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The Wilson-Nabokov Spat and Bend Sinister, by Peter Cowlam

Criticism Posted on Fri, June 12, 2020 16:28:01
Peter Cowlam, author of Utopia

It now seems extraordinary that Edmund Wilson, who found Bend Sinister among the least satisfactory in the VN oeuvre, marked its weakness where he marked also its author’s weakness – i.e., in what he saw as Nabokov’s feeble grasp on matters of politics and social agitation. This was the same Nabokov who had been exiled from Russia after the October Revolution, was later driven from Berlin and Paris by the rise of Hitler’s National Socialism, and who had entered a middle-class, professional American life, with its treadmill of academic teaching. Wilson went on to lecture his friend on the merits of Walter Pater (‘art for art’s sake’), whose Gaston de Latour he thought showed insight into the sixteenth-century struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, while Nabokov showed scant understanding of the conflicts of his own century, the twentieth.

Yet the crisis of our era is written everywhere in the paragraphs of Bend Sinister, in Krug’s self-conscious individualism in collision with Paduk, who as a tarnished embodiment of the state reminds us that human flourishing will not come about without an informed exchange between the two. We have found to our cost that the grandiose political idea requires a grandeur of thinking to set it in motion, something mere politicians, bolstered by henchmen whose habitat is press, TV, radio, hardly ever possess. When, usually, the strategy does not work, when its political vision is flawed, when its economic infrastructure serves only the elites with power, then its dissenters have to be silenced or emasculated. These are the remorseless barbs in a Realpolitik we are obliged to live with now, an arrangement Edmund Wilson didn’t think Vladimir Nabokov quite understood. As I say, extraordinary.

Peter Cowlam’s novella Utopia is available from Amazon UK, Amazon USA, and Wordery

The Entronauts by Piero Scanziani, translated by Linda Lappin (1991), revisited by Peter Cowlam

Criticism Posted on Tue, May 26, 2020 10:30:47
The Entronauts, Piero Scanziani, Eureka (1991)

The philosopher Bertrand Russell speaks for the externalities of humanity’s position in the cosmos, declaring at an early stage in Scanziani’s text that politicians, diplomats, military men – the practical luminaries of any age – were not to be trusted. History condemned them all (two world wars, etc., and now the virus lockdown, with its one set of rules for us, and another for the world’s moneyed elites). The wizened nonagenarian shares his wisdom at a conference in Bruges, rising to speak on the subject of atomic power. This points us indirectly to a definition of the word ‘entronaut’, being a person, any person, who eschews the pragmatist’s reality, seeking instead the pale inner light of individual sovereignty. In the accomplished mystic, the practised voyager of inwardness, it’s a light that glows – joyously.

So begins Scanziani’s odyssey, a journey broad geographically, and one that forms the seven divisions of his book. These, under the pretext of penning reportage for an illustrated magazine, represent India (twice), America, Europe, Persia (as was), the Far East, finally Mount Athos. Joy in selfhood – this was the legacy of one Aurobindo, born in Calcutta, in 1872. Aurobindo was a latter-day Plato, a man who ‘left his body in Pondicherry’ (d. 1950). An index of worldly departure, Pondicherry is important, not for having been a French colony, not even for its locality in the mouth of the Ganges, rather for the succession of Westerners who come here to pursue the entronautic life, as Scanziani tells us.

In Madison Square Garden, we have the pleasure of Sam Gibbon, a jaded boxing correspondent and defender of Christianity. He deplores pugilism. Scanziani – one fears severely lapsed by now – is dissatisfied with his own denomination as Roman Catholic. At this point we come to suspect that this is a book for Christian sceptics everywhere – or at any rate the unorthodox. Scanziani regales us with an English agony aunt, who stresses the importance of self-belief, which makes us ask if solipsism is really the key to spiritual revelation. Then in Paris, certain out-of-body experiences are chronicled. Very much in-the-body, Scanziani gives us Sufism to explain dance and its significance. So on to the denouement, which is no more than a denial of the Resurrection, and finds Scanziani on Mount Athos, seeking out Master Gregorio, a Christian anchorite. ‘Not to die,’ says Scanziani, ‘that is the aim.’ But among the remains of the dead Gregorio Scanziani comes to believe that life can’t be explained other than through death. This is the Buddhist creed, life and death inextricably bound: this is called life and the fall from life. That, to light us – no more or less – is the repetitive procession of being.

Peter Cowlam’s novella Utopia is available at Amazon UK, Amazon USA, and Wordery

Selected Poems From On Being Dead in Venice by Gary Geddes, translated by Angela d’Ambra, published by Impremix | review by Peter Cowlam

Poetry Posted on Sun, May 03, 2020 13:03:10
Gary Geddes, Selected Poems from On Being Dead in Venice

You get a good idea of Geddes’ substantial poetic output since the 1970s from this hundred-page-plus selection. There are three parts. The third part bears a name: ‘The Terracotta Army’. We will come to that.

Part One opens with ‘The Tower’ and the cold detachment of an assassin, who chooses his vantage and dispatches his victims with the same cold precision its sixteen-line description, with its four salient features, progresses through: purchase of the rifle; choice of location (the tower); sighting of targets; impact. We cannot say if four, or sixteen, or some other number, is also the number of victims, which suggests perhaps that any degree of intimacy is inimical to contract killing.

We know more about Sandra Lee Scheuer, who, as the poem of that title tells us, was killed at Kent State University on 4 May 1970. Unlike the killer of the previous poem, who remains nameless, we know who Sandra’s killers were – viz., the Ohio National Guard. Sandra was an honours student, whose subject was speech therapy. She did not take part in protests against the Vietnam War, and knew only vaguely of Cambodia, but was caught by a stray bullet intended for those few fellow students with a deeper knowledge of American foreign policy. The bullet severed her jugular, and she died minutes later. That was in spite of the fact that ‘She did not throw stones, major in philosophy / or set fire to buildings….’

In ‘Promised Land’, you know from the litany of things listed what culture is being invoked – not the ideal the twelve tribes longed for. More the place of material glitter, where the purview has an inwardness, but in a concrete sense, of an ethos those tribes wouldn’t have recognised.

Searching goes on, and on. ‘Letter of the Master of Horse’ in its early stanzas is aglow with the connotations of discovery, but – as one of the longer poems of the selection – approaches its end as a voyage gone awry, where the discovery is exile and madness has set in. Look what the horses are asked to do, after Apollo—

Sooner or later hope

evaporates, joy itself

is seasonal. The others?

They are Spaniards, no more

and no less, and burn with a lust

that sends them tilting

at the sun itself.

Ortega, listen, the horses,

where are the sun’s horses

to pull his chariot from the sea,

end this conspiracy of dark?

Or as Milan Kundera has already told us, as Part One’s epigraph: ‘It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: conviction, faith, history. Human life – and herein lies the secret – takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch.’

Part Two’s epigraph reads ‘Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate…. There is nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring,’ words attributed to the late John Berger, the noted art critic, poet, novelist and painter. We may still wonder at the real purpose of an epigraph, a subject Alfred Corn has devoted a generous thread to on his timeline (Facebook), and which the sponsor of the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction, David James, discusses at length in his forthcoming memoir. There isn’t much doubt as to its function here. In Part Two’s opening poem there is a sense of that intimacy as direct contrast to the world’s cruelty and indifference, in the description of a cow and her stillborn calf, or calf partially born, when abortive attempts to free her and her moribund offspring are a sample of life in the raw. There’s a kind of detachment in it – the poem is called ‘Jimmy’s Place’ – both here and in others, in the events closely observed, with less than a soft edge on the Berger quotation.

In ‘Saskatchewan: 1949’, a date we need to know, for this is post-war and an era of austerity, that Canadian province, with its south border to the USA, is invoked with prairie and ocean imagery intermingled, in the person of a homesteader whose grassland and southern plains are subordinate to his landlocked landlubber dreams. He has the visions of a shipwright. One other such interlarding of apparent opposites is in the poem ‘The Quality of Light’, in this case a snow-covered terrain in collusion with that of the Sahara, a mentation paralleled in the action of cross-country skis, and the whole conjured by a poet who knows how the social frame of his country fits into its physical geography. The next, the Gandhi poem (‘Mahatma Gandhi Refuses an Invitation to Write for Reader’s Digest’), is lighter, an amusement. The Reader’s Digest, a quintessentially US consumer mag, would seem to have no business courting the pen of that once ‘obscure Indian lawyer’, and, later, leader in the movement for Indian independence. Gandhi tells us

a man’s life

cannot be condensed

to a series of major scenes

in lighted boxes

without distortion…

How historically accurate, I don’t know, but as an ‘obscure Indian lawyer’ we are asked to consider that a letter Gandhi had written did not secure the release of Sacco and Vanzetti, a revelation that would have been of interest to the American public. Sacco and Vanzetti have since gone down in US political history, when no end of protest – as apart from Gandhi’s – succeeded in securing their release. The pair were controversially convicted of murder after an armed robbery, in 1920s Massachusetts. The poem has one other fleeting irony, Western values versus East, in the person of Rabindranath Tagore, also an eloquent spokesperson for the cause of Indian independence, and shown here for the succour he had given his people in the embers of Empire.

The Geddes meditation on Ezra Pound is also a meditation on that poet’s last canto, and is a survey of: Venice as compared with Byzantium; American politics contra its poetry; the age and its demands; literary allusion; the necessary superficiality of material the poet draws on; refinement in its descent into the demotic; the voice as essence of music; US abandonment of ideas in favour of possessions; Pound’s pursuit of artistic form, shape and appearance; art as discovery; usury (of course) ; what poems are that poets aren’t; truth as an action of the sword; the art of lying; what is left of the poet after the poet’s death (‘Forget me too: / listen to the poems’); and the Poundian sublime, as acquired in his birthplace, Idaho. It is worth noting too that Pound’s resting place is in the cemetery on the Isola di San Michele, Venice, where Igor Stravinsky and Joseph Brodsky are also interred, among other notables.

The first Pound poem is contrasted noticeably with Geddes’ micro-homage to Toshiko Takada, a Japanese poet (1914–89), whose output consists of ‘Poems / so transparent you can feel the ghosts / of children’ passing through them. Another Pound poem, ‘On Being Dead in Venice’, makes modern banking less a rig-up of London and New York, more an invention of the Genoese (notwithstanding the Medici). Consider yourself chastened, Ezra.

Now Part Three, and that title, ‘The Terracotta Army’. The army in question consists of terracotta sculptures in imitation of warriors and their horses and chariots under the command of the first Emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang. The whole is a form of funerary rite, artefacts buried with the emperor (circa 210 BCE), as protection in the afterlife. The figures were discovered by farmers in 1974, and vary in height according to rank, the tallest being the generals. Estimates from 2007 are of over 8,000 soldiers and 130 chariots, and nearly 700 horses. Non-military figures number officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians.

The sequence of poems Geddes offers is a microcosm of that early empire and the infrastructure that ran it, and as its point of departure lights on the sculptor (Bi) whose task it was to produce these terracotta figures. Actual personnel who modelled for him rank only as empire lackeys, shown in their daily work, and the functions they performed in keeping the power intact and the Emperor in his elevation. We get to eavesdrop on snippets of information, from their conversations. The first live model we are introduced to is the Charioteer, who tells us ‘Most of the animals were cast from a single mould / and could be distinguished one from the other / only by the application of paint and dyes.’ A Spearman, posing for Bi, is loath to part with the replica of himself. A Minister of War eschews Confucian philosophy, having ‘learned my politics from rats in the latrine’. The Lieutenant is an over-accomplished soldier, but ‘The potter was not impressed. / Learn to write with this, he said, positioning / my hands on the jade hilt of an ornate sword, / the enemy has not yet learned to read.’ According to the Paymaster

I was astounded

as usual by the loving attention to detail and asked Bi

what thoughts this assembled spectacle called up in him.

Counterfeit currency, he said. A life’s work

that will never be seen, poems tossed in bonfires.

A poem lives on in the ear, but a single push

will topple all of these.

An infantryman recalls a failed assassination attempt on the Emperor. For the Mess Sergeant Bi’s workshop is the go-to place for gossip and news. A Military Historian recalls

One of the wily magicians at court

convinced Ch’in he could find the fabled Island

of Immortals, but must take along the price

not only of gold and silver in great abundance

but also a host of beautiful youths of both sexes.

Ch’in complied. Nothing more was heard of them.

The emperor put out that they were lost at sea,

but others amongst us presumed the magician

had set himself up nicely on the islands of Fu Sang.

All this came to light much later, when Ch’in

died at the coast, vainly looking out to sea.

