Behind a wall of worship
Journals 1987-1989 by Anthony Powell, Heinemann, pounds 20
Saturday 11 May 1996
Monday 19 June: "In the afternoon V (Violet) and I watched on (Live) TV installation of King Juan Carlos of Spain as Knight of Garter in St George's Chapel Windsor. The weather was stewingly hot, perhaps accounting for Juan Carlos looking rather grumpy. I should have been sorry to have had to mill about in Garter robes on such a day, but Frank (Longford) who was present, nearly my twin, as spry as could be."
That entry is perfectly representative of the broad futility of too much of the journals. Yes it is nice that Powell (in his early eighties when this was written) has a pleasant life in his home in Frome, got an honour, and sees his friends. But we are asked to put up with the inconsequential working on the interminable.
There is minor chit-chat with the great; "Antonia asked if she and Harold Pinter could lunch here today after the wedding of Matthew Carr (son of Raymond Carr, Hispanicist don) and Lady Anne Somerset, the Beauforts' daughter. She said lunch here was one of her baits for Harold to come. I asked if Harold would wear a tailcoat."
There are the books read or being reviewed, problems with a dental plate, fine points of genealogy - would that barony have descended in the female line? - 16 pages of "congrats on CH", the companionship of honour which he distinguishes lovingly from vulgar knighthoods. "Ted Heath put forward a knighthood about a dozen years ago. I was always brought up to think a knight (especially being a knight's lady) rather an awful thing to be, even in the services only survived by reason of duty done." There would be "the problem of getting V called 'Lady Violet' rather than 'Lady Powell' without unduly complicating the issue for unsophisticated people."
One reads this irony-free twittering in awe and realises that we are in the presence of Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall, who found such solace in the Baronetage. It is Sir Walter with well-reasoned judgments on literature, but implacably Sir Walter.
All diaries are made up of small things - Thomas Turner buying supplies for his Sussex shop, Parson Woodforde wolfing cold fowl or Pepys scoring with the ladies of Westminster Hall. Clearly Powell who, very reasonably, tells us that he could not now write a novel, intends these to join the established diaries.
Perhaps they will, and they may do a fearful injury to his reputation. What shine out here are a steadily nourished self-esteem, a comic pride of acquaintance and antecedent and a taking seriously of things not worth taking seriously: "Journalist Marcus Scriven... rang, asking if I had been a member of The Grid, (a rather stuffy undergraduate club at Oxford). I have an idea I once put up, but matters never proceeded further, as the club was full of the least amusing Etonians, Wykehamists etc."
But little things in diaries can be endearing, as Powell truly is when he grieves for Trelawney his old cat and reproaches himself for letting others take Trelawney "to the vet to make an end of things". Trelawney has a moment of being cherished in death like "le petit Peloton", the little dog of Joachim du Bellay. But when a replacement is bought and as endearingly cherished, Powell spoils everything. The family providing the cat are called (amusingly I suppose) ''Snook''. So the kitten is to be called ''Snook''. The ear of the creative writer is closed to the odious condescension of this little act. Were he less full of himself, Powell would notice other people. But the book is as full of the esteem of other important or gently-bred people as the court circular ("which I have taken to scanning since my appearance there for my CH audience") is full of morning coats.
It is depressing. Of course there is intelligence and buzz here. The comments on an impressive reading - "with some skipping" he reads Richardson's Clarissa - are insightful. But he closes himself off behind a wall of worship tessellated from compliments, and by a worked-upon grandeur of manner which leaves him writing the way Brian Sewell talks.
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