Page 3 of 6


I see that the Prime Minister’s prep school, Ashdown House, is to close down. Good! A journalist wrote almost lovingly of the place the other day, recalling that a former headmaster, Billy Williamson, “charmed parents and flogged pupils with equal gusto”. One old boy, now Lord Snowdon, recollected, “On one occasion, our entire class was caned because a boy did something fairly petty and didn’t own up”. At least, after two years of this hell, Snowdon’s nice parents, Anthony Armstrong-Jones and Princess Margaret, took the boy away from the school. I endured six years at my prep school which was less fashionable than Ashdown House, and where the headmaster’s sado-sexual love of the cane was out of control. By a strange co-incidence, it was the father of the journalist who wrote about Ashdown House, another pupil at my dreadful school – Hillstone, Great Malvern – who opened my eyes to the full horror of what had gone on there. I had supposed, until this distinguished diplomat told me, that the worst which went on was uncontrolled sadism, and a bit of unwanted fumbling and touching at bath time, but he told me of dreadful life-histories, boys who had been anally raped, growing into men who were unable to cope with the emotional wounds. I have since met others whose family members- fathers, uncles, brothers, had been utterly ruined by the suicides or depressive lives of boys raped, tortured and maltreated by Rudolph Barbour Simpson and his wife Barbara at Hillstone.

Here is an article I wrote some years ago about boarding schools.

See the source image

Hillstone School, Great Malvern Worcestershire

Would you send your child to a boarding school? Did you go to one yourself?  Those who aren’t British find our whole relationship with these institutions quite puzzling. People of other nations apparently have their babies because they want them. They enjoy family life, at least some of the time, and consider  it to be one of the greatest privileges in life, to watch their children develop. Family occasions – whether Sunday lunch or bigger festivities such as birthdays and anniversaries, are just that, with all generations gathered around a table.

The British, the more privileged they are, no sooner have a baby than they want to pay someone else to take it away from them . The first few years of the child’s life it was looked after by a nanny. And then, as early as possible, it was packed off to a boarding school. You do not need to have read  about Dotheboys Hall, the horrific boarding school in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, to know that British boarding schools have always been a by-word for discomfort, cruelty (by the children to one another, and by adults to the children)  sadism and sexual perversion. Yet people continue to shell out sums in excess of £25,000 or £30,000 per annum, out of taxed income, to send their children to such places!


British boarding schools grew up , for the most part, during the period of the British Empire, and of the two world wars. Many parents felt, while they were District Governors in Nigeria, or serving officers in the Indian Army, or posted abroad during wartime, that a boarding school in Bexhill or Great Malvern provided an element of stability for their child which they could not provide for themselves.  Several people I know whose parents worked in India during the time of the Raj were sent to boarding school in England as young as four.

But that was in the days of the Raj! What is the chief reason for sending your child to a boarding school today? There is no longer an empire.  The numbers in the armed forces is shrinking year by year. The chief reason for boarding schools is snobbery.

Ninety years ago, in a genteel suburb in Cheshire (Bramhall) my grandmother’s best friend Mrs Berry remarked  that the daughter of one of their neighbours, educated at the excellent local grammar school, had a detectable Northern accent. Horror of horrors! It was decided at once that my mother and her best friend Enid should be sent off to Cheltenham Ladies, lest they be heard to say “buke” instead of “book”.

Both my parents went to boarding schools, and they sent me , my brother and sister to similar places. My own experience  of being sent away at seven to Hillstone School, Great Malvern was horrific. The headmaster, Rudolph Barbour-Simpson, a local magistrate and a much-respected bigwig, was a sexual sadist. His wife was also a monster. When she discovered that her husband fancied one of us, and had been fiddling about with us, she would jealously punish his latest crush, with tortures worthy of the Gestapo : forcing you to eat your least favourite food until you vomited and making you eat the vomit; pushing you into the swimming bath with a  pointed umbrella before you could swim; locking you in a cage all day and encouraging the other boys to jeer at you as you wet yourself.

I wrote an article in the Daily Mail about my experiences at the hands of these brutes.  It generated a  bigger postbag than anything I had ever written before. I had been under the impression that Rudolph’s worst sin was beating the boys until their bottoms bled, sometimes while himself masturbating; or a bit of “fiddling about”.  My correspondents told me of far worse stories, including anal rapes, and later suicides of Hillstone boys.

You will say that my school was not typical. Maybe it was an extreme case, but I do not think it WAS atypical.

When the child abuse scandals began to emerge in the Roman Catholic Church, it was very easy for the rest of us to  sneer at the pervert, often Irish, priests and reflect smugly that “we” were different. But WHY was child abuse, in the RC Church, at the BBC  in the times of  Jimmy Saville, and in care homes and borstals, so blithely ignored or even tolerated during this era? It was because so many men in the so-called Establishment had been abused themselves at boarding school.

The classic pattern of the abused child –  I know because I am one – is to feel ashamed and to say nothing about it. This suppression of an experience comes out in all kinds of ways later in life, often with very peculiar attitudes to sex.

People think that the RC bishop, Cardinal O’Brien,  was a hypocrite because he denounced homosexuality while secretly making passes at his prettier young priests.

But that is classic abuse and abused behaviour. When you have been abused you are in denial, whether you are the abuser or the abused. That is why so many boarding schools got away with it for so long. The left hand literally did not know what the right hand was doing.

Many of our  most respectable boarding schools  shielded men who were a danger to children. Only a  few of these men have been caught, and are now serving their time.

Apart from the sadism and sexual perversion of teachers at boarding schools, there is another reason why such institutions are a danger. And this remains the case, even if such places have now cleaned up their act, and made some attempt to weed out the rotten apples from their staff. That is the innate tendency of children to be cruel to one another.

You can not police a child twenty-four hours a day. But at least, if your child is living at home with you, it is possible to know when he or she goes to bed, when they get up, and to have some general idea (even during the most secretive teenage years) of their state of mind and health. Boarding school teachers will tell you that they stand in the pace of parents and can do this on parents’ behalf with their pupils. But this is simply not the case. Very few boarding school pupils are supervised in the evenings. And there is no way that a boarding-school teacher (in all likelihood less sophisticated than the pupils in the ways of computer technology) can possibly police the cyber-bullying and humiliations which monsters inflict on their victims in so many of these places.

Let me give you a few examples based, admittedly, on anecdotal evidence which belong – not to the bad old days of the 1950s but to now – or to the very recent past.

About ten years ago I was visiting a leading public school to give a talk.  Afterwards I was given tea by the chaplain, and we fell to talking about those of different faiths. I asked him if there were many Jews in the school (which numbers about 700 pupils). “Tell him”, interrupted the chaplain’s wife. The clergyman was shy. “Well, I’ll tell him”, said the woman. “There are  three Jewish boys”, she said. “They are all in our attic. Hiding like Anne Frank. In their ordinary boarding house, they were systematically bullied. Their homework was trashed, and anti-Semitic abuse was heaped on them every single day.. Their lives were made intolerable. When we complained to the housemaster, he said that it was better to leave children to work out these things among themselves”.

As far as I know, this school has never done anything  serious to counteract the effects of bullying.  This is why I believe this. Last year I was at a literary festival. One of those taking part seemed in some distress and over dinner I asked the reason. Her son, at this same school (he was a white South African) was so badly bullied that he had just  ring up threatening suicide if he was not taken away. Their instinct as parents – I still find this incredible – was to leave him in place to cope with the situation on his own. He shared a dormitory with people who sent him abusive text messages all the time. They had stolen his laptop and , using his address, had advertised himself on the world-wide web as a male prostitute. Highly specific and horrifically obscene descriptions were given of what this 13-year old boy “offered” to his clients. His whole life was in ruins.

In the very week I heard this story, another family were  coming to a very different conclusion about their 14-year old son at a different leading boarding school –  a school which costs £30,000p.a. and has not only huge snob-appeal but a smug   reputation for being arty and liberal.. He was being  so badly and so consistently bullied they decided to take him away.It never let up. The staff did nothing to help. He is now going to a local day school and the transformation in that boy’s character is a marvel to behold.

I tell these stories not to be sensational but as evidence of what it is actually like, now, as you read these words on the page of the newspaper, to be locked up in a boarding school away from your family. I am sure that most head teachers  hope against hope that most of their pupils are not being tortured by their fellow-inmates. And of course, compared with our day, the level of physical comfort is much higher.  Children have their own rooms. The houses are heated. You do not have to break the ice in the water each morning before you clean your teeth. Also, corporal punishment has been abolished. But there is still no way you can prevent young people being nasty to one another. And you can not police them 24 hours a day. That is why the incidence of dangerous drug-taking at all our leading public schools is so much higher than in state schools.

If you are separated from your family at the age of seven, you are cut off from an essential learning-process. Something far more important than  mastering a middle-class accent or getting an A* in GCSE- that is, the more middle or upper class you are, the less chance you have to learn how to love. I was fond of  my parents, but in a distant way. I never had a row with them –  any more than I’d have thought of wrestling emotionally  with some distant relations I saw a few times a year.  Like most Englishmen of my class, I grew up without any emotional education. Learning about the emotional life has been a chaotic journey, for me, and my lovers and children. No wonder the Establishment, filled with chaps like me, took so long to wake up to the terrible damage done by sexual molesters, bullies and – yes, by the very institution of boarding schools themselves.

Mystery of Charles Dickens

Nice review by Professor John Mullan , chosen as The Guardian Book of the Week.

Wilson concedes all the contradictions and hypocrisies anatomised by John Carey in his brilliant, often openly exasperated study of Dickens, The Violent Effigy – but forgives him. Dickens had to contend with the “vast, smoky, cruel, boundlessly energetic, steel-hearted nineteenth century”, which made him variously cruel and sentimental. He was, after all, a nobody, who had grown up “with nuffink”. Alone among all great writers of the 19th century, he had “not merely looked over into the abyss. He had lived in it.” His lifelong insecurity was another creative asset.

