Beauty seen, beauty sought – Beauty by Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh

Echo and Narcissus, by J W Waterhouse

BEAUTY SEEN, BEAUTY SOUGHT

Beauty, Stefan Sagmeister & Jessica Walsh, Phaidon: London, 2018, hb, 280pps

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” Keats effused in Endymion – “Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” His 1818 poem about the shepherd so handsome he was beloved by immortals was poorly received, and Keats would regret publishing it. But whatever about Endymion’s demerits, his outlook attests to a time when “beauty” was taken seriously, regarded as a worthy aspiration for artists and as subject of intellectual attention. 

For Keats, as for many others before him and since, beauty was associated intimately with the classical world as reflected in Arcadian myth, or represented by Ode-worthy Grecian urns and the astounding statuary then being salvaged from Levantine rubbish-tips and carted back to English country houses by Grand Tourists. But he was also a Romantic, so combining within himself the twin poles of Western aesthetics, the conflicting-complementary blend of classical-formal and Romantic-naturalistic impulses which also coexist in each of us. But now, two hundred years on from Keats’ confidence, any consensus about the nature of beauty has been broken – part of a wide repudiation of all things canonical, ridiculed as male-pale-stale or pastiche, or at best just one possibility among many potential choices. Or has it? 

In this sumptuously produced contribution to aesthetic theory, the well-known New York graphic designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh assert that actually there still exists a widespread consensus about what beauty is, even if it is not necessarily reflected or even aspired to in twenty-first century architecture, or high street fashions, or Turner Prize winners. They peer backwards into philosophy and history, and forwards into science to try to define this elusive attribute – and prove that humans have an intuitive recognition of beauty in colours, shapes, smells and textures, which could and should be utilised to improve the quality of life, from Coke cans to airports, and modern art to mountainsides.

“Beauty itself is function”, they argue, contrary to the twentieth century dictum that form should follow function. It is possible to create things that are not just ornamental, or not just useful, but an optimal blend of both. The Pantheon has never been destroyed in all of Rome’s upheavals, solely because it is, by any conqueror’s standards, beautiful. Architectural beauty, the fifteenth century Florentine Leone Battista Alberti remarked, consists in

the harmony and concord of all the parts achieved in such a manner that nothing could be added, or taken away, or altered except for the worse.

Alberti’s aspiration can easily be extended to music, paintings, people, products, scenery or sculpture.  

Sagmeister and Walsh examine what “smart people” over the centuries meant by beauty, consider how notions of beauty and order appear to have existed even before Homo became Sapiens, how we respond when faced with beautiful things, and how we can, or could, be uplifted by surrounding ourselves with lovelier things and living in more beautiful places. “The Beauty Project: A Manifesto” commits them to “translating the arguments and findings of this book into our daily lives”, developing “smart strategies” to “reach and outreach” and “infuse beauty” into ignored, neglected, overlooked or ugly areas. These sound banal, but there is no cause to doubt the authors’ sincere desire to make the world handsomer – and this matters, because improving people’s surroundings improves the people.

But what is this beauty they (and we) want, and has its “loveliness” increased? And whatever it is – or was – is it passing into “nothingness” at the hands of caustic cultural critics? It seems no longer enough to say, as Shakespeare did in The Rape of Lucrece,

Beauty itself doth of itself persuade

The eyes of men without an orator

Beauty – whether of art or nature, animals or people – was long intimately associated with proportion – even in music, wherein beauty has been defined as

…sound uttered with a due sense of proportion and with an accurate estimate of its suitability to its individual setting and surroundings (Edmund Fellowes, The English Madrigal Composers, 1921)

Symmetry is also inseparable from traditional ideas of beauty, as John Brophy noted in his 1945 minor classic, The Human Face: 

The physical beauty of the human face is a delicately balanced composition of many elements, chiefly the configuration of the whole face, the complexion of the skin, the colouring of hair, eyes, and lips, and the shaping and relative sizes of the features…for aesthetic satisfaction, the face must be pleasingly proportioned to the head, and the size of the head to the height and breadth of the body.

Beauty has also long been linked to bodily health, strength and youth – although there have always been discussions about the existence (or otherwise) of “inner beauty” and “spiritual beauty”. It has also created and perpetuated hierarchies of distinction, inequality and separation, and highly specific ideas about what is beautiful and what is not.

All these interrelated notions stretch back to Pythagorean reflections on connections between visual proportions and musical harmony, which were developed by Plato, Euclid and Vitruvius, amongst many others. For these, the loveliness of a face or place, or the elegance of an argument, or the charm of ‘the music of the spheres’ could be part-explained by geometry and reasoning, but they also rose above the quotidian into a wholly abstract and Elysian realm. There was the magical-mathematical character of phi, the Greeks’ “golden mean” for buildings – and everything else.

Such ideas continued shaping European civilisation for centuries after the fall of Greece and Rome, the early Christian idiom shaped by all the Hellenic and imperial centuries, Divine dominion preached in buildings evoking ideas of old earthly Magisterium. Early medieval architecture was called Romanesque for good reason – although in the Byzantine sphere there were also strong Eastern influences. Even during the Gothic period, the old mode was never forgotten, buildings still being erected in that style, or borrowing from it. Then during the Renaissance, Vitruvius was rediscovered by Alberti, Palladio and others, giving rise to countless new buildings in quondam styles, while the surge of interest in the classical authors betokened burgeoning interest in old-school aesthetics. Artistic conventions and examples for this Christian and humanist Europe were shaped by proxy by the pagans Apelles and Praxiteles, even though none of their works had survived, because their originals had been copied so often by later (and, it was felt, lesser) practitioners.

By the end of the seventeenth century cultural arbiters had turned decisively against the generic “Gothic”, with its perceived disorderliness and extravagances, its lack of cohesion, rhythm, rules or scholarship. Beauty now was cooler, more idealised and restrained – exemplified by the wall-to-wall white marble statues of the Farnese Collection, Versailles, Sanssouci, Whitehall, Chatsworth and many other places.

The new century was to show a new spirit, the spirit of order; the reason, not the heart, was to govern man in all his works,

as John Steegman observed in his 1936 The Rule of Taste. The new Augustan “correct taste” was policed by Whiggish connoisseurs and dilettanti, as well as Tories like Dr. Johnson, who were temperamentally averse to all “enthusiasms”. 

Inevitably the reaction impelled a counter-reaction from radicals and Romantics. In his 1753 Analysis of Beauty, William Hogarth – who had been stung by academic scoffing at his “coarse” and “vulgar” style – asserted that beauty, whether in nature or art, could be defined by a formula, an S-shape curving not only in linear direction, but also in its planes, that combined such unmistakeable intangibles as balance, elegance, grace, simplicity, variety, and distinctness. Hogarth’s “Serious and Comical” survey of beauty in everything from skin colour to chair-legs was satirised brilliantly in Paul Sandby’s The Analysis of Deformity, but it was already too late for the academicians and formalists. For more and more artists and thinkers, the standard face derived from all those Greek examples suddenly seemed to lack expression, and life-drawing started to edge out neoclassicism. 

Far beyond artists’ ateliers, there arose experimental houses like Horace Walpole’s Gothic Revival Strawberry Hill and William Beckford’s Fonthill, which spurned cool classical orders in favour of supererogatory curlicues. Even gardens became a battleground of conceptions of beauty, as the Mannerist French template began to be replaced with the “artfully informal” landscape gardens of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, then William Chambers’ “sentimental” ones, and eventually Uvedale Price’s “Picturesque” landscapes – these movements sometimes as much political reaction against all things French as well as an alteration in aesthetic sensibility. Lines of sight in these gardens were lines of beauty; particular features, or follies, or plantings, were supposed to evoke particular emotions, or gratify certain senses, or the whole horizon was to be seen in uplifting unity. These literal groundbreakers would have been intrigued by the work of mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who in 1975 posited the idea of fractals, which broke down landscapes (or cloud-banks, or animals) into mathematical constituent parts, to prove there was often a gratifying underlying order even to the ostensibly chaotic or random.

