Smartiboots' horizons

CONNOLLY: A Life by Jeremy Lewis, Cape pounds 25
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"We Shall miss him horribly," said Cyril's first headmaster at St Christopher's in Bath, "he is of course a boy quite out of the ordinary." And so he was, as his prep school in Eastbourne, St Cyprion's - immortalised in Orwell's Such, Such Were the Joys - soon discovered. He never quite knew whether to ape the snobbery of his peers and suck up to Flip, the head's terrifying wife, or to rebel and rely on his charm and natural intelligence to get him through. His two chums were Orwell (Intelligence) and Cecil Beaton (Sensibility) - he developed his mania for categorisation early. But as far as orthodoxy was concerned he was "a waste-paper basket for wrong ideas". By "wrong" they meant sex, art and hedonism, Connolly's holy trinity, each noun trumping the other in a crescendo of defiance of everything that Bath and Eastbourne stood for.

He was born in 1903 and largely brought up by a doting grandmother. Father was a soon-to-be-retired major, mother an absence, but one with distant Irish Ascendancy blood in her veins, as a result of which Cyril forever associated England with middle-classness and Ireland with his rightful but mislaid heritage of riches, castles, and Celtic dreams.

As Jeremy Lewis recounts in this sympathetic study, at Eton Connolly rebelled against the philistinism and brutality, but also made sure that he got into the elite of Pop, and soon "knew by heart the literature of five civilisations". Certainly he read like a bloodhound, developed excruciating crushes on other boys, lived like a gent, running up bills and an appetite for fine wines, and generally wallowed in all those self- indulgences which fed the Theory of Permanent Adolescence he spells out in Enemies of Promise. When I first read this, the greatest of his minor masterpieces, I wondered if I'd been living on the same planet as this prodigy of learning and self-assurance, who sounded like a cross between Gibbon, Catullus and the Great Gatsby. All my notions of being grown- up and well-read vanished at a blow; I was an irredeemable guttersnipe who would never know his Archilocus from his Callimachus. Best start hardening my palms for the shovel and grow a tuggable forelock.

He had one of his three copies of The Satyricon "bound in black crushed levant" so that he could read it in chapel during the sermon, disguised as a bible. He also made his first trips abroad to France and Belgium and fell in love with Provence, "the complete south ... cradle of my civilisation". A history scholarship took him on to Balliol but Oxford only gave him "a sense of living in a sequel". His Brideshead had been College and Pop, hot toast and chiselled Latin, all over at 18. At Oxford he buried himself in the byways of medieval footnotes and made ever-changing lists of his friends, like an old lady tampering with her will.

Lewis says he left Eton "without having masturbated", on what authority I can't imagine. For all the hothouse passions at school and college ("since I wrote I have become clean gone on Nigel again. It's really too awful") it is difficult to work out whether common-or-garden sex ever reared its plebeian head or whether it was all a matter of fervent looks, pressed hands and Regency love-letters. Mentors like Sligger Urquhart and Maurice Bowra, one a maiden aunt, the other a camp bully, confirmed him in his distaste for "the wiles of the daughters of Eve".

He moved on from the dreaming spires with an uninspired Third and debts of pounds 200, but with Sligger's assurance, to whomever it might concern, that he was "a gentleman of high character and perfectly trustworthy". Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Peter Quennell, Harold Acton, Brian Howard and other gilded contemporaries went on into the aesthetic trenches; Cyril, after a spell tutoring in Jamaica, and acting as a special constable during the General Strike of 1926, got himself in with Logan Pearsall Smith and Desmond McCarthy, and started reviewing for the New Statesman. Smith started him on aphorisms ("The French do not understand cooking - only good cooking") and McCarthy suggested how a living might be made from the coarse fishing of other men's souls as they swarmed upriver to spawn in the Spring and Autumn lists.