If you are a Dickens aficionado, you will think that much of the book’s biographical narrative is well-known material, though here revisited in a sprightly manner. Yet its last, highly personal section suddenly shifts your sense of Wilson’s commitment to his subject. In his final chapter, he remembers first encountering episodes from Dickens at the age of eight or nine at his private school, which was “in effect a concentration camp run by sexual perverts”. The teacher who introduced him to Dickens was himself utterly sinister and Dickensian, the skill with which he impersonated Fagin and Squeers “all too convincing”. The shards of Dickens sustained his spirits among the privations and abuse visited on him by the paedophile headmaster and his monstrous wife, uninhibited sadists in Wilson’s vivid, detailed account. After this, nothing would convince him that Dickens should be condescended to as insufficiently “realistic”. And in returning him to the “abject terror and hopelessness” of childhood, but with that strange Dickensian stir of laughter (Fagin and Squeers, those comic turns), the novelist, hypocritical and self-deceiving as he might have been, has done him some matchless kindness.

To read the rest of the review

 The Mystery of Charles Dickens is published by Atlantic (£17.99).


Pedigree – again!

Back to Pedigree. The Simenon masterpiece. The book, very long by comparison with his dozens of more celebrated novellas, is an evocation of childhood and adolescence in Liege. It ends with the author aged sixteen, staying out all night to celebrate the armistice of 1918 . The prosperous butchers who have done well out of the war by supplying sausages to the Germans, and the Belgian women who have slept with the enemy, receive their punishments. The butchers are looted. The women are stripped naked in the streets and their hair is cropped. So even in this moment of rejoicing, the sharp eyes and pessimistic imagination of the writer sees the cruelty and murderousness of human nature. Incidentally, in the earlier part of the book, which is in part the ironic story of how a Belgian child from a non-literary family came to be the most famous “French” crime writer, he lets fall that several of the Flemish side had committed murders..

Simenon’s mother escapes punishment by the vigilantes at the end of the war. Obsessively chaste, she would not have dreamed of sleeping with a German soldier, nor with anyone except her boring husband, but she would undoubtedly have qualified as a “collaborator”.   When her only  child was tiny,  she had begun to supplement her despised husband’s income (he is an insurance clerk)  by letting out rooms to lodgers. The budding novelist nosily observes these figures with the coldness of a forensic scientist. The fat, smelly Jewish girl who eventually goes off to Berlin to become a distinguished pupil of Professor Einstein. The even smellier Russian girl who is a communist. Roger Mamelin, as Simenon calls himself, sees them all, just as he sees his mother’s craven politeness to the German officers at the beginning of the war, and has been observing, ever since he could open his eyes, all the differences between his mother’s part-German, part-Flemish family, the Peterses, who have come down in the world, and the rather contemptible Walloon family to which his father belongs.  (When with her sisters, the mother speaks Flemish ). The stultifying boringness of every week of the child’s life is conveyed , and the mystery is that there is not as single boring page in the book. His father does nothing except walk to his office, eat a sandwich when the others go for their lunch, visit his own enormous family – his father is a hatter – and attend Mass once a week, always sitting in the same pew.

The mother has consecrated the young Simenon to the Lord. She dresses him as an infant always in blue, the Blessed Virgin’s colour, and one of the most excrutiating early scenes involves the visit of an uncle from Brussels, an umbrella salesman, who takes out the little boy and dresses him in a suit of bright scarlet, like the devil. Needless to say, “Roger” wets the suit , which his mother has to wash and press, before returning it to the shop. The mother hopes the little boy will be chaste forever, one of the most forlorn hopes in the history of Belgium. Almost as soon as he can move, the little boy enjoys looking up skirts, peering at the female lodgers and fascinating himself with sex, which nearly always makes him even sadder than he was before. Young Roger confides in one of his mother’s sisters that he lost his virginity aged 12, and, by the age of fifteen, when he makes the confession, he is already the erotomaniac known subsequently to literature, fascinated by the smell, cynicism, and humour of the town’s low-life women, stealing from the till of his grandfather’s shop to pay for his prostitute-addiction, as well as discovering quite a range of sexual misbehaviour and appetite among his supposedly respectable family and friends.

One of the deftest things about the book  is the way in which he conveys his literary objectives. When Desire, his father, has a heart-attack, young Roger takes a job in a bookshop-cum-lending library, from which he is sacked for impertinence. A customer has come in, asking for a book called Le Capitaine Pamphile. The bookseller, who hates “Roger”, insists the book is by Gautier, whereas Roger knows, of course, that it is by his favourite author, Alexandre Dumas, pere – like Simenon himself, a prodigiously prolific author. So, as he walks out of the bookshop as a dismissed nobody, we know, and he knows, that he will one day be a Dumas in his own right.

When my brother was a don at UEA, he pointed out to the librarian that the shelves did not contain a single volume by Simenon, and this is surely emblematic of the fact that for many English-speakers, he remains, simply, the creator of  Maigret. Not a “serious” writer at all, still less the sort of writer you would read if you were studying literature at a university. Wonderful as the Maigret stories are, his creator is much, much more than this. John Lanchester, in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, says that the best non-Maigret is The Snow Was Dirty, about he murder of a soldier in an occupied country. Anita Brookner, a committed fan, nominated Chez Krull, and I, would certainly place this one very high. I’d also rate The Train as one of the best novellas ever written. This Belgian whose family scarcely speak normal French (he starts to mock his father’s Walloon dialect) would become one of the very greatest French writers of the 20th century. Gide – who had some of the generosity of Ezra Pound when it came to recognizing the genius of writers unlike himself –  could see  Simenon’s greatness. And it is thanks to Gide that we have Pedigree.

It was he who suggested that Simenon write it as a novel rather than as simple autobiography. This did not prevent many of the characters in the book successfully pursuing Simenon for damages – one of the reasons why he escaped to the USA to spend some of the 1950s away from his vengeful friends and relatives. Gide called Simenon , “the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature”.


I mentioned in my last  message,  W.G.Sebald’s discursive journey through East Anglia, The Rings of Saturn, but the title of Austerlitz ,absurdly, put me off for a long time. I’d   assumed it would be a ramble, a bit like The Rings, only around Napoleonic battlefields. When I actually opened Austerlitz, something very different was in store. Very few novels have ever moved me so much. It creeps up  gently, and then, at some point when you weren’t looking, it comes round behind and hits you on the back of the head.  When we first meet Austerlitz – for he is a man, not a battle in this book – it is the 1960s, and he is a lonely, eccentric collector of architectural photographs . The narrator, indistinguishable from the narrator of all other Sebald books, is a young German who seems to have limitless amounts of time on his hands simply to wander about sight-seeing – in this case in Brussels. From a chance encounter in the Antwerp Nocturama, there is spread out a lifetime’s acquaintanceship, deepening to a strange kind of friendship with lonely, weird Austerlitz.

Because it is a famous book (first published in 2001) you will probably know the story. For some reason, I did not, and this makes me hesitate. Should I “spoil it” for you? We first learn of Austerlitz’s lonely upbringing in Wales, as the adopted child of a depressive, slightly mad preacher whose wife’s death reduces him to despair. Austerlitz has already begun his miserable career at a boarding school. These scenes are especially well-evoked . At school, he makes one friendship, with a boy who is almost as unhappy as he is . Gerald Fitzpatrick comes from a landed Welsh Catholic family (not many of those) and a Victorian naturalist forebear was a friend of Darwin’s.  Andromeda Lodge, where they live, is a sort of Natural History Museum. It is here that Austerlitz has his first taste of anything like human warmth or natural affection.

The book shimmers with something akin to menace. We are starting to become aware that Austerlitz is carrying around a terrible secret . The drama of his life, however, is that he himself does not know what that secret is. He is a man burdened by memories which he does not any longer possess. Little by little, sheer chance cracks the carapace, and the memories come back. He was part of Hitler’s Kindertransport. His mother was a Jewish opera-singer in Prague. Little Austerlitz was sent to England by train. His father escaped to Paris where he was later arrested. His mother , arrested in Czechoslovakia, was herded off to the inevitable death in the camps.

The manner in which these memories are recovered, and in which Austerlitz then becomes an obsessive investigator of his mother’s fate, is completely plausible. It is devastating. We had become used to Austerlitz the research-nerd, the collector of stray bits of information in libraries. Now, rather than merely investigating Belgian zoos, he is piecing together what happened to the Jews of Prague after the Nazi seizure of that city. Austerlitz makes a “very W.G.Sebald” visit to the garrison town of Terezin  Like some of the coastland wastes explored in *The Rings of Saturn* it is all deserted, but here the ghosts are palpable. It is here that 60,000 people were rounded up into a ghetto of one square kilometre in preparation for their transportation to the  death camps.

You might be one of those readers who thinks  have read all they ever wish to read about the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis.  Maybe you belong to that category who thinks there is something distasteful, even pornographic, about much of the literature relating to this ghastly theme .Even if you do not go so far as that,  you might have supposed that it was impossible to “make it new”. But in focussing upon the story of this one, very strange man, and his recovered memory, Sebald has achieved the miracle. Starting in the lowest of keys, the book becomes quite extraordinarily affecting. I read the last hundred pages with tears cascading down my face.

Sebald himself died aged 57 in a motor smash, in the year that this masterpiece was published. It was an accident, and  a dreadful loss to literature, but  in an odd way, great writers die apt deaths.  After writing such a masterpiece, it is hard to think how any writer could ever repeat such an effect.

Anatomy Lessons

The contrast between two autobiographical writers whom I hold in reverence is never clearer than when they are contemplating Rembrandt’s painting of The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis.

W.G.Sebald, in Rings of Saturn, contemplates the picture through a palimpsest of recollections and bodily sensations as he lies in a featureless Norwich hospital . We are taken  through layers of his consciousness, as he thinks of the Norwich doctor, Sir Thomas Browne, and wonders whether he was present at the lesson, or indeed whether he is depicted in the painting. It appears that Sebald, the consciousness drawing these apparently random thoughts together, is giving nothing of himself away, that his narrative, on one level all about himself and his experience of exile in England from Germany, is only semi-present.

Yet by the end of this hypnotic

book, mysteriously, we have learnt to know him (to use the evocative German phrase). No wonder he has spawned so many dozens of imitators, though it must be said, as it was originally said of another, “within that circle none durst walk but he”, and the Sebald imitators merely serve to illustrate whatever the mysterious “it” is which we find in his pages.

If we stand today before the large canvas of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis we are standing precisely where those who were present at the dissection in the Waaggebouw stood, and we believe that we see what they saw then: in the foreground, the greenish, prone body of Aris Kindt, his neck broken and his chest risen terribly in rigor mortis. And yet it is debatable whether anyone ever really saw that body, since the art of anatomy, then in its infancy, was not least a way of making the reprobate body invisible. It is somehow odd that Dr Tulp’s colleagues are not looking at Kindt’s body, that their gaze is directed just past it to focus on the open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being, such as envisaged by the enthusiastic amateur anatomist René Descartes, who was also, so it is said, present that January morning in the Waaggebouw. In his philosophical investigations, which form one of the principal chapters of the history of subjection, Descartes teaches that one should disregard the flesh, which is beyond our comprehension, and attend to the machine within, to what can fully be understood, be made wholly useful for work, and, in the event of any fault, either repaired or discarded. Though the body is open to contemplation, it is, in a sense, excluded, and in the same way the much-admired verisimilitude of Rembrandt’s picture proves on closer examination to be more apparent than real. Contrary to normal practice, the anatomist shown here has not begun his dissection by opening the abdomen and removing the intestines, which are most prone to putrefaction, but has started (and this too may imply a punitive dimension to the act) by dissecting the offending hand. Now, this hand is most peculiar. It is not only grotesquely out of proportion compared with the hand closer to us, but it is also anatomically the wrong way round: the exposed tendons, which ought to be those of the left palm, given the position of the thumb, are in fact those of the back of the right hand. In other words, what we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies. His gaze alone is free of Cartesian rigidity. He alone sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man’s eyes. We have no evidence to tell us from which angle Thomas Browne watched the dissection, if, as I believe, he was among the onlookers in the anatomy theatre in Amsterdam, or indeed what he might have seen there. Perhaps, as Browne says in a later note about the great fog that shrouded large parts of England and Holland on the 27th of November 1674, it was the white mist that rises from within a body opened presently after death, and which during our lifetime, so he adds, clouds our brain when asleep and dreaming. I still recall how my own consciousness was veiled by the same sort of fog as I lay in my hospital room once more after surgery late in the evening. Under the wonderful influence of the painkillers coursing through me, I felt, in my iron-framed bed, like a balloonist floating weightless amidst the mountainous clouds towering on every side. At times the billowing masses would part and I gazed out at the indigo vastness and down into the depths where I supposed the earth to be, a black and impenetrable maze. But in the firmament above were the stars, tiny points of gold speckling the barren wastes. Through the resounding emptiness, my ears caught the voices of the two nurses who took my pulse and from time to time moistened my lips with a small, pink sponge attached to a stick, which reminded me of the Turkish Delight lollipops we used to buy at the fair. Katy and Lizzie were the names of these ministering angels, and I think I have rarely been as elated as I was in their care that night. Of the everyday matters they chatted about I understood very little. All I heard was the rise and fall of their voices, a kind of warbling such as comes from the throats of birds, a perfect, fluting sound, part celestial and part the song of sirens. Of all the things Katy said to Lizzie and Lizzie to Katy, I remember only one odd scrap. I think Katy, or Lizzie, was describing a holiday on Malta where, she said, the Maltese, with a death-defying insouciance quite beyond comprehension, drove neither on the left nor on the right, but always on the shady side of the road. It was not until dawn, when the morning shift relieved the night nurses, that I realized where I was. I became aware again of my body, the insensate foot, and the pain in my back; I heard the rattle of crockery as the hospital’s daily routine started in the corridor; and, as the first light brightened the sky, I saw a vapour trail cross the segment framed by my window. At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life. The aircraft at the tip of the trail was as invisible as the passengers inside it. The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator.

Sebald, W.G.. The Rings of Saturn: 1 (pp. 15-19). Random House. Kindle Edition.

But now, turn to Simenon’s long autobiographical novel, Pedigree. It was Gide who persuaded Simenon to publish it as “fiction”. It is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. It appears to start in a totally random manner in Liege, at the beginning of the 20th century, with a a very dull insurance clerk called Desire, and his even duller wife, who gives birth in the early stages of the narrative. Only at about the stage we meet here –  where, once again  Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson comes into play, do we realize what she has given birth TO! She has given birth to a pair of eyes and a pair of ears which belong to the novelist, and as he grows, the little monster – Simenon himself – is noticing everything. Whereas Sebald distances himself, apparently, from his narrative, and  gives the historical background of the painting, for Simenon, it gives the scornful child, in this scene little more than three, the grown-up capacity to cut his petit-bourgeois family down to size. The only pictures on the walls of the boring uncle  were free gifts from Dutch biscuit manufacturers, of which the Rembrandt is one!

The first half of the book happens in the years leading up to the First World War. Simenon’s relatives, anatomized as ruthlessly as the corpse in Rembrandt’s painting, are only one quarter French=speaking Belgian. One of the grandparents is German, the other two are Flemish. Like Rembrandt, this master of the chiaroscuro came from the Low Countries, a borderland around the River Meuse, where France, Belgium and Germany meet. No wonder he felt fear and indifference mixed , as he contemplated the 20th century wars.

They had put a couple of cushions under the child, who looked all around him. He would not forget certain things which the others had probably never noticed. For instance, all the pictures in the house were inscribed with gilt lettering on the frames, for they were free gifts distributed by the leading manufacturers of biscuits, tinned goods or chocolate. Opposite Uncle Hubert’s armchair there hung a picture which was darker than the others, showing some people in black hats standing round a naked man who was a greenish yellow colour. Roger would have liked to ask: ‘What are they doing?’ It was a reproduction in colour of The Anatomy Lesson. These men in black standing round a corpse were associated in the child’s mind with the hard, grey silhouette of Uncle Schroefs, with his bowler-hat which he had taken off only to sit down at table, and with the spicy smell which filled the house, mixed with the smell of the rough wooden crates. Aunt Marthe kept stuffing things into his pockets, sometimes things which he could not eat, not only chocolate or biscuits which crumbled straight away but tins of anchovy fillets. Why did his mother take them from him? Why did she scold him when they had scarcely turned the corner of the street? ‘You mustn’t accept anything from Aunt Marthe. You must say: “No, thank you, Aunt.” ’ And this no thank you became a sort of proper name for him. ‘Nothankyou.’ Why did he have to say: ‘No thank you’? Why, when the two women were together in the bedroom or the box-room, especially the box-room, did they start crying, wiping away their tears quickly if anybody came in? And why, when they met, did they nearly always say: ‘Poor Élise.’ ‘Poor Marthe.’ Yet it was the most beautiful house in the world. When the grown-ups wanted to be by themselves, Léontine took Roger away. She was a queer girl, very thin, very flat-chested, who had a habit of squeezing him too tightly when she kissed him. She took him round the warehouses. She let him touch everything. She had taken him to see the horses; and the man who was in the yard—or in the stables when it was raining—a shabbily-dressed old man, had made him a whip, a real one, with a string which cracked. When the daylight began to fade, Élise looked at her husband and tried to attract his attention, making signs to him which everybody understood. ‘But no! It isn’t late,’ Marthe or Hubert protested. It was time to lay the table for supper. The children would be coming home soon. They were in the way. Couldn’t Désiré feel that they were in the way? For the past quarter of an hour, Schroefs had had enough. He was only just managing to restrain himself from yawning, and, now that the day was nearly over, he wanted to settle down in his corner, in front of his gas-fire, and to look through his papers, sighing all the time. Désiré believed everything he was told. If somebody said to him: ‘But no, do stay …’—he stayed! At last! Van Camp had got up, though he would have liked to stay. Everybody went towards the door. They said good night two or three times, once before putting on their outdoor clothes, then on the landing, then again downstairs. ‘Come this way.’ The shop door was opened a little way, revealing the violet shadows of the street, the silence outside, the trams in the distance. ‘A week on Sunday, then. Thank you, Marthe. Désiré, carry the child. We’ll be able to walk faster like that.’ A few steps. ‘They made him eat three pieces of tart again.’ Désiré did not understand, did not manage to feel indignant or offended. ‘I’m sure Hubert’s going to say that you come on purpose to smoke his cigars.’ ‘I smoked two.’ ‘Let’s buy a bit of ham for supper. The fire will have gone out.’ The child, on his father’s shoulders, saw the gas-lamps go by almost on a level with his head. In the Rue Puits-en-Sock, he saw, one after another, all the dimly lit shops which stayed open on Sunday and would stay open until ten o’clock at night, with the shopkeepers eating behind a curtain or behind the glass panes of a back room, and goods of all colours in the windows. And he saw the tram which suddenly emerged from the shadows of the Place de Bavière. ‘Désiré, mind the tram!’

Simenon, Georges. Pedigree (New York Review Books Classics) (pp. 159-163). New York Review Books. Kindle Edition.

Brideshead Revisited


Evelyn Waugh’s preface to Brideshead Revisited, written fifteen years after its original publication, speaks of it as a book concerned both with ephemeral and with eternal matters. Ephemeral, as “a souvenir of the Second War”. Written at a time when English country houses appeared to be in irreversible decline, the book was seen by Waugh, when he looked back, as an elegy for a lost aristocratic England whose stupendous seats and well-crafted estates would surely be made obsolete by the coming of the egalitarian postwar ethos.

The eternal theme of the novel, by contrast, was, Waugh believed, “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. It is hard to imagine a more durable or unchanging theme. The whirligig of Time, however, brings in strange reverses. As Waugh wrote in his 1959 preface, such houses as  the fictitious Brideshead today, if they had survived the mid-twentieth century demolitions – would  have been restored by loving and expert hands and visited annually by tens of thousands of tourists. Nor is the aristocracy of Great Britain, however you define it, extinct, as might have been predicted in 1944. True, unelected peers no longer sit in the House of Lords, but the upper class has not gone away. Many of the landed families are richer in the early twenty-first century than ever before, and they continue, many of them, to occupy the “stately homes of England”.

The Roman Catholic Church, to which Waugh was so fervent a convert, has, by contrast, changed in ways which he would have found bewildering. Even before he died in 1966, having attended  Easter Mass according to the old rite, Waugh was heartbroken and enraged by the liturgical changes of his adopted church. The remarriage of divorced Catholics, however, was at that date unthinkable. Today, the Pope himself has suggested that there are circumstances in which it might be permissible, and emphasised that there are many grounds for questioning the notion of the “validity” of a marriage.

Charles Ryder, the narrator of this story, makes an injudicious marriage while being a Protestant agnostic, and then falls in love with the Catholic Lady Julia Flyte, the sister of his best friend from Oxford days . The love of Julia and Charles, however, is doomed by the operation of divine grace. Julia has made a reckless marriage herself, to the financier, politician and wideboy, Rex Mottram. They married outside the church. In Waugh’s story, Charles and Julia could never make a licit Catholic marriage unless both their partners were dead.

“The worse I am”, Julia says, in one of the great set-piece speeches of this baroque novel, “the more I need God. I can’t shut myself off from his mercy. This is what it would mean, starting a life without him… I saw today there was one thing unforgiveable – the bad thing I was on the point of doing [ie marrying Charles in a registrar’s office] that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s”.

There are many Catholics in the world today who have divorced and remarried. Some of them have done so in defiance of the Church’s canon law. In the case of many  others, the mercy of the church has enabled them both to practise their faith and to enjoy the love of their spouse. The situation of Charles and Julia in today’s church would surely enable them to live together and to receive the sacraments. Julia, after all, married a man – Rex Mottram – who already had a wife living, and so, by the strict tenets of canon law she was not in fact married at all. She was quite free to marry Charles in a Catholic ceremony, were his first marriage to be annulled – as was Evelyn Waugh’s. Since, like Waugh, Charles had married before becoming a Catholic, and in circumstances which made it clear he did not have a Catholic view of the sacrament of marriage, he would surely today have been granted an annulment.

So, Brideshead Revisited is a period piece. The aristocratic way of life which Waugh believed to be doomed, still continues, albeit in modified form. The seemingly immutable Holy Mother Church has shifted some of her sterner stances.

This in no way spoils our enjoyment of the novel , which many would consider Waugh’s masterpiece. Those of us who love his work, and reread it often, must often have felt torn between appreciation of the brittle comedies of his youth and young manhood, and the august achievement of the Sword of Honour trilogy, one of the undoubted works of literary genius, in any language, to emerge from the Second World War. The early comedies, owing so much to Ronald Firbank, but so distinctively themselves,  make us laugh aloud. The sports day at Llanabba Castle in Decline and Fall, the oafish customs inspectors in Vile Bodies, confiscating Dante’s Inferno because it sounds foreign and therefore pornographic, the hatefulness of the Connolly children in Put Out More Flags, these are crystalline comic vignettes which are cruelly and perfectly constructed. The Sword of Honour  books retain the comedy (who can forget Apthorpe’s thunderbox?) but follow the themes of all great literature, love, war, death, with unmatched seriousness.

Brideshead Revisited, lush, colour-splashed, romantic, comes between these two bodies of work. It is Waugh’s Antony and Cleopatra. It is his richest, and most passionate book. : passionate about male love, about the love between men and women, about the centrality of beauty in human life. Charles Ryder, the only son  of an eccentric widowed father (one of Waugh’s finest comic creations) goes up to Oxford in 1923. In many ways, as he says, it is an Oxford unchanged since the days of John Henry Newman in the 1840s. Ryder’s blameless, dull life resembles that of Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall  . When a drunken revel in the quad outside his room culminates in Lord Sebastian Flyte vomiting through his open window, we might suppose we are in that first novel’s identical world of farce. The incident, however, is as imaginatively decisive as Robert de Saint Loup’s introduction of Proust’s narrator to personal knowledge of the Guermantes family. Falling in love with Sebastian, and adopting the louche ways of his decadent “set”, Charles was seen by the peevish first reviewers of the book, above all  by Edmund Wilson in the United States and by  J.B.Priestley in England, as a mere social climber. Charles, however, like Waugh himself, is not a common arriviste, like Proust’s Mme Verdurin. He was a romantic, and like Yeats, “chose for theme/Traditional sanctity and loveliness”. The characters in this novel, enchanted pierrots in an exquisite painted baroque theatre, move solely in scenes of beauty. In Oxford, “everywhere, on cobble and gravel and lawn, the leaves were falling, and in college gardens the smoke of the bonfires joined the river mist, drifting across the grey walls”. In Venice, where Charles and Sebastian visit the disgraced exile, Lord Marchmain, “I was drowning in honey”, and his sightseeing expeditions with Lord Marchmain’s mistress Carla allow him, “a night at the Corombona palace such as Byron might have known, and another Byronic night fishing for scampi in the shallows of Chioggia”.

When Ryder grows up, if that phrase is entirely appropriate for this celebration of immature and raw emotional life, he makes his name as a painter of country houses. (In the great ITV adaptation of the novel,  in 1981, directed by Charles Sturridge,they used the paintings of the sublime Felix Kelly; but one senses that Ryder also owes something to Rex Whistler) . Some of the book’s purplest passages are love songs to Brideshead simply as a work of architecture. Turning from the feminine clutter and piety of Lady Marchmain’s sitting room to his “discovery of the Baroque”, Ryder finds himself luxuriating in “the coved and coffered roof, the columns and entablature of the central hall, in the august masculine atmosphere of a better age”. The most beautiful of the “set piece” evocations of place, and its rooted history, is put into the mouth of the dying Lord Marchmain. The approach of the Second World War compels the old reprobate to return, with Carla, to England, and, his wife being dead, he can come back to his ancestral lands at Brideshead. “We were knights then, barons since Agincourt, the larger honours came with the Georges. They came the last and they’ll go the first, the barony goes on. When all of you are dead, Julia’s son will be called by the name his fathers bore before the fat days, the days of wool shearing and the wide corn lands, the days of growth and building, when the marshes were drained and the waste land brought under the plough, when one built the house, his son added the dome, his son spread the wings and dammed the river”…

The whole book aches with the sense of an aesthetically literate, militarily honourable past being encroached upon by a cruder, demotic age. Ryder’s junior officer, Hooper, in whose baffled company he “revisits” Brideshead during the war can not see the point of the great house at all. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense – one family in a place this size. What’s the use of it?”

As the soldiers bury their litter before breaking camp, Ryder imagines a future archaeologist finding “a people of advanced culture, capable of an elaborate draining system and the construction of  permanent  highways, overrun by a race of the lowest type”. Hooper, with his flat Midlands accent, became “a symbol of Young England”. Ryder finds him not merely personally irritating. He is possessed by rage at the thought of the First World War in which the flower of the aristocracy died in the battlefields of Flanders and northern France:  “these men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesmen”. Worse even than Hooper, however, because so much more powerful, was Rex Mottram, Julia’s husband, the vulgar money man, with no sensitivity to things of the spirit, no taste, no notion that his thrusting embrace of the future with all its brashness will destroy something of ireeoverable value. Even the art of painting, which Ryder so patiently and passionately pursues, is overwhelmed by the cruel march of time. Cordelia Flyte, one of the most deftly-drawn figures in the book, (the convent girl not really at home in the cloister or in the world) asks the narrator, “Charles, Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?” “Great bosh”. “Oh! I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try and criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist and snubs to her”.

I single out Cordelia as a character deftly drawn, but the novel bursts with the life of so many unforgettable figures. They all ring true. Even the walk-on parts such as the Quartering Commandant, who regrets the vandalistic behaviour of the soldiers billeted at Brideshead, or the priest who administers the last rites to Lord Marchmain, Fr McKay, Glasgow Irish, are drawn with exquisite economy and are immediately recognizable, just as a great master of portraiture like John Singer Sargent, for example, was able to capture likenesses not only in his finished “swagger” portraits but also in sketches , using only a few perfectly sure pencil lines.

Waugh’s own swagger portraits in this book, his full-blown painted figures, are without parallel in his oeuvre : above all, the two siblings, Sebastian and Julia Flyte, Charles Ryder’s two loves. It was a highwire act of prodigious skill not to make Sebastian as cloying as his malicious friend Anthony Blanche (“Antoine”) wants Charles to find him. The young Sebastian with Aloysius the teddy bear is adored by everyone – barbers, Oxford scouts, the jeunesse d’ore. The ruined |Sebastian in Morocco, eeking out an existence loosely attached to Catholic religious houses, could be equally annoying, since he possesses only what “Antoine” calls “the fatal English gift of charm” and, an even riskier quality to convey in a novel, holiness. But it would be a harsh reader who did not see why Charles loved him, just as it would be strange not to fall in love with Julia.

The suddenness with which Charles and Julia come together during the Atlantic storm, and their two happy years together as lovers, make one wish they would simply settle for a life of “sin” such as Lord Marchmain has done with  (my own personal favourite character in the novel) Carla. All Carla’s observations, about love, sex, and religious practice, deserve to be memorized. And she is that rarity in the Waugh oeuvre, a thoroughly decent sort.

Given the solemnity of the theme, “the operation of divine grace”, you might have expected Waugh’s humour to have failed him in this book, but even the hilarity of the early novels is outshone by the comic characters in this one. Charles’s father, Anthony Blanche, or the awful Samgrass take their place among the immortals with Dr Fagan and Captain Grimes. Even the figures  whom Waugh and Ryder hate – Hooper and |Mottram – are funny. And even  non-Catholics have laughed at Cordelia’s hoodwinking Rex into believing that there are sacred monkeys in the Vatican.


Page 3 of 6

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén