CLARET IN NO MAN'S LAND : BOOKS
Despite his penchant for the aristocracy, Anthony Powell's Journals betray a bit of Pooter
Sunday 12 February 1995
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.
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