As Lewis points out, Connolly never stopped mocking the bookish world he came to personify, nor bewailing his own under-achievement. (Larkin, not surprisingly, was a huge fan.) The figure he obsessively identified with was Narcissus. "When I found a tune I liked I made it last as long as possible. I treated all the arts as a Narcissus pool; when I found no reflection I was absent-minded and bored." What never ceases to amaze us now about the literary middlemen of those days is how they contrived to fund a flat in London, a cottage in Sussex (with slaveys to cook and clean) and holidays abroad on the strength of a little editing, reviewing, and occasional outburst of purple prose and/or Georgian verse. Connolly spent much of his life in search of that perfect habitat "where Society and Bohemia meet", ie where the nobs would lay on hot baths and gourmet meals and the lads could get on with gazing adoringly at their own genius. If Berenson and the Sitwells could manage it, not to mention Cecil Beaton and Kenneth Clark, why not Palinurus (his pen-name) too, before the rough waves of the proletariat washed him and his kind overboard?

Jeremy Lewis's authorised version of events allows him to quote from a great many of Connolly's letters, which round out our knowledge of his chronic anxieties about love and fame - he liked to have at least two women to be in love with at any one time - but don't substantially alter the well-known outlines of his career. The letters themselves, like Pope's, are charming, devious and fatally in love with the idea of posterity.

There was a first marriage, to Jean Bakewell (English culture for American money), and meetings with Hemingway and Joyce, who helped him climb out of his sub-Georgian aestheticism; publication of The Rock Pool, his one and only novel ("the sadness that falls like a dew from pleasure..."); reporting the Spanish Civil War, where he became an Anarchist, though perhaps the only one "for whom a bottle of champagne or a good suit has an almost mystical quality"; Enemies of Promise in 1938, which conceivably fathered the whole modern trend towards criticulture (Flaubert's Parrot, U and I, etc); the ten years of literary-magazine editorship at Horizon ("I believe in god the Either, god the Or, and god the holy Both" - his classic editor's policy-statement); two more marriages, and late fatherhood; classic collections of parodies and reviews such as The Unquiet Grave and The Condemned Playground, and the lifelong Sisyphean labour of rolling a thousand words uphill every week for the Sunday Times.

By now he was fat and famous, intrepid survivor of innumerable literary and sexual wars ("He was a machine for slowly breaking hearts", he once said of himself), England's "last literary gent", "Smartiboots" to malicious Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford but a loveable inspiration to a host of young readers and writers who valued his sloth and honesty above the various treasons that English literati are prone to, such as insularity, the short view and mutual grooming.

He professed to hate the Romantics but actually had much more in common with Rousseau than with Virgil or Horace, whom he wore for effect, like one of his good suits. He found New York, on his first visit, "continuously insolent and alive", and that, for all his addiction to self-pity and objets d'art, was true also of his prose and epic bouts of self-analysis. "A person who is left," wrote this champion leaver of women, "is always psychologically groggy. Their ego is wounded at its most tender part and forced back on the appalling separations and rejections of infancy."

Poor Cyril, as he often referred to himself in his canonical phase, alternated between squalor in Oak Cottage, Sussex, with the doughty Barbara Skelton, who gave better than she got, and stuffing himself like a Roman emperor when billeted on his wide and sympathetic network of rich friends. The Skelton episode, and the many complicated affairs that preceded and succeeded it, are a whole Dance to the Music of Time in themselves, plus several unwritten Restoration plays.

"What is there to say about someone who did nothing all his life but sit on his bottom and write reviews?" Connolly remarked of his hero Sainte- Beuve. Lewis manages to say 600-pages'-worth, relishing every last tendril and snake-bite of gossip - the footnotes are a feast of Grub Street's literary lore, worthy of an Isaac D'Israeli - and grudgingly offering up an occasional date, though not so as you'd notice. The Connollyesque will love it. I had mixed feelings, finding Cyril nicer in his books than in this bulky life, one part Palinurus and one a rather soggy Mr Punch.

He wanted to be one of those "great, lonely, formal artists who spit in the eye of their century" but ended up as "a low-swung basset who hunts by scent and keeps his nose to the ground". Some thought him an English Edmund Wilson, others, such as Anthony Powell, that he had been "sent into the world to be talked about". As editor of Horizon he invented a new category - stuff good enough to accept but not actually to print. Cyril was good enough to print but not always to accept.