SHUGGIE BAIN

Autobiography is a branch of fiction. This is not to say that Newman’s Apologia or Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit are untrue. Merely that they are the work of  skilled writers, and the arrangement of one’s life– especially the arrangement of that kaleidoscope, one’s INNER life – into a story is an inherently artificial thing to do. Not least because, in a story, one thing happens after another, and in actual, experienced, life the important events do not happen chronologically, and  if  certain events or experiences possess more significance than others, this might only emerge  long after they have happened, or not happened.  Perhaps this explains SOME of T.S.Eliot’s personal obsession with not having a biography written of him, a preoccupation which gripped him  from really quite early manhood. The reflections on his inner journey in Burnt Norton would suggest that it was impossible, quite to put these things into  narrative, because time, unlike prose narratives, does not progress in a linear form.

These thoughts, themselves repetitions of inner preoccupations of mine  stretching back many years, came to mind when I was finishing the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize SHUGGIE BAIN, by Douglas Stuart (Picador £14.99). I very much admired it  and could easily see why the judges, one of whom happens to be my eldest child – my God, talk about the policemen looking younger, one’s CHILD is a Booker judge!! –  thought SHUGGIE BAIN was worthy of the prize which, in the past, has been given to such masterpieces as Iris Murdoch’s THE SEA, THE SEA and Salman Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN.

Douglas Stuart works as a fashion designer in New York, but, as he has made clear in many interviews, SHUGGIE BAIN is the story of his early life in Glasgow during the 1980s – when the mines and the manufacturing industries and the docks of that magnificent old port were all being destroyed by the march of monetarism,  and for many people there was small hope of  paid work or,  indeed , of  anything interesting to pass the time.  Shuggie (it is Scottish for Hugh or Hughie) is the third child of Agnes, and the story chronicles her disastrous relationship with alcohol, played out in a series of grotty residences, where the women sit round poring over sale catalogues for cheap clothes and domestic appliances to buy on the never-never. “Thank God for black-outs”, as one of  the women says to Shuggie’s mother, while crossing herself.

“Look. Ah know why ye drink, hen. It’s hard to cope sometimes. Ah steer clear of the drink, but ah still need a couple of these every day”. As she produces the wee bottle of Valium, she adds, “Welcome to Pithead”. When, much later in the book, Shuggie and his mother have moved to Glasgow’s East End, his new friend, – in some ways the most sympathetic character in the whole book, Leanne Kelly – having asked why he speaks so funny, confides, “Ma brothers would skin me if they knew I was going around with a dirty Orange dog”. (In fact, though the son of a Prod taxi driver, Shuggie is of his mother’s religion,. Ie Cath-lick).

Everyone is poor, none of the women actually likes their man, and the tribal divide between Catholic and Protestant, is expressed less by attendance at a place of worship than by  sporting a Glasgow Rangers Sports bag or a bit of Celtic memorabilia. Preference for McEwan’s Lager reveals the tribal allegiance.

None of the men – I was going to write, the “real men” – in the book is remotely sympathetic. Pot-bellied, balding, farting, sexually clumsy, and now largely unemployed, unless they are taxi-drivers or prepared to go and work as mine-foremen in South Africa –   we hear, with eery accuracy how they speak, but we do not see into their souls. This is is a book about women – and Shuggie. From  an early age, Shuggie  realizes that all the women have correctly diagnosed that there is something about him which “isnae right”.  In spite of his attempts  to bone up on football, from a tattered old copy of a sports handbook, given away free with the local newspaper, he convinces no one.

Gide was furious with Proust for the opening pages of Sodome et Gomorrhe, where it was suggested that there were certain men who were really girls trapped inside male bodies. This viewpoint in 2020-21 is, OF COURSE,  offensive on almost all levels, managing to  upset transgender sensitivities as well as the feelings of homosexuals. Such  delicate sensitivities and feelings, however, are not on very wide display in the poorer parts of Glasgow in the 1980s. Even when he is eight, and moving with his alkie mother to the Pithead region of ex-coal-mines, the other residents yell out his supposed resemblance to Liberace. Everything about him, from his voice to his walk, to his fondness for rearranging his mother’s few non-pawnable knick-knacks on the window ledge –  tells the same mysterious story. There are moments of horror, as when other boys at school beat him up, or he takes an unwise taxi ride on New Year’s Eve in quest of his mother, but even in these dark moments, the comedy is unrelenting.