A Blacksmith who has improved the trigger mechanism of the crossbow to a new, deadly lethalness, is juxtaposed with Bi as he fashions a kneeling crossbowman. The Harness-Maker confirms Bi’s workshop as the place where empire news coheres, none more so than doubts cast on the sexual prowess of the Emperor Ch’in. A Strategist tells us empires are built on success in war, making victory in battle essential (self-evident, one would have thought). Whereas a Spy has his focus on alternatives to battle, as a kind of forerunner of Elizabethan espionage, over one and a half millennia later. In ‘Commando’ is the lightness of late T’ang poems, but not the detachment. Detachment is approximated through ambiguity. An Unarmed Foot-soldier, previously a student, has found himself drafted in. Things of the mind give way to the exercise of the craft of unarmed combat, though learning is not entirely jettisoned. What one knows of psychological control over others is useful when it comes to one-on-one conflict.

A Captain of the Guard remarks on the potter’s work and method—

The next thing I know he’s placed the head

of that ugly recruit, now bearded, on the six-foot

frame of an officer and recorded for posterity

my untrimmed growth of whiskers.

The Regimental Drummer notes how Bi has fashioned his own likeness as a master of martial arts, which perhaps tells us something of the potter’s predisposition, when even he, observer of humanity in all its foibles, follies and vanity, cannot escape the deadly narcotic of empire, whose seeds of its own undoing are evident in the observations of a General—

We began, like all the others, with a vision:

unification, call it what you will. The sorcery

of a fixed idea. For this we marched long years,

long miles, until, winning the war, we found we had

lost face. We became the new reactionaries,

eliminating, in short order, all the best minds.

‘The sorcery of a fixed idea’, or should we say the politics we of earth-bound terracotta societies have been straitjacketed in throughout history, and never mind an afterlife….

A true cosmopolitan: Maurice Baring, A Citizen of Europe by Emma Letley | Review by Jon Elsby

Criticism Posted on Sun, April 19, 2020 11:42:13
Jon Elsby

Maurice Baring (1874–1945) – poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, critic, and all-round man of letters – rather reminds one of what E. M. Forster wrote about the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy – namely, that he stood “at a slight angle to the universe”. Baring seems to have had a similar oblique quality.

A member of the Baring banking family, he was born into the aristocracy (his father was the first Lord Revelstoke and his mother the grand-daughter of the second Earl Grey) and also into immense wealth and privilege – so much so that Emma Letley’s account of his early years (“The Enchanted Land (1874-1898)”) has an atmosphere of almost magical fantasy about it, like Alain-Fournier’s novel, Le Grand Meaulnes. It conjures up a world that has vanished so completely that it might never have existed: a slightly unreal, paradisal world of great country houses, exquisitely tasteful surroundings, extravagant parties, aristocratic families, beautiful women, elegant gentlemen, and, by today’s more egalitarian standards, a somewhat sybaritic opulence. As was customary in his family, Baring was schooled at Eton, and then proceeded to Cambridge and Oxford successively, despite his inability to grasp even the rudiments of Mathematics. The best private tutors that money could buy were unable to remedy this defect. How he managed to get accepted at Cambridge, and then at Oxford, is not satisfactorily explained, but the fact that he was so well connected cannot have hurt his chances.

Baring’s innumeracy meant that he was unsuited to enter the family business. After university, he led for several years a checkered existence, first as a diplomatic attaché, and later as a journalist. He was generously supported financially by his elder brother and other family members, which meant that he was able to live lavishly and indulge his penchant for irresponsible (and sometimes very expensive) schoolboy pranks, in spite of his own modest (or non-existent) earnings. On formal occasions, he wore clothes of the best quality, he smoked a special brand of cigarettes which could be procured only from a particular tobacconist in London, he dined at the finest restaurants, and his habits in general were far from frugal. Letley records that

Though unpaid [as a diplomatic attaché], Maurice was […] habitually extravagant. […] He became addicted to “the expensive craze of constructing anthologies for himself by the simple process of cutting favourite poems out of hundreds of books and periodicals and pasting them in admirably bound manuscript books.” The books so compiled he called “gepack” (luggage) and there were two types – Heavy Luggage and Light Luggage; as soon as one volume was complete, it would be given to a (generally) delighted recipient and another one started. Best known of the gepack is the published anthology, Have You Anything to Declare? (1936).

It is difficult to speak of such things without seeming envious or censorious, but one cannot, in good conscience, approve of the sort of insouciance that leads to the vandalizing of books or the breaking of all the plates and glasses after a riotous party. It recalls Evelyn Waugh’s caustic gibe about “English county families baying for broken glass”. Only people born into the wealthiest stratum of society are, or can afford to be, so thoughtlessly wasteful and destructive.

In 1909, Baring converted to Roman Catholicism from his previous agnosticism. He never discussed his conversion either before or afterwards, saying only that it was “the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted.” The most personal literary account he has left us of this critically important decision, is in the beautiful sonnet sequence “Vita nuova”.

As a poet, Baring was certainly not a modernist, but neither was he prone to the artificial archaisms of the Georgian poets. The best of his poems (and there are not a few of them) combine directness and simplicity of diction with delicacy of feeling and subtlety of expression. They have a classical restraint, owing partly to the poet’s technical mastery of verse forms, and partly to their understated quality, which is rare in the poetry of any language. Here, for example, are some lines he called “Stop-Shorts”, explaining that “Stop-Shorts are Chinese poems in four lines. They are called Stop-Shorts because the sense goes on when the sound stops”:


The lake is growing grey: the lotus flower

Remains yet roseate with the sunset hour.

The moon has climbed above the mountain’s rim:

The water shines: the lotus flower is dim.


The mist is on the sky and sea, a veil:

And in the silver stuff a russet sail.


I waited for you all the dark night long,

And listen lonely to the sky-lark’s song.


The twilight is not darker than the day,

And pipes are playing somewhere far away.


Here once a thousand men in battle died,

Where the red clover grows by the wayside.

This elegiac note is something we encounter often in Baring’s poetry; in fact, it occurs in nearly all his work, in prose as well as in verse.

Baring travelled widely and possessed a remarkable facility for languages, speaking French, Italian, German, Russian and Danish, fluently, and being able to read in several other languages. He became an authority on Russia and Russian literature, and wrote extensively on both subjects. An insightful, discriminating critic, he was probably the first Western writer to recognize the genius of Dostoevsky. [1] But, unlikely as it seems, it was in the Great War of 1914–18 that Baring really came into his own. Though apparently utterly unsuited to the discipline of military life, he served with the Royal Flying Corps with such distinction that his commanding officer, Colonel Hugh Trenchard,[2] who had initially doubted Baring’s suitability for service in the RFC, wrote after Baring’s death, “He was the most unselfish man I have ever met or am likely to meet. The Flying Corps owed to this man much more than they know or think.” Letley records that

General Foch summed up the extraordinary career of this unlikely soldier: “there never was a staff officer in any country, in any nation, or in any century, like Major Maurice Baring.”

During the war, Baring lost many close friends. Afterwards, he realized that the war had taken its toll of him. His health was poor and he felt exhausted. Although he was only 44 years old, he described himself as “a bald-headed half-blind crock with half his inside cut out and an inflamed bladder and an inflated prostate gland and in perpetual danger of colitis.” After the war, like many who survived, he seems to have been haunted by a sense of loss and a pervasive melancholy which he hid under a mask composed, in equal parts, of upper-class English reserve and good manners, and the propensity for light-hearted jokes and witty banter that had always been one of his chief characteristics. But the sadness found an outlet in what now became his main occupation – the writing of fiction.

Baring’s novels have never been popular either with the general reading public or with academics and intellectuals, but he has always found a few discerning admirers. It is not hard to account for this. The novels evoke and recapture the mood and manners of a bygone age: the age when he was young and still inhabiting “the enchanted land”. To the Bloomsbury intellectuals, they seemed old fashioned. To academics, they seemed out of tune with the Modern Movement and therefore uninteresting. But for writers and readers who were indifferent to changing fashions and the moods of the moment, their perfect taste, psychological subtlety, and deceptive simplicity of manner, exerted a peculiar charm. Letley quotes André Maurois as saying of C. (one of Baring’s best-known novels) that “he had found comparable pleasure only in the work of Proust and Tolstoy”. Baring’s novels were translated into several European languages, and were more admired and widely read on the Continent, especially in France, than they were in England. François Mauriac thought that the English underestimated Baring, commenting astutely: “What I most admire about [Baring’s novels] is the sense he gives you of the penetration of grace – without making you aware of it”: a verdict which, when the actor and writer Robert Speaight communicated it to Baring, left him too moved to speak. Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, dismissed C. as “second rate art”, professed herself “quite unable” to read Baring’s novels, and called them “pallid and meretricious” – although if, as she claimed, she was unable to read them, one wonders on what she based her criticism.

Baring was a typical product of his cultural and familial background, which is to say that he was highly civilized, a thorough gentleman (he was incapable of being ill-mannered, whatever the provocation), and possessed a cultivated taste in all the arts. He was conversant with Latin and Greek, as well as the modern European languages already mentioned, and he was widely read in the literatures of all those languages. He was acquainted with the history of civilizations. However, he wore his learning lightly and was avowedly anti-intellectual. This cannot have commended him to the members of the liberal Bloomsbury Group, who were self-consciously intellectual and wore their learning on their sleeves: it seems there was no point in being clever and well-educated unless you let everyone else know just how clever and well-educated you were.[3]

The Baring who emerges from Letley’s biography is a man of surprising contradictions: a scion of the upper classes and a lover of luxury who preferred to travel third class because it allowed him to meet and talk to ordinary people; someone born into the aristocracy whose salient characteristics included modesty and humility; a man of extravagant habits who was described by his commanding officer as “the most unselfish man I have ever met”; a man who unaffectedly enjoyed the company of beautiful, intelligent, and sophisticated women, but who wrote only of disappointment in love, and of whom his friend, Lady Diana Cooper, said that she doubted whether any woman had ever been in love with him; an intellectual who was anti-intellectual; an inveterate joker who concealed beneath his japery a profound sadness; a gregarious man who was self-effacing and lived a solitary life; a lover of children (by whom he was adored) who had none of his own; a subtle, allusive writer who never outgrew his schoolboy love of slapstick; and a devout Catholic who never discussed religion with anyone outside the Church.[4] If, per impossibile, one could conceive an amalgam of P. G. Wodehouse, Monsignor Ronald Knox, and Henry James, one would come close to capturing the essence of Maurice Baring.

In the last ten years of Baring’s life, he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease: a cross he bore with a quiet, uncomplaining fortitude at which all who witnessed it marvelled. From August 1940 until his death on 14 December 1945, Baring lived as a “loved and honoured guest” at the Highland home, on the island of Eilean Aigas, of Laura Lady Lovat, the last of his “Beauties”. She later wrote of Baring’s last year that

With the end of the summer he seemed to grow more remote from the events of this world, except those which affected his immediate surroundings; for these his sympathy and care never varied, and if possible increased. But the problems of the world’s agony he felt could now be left only to its Creator.

Baring’s old commanding officer, Hugh Trenchard, wrote his obituary in The Times. A man not given to exaggeration, he wrote of Baring that he was “truly the best character I ever knew” and that his spirit would live on “especially in the Air Force – I feel that there will be thousands waiting to welcome him on the other side.” Conrad Russell,[5] another close friend, observed to Lady Diana Cooper that “no man ever got such praise as Maurice got from Trenchard. I was very glad. It’s strange to think that Maurice’s real claim to greatness may be as a staff officer – not as a man of letters.”

From time to time, admirers of Baring’s work have prophesied that, one day, there will be a revival of interest in him, and he will at last be given his due as one of the finest writers of his age. Perhaps they are right. But their hopes may be disappointed, and Baring might remain one of those unlucky writers who are destined to be admired by a few and ignored by the many. In Emma Letley, his great-niece, he has at least found a worthy biographer and an eloquent apologist. The last word should be left to her. She concludes her biography thus:

It was not surprising that at Farm Street [6] there was “little sorrow” now that “the martyrdom of Maurice Baring was over and those who mourned were mourning their own last hope of seeing once again, in this life, their incomparable friend”.


[1] The brilliant Constance Garnett translations had not then appeared: Baring read Dostoevsky in the original Russian.

[2] Hugh Trenchard was a colonel when Baring first knew him. He later became Marshal of the Royal Air Force, 1st Viscount Trenchard GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO. He has been described as “the Father of the Royal Air Force”.

[3] I suspect that Baring would have regarded the Bloomsburys’ intellectual ostentation and addiction to one-upmanship as “not quite the thing” – but would have been too well-bred to say so.

[4] Baring adjured Belloc to “never, never, never talk theology or discuss the Church with those outside it. People simply do not understand what you are talking about and they merely (a) get angry and (b) come to the conclusion that one doesn’t believe in the thing oneself and that one is simply doing it to annoy.”

[5] Conrad Russell (1878–1947) was an English farmer and letter writer. He is remembered today chiefly for his humorous correspondence with some of the most celebrated society beauties of his time. He was a cousin of the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and is not be confused with the latter’s sons, John Conrad Russell (1921–1987) and Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (1937–2004). Evelyn Waugh called him “one of the most exquisitely entertaining men I have known”.

[6] The site of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which is run by the Society of Jesus in Mayfair, central London. References to “Farm Street” are generally understood to mean the headquarters of the Jesuits in England.

I’ll Stay Freelance Thanks, by Sophie Gilfillan

Criticism Posted on Thu, April 16, 2020 12:27:42
Photo Drew Beamer

I do not remember who said – perhaps Jimmy Wales somewhere – that of all the— But no, that’s another story….

Ever since that review of mine, of The Darlings of Downing Street (2007, biography, New York Times), a producer on the news nexus, a pest frankly, steeped in Corporation protocol, has had my name on his list. This roughly is how it always goes.

I first met him by accident socially, when Borak Yesenin, a League One London chef, had stumped up cash to run for election, though the Tory seat he said he’d fight wasn’t open to the son a Russian émigré – not yet. Yesenin had closed up for the day, and cleared his restaurant of all but a single dining table, from which an army of brocaded waiting staff served canapés, cocktails and lastly champagne. Guests were by invitation, including me, including him – that’s to say Person Hugh, the name I always use in a guard against lawsuits. They’re so touchy, these highfliers.

I noticed him noticing me, at first glance looking every inch one of those landowners you meet in Gogol, Dead Souls, the jacket over-ample, the tie not straight, the look sullen in those brief moments between conversations. He sidled up, in self-conscious, studied absence, swishing the stir stick afloat in the pale-looking cocktail he had got, whose slender glass I never saw him put to his lips.

The smile was crooked and disingenuous. He thought he had the advantage of knowing who I was, his assumption being I would greet with mild astonishment his identity, when it was known. But that was wrong. I knew who all the predators were.

There was a place on his team for me, he said, with his nightly broadcasts having lost that indefinable something, and going out for far too many months without that edge, that verve. ‘Going out’ was the term he used habitually, but I had to disappoint – it was impossible. I was fully employed, and wasn’t looking for anything else. He gave me his card anyway – Person Hugh, Gogolian, Dead Souls, as its dancing italic did not say (as yes, I don’t forget the lawsuits).

The whole thing might have ended there, but for a rising doyen of prime-time TV, who’d agreed to snip the ribbon on Yesenin’s second restaurant, the start, as Yesenin hoped, of an ever-expanding empire. I as well as Person was invited to that grand opening, where that Corporation stooge cornered me again. ‘Won’t you reconsider?’ he asked, this time the smile insistent. I told him I was busy with a house move, and had a pile-up of deadlines, and already sniffed danger in not meeting any – exchange of contracts foremost. I looked him in the eye as I said it, having surveyed generally this tiny cog in the vast machine of Establishment UK. The tie was a specimen of shrewd deliberation (I did not know the school, institution or alma mater), and the shoes suffered by an over-application of black lacquer – a spray-on.

Worse followed when he found out my neighbourhood was adjacent to his own. One night he tracked me down to the bar I holed up in – my quiet hour with the laptop, or return to normality after exhausting, enervating hours under the news circus big top. And so that question again, wouldn’t I reconsider – and let me get you another drink?

No to both. His news scheduling filled me with the horror of awful anticipation, as whenever I watched his forty-minute programme I failed to follow what his interviewers interviewed about. There’s always a switch of cameras with every idiotic interrupt, and finally time’s up, and said inquisitor has to cut it short, just as whatever expert willing to be skewered – in the studio or down the line – is on the brink of telling us something useful.

‘You’re sure about that drink?’

‘Absolutely. I’m off home for a cocoa, and bed.’

And now we’re in lockdown, hopefully that’s another Person off my tail.

Sophie Gilfillan is a freelance journalist and sometime reviewer for CentreHouse Press [sophiegilfillan at centrehousepress dot com].

Trump and the Coronavirus, by Jon Elsby

Criticism Posted on Sun, April 12, 2020 12:12:05

In spite of the upward trajectory of coronavirus cases and deaths in the West, Donald Trump is talking about lifting the restrictions introduced barely two weeks ago and re-opening America for business. This amounts to having made a calculation that a certain heavy loss of human life is preferable to damage to the US economy.

Trump’s political opponents have said that it is unacceptable to put a dollar value on human life, but that is precisely what the president seems about to do. Social Darwinists will say – in private at least – that a cull of ‘useless eaters’ (i.e. the aged, the chronically sick, the severely disabled, and the infirm) is unavoidable, and that it will relieve the economy of a huge burden (i.e. the costs of their pensions and health care), thus facilitating economic recovery from the ravages of coronavirus. Few among the general public, for whom the above are not abstract socio-economic categories but include well-loved family members (siblings, parents, and grandparents) and close friends, will agree.[1] Which is probably why even the most dedicated social Darwinists do not care to make the argument publicly. But it will certainly be made behind closed doors in the corridors of power. And not a few governments, if only they can think of a plausible way of presenting the policy as something other than what it is, will be tempted to adopt it and thus to limit the economic cost by driving up the number of deaths.

From the first, Trump’s public statements on the coronavirus pandemic have comprised his customary mixture of outright falsehoods, wild exaggerations, misleading statements, self-aggrandizing boasts, and utter imbecilities. Ordinarily, this makes little difference: the USA in general, and Washington in particular, have adjusted their expectations to the abysmal realities of Trump’s presidency. But these are not ordinary times. They are times when clear, decisive leadership is called for, and when qualities like integrity, rationality, judgment, compassion, empathy, and reliability are needed. Trump has none of them. The people who voted for him are about to be brought face-to-face with the consequences of their irresponsibility. They cannot run or hide from a global pandemic. And viruses notoriously do not respond to threats, lies, bullying, or distortions. Trump can say and do whatever he likes. But he cannot change the facts. And the central fact about coronavirus is that the US is now the epicentre of this pandemic, and it isn’t going away any time soon – not even with a $2 trillion dollar boost to the economy.

The implications of this are frightening. We are in the grip of a pandemic which we are very far from understanding. We do not know how infectious the coronavirus is, or what the mortality rate is. We know that it is much more readily transmissible than influenza, and that its mortality rate is higher. But beyond that, there are very few facts of which we can be certain. It seems, on the face of it, that flu has a mortality rate of 0.1% and coronavirus of approximately 1%, but even this may be a distortion: there may be many unreported cases of coronavirus where the symptoms were mild, so the mortality rate may be significantly lower than the official figures indicate. No-one knows for sure. And there are many more unknowns: for example, why some people are severely affected while others suffer only mild symptoms (and some are asymptomatic); whether it can be caught more than once; why some people relapse, and even die, after having appeared to make a partial recovery; why the effects of the virus are worse at night than during the day; why men are more susceptible to the virus than women, and why men over 50 seem the most susceptible of all; whether the coronavirus will abate when the weather turns warmer; how long it will take to acquire a herd immunity…all these and many other questions remain to be answered. As I write, teams of doctors, specialists, and scientists all over the world are searching desperately for the answers. Meanwhile, Donald Trump indulges in happy talk and groundless assertions that a miracle cure is practically at hand, or that the coronavirus will soon be brought under control so that America can re-open for business.

A television documentary, Trump and the Virus, has contrasted Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus with (1) previous presidents’ responses to emergencies which occurred on their watch – e.g. Roosevelt’s to the great depression and George W. Bush’s to 9/11, and (2) other world leaders’ responses to the present pandemic, highlighting Trump’s inconsistency, his incessant lying, his lack of basic understanding, his ignorance of the facts, his evidently moronic intellectual level,[2] his peddling of misinformation, his penchant for self-congratulation, his claim that the crisis was unforeseeable (on the contrary, it was both foreseeable and foreseen), his refusal to accept responsibility for anything that has gone badly on his watch, and his insistence on claiming all the credit for anything that has gone well.

The programme also highlighted some of the USA’s endemic problems: e.g. weak federal government, a culture of excessive individualism and extensive gun ownership (significantly, the purchase of guns has increased enormously since the pandemic began – as if a virus could be stopped at the point of a gun),[3] inadequate healthcare (there is very little public healthcare provision, and an astonishing 80 million Americans, out of a total population of 327.2 million, have either no health insurance at all or manifestly inadequate health insurance), widespread poverty and homelessness, and huge economic inequalities.

These problems are plain for anyone to see. Anyone, that is, except Americans themselves, too many of whom are in denial. Some believe the coronavirus is a hoax. Others believe it is real, but that they will be somehow immune. Yet others have joined private militias in the belief that the virus will lead to a general breakdown of law and order, which they will have to restore by force of arms (although it is not clear under whose authority they will be acting). None of these beliefs is even remotely rational. It all adds up to a picture of a society in meltdown. Contrast that with the responses of China, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, where governments quickly ascertained the facts, got on top of the situation, took the necessary stringent measures, and rigorously enforced them. In all those states, the pandemic was successfully contained and fatalities were kept to the unavoidable minimum. In the USA, health experts have soberly predicted that casualties might be well in excess of 100,000.

Trump and the Virus posed the question whether this will be seen in retrospect as the moment when the USA surrendered its global leadership. But that ship has sailed. The USA surrendered its claim to global leadership (insofar as it ever had one) on the very day it elected Donald Trump as its president. China now has a stronger claim to moral leadership than the USA. But what this really underscores is the folly of looking to any state or national leader for moral leadership. To provide such leadership is a function of religions, not of politics. And those who reject religions are thrown back upon their own philosophical resources.

[1] It is notable that many of the older generation themselves chafe against the restrictions imposed by government and aver that they would rather take their chances by living as normally as possible. They believe that they have lived full lives and would rather die bravely than cower in their houses before the coronavirus. However, they are overlooking the fact that, by living ‘normally’ and ignoring restrictions, they are placing others at risk of contracting Covid-19 from them. Their invocation of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ is based on an inappropriate analogy and therefore misplaced.
[2] For probative evidence of this, see the transcripts of virtually every Trump rally held, every press briefing given, or extempore speech delivered since he was elected president.
[3] Many Americans apparently see their chief priority as defending their rights against other citizens, or even against the federal authorities, rather than protecting themselves and their families against the virus.

Jon Elsby is a writer and critic, and is published by CentreHouse Press [jonelsby at centrehousepress dot com]

Laurel, Poems of Love, Loss and Rivalry, by Peter Cowlam

Poetry Posted on Sat, November 25, 2017 13:27:42


stupidly I ran on

the arrows




this old room


note in the failing


slanting on





Laurel, Poems of Love, Loss and Rivalry, ISBN 978-1-902086-16-3, 106 pages, $6.99, available from Amazon.

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?

Fiction Posted on Fri, September 01, 2017 17:06:49

Listen as you read. Narrator read by Gilly Anderson; Wye, Zob and Snell read by Peter Cowlam:

Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is a satire
on literary celebrity, set in the relatively safe remove of early
1990s literary London. There are three main characters. The first is
Marshall Zob, whose father, of eastern European origin, has
previously changed his family name from Zoblinski, or Zobilinsk, or
something like that. Zob Junior is a literary celebrity, whose social
ascent has taken him to London’s literary heights, through a
network of media and literati contacts. Zob can and does delude
himself that his success really is down to his genius. All that’s
missing from his CV is the Booker Prize, which he feels he should
have won, but hasn’t.

The second of the three main characters is Alistair Wye,
a computer science graduate who by some monumental fluke has been
hired as Zob’s amanuensis or assistant. Wye’s job prior to this
was as overseer of a computerised database, one designed by him for a
theatrical properties firm as a means of keeping track of its stock,
its orders, and its clients. The entire book is supposedly Wye’s
personal diary, recording his reactions to life in proximity to a
literary celebrity.

The third main character is the hapless Andrew Glaze,
one-time Professor of English Literature at Exe University. Glaze is
already dead before the action of the novel starts. As Wye notes in
the foreword to his diary, news of his death was ‘a passing that
hardly caused me to put down my coffee cup, or extinguish my
cigarette’. It’s a passing that’s important to Zob, since back
in the 1970s he was not only Glaze’s student, he was his star
student, or as Wye puts it, also in his foreword,

Marshall Zob, should you not already know, is the
perfection of the dead Andrew Glaze, PhD, whose brightest student he
was. This was back in the early 1970s, in the cloisters of Modern
College, Exe University, where the writer and academic, and Blagueur
Prize-winner (twice), the witty Zob Senior [that’s to say
Marshall’s father], had passed before him. [Incidentally, Zob
Senior was also Glaze’s friend and colleague. I am not meaning to
suggest by this any hint of nepotism, which Glaze himself has
remarked the English are so touchy about.]

Glaze’s personal life hasn’t been a great success.
Prior to the novel’s opening, his marriage has collapsed and his
wife Samantha has fled to New York. After the divorce, she intends to
marry one of New York’s wealthiest bankers. All of this is
chronicled in a series of letters, postcards etc. languishing in
Zob’s archive.

Zob has been careless about filing these letters, and
keeps them dotted around in no particular order. Furthermore his
replies to his friend Glaze have all been made on an ancient
IBM-compatible using word-processor software he never quite
understood. That correspondence does still exist, somewhere on disc,
but when that ancient PC refuses to boot up it is Wye’s job to find
a solution and retrieve it all. In fact this becomes vital to Zob
since, as an important academic, Glaze’s life and work is about to
be commemorated publicly. For Zob there are also commercial
opportunities in reproducing and annotating his long exchange with
Glaze. Wye does manage to restore that creaking PC, and what he finds
there, and what he finds in Zob’s paper archive, forms much of the
material that ends up in his diary – which could be summed up as a
ruthless exposé of the life of a literary superstar.

He is amused to find, in Zob’s letter to Glaze dated
the 30th of May, reference to himself, on the subject of his
appointment, which reads as follows:

Most recent interview took place in my pool hall. I go
there a lot – it helps me to think, and relax. I couldn’t make it
– or rather him – out. A native of Manchester, yet talked like
colonial Tunbridge Wellian. His name’s Alistair, though he didn’t
hint at a Scottish connection. He seemed – which is perhaps the
operative word – seemed (stress) well informed generally. He
assumes I am of the Left, because he’s seen my byline in The
, and told me he’d read and liked my lampoon on the
decent, genteel exterior of former Tory prime ministers. I didn’t
say hear hear…

For all this his degree’s in computer science, though
the man was evasive about his university – a sleight of hand I
thought these boffins weren’t capable of, having no intelligence
outside that realm of the microchip. He could be very useful, as I
wouldn’t mind all that hardware paraphernalia – though God knows
I can make nor head nor tail of the box of tricks I have got. He
works, he says, for a theatrical properties company in Mortimer
Street, for whom he designed, wrote and installed a stock-and-order
system. He reads a great many science books, and for that reason
thinks he can talk down to me. I showed him a thing or two on the
pool table.

Wye remembers that interview differently. This is from
his diary entry of July the 4th:

The conversation we had in his pool hall was over a best
of three games, which did, it is true, end on the final black. This,
naïvely, he potted. The light from the canopy above, parcelled its
tiny quanta in a varied dilution of yellow. Here perfectly was Zob’s
imperfect illumination, in whose glaze I remarked on the soiled nap
of the table. ‘Successive smokers,’ I said, and chalked my cue.
Together we bent to those grey-green archipelagos, those swipes of
ground ash. ‘I am interested in music,’ I said, in reply to his
question what existed other than the written word. When he talked
about literary prostitution this was, he said, merely a term in a
very long series. According to him, we who worked prostituted
ourselves in one way or another. In a glum status quo few authors had
the courage to challenge anything. Did this, I asked, not leave your
fellow pool players intellectually in vacuo? And to talk of
society’s imbalance, wasn’t that merely society’s
impregnability? That was more or less it, he said, never having
claimed that the elevated tribes and scribes to whom he belonged
really did have a social conscience.

He potted a first yellow, calmly: wasn’t he after all
on the comic side of fiction, and therefore exempt? Then, he
imagined, he snookered me.

‘Let me show you,’ I said, ‘how to bend a ball….’
Awkward, of course, to cue, just as our human quarks or men of
conscience can’t with certainty cast their vote. To the massé
nevertheless. My stolid white dragged its heels round an interposing
yellow. It struck a side cushion and my object ball simultaneously.
Result: Not the pot he’d expected. I allowed him, O ye dumb angels,
bearing the professor’s footstool, just one more visit to the
table. I took that first game, it has to be said without much effort.
The second I gave him, only because he bought lunch, which consisted
of egg, cress, warm mayonnaise, sandwiched with expert inattention in
two squares of foam.

Now, as for those levitating letters tailing my surname,
I cannot legitimate the embossed sheen of a doctorate, the gold plate
of an MSc, nor even the albata filigree of a lowly MA. As a
short-trousered first-former, and I agree a touch Romantic, I took
Browning – with his ‘Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity!’ –
and that ricochet off the book of Ecclesiastes – ‘…all is
vanity’ – somewhat to heart. What after all is ‘education’
but the remorseless hum of commerce? At seventeen I wrote a one-page
constitution, governing the life, aim and ideals of Wye’s
pantisocracy. The project was doomed, naturally, depending for
sovereignty on a deserted, disintegrating cottage just outside a tiny
settlement called Capel, where I was known and loved. That wider
kingdom sent in its head-shaking yeomanry, blued in look and uniform,
with arguments against my scheme. Their central thrust was the minor
matter of ownership. Our adopted country or cottage belonged to a
Medway vicar, while the ‘discovery’ of marijuana also helped
break up our experiment. This was one smoke-filled, winter afternoon,
when the sky was a blossom pink (as I looked out and up, through a
weald of elms).

I told Zob my qualification was as a computer scientist,
though I have only a BSc, so in terms of the actuality that wasn’t
entirely untrue. I watched him on that final black, which he’d
failed to spot was equidistant from two corner pockets, making
predictable the white as it holed itself too. Lucky we didn’t bet,
eh, Marsy? Amazingly our second interview took place in a grimy café
not far from his snooker club, and for a third he sent me to see his
agent Cornelius.

Meanwhile Zob, in his political infighting in the
brutish world of publishing, shows us his weakness for public
accolades. He attempts, aided by his agent, to bribe his way into
winning that prize of all prizes. That prize Wye can dismiss as a
typically English parochial thing, but important internationally
(apparently). Here Zob eventually comes unstuck, when a new and even
more mediocre novelist, Justin Simms, appears on the scene just as it
seems certain Zob will win. Simms has friends as powerful as Zob’s,
and at the last moment is poised to snatch the prize from under Zob’s
nose. Wye describes him thus, in his diary entry of April the 20th:

He was – and didn’t blush to hear it – of gentle
birth. Throughout his boyhood he tinkered with a red Bugatti, which
even before he was licensed he drove direct to Vire. He drove
circuitously back, upsetting the gendarmerie. His first efforts in
creative writing were naturally quite brilliant, winning him a prize.
In researching his debut novel Simms wanted to know what was all the
fuss about in post-industrial Britain? He lacerated his yachting
pumps, which had cost hundreds. He fished out his striped rugby
socks, his school wars fondly remembered. Some dungarees he had
sprayed the Bugatti in served as principal garment, all enhanced
authentically by a few days minus shaving tackle. The hair, bleached
by a long weekend in Key Largo – where he was best man at an old
chum’s wedding – well, those strands would just have to grow
themselves out. So apparelled Simms set a course into the
disintegrating streets of his and your metropolis. North of Oxford
Street he sang – this was outside the Cambridge, with its
early-evening throngs, where people pressed coins into his open palm.
He moved on to the Blue Posts, offering a fabricated life story to
its drinkers, or, he corrected, its drinkers outside under parasols –
who urged him away with cash. For his nights he acquired a polythene
wrap, into which he mummified himself, mostly in a doorway off the
Strand. From that he graduated to a cardboard coffin in the precincts
of Charing Cross. So on for a long three months, where his street
life gave him – a realism actually lived through – the germ of
his ‘powerful’ first novel. For most the palm was already his,
that thing so close to Zob’s own heart.

Agent Cornelius, now faced with having to earn his
commission, devises a five-to-six-point plan as to the problem of a
dangerous rival.

1 A declaration of ‘war’
is inadvisable, as that could put you in a vulnerable light.

2 Conciliation is a best
first step, with a public laudation, such as ‘Welcome, colleague’.

3 Open camaraderie between
you and the new boy. By that we mean friendly, professional rivalry.
This is the surest way to undermine the Crouch link. [Geraldine
Crouch chairs the prize committee].

4 Remember! Crouch is a
raging suffragette, and as yet no one has sounded out Simms on that
score. Ideally he’ll be unsympathetic.

5 Finally Simms was born
with money, and is bound to get bored with work. If so you might lead
the rest of us in regretting his premature retirement.

PS 6 Have a party. Invite
Simms, and Crouch. And me!

Preparations for that party are finalised by Wye, who is
co-opted to serve as wine waiter. The invitation list is a ragbag of
important, opinionated arts correspondents, commentators, reviewing
hacks, book editors, journalists, devotees, and a low-budget
filmmaker with options on Zob’s novels. Wye navigates his way
through the gossip, the backstabbing, the career talk, the clash of
egos, and has finally had enough when Shayle, the filmmaker, a
dejected-looking man, regales those gathered around him with a tale
of professional woes. Wye describes it as follows, in his entry of
June the 25th:

The sullen Shayle took one of three last glasses on my
salver. Symbolically Zob turned up then apologetically turned down
the central chandelier, via the dimmer switch. An escaping cramped
ellipse of light from a table lamp, in a burnt hue of burnt sugar,
illuminated an eye, a sallow cheek, an ear lobe, as Shayle began to
speak. He’d had a problem with extras – this on a shoot in
Exeter. I don’t propose to make doubly clear that his job is
largely low-grade entertainment, and that his lode is a TV production
house I have the foresight not to name. ‘It’s what you get,’ I
said, ‘for falling short of Equity rates’ – because, brothers
and sisters in servitude, picture the scene:

Director circles that particular section of supremely
pointless script where hero, an Italianate youth, whom ignorant
author has named Sancerre, enters private casino. Silence. Action.
There are six extras seated at each of three round tables, above
which gaffer has suspended lights from makeshift gantry. Dealers deal
cards onto green baize. This is draw poker, the rules of which are
not entirely grasped by all eighteen. Other props are: a Churchillian
cigar, numerous cigarettes, cold tea in whisky glasses, water for
gin, where only the lemon is genuine, and low-alcohol lager. None is
to be drunk, as no top-ups between takes. There is an imitation haze,
and several thousand pounds in sterling, all in bank notes (and
there, gentlemen, is the rub). There is one camera only, and this
means an interesting interplay of angles is, well, frankly
troublesome, and in the end a little nicety Shayle – already over
budget – decides to abandon. Sancerre strides to table where he
sees his great rival Anjou, and because the scriptwriter has no
grounding whatsoever in mathematical probability theory fleeces his
opponent, first with a full house, then a straight flush, finally
four of a kind. This – as I yawn – does not conclude the story.
The casino is folded up and put away. The players break up for
coffee. Those bank notes are counted. They are recounted. Then they
are endlessly recounted. Here we arrive at the brink of an
accusation, though directed at which of those eighteen? Or perhaps
the star Sancerre himself is underpaid…. Here I turn to the liver
surgeon, whose surprised left eye socket seems momentarily monocled.
‘Do please have this last glass,’ I say.

Wye, utterly bored, and irked at officiating all night
as Zob’s wine waiter, retreats from centre stage once most of the
guests are drunk and past caring. With Snell’s assistant Merle, who
is in the process of forming a breakaway agency, and is instrumental
in bringing his diary to publication, Wye and two other guests decamp
to the laundry room for a game of cards. He sums that up as follows:

How shall I wrap up this dismal scene? My departing
Muse, in a lightness of tread, and with that cool air of exile she
fans to my brow, has preached detachment. Gloria finished my bottle.
Giles – who stumbled on my semi-hidden stocks – suddenly usurped
my promotion to major-domo, at least insofar as Orphic revels needed
to be supervised. Ms Crouch and Miss Bloge processed through the
buffet lounge, where the former delivered her new tractate, Women
and the Priesthood
. Here I cannot take issue – without, that
is, looking stupidly solemn – when that whole charade was
essentially fun and games for the male of the species, a ‘poor
chap’ who sought to dignify his workhorse status with the magic
rain of mysticism (there I go: solemn). Flude, Snell and the
impeccable Simms picked at a raspberry-coloured pâté, and were
otherwise in conclave. Merle – star of my studded heaven – had
got Isabelle and Blandford into the laundry room, and needed only the
unsuspecting me for a hand of solo. Merle, my precious Merle! How
could I disagree with your abondance (or agree with your
misère)? It’s no matter. By two a.m. I had had enough,
therefore dissolve, I say, inebriate sprite! The smiling Wye could
find no right bid…

…for a twenty of diamonds…a duopoly of spade
queens…a quartet of black twos…

…and was it you, was it you who put me to bed, shoes
by the door, beige pantaloons overhanging my chair, shirt on a


The book plunges on through its rivalries, its artistic
and academic failures, its family feuds, through its master-slave
relationships, but does end on a bright note, when Wye is asked to
pen his conclusions. ‘Well now, let me think,’ he says. ‘In my
memoir of social decay, which has been after all the catalyst of
artistic regeneration, I shall start I suppose with a fatality. The
corpse, Glaze’s, is symbolic. Some time hence its transmogrified
mulch is the moving ground that the grandeur of a renascent
literature flourishes in. It shan’t be compacted – not by those
clumsy hobnails our many Marshall Zobs tramp in our world of printed
pages in.’ And abetted by Merle, off Wye goes to publish his diary.

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