Some Poets, Artists & 'A Reference for Mellors' by Anthony Powell

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The Independent Culture

To many of my own generation the key book reviewers who pontificated and shaped opinions every Sunday morning were Cyril Connolly and Philip Toynbee. Both had their points but for me Powell had the greater authority. He managed to write ex cathedra without ever losing his senses of both proportion and humour. Yes, one could smile at his obsession with genealogy but, when brought into play, it rarely failed to score a bull's-eye and doubtless discomfit the hapless author under review. Writing about Toulouse-Lautrec he says: "In the same way it is impossible to reduce beyond a certain point the chronicle of his father's eccentricities (Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec was a Lancer officer, by the way, not a Dragoon as the caption states under his photograph reproduced in the book.)" That short passage is not only a wonderful example of his Mandarin prose but a perfect encapsulation of Powell's sharp interest in lineage, aristocracy, military minutiae and accuracy in all the above subjects.

He could also be elegantly waspish as when he reviewed Wilfrid Blunt's biography of that engagingly preposterous eminent Victorian, G F Watts: "Watts's second marriage [his first had been to the teenage Ellen Terry] - this time a success - was equally risky. Then he was 69, the bride 36. The second Mrs Watts was one of those Victorian wives... who took complete charge of her husband, his art output, money, friends. It was characteristic of this sort of widow to insist that at the Watts Gallery, where all other postcards were a penny, those of her husband should be tuppence."

The book ends with Powell's squib "A Reference for Mellors", a satirical footnote to Lady Chatterley's Lover in which, years later, when Sir Clifford Chatterley has discarded his wheelchair, become a mining tycoon and, apparently, recovered his potency, Lady C is visited by a rather dim civil servant: "A friend of mine is looking for a suitable man for a post in one of the national game-preserves of the Dominions... It is quite an important position you know... coming under the Government and you will appreciate that one has to make the fullest enquiries". The man after whom he enquires is "Oliver Mellors. A Gamekeeper." Lady Chatterley at first professes not to have heard of him but soon recollects: "I am so glad he is in the way of getting a good job. He never seemed somehow very happy here." There follows an exchange of low key but highly charged doubles entendres that will make any reader of Lawrence's novel laugh out loud.

It's difficult to believe that this is the last Powell volume to appear, not least because it doesn't include his other notable satirical work, "Caledonia: A Fragment", an unclassifiable long poem in rhyming couplets, elegantly rude about Scotland, its citizens and its myths. There's also his unpublished introduction to a paperback re-issue of his old friend Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise. But that's another story.

To declare a personal interest I was for a happy few years Powell's publisher and, in consequence, appear occasionally in his three volumes of Journals in the 1990s. On my first visit to his house I'd taken a treasured bottle of claret from my own cellar. Many years later I came across the Journal entry for 18 June, 1983. "Tony and Marcelle Quinton came to dinner... conversation began hammer-and-tongs. We drank Rosenthal's magnum of Pontet-Canet '70, which he had given us, good if not staggering." If I believed in burial and gravestones I would be proud to have that as my epitaph. Some Poets etc is not quite staggering but it is a very good collection indeed, worth the price of admission for "A Reference for Mellors" alone and essential for all Powell aficionados.