BOOK REVIEW / Ten years of lunching

IN THE FIFTIES by Peter Vansittart, John Murray pounds 19.99

"THIS is not autobiography," Peter Vansittart says in his introduction to In the Fifties, and goes on to admit that he takes little interest in fashions or popular culture, and that his book is not "an academic survey" either, but an "impression of how life seemed to me". This is promisingly vague, like the title. Vansittart, the author of 25 novels, was 30 in 1950. His stories of being out to lunch for a decade ought to be interesting.

Vansittart was a member of the Wednesday Club, "a mild dictatorship" devoted to male drinking and gossip, founded by Philip Toynbee and Benedict Nicolson, of whom he gives an amusing portrait "intervening at a tense moment of the drama in those deep, magisterial tones, clearly heard throughout the theatre [ ... ] `Peter... I've decided not to invite Sonia to my party'." Vansittart also taught for a while at Burgess Hill, a progressive school, and gave talks in East London youth clubs, but his main concern was to become established as a writer. To this end he mixed in the right circles and got to know everyone - sort of. He keeps up a relentless flow of anecdotes about his friends and acquaintances, but despite the admission of a few minor gaffes, there is very little sense of Vansittart himself.

In the other parts of the book - chapters with portentous titles such as "Questions" and "Developments" - Vansittart becomes an absentee author. Pound, Eliot, H G Wells, Shaw, Churchill, Attlee, Auden, Priestley, Masefield, Graves, Waugh: drop in a name and out comes a paragraph. No, Vansittart was not intimate with any of these, nor with Einstein, Montgomery or Picasso. Dozens of "figures" file past, so dully and dutifully that I stopped at one point to check if they were actually in alphabetical order. It all smacks of make-weight, as do the illustrations, which are not the expected snaps of Peter's friends, but picture library shots illustrating great men or social phenomena, and accompanied by earnest text-book captions.

Most of Vansittart's stories have been acquired second- or third-hand, and seem worn smooth with re-telling. There are no footnotes, and many of the quotes are unattributed, lifted from print somewhere and used to insinuate recorded conversation by means of phrases like "he has said". This leaves little to contradict the impression that in the Fifties the aspiring author was a mere hanger-on at parties. The author seems disengaged, as if "this is not autobiography" simply because he couldn't summon the energy to make it so.

This sense of ennui is perceptible even in the style of the book, for instance in Vansittart's heavy reliance on making lists instead of writing consecutive sentences. "Recollections flicker past:" begins one paragraph, "Then there were ..." another, followed by lists of dozens of people or a seemingly aimless accretion of detail. This may indicate a magpie mind rather than lack of focus, but it turns up some choice Wallace Arnold moments, as with his recollections of Graham Greene: "For me, Greene remained remote, unknowable, beyond reach. Through the years, an occasional smile of recognition, a hand raised from across a crowded room, once a rueful shrug."

Did Vansittart keep a diary? Passages such as this one, about a taxi ride with Harold Nicholson, strongly suggest that he did: "we drove repeatedly round Hyde Park while he talked [...] about Lady Colefax, Lord Curzon (about whom he had written a book), Wilhelm II, Paris 1919, the influence of a classical education on good manners, his pre-war novel, Public Faces, in which he had fluked a prophecy of the atomic bomb, and much else." One can understand his reluctance to write a conventional memoir, but when "much else" is habitually left out, what's left is about as interesting as an index. In his own terms, Vansittart may have been a social success, but his book is certainly not a literary one.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam