Sebastian Faulks is an excellent novelist, but canny about reviewers. He guessed from the outset that they would pounce on this book as a 1990s version of Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly's lugubrious account of gifted Etonians coming to grief in a previous age. To protect himself, Faulks refuses to draw any grand moral from his "Three Short Lives". He merely writes, in an author's note, that "young or short lives are more sensitive indicators of the pressure of public attitudes than lives lived long and crowned with honours".
That is a typical novelist's remark. There is no reason why a short life should reveal more about society than a long one. What Faulks is really saying is that the lives of those who die young take a form which is instantly attractive to writers. All that precedes such a death seems to lead up to it. This is an illusion, but Sebastian Faulks has the skill to make us read the deaths of Kit Wood, Richard Hillary and Jeremy Wolfenden as the denouement of their lives.
This is not a review, and neither is it a rude attempt to rewrite somebody else's book. But Jeremy Wolfenden - the only one of the fatal three I knew - developed some ideas which I still find fascinating and disturbing, and they are worth adding to Faulks's account. We were both natural exam- passers (a talent with its own penalties). We were both "Collegers" at Eton, which meant that we were scholarship boys from backgrounds rather less wealthy and grand than those of the majority in the school outside our building. And as adolescents, we grew up in the first post-war years, among the heroic echoes of conflict.
The first of our models was the Maquis. Little was understood in Britain then about the ironies of collaboration and resistance. Anyway, it was not the achievements of underground struggle that interested us. It was the style. All over Europe, we fancied, unshaven men and beautiful girls had carried their weapons through forests and across mountain ranges to blow up railway lines, ambush convoys or execute traitors. They no longer had homes, possessions or families, but slept in caves or shepherds' huts. They lived off the land.
Their style could be expressed as a Maquisard ethic: travel light, put down no roots. This seemed to offer a set of rules for life. In the school Cadet Corps, we formed a "People's Section" which elected its corporal, saluted with the clenched fist and moved in partisan single-file. This was just fun, of a pimply kind. But the Maquisard rules remained with some of us, including Jeremy. They forbade commitment. They warned us to be ready to move at a moment's notice, to remain moral nomads.
Later, Jeremy thought of his own homosexual hunting expeditions and his promiscuity as "Maquisard" activity. This baffled me at the time, although I understand its logic more clearly now. In me, the partisan ethic remained even after I had carried guns in earnest during my military service, and made it hard to understand contemporaries who joined parties or professions, bought houses or started families. For both of us, the Maquisard rules were probably the real reason why we became journalists.
At one level, we were just rebellious boys looking for an ideology of independence. But these were also the years when Existentialism was powerful. Without realising what we were up to, we too were trying to identify and obey the laws of our inmost nature as individuals, to "do what we were" and act out our subjective identities.
A few years passed. Our contact was mostly through letters, and in this correspondence Jeremy began to work out a sequel to Maquisardism. This was the theory of "deliberate under-achievement".
The world into which we had been thrown (the hypothesis began) was a pretty fourth-rate environment. It was not exactly beneath our notice because it provided all kinds of sensual gratifications - in Jeremy's case, mostly boys and booze. But the standards this world set were plainly an insult to our intelligence. How, then, should we respond to it?
This fourth-rate world invited us to do our best, to achieve all that our talents promised. Society assumed that people would and should strive to the utmost to "realise their potential". This implied that the strivers accepted the standards and rewards of this society as unthinkingly as jockeys accept the National Hunt rules and the glory of Gold Cups. But what if they rejected those standards?
This discussion of ours took place a few years before Tony Richardson brought out his 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. In that film, a working-class boy (Tom Courtenay) is winning a race when he suddenly slows down and lets his rival pass him to the tape - in order to show his contempt for the race itself.
This was exactly what we meant. To "give of one's best" was to surrender to the expectations of those whose values we despised. It was to abandon identity. So it followed that the true "existential act" was to turn in a mediocre performance and to do less than one could: deliberate under- achievement.
We played a bit with this concept. I remember (I was working in Bonn at the time) coining a mock-solemn German term for it: absichtliche Unterleistung. But this was something which I could not practise. I was not strong enough, or my drive to existential self-liberation was not strong enough, to write even duller stories than usual. Jeremy Wolfenden, however, was a tougher character.
He became the Moscow correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. Everything was in his favour: he spoke Russian, possessed "a brilliant mind" and could write a dry, springy prose like his friend A J P Taylor. It was an eventful, sometimes hair-raising time to be in the Soviet Union. During Jeremy's tenure, the Berlin Wall was built, the Cuba crisis exploded and Orleg Penkovsky went on trial as a British agent. And yet I never read a really original or exciting article by Jeremy in all his three Moscow years. He produced competent, literate work: that was all. Deliberately, he was choosing not to achieve.
It is true that he was drinking like a fish and being blackmailed over his sex life by both the KGB and MI6. But good journalists can produce marvellous work when drunk and terrified, and those troubles were not the explanation. Neither was boredom with the constraints of journalism. Jeremy Wolfenden wrote nothing literary or academic either, and when he died of drink at the age of 31, he left posterity no more than some letters and memories of his conversation. He lived and died by his carnal appetites, but intellectually he was a Trappist monk.
The arrogance of all this, looking back, is amazing. We intended to keep our pearls from the common swine. But before beginning to under-achieve, we would pass our exams - just to show the world what it was going to miss. There was, however, a snag which Jeremy had not anticipated, and which perhaps killed him. It is this: if you stop trying to do your best, you stop dead.Reuse content