Powell: A Life by Michael Barber
    Duckworth, 338 pp, £20.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 7156 3049 0

I happened to read Michael Barber’s rather off-beat and amusing biography of Anthony Powell while waiting for a delayed easyJet flight from Stansted to Belfast and enduring all the usual privations of short-haul, low-cost flying: being shunted from gate to gate, and from sky-blue-upholstered departure lounge to sky-blue-upholstered departure lounge; and being jostled, and jostling, on this occasion in the very burly company of the young men and women of the Scottish Gymnastics Display Team, and an elderly couple, both in wheelchairs, and a man tattooed from neck to wrist, and possibly lower, who was working his way loudly through a large box of Quality Street. Also pressed up close together at Gate 82 were an ugly ginger-haired man with ‘MINGER’ emblazoned across his T-shirt, a dozen or so crying infants, in and out of buggies, and three teenage girls with scraped-back hair who were sharing a Walkman and a can of Diet Coke and, as the afternoon wore on, started to play ‘I Spy’. ‘B.’ ‘B?’ ‘B.’ ‘Beer?’ ‘No.’ ‘Beard?’ ‘No.’ ‘Bollocks?’ Laughter all round. The teenagers and the minger and the tattooed man and the wheelchair couple and the Scottish Gymnastics Display Team may remember me as the little, flushed, balding fellow in jumbo cords with egg mayonnaise in his beard, alternately squatting and standing, clutching a cup of coffee and trying to read Anthony Powell: A Life, the book with the black and white photo of a grumpy man in tweeds on the cover. How Powell would have hated it, I thought, while squatting; all of us going about our little lives in the cramped, blue-upholstered domestic departure lounges of this world. For like most people with few affinities with and very little actual knowledge of or even interest in the lives of the English upper-middle classes, and with the usual number of chips on my shoulder, I had assumed that Powell was a prig and buffoon who wrote the kinds of book preferred by men who marry each other’s sisters and have housekeepers to look after the place in the country while they’re working up in town during the week, and who wouldn’t countenance a low-cost, short-haul easyJet flight from Stansted to Belfast.

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