Romantic literature started to prioritise self-realisation over self-restraint. Emotion became seen as more becoming than edification – and even royals aspired to “pastoral” pulchritude, Marie Antoinette famously dressing as a faux-shepherdess (the apparent “authenticity” the ultimate in affectation). That unhappy Queen’s doughtiest Britannic defender Edmund Burke wrote the most celebrated study on aesthetics of his century, his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which sought (often unconvincingly) to separate “dark and gloomy…vast…rugged and negligent” sublime objects from “comparatively small…smooth and polished…light and delicate” beautiful ones. The Sublime, he averred, was a masculine principle, surprising and potentially dangerous – the Beautiful was feminine, sweet and decorous. Hume averred, contra Plato, that beauty only existed in the eyes of beholders – another big gun salvo in a then urgent debate. In his Discourses, Reynolds advocated educating oneself to appreciate the beauties in Old Masters.

The conflict and interaction between the classical-formal and Romantic-natural aesthetic tendencies have continued ever since, the latter camp having the best of the exchange. Tastes have turned over constantly since the end of the eighteenth century and ever more quickly, as democratisation, science and technology offered ever more opportunities for experimentalism. There was still an insatiable appetite for beauty, suggested by the nineteenth century notion of beaux arts – but it was defined differently, and changeably. The classicisers and formalists were well on their way out – and they have not yet gained reentry to the salon – their ideas misunderstood, their books unread, their buildings less desired, their canvases stacked against walls, their lyres metaphorically unstrung. Ever since, new movements have been sweeping across all arts – Neo-Gothicism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Neo-Primitivism, Vorticism, Cubism, Art Deco, Abstraction, Outsider Art, Modernism, Atonality, Bauhaus, Brutalism, International Style and many others jumbling and tumbling over each other as the intellectually curious middle classes sought new perspectives, proportions and sensations. Some of these movements brought beautiful things of their own, and others were at least fresh and interesting – but their overall effect seems to have been to bewilder.

In recent decades, any ideas of beauty have too often been ignored – most obviously by house-builders, town-planners, for whom beauty just means expense. Big business-friendly conservative politicians have long been complicit in the uglification of urban centres or the coarsening of culture in the interests of cheapness and convenience. Very recently, there have been attempts to reverse the disastrous town-planning decisions of the 1950s-1980s – low-rise, mixed-use districts, daylighting culverted rivers, and so forth – but they have only been tentative, hindered by lack of vision, lack of leadership, lack of money, and the increasing unwillingness of Westerners to mingle in our distrustful diverse societies. 

Civic and corporate neglectfulness troubles Sagmeister and Walsh, as one would expect from New York graphic designers who have worked with the likes of Brian Eno, and whose firm’s website waxes nostalgic about creating

50 illustrated works protesting Trump, encouraging people to register + vote for Hillary, and promoting love, tolerance & kindness.

But there have also been actual attacks on ideas of beauty by the alienated or publicity-hungry. Marcel Duchamp’s notorious 1917 urinal is seen by Sagmeister and Walsh as a harbinger of the new utilitarian ugliness – although they excuse it as an understandable product of the Great War’s moral desolation. 

Beauty has always had its sceptics – as the proverb about beauty being skin-deep suggests – but now it is sometimes viewed as innately bad, because ageist, disablist, discriminatory, elitist, racist (not helped by Arno Breker’s coldly proficient supermen) or sexist. The whole idea of there being a canon of taste or standard of beauty has been offending more and more intellectuals since 1945, and they have responded by trying to make us see beauty in the boring – think Andy Warhol’s soup tins (the authors would argue that soup tins don’t need to be boring, and if they are it will affect sales) – or the outright ugly, like Jeff Koons’ ironic kitsch (which Sagmeister and Walsh defend).  

Today’s expanding – in every sense – “body positivity” movement is a conscious rejection of long-standing aesthetic ideals. The October 2018 Miss Britain Beauty Curve competition, which requires competitors be a dress size 14 or over, attracted a record number of entrants – but then there is a larger than ever pool of eligible women, as the average UK dress size is now 16 (it was 12 in 1957). Burke’s over-dainty dolls are now sometimes more Rubenesque than is entirely good for them, and his Beautiful has been dispatched to join our Sublime.

Body positivity was brilliantly predicted by L. P. Hartley in his 1960 novel Facial Justice, in which all faces are rated for beauty, and there is constant pressure from the B-rated to bring down the A-rated, and the C-rated to bring down the Bs, and so on ad infinitum down through the alphabet. Hartley would have appreciated the newest subset of the body positivity movement, Acne Positivity, which has 50,000 members on Instagram, and was hailed in a September 2018 Guardian article with the only slightly jocular headline, “Pimples Are In”. It is kindly as well as realistic never to expect physical perfection, which is why nobody ever has – Thomas Weelkes wrote a 1597 madrigal about “Those spots upon my lady’s face”, which he likened gallantly to “mulberries in dainty gardens growing” – but actually to celebrate bodily faults is something of a different order.

We should be grateful to Sagmeister and Walsh for simultaneously reinforcing all kinds of old and rarely examined ideas, and applying them to an age that has become too accustomed to everything being accelerated, aggregated, cheapened, coarsened, homogenised, infantilised, mass-produced, ready-made, and relativised. Readers are likely to differ with the authors on specifics, but they are right that beauty exists, even if sometimes difficult to define, and that in every sphere it is better to aspire upwards than sideways or down. 

This review first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

The Matter of Manners – In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas

Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier

THE MATTER OF MANNERS

In Pursuit of Civility – Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas, Yale: New Haven and London, hb., 457 pages

Among the Bodleian Library’s celebrated Douce Collection of arcana,  incunabula and later works is an instructional manuscript of circa 1350, which contains the first-known written English expression of what was almost certainly already a cliché – ‘Maner makys man’. Maybe William of Wykeham, Chancellor of England to both Edward III and Richard II, read this very manuscript – because when he founded Winchester College and New College, Oxford, in the 1370s he chose ‘Manners makyth man’ as motto for both. But what did ‘manners’ mean in fourteenth century England, and what do they mean now? How are they made – and how do they make? How can we decode these complex ciphers – so changeable, inconsistent, irrational, ludicrous, oppressive, petty, self-serving – and so essential, persistent, salutary, and uplifting? 

Keith Thomas has approached this almost limitless subject with the same thoroughness with which he tackled Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 (1983), and The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009) – and with which doubtless he chairs the Supervisory Committee of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He has brought a fully-examined life’s reading to bear on this book, erudition so exhaustive that at times it almost overwhelms his text as he indefatigably adds counter-reference to reference, in a torrent of well-contextualised quotations revealing the infinite complexities and contradictions of early modern English behaviour. 

There are almost one hundred pages of notes, authorities balanced finely against each other – an oddly hypnotic catalogue raisonée of a huge and mostly forgotten exhortatory literature. His treatment is likely to prove unsurpassable as summation of this cajoling corpus, which over so many centuries has done so much to reflect, refract and shape England’s essence. The study of English manners is the most rewarding of all such ethnologies, because here social manners are so central a preoccupation – burgeoning even in the Iron Age, throwing out luxuriant shoots under Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, medieval and early modern cultivators, before being transplanted worldwide. 

Not content with comprehensiveness, Sir Keith aspires also to objectivity –

As a Welshman, and therefore something of an outsider, I have tried to study the English people in the way an anthropologist approaches the inhabitants of an unfamiliar society. 

His ‘outsider’ status extends farther, because he is also an undogmatic humanist, who can view ancient and modern Christianity (once the source and long a motive force of English manners) with coolness, acknowledging its instrumentality as well as its inadequacies.  

‘Manners’ is sometimes narrowly understood as meaning the everyday, taken-for-granted rituals we observe in order to live more easily with each other. But even the smallest observances, like saying ‘please’, are not as simple as they may seem. Behind the minutiae of manners, Pierre Bourdieu asserted, one can glimpse ‘a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy’. This sounds like overstatement, but these things do arouse strong emotions, those who omit them at hazard of being thought arrogant, boorish, crass, impertinent, or sociopathic. If, as Georg Simmel had earlier argued, gratitude is ‘the moral memory of mankind’, those who fail to give thanks, or who give them in the wrong way or at the wrong time, can be seen as moral malefactors, and worthy of condign chastisement. Similarly, those who dress ‘indecently’, or fail to wash, or are unkind to animals or children, or have the wrong faith, or tastes, or views, have always faced social sanctions, from sniggering and snubbing via public insult and legal action to mob or state violence.

Manners are about whole attitudes and modes of living – civilisation as opposed to primitivism, nurture as opposed to nature, urbanity as opposed to rusticity. They may be promulgated in polemics, or lampooned in comedies of manners – and are often seen as outward signs of inner worth. To be ‘polished’ or polite is to be advanced, considerate, educated, sophisticated, superior in some sense. To be rude, churlish or ‘clownish’ is to be deficient, gauche, provincial, retrograde, sometimes verging on semi-human. Sometimes top-down condescension is repaid by recipients, the upper classes portrayed as epicene and ridiculous, like Colley Cibber’s Lord Foppington, or the ‘Frenchified’ dandy pictured in a 1770 engraving in this book, facing fisticuffs from a John Bullish butcher while a prostitute pulls his greased queue. 

Ideas of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour appear to be immemorial and ubiquitous. Probably every society had or has taboos surrounding bodily functions, cleanliness, religious belief and sexual intercourse, and ideas of ‘correct’ conduct have probably always been coterminous with politics, religion, self-definition and self-esteem. In fifth century BC Athens, those who could not speak Greek were dubbed barbaroi (barbarians) – at first neutrally, but increasingly pejoratively. Xenophobic dismissiveness helped codify Greek corporate identity, portraying geopolitical competitors as not just enemies of Greeks, but of civilisation itself. Scythians, many Hellenes held, were cruel, ignorant, nomadic, and unlettered – while even worse human/subhuman horrors awaited in the wind-blasted wastes of northwestern Europe, or the endless sun-punished deserts behind the Greek colonies of the African and Asian coasts. The Persians – grudgingly admitted to be quite cultured in their way – were nevertheless still barbaric, because they were ‘decadent’ and tolerated despotic government. The Romans would also sometimes be ridiculed as vulgar cultural counter-jumpers. Naturally, the Scythians, Persians and Romans had ideas of their own on these matters – but tendencies to distinguish and separate seem as old as the species.

The Dark Ages added more means of differentiation and stratification, as new nations warred within themselves and against each other. But always there are recurring themes – elites versus masses, the educated versus the uncultivated, the court versus the country, the old versus the young, community members versus outsiders, believers versus non-believers – and laws and manners to manage the constant ebbing and flowing of class, dynastic, economic, ethnic, political and religious fortunes. ‘History can be seen’ says the author, ‘as the story of how different patterns of conventional restraint have succeeded each other’. There were always leading lights like Boethius entreating everyone to be more virtuous, countless Scripturally-inspired didacticists and natural philosophers promulgating ideals of agreeableness, bearing, mildness, modesty, restraint, suavity, and wit.

Early Christian and Scholastic notions of ‘virtue’ and ‘nurture’ evolved into ‘chivalry’, exemplified by knights fighting Christianity’s wars from Lithuania to Jerusalem. Chaucer’s fourteenth century paragon has fought gallantly, but is also ‘meeke as is a mayde…a verray, parfit gentil knight’. In 1516’s Orlando Furioso, Bradamant is told her grandson will ‘defend Holy Church against the barbarians’. Now, it was not non-Greeks but non-Christians who were backwards, even beast-like – which permitted treating them with utmost severity. The chivalric ‘Decalogue’ outlined by chivalry’s great nineteenth century interpreter Léon Gautier prescribed ‘unceasing and merciless war against the infidel’ – although this was supposed only to apply on the battlefield. Edmund Spenser saw no discrepancy between his fantastical ‘Gentle Knight pricking on the plaine’ and his day job as Lord Deputy of Ireland putting down the natives with their ‘savage brutishness and loathsome filthiness’.

Chivalry commingled with ‘courtesy’, examples of decorum, dress, education, language, morality and even posture filtering down constantly from courts largely through writers like Baldassare Castiglione, whose 1528 Book of the Courtier was translated into English in 1561. As Christianity split, Catholics and Protestants differentiated their societies and themselves from the mistaken (or diabolical) denominational Other. Divergences over doctrine overlapped with old animosities and stereotypes, and spawned countless day-to-day divergences  – Catholics seen by Protestants as shiftless, superstitious and untrustworthy, Protestants seen by Catholics as ill-educated, plebeian, and uptight. Dissenters often saw social rituals like bowing or being complimentary as akin to genuflection in church. Anglicans often viewed public religious discussions as vulgar, because likely to lead to dinner-table awkwardness – not to mention the undermining of the entire Elizabethan settlement. 

Renaissance humanists revisiting classical antiquity also entreated Europeans to become more civilised, with Erasmus’s De Civilitate Morum Puerilium of 1530 translated into English in 1532 as A Lytell Booke of Good Maners for Chyldren. Christianity started to be augmented as civilisation-signifier by co-existing, contradicting ideas of both Europe’s oldness and its Prometheanism. A ready-made foil for sixteenth century theorists of civilization and difference lay close at hand, in the expansionist, ‘infidel’ Ottomans (our humanist author would eschew such ‘Islamophobia’, let alone their still resounding ideas of a ‘clash of civilisations’.) The navigators of Portugal, England, France, Spain, Holland and Venice were also opening up huge new fields of imaginative play, as they brought home accounts of the exotic indigenes of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Emerging information on non-European societies encouraged some to see Europe as ineffably, obviously superior – because non-Europeans looked so different, spoke incomprehensible tongues, worshipped odd gods, had few (or no) European-style governments, ate strange things, wore peculiar (or too few) clothes. Bodily comportment and emotional restraint had long been thought of as ‘outwards signs of the inner dispositions of the soul’, so loincloths or sarongs suggested loose morals to Europeans who saw nothing incongruous in doublets, farthingales or stove-pipe hats. (We can only speculate what Castiglione, Erasmus or Hobbes – or even early cultural relativists – would have made of some twenty-first century Europeans’ obesity, states of undress, swearing and tattoos.)  

Manners were weaponised to aim outwards as well as in – intercontinental behaviour missiles used by utterly sincere Christians to excuse African, Asian and American exploitations, expropriations, expulsions, and slavery. There were ancient admonitory precedents; Aristotle had advocated honestas and humanitas between Greeks, but he also said barbarians were born to be slaves. There were also plenty of early modern colonialists who saw no contradiction between private goodness, even kindliness – and policies permitting chattels and ethnic cleansing. What we now call ‘international law’, often cited to undercut national and Western sovereignties, was born in Salamanca, and added to by the Dutch jurist Grotius and the German natural lawyer Pufendorf, and naturally reflected sixteenth-seventeenth century European assumptions. It also contained elements now usually uninvoked by international lawyer-activists, such as Grotius’ view that victors of battles were entitled to slaughter prisoners unless their own states forbade this distinctly unchivalrous practice.

