Obituary: Gilbert Phelps
Friday 18 June 1993
GILBERT PHELPS is best known for nine distinguished novels that he wrote between 1953 and 1975 and for his literary criticism which embraces several foreign literatures, chiefly Russian and African. He wrote An Introduction to Fifty British Novels 1600-1900 (1979) and his last book, A Short Guide to the World Novel: from myth to Modernism (1988), described the decline and fall of the novel in world literature.
Phelps was born in Gloucester of humble but homely origins, won a scholarship to a grammar school and from there another to Cambridge where he graduated with a double First in English. He was associated with the university as research student, lecturer and tutor from 1937 to 1939. From 1940 to 1942 he lectured for the British Council in Lisbon. On returning to England he became Senior English Master at Blundell's School in 1943.
When in 1947 I transferred from Broadcasting House, London, to the BBC, West Region, I was delighted to find myself sharing an office with Phelps who had joined two years earlier. I at once felt more at home with him than I had ever done with any colleagues in London and we became close friends for life. I had moved down to the West because I wanted to feel a more intimate relationship based upon place and regional culture with those who broadcast for me or with me. This Phelps had already achieved.
It seemed as if every distinguished or aspiring writer in the West Country knew him as a friend and was encouraged by him. By means of radio he enriched regional culture and made the public aware that among their fellow citizens they could meet people of all ages who were writing novels and poems, composing music, painting, forming cultural societies.
I recall one morning when I had not been long in the West, Phelps crossed over from his desk and put a rather scrappy piece of paper on mine. 'Read that,' he said in a soft, triumphant voice. It was a poem typed with a smudgy blue ribbon and signed by a poet, who lived in Launceston, I had never heard of, nor had Phelps. 'Isn't it good]' he exclaimed. He was right. It was by the now well-known poet Charles Causley who had spent the war as a rating in the navy. It later appeared in Causley's first collection of verse, Farewell Aggie Weston - a reference to the sailors' welfare association in Plymouth. Phelps broadcast it and Causley was later one of the four editors of my programme Apollo in the West - my poetry scout.
Phelps's feminine side led him to appreciate others affectionately - living and dead. It was this in conjunction with his intellect that also made him such an enjoyably readable literary historian. He entered into the heart of his subject. He loved the great novelists.
I soon learnt, to my dismay, that Phelps wanted to leave Bristol and go up to London. I have just been looking at a pamphlet published by the West Region when we were both producers there. There is a picture of Phelps with the caption 'a talks producer' but no mention of the literary and artistic programmes he was producing. Anyway it was probably important for Phelps to experience the metropolis. Although a senior producer on the Third Programme he soon, not to my surprise, left producing after some mysterious row, and became head of Staff Training.
Here he was able to imbue the trainees with his values before they were swallowed up in the great institution. In due course we both resigned, in my case when my arts programmes were axed to make the BBC more competitive in its battle with ITV. Regional autonomy was sacrificed to make the regions instruments of central policy. Phelps had seen this coming before I did. Our shop talk was gloomy, he criticising the West for its journalistic values and me criticising London for being 'up in the air'. I suppose we were both 'old- fashioned'.
However that may be, Phelps was more creative after he had sacrificed the material security of the BBC for the more stimulating insecurity of earning a living by writing. One novel after another appeared more or less yearly making him recognised as an outstanding contemporary novelist - and he made a niche for himself broadcasting for the World Service which is the most adult of the BBC's radio. His novel The Winter People (1963) was translated into several languages and highly praised by Graham Greene among others. Greene called it 'extraordinarily convincing' and said that 'it left in his mind a strong desire to visit the Andes, and that the lost valley really existed - a daydream for the nuclear age'. A 'mad' Colonel John Parr imagines he has discovered a tribe which lives in innocence and simplicity. One of his descendants is inspired by the story and decides his great-grandfather was not as mad as the other members of his family.
This theme of people isolated or trying to isolate themselves from the corruptions of Western civilisation in order to conserve the natural virtues of love and life in their engagement with the world, underlies most of Phelps's work. The head and the heart are always in dialogue. In The Centenarians, for example, a group of distinguished people are closeted together in a secret place in the hope of surviving nuclear war; in The Low Roads (1975) a successful middle-class cartoonist abandons his family to become a tramp. This enables him to have inner experiences that in his former orthodox life would have been denied to him. The Tenants of the House (1971) symbolises the different selves within each one of us as the tenants of a boarding house. There is always this haunting feeling that modern life has stolen both our hearts and our community life. It is not presented as it were philosophically but in the feelings involved in our relationships under different circumstances. One feels these novels might have been conceived as poems.
Gil was always a devoted family man with a strong civic sense. After he married Kay Batchelor, a writer and broadcaster of great exuberance and intuitive insights, he settled down into a loving and creative partnership albeit at times occasionally subject to exhilarating discords which dissolved into laughter. They knew they were meant for each other.
Our lives were frequently interwoven and we regarded it as 'a flaw in destiny' that we did not see more of each other. Kay and Gil bought my cottage in the Cotswolds and Gil died in the garden where we had so often talked together.
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