Duffel coats at the Gargoyle Club

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The Independent Culture
In the Fifties

Peter Vansittart

John Murray £19.99

Decades are now regarded as time chopped into convenient lengths to make racks on which to hang a few songs, some fashions and a great many clichs. Peter Vansittart is ignorant of all such decadel recognitions. While he courteously mentions fading big bands and the duffel coat, his Fifties were his thirties, when, enthralled by the literary world of the period, he set out to become part of it. The labels which have since become tied to some aspects of it are meaningless to him. He was neither a young Turk nor a traditionalist - simply a chronically well-read gazer on the scene, a man of contents not of titles, with an ear and an eye for the kind of vignette which tells volumes about a person.

All the autobiographical side of his Fifties is confined to London, a city of blackened gaps and flower-filled ruins, of new architecture of a Scandinavian lightness, of Bohemia on the way out and the barbarians on the way in, of literary pubs and clubs and acres of talk. Vansittart is no Maclaren-Ross. He sees Soho but does not belong to it - or anywhere. He is the young schoolmaster, writing novels and seeing everything.

The first thing he does is to demolish the odd notion which has grown up about decades, that everyone who lived through them was somehow confined by their cultures, politics, etc. There were a great many Nineties- and-before people alive in the Fifties. Shaw died in 1950, Churchill (b. 1874) was still Prime Minister in 1955. Masefield (b. 1878) was Poet Laureate. But the Queen was a girl and the Festival of Britain was celebrated without cynicism. Vansittart doesn't say that to be young then was very heaven, but neither does he condemn the decade to a greyness eventually conquered by the colourful Sixties. He writes with a kind of witty gratitude for having grown-up as a writer during the post-war climate of optimism, but an optimism which had to cope with what was generally accepted as inevitable - Communist dictatorship, the Bomb, nuclear politics. This living dangerously was not frenetic as it was in the Twenties. The mood, perfectly caught here, was for many writers and artists a continuation of the philosophy of the Forties, a living to oneself which would benefit others. It was a hard-working, niggardly-paid time when money wasn't much discussed, and when radicals and progressives were setting out on what they knew would be a long and tough row to hoe. There were many excellent novels and a changing theatre. Vansittart moved between sophisticated drinking dens like the Gargoyle to teaching in the East End and his chapter "Youth" is a brilliant essay on liberal optimism versus the revolution.

He sees a change of mood in 1956, when the euphoria of the Coronation misted away before Hungary and Suez. Intellectual Britain marched with CND. Vansittart, however, confesses that his wife marched but he did not.

Vansittart is the civilised watcher, the receptive heart, the cataloguer of encounters and recorder of give-away lines. There are the expected bon mots: David Sylvester's verdict on John Bratby's paintings ("an enthusiastic mess'') or Dennis Abse's mother's remark to a Cardiff shop assistant: "My son is the Welsh Dylan Thomas." Gurus of the time, from Arnold Toynbee to Billy Graham, are looked at with weary suspicion - so much conviction, so little relevence. There is a fastidiousness in Vansittart, even an hauteur, which keeps him out of the fray. But the sight of the fray is meat and drink to him. He concludes his broad sweep of the Fifties with the following words: "Recalling these years, I have cited witnesses keener than myself. On the whole, I remember a pleasant enough decade, with the pitfalls and graces, atrocities and hopes inseparable from life in any period. More than once it made me mindful of Glubb Pasha's description of 11th- century Baghdad.''

His admiration was for Stephen Spender - "His poems did not explain the universe or demand Party allegiance, but revealed the world . . . for the inarticulate and the lonely'' - for Rebecca West, VS Pritchett and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and he re-creates the delight that was felt when such novels as The Violins of Saint-Jacques appeared. How he managed to keep his eyes on the street when they were so constantly on the page is a mystery, but for a bookish man there was not much that passed by in mid-century Britain which he failed to notice. His pages cascade with names. What a lot was going on - rather more than the Sixties cared to admit.