One of the author’s principal aims is to show that anti-colonialism, cultural pluralism and relativism long predate our era, and he cites Ovid, Saint Paul (I. Corinthians, XIV, 11 – ‘If I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me’), Spanish Dominicans, Montaigne, Smith, Diderot, and many others.  These chapters could betoken a descent into P.C. hectoring – 2018’s ritual obeisances – but the author is too careful. He qualifies his approval of old open-mindedness by reminding us, for example, that some American Colonial-era accounts praising the Indians as friendly and welcoming were knowingly misleading, written to gull more English into coming. As another example of nascent New World sensitivities, the author asks twice why, if the English settlers really believed Indians childishly unknowing of private property rights and incapable of self-government, they so often insisted on paying them for the land they were taking? It’s an interesting question – although the answer may simply be that even the most greedily obtuse among Albion’s seed nursed vestigial guilt about theft. 

In the dawning, deist Age of Reason, manners drifted yet farther from their moral underpinnings, and their apparent ethical emptiness was often noted. The ultra-urbane Lord Chesterfield’s 1744 Letters to his (illegitimate) son were vilified by Dr. Johnson as combining ‘the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’. Johnson was being unjust, because Chesterfield’s emphasis on external appearances did not preclude internal goodness  – but the Great Cham was giving voice to an old English (and Protestant) detestation of ‘coxcombery’ and ‘mummery’, over-civility seen as servility. This bluff ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ was itself something of an affectation – yet even now, the North of England holds out an ideal of itself as gruff but good, Philistine but plain-spoken, more substantive than the smooth South.

Intellectuals on all social sides vied constantly to preserve privileges, or assert rights. Adhering to the majority faith, having a particular accent, wearing certain clothes, going to certain schools, or using a fork for eating, were often moral imperatives – but they were also tactics used to put an ‘inferior’ in his place, or show a ‘superior’ you were as good as he. These daily de rigeurs changed constantly, and as soon as any rules changed they would be enforced in a million subtle and unsubtle ways. In Pursuit of Civility is predictably rich in contemptuous or indignant animadversions about the ‘incivility’ or ‘rudeness’ of entire classes or countries (one curious omission is Frances Trollope’s wonderfully withering 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans). It is also rich in their opposites – generous, gushing, pluralistic, or relativistic remarks about entire classes or countries, and others’ cultures. For every Smollett, travelling through France and Italy and hating almost everything he finds, there seems to be a Sterne making a Sentimental Journey.

Tendencies and counter-tendencies are always ironically equipoised. Elizabethan and Jacobean administrations permitted torture in special circumstances (even though torture was banned under Common Law) – so long as the torturers were ‘gentle and merciful’ and used the rack ‘in as charitable a manner as such a thing might be’. 

The Commonwealth Solicitor-General John Cook, who led the state’s case against Charles I, may have been a regicide, but he also called courtesy 

the most precious pearl that any man in authority may wear, for it buyeth men’s hearts. 

The English Civil Wars really were relatively ‘civil’ when compared with contemporaneous conflicts, because ‘the contending parties shared a common culture and were linked by ties of kinship and friendship’. Atrocities were, however, committed in Ireland, whose largely Catholic and clannish – and poorer – people were widely regarded as inferior and outdated. Allegations of being outdated and so uncivilised would come to be levelled with increasing force as the economic forces of the Industrial Revolution were joined and justified by Darwinism, imperialism, and race science. 

Restoration, Queen Anne and Georgian England also contained modish multitudes –  

Later seventeenth century England saw both growing politeness and the birth of pornography…good breeding in the eighteenth century was accompanied by sexual libertinism, heavy drinking, brutal sports, bawdy and scatological humour and scurrilous gossip.

It is startling to learn that as late as 1763, the visiting Casanova saw people defecating openly in city streets, albeit with their faces turned to the wall to maintain their ‘modesty’. 

Slowly, somehow, between the recalcitrant earthiness of a few and the expostulations of uplifters, Chesterfield’s ideal of ceremonious sociability transmuted into nineteenth and twentieth century etiquette, which Thomas derides as ‘purely arbitrary prescriptions, peculiar to a particular social milieu and lacking any mental or moral foundation.’ There was – and still is – acute anxiety born of social uncertainty – about elocution, whether to say ‘lavatory’ or ‘toilet’, whether to leave the bottom button of one’s waistcoat undone (as Edward VII exampled –  he was too portly to do it up), or how to address anyone from the Queen or the sons of Scottish clan chiefs to RAF officers or surgeons. The countless ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ considerations and ‘refining’ accretions of 1800-1968 were always being challenged and mocked, but each has left its trace, and even now they wait in England’s anthropological anteroom, neither in demand nor finally dismissible.  

Chivalry likewise lingers sadly in the West, an unhorsed knight with a battered helm and notched sword fighting many foes – vague ideals of forbearance and honour, and practices like holding doors open for women (such sexist politesse is sometimes seen as ‘unacceptable’ by modern moralists). Aristocracies may have been upturned, and Christian and pre-1960s Western sensibilities downgraded, but courtly trace-elements tinge ‘humanitarianism’ – ideas of old decencies now skewed to unman the no longer world-straddling West. Thomas adjudges wryly,

It is common for people today to declare portentously that “the hallmark of a civilised society” is the way it treats animals, say, or children, or the universities, or refugees…Sometimes such assertions reflect a considered view as to what an ideal form of society would look like. More often, they are just bids for sympathy.

Many moderns pride themselves on being ‘above’ old protocols and punctilio, and on their freedom from socially conservative shibboleths and stereotypes. We are certainly less formal and obviously hierarchical than often before (although maybe old hierarchies have simply been replaced by new ones). In any case, In Pursuit shows there have always been some who fled from rather than pursued the à la mode, and others who were left outside The Pale through no choice of their own. Today’s narcissists were prefigured by the Cynics, nostalgie de la boue, and aristocrats pretending to be plebeian – while old racial and social caricatures have simply been replaced. Yesterday’s ‘boors’, ‘churls’ and ‘clowns’ are today’s football fans, Trump voters and Brexit-supporters. Former ‘savages’ are now ‘unspoilt’ – and the ‘barbarous Moors’ of yore are now tolerant multiculturalists. Once world-beating ‘European civilisation’ is now picked up in morality’s tweezers for sniffy examination, before being resigned as ideological invention designed for exploitative and hateful purposes. Autre temps, autres mœurs.

In 1748, Montesquieu wrote – ‘the more people there are in a nation…who need to deal with each other and not cause displeasure, the more politeness there is.’ It follows that the more these more plentiful people diverge in culture and outlook, the more complex and forced the forms of the new politeness – increasingly literally forced by governments. Montesquieu was righter than he realised when he referred to civilised nations as un peuple policé. Countless painfully-won semi-consensuses about civility, morality and society are now being cast up constantly into the stratosphere in a mania of experimentation for experimentation’s sake. But rather than being liberated, we may instead be becoming excessively refined.

This review first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

Enlightenments – Little Demon by Michael Wilding

ENLIGHTENMENTS

Little Demon, Michael Wilding, Melbourne: Arcadia, 2018, 260 pages, $29.95

Captain Cook named Cape Byron for ‘Foul-Weather Jack’ Byron, the adventuring Vice-Admiral who sailed past the easternmost point of the Southern Land in 1764, part of that endless English outpouring that shaped today’s topography. The weatherbeaten Enlightenment navigator, for whom beaches were only important insofar as they might provide shelter, would have been surprised by the shire that bears his name – where beaches mean ‘lifestyle’ rather than lee shore, and the aimlessly affluent have replaced both aborigines and landfalling Jack Tars. The landmark lighthouse shines out over nothingness, coda to a continent – and warning of hidden hazards. Private eye Plant blinks at it lugubriously in the opening pages of Little Demon, and at the sleek local resident briefing him, this man in expensive shoes who feels he owns this view, with the lighthouse its ‘iconic seal’ of having arrived. 

This is Plant’s sixth outing, the experienced, jaded, subtle, tolerant, well-read ex-novelist a sometime stand-in for the novelist. The country Plant constantly revisits is also the land of Wilding’s lost content, during what Plant/Wilding sees as ‘the best of times’ – cannabis-hazed, countercultural, idealistic, a place of horizons as big as Byron’s, where ‘new writing’ just might have altered everything. 

But Wilding believes much of this meretricious newness was in effect old reality repackaged, authorities exchanged rather than discarded. In his 2017 memoir Growing Wild, the author enumerated some of the multiple paradoxes of the Sixties and Seventies, such as how ‘liberalism’ and ‘tolerance’ were enforced, or how un-ironic academics told everyone that ‘there should be no shoulds’. The outcome of these decades-old delusions may be seen in today’s lovely but echoing littoral, a Byron Shire  – an Australia, a West – ‘without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility’, where raddled ex-hippies hobble along, ‘wasted, wizened…their eyes as blank and glazed as in the best of times.’ Post-postmodern miasmas keep sweeping in across everything like a chill mist off the Pacific. 

Wilding, like his demi-avatar, finds himself adrift, loathing political correctness even more than old ‘anti-communist’ excesses. ‘Even the 1950s’, Plant ruminates, ‘looked more liberal, more progressive, more committed to free speech and open debate than the twenty-first century’. Wilding is a staunch supporter of poetry professor Barry Spurr, with a rare ability to view such imbroglios in context, having written expertly on Johns Dee and Milton, in their lifetimes likewise objects of misrepresentation, suspicion and vitriol, punching-bags on which their respective ages worked out raging insecurities. Beneath the swirling surfaces and tidal races of twenty-first century Australia, Wilding spies shoals – social barrier reefs, all politics somehow ensuring that America will always rule, and the poor shall always be with us, product of neoliberal economics, cultural commodification, neurotic pluralism, and digitalisation designed by and for cognitive elites. 

Plant’s client is similar to him in age, but little else – Rock Richmond, a journalist and expert surfer of trends, who has parlayed middling talent into prosperity, and a timeshare in East Coast alternative culture. Richmond’s computer and storage device have been stolen. He has been writing a history of the alternative culture, he informs the underwhelmed investigator, which contains ‘things…no-one has ever dreamed of…revelations. World-shattering stuff.’ He does not want Plant to retrieve the devices (all material is backed up), but instead to use his contacts to alert editors or publishers who might be approached by the thieves. He claims not to be interested in the identity of the perpetrators, or whoever employed them, so long as the material is not published by anyone else. Plant does as he has been bid, but remains perplexed – especially as Richmond is clearly a lightweight, not the kind likely to unearth ‘world-shattering stuff’. And if he had a back-up, why did he need Plant at all – could it have been to put about the idea that he did not have a back-up, to outfox enemies? 

Puzzlement turns darker when Plant’s placid rural existence is invaded by an old interlocutor, Fullalove, a paranoid, pasty ‘eternal inner urbanite’ who has come to stay indefinitely, ‘just till things blow over’. Plant knows that nothing ever blows over for Fullalove – but nevertheless tolerates this unhygienic imposition, with all his fussy demands and infectious fears of almost everything. Pace Pascal, “Fullalove contemplated the night sky in unfeigned terror”, and like the Frenchman is determined to fill up all emptiness with theories. Plant finds himself often unable to answer Fullalove’s unquenchable questions, but bats them mostly away as just part of his guest’s emotional armature – until Richmond is shot dead at the lighthouse. 

Richmond, Fullalove decides, must have been writing about still-sensitive Cold War secrets – 1960s communes ‘really’ CIA-run, drug-funded military experiments into post-nuclear survivalism. Like all conspiratologists, he takes little-known facts – such as that L.S.D. research was once funded by the U.S. Navy – and links them in ever longer chains of reasoning, some links of which are sound, but which taken as a whole become progressively weaker. This could pall, except there is much humour – such as in Fullalove’s lazy reluctance actually to seek out arms dumps in that hot and insect-haunted landscape. He ‘knows’ they are there, and that is enough for him. ‘This is the age of virtual reality’ he says, exuding clammy self-interest as well as self-satisfaction. ‘Let’s keep it that way.’ The ever-easygoing Plant agrees, content to let questions float away or hover in the air as pregnant possibilities. 

Equally suggestive are the frequent literary allusions, of a kind rarely found in noir – Australia, Plant, Wilding, and all the rest of us entangled in ancienter European culture, and unthinkable without it, Wilding one of too few writers determined to keep the flame alive in battering winds. Plant’s case may have started out as a simple criminal investigation, but it swiftly, and unforgettably, shines bright lights onto the way we live, and some of the reasons why. 

This review first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission 

My Country Life review of Animal: Exploring the Zoological World

The 7 November issue of Country Life carries my short review of Animal: Exploring the Zoological World (introduction by James Hanken, published by Phaidon) – “Animal captures admirably two interlocking intoxications: the thrill of ever-expanding zoological knowledge and the sheer joy of looking at animals, which look right back and into us in challenge and entreaty”

New light on the Lakes

NEW LIGHT ON THE LAKES

We’d been dreaming about Andalusia. But plans sometimes must be altered, and so one August evening we found ourselves instead entering into Ulverston, thirteen hundred miles from Andalusia, and even more distant climatically, culturally, and historically.

The Lake District – “England’s Switzerland”, Manchester’s playground, stamping-grounds of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, magnet to millions of tourists, subject of a billion photos, noted for traffic jams, tea-shops, lake cruises, mint-cake, and hikers in fluorescent cagoules. These images were unappealing, especially when juxtaposed with thoughts of Spain. Our prior experiences had been grey days around Ambleside, trooping in everyone else’s damp wake, reading the same rain-spotted information boards, and taking the same photos. I had also come here on a coaster, coming alongside at Silloth on Christmas morning, and had vague remembrances of cold, empty streets, flour mills and the smell of fertilizer. The effect of such impressions had hitherto been to make us defer exploration when there were so many other places, and so little time. But as I plundered my bookshelves, the District soon loomed into shape – and by the time we were climbing to our cottage through lanes of bruised bracken, the great glitter of Morecambe Bay below and sheep-smelling hills rising up all round, any lingering regrets were vanquished.

The ninety square mile District was divided historically between Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland, but in 1974 it was all subsumed into the new county of Cumbria (to considerable chagrin). There are sixty-four lakes, including Windermere, England’s biggest at over ten miles long and nearly a mile wide, and Wast Water, its deepest at 258 feet – a product of high rainfall, plus the impermeability of volcanic rocks. Some waterbodies still hold Ice Age relicts like Arctic char and vendace, fish rare elsewhere and threatened even here by non-natives. There are 180 mountains of over 2,000 feet, including Scafell Pike, England’s highest at 3,209 feet. This strongly marked landscape is sparsely populated outside the summer season, with its largest town, Kendal, having fewer than 30,000 permanent residents. Small wonder the area has attracted superlatives since the English started to take an aesthetic rather than utilitarian interest in landscapes, at that eighteenth century cultural cusp when Augustan tastes were toppled, wilderness turned into scenery, and emotion and self-realisation began to be exalted over reason and restraint. 

In 1769, Thomas Gray could still find these mountains “very rude and awful with their broken tops”, but the following year William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, a lawyer’s son who would become the area’s greatest interpreter and publicist, and England’s Romantic-in-Chief. His Prelude recalls a childhood spent chiefly outside, by the Derwent which “flowed along my dreams”, or out on screes and slopes, catching woodcock, robbing ravens, or just rhapsodising – epic walks, summer swims, ice-skating, cliff-climbing, wild winds, “distant Skiddaw’s lofty height…bronz’d with a deep radiance”. Presently he started composing poetry to “find fit utterance for the primary and simple feelings” (Dictionary of National Biography), developed democratic sympathies, met Coleridge and Southey, and settled with his sister at Dove Cottage overlooking Grasmere. 

His penchant for recreational walking was much mocked – “His legs were pointedly condemned”, joked English Opium-Eater Thomas De Quincey, who moved into Dove Cottage after the Wordsworths, and improbably became editor of the Westmorland Gazette. Wordsworth’s character was also assailed, particularly when his poetry strayed into bathos (notoriously, “SPADE! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”) and his politics turned Tory. His outlook was ridiculed by, among many others, William Hazlitt, who scoffed that Wordsworth “sees nothing but himself and the universe”. Some moderns are even less forgiving, like Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) – “He went from being a great Romantic to a great Victorian, and the transition required much renouncement”. Solnit even regrets he did not die in his late thirties, which might admittedly have been inconvenient for him and his family, but would luckily have left “his image as a radical intact”. Notwithstanding such charitable considerations, Wordsworth’s Weltanschauung – an amalgam of love of nature, fascination with the past, slightly philistine patriotism, and unbounded sentimentality – still permeates the Lake ambience and England’s view of itself.

Behind all Romancing, and even when the weather is fine, the District feels unyielding. Even Beatrix Potter’s treacly tales have a granite-gleam of toughness, her Peter Rabbits, Jeremy Fishers and Jemima Puddle-ducks anatomically correct under all the anthropomorphism, product of a lifetime observing and depicting fauna and flora (she had a special interest in fungi, and in 1897 presented a paper to the Linnaean Society of London on “Germination of the spores of the Agaricineae”). An even solider achievement was that she was able to bequeath 4,000 acres of the area to the nation upon her death in 1943, courtesy of Mr. Tod, Tommy Brock, and the Tailor of Gloucester. Less comforting animals were Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs, the labrador Rowf and the Jack Russell Snitter of his searing 1977 anti-vivisection novel, experimental subjects who escape from an animal research centre to live wild for a while aided by another tod, the starving stoniness setting for the moral desolation of the experimenters. 

This was for centuries a frontier zone whose clouded hills could at any moment unleash moss-troopers and reivers. It got coopted into wider wars, one Civil War legend telling how Sir Robert Philippson (a.k.a. “Robin the Devil”) of Belle Isle on Windermere rode right into Kendal’s parish church in angry, unsuccessful search of one Colonel Briggs, a Parliamentarian who had besieged his house. A century later, on Midsummer’s Eve in 1745, twenty-six respectable witnesses saw a Jacobite army on Souther Fell, a place no force could possibly have been, a fata morgana for a time of anxiety. 

But in April 1778, there was an actual incursion, when John Paul Jones landed at Whitehaven – a shipbuilding, trading and whaling port linking the “Three Kingdoms” of England, Scotland and the Isle of Man – with thirty men from the U.S.S. Ranger. He hoped to torch hundreds of ships as they languished at low tide, crammed in tightly between the piers. But the wind was against them, and the sky was already paling when they made landfall. Jones and his party landed at the southern fort and spiked its cannon, while half of his force went to the northern part of the harbour to set the ships alight. The latter resorted to a public house, ostensibly to get a light for their incendiaries, but seem to have been sidetracked by the stock. When Jones rejoined them, he found no ships had been burned because no-one had a light. Even when they finally obtained one, their arsons went awry, most of the fires fizzling out, and others quickly extinguished by locals  – who had been alerted by a Ranger crewman apparently anxious about anyone getting hurt. Jones withdrew ignominiously, taking just three prisoners and leaving behind a few hundred pounds’ worth of damage, and a reputation as dastardly pirate. (The town only pardoned him in 1999.) The seriocomedy continued as he headed to Kircudbright to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, only to find him from home, meaning he had to make do with the family silver, including Lady Selkirk’s still-hot teapot, which she gave up after a short but probably strained interview. 

This was also a District for criminals, the Lancaster assizes passing more death sentences than anywhere else in England between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries; about 265 were hanged in the Castle’s “Hanging Corner” between 1782 and 1865. (The assizes also covered Manchester and Liverpool.)

Lune riverbed at Lancaster

Lancaster Castle

Smuggling was common, and a hint of old watchfulness can be gleaned at Roa Island, reached by a narrow Victorian causeway just above the water, and sometimes below it, flanked by salt marsh with a beached trawler and lifeboat, and a dinghy tied to a garden wall. At the end of the causeway rises an early Victorian inn and a thicket of masts, cannon pointing out to sea, and the ‘Gothick’ archway of an excise house framing the channel, and ships and submarines heading into Barrow-in-Furness. Just off Roa is the ruined Piel Castle on Piel Island, an outpost of the English Church Militant, built by the Abbot of Furness to guard against Scottish raids.

Another instance of old interest in this area is the extant post of Guide to the Queen’s Sands, which has existed since 1538, a post-Dissolution assumption of an old monastic responsibility. The Duchy of Lancaster pays the Guide a nominal £15 per annum (plus rent-free use of a 12 acre farm) to lead travellers across Morecambe Bay at low tide. Until the railways came in the 1860s, this was an important route, but it was always hazardous across 120 square miles of mudflats, where the rivers Keer, Kent, Leven (there is a separate Guide to the Leven Sands), Lune, Ribble and Wyre commingle in shifting quicksands and racing tides. As recently as 2004, 21 illegal Chinese cocklers were cut off and drowned – victims of exploitation as much as the early eighteenth century Sambo, “a faithful negro, who, attending his master from the West Indies” died at Sunderland Point near Lancaster, and was buried out under the sands. The present Guide, fisherman Cedric Robinson, appointed in 1963, has occupied the position longer than any of his twenty-four precursors. Seeing pictures of him in action, probing with his tall staff while throngs wait for his word, one thinks of ancient images – St. James and scallops, fishers of men, finders of The Way.

Back on terra (very) firma, the area’s farmers have always scratched subsistence from soil lying like the thinnest of coverlets over rock, their farms surviving only with subventions. The last English wolf was supposedly killed here in 1390. Below their angled, drywalled ‘pastures’ and ‘yow’ pens, the ancient pedlar tracks and corpse-roads over the tops and down into Yorkshire lie thick coal seams, mined from the thirteenth century, and in 2017 being revived after a decades-long hiatus. Whitehaven was epicentre for an industry that brought crucial employment, with some mines stretching miles out under the sea, but also multiple disasters. The pits at Whitehaven, says the Durham Mining Museum, have “probably the blackest record in the annals of coal mining”. The twentieth century bears grim testament. In 1910, 136 men and boys were killed in a single explosion. In 1922, there were 39 – in 1928, 13 – in 1931, 27 – in 1941, 12 – and in 1947, 104. The 1910 explosion was the biggest ever mining disaster in the county, and 64 Edward Medals were awarded to rescuers, the most ever for one incident. Details still stab; when the mine was unsealed after four months so bodies could be recovered, one corpse was found cradling his teenage son and his son’s friend in his arms. Another man had taken off all his clothes and folded them beside himself, insufferable heat not preventing neatness. They also found chalked messages  showing some had survived the explosion, to sign off miserably afterwards in stifling, Stygian timelessness.  

Castlerigg

While men lived like Morlocks below, far above tramped self-exiles and sensation-seekers, revelling in the area’s otherness. These men were as different from miners in expectations and outlook as Keats, whose Hyperion references Castlerigg stone circle near Keswick –

Scarce images of life, one here, one there,

Lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque

Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor…

Then there was Ruskin, looking out from the turret of Brantwood in search of impressions – Turner, trying to capture particular lights on particular stones before all colours altered – Aleister Crowley, an unexpected alpinist, disdainful of the rising generation of “rock gymnasts” he ironically despised as self-publicising – Arthur Ransome, Soviet-sympathising author of the so-British, so-bourgeois Swallows and Amazons books – and Donald Campbell, who died on Coniston Water in 1967 while trying to set a world water-speed record in Bluebird K7 (his body was only found in 2001, and his head is still missing). 

Another Lakes-lover was Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991), son of a stonemason from Blackburn, who succumbed to the fells’ spell on 7th June 1930, staring out from Orrest Head, above Windermere:

I was totally transfixed, unable to believe my eyes…I saw mountain ranges, one after another, the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance. Rich woodlands, emerald pastures and the shimmering water of the lake…this was real. This was truth. God was in his heaven that day and I a humble worshipper.

He spent much of his remaining 61 years tramping the fells’ every inch, like them externally forbidding, describing and drawing his routes in seven Swiss-lens sharp Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, now standard reference works – each dedicated unusually, such as “The men who built the stone walls” or “Those unlovely twins, my right leg and my left leg”. When his eagle eyes failed in old age, he found himself “in a grey mist”, like those he had seen so often descending over arêtes and peaks, seeing maps increasingly only in mind’s-eye. In his posthumous Memoir of a Fellwanderer, he wrote wistfully of a final walk, slipping and stumbling in rain on an ascent made often before – of how his “silent friends…shed tears for me that day.” 

Some north-westerners sought escape rather than entrance, like John Barrow (1764-1848), knighted son of an Ulverston tanner. His career encompassed whaling in Greenland, comptrolling in China, Auditor-general of the Cape Colony, Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty, promoter of Arctic exploration (Alaska’s Barrow was named after him, in 1825; since 2016, it is officially Utqiaġvik, emblematic of ongoing de-Englishing), and President of the Royal Geographical Society. His Monument, a replica lighthouse, crowns Hoad Hill over his hometown, offering aptly vast maritime and montane panoramas. 

Another Lakes-forsaker was Stan Laurel, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston in 1890, to a vaudevillian family. Brats, Tit for Tat, Saps at Sea, Way Out West, and all the rest play on continuous reel at the town’s Laurel and Hardy Museum, as visitors are reminded of the boys’ brilliance, or inspect the photographs, typescripts, bizarre L. & H. merchandise, and things young Stan knew, including a mangle from an outhouse where he spent hours in punishment for high-spiritedness. Yet while Santa Monica became Stan’s residence, and his Englishness a comic prop, part of him always looked homewards, because he took Ollie there in 1947, and Ollie told the North West Evening Mail “Stan had talked about Ulverston for the past 22 years.” 

We too will return, cured at last of anti-Lakes ennui, old ideas augmented by new lights – “England’s Switzerland” under an azure empyrean, blood-warm walls, Whitehaven cormorants holding out wings towards the Kingdom of Man, the sun declining superbly over a stupendousness of slopes, thickly-treed hillsides tumbling down to lakes like mercury, black-faced sheep on bald sides leading up to incomprehensible viewpoints. 

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is republished with permission

Time’s terpsichorean – review of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling

TIME’S TERPSICHORIAN

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time

Hilary Spurling, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016, hb., 510pps

Anthony Powell’s million word, twelve-volume novel sequence Dance to the Music of Time is one of the great achievements of postwar English literature, attracting near-universal praise for its subtle and textured evocation of England between the First World War and the 1960s. Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, looks on quizzically as a representative cavalcade of twentieth-century characters cavort across the pages of history, at times following anciently ordained patterns, at others striking out on their own to amusing or bizarre effect. 

In the 1640 painting by Nicolas Poussin which inspired the sequence’s name, a naked, winged, controlling Father Time strums a cithara and looks on enigmatically as dancers representing the seasons revolve, facing outwards, holding hands, while a celestial chariot races through storm clouds above, and cherubs blow soap-bubbles to remind viewers of the impermanence of things. Poussin paradoxically suggests continuity and cosmic lucidity, but also the ever-present possibility of upset; dancers may perform pavanes or tarantellas, but in the end even the most corybantic must come back to the circle. Powell wrote in comparable baroque-classical vein, as if striving to rationalise randomness, impose order onto an increasingly disorderly England. Nicholas Jenkins preoccupies himself with Robert Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, Powell so signalling his own appreciation of the Anglican divine’s stately lugubriousness, his rolling periods and mordant sense, his insistence that everything has been seen before, what will be will be, and we should see chaos in context. Such phlegmatism pervades The Dance’s million words, giving its babooneries black lustre, ballasting what in less sure hands might just have been Jazz Age incidents.  

Jenkins’ England’s most egregious representative is Kenneth/Lord/Ken Widmerpool, whose altering states and styles adumbrate revolutionary wider changes. Widmerpool is a school contemporary of Jenkins, an awkward, ungainly, deeply earnest loner of “exotic drabness”, sniggered at or dismissed, who nevertheless “gets on” surprisingly, first in the world of business, but then in other ways as his attention to tedious details and brisk officiousness help him overtake more likeable but less serious schoolfellows. He is “not interested in anything not important or improving” (Powell), and constantly “closes down possibilities” (Spurling). Chilly relentlessness carries through into all he does, making him the perfect pen-pusher for peace or war, admirer of Wallis Simpson, proponent of deals with Hitler, postwar Labour peer with ties to the Soviets, cuckold, voyeur, and in the end cult thrall, returning to school-style humiliation, dying trying too hard. He rises, and sinks, without trace. In his 2004 Understanding Anthony Powell, Nicholas Birns suggests Widmerpool’s defining trait to be “craven acquiescence to whatever he perceives to be the prevailing power of the day”. Yet the quintessentially twentieth century Widmerpool would have considered himself an autonomous individual and independent thinker. 

This paragon of preposterousness is only one of over four hundred characters populating Powell’s English universe – Widmerpool counterpointed by fusty novelists, outdated painters, alcoholic ex-gilded youths, Young Turk litterateurs, communist activists, confused peers, bed-hopping models, embittered critics, impecunious uncles, oddly impressive palmists, cranks, termagants, block-headed, secretly suicidal army officers, cult-followers turned art agents, a literal femme fatale, and too many others to mention, flashing out or fleshed in expertly, each believable, comprehensible, containing multitudes. We have all had such encounters in strangely significant interiors, small exchanges that over time add up to an immensity – noticed similarly tragicomic coincidences, connections and contradictions – experienced the same disconcertment as time races but much remains the same. Those few cavillers who reject Powell for classism, conservatism, orotundity, parochialism, or triviality misread him severely. At base, The Dance is deeply humane, a universal acknowledgement of our foibles and possibilities; as Powell wrote,

All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.

Hilary Spurling knows Powell’s creations better than most, as compiler of 1977’s Invitation to the Dance, the indispensable handbook to Powell’s dramatis personæ. “Bowled over” by The Dance at eighteen or nineteen, she worked her way onto the literary desk of the Spectator, and so was able to meet her hero. As she began to make her own name (as biographer of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Paul Scott, Henri Matisse, Sonia Orwell, and Pearl Buck), she and her novelist/playwright husband John drew close to Powell and his wife Violet, at liberty when passing to drop into The Chantry, the Georgian “house with a driveway” he had always sought, for tea and scintillating talk. Powell secured her the job of writing the Invitation, and eventually asked her to be his biographer on the understanding, she writes, “that nothing was to be done for as long as possible”. When he died in 2000, she commissioned an outsize cast of his head, which peers onto their London garden as he once surveyed the entire city and century, a face of marked alertness, with slightly upturned nose  as if still scenting all winds, and owl-like eyebrows. If the Invitation allowed Spurling to display her organisational ability, this book proves her subtle understanding of Powell’s many milieux, and reveals flair and force that often rival her subject’s. 

An earlier Boswell-manqué, Michael Barber, found “certain doors were closed to me, and certain resources withheld”. He nevertheless published correspondence Powell might have preferred to forget, such as 1920s animadversions against democracy and liberalism, and a 1992 letter in which he opines “…much against my taste I would have been for Franco in a preference to a Left dominated by Communists”.  Spurling loyally does not mention Barber’s 2004 book. Powell’s politics should not be overstressed; he was averse to all ideological or religious commitments (although he had superstitious tendencies). His sole political action was helping stave off a communist takeover of the National Union of Journalists. Unlike some of his creative contemporaries, he had no wish to reform human nature, or upturn England; to borrow the title of The Dance’s third instalment, his was usually an Acceptance World. Powell produced several volumes of memoirs, but they are often opaque, as tantalised James Lees-Milne noted –

[Powell] discloses nothing about himself, but is revealing, albeit cautiously, of his contemporaries’ follies.

Like his creation Jenkins, like Poussin’s Time, the author was enigmatic, watching rather than acting, assessing rather than judging.

Happily Spurling’s delicacy of touch gives us a sharp picture of Powell in his subfusc strangeness, born in 1905, elfin only child of an irascible and stingy army officer who had been at Mons, and his much older wife, both of whose antecessors could have come from Surtees or Thackeray. We find him forced through loneliness into feats of imagination and introspection, drawing, making up stories and reading, often age-inappropriate books like Aubrey Beardsley and Havelock Ellis, interesting himself in actual or fanciful genealogies. “He found his own obscure stability in a distant heredity”, Spurling reflects, compensating psychologically for military-posting peripateticism by dwelling on “grounded for centuries” Radnorshire antecedents. Like his mother, he would always be “glad to see ghosts”. 

Powell would have no fixed address until despatched to a Kentish boarding school aged ten, a Spartan-to-squalid establishment whose pupils were fed rancid meats, and sometimes augmented their diets with raw turnips stolen from a nearby farm. Here he befriended Henry Yorke, who later wrote successful novels as Henry Green (they broke eventually, because of Yorke’s pomposity). Thence to Eton, where being standoffish and unsporting he might have suffered, but he landed luckily under the aegis of Arthur Goodhart, one of the few housemasters who took more interest in the arts than sports. Even Goodhart found the future novelist difficult to plumb, but Powell would later say his Eton days had been the most important of his life, when he found community, and started to see the world as it was. Amongst innumerable other observations, Powell filed away for future use the stigma attached to Yorke, ribbed by schoolmates for unorthodox sartorial choices, just as later Widmerpool’s persona and even destiny would be partly determined by having once worn “the wrong kind of overcoat” at school. Mrs. Spurling has been extraordinarily assiduous in identifying the originals of numerous incidents and characters that years later would step into The Dance.

Powell went on to Oxford, where he languished listlessly, conscious of being neither rich nor well-connected. But there he found Evelyn Waugh, who became a lifelong friend (and whose posthumous reputation Powell would help rescue, earning him Auberon Waugh’s enmity) and other appreciators, including Maurice Bowra. There were mind-expanding encounters with Dostoevsky, Eliot, and Proust amongst others, deep discussions, and European travel during the holidays. 

After Oxford he worked at the faction-riven, stuffy Duckworth publishing house, dealing with authors whose often atrocious texts he was expected to assess, sometimes up to fifty a week. This taught him how not to write, and the acquired habits of focus and swift summation would be of massive benefit later, both as in-demand reviewer, and dreamer-up of The Dance, turning out instalments to a private master-plan over twenty four years. Friendships accrued with notables like Robert Byron, Constant Lambert, Adrian Daintrey, and the Sitwells, and he became a Territorial Army officer. Somehow he found time to become a novelist, drawing 1931’s Afternoon Men from the lives around him, and locations like his lodgings in Shepherd’s Market, a raffish-risqué island in the middle of Mayfair. 

Love affairs came inevitably along, culminating in Violet Pakenham, the daughter of Lord Longford he married in 1934, who gave him two sons, and would become merciless, priceless dissector of each Dance volume’s first draft. He tried to become a Hollywood screenwriter, and issued four more novels – Venusberg, From a View to A Death, Agents and Patients, and What’s Become of Waring? – each in some way prefiguring his magnum opus. He got to know Graham Greene, George Orwell and everyone else who figured on the sometimes incestuous cultural scene (Greene fell away, piqued by Powell’s insufficiently fulsome review of The Heart of the Matter). Even with all her access and skill, Spurling sometimes struggles to lift him clear of his context; he had almost too many flamboyant contemporaries, who flare up and briefly outshine Powell’s steadier flame. But it would be impossible to do a better job with so “frightfully buttoned-up” (Powell’s self-description) a subject, and in any case he is inseparable from the cultural ferment she evokes so capably. 

War service entailed long absences and marital difficulties, but afforded a mass of material for the military volumes of The Dance. Demobbed, he suffered from aimless depression, and expended vast intellectual energies reviewing, sometimes a book a day for publications like the Daily Telegraph, Punch, and the Times Literary Supplement. He became close to Malcolm Muggeridge (who later cooled, jealous of Powell’s superior reputation). 1948 saw his John Aubrey and His Friends, the easygoing, inveterate quidnunc clearly speaking to Powell across centuries. Then along came 1951’s A Question of Upbringing, and The Dance die was cast. Between installments, Powell used his influence liberally to bolster or create careers, like those of Kingsley Amis and V. S. Naipaul – the latter long an intimate, but eventually an ingrate who trashed Powell’s oeuvre once his old mentor had died.

As he garnered grey hairs and honorary doctorates, and became a Companion of Honour, he came to be dismissed by callower critics as fusty, out-datedly English, vaguely Tory, his European outlook and experimentalism occluded by externalities of accent or attire, such as being the last Travellers’ Club member to maintain the habit of wearing a hat during lunch. But over the years of writing The Dance his reputation generally held up, each volume awaited keenly by connoisseurs, some awarded prizes. 

Forty-two years after the appearance of the final volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, Powell is still relatively widely read, but few would have understood better than he the contingency of celebrity, the evanescence of fame, bubbles popping from the pipes of Poussin’s putti. Oeuvres ought to be constantly reexamined, and reputations renewed, if even the greatest works of imagination are not to slide down time’s interstices. Spurling’s subtle salute to her friend will be of  service to his shade, and conducive to a nuanced view of his century. 

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is republished with permission

Upcoming Chronicles reviews

My review of Kassia St. Clair’s engrossing Secret Lives of Colour will be in the July 2018 issue of Chronicles

I have also just sent them my review of David Cannadine’s Victorious Century (no idea yet when that will be published)