For that reason, Shuggie Bain is  Dickensian. It does not imitate Dickens, but it has Charles Dickens’s ability to turn the humiliations and heartbreaks of a poverty-stricken childhood into a work of art. You would think that Dickens could not have improved on his childhood horror-story after you have read David Copperfield, but he could lower the bucket repeatedly into the well and produce Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. It will be fascinating to see, in the case of debut-writer Douglas Stuart, whether he continues to write about working-class Glasgow, or whether the impeccable ear for dialogue and the nuanced comic timing will enable him to write fictions about his current sphere of usefulness. If so, The Devil Wears Prada will one day have a great rival.

I really recommend Shuggie Bain.

Uneasy Lies…..

The public seems to be dividing over The Crown, the drama series on Netflix. On the one hand there are those who stress the programme’s entertainment value, high production standards, good acting etc. On the other, there are those who deplore its departure from  strict historical accuracy.

(For what its worth, I think that most of the acting, especially that by Olivia Colman as the Queen, is almost criminally bad.

Even normally good actors such as Helena Bonham Carter are not good in this show. The Mrs Thatcher actress does not even act, she just does that unfunny Mrs Thatcher imitation everyone used to do in the 1980s which in fact bore no resemblance to the real lady. The only exception is the Lady Di actress, Emma Corrin, who seems as good as it is possible to be.

Behind each opposing  group, of course, there are those with an axe to grind. Some of those who have rushed to attack the Crown in the press seem to be signalling, rather desperately, towards the Monarch, or whoever arranges these matters, that they would like to be able to write the meaningless letters CBE or  OBE after their names.  Equally, some of those who praise the production standards of Netflix might be doing so from the perspective of republicanism. There can be no doubt , if you hate the way Lady Di was treated by her husband and his family, that you think they deserve a good kicking, even quarter of a century after the tragic events which led to her death.

And then again, the whole thing is complicated by the absolutely chilling revelations by Channel Four that Martin Bashir secured his Panorama interview with Lady Di by a clever series of outright lies and forgeries. Worst among these was surely the forging of bank statements, purporting to show that the Princess’s secretary – in fact one of her most stalwart protectors and supporters –  was secretly accepting bribes to work for the other side.

The sinister facts unearthed by the Channel Four documentary do remind us how very murky the whole story was, and is. True, the BBC has been shown up. The Producer of the Panorama programme, who knew how dodgy Bashir’s methods were, is dead, but he died with the Princess’s blood on his hands.

But this is where I think that some of those who attack Netflix’s The Crown are being a little naif in their suggestion that there were no dark forces at work, trying to undermine and threaten the Princess. There is a trail of unanswered mysteries surrounding her death itself, including the fact that the white Fiat Uno which forced her car to crash in the underpass, has never been found. Nor, as far as we can tell, has there ever been a very strenuous effort to find it.

Two or three years before her tragic death, I had lunch in a Kensington hotel with a couple of my fellow journalists and two officers in the SAS , who were drinking, even by the standards of our profession, very heavily.  As they became plastered, the soldiers told us that they had been offered enormous sums of money to assassinate the Princess, and that they were sure that one day, sooner or later, she would be killed.

This brings me to the strong implication, in The Crown, that the Duke of Edinburgh actually threatened his daughter-in-law with the possibility of her being murdered to shut her up. It has been pointed out that the Duke is now a frail old man of ninety-nine and that he surely deserves better than for a playwright, Peter Morgan, to invent a scene in which Prince Philip came up to Lady Di’s bedroom at Sandringham before Christmas Dinner to hint that if she did not buck up, she would be in danger.

Watching the Crown has, no doubt, brought out the inner Royalist or Inner Oliver Cromwell in most of us.

Having for years told myself that I was a keen monarchist, I have realized, watching it, that I think the monarchy has outgrown any meaning or usefulness it once had, and that there is a simple reason for this.The reason everyone feels awkward in the presence of the Queen and her family is not because they are royal, it is because they are freaks. In Lady Di’s presence, everyone felt immediately at ease.

Seeing an actress depict Lady Di reminds me of why the whole world fell in love with her. This is not because she was a princess in a “fairy tale” – as Bob Runcie said at the wedding in his amazingly camp voice. It is because – if we must  have princesses and kings and queens in the real world,  – she is precisely the sort of person we should like to have in such a role – starry, sympathetic, unpompous, and – one thing which it is really quite easy to be –  polite.

The staggering personal rudeness of Princess Anne and Prince Philip is too well known to be worth mentioning. But the truth is that none of the Royal Family have ordinary, decent good manners of the kind you would naturally expect from another person if meeting them for the first time.  Lady Di was not a saint, but she did put herself out for others and she had the most beautiful manners. Her removal from the scene was a huge national tragedy from which Britain has never recovered. I think that  Peter Morgan’s drama reflects this fact and it is a greater truth than whether or not the – let’s be honest –  horrid old Duke actually threatened her.

For what it is worth, my guess is that evidence will eventually come to light , not only that Lady Di was deliberately murdered, but that this crime was committed, if not with the collusion, at least with the knowledge of at least one member of her ex-husband’s family. ENDS

Black Prince Alert

It will distress some readers to know that a violent warmonger, responsible for thousands of deaths in France , is lying in a position of honour in Canterbury Cathedral. Edward the Black Prince, whose magnificent tomb is one of the glories of the Mother Church of the Southern Province,  was the victor of the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers in which half the French nobility were slain. He ravaged and laid waste the Auvergne, Narbonne, Limousin….

Presumably it was Edward the Black Prince that the present Archbishop of Canterbury had in mind when he said recently – reported in the Times, November 10th, “The Church, goodness me, you just go round Canterbury Cathedral and there are monuments everywhere, or Westminster Abbey. We are looking at all that, and some will have to come down”.

Who are “we” in this sentence? Perhaps we shall never know . The Archbish, as it happens, has no authority to pull down monuments in Canterbury Cathedral, which are in the care of the Dean and Chapter. Likewise, Westminster Abbey. If he had his pick of who to remove from the National Valhalla, he would probably be spoilt for choice. Geoffrey Chaucer, of course, would be driven out of Poet’s Corner for his (admittedly nauseating ) Prioress’s Tale, about Little St Hugh of Lincoln being supposedly murdered by the Jews. Some people wondered at the time why the strongly anti-Christian D.H.Lawrence was commemorated in Poet’s Corner, but if you were trying to fit Lawrence into a “woke”view of the world, you’d have the work cut out! He was an undoubted racist, sexist and , had he lived long enough would have been, like his namesake of Arabia, a fascist. As a Croydon schoolmaster in his twenties he was already dreaming of constructing gas ovens in which to destroy those he hated.

  King Edward I, who signed the Edict of Expulsion, asking the Jews to leave England altogether in 1290, would lose his tomb if Justin Welby had anything to do with it. In fact, if you went round Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, you would find it difficult to find a monument pre-1960 to anyone who had not, in some way or another, had a scale of values markedly differing from our own.

One of the most magnificent tombs in the Abbey is that designed by Maximilian Holt for the  person who could claim to be the greatest leader Britain ever had – Queen Elizabeth I : greatest in terms of intelligence, in terms of ability to inspire and unite the population, in terms of cultural achievements and changing  and enhancing the position of her country among the nations. It was not just sycophancy which made her subjects see her as Gloriana.

Yet, there was a buccaneering side to this brilliant intellectual, and when Sir John Hawkins and Francis Drake offered her gold and jewels looted from the Spaniards, she was more than happy, not merely to take the swag but to be depicted, in portrait after portrait, dripping with what some would regard as stolen property. And, far worse – indeed utterly fatefully – by endorsing Hawkins, she also endorsed his having traded in fellow-human beings when he took them from Portuguese slaving ships and sold them on in the West Indies.

No doubt Justin Welby would feel very righteous if he went round with a hammer, like the old Puritans in Reformation times, and eliminated all  monuments to these wicked people.

Christianity teaches us that we are all wicked, we have all gone astray. Putting the monument up to a king who expelled the Jews, or to those in the eighteenth and nineteenth century who committed outrages against humanity – that was seen as a contentious thing to do. But pulling the monuments down, especially when the monuments are objects of beauty – that is surely a  moral as well as an aesthetic mistake.

We do not necessarily endorse the past by cherishing its often beautiful but mysterious buildings and artifacts. You learn, over and over again, the lesson that the past really was a foreign country. The study of history requires the patience and subtlety to learn its complicated language.  Edward the Confessor, the saint whose shrine lies at the heart of the Abbey, owned slaves, albeit white slaves. Slavery was part of Anglo-Saxon culture .  Remember, four hundred years before Edward the Confessor, it was the sight of little English slave-boys in the market who inspired the Pope to exclaim they were “Angeli non Angli”, and to send St Augustine to evangelize our land.

Our churches and cathedrals are among the greatest art works, freely available to all. No art work can speak to us unless we listen to it, attend to it. Archbishop Welby does not want to look and listen. He wants, as so many people do now a days, to go round judging the past, and obliterating the bits which offend him. He thinks he could cut out the bits which he is afraid of, or thinks will upset people – such as monuments to empire builders and tyrants. He does not realize that the past and its messages cannot be edited, they can only be either heard, or destroyed.

Christianity itself is, for very many people  alive today, troublingly, even offensive. (In its suggestion that salvation is through Christ only, in its patriarchal traditions, in its history of crusades and persecutions, in its distrust of the body and its hostility not only to homosexuality but to most sex…) That is not, surely, an argument in favour of pulling down Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, even though, if you followed Justin Welby’s rather silly argument, that is probably what you would expect a modern secular liberal society to do. ENDS

Graham Greene

(This is a version of a recent article in The Tablet).

There have been some pretty galumphing attempts to write the life of Graham Greene, in which his complicated sex life seemed more important to the prolix  authors than his novels.

 What was needed was what we now have, (Russian Roulette, by Richard Greene, no relation, Little Brown ) a one-volume, well-balanced biography which never loses hold of why we might want to read a book about Graham Greene: namely, that he wrote six or seven truly brilliant books, and was responsible, with Carol Reed, for what is surely one of the best films ever made, The Third Man.

A biography of such a man needs to take into account his large family, his headmaster father, his many (quite rum) siblings,  –  one a fascist, one Director General of the BBC, ,- his unhappy marriage, his compulsive disloyalty as a husband, his  alcohol- and barbiturates-dependency, his addiction to the seedy, his string of mistresses, his sympathy for his old chum  the  traitor Philby, his fondness for Castro, his belief that he’d rather live in the Soviet Union than in the USA  . Above all, the biographer, and the reader of such a book, would need to be aware of Greene’s consummate skill at arranging the material of his own life ; his genius for self-promotion disguised as a quest for privacy; self-dramatization portrayed as a spiritual quest.

All these things the new biography by Richard Greene, a Canadian professor who is no relation, competently, unpretentiously and briskly does. But  Richard Greene never loses sight of the central thing about Graham Greene, namely that he was first and foremost a novelist ;  surely one of the best novelists, in any language, of his generation. The sheer technical brilliance with which the stories unfold in The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock make them object lessons in  how to frame a narrative . There is also the distinctive view of the world which made Greene, for some, the great Catholic novelist, for others, a mountebank, capable of peddling theological paradox for sensationalist effect. When he worked as a publisher at Eyre and Spottiswood, his colleague  Douglas Jerrold, another Catholic, felt that Greene’s novels trivialised religion, and missed “the essence of a Catholic life”.

The film of The Third Man  which is a wonderful achievement, would not have been possible had not, with one part of his fantasy life, the author actually shared Harry Lime’s cynicism. “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”. Orwell found  Greene’s outlook snobbish : “Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only” , since everyone else was too invincibly ignorant to be damned.

It is probably difficult at this historical distance to realize that Greene was  regarded by some of his contemporaries, not merely as an accomplished popular novelist, but also as a religious sage. Pope Paul VI was a fan – or so Greene claimed.  Equally satisfying., however, were the regular denunciations which senior Catholic figures could be relied upon to supply, to the delight of Greene’s publicity machine. When The Heart of the Matter was banned in Ireland, it went on to sell 300,000 copies.

Similar success was guaranteed when the Holy Office condemned The Power and the Glory,.

You could have replied, to these responses from “Disgusted of Citta Vaticana” that the books were , after all,  only novels, not essays in theology. Some of Greene’s friends and admirers, within the Catholic fold,however, clearly   considered  Greene’s books to be something more than mere entertainments. Evelyn Waugh, the new biography reminds us, believed that Greene had an “apostolic mission”. Edith Sitwell, another convert,  wrote to him, “I said before, but I repeat it, what a great priest you would have made”.

 Many must have questioned   the melodramatic way in which Greene manipulated, for sensationalist effect, the  idea expressed by Charles Peguy,  that  the sinner was as close to God as the saint. Peguy was first invoked, in Greene’s published work, by the old priest hearing Rose’s confession at the end of Brighton Rock. “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the appalling… strangeness of the mercy of God”.  From here, apparently, it was only a step to Time magazine’s article on the publication of The End of the Affair: “NOVELIST GRAHAM GREENE: Adultery can lead to sainthood”.

If this doctine is true , Greene, long before he died,  must have been  well on his way to  sanctification . Evelyn Waugh, who expressed the view to a friend that Greene was a saint, was asked “But, what about Mrs Walston? ” This was the vampish  Catherine Walston, one of Greene’s longest-standing mistresses, who herself became a Catholic. The new biography reminds us,  “A wisecrack went round that they had made love behind all the high altars of Europe”. Waugh’s reply to his censorious friend was this. “In the middle ages, there was a Pope who was so holy that he felt in danger of people revering his sanctity, which would lead to spiritual pride. So he took to appearing in the streets of Rome wearing a ridiculous paper hat, so that no one could take him too seriously. Mrs Walston is Graham’s paper hat”.

It was a charming observation, but this new biography makes it clear that the melodrama of the whisky priest bringing salvation to the poor Mexicans for whom he said his slurred mass;  or  of the  posthumous miracles wrought by Catherine Walston, transformed into Sarah in The End of the Affair, were not fantasies kept solely within the pages of his fiction. “To be a saint is the only happiness”, Greene told his Journal. “Oh Christ, if one could set one’s ambition at goodness – so that financial worry meant nothing more than failure at tennis”… This was a man who drove ruthlessly hard bargains with his publishers, and accumulated vast sums from his film deals, even though so much of his fortune was lost through his foolishly putting his financial affairs in the hands of a swindler.  (The swindler,  Tom Roe,  squirreled Greene’s money in Switzerland to avoid paying tax),.In the long, tormented affair with Mrs Walston, which brought great misery to Greene, and to all involved,    the pair continued to read de Caussade and  von Hugel and to  have what sound like  cringeworthy theological conversations with one another and with their many priest friends, one of whom (the Dominican scholar Thomas Gilby OP)  Catherine complicated matters by seducing.  The sentence in this new  biography which really encapsulates the man  in one sentence comes when he was researching The Lawless Roads in Mexico in the 1930s. “Greene went on to Mexico City where, in a characteristic pairing, he made visits to a monastery and a brothel”.

Not content with espousing the  paradoxes of Peguy ,  Greene also swallowed the gobble-de-gook of psychoanalysis, and put himself in the hands of a man who sounds, in the new book, like a real charlatan , Eric Strauss.  He also supported Marxist uprisings all round the world, the less plausible the thug or dictator, such as Fidel Castro, the more likely Greene was to admire him just as Greene, unlike others who worked with him in MI6 at the end of the war, continued to defend the treacheries of Kim Philby, which sent many to their deaths. Greene’s zest for paradox did not necessarily blind him to the cruelty of the Soviet system. This was surely part of its appeal to him.

 Yet the tension in his imaginative world between Marxism and Catholicism was touchingly fictionalized in the novel Monsignor Quixote, in which the descendant of Sacho Panza is found to be a Communist mayor in contemporary Spain and the descendant of the Man of La Mancha is an obscure  priest, raised to the status of Monsignor by  a farcical set of mishaps in his remote village. The book sprang out of Greene’s friendship  with a priest called Leopoldo Duran.

Their  drives  through Spain in a battered old car, and their alcoholically fuelled conversations about doubt and faith are among the most moving things Greene ever wrote. In another late novel, The Human Factor, not only did he write one of the best espionage novels, but there is also a domestic warmth. In both these lateish novels, there is a distrust of the  hard-edged certainties and neatly drawn stereotypical positions which had so appealed to a younger Greene . Yet it was precisely the hard-edgedness of the Catholic view of the world, embraced in Greene’s early fiction, which made it work so well. Pinkie and Rose, in Brighton Rock both believe in hell but so did their author, else the story would not be so powerful.

Just as Golden Age detective fiction was made sharper by the reader’s knowledge that the murderer, unearthed by Lord Peter Wimsey ,  was going to be hanged, so Greene’s sharpest Catholic novels were ones in which the doctrine of hell was only tempered by the paradoxical twists of Peguy, and a sense of the divine mercy too deep for understanding.

If Greene’s biographer were analysing his ideas, they would most of them seem to rest on flimsy foundations. Anyone who had spent a day reading Solzhenitsyn, for example, would take Greene’s declared preference for life as Soviet citizen with a pinch of salt. His biographer is especially sound on Greene’s nonsensical political posturings, which would be of importance had he been a politician, just as his theological views  can not be disentangled from the imaginative take on the world which produced the novels., From  blitzed London in which he lost all his possessions, his books and his house, he wrote to a friend, “London is extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new open spaces, and the rather Mexican effect of ruined churches”.

From Mexico itself he had written, that Christianity in that country is “a dark and tormented and magic cult. But what harm in that? We are too inclined to forget that Christianity is magic – the man raised from the dead, the devils cast out, water turned into wine, an earth religion- the clay mixed with spittle, the body raised again. Perhaps these dark crosses had more in them of original Christianity than our aseptic rational variety”.

In both these quotations from Greene’s private writings, we can see the imagination at work which, when exquisitely  crafted into fictions or films, would grow into that distinctive atmosphere of “Greene-land”.ENDS

Wider yet and wider

The hoo-ha about whether to sing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the Last Night of the Proms made me remember the endearing author of the offending lyrics.

We are in the middle of moving house at the moment, which has  involved me in parting from thousands of books, some of them dear old friends. In our bedroom, however, is a bookcase containing about 200 volumes from  which I could not  imagine being parted. They include Proust, P.G.Wodehouse,  The Nebuly Coat, The Oxford Book of German Verse, ditto Prose, and so forth. I might write about this collection of “Desert Island Books” in a later blog.

Two members of the celebrated Benson tribe, children of the Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson,  are assembled in this shelf of favourites. Fred Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels – of course. But also, a book called On the Edge of Paradise by David Newsome (doyen of Benson studies, former Master of Wellington College) , which is the life of Arthur (A.C.) Benson told through his  copious diaries.

They were a very loveable family, the Bensons, but many would consider them rum. The future Archbishop proposed to his wife when she was just 12. Having given birth to the family of writers –  among them, Monsignor Hugh, author of such thrilling recusant tales as  Come Rack, Come Rope! – , Fred, the high camp humorous novelist, and Arthur, A.C., who was an Eton beak, and subsequently Master of Magdalene College Cambridge. Their mum, born  Mary Sidgwick, fell in love with Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous Archbish. They shared a bed – the children were only mildly embarrassed by this.

Magdalene College, of which A.C. became master, is perhaps chiefly celebrated for housing the diary and library of its famous alumnus  Samuel Pepys. Another great diarist, however, was A.C.Benson, His journals run for over five million words, and it is, sad that so few of them are in print. Techno-incompetence means that I have printed two illustrations of the Pepys library in this blog, and, having tried to delete one of them, and inadvertently deleted the whole entry, I have decided to leave both in place! Perhaps appropriately. If the truth is told, I would far rather read A.C.Benson’s diaries than Pepys. Where Pepys is brutally coarse, Arthur is hyper-sensitive. Where Pepys is on the make, Benson was on the lose, emotionally at any rate. Whereas Pepys stood on the threshold of Britain being about to take off – as a great commercial power, as an intellectual powerhouse, as an architectural paradise, Benson came when all that was about to come to an end, and be irreparably ruined by the First World War. The hateful twentieth century destroyed everything he – and we – ever loved. Pepys’s diaries are for those whose favourite seasons are spring and summer. Benson’s diaries are for those of us who love the melancholy of autumn.

Some entries are thousands of words long. His impressions of life, and of the hundreds of people he met, and of the  innocent pre-First World War days where he led such a privileged existence are indeed a sort of Paradise, when we step back into them today. But poor Arthur was deeply depressive, and often confined in mental hospitals for his crushing black dog periods.

He fell in love with a succession of beautiful young men, but would have been horrified, indeed was horrified, by the idea of “doing anything” about this. Newsome’s book has a poignant jacket, illustrated with a number of photographs –  one shows the Benson tribe entire,  another, old A.C., distinguished don and  and , top left, poor Arthur, standing beside Dadie Rylands, who himself grew  to  be the legendary King’s don, friend of the Bloomsburies etc. I knew Dadie a bit – perhaps that’s another blog.

In this picture, Dadie, a blonde twenty-year-old, had his hand through Benson’s arm. Looking full at the camera, Benson could be some retired Indian army colonel, with his double-breasted suit and his walrus moustache. Behind the staring eyes, though… Ah! Such sadness.

In one diary entry he ruefully reflected that he had always lived on the edge of Paradise, and never entered it. Hence Newsome’s title.

Benson, who would be the first editor of Queen Victoria’s letters, was in his forties when the King, Edward VII, asked him to supply some lyrics for Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March.

He  had first met Elgar in 1902 when the King had asked them to collaborate on his Coronation Ode. Thry met at the Queen’s Hall, which was where the Proms used to be held – before it was bombed in the Second War, Elgar had only been to the Proms once before. He walked straight to the ticket office, ignoring the long queue and insisted on being given a free ticket. He sat through a Saint-Saens march, a Tchaikovsky concerto (“my idea of music”. )“Then came the Ode. Elgar stepped to the box; he is taller and shapelier than I have imagined…a long nose – red hands – large cuffs”. He conducted with a smiling aplomb – has a funny fumbling movement of the hands after end of piece. The Ode did both please and impress me very much; it is wizard-like music”.

Afterwards, in the dressing room,  “I found Elgar with his artists. I ought to have thanked them – but I was too stupid – and just had three pleasurable words with E., who was very genial and pleasant. Once or twice I detected a twang, I thought”.

A typical Benson diary entry, with its close attention to all the details – Elgar’s funny gestures with his hands, his slightly “common” voice.  The “Land of Hope and Glory”  lines were added at the last minute when the King wanted more of the Benson-Elgar duo. Apart from “Land of Hope and Glory”, Benson also wrote the words for a melody called “My Heart”, a poem he composed in ten minutes.

Elgar liked Benson’s work, and suggested they collaborate on an opera on the theme of Cleopatra. Newsome adds, “Arthur never followed it up – probably wisely”.

Elgar came to hate the slaughter and insensitive jingoism associated with the Pomp and Circumstance march. Benson, in 1914, said that he was against war in any circumstances, thought it should be as outmoded as duelling. He died in 1925, having lived through the war which saw the death of hundreds of his former pupils at school and university.

To revisit his diaries, with Newsome as guide, is to feast on an innocent, largely male world. His favourite play was The Tempest. “I think Ariel is the hero of the piece, that pretty, sexless creature, the dreaming spirit of wood and flower. It takes hold of me to think of Ariel serving so zealously and only waiting for his escape to the blossom that hangs on the bough. Then Prospero giving up his enchantments and the isle full of noises to go back to the world and business. Macbeth frightens me and Hamlet bewilders me; but The Tempest leaves me happier at heart”.

Heading for the Inferno

We live in a dystopia . Very hard to imagine any  imaginative young writer, poet or novelist, producing a work of uplift in the Covid-infected, climate-changed planet, where all the governments of the world seem to be either grossly incompetent, or hideously corrupt or both. . Whenever you think the post-Christian generations began, – at the time of the French Revolution? Or much later? Post-Second World War? –  it is striking that the Biblical templates borrowed by the post-Christians are now  those of apocalyptic destruction and disaster.  Optimistic socialists of 1945 might have looked forward to a New Heaven and a New Earth. The generations under 30 do not see that world coming to pass.

Young Greta Thunberg is the environmentalist Joan of Arc. But most people, certainly most young people I know, do not want to believe that the world can be saved. Like latter-day Anabaptists or Muggletonians, they derive evident satisfaction from the thought that humanity, and the world it inhabits, is heading for incineration. The inside of their heads must be like one of the more apocalyptic canvases of John Martin.

Valerie Fritsch is one of the young stars of German-speaking literature at the moment.

Born in Austria in 1989, her novel Winters Garten was published five years ago now and has already achieved a sort of classic status. It deserves it. Like Rilke or Pasternak, she has written prose fiction as if she were writing a poem. She does not go in for explanations, so we do not know why the European country in which we find ourselves is deep into a disaster. In one of the most memorable scenes, the hero peers down from a harbour wall and sees the corpses of innumerable naval officers, many of them wearing their medals, and gleaming like fishes beneath the sea. They are only one example of a current wave of mass suicides.

Anton Winter, son of a violin maker, had an upbringing outside the unnamed city, on his grandparents’ farm or estate. The garden where he roamed free, and where ladies sat among the rhubarb patches, seems timeless. At first the reader wonders whether it is an historical novel, possibly a Vienna of the time of Musil. But we are soon brought uncomfortably forward into a time beyond our own. Anton has left the superabundant, tickly planted world of the grandparents behind and now inhabits a tower block in the city . From his prefabricated Grenfell-like block, h e can look down on the ruins of the city.

The  grandparents’ world was far from idyllic. His granny kept the foetuses of all her miscarried babies in jamjars which were buried with her. But she lived in a recognizably  Catholic, or ex-Catholic world, with a figurine of her Guardian Angel on a gold chain round her neck. Anton must find, or be, his own Guardian Angel.

He is a bird-breeder, and as the disaster in the  modern city gets worse, he meets, and begins to make love to, a red-haired mysterious woman called Frederike, who is working in the hospital, which is now almost entirely devoted to  a maternity unit. She helps to deliver a child who, it turns out, is Anton’s nephew. They all – his long-estranged brother, the mother of the child, Frederike and he, retire to the now more or less deserted and ruinous garden of childhood. I won’t spoil the surprise ending for you, but I strongly recommend the novel. The scenes in which, from the unbearably cold house, they gaze across the snows to the  distant city in flames will long stay in my mind as an image of what the modern pessimistic imaginative  mind sees when it looks out of the window.

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