CLARET IN NO MAN'S LAND : BOOKS

Despite his penchant for the aristocracy, Anthony Powell's Journals betray a bit of Pooter

THIS is a hefty book to cover just four years in the life of an septuagenarian. Does Anthony Powell get out much? What can he possibly have to talk about? In fact Powell leads a life of such constant merrymaking that for long stretches these hardly read like the diaries of a writer.

We begin in 1982, the year which saw publication of the final volume of his Memoirs; these are less formal, more spontaneous. His wife Violet contributes a foreword in the manner of Jennifer's Diary, introducing key family members and one of the hobbyhorses that will feature so prominently in the text. "Interviewers invariably insist on bringing a photographer with them, although repeatedly told that photographs of the highest quality of the author of A Dance to the Music of Time are to be had in abundance," the chatelaine of The Chantry notes sternly. During the course of the Journals, Violet and Anthony celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary, making Powell perhaps the only English novelist who is nice to his wife.

Although O, How the Wheel Becomes It! and Powell's last novel The Fisher King take shape over these years, the Journals aren't a repository for by-products of the creative process. Powell loafs elegantly in the no man's land of the artist whose best work is long finished: bothered by journalists, scholars, undergraduates, programme-makers, bibliographers and fans, pestered with prizes and honours. There isn't much room for more than the most casual reflections, but these can be poignant. Interviewed for the umpteenth time about George Orwell, Powell is asked "if Orwell would have enjoyed all the tremendous to-do about his work at the moment. I said I thought not... Afterwards I could not make up my mind whether that was the right answer." It's a melancholy moment: the aged author in the toils of the myth-machine. "Of course impossible to guess what anyone, let alone George, might think after 30 years or more," he wearily admits when drawn into a hypothetical discussion about Orwell's politics.

A visit to a sadly diminished friend provokes gloomy reflections on mortality, but Powell is not given to night thoughts. As a pernickety record of genteel gatherings, the book has its fascination, and some pen-portraits will no doubt dot biographies for years to come. The exotic figure in knee-breeches, head to toe in purple, who turns out to be Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury; the Princess of Wales with her "hard look, slightly spoiled by a somewhat jutting chin", sitting next to the "utterly unreadable" Laurie Lee; ghastly old Harold Macmillan, conversationally undead and forever seeking new victims to bore; and Mrs Thatcher's tip for dealing with wandering hands under the dinner-table: grip and remove the offending mitt with the firm yet seductive words, "Perhaps one day. Not now."

At such moments, when we glimpse an unfamiliar Thatcher, clubbable, cultured and (frighteningly) even somewhat erotic, Powell's mostly petty and snobbish concerns are forgiven. His tiresome preoccupation with people's origins is only partly explained as a harmless fondness for genealogy. It is with a certain relief that after twice noticing and admiring Roger Daltrey in stage productions, he can file him, however tentatively, as "a Lincolnshire name, some of them connected with my mother's family, I think". His habitual preference for the upper classes extends to his appreciation of literature: he prefers Aubrey to Pepys, on the grounds that the former is "a gent, even if a broken-down one". And it's interesting to note that the novelist Ian McEwan is "apparently the son of a Sergeant Major at Pirbright".

Elsewhere Powell's obsessive mental cataloguing leads him into thickets of social interpenetration: "Robin Campbell, with his third wife Susan... he first married Mary Ormsby-Gore (now Mary Mayall), left [her] for (Lady) Mary Erskine (...she is always referred to as "Lady Mary" by Mary Mayall, a mere Hon)." Powell gets very cross about misapplied titles; at an Oxford dinner he muses vis--vis 13th-century college founder Lady Dervorguilla Balliol, "perhaps more correctly Dervorguilla, Lady Balliol, though she was a considerable heiress in her own right".

A moment of Pooteresque dismay occurs with the arrival of a "rather depressing" chap who turns up for tea one day and claims they are related. "One of the thorns in the crown that genealogists must wear without flinching is genealogical intrusion, sometimes by one's own family," mutters Powell, darkly. Something of this froideur must have rubbed off on the humble interloper: "I felt afterwards I should have been more hospitable. Lowering incident."

Joe Orton's "Diary of a Somebody" (even that arch anti-Pooter invoked George and Weedon Grossmith's classic with his title) kept coming to mind on reading this very different book, like a corrective or at least a complement. Orton, a nobody from nowhere, used his book to record his own bons mots and warning shots: "I'm from the gutter and don't you ever forget it, because I won't." Powell observes that elderly people don't live the sort of lives that make good fiction, and Orton's diary reads like brilliant fiction: it even has a plot, with its hints of progressive unhingement in his partner. Unlike Orton, Powell falls into Pooterisms with dotty obliviousness. An academic from Louisiana brings a bottle of Tabasco as a present, and Powell is as baffled as any High Court Judge by the outlandish item, though he adds: "The Tabasco lasted a long time, turning out extremely useful for flavouring." He frets and gnashes at suspected slights, complaining "One notes again and again what amounts to censorship (particularly in the US, no doubt generally in all journalism throughout the world) of any original idea in a piece," when a Sunday Telegraph report on religious cults is cut to remove the promised reference to a character in Dance.

The occasional moan about not being able to drink much and no longer enjoying social gatherings is belied by the frequency with which phrases like "Excellent party" and "Nice claret" round off the entries. The Journals, in the course of which their subject turns 80, are refreshingly free from ailments, though like Martin Amis, Powell has trouble with his teeth: "There is the business of the reconstruction of the lower jaw now in prospect." But not much is allowed to get in the way of the endless teas, dinners and luncheons.

Occasionally we get a phrase of exquisite precision and humour. The BAFTA offices in Piccadilly have "staircases going in all directions, like a stage set for a musical, or Aldwych farce, or the suites of rooms one wanders round in a dream". Asking if Malcolm Muggeridge is a humbug is "like asking if the actor who played Lear was really so old and upset". He is very funny on Larkin, "one of the most selfish men on earth", who "now spends all his time running up and down stairs with `plates of warmed- up spaghetti'. This should produce poems, one might think." He is amply possessed of a quality he praises in others: "a pleasant degree of malice about friends".

On rereading Benjamin Robert Haydon's auto-biography he comments: "most of it immensely boring, but occasional flashes, like Keats not being sober for six weeks on end". When Powell's occasional flashes include the unlikely picture of Margaret Thatcher reading Apollinaire, and when, far from being immensely boring there is, on the contrary, a hoot of some sort on nearly every page, it's impossible finally to dislike the man or his Journals.

8 Anthony Powell's `Journals 1982-1986' are published by William Heinemann, £20.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?