Behind a wall of worship

Journals 1987-1989 by Anthony Powell, Heinemann, pounds 20

Twenty pounds, one feels, is a lot of money for a valetudinarian novelist telling one what he had to eat, which of his friends has died or come for lunch, and for using the expression "one feels" like royalty. But then Anthony Powell, he feels, is royalty. The book-jacket carries pinches of incense, promising "hours of impure pleasure", "infinitely re-readable", "enfolds with relaxed raffishness, full of good stories". Like this?

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

    £35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

    £50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor