Lunching with Jilly Godfrey Hodgson on the pleasures of Anthony Powell

Journals 1982-1986

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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?