Lunching with Jilly Godfrey Hodgson on the pleasures of Anthony Powell
Saturday 28 January 1995
Anthony Powell Heinemann £20
One afternoon in November 1983 a man in his fifties, wearing a tam-o'-shanter, appeared at the door of Anthony Powell's house in Somerset, carrying a box, characteristically described by the novelist as about the size for half a dozen bottles of wine. Itproved to contain a clock, a gift to express admiration for Powell's masterpiece, the 12 volume sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. The man's own masterpiece was the clock, which he had made himself.
Not being a clockmaker, I cannot bring so appropriate a tribute to Powell's door. Instead, the small wreath I would bring - if I did not think he would be justifiably withering in his reception were one to trespass on his privacy - is to say that I was given the first volume of Dance for my 21st birthday; that I have read every book he has written more than once, in almost every case with enormous pleasure.
Times beyond number he has made me laugh aloud; and I do not know of any other living novelist of whom one can so often say that he has made me understand the way a certain world, a certain English world - very well, a certain upper-middle class English world - works.
And there, of course, is the rub. There are many intellectuals and many journalists in this country today for whom the Toryism of Anthony Powell's brand is anathema. Tory he certainly is in the fibres of his being, in profound as well as trivial ways. More trivially, he does seem to know a lot of Etonians. He is a self-confessed genealogist. He is perhaps a little too proud of the occasional glancing contact with a duke or two. Less trivially, perhaps, he finds Margaret Thatcher desirable, and even wrote a sexy verse of Apollinaire in a book he gave her.
The indictment stands, and it is a grave one. No question, Anthony Powell is a Tory. He is interested in genealogy; not, by the way, only in the descents of the Somersets and the Seymours, but above all of his ancestors, Welsh farmers and Lincolnshire squires. He does know a lot of people who went to Eton and Oxford; which is hardly surprising, since he was at Eton and Oxford himself.
My own view is that it is not really very reasonable to react with angry surprise when a writer, brought up in an undeniably upper-middle-class milieu (father a not particularly well-heeled army officer), connected by marriage with the peerage and now inhis eighties, publishes journals which refer to many well-connected friends and display some identifiably conservative reflexes.
Is Powell a snob? I have never met him, but to judge from his writings I would say that he was not - though he is certainly surer in his grasp of the world of generals and dons than in his instinct for the mores of the squat. Does he cherish his considerable success? He does. Do writers of a more left-wing persuasion avoid that failing? In my experience, most of them do not.
The more relevant question is whether, after 19 novels (much in them highly autobiographical) and four volumes of memoirs, it was worth publishing these journals. My answer is that on balance it was very much worth publishing them.
I say on balance for two reasons. One is that unfortunately they are studded with small and not so small errors. Robert S McNamara, for example, was not the United States Secretary of State, as he is once called, or Secretary for War: the office he held is called, euphemistically, Secretary of Defence. Taize (not Taise) is a place in Burgundy, not a person. The great Oxford French scholar is not Theodore Zelding, but Zeldin. The rival to NBC (now one of several rivals) is not CBC, which stands for "Canadian Broadcasting Corporation", but CBS, which has stood since the Twenties for "Columbia Broadcasting System".
The French-born American writer who calls himself anagrammatically Ted Morgan, was born not Sanche de Grammont but Sanche de Gramont. And so on, and on. Tannhauser is spelt with two Ns, not one, Mitterrand with not one R but two. It would be absurd to blame an octogenarian diarist for such slips; it is not unreasonable to blame his publisher, the more so because the diarist in question is not slow to pick others up for quite trivial errors.
The second reservation I have also concerns editing. Particularly in the earlier sections, there are really too many rather perfunctory accounts of meals which tell us little but the names of the hosts or guests and the chateau and year of the claret (nearly always claret) consumed. It is not that I want to hear less about these civilised-sounding symposia: I want more. Merely to learn that Lady Antonia Pinter, for example, or Jilly Cooper, or whoever it may be, has lunched at The Chantry can be frustrating for those of us who were not invited. What was said? What sallies of wit or profound apercus sprang from these literary lionesses or the accompanying diplomats and dons? Too often we are left to guess.
These small blemishes, however, do not detract from the pleasures of the Journals. One of these is the clues to the novels. It is interesting, for example, that Powell acknowledges that a major character in The Fisher King is drawn from a chance meeting with Harold Evans, the former editor of the Sunday Times and the Times, at a dinner party in Somerset. It is amusing to learn that Powell's brother-in-law, Lord Longford, who boasted of being the model for both Widmerpool and Erridge, was firmly told that he could not be the model for all the characters in a novel. There are other insights into the way a novelist, or this novelist, quarries his meetings, his memories and his reading for ideas and for dialogue that will give authenticity to a character. Powell's curiosity is almost unlimited, and the Journals are full of arresting observations, comparisons, anecdotes, not all of them of the drawing-room variety. I particularly liked the story, admittedly not vouched for as gospel, of Mrs Thatcher sayingto a good-looking Yugoslav who put his hand on her knee at a state dinner, "Perhaps one day. Not now."
Powell is at least as interested in sex as in class, though he certainly has an acute eye for the tactics and strategies, the defeats and victories, the ironies and unintended consequences, of social life. Class warriors may deplore, but those interestedin literature and the world will treasure, his hard-boiled comparison of the social climbing techniques of five of his friends: Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman, Peter Quennell and the painter Adrian Daintrey. (Cyril Connolly he cruelly omits from this study on the grounds that he was not successful enough to be part of it). At the same time the kindness he shows to Daintrey, fallen on hard times, and ending his days like Thackeray's Colonel Newcombe in The Charterhouse, suggests that under the sharp eye there is a soft heart.
Not the least of the merits of these Journals is moral. It is instructive, to use a good Tory word which might have suggested itself to Dr Johnson, to listen to an elderly man meeting the lengthening shadows of old age, the death of friends and the fading of a familiar word, with the help of a reasonable quantity of wine and an indomitably cheerful, if occasionally testy, spirit. If we all owe him a clock, that, surely, is worth a clock in itself.
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